Archive for March, 2017

Grow up!

March 28th, 2017

“I said, ‘You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High.” (Ps. 82:6).

I read this morning Dietrich Bonhoefer writing, in Letters and Papers from Prison, “We cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur. And this is just what we do recognize – before God! God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15.34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross.”

Now, we are given to speaking of God as “father” – Jesus addresses him as “Abba” in Mark 14:36, and prescribes that we pray commencing “Our Father” (Matt. 6:9). Mostly when people develop this metaphor, they are given to treating us as young children, who require constant attention, protection and support from their parents – indeed, the Lord’s Prayer is very much constructed along these lines.

But as a parent of an older child, and a child myself of parents who lived long and productive lives but are now dead, I look on this period of childhood as a rather brief and transitory stage of life. Parents want their children to grow up and to stand on their own feet, albeit with a certain amount of wistful wishing that they were still dependent and were not asserting their independence and leaving home to make their own lives. Would God want less for his children?

In “God, a Biography”, Jack Miles treats the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) as a piece of literature, ordering it in the Jewish rather than the Christian way (i.e. the first five books, then the prophets, then the other writings), and charts the development of the character of God through the texts, treating them as a single piece of writing. He ends up painting a picture of a God who starts out very active and controlling, and who gradually withdraws from involvement until, in the last books, he is barely a presence at all. This, perhaps, starts sounding like the parent I’ve conceived here, supporting and chastising in early life and then gradually withdrawing to let the children fend for themselves. Indeed, Judaism has a story which is perhaps on point, the Oven of Akhnai. In it, there is a dispute as to the Law between Rabbi Eliezer and a group of other eminent rabbis, in which Eliezer’s approach is supported by a number of miracles, including a divine voice heard by all – but the majority stick to their guns and argue that they are correct in their interpretation of the scriptures and, in essence, God has given them those and should no longer interfere – and God’s response is “my children have defeated me”.

Athanasius of Alexandria wrote “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God”, and was in agreement with very many church fathers (and the Catholic Catechism); perhaps we should now accept the fullness of that concept and determine that we really should now be doing things for ourselves – after all, Teresa de Avila wrote “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes with which Christ looks out his compassion to the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.”

Can we accept that we must grow up? I know I had difficulty accepting, in her last decade, that from being the carer and provided for me, I had become the carer and provider for my mother; but I came to terms with it and was glad to be able to give back some of what I’d received (the remainder needs to be “paid forward” via my own children). Thus, perhaps, “Before God and with God we live without God” needs us to accept that perhaps, just perhaps, God may need our help rather than us needing his…

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Mastering suspicion?

March 25th, 2017

I’m going through Peter Rollins “Atheism for Lent” course at the moment. This course brings up a set of challenges to Christianity, and the objective is to deconstruct familiar and sometimes unthought of positions; the possible outcome is a refreshed faith – or, if not, one could contemplate Paul’s adage of “test everything, hold to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21) and think that if these challenges succeed, what you had was not good…

We have reached week four, which is labelled “Masters of Suspicion”, and the first reading is from Ludwig Feuerbach. He is sometimes, but not always, included in the standard list of “Masters or Suspicion” which includes Freud, Marx and Nietzsche.

Feuerbach writes: “Man first unconsciously and involuntarily creates God in his own image, and after this God (Religion) consciously and voluntarily creates man in his own image”. Somewhat earlier, Voltaire rather more famously wrote “In the beginning God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.” I’m fairly confident he had his tongue stuck in his cheek for the first part of the sentence…

In reality, of course, both are describing a feedback loop, and at a point when the loop has been running for a very long time, it seems foolish to state axiomatically that one or the other came first. Our concepts of God form us, and we form concepts of God and so ad infinitum (i) – but the same is true in our interactions with other people. The psychoanalytic approach which Pete so often takes says that God is fulfilling psychological needs for us, and that we are projecting onto God, just as we do onto a psychoanalyst.

Curiously, that does not seem to be used as an argument for the nonexistence of psychoanalysts…

Equally, we have a nasty habit of falling in love not with other people but with our concept of other people – and then falling out with them when we realise they do not correspond to the concept we have of them (other people do not always try hard to conform to the image we have of them… whether God does is an open question). That does not mean that those people do not exist, merely that we do not know them as well as we think, they do not exist as we think they are – and that is a large part of what the mystics are saying in contradicting God-concepts which have grown up. They may well have grown up in much the way Feuerbach suggests.

In conscience, I cannot argue too much with the idea that the supernaturalist concept of God has historically interacted with a large percentage of believers in just this way. As Pete points out, this is what Feuerbach was talking about; he regarded the God described (or who failed to be described) by the mystics as an irrelevant sideline, not what religion was really about – and he was clearly a case of the “religious but not spiritual”.

Is any of this a critique of the mystics? Well, I suppose that saying that mysticism is an irrelevant aspect of religion is a form of critique. However, personally I don’t think mysticism is irrelevant; I think all the major religions have harboured mystics since their earliest days and most of them display some evidence that either their founders or people very early in the chain of transmission of the belief were mystics (I’m confident Jesus could be so described, as could St. Paul and the writer of the Fourth Gospel, for instance), and while they may well have not been well understood by the majority and were quite frequently persecuted (consider both Eckhart and Porete, for instance, or the Sufis within Islam), they have provided a source of life to those religions, and there might not have been any of our major religions without mystics.

So my first reaction to the Masters of Suspicion is to say, as Rowan Williams said of Richard Dawkins (paraphrased) “I have no problem with him: the God he doesn’t believe in, I don’t believe in either”. You can’t present a mystic with an argument showing why God cannot exist, when the mystic (from his or her point of view) experiences God on a daily basis.

There are, however, a couple of critiques which are perhaps implicit from Feuerbach’s writing (and Freud and Marx) which need to be brought out.

Firstly, the mystics have not been terribly successful in communicating their viewpoint to the masses or in persuading the masses that they should become mystics themselves. If they had been, we would not now see a major proportion of Christianity sold on the ideas that the gospel is equivalent to “Christ died as a payment for our sins and you need to accept that” or that religion is primarily about life after death. We would not see a predominant God-concept of a wrathful God whose primary raison d’être was to punish (or at least exclude) us for not being perfect. We might ask “what good is the mystic’s perspective if the predominant God-concept is so different from theirs?”

Of course, it isn’t an easily communicated viewpoint, given that mysticism and rational analysis are not particularly compatible with each other, and there is no widely acknowledged technique which can reliably make someone a mystic if they haven’t already had some mystical experience.(ii)

Secondly, to quote Feuerbach again, “God is the explanation for the unexplainable which explains nothing because it explains everything without distinction — he is the night of theory, nonetheless making everything clear to the mind by removing any measure of darkness and extinguishing the light of discriminating comprehension — the not-knowing which solves all doubts by repudiating them, which knows everything because it knows nothing in particular and because all things which impress reason are nothing to religion, lose their identity and are nil in God’s eye. The night is the mother of religion”

There is an ever-present problem with the basis of human comprehension, which operates primarily by contrasting or comparing two things, when a quality is said to be universal – if it is, it offers no way of contrast with any other quality, and it is not unreasonable to say that if everything is x, then nothing is x. Mysticism is, frankly, incompatible with reductive analysis; the easiest way to terminate an incipient mystical experience is to start analysing it.

But then, it is a feature of reductive analysis that it tends to destroy the thing analysed. Once I have fully dissected a goat, it is no longer a goat, but a heap of meat, bone, hair and sinew. There is, however, something to be said for just observing the goat – and in the process, perhaps finding that it is able to traverse the face of a dam

The unifying factor between the Masters of Suspicion seems to me to be that they think they have found the reason for religion. In other words, they have a metanarrative which they prefer to the traditional one. Feuerbach is, in essence, saying that the Mystical viewpoint is such a metanarrative.

But perhaps, just perhaps, it’s just saying “you can see things like this…”?

One other thing regarding the “everything is x so nothing is x” view; that would probably apply to pantheism, which equates God with the material universe. Most mystics are, however, panentheists, who hold that the material universe exists within God, but is not all that God is. I’m minded of the trick used in science and mathematics, where in order to examine something all-pervading, you adopt a viewpoint which is at least notionally outside the scope of the thing studied.

Are we panentheists rather than pantheists merely because we need some way of standing outside the universe? Perhaps. Does it matter?

Meh.

 

 

 

 

  • (i) This may be a good and sufficient reason for declaring that God is Love, despite any misgivings we may have on the subject…
  • (ii) Although you can induce something at least very similar to mystical experience via the use of certain drugs or via electromagnetic stimulation, such experiences are transitory and I am not aware of any studies indicating that they can be built on in the way other mystical experience can be.

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Naturalism and its discontents

March 10th, 2017

There is a story I’ve heard used by preachers (source unknown) which goes like this:-

A very religious man was once caught in rising floodwaters. He climbed onto the roof of his house and trusted God to rescue him. A neighbour came by in a canoe and said, “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll paddle to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

A short time later the police came by in a boat. “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll take you to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

A little time later a rescue services helicopter hovered overhead, let down a rope ladder and said. “The waters will soon be above your house. Climb the ladder and we’ll fly you to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

All this time the floodwaters continued to rise, until soon they reached above the roof and the religious man drowned. When he arrived at heaven he demanded an audience with God. Ushered into God’s throne room he said, “Lord, why am I here in heaven? I prayed for you to save me, I trusted you to save me from that flood.”

“Yes you did my child” replied the Lord. “And I sent you a canoe, a boat and a helicopter. But you never got in.”

Most preachers go on to say that we should always look for the hand of God in things which seem to happen naturally. But I suspect a subtext. The overwhelming majority of the people sitting in the pews, whatever they say about belief in divine providence, will be methodological naturalists, i.e. they put their trust in natural, not supernatural, causes and effects and will assume that there’s a natural explanation for everything – and this story is also telling them that they’re not being stupid doing that. Indeed, it’s probably telling them that louder than it’s telling them to look for the hand of God in a guy with a canoe.

I am most definitely a methodological naturalist. How could I be anything else? I have a science degree and actually do a bit of research part time, I spent over 25 years as a practising lawyer, and in my teens I used to love stage magic, because I was forever trying to work out the mechanics of magic tricks (sometimes with success) and try some of them out on my friends (and I assumed that any report of the supernatural was someone doing a “magic trick”). By the age of about 9, I was an atheist – indeed, I was an evangelical atheist, thinking that people needed to be rid of their ridiculous attachment to supernatural explanations (which was something of a burden to my preacher father…).

That, for the philosophically minded, meant that I was also at that point an ontological naturalist, i.e. I thought that all that there was consisted of natural causes and effects. Another way of putting it was that I was a scientific rationalist materialist; material was all there was.

So, what am I doing hanging around most Sunday mornings and at some other times during the average week with a group who believe (at least ostensibly) in miracles, including resurrection, walking on water and creating food out of thin air? Surely the cognitive dissonance is too much?

Well, at 14 I had, out of the blue, a peak mystical experience. The naturalist, scientific rationalist explanation was, ultimately, that there was no reason for this and no meaning in it – it was just something my brain did. That was not enough for me – for a start, it was the best experience of my existence to date at that point (it still is, along with a few “repeat performances”), and I wanted more of that. However, the language used by almost all the people who reported something similar (who I found were called “mystics”) was “God language” (those who avoided “God language” didn’t give very good descriptions, and didn’t propose any ways of achieving repeats, so I rather discounted them…)

Then in the course of my physics studies I encountered wave-particle duality – matter was , when looked at one way, a wave (and that explained a lot of phenomena), but when looked at another, was particles (and that explained a lot more). There was no really sensible way in which it could be both, and in reality, it probably wasn’t actually either – but there was no way of knowing.

In other words, we could tell a story about it being a wave, and that was useful in some circumstances, we could tell a story about it being a particle, and that was useful in some others. It was a lot later that I encountered Terry Pratchett’s “Science of Discworld” books, but I think he expounds the idea very well in those – we tell stories about the world, about our experience, and some are useful, some aren’t. Pratchett calls us “homo narrans”, the story-telling hominid.

Telling the story that my peak mystical experience was an experience of God was useful. It gave me a narrative, it gave me access to a set of people who had had similar experiences and who also wanted more where that came from. It wasn’t the same story as was told about that by an atheist friend of mine – he said it was a “brain fart”. Maybe that was useful to him, but it definitely wasn’t useful to me!

What about ontology, I wonder? Well, I’ve come to the conclusion since that we actually can’t ever hope to say anything definitive about ontology, about the way things actually are in and of themselves, we can only talk about how they appear to us. We can only tell stories about them…

There is a story about a wise and charismatic teacher, preacher and (I believe) mystic who gathered a following and ultimately was faithful to his vision in the face of persecution and died at the hands of an occupying empire as a result, and whose followers then continued to experience him afterwards. I am captivated by that story, and I follow that teacher as best I can (which is not very well, to be honest – he set some incredibly high standards). Is it a true story? I don’t know. Is matter composed of waves or is it composed of particles or is it something we can’t conceive? I don’t know that either. It’s a story I want to identify with, a story I find useful.

And, returning to the story with which I started, I have no problem these days in saying “thank you, God” when a parking space suddenly opens up for me. I don’t expect that there’s been any suspension of natural law to enable that to happen, or even a subliminal command to the departing driver. That’s a different story, a different narrative, and one which is not at that point useful to me…

(First appeared on The Way Station blog at https://theworldwidewaystation.wordpress.com/2017/03/10/im-a-methodological-naturalist-get-me-out-of-here/)

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