Epistemology and the Dialectic of Hope

EpistemologySo, in my last post, I promised that with the end of schoolwork, I’d be posting more here. That was 3 months ago, and I’ve been revealed as a liar. I spent this summer, for the most part, preparing for the dreaded GREs, and spent the rest of the time enjoying the green and quiet of Richmond, which, after the urine-soaked madness of Manhattan, I clung to with a nearly religious vigor. School will be starting again in about a week, and I will try to learn from my previous hubris and make no promises to post more often. Part of the problem is that, whereas in the past, theological musings would often lead to a post on here, now I immediately wonder if such musings should be turned into an academic paper. So being a (wannabe) academic ends up nipping my blogging impulse in the bud.

However, after coming across Paul Burkhart’s blog, I’ve been blog-invigorated, and want to “enter the conversation” (to use a trite but useful expression). Although my guess is that Paul and I may not see eye to eye on everything, I’ve found his posts extraordinarily thoughtful and thought-provoking, and am glad to see another Christian who is simultaneously concerned with orthodoxy and systematic thought. It was some comments on a joint post he did with an atheist writer that have prompted me to write here and now. A somewhat trollish commenter dismissed Paul’s faith and defense of it, rather summarily. The comments (by the user “meat”, whose gender is unclear, so I will refer to them with “they” and “them”) can be seen at the bottom of this post (I should note that I don’t particularly agree with much of what Paul had to say in the post itself, but that’s immaterial to what I want to talk about here).

Essentially, meat argued that Christianity was a priori indefensible. He seems to think that, if one simply analyzes Christianity according to a given set of historical, metaphysical, and existential methodologies, one should conclude without controversy that the faith is false. Fair enough, there’s nothing irrational about this. Perhaps Christianity is false. But  meat went a step further, and suggested that such an approach is akin to “set[ting one’s presuppositions] aside and then make [one’s] determination from naught”. In other words, meat seems to think that his preferred methodology rests on no biases or presuppositions, that s/he is operating from pure reason alone, like some 21st century Kant. So, according to meat Christians assume a host of problematic presuppositions, but meat does not; their approach is Reason Manifest.

Of course, the reality is that such a hermeneutic of pure reason is impossible; human beings always process data according to some pre-arrived-at set of assumptions. And this isn’t a bad thing, because otherwise, we could never draw any conclusions from given data or experiences. Each new moment would be completely unique, a new instance of pure becoming, which we could not link to any previous data or experience. In order to make sense of existence, we have to draw connections between past and present, and that means emphasizing some data over others, and making assumptions about how the world functions. I don’t doubt that if I am holding a brick in my hand, and then release it, that it will fall. I assume gravity will function–and such an assumption seems well-validated! But it’s an assumption, nonetheless. There is always a chance, however slim, that gravity might not function in this new moment. Yet few (if any) of us actually live our lives open to the practical possibility of such unpredictable world-states.

Such an assumption about gravity probably seems rather innocuous, but we engage in a similar sort of assuming in all of our critical reflection. Whenever we evaluate a historical claim, for example, we try to fit that claim into an already-existing body of historical knowledge and assumptions. Critiques of Christianity are keen on pointing out that Christians certainly do this–and they are quite right, we certainly do. However, they are often not so willing to admit this about themselves. So, meat is adamant that Paul should be aware of his having been brainwashed as a child: “I’m being serious when I discuss childhood brainwashing, it takes a lot to overcome and yet you seem fully aware of your being affected and simultaneously unable to set it, which is the reason for your presuppositions, aside.” Paul has assumptions that he should question, but meat doesn’t seem to think that they have assumptions they might need to put aside.

A great example of how this functions is the Historical Jesus Movement, which indeed Paul mentions by way of a Russ Douthat column (I’m generally not a fan of Douthat, but I think he hits the nail squarely on the head on this). The Historical Jesus crowd assumes a boatload of foundational ideas about how history works, what is possible, and what Jesus’ life could or should mean, and then crafts a version of Jesus’ history that fits these pre-arrived-at (and ideologically-entangled) views. Of course, this in and of itself is fine, but what’s problematic is that they seem to think that their image of Jesus is just the correct, historical one, not an ideologically and methodologically-tinged one. My opponents have biases, but not me! I’m honest and open-minded!

Now, I want to be clear: I am not arguing that while meat, Reza Aslan, and DF Strauss are chock-full of bias, I am some bias-free machine of logic. We all have biases and worldviews, and, as I suggested above, this is good! Worldviews are our attempts to make sense of the world; without them, our experience would be a disorganized jumble of sensations. Seeking truth means taking the risk of ordering, and often times being wrong. We have to order, even while admitting that our ordering will likely be wrong, and therefore be prepared to correct our ordering, to try again. This entails constant risk-taking, constant vulnerability to past positions being revealed as erroneous. We are always ready, indeed gleefully so, to point out when our opponents fall into error. We seem less prepared for our own eventual failures on this score.

In other words, everyone in any debate has entered with presuppositions, assumptions, biases, ideologies, and worldviews. Someone who tries to argue that they are working from no presuppositions but just reason and logic is lying either to themselves or to you, quite possibly both. Human knowledge always implies some system of ordering information, a complex set of rules for how knowledge can be received and validated. Theologians can’t deny this about themselves, but neither can their critics. We are all biased. Indeed, even the reliance on reason itself reveals a bias: that the world is indeed an orderly place governed by a strict causality, laws that are fully laws (not just rules) that are wholly consistent and homogeneous through space and time, and that humans possess the capacity to discern all necessary truths about the world to understand it. This is actually an incredibly credulous package of assumptions, which not only theologians but indeed the whole of continental philosophy (and Hume, and classical skeptics and the Cynics…) has called into question. So even reasonability itself implies a very specific worldview, a set of assumptions and commitments which should be open to question, not relied on as a prima facie foundation for all thought.

Indeed, humans are not just logical agents, but beings-in-the-world who are constantly affected by their emotional and physical needs and urges as well as by their capacity for reason. Indeed, this capacity is often overwhelmed by the two former sets of motivations. Even people who value reason highly still have to navigate their own existential, emotional reality. And so, now having discussed the ridiculousness of any debater ignoring their own biases and worldviews while pointing out their opponents’, I’d like to discuss one of the most fundamental worldview-determinants. The post that spawned meat‘s comments was a sort of back-and-forth between Paul and an atheist friend, Dan. Dan seemed interested in plumbing Paul’s reasons for maintaining his Christian faith, and Paul presented a number of scenarios which would cause him to question that faith.

For me, the whole premise of this debate/discussion, though, is deeply problematic. I don’t think it gets at the fundamental set of assumptions that I think really fuels people’s belief or non-belief. Ultimately, physical or historical evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection, or metaphysical reason applied to the Event in the abstract, are not the foundational causes for belief or non-belief. We enter this debate, as we do in all debates, as stressed above, already with a set of presumptions, assumptions, biases, ideologies, and worldviews. The critical issue when it comes to our existential e/valuation of a claim like the Resurrection is extremely fundamental to us as persons. It is, in an important sense, pre-rational (on the personal level).

Developing into a person–not just a human being, but a full person–is, above all else, the process of developing self-consciousness. We have been thinking, feeling beings for years before we begin to have any awareness of the fact that we think. I can feel hungry without being aware that there is a process of feeling hungry. There comes a point when a thinking being recognizes that it is not just a detached subject taking in sensory data about an alien world, but actually also an object-body in that world. My thinking is something that my brain/body complex does. I am an object in the world. And this means I am vulnerable. I can die. I can be harmed. I can experience pain. These possibilities, I come to realize, are not just events that might occur in the process of my thoughts and feelings–they will or will not occur depending on what happens to my mind/body complex. I don’t have control over my own future, at least not in a final sense. I am contingent.

Such a realization is the beginning of existential reflection. It is the occasion of a sense of self. I have to navigate my own existence in the world; I am not just a sovereign consciousness sensing things. My future is tied up with the future of the world: my world. An awareness of my vulnerability introduces a new dialectic to human thought. Though it may have existed in embryonic form before, the rise of self-conscious realization forces it fully into our awareness. I have taken to calling this the Dialectic of Hope. Once we recognize ourselves as beings-in-the-world, we recognize that we have a future, that we will (or at least might) experience new thoughts and feelings in the future, and that what we will experience is largely going to be determined by forces out of our control. We, at this point, cannot help but feel hope: we hope that our future will be pleasant, pleasurable, peaceful, fulfilling. And we fear that it will not be, that we will die, that we will suffer, that we will be unfulfilled, that we will experience ugliness. This is the Dialectic of Hope. And our expectations along this dialectic–whether we are more likely to trust in hope or not–will greatly influence our credulity vis-a-vis claims like the Resurrection.

An essentially hopeful person will find the story of the Resurrection, at least some tiny kernel of it, reasonable, possible, and meaningful. The Resurrection is the vindication of self over other, of life over death, of subject over a deterministic object-order. Conversely, someone who is predisposed towards non-hope or fear will likely find the event unreasonable, impossible, and meaningless or even deceitful. What’s important here is that such a stance of hopefulness or non-hopefulness is brought to the event prima facie. In other words, no one simply evaluates the historical data about the Resurrection in a cool, detached fashion. Everyone has an axe to grind, a dog in the fight, because everyone is already committed, I believe, to a stance of hopefulness or non-hopefulness (I don’t think this is a binary, but rather a spectrum strung upon the dialectic; two people could both be hopeful in general, with one more, and the other somewhat less, hopeful).

Being or not being hopeful is, in and of itself, not some totally independent position. Obviously, our previous life experiences, our understanding of our family’s, ethnicity’s, nation’s, and species’ history will help to form our sense of hopefulness or non-hopefulness. But, that said, in each moment of evaluation of a given event, our stance of non/hopefulness is a prima facie stance that will color our evaluation. So, in an important sense, faith in Christianity is, even before faith in the Resurrection, a willingness to hope, in general.

Of course, this neither proves or disproves the Resurrection; I am not making any objective claim about the truthfulness or lack thereof of the Resurrection claim. I am pointing to the hermeneutical and epistemological bases from which all of us–believers and non-believers alike–make our evaluations. There is no neutral ground, there is no pure reason. There are only living, self-aware beings with complex histories struggling to understand, to live, and to thrive. Too often, modernism’s static, lifeless, narrow epistemology is asserted as some sort of necessary starting-ground for serious thought. But such a starting-ground already rests on a mountain of assumptions. It may turn out that such assumptions are correct–but serious philosophical, historical, and metaphysical reflection demands a willingness to analyze, critique, and deconstruct them. The idea that only those thoughts consonant with a given framework of modern thought are even worth considering is itself intellectually naive and embarrassingly credulous.

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 Death of Christianity by Lawrence Swaim: A Response

The Crucifixion by Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velazquez

Tikkun recently issued a series of articles by a number of different theologians entitled “Christianity Without the Cross“. Each writer was asked to respond with their own thoughts on how central the Cross (and Crucifixion) is to Christianity and whether a “modern” Christianity might not be better without an emphasis on the Cross. This series of articles was meant as a response to/fleshing-out of Lawrence Swaim’s “The Death of Christianity” (unfortunately, most of this article is behind a paywall–though you can try this link, although I don’t think this will work without a Tikkun subscription–but the outline of his thought is clear in the excerpt available at the former link). So let’s begin with Swaim’s article. Swaim essentially finds the doctrine of “blood atonement” both central to Christianity and morally repugnant. I’ll address each of these claims in turn. We should also note here that from the outset, Swaim seem more concerned with social and political issues rather than theology itself; however, he grounds his whole work in theology, so his theological position is central to understanding the whole thing, in my opinion. So in this response, I am focusing solely on his theology: I do not intend to deal at all with this social or political claims.

First, it’s simply incorrect to argue that Christianity is centrally dependent on this “blood atonement” doctrine, best known in two forms: the satisfaction theory and the penal substitution theory; this approach wasn’t even fully fleshed out until Anselm explicated it in the 9th century–so for a good 800 years, alternate doctrines of the atonement were not just alive and well, but much more central to Christian thought! (Though some have argued that traces of it are present in earlier thought, scholars are still in debate about this, and, as I’ll suggest below, I don’t think there’s a good argument there). Furthermore, the latter penal substitution approach which Swaim seems particularly upset with wasn’t developed until after the Reformation began. So right off the bat, Swaim is operating with a Christianity=Western Protestantism (and really, more specifically, Calvinist/Reformed Western Protestantism) which is both inaccurate and insulting to all the other Christians, in the West or elsewhere. Swaim’s oversimplification of the issue is easily summed up with this quote: “Blood redemption, the central doctrine of Christianity, is the train wreck of Western civilization.” (Emphasis mine; this quote can be found in the beginning of paragraph 11 in the full version of the article).

The fact of the matter is that the earliest Christians seem to have had a radically different understanding of how Jesus’ death was salvific. For one, St. Paul makes it clear that it was not Jesus’ death that was salvific in and of itself, but rather his Resurrection: “…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (1 Cor 15:17). Jesus’ death does not show the promise of salvation: his victory over death does. This is absolutely crucial, and Swaim is both right to critique the satisfaction/penal theories for de-emphasizing this and yet sorely mistaken in missing how central this older Resurrection-focused soteriology is for any serious Christian theology.

So what are these other theories of atonement? First, the Christus Victor model seemed to have been especially popular among the Roman and later the Germanic converts to Christianity. This model portrays Christ as a sort of cosmic warrior who came to earth to battle evil and who, in his resurrection, defeats sin and evil in a sort of military action. The Ransom model, alternatively, understood Jesus’ sacrifice as not an offering to an overly-litigious god, but rather to Satan, the incararnation of evil itself. This approach has serious flaws vis-a-vis God’s sovereignty, but it clearly casts God as offering Jesus as a sacrifice not to Godself, but to God’s evil opponent, in order to save humanity, or indeed the whole universe. In this view, the Resurrection is almost a sort of “trick” that God plays on Satan: Satan thought he had killed a divine Person, but in fact, this person arose after death, undefeated, displaying God’s power and love over the forces of sin and death.

Other models are even more intriguing and, I think, from a modern perspective, very promising–and I am shocked and disappointed that Swaim seems either ignorant of them or doesn’t find them worth his time. The Recapitulation model, in particular, is extremely powerful. In this view, Jesus came to show humanity how to live in a godly, loving fashion, and we are called to follow his example, with the promise that if we do, no matter what evils befall us in life, we will, in the end, find ourselves in God’s presence. Such a view fits very well with Chardin’s “evolutionary Christianity” approach and thereby ought to be dusted off and re-analyzed by modern theologians. Swaim’s failure to do so reflects, I think, on the shallowness of his thought on this subject. (One might note that each of the doctrines explored above was developed during the second era of Christian intellectual development: the “Patristic” period, roughly 100 CE to 700 or 800 CE, while the theory/theories Swaim focuses on were developed subsequently.)

And such a view is also in full accord, I think, with the traditional Eastern Orthodox understanding of Jesus’ work. For the Eastern Orthodox, Jesus became incarnate in order to reveal to humans how to achieve divinization: in Greek, theosis. God became human in order that humanity might be come god-like. Such a view is focused, again, more on the Resurrection than the Crucifixion, but of course does not deny the reality: those who choose to turn to God and act in obedience to God are often met with hostility and violence.

It is this centrally important lesson of the Crucifixion that Swaim seems also to miss. It’s hard not to see in his approach a very comfortable, middle-class worldview (I should point out that though I researched Swaim a bit on the internet, I do not know his class background, and am only commenting on his intellectual position and what appears to me as its most likely social/class setting). The Crucifixion is so violent, so messy, so unfair: can’t we just move beyond this? But of course, for many people in this world, Christianity is appealing precisely because it talks honestly about the realities of death, torture, and suffering. James Cone makes this point much better than I can in his entry in the “Christianity Without the Cross” series: “Legacies of the Cross and the Lynching Tree“. He points out that so much of the power of African-American Christianity comes from an understanding of how a lynched black person hanging from a tree is Christ on the Cross, in a metaphorical/theological yet nonetheless ontologically real way. Cone’s point suggests that a Christianity without the Cross would be a bunch of feel-good self-elevation that ignores all the blood, the mess, the suffering of Jesus’ life for a cleaned-up story of ethical teaching and reassuring symbols.

How quickly we seem ready to forget that if we want to follow Christ, we must take up our Cross and follow him! (eg. Matt 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23) Where does Swaim think we are following Christ to? A 3,000-square foot suburban colonial house to share some good whiskey and watch Frasier? Swaim almost seems to be aping Peter:

From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.”But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” Matthew 16:21-23

Swaim seems to believe exactly what Peter is reported to have thought here: that Messiahship, that good, modern religion, means glory and civilization and beauty and an easy road ahead. But the whole point of the Resurrection is that it is a promise that despite the evils of this world, if we choose to love–to act in obedience to God’s love–then we will act as effective channels for God’s grace in the world, and act as God’s agents in building the Kingdom of God. We are not promised that this will be an easy road, or that building the Kingdom means disavowing all the messy, terrible suffering of this world: we are called to face that suffering, others’ and our own, with confidence and compassion, humility and love. Swaim’s sterile, bourgeois theology strips Christianity of all its realist impact, and renders the whole faith meaningless.

Furthermore, although I think that these other theories of atonement we’ve discussed are, on the whole, much better than the satisfaction/penal approaches, Swaim’s single-minded rejection of this latter paradigm seems to also betray a complete misunderstanding of Trinitarian theology in the first place. Even if one insisted on a penal substitutionary model of the atonement, this should never be seen as God offering some other being as a sacrifice for God’s supposed anal legalism; Trinitarian theology insists that Jesus was and is truly God: so in this framework, God offers Godself as the sacrifice. This isn’t bloodthirsty or cruel: it reveals the deeply self-giving (kenotic) reality of God as pure love. Swaim’s inability to recognize this absolutely central pillar of any theory of atonement is both shocking and depressing: there are, apparently, prominent Christian thinkers and writers who don’t even understand Trinitarian theology, which is supposed to be the foundation for our community! (cf. The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds)

But what really worries me is that an institution I had a lot of respect for, Tikkun, would publish this without recognizing the deep theological ignorance at its heart. [UPDATE: Tikkun did publish a critical response to Swaim by Kavin Rowe] It’d be like publishing an article about Judaism written by someone who didn’t know about the central importance of the Torah–and its diverse interpretations. Swaim seems only concerned with his own understanding of a pseudo-historical Jesus, who he casts, much like liberal theologians before him, as basically a clone of a middle-class Westerner: Jesus is presented as a bourgeois teacher, calling on people to lead ethical lives but with little interest in the mystical, the apocalyptic, or even the theological. Of course such a reading is only possible by excising much of the Gospel text on dubious grounds. But I’ve talked about this before.

For now, let me finish by pointing you back to the seven “Christianity Without the Cross” articles themselves; I hope to have specific comments on each of them soon. As I mentioned above, I found Cone’s article to be very well written and relevant…I was less pleased with most of the others. But that complaining will have to await another day and another post!

Let me finish by reiterating that I only intend here to critique Swaim’s theology: some of his other points, especially his critiques of right-leaning Christianity, are obviously not without value. But once they are cast in such a theologically ignorant and uncritical context, they are basically lost in this forest of bad theology. Lawrence Swaim may be an excellent political or social thinker, and he may do great work with the Interfaith Freedom Foundation–I really don’t know, and I certainly don’t here intend to dismiss him outright. But his theological thinking is confused and poorly-informed at best, and is just the sort of thinking that I think is driving so many people away from a liberal Protestant establishment increasingly afraid to even call itself “Christian”. Surely, let’s admit the failures of the past; but this revisionist dismissal of everything that even smacks of religiosity is certainly not the path forward.

[UPDATE 2: Small changes for the sake of clarity were made to paragraph 3 on 12.28.12]

Talking About God, Part 5 1/2: Answers for Dianne

A reader named Dianne had a number of questions for me after reading a few of my “Talking About God Posts”. Her questions cut right to the heart of Christian theology, pushing a lot of the chaff to the side and getting right to the central questions. You can read her comments yourself, but I’ll summarize her questions here:

  1. Why is the Resurrection so important? Why not just focus on Jesus as an exemplary moral teacher?
  2. How can Christians have any confidence in the historicity of the Gospels?

Now, when I first sat down to answer her, I spent a good 2 hours writing, only to realize that what I had written wasn’t really an answer to these questions: I had jumped forward to discussing an ontology of the Resurrection, bypassing her more existential and historical questions. So I’m going to roll that work into a second post, and here try to hone in on what Dianne is getting at.

In response to her first question, why the Resurrection is important above and beyond simply appreciating Jesus’ ethical teachings, it seems to me the central answer is this: if Jesus was just an ethical teacher who got in trouble for those teachings and then killed, why should we listen to him? He might have been smart, kind, wise, and committed, but it’s arguable that an ethical system that gets you killed is not an ethical system one should follow. If Christianity ends on Good Friday–if there’s never an Easter Sunday–then the Gospels should be a cautionary tale: “don’t try this at home kids, you’ll get crucified.” It’s only in light of the Resurrection that we can say with confidence and hope, that though you very well might get crucified, in the end those who accept crucifixion in service of justice and truth are vindicated.

Reflecting on this leads us to wonder why Jesus’ followers themselves would have continued their community after Jesus’ death. What I said applies to us, but it would have applied much more so to Jesus’ disciples. He had just been killed for leading their community! The smart thing would have been to lay low. Instead, they begin preaching not only Jesus’ ethical and spiritual message, but asserting a crazy and ridiculous story: that he had died but had risen. Indeed, without Easter morning, it seems highly unlikely that any community would have been sustained after Jesus’ death. As the writer of the Acts of the Apostles himself realized when he included this passage (5:33-38)

When they heard this [the apostles’ claims about Jesus as the Messiah] they were enraged and wanted to kill them. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking if of human origin, it will fail…

Whether this passage reflects a historical event or not, it communicates a clear truth: without understanding Jesus as having been victorious despite his death, it seems unlikely that the community around him would have blossomed the way it did in the decades after he died.

Furthermore, it’s important to remember how many of Jesus’ teachings weren’t a collection of easy ethical injunctions. He certainly insisted that we not judge one another, that we care for the poor and marginalized, and that love should be our guiding ethic. But he also spoke about a final judgement, about the need to take up one’s cross, and about the mysterious kingdom of God. Jesus was not just an ethical teacher. He was as interested in what we today would call mysticism and teleology as he was about social justice, precisely because he recognized that any real ethics had to be holistic: it couldn’t be, on the one hand, a bunch of feel-good, sentimental platitudes, nor could it function as a hard-headed utilitarian pragmatism. Only a view of the world that radically recognized the reality of God and our relationship with God could yield a lifestyle that would be transformative–both for society and the individual.

A Jesus relegated only to ethics lessons is a Jesus stripped of much–most–of what he was really concerned with. This is my central complaint against liberal theology: in an attempt to strip the Gospels of their more mysterious, challenging, ‘supernatural’ elements, liberal theology yields a ghostly apparition of Christ–and, importantly, one who is, conveniently, well suited for a secular, capitalist age. But I don’t think this reflects the reality of Jesus’ life and ministry. Efforts to build a view of Jesus in this vein, like the work of the Jesus Seminar, are often couched in terms of reclaiming the “real” Jesus. But like so much else, this effort seems blind to its own biases. Those who wish to see Jesus as an irreligious ethics professor–surprise, surprise!–find just such a Jesus, just as those who wish to see Jesus as a gun-toting homophobic racist somehow manage to twist him into that as well.

Placing the Resurrection at the center of our understanding of Christ is, at its most basic, simply being true to how his friends and disciples understood Jesus after his death. Whatever the Resurrection was, exactly–and I want to point out that asserting it as true doesn’t necessarily mean taking any hardline, specific “empty tomb” position–it was clearly an experience that radically reshaped the lives of Jesus’ community. To refuse the Resurrection its place as a historically real experience–whatever its ontological or scientific veracity–is to rewrite the history of the Christian community.

To summarize, what I’m saying here is that our historical understanding of Jesus and Christianity–no matter what our personal opinions on it might be–can never be separated from the communal experience of the Resurrection, because it was precisely that experience that has yielded the texts, ideas, and communities we now pore over and participate in. Addressing what we as modern individuals actually believe about the Resurrection will be the topic of a follow-up post. For now, though, let’s move on to Dianne’s second question.

We’ve just now talked about how the whole body of knowledge about Jesus is based on the experience of his Resurrection, that to separate that knowledge from that experience is to alienate that knowledge from the context in which it formed. But this knowledge, these stories about Jesus: what do we know about them? Are they valid sources of information, or just mythical nonsense?

Whereas there has (regrettably) been relatively little popular attention paid to the points I raised above, the historicity of the Bible is a totally different animal. For nearly two centuries, this issue has been front and center in theology. As I discussed in my post on liberal theology, it has shaped entire communities and schools of thought. If you really want to delve into this, you’re going to have to look somewhere beyond this blog, because this isn’t my specific area of interest! You’d do well to look up Rudolf Bultmann, Dom Crossan, and NT Wright for a start. The Jesus Seminar, mentioned above, also has a wide range of decorated Bible Scholars (in fact, Crossan works with them). Just searching on Amazon something like “gospels history” or “historicity of the gospels” will yield dozens of books.

But I can make some basic statements on the question of the historicity of the Gospels, if not as a Biblical scholar then just as an individual believer. For me, there’s one central perspective that needs to be born in mind. So here we go:

First off, I’m not a fundamentalist; I don’t think every word of the Bible is literally true–in large part because many of the words in the Bible are meant as allegory, poetry, and metaphor. But even when we look at those sections that do purport to be more directly historical, I’m more than happy to admit the presence of errors–because I worship God, not a book. The number of contradictions and errors are too many to count, really. Did Jesus overturn the tables in the temple at the beginning of his ministry, as in John, or at the end, as in the Synoptics? Was humankind created last, after all the other animals, or first, before them? Genesis chapters 1 and 2 don’t agree. Did the resurrected Christ appear to large bodies of his followers first in Jerusalem, or did he appear instead to disciples in Galilee? We could fill paragraph after paragraph with these questions.

But pointing out that a document isn’t 100% accurate in every statement is not the same thing as saying that the document is 100% false. Imagine if that was the bar we set for journalism, or science textbooks. Darwin didn’t understand the concept of punctuated equilibrium, for example. He assumed that evolution always occurred at a steady, even pace. Does that make his whole body of work worthless? Newton, likewise, knew nothing of protons and electrons; was his physics therefore complete bunk? Of course, the Bible isn’t anything like scientific writing, so maybe these aren’t the best comparisons. The Bible is more like history or journalism. But historians are constantly updating and improving their interpretations of historical events. And journalists often report on news with only limited information, piecing things together as best they can, improving their picture of events as more information is available. Should they not do this? Should we not report on events until years after the fact, when we can be 99% certain of every claim made?

Furthermore, it’s important to point out that not all claims–in the Bible or in anything else–are of equal weight and importance. Whether Jesus overturned the money changers’ tables at one time, or many months later, doesn’t substantially alter the faith of Christians. Likewise, when the opening chapters of Genesis are understood for what they are–allegorical discussions on the meaning of existence–the radically different pictures given by chapters 1 and 2 can be seen as differing ways of talking about that meaning, rather than conflicting claims about factual events. For the New Testament, much of what is in the Gospels is of a secondary or tertiary nature. When scholars–on either side of the debate–engage in years-long debates on a single word of the text, one can’t help but feel that they are spinning their wheels, wasting time on near trivialities. But there are also, clearly, claims made in the Bible that are of great importance: their truth or falsity radically determines the meaning and validity of Christianity. We might not be too concerned with exactly when and where Jesus was born–but that he was born is clearly crucial. Likewise, whether Jesus delivered the beatitudes on the mount or on the plain doesn’t really affect their meaning–but if he never said anything like them, that’s a whole different issue.

And here we come upon another important point. Humans often forget details. But we have exemplary memory for salient facts and experiences. As an example (a good one, at least, for Americans reading this), try to remember September 11, 2001. I imagine you can immediately remember one thing about that day: two planes flying into the World Trade Center. But what did you eat for breakfast? When did you get up? What were you wearing? I, for one, couldn’t tell you the answers to any of these questions. Does that call into question my claim that, in fact, on that day, two planes slammed into the World Trade Center? I don’t imagine anyone would make that argument (unless they were outlining a radically Idealist or solipsist ontology, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion). So clearly, it’s quite possible that a person–and a community–could retain valid knowledge about some experiences while forgetting lots of other events, or some of the details surrounding those events.

And it seems to me that the experience of the Resurrection is just such a salient experience. Whatever else might be said about it, the idea that, because some of the details of the stories about Jesus’ life are in dispute, all claims made by the Bible are therefore bunk, is ridiculous. Of course, this is the very bar that Biblical literalists have set–and it’s really them, not critics outside of the Church–that bear the blame for this line of skepticism, since, as I said, I know of no other text that any secular scholar would hold to this high of a bar. But when we reflect on the differing degree of importance in the various claims, I think we can agree that the writers of the Gospels–and the memories which those writers were recording–don’t stand or fall all together. It’s quite possible that folks remembered certain events well, while remembering others less-so. It’s also important to remember that people will certainly remember events differently precisely because they were in different places, with different backgrounds, when a given event occurred. People living in Galilee would probably point to their experience of the Resurrection–again, whatever it was or wasn’t–as beginning in Galilee, while those in Jerusalem probably remember Christ having appeared there first. That doesn’t call into question the veracity of their claims, it simply recognizes a simple and obvious truth about human experience.

Of course, there is also the issue of whether we ought to have any confidence in the claims about the Resurrection itself. For me, this can be divided into two parts: addressing alternate explanations for the experience of the Resurrection, and talking about what exactly it means to speak of ‘the Resurrection’ in the first place. In my next post, I’m going to flop things around and actually address the second issue first. At a later point, I’ll delve into the first question, on alternate explanations–though I should point out that writers much wiser and more knowledgeable than I have already tackled the issue, and I’ll mostly just be summarizing their views, so you could easily search out that work on your own.

Dianne, I hope this post shed some light on my thinking on these issues! I know I have, at best, just knocked a tiny chunk out of the very tip of the iceberg, but of course this a blog, not a multi-volume textbook! Thanks again for your thoughtful questions and I look forward to further dialogue!

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!

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!