Friday, October 12, 2012

More Gnats and Camels

What is the difference between my profession of love for my wife, and my profession of my faith (trust) in God?  The only difference I can see is in quantity:  I am the only person who needs to confess my love for my wife (love as a husband should love a wife); but I share with a cloud of witnesses my faith (trust) in God.  But does quantity mark a necessary difference between these two claims?  The former is unassailable (why bother, if for no other reason), while the latter, even in an era of pervasive insistence on religion as a "personal matter," is subject to all manner of criticism.  But on what grounds, precisely, other than you don't share my love (faith)?

I bring this up because I fell (somewhat) into a discussion of matters religious and theological over at Crooked Timber, and one of the challenges put to me was belief in the existence of a non-being.  There's a lot to be said against that assertion, starting with the idea that a religious confession necessarily entails an unreasoning acceptance (the usual definition of "belief" in these arguments, especially when the "leap of faith" is invoked, as it was, and not by me) and even trust (faith) in the existence of a being whose existence cannot be proven and who is, in fact, presumed not to exist (in which case, as Kierkegaard pointed out, you can never mount an argument proving otherwise, the very conclusion being presumed in the question.).  As I say, the mind reels with replies, but the one I want to focus on is the question of existence of a non-being.  It's so contradictory it refutes the premise it presumes to critique:  a non-being, of course, cannot have existence.  We never need get to the question of how "existence" is to be understood, or even open the discussion of why "existence" must be properly addressed in phenomenological terms in order to have any validity in the argument at all, because we've already established that the being whose existence is in question, is not a being at all.  The discussion about whether one can separate "being" from "existence" and still have a meaningful discussion about being (and all without picking up Anselm's proof) is ended before it's begun.

Still, without invoking the shade of Anselm (who, indeed, had a very different point to make), I would begin by asserting that if we are going to discuss a being as existent or not, we have to agree that a being has existence.  It is in the very nature of the concept that the being be existent.  This does not establish that it does indeed exist (whatever that means, and why ever it is important to establish), but it does establish a ground rule:  the being exists, or there is no being.  In this case, it really is either/or.

So, at the very least, let us have no arguments about the existence of non-beings, as if the premise itself were not self-contradictory.  Beings have existence, but is "God" a being?  That should be the discussion; except the answer is:  I can't help you there.

Because now the discussion is not about God's existence, but about the nature of God.  Of course, to discuss the nature of God, we have to assume God is a "living option," as William James put it.  If one party to the discussion is not willing to do that, then the discussion is over before it begins.  If we can have that discussion, then it's a very different one from the discussion about a belief in the existence of a non-being; but then, we can't ever have that discussion, can we?  So the discussion of the nature of God is a discussion of the qualities of God, and it is necessarily a theological discussion; and if you aren't ready, willing, and able to engage that discussion on theological terms, then we can't ever discuss anything about the question "How do people believe in 'God'?"  Which is a discussion we can have, but only if you are at least willing to accept James' proposition that you have to allow for God to be not just a concept but a "living option" for other people.

Which is rather like saying you have to be willing to accept that I love my wife, without seeing any evidence to satisfy you on the point.  We may, for example, wonder how Bill Clinton so famously expressed any love for his wife; but he and Hillary are still married.  As Gene Lyons famously said of that couple, "Other people's marriage is a country where I don't speak the language."  Can the same be said for people for whom a deity is a living option?  Why, or why not?

I'm not, of course, plowing entirely new ground.  I'm going, in part,  where Wittgenstein went, but it still seems unsatisfactory to people who insist there is only one possible answer to the question of the universe, or human existence within it, or the human response to it; and that answer is the one they cling to.  Which means, of course and ultimately, that they are the center of the universe, and it is only right that it should be so.  An interesting position, but not a very enlightening one.  What I got in many of the comments at Crooked Timber (among some very interesting ones) was a lot of batting away of alternatives that were not viable because they did not leave the living options of the commenters the center of the universe.  They allowed for other ways of understanding which, if they didn't line up with the "true" way, were only "mushy soup:"

"The idea that there are many ways to God is very widely held among religious believers"

This is simply swimming in mushy soup now. Unless we’re the realms of quantum divinity, with Christ stuck in a box and us calculating the probability of the God particle decaying, then Jesus is either the son of God, or another prophet (but not the most recent), or just a Jewish heretic with some nifty moral philosophy to sell us. There is no way for all three of those things to be simultaneously true.

Now, I can see that a believer might think that believers of other things or non-believers are not necessarily going to hell simply for that, but this “many ways to God” thing is trying to have your mushy cake and eat it.
There is at least a category error there, along with the mixed metaphor (is it the soup or the cake that is mushy?  And how, indeed, is soup "mushy"?), but the basic argument is that all things must resolve to reason as I understand it, or they don't resolve at all.  The possibility that, say, language games might be involved here, is not even considered.  The idea that any formal system of reasoning can create questions it cannot answer, isn't considered either.  And the nature of truth is such that it is hard to know what is true, but it is easy (apparently) to know what is not true, because truth is both unitary and absolute.

Except when it isn't.  Just as I tell my students that 1+1=3 in biology, although not in math, truth is unitary only when you limit its application to one field of knowledge. 

But then, it seldom is limited to just one field of knowledge.  Truth is transcendent.  Truth covers all!  Truth is the unified theory that explains everything at once!  Or so they tell me.

So, either my wife is special and especially loveable, or she is just another wife, or she is just a nice person who is pleasant to be around.  Is there any way for all three of these things to be simultaneously true?

The question, I should hope, answers itself.  If I assert all three could be true, am I trying to eat a mushy cake?  I willingly assume only one of those options is available to me, but if it isn't available to you is it therefore impossible?  All three options might even be foreclosed to you.  Does that make them wholly incredible?  Now, the difference between being a loving husband to my wife, and being a devoted believer in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus, is not a slight one; but neither is it necessarily a fundamental one.  I can share the latter with the clouds of witness, and yet those witnesses may not include all of humankind.  Am I therefore in error?  It might surprise a devoted positivist to learn not everyone alive now, to say nothing of the past, accepts their explanation of reality.  Is the devoted positivist therefore in error?

Are these really questions subject to majority rule?  And are your opinions, beliefs, philosophies, really not subject to the restriction of language games that all other statements made by humans, are?  Do you somehow have access to a unitary and absolute truth which escapes all other human beings, and stands apart from any analysis and critique about the language you use to express and understand it?

Nice work if you can get it.

The VP debate showed signs of centering (among the "liberal blogs", at least) on the final question about Roman Catholic doctrine and abortion.  It is prompting comments very similar to this one:

An answer to the "religion" question I wish I had heard:
"My faith is a private matter, and I do not discuss it in public. I believe in religious freedom, and do not accept the notion that secular law should enforce anyone's dogma. As far as I'm concerned, the decision to continue or terminate a pregnancy is up to the woman. Period."

It is the last redoubt of the irreligious:  stop talking to me about your religion!  Don't ask, don't tell! (the irony would cut you if you noticed it).  It's an odd thing, because while sexuality is supposedly private (I still think Vonnegut was onto something in Slaughterhouse Five, where the Tralfamadorians saw at least 4 sexes (IIRC) were necessary for human reproduction.  These things are always more complicated than we want them to be.), it is actually quite public.  I'm not only supposed to know who is gay or lesbian or even transgendered, I'm supposed to celebrate it (because to not rejoice that Rachel Maddow or Stephanie Miller are lesbians is somehow impolite on my part.  How about if I just don't care?).  But religious belief?  Keep it to yourself, please!  We don't want to talk about that stuff 'round here.  Churches are public institutions.  Every little girl apparently still dreams of a church wedding (preferably without the hindrance of actually being a church member).  But what you actually do there, or what makes you want to be there, should no more be spoken of in public than what you do in the bathroom.

There are fairly legitimate reasons not to inquire too closely into someone else's sexual preferences or even their activities (watch "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice" and it's hard not to notice the characters played by Robert Culp and Natalie Wood seem vaguely false and almost stereotypes instead of real people.  They live their "swinging" lifestyle by cliches and long paragraphs of explanation, not like ordinary people.  Diane Cannon and Eliot Gould may be more burdened with social mores, but they also seem more believable).  But there is a growing insistence that you leave your religious beliefs at the cathedral/meeting house/temple door.  Even if they are as benign as those expressed by Joe Biden and Paul Ryan (who actually skirted the issues of Catholic doctrine far more widely than Mr. Biden did).  Why is this?  Why is religion so "private" it shouldn't be mentioned in public at all, while who you take to bed as your lover should be something you declare openly and proudly?

There isn't a logical answer for it, of course, and I'm not looking for one.  I am intrigued by the idea that religion should be as private as the balance in one's bank account.  Worship is and has always been a corporate matter.  It is only since the Reformation that worship in European culture has become a splintered thing, slowly giving rise to the idea that what you believe should not impinge on what I believe, and finally should not impinge on what I choose not to believe.  But why does it impinge?

Did the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King impinge on the sensibilities of liberal atheists?  How about the Berrigan brothers, who did everything they did in the name of their religious beliefs?  Dorothy Day?  Sr. Helen Prejean?  The Nuns on the Bus?  Should all of them go away and stop discussing their religious beliefs in public by acting on them and using them to critique society?  Where does this fear of the religious other come from?

From politics, mostly.  But the discussion at Crooked Timber wasn't in the least political, and still the fear of contamination raged.  How can reasonable people also be religious? Isn't that like a square circle, or a two-dimensional sphere?  I think it is a simple fear:  it is the fear of the other, especially when that other is close to home.

This fear is seldom expressed (at least on liberal blogs) as a fear of Islam; or a fear of Judaism.  It's almost always couched in terms of "religion=Christianity," even when that isn't explicitly stated.  It seems somehow "illiberal" to criticize Islam, mostly because people like Pam Geller make such an ugly thing of it.  I don't for a moment expect any of the critics of religion I've encountered would take to violence, but the fear of ideas that drove the Taliban to shoot a 14 year old girl in the head (and not her father, who runs the girl's school she was all but raised in), rather than see drone strikes as a greater threat (then again, one is easier to attack than the other) never seems to be far from their minds.  It's not the same degree of fear, but it seems to be of the same basic nature:  that which does not define me as I wish to be defined, assaults me.

At what point, now, does the existence of a non-being become the crucial question of this examination?  At what point, indeed, is that not a mistake, rather than an insight? If I posit, arguendo, God as the ground of being (Tillich),  I don't establish God's existence independent of the definition, but if I am going to establish existence of any unknown at all (such as, in Kierkegaard's example, Napoleon), we'll have to decide how I can manage to do that.

Oh, I don't know anymore.  Jesus laughed 'til he cried.

Play nice.  Please?


  1. Not the direction you were going with the post, I know but as you know there are whole books of the Bible (Song of Songs, Hosea) and much mystical thought dedicated to the answering your question

    What is the difference between my profession of love for my wife, and my profession of my faith (trust) in God?

    in the exact way you answer it.

  2. Thanks. I really should have realized that; but I'm glad you pointed it out.

    Time for more reading in worthwhile texts....