"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Either/Or: In Which God Dies (#2 in a series)

The central question of religion of philosophy in the 20th century and now the 21st seems to be the proof of the existence of God. This is the either/or on which so much rises or falls. Yet it's a curious pursuit, since we cannot prove the existence of a platypus or a ceolocanth: we can only produce an animal or a fish we can identify as a platypus or a coelocanth. We do not thereby prove it's "existence," but then the popular discourse seldom questions the definition of "existence" that it is demanding proof of. That way, of course, lies phenomenology: Husserl and Heidegger, Sartre and Levinas, and even, to some degree, deconstruction and Derrida. Too much idealism, and too Continental; so we content ourselves with equating existence with presence, and when adequate reports of the presence of platypi and coelocanths are obtained, we ask no more of them. No such reports of "God" can be obtained, of course, because all such reports are subjective, and none can produce an object for examination, so the "proofs" fail and the subject is considered closed against those who assert any faith at all.

The problem is one Johannes Climacus considered over 150 years ago, in a little noticed discussion of the issue. Climacus first puts the issue in the context of the paradox. He praises the paradox, asserting: "the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion, a mediocre fellow." But he quickly looks beyond that:

But the ultimate potentiation of every passion is always to will its own downfall, and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision, although in one way or another the collision must become its downfall. This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.
There is a buried epistemological assumption there, one we should not glide over lightly: thought "discovers," in proper Hellenistic fashion (we will leave the Platonists and Aristotelians to thrash out whether it is truly "discovery," or merely "recovery", and move on). Hebraic epistemology, at least as it pertains to matters of the God of Abraham, does not depend on discovery, but rather on reception. It is the revelation that enlightens; knowledge of God is given, not found, is revealed, not unearthed. The shift is a small but important one; indeed, it is central to the question of the importance of the will.

Thought, Climacus points out, wants most to think something it cannot think. It wants, then, to be able to think the existence of that which it cannot know except through experience. It wants to be able to discover, for itself, irrefutable proof of that which is by definition not subject to such proof. We cannot establish the existence of a platypus, but we can identify a specific monotreme as a platypus. We can dissect it, study it, classify it, discard it, and never prove the existence of it. But since we cannot do these things with Deity, we discard it. We demand proof of Deity's existence, even as we cannot imagine what that proof would be. We want to think the thought we cannot think, even if thinking that thought would be the downfall of the thought itself. So here is the first problem: we set ourselves a task we know is impossible and then, when it cannot be done, we declare the subject of the impossible quest responsible, and declare the impossible, at the very least, the question that must be answered and, since it cannot be, content ourselves with our paradox. Our passion can never be satisfied, never reach the collision, never face its downfall: and of how many passions in our lives can the same be said? Is it any wonder we are so passionate about the proofs of God's existence, and the inability of any of them to satisfy?

But that is only the beginning, and it still establishes nothing; it still leaves the passion waiting expectantly for a fulfillment it knows can never be, that it doesn't even want. Let's pursue the question, and find not what it's establishment would mean, but what the inability to establish it means. We have put so much on that issue, we have staked everything on its outcome. Even if we really don't want to know the answer, what answer do we presume there could be?

But what is this unknown against which the understanding in its paradoxical passion collides and which even disturbs man [sic] and his self-knowledge? It is the unknown. But it is not a human being, insofar as he knows man, or anything else that he knows. Therefore, let us call this unknown the god. It is only a name we give to it. It hardly occurs to the understanding to want to demonstrate that this unknown (the god) exists. If, namely the god does not exist, then of course it is impossible to demonstrate it. But if he does exist, then of course it is foolishness to want to demonstrate it, since I, in the very moment the demonstration commences, would presuppose it not as doubtful--which a presupposition cannot be, inasmuch as it is a presupposition--but as decided, because otherwise I would not begin, easily perceiving that the whole thing would be impossible if he did not exist. If, however, I interpret the expression "to demonstrate the existence of the god" to mean that I want to demonstrate that the unknown, which exists, is the god, than I do not express myself very felicitously, for then I demonstrate nothing, least of all an existence, but I develop the definiteness of a concept.
What is lurking here is the analytic/synthetic distinction from Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Is "existence," in other words, an analytic truth (one where the truth is established solely through analysis of its meaning), or is it synthetic (one which "add[s] to the concept of the subject a predicate which has not been in any wise thought in it, and which no analysis could possibly extract from it,” i.e., one which can be based on empirical facts about the world.). The common assumption is that existence is synthetic; but the proofs of the existence of "the god" all presume the statement is actually analytical. Small wonder the result of all of these efforts is an epistemological black hole.

"It is generally a difficult matter to want to demonstrate that something exists--worse still, for the brave souls who venture to do it, the difficulty is of such a kind that fame by no means awaits those who are preoccupied with it. The whole process of demonstration continually becomes something entirely different, becomes an expanded concluding development of what I conclude from having presupposed that the object of investigation exists. Therefore in the world of thought, I never reason in conclusion to existence, but I reason in conclusion from existence. For example, I do not demonstrate that a stone exists but that something which exists is a stone. The court of law does not demonstrate that a criminal exists but that the accused, who indeed does exist, is a criminal. Whether one wants to call existence an accessorium or the eternal prius, it can never be demonstrated.
The demands for proof of God's existence, of course, presume existence can be proven, and once it can, then proof of God's existence cannot be far behind. But the proof of existence itself is still wanting. As Climacus points out:

If one wanted to demonstrate Napoleon's existence from Napoleon's works, would it not be most curious, since his existence certainly explains the works but the works do not demonstrate his existence unless I have already in advance interpreted the word "his" in such a way as to have assumed he exists.
Napoleon, of course, is not necessary to his works, but the god is presumed to have an absolute relation to the god's works. So perhaps that is the difference that allows a proof of the god to be formulated:

But then, what are the god's works? The works from which I want to demonstrate his existence do not immediately and directly exist, not at all. Or are the wisdom in nature and the goodness or wisdom in Governance right in front of our noses? Do we not encounter the most terrible spiritual trials here, and is it ever possible to be finished with all these trials? But I still do not demonstrate God's existence from such an order of things, and even if I began, I would never finish and also would be obliged continually to live in suspenso lest something so terrible happen that my fragments of demonstration would be ruined. Therefore, from what works do I demonstrate it? From the works regarded ideally--that is, as they do not appear directly and immediately. But then I do not demonstrate it from the works, after all, but only develop the ideality I have presupposed; trusting in that, I even dare to defy all objections, even those that have not yet arisen. By beginning, then, I have presupposed the ideality, have presupposed that I will succeed in accomplishing it, but what else is that but presupposing that the god exists and actually beginning with trust in him.
Is it any wonder Rudolf Bultmann wrote his magnum opus on John's gospel with John open before him, and Johannes Climacus open beside him?

When he was in Jerusalem at the Passover celebration, many believed in him once they saw with their own eyes the miracles he performed. But Jesus didn't trust himself to them, because he understood them all too well. He didn't need to know more about humanity; he knew what people were really like. John 2:23-25, SV.

So when he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, since they had seen everything he had done at the celebration in Jerusalem. (They had gone to the celebration too). Then he came back to Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine.

There was an official whose son was sick in Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had returned to Galilee from Judea, he approached him and pleaded with him to come down and cure his son, who was about to die.

Jesus said to him, "You people refuse to believe unless you see portents [semeia] and miracles [terata]."John 4:45-48

"Now my life is in turmoil, but should I say, 'Father, rescue me from this moment'? No, it was to face this moment that I came. Father, glorify your name!" Then a voice spoke out of the sky: "I have glorified it and I'll glorify it further."

The crowd there heard this, and some people remarked that it had thundered, others than an angel had spoken to him.

"That voice did not come for me but for you," Jesus rejoined.--John 12:27-30

In fact, after reading Bultmann, one wonders if Kierkegaard didn't have John's gospel in mind when writing the Philosophical Fragments. The Johannine distinction between semeion and dunamis seems almost tailor made for the philosophical concerns of his namesake Climacus. Either we see signs, proof, irrefutable evidence, or we do not believe! "The works from which I want to demonstrate his existence do not immediately and directly exist, not at all." They are signs, but only if we already see what they point to. If we don't see that, we don't see the signs, either, except as objects. And objects, no more than signs, can speak to us, and overcome our ignorance, our doubt, our lack of knowledge. Either we already know, and the sign merely confirms it for us, or we do not know, and at most what we hear is...thunder. Was it an angel who spoke to Jesus? Why didn't anyone in the audience get even that sign right? If that sign cannot demonstrate, finally and absolutely, the existence of the god, what can?

Climacus would leave the matter here:

The paradoxical passion of the understanding is, then, continually colliding with this unknown, which certainly does exist but is also unknown and to that extent does not exist. The understanding does not go beyond this; yet in its paradoxicality the understand cannot stop reaching it and being engaged with it, because wanting to express its relation to it by saying that this unknown does not exist will not do, since just saying that involves a relation. But what, then, is this unknown, for does not its being the god merely signify to us that it is the unknown? To declare that it is the unknown because we cannot know it, and that even if we could know it we could not express it, does not satisfy the passion, although it has correctly perceived the unknown as frontier. But a frontier is precisely the passion's torment, even though it is also its incentive. And yet it can go no further, whether it risks a sortie through via negationis or via eminentiae.*
But that simply leaves us where we began; although it explains rather nicely the energy some bring to this discussion, so determined are they to resolve once and for all the existence of the unknown; a resolution, of course, which can never be reached, at least not by the understanding.

And how do we understand this?

When we attend to the debates of philosophers and theologians about faith we are struck by the fact that every participant, no matter how he assails the faith of others, expresses some confidence of his own. And then we further note that confidence is usually professed not in one object only but in several and that often the effort to state this faith moves in a kind of circle from a first object to a second and perhaps a third and back to the first. The common, usually unanalyzed, association of faith with such terms as democracy, the people and education, or nature, experience, and reason, in popular statements about the things we can rely on has its counterpart in the more careful analsyses of academicians.

An example in philosophy of this expression of a pluralistic and circular faith is offered by A.J. Ayeer's radical book, Language, Truth and Logic...."We rely," he writes, "on our senses to substantiate or confute teh judgments which are based on our sensations." This is indeed a faith, an expression of sheer trust in what is not sensibly perceived, since the continuity and unity of sense-experience is not something that is sensed....A kind of structure of faith emerges in his confession. He relies on science because he is loyal to human life, not his own merely; and because science is based on sense-experience which he trusts. There are three objects of faith here: sense-experience, science and human values. And faith moves in a kind of circle justifying reliance on each of these objects by reference to the others.
And where does this lead? Back to the either/or:

In the midst of all these questionings and arguments about faith; in the controversies of the religious sects and philosophical schools; among the contentions as defenders of this and that faith attack others with different beliefs, we become aware of a strange fact. Belief and disbelief, trust and distrust, fideilty and infidelity toward one another is present in all those who contend or agree with each other as they argue about faith. Defensiveness of one's own beliefs and suspicion of those with other beliefs, distrust of their intellectual ability or honesty accompany men [sic] in all their encounters with each other. Confessions of loyalty to values of one sort or another and of reliance upon powers, no less than the implicit and explicit confessions of doubt or confidence in one another can be heard in the midst of all these arguments and analyses. Belief and trust and fidelity and their opposites are forever present as active attitudes in the very subjects who make them the objects of their inquiry or disputation.

"Questions about faith, about its relation to action, to sight and understanding, about its objects and circular movements are important to us only because we have previously been required to answer the questions of faith."

When we are reduced to the either/or, the question of faith is put before us, and we have to answer. Faced with the unknown, we cannot explain it, but we cannot avoid it. And so we tried to see what would happen if we did without it; and so in the 1960's, a small group of theologians tried to proclaim God "dead." That theology alleged traced its roots back to Kierkegaard, to Bonhoeffer, even to Barth and to Tillich. There is a rather tedious revisionist history argument to be had about the length, breadth, purpose, and efficacy of the "God is dead" movement. But it actually asked a series of questions arranged around a central point: what is the metaphysical nature of God in a non-metaphysical world? One answer was to face the abandonment of metaphysics. The other answer was to reconsider the proposition that metaphysics had no meaning. And from that came reconsideration came phenomenology (out of German Idealism) and process theology (out of the ruins of the Principia Mathematica, following the acceptance of Gödel’s theorem of incompleteness.) But the clear question of the movement was: could we live without God? Could we reject the orthodox explanations of the nature of God (the heart of theology) and still practice theology? In what, in fact, did we have faith? What we could understand, if not see? Or what we could believe?

Was belief still an either/or? And could we ask that question without being accused of simply seeking publicity? (Ironically, Emory University shifted from an obscure college to a major research institution largely because of the notoreity of Thomas J.J. Altizer, a professor in the seminary at Emory, and one of the proponents of the controversial theology.) If we cannot prove God’s existence, must we necessarily lose faith in God? If we cannot establish the first object and then the second and perhaps a third and fourth, is it impossible for our faith to be generated by the movement among them? Or are: “Belief and trust and fidelity and their opposites …forever present as active attitudes in the very subjects who make them the objects of their inquiry or disputation”?, so that even the declaration that the ground of faith, God in this case, is dead, is gone, is simply another statement of belief and trust and fidelity or perhaps, its opposites? The argument of Climacus lingers, though: if God is “dead,” does that mean the unknown is no more? And if it cannot mean that, then how can the unknown, the god, be “dead,” destroyed, obsolete, removed from all further consideration? “But a frontier is precisely the passion's torment, even though it is also its incentive. And yet it can go no further, whether it risks a sortie through via negationis or via eminentiae.”

So for all that effort, where have we gone, except to the place where we began? And is it possible yet to know it for the first time?

*The via negationis is the way of negative theology; i.e., we can only speak of what God is not, not of what God is. It is a theology that has its own satisfactions and limitations, and while it much appealed to Luther, it is not the final word on the nature of God, or even the best word. The via emenentiae is the way of idealization, essentially the ground of Anselm's ontological "proof," i.e., that God is all that can be best possibly conceived, which ultimately is no more definitive nor satisfactory.

All the quotes from Philosophical Fragments, by the way, are from: Kierkegaard, Søren, Philosophical Fragments/Johannes Climacus, tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1985). Quotes from Niebuhr are: Niebuhr, H. Richard, Faith on Earth, ed. Richard R. Niebuhr (New Haven: Yale University Press 1989).


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