On the Importance of Being Spiritual AND Religious

[UPDATE: This post has been re-published in slightly-modified form at the Tikkun Daily Blog.] At the beginning of this past semester, I was invited to read Diana Butler Bass’s Christianity After Religion. I attend a small seminary, and it seems that this book was suggested as a way to encourage the vast majority of students who are clergy-in-training to confront the reality that religious institutions have lost both influence and respectability over the last 5 decades, to say nothing of the 2 centuries before that. The world has changed; and as they say: change or die. Bass–and by extension, my seminary, or at least whoever is in charge of suggesting preliminary reading material [UPDATE: a faculty member has informed me that the person who selected this book actually did not agree with much of what it contains. The discussion we had during orientation did not touch on any such disagreement, however, which led to my confusion on this. Of course it’s great to read things one disagrees with, but it’s also good to point out problems and errors in assigned reading!]–seems to have a very clear idea of what the Church must do to remain relevant to modern people, and she lays down the challenge, as she sees it, and her proposals for meeting that challenge. Simply put, I was unimpressed. To be both more honest and less generous, I was amazed and appalled by the shallowness of her analysis and the obvious pandering of her proposed solutions. Let me get to some details.

Bass is, essentially, a supporter of the “Spiritual but not Religious” line of thought. In short, proponents of this attitude want to pursue a personal spiritual “quest” but are uninterested in religious institutions, rules, or communities. This is a simplistic description, but this is part of the problem: the spiritual-but-not-religious attitude is itself a gross oversimplification, as if spirituality and religiosity were two distinct modes of action or being that one could pursue independently of each other and a whole host of other cultural, social, and political practices. It seems to be a reaction against a traditionalist, conservative, rule-obsessed 19th century Protestantism. But is a rejection of this specific type of religiosity a rejection of “religion” altogether? It seems to me that only someone who had barely reflected on the issues at hand could actually answer yes to this question. Bass spends considerable time in her book exploring what these words “spiritual” and “religious” mean to various people (pp. 68-71), and ultimately ends up admitting that the two words have such varied and diverse connotations that distinguishing between them is hard. In fact, in chapter three, she admits that post people want to be both spiritual and religious (p. 93). Nonetheless, throughout the rest of the book, she continues to operate with a hyper-simplistic and uncritical attitude that the two are diametrically opposed.

Part of the problem with Bass’s approach is the confusion between description and prescription. Is she simply telling us truths about the reality of the world? Or is she exhorting us to change our ways? Of course, the one could very well lead to the other, but the relationship between them shouldn’t be taken for granted. Take, for example, pollution. One might describe the reality that our world is increasingly polluted, and thereby recommend or prescribe moving to an unsullied mountain range, buying a hazmat suit, or investing in pharmaceutical companies making anti-cancer drugs. This is all perfectly logical, but there is a wholly different sort of response: maybe we should try to stop polluting the place we live in. So when Bass basically describes a modern world filled with people only interested in convenient, overly-optimistic, individualistic ersatz “spirituality”, is she simply telling church leaders how things are? Or is she recommending that we join the bandwagon? Personally, I would agree that this process is occurring, but I don’t think it’s a good thing, and I would call on the Church not to simply concede that people are no longer interested in what we do and therefore that we should completely change our mission. I would call on the church to be critical of something if it seems bad.

Of course, I’m not suggesting an inflexible traditionalism. We absolutely must be willing and able to respond to modernism. But that doesn’t mean giving in completely to it; modernism has both good and bad aspects. Let’s humbly accept the former while calling the latter what they are and resisting them. I support women’s ordination, the ordination of homosexuals, Christian engagement with environmentalism, theological engagement with modern philosophy, dialogue with our atheist and secular fellow citizens, and a full recognition of the separation of the church and state. These are all certainly modern developments, and I’m glad that the Church has been forced–and it was forced–to accept these critiques.

But modernism has also brought all sorts of bad things, and I want to be able to point those out, and hope that the Church will resist them. Science has brought all sorts of realy great things, but it’s also brought pollution, atomic weapons, and global warming. Modern society is much more tolerant than societies past, but it is also often extremely lonely and alienating. Capitalism has brought lots of choice at the cash register, but it’s also brought incredible exploitation and suffering for working-people. So let’s, by all means, accept the modern developments that seem good to us–and let’s fight the good fight against all the evils modernism has also brought. There’s no inconsistency here; plenty of things have good and bad aspects. And building a better world means discerning between the two.

So, when it comes to the spiritual-but-not-religious (this is getting arduous to write, from now on I’ll acronym-ize this SBNR), what does this mean? Well, Bass herself links the increasing desire for ‘spirituality’ with the development of consumer capitalism (eg. 41-43). It seems clear to me that the SBNR is the religio-spiritual manifestation of late consumer capitalism. It’s totally individualistic, and sees the Church/religious institutions as essentially businesses. Bass seems to be pointing out that these businesses are providing a ‘product’ that fewer and fewer consumers want–so why not change the product offered? That’s certainly the logic of the market. If Kellogg’s noticed that a cereal wasn’t selling well, it would be discontinued or changed, because that’s how the company can make more money and keep its shareholders happy.

But isn’t this sort of mercenary decision-making precisely the sort of thing that SBNR people would find offensive? The irony is that late consumer capitalism has so impoverished our sense of real community and the presence of Spirit that we are searching for individualized, customized, comfortable, convenient “spirituality”, even though it’s the very pursuit of this sort of thing that has impoverished us in the first place! Spiritual transformation is not a matter of finding an easy fit, a fun new practice, or following a trend. “Take up your cross and follow me” is not the sort of tagline you can put on a new yoga exercise or some new meditation technique (I am by no means dismissing yoga or mediation, which are ancient spiritual practices, but rather the insipid versions of these peddled by all-too-many Western entrepreneurs). It is a radical call to abandon every false sense of security, every false confidence we have, and trust radically in the mystery of God. Christianity, taken seriously, is intensely radical. I find SBNR so frustrating and aggravating precisely because it is hopelessly boring, so incredibly mainstream: it’s precisely what capitalism does to religion and spirituality. Lenin supposedly once said that capitalists would sell him the rope he’d use to hang them. Modern westerners will try to buy the very spirituality they so desperately search for because they have become totally consumer-ized. It’d be funny if it weren’t so damned sad.

Now, none of this means that Bass is wrong descriptively: she’s absolutely right to point out that this trend is happening and she is absolutely right that the Church must respond to it. But I would argue that we need to do exactly the opposite of what she proposes. I think that these various trends and fads–this hyper-individualistic, consumable ersatz spirituality–will flash and burn out like many trends before it. What people are really looking for (and I say this as someone who spent years looking myself!) is an authentic, enriching, challenging spiritual community. I’ve chosen each of those adjectives quite intentionally. The problem with SBNR is that it is none of them. It’s not the least bit authentic; SBNR practices tend to smack of a cobbled-together New Ageism. It’s not enriching, because it seeks to give a sort of shortcut for spiritual fulfillment, which is a complete contradiction in terms. And it’s not challenging because it simply reinforces our own narcissistic and self-congratulatory reflexes. It’s true that we often need to be kinder to others and even ourselves. But it’s also sometimes true that we need to be called out, be held accountable. The road to Hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. SBNR is full of good intentions–but little else.

Finally, SBNR is in no way a community–it explicitly rejects community when it rejects religion. In seeking a spirituality that is personalized, individualized, and reassuring, we necessarily exclude a community. Of course, one of the problems with any community is that people–most of all other people, as Oscar Wilde pointed out–are so often boring, arrogant, needy, and upsetting. The trick, of course, is to realize that you are Other People to other people, and those same traits doubtlessly describe you. A religious community can keep us accountable, and it can keep us humble, and it can save us from the Great Adversary–our own high opinion of ourselves.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we should accept the discipline of a community uncritically–and of course, many religious communities have been unduly, even unjustly harsh, intolerant, and oppressive to lots of people in the past. But SBNR is no magic bullet; it simply trades one danger for another–and it’s all the worse because it reflects all that is worst about late consumer capitalism. I am not suggesting that we be Religious but not Spiritual–I’m asserting what past generations, I think, took for granted: if one wants to be spiritual, one must be religious–and vice versa. They don’t work apart from each other. Spirituality without religion is a convenient, comfortable, self-congratulatory illusion; religion without spirituality is stale, dogmatic, and dead. Bass and other SBNR proponents have, I think, been so fully immersed in the logic of capitalism and modern individualism that they cannot understand any other way of looking at the world–even though this modern viewpoint is diametrically opposed to the very spiritual enrichment they so desperately seek.

The main takeaway of all of this, for me, is that much of what Protestantism discarded with in the 16th century–the sacramental, sacred, engaged, community-focused rites of medieval Catholicism–is precisely what modern Christians are yearning for without knowing it. Again, let’s not oversimplify: the Reformation was right to challenge the ecclesial abuses and warped theology of indulgences of the time. But I think in many ways, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. Protestant Christianity became a wholly intellectual, private affair, a sort of legal transaction between God and an individual human being–instead of the loving, mysterious embrace of creation by Creator. But the solution is not some sentimental, anti-intellectual New Age nonsense. It’s a restoration of a balance between reason and emotion, devotion and theology, sacrament and study. For Christians, I think this begins by endeavoring to explore deeply what the Real Presence of the Eucharist means. This does not have to translate into acceptance of the doctrine of transubstantiation (it certainly doesn’t for me) but it means rediscovering the spiritual riches of our religious practice. The alternatives are a dead religiosity or a superficial ersatz spirituality. May the Holy Spirit guard us from both.

The Problem of Evil: A Review of ‘Where the Hell is God?’ by Richard Leonard, SJ

I was at a retreat with the Third Order of the Society of St. Francis this weekend at the Loyola House in Morristown, NJ–a retreat house run by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). They had a small bookstore, and I found Richard Leonard’s short Where the Hell is God? on the first table I came across. It was billed as a contemporary approach to theodicy, so I decided at $12 it was worth a read. At only 67 pages, I finished it in no time.

I had hoped for a robust re-positioning of the ‘problem of evil’, which has dogged theologians and philosophers for the whole of recorded history. Although Leonard presented some relevant ideas, I was ultimately quite disappointed. I think fundamentally this book was intended as a pastoral–rather than academic–work. Leonard, who recounts how his sister became a paraplegic in a car accident 20 years ago and how that forced him to confront the reality of evil, seems more interested in helping lay Christians grapple with their own personal struggles rather than trying to delve into the metaphysical and teleological implications.

And I get that! Pastoral theology is crucially important. The problem is that for too long it’s been dominated by relatively superficial, saccharine, shallow ideas. Leonard basically argues that though God indeed created everything, and that evil is real, somehow, God doesn’t cause evil. He seems to rely on the doctrine of free will to fill in the gaps, but it doesn’t stick, and the gaps are glaring. And my fear is that it is exactly this sort of ersatz, feel-good pastoral theology that really gives contemporary Christianity such a bad name. It’d really be better, I think, to say nothing than to put forth inconsistent and ultimately patronizing ideas.

I was particularly bothered when, in the conclusion (p. 65), Leonard writes:

I do not think that God has to be the direct cause of everything in my life to have a strong and lively belief in a personal God. Indeed, I am passionate about God’s personal love and presence. As stated throughout, thinking that God is removed from the intricate detail of how things develop does not remove God from the drama of our living, our suffering, our dying.

But of course, if God is “removed from the intricate detail of how things develop”, where exactly is God? Leonard seems to be outlining a sort of ad hoc Christian-Deism. When convenient, he stresses the transcendence of God; at other times he brings in the Incarnation. But where is the Spirit? Where is the immanent God, the God in which all things move, live, breath, and have their being? Leonard seems to dismantle the Trinity in order to excuse God for the realities of evil.

This isn’t in any way to minimize the problem of evil. But I don’t think this approach can yield any good fruit–but it could lead to plenty of confusion, anger, and incredulity. A robust, Trinitarian view of God wouldn’t deny God’s presence in evil. There’s no currency in that, unless we want to retreat to a Dualism or a Deism. For me, the only way forward in dealing with the problem of evil is to look to mystical and ascetical theology: when we assert that God is, indeed, present in all places and at all times, that God was not only incarnate but is present now as Spirit, we are can appreciate the paradox of God’s transcendence and immanence: God is indeed ‘out there’ and ‘Other’–but God is also ‘in here’ and ‘with us.’ God is creator, first cause, but also the very ground of existence, the sustainer of all things and actions. This forces us to account for God’s presence in evil–but when we really push the realization of immanence to its necessary conclusions, we are met with the further mysterious paradox: God causes suffering, yet as present with us, God also suffers. And, in fact, in some incomprehensible but real way, God must be the suffering. So God causes, is, and receives suffering. Nothing can occur outside of, away from, or apart from God–if we accept that God is not some sort of sky father but indeed the very ground of our being: being-itself. And of course such a view, however it might ruffle the feathers of Platonists (and too many Christians seem more wedded to Plato than to Christ!) it completely comports with our image of the God on the Cross: suffering indeed.

There are other possible insights to bring to this problem, for example: defining evil in totally negative terms, such that it is not anything at all, but rather the absence of being, which God, in effect, as Redeemer, is ‘filling in’. I think there is some value to such approaches. But even this angle can’t deny the presence of God–and even the responsibility of God–for evil. Any attempt to dodge this forces us to propose some other source of evil, as if we were Manicheans. The free-will move won’t really allow us to avoid the problem either, though reflections on the need for beings with true freedom may indeed be a crucial approach in addressing evil; such a move may be necessary–but it isn’t sufficient.

I find insufficient approaches to such serious problems particularly problematic in light of all the criticism that the Church faces today. If we want to stand before, for example, the likes of Richard Dawkins and articulate a meaningful and believable understanding of God, we absolutely must do better than Where the Hell is God? And indeed, even if we want to educate and comfort our fellow Christians, we must do much better. The 21st century will demand serious, solid answers to these difficult questions. I don’t think we can afford to throw such soft theology at such pressing problems.




Richard Dawkins: Metaphysician?

So I’ve finally gotten around to reading more of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. In my previous post on the first 120 pages, I focused mainly on Dawkins’ incredibly–and indefensibly–narrow definition for the “God” he then refutes. By defining God in a way that few serious theologians today–or before 1300–would accept, Dawkins is able to build a straw man easily knocked over and burned down. Any more robust–and traditional–doctrine of God as being-itself, as Aquinas famously wrote, is simply ignored. Essentially, Dawkins only addresses a very modern (or, perhaps more accurately, counter-modern) understanding of God: a fundamentalist God–and therefore an understanding of God that most of the world’s Christians would understand as heretical.

Anyway, if that discussion interests you, head on over to that article. Although I will dig more into just what God as being-in-itself actually means later in this post, let’s start with with some of the foundations of Dawkins’ ersatz theology:

First off, it’s clear that not only is Dawkins only interested (or able?) to debate the god of fundamentalism, he also only seems to think that the only interesting theological debate is between creationism v. natural selection (pp. 112-114), as if God has only ever served as a mechanical explanation for the arising of life on this planet. Of course, if this were the case, the Bible could have ended after the second chapter of Genesis! The idea that many–as in hundreds of millions–of modern Christians both firmly believe in God and accept fully and even enthusiastically the theory of natural selection seems to not have occurred to Dawkins whatsoever (pp. 60-61).

Dawkins also simply sidesteps the assertion that God is simple, as in not a complex structure or being. Since Dawkins defined God in the second chapter as a superhuman, supernatural intelligence (p. 31), it follows that he cannot interface with any idea of God as simple. But of course here lies one of the deepest flaws of his whole position: he seems to have never really researched much traditional Christian theology, except when he cherry-picks some of its weaker examples (as when he brings up Anselm’s famously inadequate ontological ‘proof’ pp.80-81). He earlier (pp.78-79) critiques some of Aquinas’ ‘proofs’ of God’s existence, but never addresses Aquinas’ most famous, and significant, definition of God as being-in-itself (as I have mentioned earlier). This oversight is worth repeating because Aquinas, in fact, goes out of his way to make it clear that God must be understood as simple, from an ontological standpoint, precisely because all relation and structure arises from God as being-itself: the very cause or ground of complexity, logically, cannot itself be complex, at least not in any way that is grammatically meaningful to us.

But that’s a nerdy discussion for a later (and, I suppose, nerdier!) section below. We’re not quite at the point in Dawkins’ thought to address a robust understanding of God. Although Dawkins is mostly concerned with dismissing God as an alternative to natural selection, he also sees God as an alternative to (rather than an interpretation of) purely scientific understanding of the genesis of the physical universe itself. Nevermind that discussion of God is really always about teleology (meaning and value) rather than mechanical explanation (and anyway, Dawkins simply refuses to treat teleology as serious when he dismisses why questions out of hand (p.56). In any event, Dawkins then later brings in contemporary physical cosmologies, the most interesting of which is the “multiverse” theory (pp.143-145). Dawkins begins with a discussion with the ‘anthropological principle’, which points out that if some of the central constants in the laws of physics were to change only slightly (for example, if the one of the strong force’s constants changed from 0.007 to 0.006) then life would, as far as we understand it, not be possible. In such a universe, no atom more dense than hydrogen could ever form, and the universe would just be a misty sea of hydrogen gas. The tantalizing question is: why is that that our universe seems to “fine-tuned” for life? This is, essentially, just a more technical way of asking “why is there something, rather than nothing?” which is a central theological question (but, as Paul Tillich made clear in his Systematic Theology, it has no conceivable, explicable answer). The multiverse theory attempts to answer this mystery by proposing an infinite number of universes–collectively, a multiverse–in which the laws of physics are set at random values. We simply happen to be in one of the–presumably very, very rare–universes with a set of physical laws that allows for complex structures, including life.

Now, the multiverse theory may or may not be true, but it simply does not provide an answer to the question Dawkins asked, because a multiverse would simply shift the question back one step further. Even if we grant that there are an infinite number of universes which laws are determined by chance or randomness, we still might ask why there are any universes, rather than none. More to the point, such a system of universe would demand, quite literally, a meta-physics. It would demand some set of laws that governs how the ‘lower’ physics would be determined. Something must govern the fluctuations in the physical constants, even if that something is simply logic mediated by mathematics and chance. Such a system would still beg for an explanation. It’s curious–and telling–that Dawkins doesn’t seem to see this. While he repeatedly points out that the “God hypothesis” fails to answer the question of the origin of existence because God would then simply demand an explanation, he misses completely that this critique is true of any rational, non-paradoxical attempt to answer the question of the arising of being. This is precisely why Aquinas ended up asserting God’s radical simplicity as being-itself, or what Paul Tillich would famously call, more than 700 years later, the “ground of being”: God is not a structure, a being, or a person: God is the very ‘ground’ that allows for existence to occur. Of course, under this understanding, as Tillich himself pointed out, it may not make sense to say that God “exists”: things exist, and beings exist. But God is simply being-itself: existence itself. And existence doesn’t exist. But the crucial insight is that whatever verb we might conjure for the reality of God, it is more, rather than less, than existing.

But I admit this is a mysterious sort of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo: The trouble for Dawkins is that he can’t escape it any more than I can. The multiverse will demand the same sort of ad nauseum regression of cause that Dawkins criticizes theism for requiring (p. 143). The fact of the matter is that this problem is one that any philosophy, theology, or theory has to address–even though no rational answer seems conceivable, since we are ultimately asking how logic itself arose, it seems unlikely that a logical answer can ever fully suffice. But instead of admitting the mystery of this, Dawkins prefers to lean heavily on an interesting but ultimately futile answer to the problem, myopically ignoring the fact that it contains the very flaw he so relentlessly points out in his opponents. Dawkins stumbles into metaphysics without even realizing it, even while outlining a literal meta-physics!

Richard Dawkins’ God Confusion

[Update: Fixed a typo below in which I misspelled Christopher Hitchens’ last name as ‘Hutchins’]

I’ve been reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion the last few days. I’m only about 1/3 of the way through, but I’ve found the book so frustrating so far that I wanted to write down my impressions so far. Dawkins is one of the “New Atheists”, a group of writers including not only Dawkins but Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchins, and many others. These authors have, over the last 10-15 years, begun a sort of evangelical atheist push, aggressively attacking religion and the concept of God writ large. The theological response has been as paltry as it has been quiet. While fundamentalist writers have simply dismissed Dawkins et al. with barely a response at all, more sophisticated theologians seem embarrassed in the face of Dawkin’s assault, and seem ready to cede the debate before its even begun. Alister McGrath, whom Dawkin’s interviewed for his documentary The Root of All Evil? failed to respond consistently to any of Dawkins’ questions and failed to really get at the heart of the matter, at least as I see it.

The heart of the matter is, I think, that although the New Atheists raise plenty of valid critiques of religious institutions, their arguments are really only valid in repudiating fundamentalism. And most religious people around the world agree with Dawkins that fundamentalism is wrong. The hard-line assertion that the Bible is a literal document whose veracity is totally beyond question is a modern development, a short-sighted and desperate response to modernism, as I point out in my (admittedly short) post on fundamentalism. But a refutation of fundamentalism doesn’t address, at all, the issue of the existence (as it were) of God. But Dawkins seems not to really understand this distinction, and accepts without comment or thought that the literalist approach to Christianity simply is Christianity. In The God Delusion, for example, Dawkins defines God thusly:

there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything it, including us.

This definition works well in Sunday School, but it’s hard to imagine any but the most doctrinaire of fundamentalist theologians defining God in this way. So right off the bat, Dawkins defines God in a narrow way, seemingly intentionally reading as literal what has always been understood as metaphorical and analogical. Later in the same book, on pages 77-79, Dawkins briefly discusses some of Thomas Aquinas’ (in)famous “proofs” of God’s existence. He not only dismisses the valid questions that the “causation” proofs raise, but, much more importantly, he ignores that Aquinas’ central definition of the Divine was that God was being-itself (ipsum esse subsistens). Dawkins never even mentions Augustine in this chapter, but its worth noting that Augustine understood God in the same way.

The point of this brief detour into the history of theology is that understanding God as a superhuman, supernatural intelligence and understanding God as being-itself are two totally, radically different understandings of the nature of God. The former has often been affirmed in Christian communities, but almost always (at least until the rise of fundamentalism in the 19th century) as a metaphorical, analogical, anthropomorphic way of describing what is un-describable. The latter much better captures the center of Christian theological thought. And as Terry Eagleton points out in Reason, Faith, and Revolution, academic and intellectual rigor demands that you take your opponents at their best–not worst–arguments.

Such an omission from The God Delusionsuggests that either Dawkins hasn’t bothered to read any theology, or that he is intentionally misrepresenting the position he wants to argue against. Neither conclusion reflects well on Dawkins’ usefulness as a voice in this matter. The former would reflect an arrogance and hubris that would likely blind him to any real dialogue; the latter would suggest that Dawkins isn’t even capable of making any statements in good faith on the subject at hand. Now, if Dawkins wants to write books decrying creationism, defending evolution, or dismissing fundamentalist literalist bibliolatry–I’m all for it! As a decorated biologist with decades of experience, he’s well qualified to discuss the intersection of biology and religious belief. But again, a takedown of fundamentalism does not an atheist make: I certainly agree with him that evolution is a much better and more likely explanation for the nature of life and its diversity than creationism; I also assert, along with him, that every sentence of Bible isn’t literally true. Yet I’m a practicing Christian. Clearly there’s a gap in his methodology, his knowledge, or his intellectual honesty.

And this isn’t just a bunch of technical theological mumbo-jumbo. Most modern people would be highly suspicious of claims that God is some sort of superhuman watchmaker. And yet many modern folks continue to value spirituality and many people who are not religiously active often describe themselves as believing in God, or some sort of God-analogue (Life Force, Spirit, etc.) It’s clear that fundamentalism can never serve these people’s search for truth or understanding–but that doesn’t mean that the only approach left is a militant, semi-nihlistic atheism. Approaching God as being-itself is not only more traditionally defensible than the modern fundamentalist nonsense, it also offers a much deeper approach for people searching to understand the nature of existence. In short, much like American politicians like to simplify political theory into capitalism v. communism, it seems that Dawkins et al. would prefer to define philosophy and theology as fundamentalism v. atheism, excluding all the multivarious ways in which people actually grapple with the terror, mystery, and glory of existence.

Granted, I’ve just opened a big can of worms, and I do hope to address in greater detail some of what I’ve raised here: especially the idea of God as being-itself. But to keep this post at a more manageable length, I’ll conclude here, hopefully having at least made the case that Dawkins isn’t addressing the “God debate” with the intellectual rigor, honesty, and curiosity that the issue demands. It’s especially frustrating considering that someone wrote a book 50 years ago that explores the question of a modern view of God in a much more sophisticated and valid way: John Robinson’s Explorations Into God. But it seems clear that Dawkins sees the debate only in terms of evolution v. creation, but instead of limiting himself to that topic–which as I said above, he’s well-qualified to tackle–he instead delves into territory he refuses to actually explore, already confident that his conclusion is unassailable.

You can read my next post on The God Delusion here.

Paradox v. Dialectics; or, Milbank v. Žižek (but only barely!)

I just finished read the majority of The Monstrosity of Christ, a sort of position-and-response collaborative work by the Marxist literary-critic-psychologist-cum-philosopher Slavoj Žižek and the Anglican theologian John Milbank. They both diverge on a host of topics, oftentimes striding into tangents so long and circumloquacious that I ended up skipping the last 50 pages or so, as well as about 10 pages of Milbank’s contribution (Žižek wrote an opening position, Milbank responded in about 100 pages, and then Žižek responded to Milbank’s response). In any event, though I found the center of their disagreement interesting and relevant, they spent so much time on tracing out in excruciating detail that they never really honed in on the meat of the matter. Though the book itself is subtitled “Paradox or Dialectic” and this is indeed the crux of their debate, they never address the gap between them directly and explicitly.

I’m not well informed enough on dialectics to give any sort of systematic treatment of it–if you’ve never heard the term before, google it, and Hegel and Marx while you’re at it, and then rejoin me. I’m going to just jump right into what I personally find interesting in the dialogue between these two ontological approaches.

Žižek, unsurprisingly, applies a thoroughly dialectical treatment to reality, crafting a worldview informed heavily by Hegel, Lacan, and post-structuralist, almost hyper-existential thought. Ultimately, he finally rests his case on a sort of self-negating nihlism, at once denying any final unity to the world or ontological ground of hope and redemption while simultaneously committing himself all the more to need  for redemptive political and social action. On this socio-political emphasis he and Milbank, in fact, agree, but Milbank takes pains to paint out why exactly a human subject ought to have confidence that the struggle for meaning, justice, liberation, and enlightenment is more than a courageous fool’s errand. Centrally, where Žižek sees only the antagonistic conflict of polar opposites: transcendent v. immanent, objective v. subjective, impersonal v. personal, order v. chaos, form v. substance, etc., Milbank stresses the paradoxical identification of each of these opposites on a broader, unifying frame: granted that light and dark are counter-determined by one another, what is the underlying reality that allows them both space to be, or to act? Is there an underlying light-and-darkness, which allows each to play out, a stage, as it were, that opposites act upon?

Žižek seems to see only conflict; any two opposites compete in a zero-sum game of winner-takes all: when light appears, darkness is simply banished. There is, for him, no final unity “behind” or “above” or even “within” existence which binds all action, being, structure, and process. This forces him to propose an utterly “parallax” view of reality with no binding oneness, or being-in-itselfness, that accounts for the whole of existence. Each structure, each event, has only its own internal logic. Whatever reality is for me, yours is different, and they are irreconcilable.

This conflicts with the Christian view, certainly, but it also casts the whole scientific enterprise into doubt as well: is there a common logic of cause-and-effect that can be traced, probed, and relied on as we make sense of the world? Or is there only the subjective, existential moment in which we always exist: the “eternal now”? Žižek finally defines reality as the “non-All”, a contradictory term that attempts to build something out of nothing, meaning out of nihlism. It’s often hard to tell when he’s being authentic and when he might be engaging in self-contented sophistry: he is, after-all, a sort of philosopher-rock-star.

Milbank’s position not only preserves space for a teleological and theological discourse, but also–though I’m not sure he really intends or appreciates it–for scientific discourse as well. At the heart of the “paradoxical” vision of reality is a willingness to see things relationally rather than reductively. He refers to this as the “metaxological”, using an unnecessarily obscure term to point out that all existence is relational: the very forces of physics that comprise quantum mechanics explain what quantum particles do to and near each other and how they interact with space-time itself. They say nothing of any particle in isolation–and indeed they insist that such a particle would, for all intents and purposes, not exist. The reality of any one entity is always sustained, caused, contextualized, and valued by other entities in the universe: beings only exist alongside other beings. But instead of taking this to mean that all there is is the struggle of being v. being, Milbank recognizes the implicit ground of beings–Being-itself–that holds together all relationship, even, and infact especially, relationships of opposites. This ground of existence has been called non-dual, it’s been called the coincidence of opposites, but what Milbank stresses, when he cuts out the filler, is that this ground-of-beings–this Being-itself–can only be approached by a subject in a paradoxical–not dialectical–manner.

What interests me most about the distinction between dialectics and paradox is how the former seems to view the world outside of or without time. Hegel’s classic approach was to see the current thesis as existent in one frame of time, opposed to an antithesis in the same frame, and was resolved in a synthesis between them that came in a later frame, and became the new thesis. The old thesis and its antithesis were discarded. Dialectics is seen as a process between otherwise static states. Paradox, however, draws the states out over the stage of time, placing them in context with their causes, effects, and opposites in a network of existence that stands together. The past is not seen as a rubbish heap, but is seen as a necessary constituent in the present, and the future is what the present is doing, rather than an abstract and distant set of possibilities. The crucial difference seems to be that dialectics essentially treats time as exogenous, where paradox understands the opposites of past and future as yet one more polar set bridged by the unity of Being-itself…

…but I’ll be the first to admit my thoughts on this debate are far from worked out. I’m actually realizing the one could apply dialectical or paradoxical analysis to the distinction between paradox and dialectics itself…which, I think, only reinforces the hermeneutical nature of each approach: they don’t describe different realities, but different interpretations of the same reality. Still, I don’t think I’m saying anything that wasn’t already obvious if I throw my support behind paradox over dialectics, though I recognize the value of the latter. Anyway, I hope to have something more systematic and lucid to say about this later…sorry for the rambling!