"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Friday, January 04, 2008

A pathetic attempt at light conversation

As happens from time to time Matt sent me a friendly email the other day and my attempt at light hearted conversation quickly got out of hand and morphed into a post I have been meaning to write. So I figured, rather than triggering a private email debate, I'd spare Matt and just put it up as a new thread. Once finished I will make another attempt at personable conversation. Wish me luck.

Matt said:
"Who knows, maybe we'll have some answers by then." (referencing the possibility of us still swinging away at this in 09)

Begin Alex:
Heh... We have all sorts of answers. It's just that we are hesitant to put to much stock in any of them! Here's how I see it. If each of us were in a vacuum, we'd probably be fairly satisfied with our own particular world views. Problem is... we're not. We are both all to cognizant of individuals vastly exceeding our own intellect who disagree with us. As such, simply 'being happy' with our wold view becomes less tenable as it is probably false in one or more fairly important aspects. We also realize that with the fundamental "is there a God?" question, one of our views is correct while the other is not. On an intellectual level we are bright enough to entertain the possibility that it could indeed be our own person who is wrong. Thus, the search continues. If we are aware of any particular area in the others world view that we cannot dismantle to our own satisfaction, the desire to continue researching and reading will continue. While all this has been phenomenal mental exercise for me and an experience I'm quite indebted to, something seems to be missing. The sustained amount of head work we do here seems to have the potential of becoming vacuous and empty. Your "quick question" the other day hints at as much.

When it comes to the search for truth, it's not easy. You can always doubt it. There's always going to be someone smarter than you are. Someone who's more handy with logic. You can never win. The world's not that simple. So if there's a God, what does this state of affairs say about his programme? Why does he make it so impossibly difficult to find him this way? I've been pondering this quite a bit lately. As such, certain things have been jumping out at me from my readings. Allow me to explain:

In response to the question, "Why does God make us go through all this to know him?" I think what I'd like to say is this:

Maybe he doesn't.

I've ran across a few passages recently that seem to indicate a more cohesive, less inscrutable option.

"This one God is known to us not speculatively but existentially. He [Irenaeus] expresses this in saying: 'Without God, you cannot know God.' God is never an object. In all knowledge it is he who knows in us and through us. Only he can know himself; we may participate in his knowledge of himself. But he is not an object whom we can know from the outside. God is unknown according to his greatness, his absoluteness, his unconditional character. He is known in according to his love in which he comes to us. Therefore, in order to know God you must be within God; you must participate in him. You can never know him as an object outside yourself."

– Paul Tillich on Irenaeus of Lyons addressing necessary conditions for knowing God.

"...contrary to a typical human attitude, knowledge of God is not a spectator sport. It is rather part of a process of God’s thorough make-over of a person." p.17

"God refuses, for our own good, to become a mere idol of our thought or entertainment." p. 17

"Filial knowledge of God is available to every sincere seeker at God’s appointed time. Still, its realization comes via—and not in advance of—an attitude of sincere willingness to love God with the kind of love characteristic of God." p.30

"The evidence of God’s presence offered by loving character-transformation in God’s children is crucial. It goes much deeper than the comparatively superficial evidence found in entertaining signs, wonders, visions, ecstatic experiences, and fancy philosophical arguments. We could consistently dismiss any such sign, wonder, vision, ecstatic experience, or argument as illusory or indecisive, given certain alterations in our beliefs. In contrast, genuine character transformation toward God’s all-inclusive love does not admit of easy dismissal. It bears directly on who one really is, the kind of person one actually is." p.35

– Paul Moser, Why Isn't God More Obvious?

I think there's something to this. Something larger than I can put into words. Part of it is simply that though I can convince my mind through interesting thought experiments, in the end it's empty... if that's all the further it goes. I get the feeling I have been carrying somewhat of an inappropriate attitude towards knowing God all these years. I have wanted to anthropomorphize what it is to know God. I want it to be a 'feeling'. In short, I want it on my terms. Perhaps this isn't the proper road to take in response to the God of all creation?

Perhaps it's more of a response to something much more primary than I had ever thought?


Well friends. Classes have begun afresh, so this will probably be the last you hear of me for another few months. (aside from one other piece I've been working on which will appear in due time) I'll be digging into to my first systematic theology class this quarter which ought to be a good ride. My other class has to do with various cultural perspectives on ethics and such. I'm rather looking forward to that one as well!

Best wishes to you all this new year. And thanks for the thoughtful conversations! See you again when I can come up for air.

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Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"is there a God?"

To even ask that question, we really need an answer to, "What do we mean God?"

The more I think about it, the more it seems that there really needs to be a theological discussion about exactly what the definition of God is before there can be a serious philosophical discussion about whether he actually exists or not.

The quotes you give are interesting; they seem to lean towards the Logos interpretation of God's workings. I think, when you distill all of the various theologies and philosophies in the world down, that's probably the most 'rational' prediction of what God would probably be like.

Of course, Logos is a fairly amorphous interpretation, and has a set of highly movable goal posts. One could fairly describe the laws of nature as The Logos, and thus the expression of God, which would seriously blur the lines separating atheism, deism and conventional theism. Even Dawkins conceded that in an interview (I forget who with, maybe it was the Atheist Tapes?), when he said that he had no problem entertaining the possibility that there was something great and mysterious beyond our perceived reality, and only balked at the idea that it would be as trivial and characteristically flawed as the conventional theistic scripture would have us believe.

In answer to the question of why we have these conversations, I can only speak for myself. My only real objection to theism is when dogmatic beliefs that have little grounding in reason are appealed to in a manner that is detrimental to civil liberties; whether it be freedom of religion, freedom of expression &c. No good whatsoever comes from the person who gives judgment on another, saying "This person must be condemned, for God has willed it so". And yet there are many people, in otherwise prosperous and stable nations, who believe that this is legitimate behaviour. They are either not fully aware of the danger of appealing to second hand "Revelation" as the sole source of their moral code, or simply refuse to acknowledge it.

Conversing with moderate theists seems to be the most efficient and personally enlightening strategy for combating this form of self-assured dogmatism. I don't think we're necessarily here to discover, definitively, The Truth (although, as dogs prefer to chase cars than catch them, it's still worth pursuing, IMHO); I don't think we can do that. I enter these conversations to reassure myself and convince others that we're all in the same boat here; that none of us can lay claim to some special knowledge; that the highest form of knowledge we can attain is in fact shared knowledge. Revelation is something that people should feel free to allow to enrich their personal lives, if it so pleases them, but it has absolutely no business being used to dictate the laws governing our exchanges in the material world.

There's more to the phrase "Render unto Caesar..." than taxes.

3:26 PM

Blogger Timmo said...

At the end of his short and lovely book The Problems of Philosophy, Bertrand Russell devotes a chapter to reflecting upon the value of philosophy. I agree wholeheartedly with Russell's contention that philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since, as we've seen, these cannot generally be found, but because of the way doing philosophy transforms our way of looking at the world -- indeed, the way it transforms us. Quite happily, that chapter is available online here, and I encourage all of you give it a peek. Trust me, it's not too long!

2:12 AM

Blogger Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

Going to be a busy term for you.

7:25 AM

Blogger Alex said...

I'd imagine it will. I always end up making things a lot more work than they need to be. I'd guess that has to do with why I'm there. I'm not just looking for grades or a degree. I really want to learn... and it seems that actually learning takes a lot more time than just cranking out a few papers.

7:38 AM


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