"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

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter Monday: The God Who Wasn't There

The heart of the controversy revolved around the cultural, intellectual, and technological changes that were sweeping through American society at the turn of the century, and how these changes impacted traditional Protestant modes of faith. Religious conservatives, in particular, felt threatened by what they saw. Darwinism offered an account of the origins of the universe at odds with the biblical account of creation, while the German model of higher criticism treated the bible as a collection of ancient myths and folklore, enabling biblical scholars to read the sacred text, like any other ancient writing, against the backdrop of its own social and literary context.

For liberals like Harry Emerson Fosdick, the proper Christian response to these new discoveries in science, history, and literature was to combine them with received Christian truth—exactly, according to Fosdick, as Christians had always done in the past when they encountered new truths. “The new knowledge and the old faith [have] to be blended in a new combination,” Fosdick argued in his famous 1922 sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”—a new combination that for Fosdick demanded a Christianity without a virgin birth or literal second coming of Christ (among other things), which, he argued, were impossible to believe in, in this new scientific age.

Conservatives, on the other hand, viewed the new discoveries in science and higher criticism as attacks on traditional truth of the bible; where the former conflicted with the latter, it was the Christian’s duty to place him or herself under the authority of received biblical truth, most especially those truths directly assailed by the secular forces of Modernism. Five “fundamentals” of biblical truth were initially proposed in 1910 to which all Christians should assent (the inerrancy of the bible; the virgin birth; the substitutionary atonement; the historicity of the miracles; the second coming). Others would soon follow.
I've spent too much time among the happy ignorati at Slate and Salon (in the comments; and they are happy in their ignorance), the ones who, Dan Mathewson puts it, are "pissed at religious conservative pissiness!" (A lovely thought in its own right.)  Here we get analysis of history and a recognition that, like it or not, religion is a reality in the world.  Among the happy ignorati, religion is a thing to be abolished because reason will set you free.  It is, of course, a simple identity/boundary issue: if "they" are religious, how can I be rational?  Not unlike the argument that is "they" are gay, how can I be straight, or if "they" accept black people as people, how can I continue to be "white"?

But don't point that out, or you'll REALLY piss 'em off.

I am actually more interested in the source of the five "fundamentals," and in the idea that without these, one is not a Christian.  I learned in seminary that the only recognized traits of Christianity were baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (even Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, the "inclusive" version of the Trinitarian formula, is not acceptable), acceptance of baptism and communion/eucharist as sacraments, and affirmation of Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God.

To be honest, I only vaguely remember the last two.  The baptismal formula is the only one a practicing pastor has to get right; how one conducts the eucharist, and how often, and to whom, is up to the pastor and his church judicatory.  Even who you let join the church as a member is a denominational matter.

I'm not sure Fosdick was wrong, by the way, though I don't use language like "no one can believe that anymore," because it puts too much emphasis on "belief" as "believing what you know ain't so." (Crossan on metaphor here).

And I'm still curious as to why atheists, on-line anyway, are so obsessed with ideas about religion.  They aren't trained in philosophy of religion, or in philosophy at all (such as Jewish philosophy, a field it would surprise most of them to learn is out there).  I'm bemused by arguments that the Hebrew Scriptures are about a war-God who wants blood sacrifice and destruction of one's enemies, a sort of cosmic Conan the Barbarian.  Don't, of course, point out this doesn't speak well of Judaism, lest you be accuse of injecting anti-semitism into the argument as a red herring.  And above all don't mention this view of those scriptures ignores almost 90% of them, which teach justice for the widow, the orphan, and the alien (i.e., non-Hebrews).  It ain't worth the trouble to tell the pig it doesn't know anything.

I have spent too much time in the wrong places; again.

This obsession with religion is a curious thing.  It is a kind of theomania, perhaps:  an obsession with thinking about God that is itself a form of idolatry.  The term is Martin Buber's, and new to me, but I'm grateful to have it:  it is a useful corrective in Christianity as well as Judaism.  And it is useful to remember Judaism has philosophies, but no proper theology (which is why Buber would coin a term like that); Christianity could learn something from that now, at long last.

And maybe it could start here:

Early on, I was also struck by the apophatic dimensions found in Hinduism, Taoism, and some forms of Buddhism. My study of kabbalistic and Hasidic texts only reinforced this interest. Based on the many years of reflecting on the apophatic, I came to the conclusion that recent attempts to harness the apophatic tradition of Western Neoplatonism together with Derridean deconstruction in order to construct a viable postmodern negative theology a religion without religion—are not radical enough!

Not only are these philosophies of transcendence guilty of a turn to theology that defies the phenomenological presupposition of an immanent phenomenality, but they fall short on their own terms, since they persist in employing metaphorical language that personalizes transcendence and thereby run the risk of undermining the irreducible alterity and invisibility attributed to the transcendent other.

The logic of apophasis, if permitted to run its course without the intervention of preexisting theological beliefs, would surpass the metaphysical dyad of presence and absence in the atheological unmasking of the mask and the consequent transcending of the need to posit some form of transcendence that is not ultimately a facet of immanence, a something more that is not in fact merely another expression of the totality of what there is, provided we understand that totality as the network of indefinite and ever-evolving patterns of interconnectivity rather than as a fixed system of predictable and quantifiable data.

Apophatic theologies, accordingly, must be supplanted by a more far-reaching apophasis that surpasses the theolatrous impulse that lies coiled in the crux of theism, an apophasis of the apophasis, based on the acceptance of an absolute nothingness—to be distinguished from the nothingness of an absolute—that does not signify the unknowable One but the manifold that is the pleromatic abyss at being’s core, the zero gravitational energy of empty space, the effluent emptiness that is the womb of all becoming.

On this score, the much celebrated metaphor of the gift would give way to the more neutral and less theologically charged notion of an unconditional givenness in which the distinction between giver and given collapses. To think givenness in its most elemental phenomenological sense is to allow the apparent to appear as given without presuming a causal agency that would turn that given into a gift.
This, I hope, will be this book’s contribution to the philosophy of religion at large, and it is with respect to this ungifting of the gift that my indebtedness to Heidegger (and to Derrida, who is similarly indebted to Heidegger) is most discernible. As I suggest in the sixth chapter, Heidegger’s idea of es gibt, “it gives,” implies a giving without any agency of givenness, that is, a giving that gives with no will to give and no desire to be given.

Now THAT is a mental scrub brush that reaches into the deepest corners and clears out the cobwebs!  Avanti!  The game is afoot, again!


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