maandag 28 juli 2008

Confessions of an unwilling Gnostic

I do not mean to suggest that I subscribe to doctrines of an evil demiurge, or of an evil material world that he created, or that the snake was right, or that Christ escaped crucifixion and gloated over poor Simon of Cyrene as he carried his cross toward Golgotha. What I mean is more that I always and still seek salvation through understanding, much as I might rebel against that and acknowledge the insuffiency of reason in religious matters by mouth. My heart is not
there yet. Faith is still a very faraway country.

I am increasingly reserved towards attempts to reconciliate religion with science, or religion with science via philosophy. Regardless of the role that theistic philosophers played in my own journey over the past few years. The below will no doubt veer a bit towards an extreme anti-rationalistic position. But it is useful to explore extremes sometimes.

I'm not afraid of the possible ramifications scientific research can have on Christian doctrine. There cannot be such ramifications, there cannot be a conflict. Natural science deals, by its very nature, with the abstract, the general, the repeatable. It is interested in atoms, in The Atom, but
not in this or that particular atom. And at the smallest level of the physical world, the thisness or thatness of elementary particles becomes acutely problematic. Likewise, natural science may have an interest in Man but not in this or that particular experience of this or that particular man.

The science that deals with concrete thought is, as Collingwood claimed, precisely history, and for that reason history will be forever irreducible to the natural sciences. Concrete facts are always concrete facts for some experiencing or thinking subject - to wit, if no one is looking at the moon, it is not (concretely) there. (I know this is a controversial point, suffice to say here that I am aware what I am saying).

And the God of Abraham and Israel and Jesus is a God of history. God is concrete, particular. There seems to me something very unsatisfactory about the notions of Omnipotence, Omniscience, Omnipresence, and so forth, that have been tied up with classical notions of God. The God revealed in the Bible inspires awe, fear, longing, wanting to hide - thoroughly relational, subjective concepts. And neither science nor philosophy seem to have much to say about the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ - that most concrete, most particular of historical events (nothing good, at any rate).

God is transcendent with regards to His creation - do we need to further specify Omnipotence and such things? God is a God of forgiveness, and mercy, and love - it is necessary to wrangle over the question whether he is furthermore good? And whether his existence is commensurable with the evil in man and creation?

I've stated sometime before that the Problem of Evil is the sharpest arrow in the atheist's quiver. I'll go further: it is the only arrow. For all the other arguments or counterarguments may serve how an abstract idea of God - or a rejection of that idea - underlies other presuppositions we use to make sense of the universe. But they have little to do with the concrete God of religion. With the Problem of Evil, it is different. The whole of the Bible is concerned with it - from the Fall of Adam to the resurrection of Christ. And it is concerned with it in its own concrete, particular fashion. It says little of Evil, or of Pain, or of Suffering - but a lot of the particular evils and suffering that befell figures such as Job, or Christ.

It seems to me that the theist cannot even allow the admissability of something such as the Problem of Evil without exploding all that. For to allow for the possibility of doubting the existence of God on the basis of Evil seems to be counterposed to the Biblical answer of hope, and of faith in God. And, to me, it seems almost sacrilegious to think that we could find a philosophically satisfactory answer to the problem of Evil. Comprehending by our reason why Evil exists, why we sin, and why nevertheless God is good or goodness itself almost seems to me to be tantamount to comprehending God. At most, philosophy may show there is no logical contradiction here - but this is hardly going to convince the atheist raising it as s/he may well have very concrete, particular situations in mind. There is something that remains unsaid, something unsatisfactory, when we try to answer these in general, abstract terms.

Briefly put: if the answer is faith, then no exhaustive, satisfactory answer to the Problem of Evil can be admitted by reason. If this answer is denied, and the point is conceded, then all hope is lost.

But as I said, faith is still something I can but marvel at. I am still too enamoured by my own understanding. I don't like to admit that there are things that I will never be able to comprehend.

I've been reading Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling. It is one of the most disturbing texts I have read so far. Some people are, I understand, deeply offended by the idea that Catholics believe in the real and concrete presence of Christ in the Communion Wafer. I understand that these people are especially numerous in the comment boxes of certain ScienceBlogs.
I can only implore these people not to read Kierkegaard. If the doctrine of transubstantiation causes your Reason to be so deeply scandalized as to applaud PZ Meyer's adolescent mockery as some kind of highly incisive piece of performance art, Kierkegaard's analysis of the story of Abraham would have you ready the Molotov Cocktails.

Genesis 22:

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!"
"Here I am," he replied.
Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains
I will tell you about."
Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you."
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?"
"Yes, my son?" Abraham replied.
"The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"
Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son."
And the two of them went on together. When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.
He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!"
"Here I am," he replied.
"Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."
Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, "On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided."
The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, "I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me."


At the beginning of his work, Kierkegaard lays out a number of alternative stories of Abraham, all of which somehow end in him failing this particular test. In one very poignant one, Abraham turns towards Isaac as they ascend the mountain and tells him he is not a servant of God, and not Isaac's father, but an idolator, and he is going to sacrifice Isaac. Terrified, Isaac calls out for God to help him, and Abraham is satisfied he at least succeeded to save Isaac's faith. But by doing so, he has lost his own.

Kierkegaard contrasts Abraham as a "Knight of Faith" with those that, for the sake of eternity, the greater good, resign into sacrifice something dear to them. There are many such stories: Agamemnon ordering the sacrifice of Iphigeneia at Aulis so that the ships may sail towards Troy; Jephta promising to sacrifice the first thing that
approaches him from his house if God grants him victory, and ending up sacrificing his own daughter. Harsh as these stories are, Agamemnon and Jephta have some kind of transcendent ground to take comfort in. The well-being of the many, the prosperity of their people. Abraham has little such comfort. No ethical justifications. Just the command of God - to him alone.

What, according to Kierkegaard, makes Abraham into a "Knight of Faith" is that, as he ascends the mountain, he holds the absurd and impossible hope that Isaac may yet be restored to him. That even if he were to strike his son with the knife, God would revive him. This absurd hope co-existed side by side with Abraham's absolute and perfect obedience to God's commands. The state of mind that Kierkegaard describes is, simply, terrifying to contemplate.

Note that in no way Abraham had an assurance that Isaac would be restored to him. He had faith. He had hope. But he did not know that God would provide for a ram at the last moment, and, for that matter, he did not know that it was God speaking to him, and not some terrible demon.

There are to be sure mad people who believe they must sacrifice their sons and daughters. If we were to meet Abraham on the way to the mountain, probably little would distinguish himself from such a madman. We should probably try to
stop him by all means from performing such a foul deed, and perhaps even kill him in order to save his innocent son. And yet, by this action, Abraham became the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Thus, to Kierkegaard, faith is faith in the impossible, in the absurd. It is groundless. It is unreasonable. And yet it was what made Abraham to such a towering figure, such a giant looming in our religious consciousness - greater than
Agamemnon, greater than Jephta.

There is another corollary Kierkegaard explores. If Abraham acted against all ethical duties towards his family, and indeed was full prepared to commit a particularly gruesome crime - killing his own son - then either he should be condemned or one's duty towards God should be taken as particular, as absolute, and overriding ethical concerns. This, too, is an extremely disturbing notion.

In Kierkegaard's terms, ethics is something general, universal - the collective mores of a particular social group, etc. He makes the point that in this and other aspects, God raises the particular, the individual, above the general and the universal. It is one's individual, particular duty to God that is of paramount importance. That is absolute. Kierkegaard explores precisely what this implies - and the implications are uncomfortable, offensive to our reason, our sense of ethics, and so on.

The New Testament often seems to reflect a similar notion. Jesus is fond of talking in parables, of using a very particular situation to make a general point, or to answer a general question. When he is asked by an expert in the Law,
in Luke 10, what loving one's neighbours means, who is a neighbour, Jesus answers with the very specific example of the Good Samaritan. Much more strikingly, there are some parables which seem to offend our human notion of justice:

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard.
He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing.
He told them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went.
He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, 'Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?'
'Because no one has hired us,' they answered.
"He said to them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard.'
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.'The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.
'These men who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.'
But he answered one of them, 'Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?'
"So the last will be first, and the first will be last."


In other words, God relates to you particularly, individually; he does not weigh your merits against another. He is not being "fair" in that sense - he is the ground of your being, the one you absolutely depend on with every breath you take, why would he? God is a God of love, not a God of "fair" of "unfair" or a God of "good" or "evil" in human terms - but a God whose love is gratuitous just as your existence is gratuitous.

God is concrete. A God who calls you by your name.

2 opmerkingen:

Anoniem zei

Isnt it completely obvious in 2008 that the "doctrine" of transubstantiation is a load of codswallop.

An exercise in institutional and priestly mystification whereby the masses are manipulated and controlled.

Its a wonder that any rational person can subscribe to such nonsense.

Or especially anyone who is any sense well read and versed in the Spiritual Literature of the Great Tradition of Humankind altogether.

mattghg zei

"I cannot understand Abraham, I can only admire him"