Tuesday, April 27, 2010

You See the Problem, Don't You?

With our last post, that is.

Two commenters with delightful names, Mark Christianson and PSanafterthought, have both nailed us dead to rights. Here, to summarize a bit, is their objection: Our different thoughts about "God" don't affect the reality of God in the slightest.

They are absolutely right. Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit, as the PBS t-shirts say. To be fair, we thought about this while writing, and -- perhaps foolishly -- decided that trying to say it all would lead to an overlong post. The result, unfortunately, is one which makes Father Anonymous look like a bit of an atheist. It all sounds as though God were nothing more than what we say about God, when in fact the reverse is more likely to be true.

So let's try to clarify a bit.

We can take for granted that all religions attempt to model the transcendent reality, and claim that their model is the most accurate one. (Pardon the silly circumlocution for "worship God," in which we indulge briefly only as a reminder that some religions don't use "God" as part of their theological jargon.) It will be a while before we know who was right and who was wrong.

From this fact arises the cant expression that "we all worship the same God," a statement which is true only with regard to intent. We mean to worship the same God, in the sense that we mean to acknowledge the actual facts of the universe -- the ground of being, if you will. The problem is that the models are so different as to be irreconcilable.

To use Mark's appealing but misleading metaphor, if you and I both discover that we know a fellow named Sam, but I say he is an old man with an eyepatch and a cane, while you say he is a spectral reflection of Medusa's left nostril (whatever that even means), then it is safe to say that we don't actually know the same person. Or that if we do, we still have nothing about which to speak. It is not even likely that we know different aspects of the same person; and, frankly, I don't think you've ever met Sam, you big faker.

Prothero's point is that rooting a general theory of religion in a doctrine of God has proven to be an academic dead-end, with which the popular imagination has not yet caught up. Our own point, which may be an exaggeration for effect but by which we will nonetheless stand, is that even the seemingly small differences in doctrine are profoundly important.

To be sure, as we have already said and as Mark is determined to say more forcefully, there are families, and family resemblances. One can see at a glance that Lutherans and Presbyterians share an enormous amount, at least when compared to, say, animists and Zoroastrians. The mistake, in our opinion, is to minimize the significance of the differences. To do so leads not just to an over-easy ecumenism, but (much worse) to the reduction of "God" from a semantic model for transcendent reality to a slogan which can be used and abused in the public realm.

It may be helpful to explain that our thinking here is shaped, at least a little bit, by Karl Barth's famous aphorism that "all religion is unbelief." (Having attended a school where Barth was frequently mistaken for God, we generally avoid the guy, but in this one case he is inevitable). Here's a quick synopsis of the case, by George Wolfgang Forrell:

In [KD I:2, "The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion"], Barth refers to religion as unbelief and writes: "Revelation does not link up with a human religion which is already present and practiced. It contradicts it."

By the way, it is in the light of this point of view that we must understand the sympathy for atheism as practiced by Marxist communism on the part of Barth and his followers. To Barth the denial of "religion in general" or the God of the philosophers was not only excusable but actually praiseworthy. This explains among other things ... [Barth's] relative tolerance of Stalinist Communism. The Communists were atheists, i.e. they objected to "religion." ....

Readers of Barth, and at least arguably the man himself, have sometimes treated this insight as an attack on non-Christian religions. But all that fails to follow the genius of the argument, which is that God is, in essence, hidden; the various revelations claimed by the religious are equally incapable of proof. In that sense, although Barth would have raised an imperious finger here, all the different forms of Christianity are "unbelief," insofar as they fall short of the truth. (And insofar as they disagree, they must fall short of the truth.) Meanwhile, beyond the documents and traditions which contain the "official" versions of the world's religions, there is the image of God treasured in the heart of the individual believer, which is beyond doubt the idiosyncratic product of communal tradition, individual psychology, and so forth. It is also the most elementary form of the "unbelief" Barth is talking about.

Does that help? "Religion in general" is the mistake. And there's a lot of that going around, as Christian ministers are reminded every time some public official invites them to offer a prayer at the town council meeting, and then mutters, "But try not not to mention Jesus."


Pastor Joelle said...

The fact and manner in which Mark responded confirms the fact that I thought this topic might be a little over my head in trying to respond. I get better where you are going with all this. But I've always felt rather than thinking of it in terms of "all of us are worshiping different gods and none of us have it right" which is true enough, I always thought we are all indeed, worshiping one God, we just don't know it.

I mean if there's only one God and the cave men were praying to the fire god I just can't imagine God putting his fingers in his ears "Lalalala I'm not LISTENING!"

mark said...

"Does that help?"
I am reminded of the motto of St. Hilda's in Toronto:
timor Dei principium sapientiae

Soulbuick02 said...

Even though one of my dearest friends from college maintains that God is an ardent Bo-Sox fan, I have little doubt that we worship the same God despite her persistence in error.

Mark Christianson said...

Yes, Father A. That does help. And I fully agree, Religion-in-general is the problem.

The analogy I offered (actually, I think it's more than an analogy) of knowing the same person was rather specifically meant for the context of Christians and Jews. Perhaps I should have been clearer about the scope of my comment. The image is certainly dependent on the person we both think we know actually being the same person. We would rightly conclude that Zoroastrians or animists know a different transcendent or God than a Lutheran, Presbyterian, Catholic, or Jew. But I think we could only conclude that it is indeed the same person when we speak of the God worshiped by those last four.

I agree that we should be concerned about an over-easy ecumenism. But I would suggest that using the concept of person, which also has the virtue of being traditional to Christian theology, can help avoid that too-easy trap. And it is compatible with the God's hidden quality and our necessarily incomplete knowledge of God.

Father said...

I'm afraid we'll need to agree to disagree on this one, then. I agree that Christians and Jews (and Muslims) intend to worship the same God, in a very clear and deliberate way, and signal their intent by telling what are largely the same stories about God.

But "largely" is deceptive here, because Christians tell a series of stories about God which appear blasphemously wrong to Jews and Muslims. The Incarnation, the Cross and Resurrection, and the Trinity aren't curious quirks of the Christian conception of God; they are part of its irreducible substance. A description of God which omits them is incomplete, but a description of God which rejects them is (from a Christian perspective, obviously) very seriously mistaken.

The family relationship among these three religions, while historically very strong, strikes me as being much weaker philosophically than many people have been accustomed to claim.

Years ago, in a classroom, a Muslim historian of religions invited a group of Christian students to consider the possibility that the best basis for a Muslim-Christian dialogue was the person of Jesus Christ. "After all," he reasoned, "Jesus appears in our respective scriptures, and is revered, albeit in different ways, by our respective religions."

To my shock, most of the rest of the class was ready to jump on board with this idea, even after I pointed out that, as the professor described an imaginary conversation, it would involve Christians placing in abeyance their most fundamental convictions about who Jesus was.

As Prothero says, the impulse to find commonality comes from a well-meaning desire to move the sort of religious rivalries that have caused so much pain over the years. I just don't think that minimizing important differences is the way to do that.

Anonymous said...

Couple of years ago, I had a Zoroastrian girl auditing my confirmation class, since her best friend had to attend, she tagged along(this being Queens, NY, the most religiously diverse county in the world). Anyway, we spent a surprising amount of time discussing burial practices from Zoroastrian sky burial (exposure of the dead to the vultures on the mountain top) to cremation and cemeteries. She found the whole trinitarian thing much less troubling than Christian/American burial customs. web

Anonymous said...

I'm curious about how Father A. would respond to Mark Christianson's point about the Christian God as person, as personal? This is a thorny point. Its incredibly near and dear to so many.

I guess, if I may venture an approach to this-- to follow Karl Barth in the insistence that religion is untruth-- that the truth of God is necessarily beyond and Other--and at the same time to insist that God is "a person" is a contradiction. One cannot insist on the personal attribute-- that God "is" a person (that I know) and also confess that all religion is ultimately untruth, before the divine reality that always escapes us-- that is hidden.

I have not read Barth, but have read some Kierkegaard, and SK's /Philosophical Fragments/ helped me immensely think through this idea that any projection we make about God, cannot *be* God. This is the very scandal of the hidden God, nonetheless encountering us, in the place where we are most utterly vulnerable, in our death, and in the death of God with us and for us. Only this paradox could give us the "happy passion" of faith. Anything less that the God who would abandon all to meet us in utter abandonment would still be but a projection of our own self.

In this way, Kierkegaard (and Luther before him) have helped me articulate the vital, living truth of the Christian message-- its proclamation-- without me insisting on "knowing" God as "a person."

I hope that could help some here-- but I'd dearly like to hear your responses too.

I can't say that I have this in any way fully understood-- but that only means that I am stil a sinner.

Some atheist rational minded friends of mine are quick to accuse me of "loading the dice" when I try to explain them this argument. "How can you talk about God, without claiming to know that God exists?"

Its an excruciating effort to continue the dialogue with such responses-- to try to explain that truth is disclosed, revealed, not held in a proposition. The truth is that I am a sinner, and that God is revealed in his scandalous grace.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, this is me again (writer of the last post-- a Canadian named Ole).

I do think that the "personal God" question is an important one-- and I offered a the account of how I was able to distinguish the God held to "be a person" as a principle, from the God who reveals himself paradoxically in his annihilation of himself, with us, in our abandonment (via Kierkegaard's argument).

Anyway-- I wanted to add that the huge importance people stress on the "personal" God is an incredibly nuanced problem, when you try to think it through.

A couple more thoughts:

-Inasmuch as we confess that we are sinners, and in no way are do we have access to God in our own strength, we do confess that God is beyond us, beyond our persons. Beyond even the conceptions and stories we tell about God through our persons.

-However, inasmuch as any revelation of divine truth is revealed to *persons*, inasmuch as God makes covenants with people, inasmuch as God saves people with his revealed truth-- we cannot escape talking about God as "personal." To speak of an absolutely impersonal God would be simply meaningless. There would be no encounter, not scandal, no paradox, just as to speak of a God direcly known and held in concepts would be equally impossible (the 'untruth' of religion).

What is think is a problem-- and I have to be very careful and respectful when talking with people about this-- is turning "my relationship with God" into the thing that I worship. The danger then is that simply becomes an idol. No longer is God confrontational. No longer is the divine truth of the hiddenness of God a threatening or ultimately humiliating and destroying truth. And no longer is God's truth saving. If I substitue "my relationship with God" for the confession that I am a sinner before God (i.e. that God is always beyond me, confronting me, and calling me out of sin-- the sin of bent-inwardedness and unbelief) then there is no dynamism of death and resurrection, of sin and of salvation from sin.

Anonymous said...

Hello there one more time-- I wanted to add that my rather tortuous additions to the conversation took us somewhat far away from the initial problem, which was the richness of the irreducible differences between different religions and even between different denominations and ultimately persons in speaking and understanding God. I only meant to offer something about the point about God "as person" that was important in the discussion.