living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Posts Tagged ‘existence of God

What was that About?: God and Morality

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They say that if you can’t state your big idea in a few concise paragraphs, you have not really processed your big idea adequately. It’s been years since I finished my masters thesis, but I think I’m finally able to state briefly what it was about:

The question:
Is God necessary for morality?

My conclusion:
Yes, but not if God “exists.”

Why put it this way?

The problem lies in what “existence” has come to mean for us. If morality is said to hang upon the command/will of an “existing” being (i.e., one being—even the highest being—among other beings), then we cannot escape the fact that morality is arbitrary. This view comes with the additional problem that individuals who see themselves as knowing the mind of God, will therefore feel justified in enforcing God’s moral truth in spite of all indications that such actions are, in fact, producing great evil.

If, however, God is thought of, not as an existing being, but as existence-itself, then the deepest truth of reality—both within the world and within ourselves—will be a moral truth. Acting morally will coincide with ultimate fulfillment, not because a highest being decreed it thusly, but because such is simply the nature of reality (and God = “the nature of reality”). This view comes with the benefit that the deepest truth of existence-itself will always escape the grasp of any particular individual. Right moral action will need to be listened for within the varieties of existence, and it will be inappropriate to enforce one variety that is suitable for one form of existence against another.

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If, however, one rejects both that God exists and that God is existence-itself, that is, if one affirms that existence has no depth whatsoever, then morality evaporates. For the essence of a moral imperative is its promise of ultimate fulfillment (don’t think of “what happens when we die,” but “a truth or good worth giving everything for.”). If there is no depth to existence, there is no ultimate fulfillment. Reality is, at bottom, absurd. As such, all is provisional and, like a dog, we needn’t look too far beyond our own nose. In some ways this view is still an advance over the first position since, unlike the convinced believer who will plow through signs that they are on the wrong path as if they were God’s bulldozer, the nihilist, in their provisionality, is at least open to sniff out the changing conditions of their situation. We might remember that it is often the dogs who know the tsunami is coming even while the rest of us preparing our fishing nets. Yet the question still nags, who cares?

And it is my (perhaps “our?”) inability to escape that last question that ultimately leads me back to the second position. God, in this sense, is the source and the answer to the moral question that forms our lives.

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Written by Alex

December 2, 2015 at 10:25 am

Beyond “Rational” False Alternatives: “Who do you say that I am?”

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The problem this chapter (a list of all posts in this project is here) has aimed to address is the phenomena of faith loss among Christians whose critical ability has attained the capacity to undercut its own historical and philosophical foundations. These are those for whom historical arguments regarding the Bible and the historical Jesus have become important, but also have failed. Such people tend to also have a similar relationship to philosophical arguments for God’s existence. The heart of this chapter has been an attempt to describe in a rational mode how what is often termed a loss of faith is, in reality, a necessary element of rational development. We have shown how Scharlemann’s appropriation of Tillich paints a broader philosophical landscape in which to make sense of the problem and also avoids the nihilism that threatens any systematic thought that is unable to anchor itself in reality. The basic problem was shown to be a truncated conception of reason combined with the lack of recognition that reason (reflection and response) proceeds through a series of stages whereby the objectival is “lost” at each transition due to the activities of criticism and doubt. The solution was shown to be Tillich’s correlation of reflection and response and the anchoring of both these moments in a paradoxical reality and presence.

How do these ideas relate to the work of Becker and Kegan that we examined in the previous chapter? To begin, we should recall Becker’s description of humanity’s existential paradox as a creature capable of tasting the eternal, but nevertheless being bound to the limits of finitude, and most notably, being subject to death. In reality, the vast majority of human-kind experiences this paradox as an unbearable contradiction. And it was here that Becker then vigorously rubbed our noses in all the various individual and communal ways we set about denying of our existential condition. When these ideas are extended into the realm of human reason it is easy to see how criticism and doubt can be used in exactly this way to protect ourselves from potentially threatening realities and powers. In this way, critical reflection and doubting response can give up the task of truth-seeking and become merely self-protective, thus stifling growth and maturity.

But what of those who begin to experience the edges of their own ways of knowing as not mere contradiction, but as paradox? These are the ones who begin the great risk pushing the edges of their rational world. Kegan provided us with a rich framework to make sense of this moment by way of a series of mental paradigm shifts where what was previously held as subject became capable of being reflected upon as an object of thought. Likewise, Scharlemann traced for us a cultural history of this very same movement. In addition to this Kegan is also well known for moving developmental stage theory beyond an exclusively cognitive focus to include the emotional dimension of human life, and to that extent Scharlemann’s appropriation of Tillich again resonates strongly with Kegan’s work. This is seen clearly in Scharlemann’s classification of reason into its reflective and responsive modes. Thus, Scharlemann was able to give us a historical road map of the reflective and responsive aspects of human reason that further reinforces the analytic power of Kegan’s model.

Shattered Ice

In an effort to lessen the abstraction of this chapter we have periodically considered the doubts that the young Paul Tillich faced about the historical foundations of his faith. We will now conclude this chapter by returning once again to this problem which continues to this day in both scholarly and popular forms. It seems that scarcely a year goes by without a new slew of articles and television programs that ask us to consider “who was Jesus, really?” The implication tends always to be that the Jesus you think you know, the Jesus you pray to, and the Jesus that you trust to keep you and your loved ones safe in this life and the next is not at all the real Jesus. Some even evidence a certain glee in this “gotcha” moment. However the question that we are here urged to consider is not unlike the one that Jesus himself asked his own followers, and we would do well to attend once again to that narrative.

Who do you say that I am?

In the introduction to this chapter we reflected on Peter’s answer to this question: declaring Jesus to be the messiah. This became a problem for Peter because, the messiah that he had in mind was roughly the functional equivalent of the “Jesus that you trust to keep you and your loved ones safe in this life and the next.” Upon exposing Peter’s self-protective and self-aggrandizing hopes, Jesus’ reaction was intense and immediate: “Get behind me Satan!” Now, let this sink in. What does this mean for the believer and for the cultural debunkers? For the believer Jesus refuses to be a temporal security. And for this reason he embodies the criticism of the debunkers before they even have a chance to speak. To participate in salvation is, therefore, not to have one’s temporal securities vindicated (for example, by embarrassing the cultural debunkers by producing a world-renowned scholar to expose their arguments as foolishness). Instead, to participate in salvation—as Tillich eventually learned—is to mirror the paradoxical motions of Christ.

This concludes our exploration of the paradox of salvation in the dimension of human reason. In the next chapter we will view it from the perspective of spirituality and theology in the Christology of Sebastian Moore.


This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.

Borges and God: The Unrecognized Orthodoxy of Refusing to Speak of God

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Jorge Luis Borges, SicilyOur cultural moment has lost a classic insight. We have arrived at a place in history where we presume to know, straightforwardly, what we are talking about when we speak of God. Because of this, most Westerners think that religion is essentially a matter of whether or not we believe in this thing, the existence of God, let’s say. Combine this with the overwhelming advances in our scientific knowledge of the universe and you have a situation where most scientifically educated people see no real reason to believe in this thing, this God.

I’m one of them. That may seem odd since I’m a theologian by training. But that only demonstrates how confused the broader culture has become on this point, and therefore how confused the general meaning of “God” has become. In fact, my rejection of belief in this “God,” is not odd at all. My solidarity with the growing impulse in culture to disbelieve in this thing we call “God” is an essential feature of my discipline. We call this thing “an idol.” Forgive us for having not made this clear during the past few hundred years. Our ancient teachers, Augustine and Aquinas, have been notified of our behavior, and we have since received our due scolding.

The insight that has been lost, and which desperately needs to be recovered is as follows: God, as the eternal source of all temporal reality, is inconceivable. This is so because our conceptions follow from how we know things, and what we know is temporal reality, not, eternity. Thus, God, as eternal, is inconceivable. This has important implications for how we speak about God. Since our language represents concepts and our concepts are formed according to how we know things, this entails that our language about God will never rise to the level of what it seeks to name. There is no straightforward talk of God, which is to say that, strictly speaking, God is ineffable (That’s all straight out of Aristotle and Aquinas, in case you were curious).

An example of this confusion passed my way this morning. It was a beautiful interview with author Jorge Luis Borges on his beliefs pertaining to the transcendent and God. I found myself feeling sympathetic for him as he sought to find the right words to describe his outlook. He seemed to want very badly to speak of the divine, but felt that the way to do it was just not available to him.

In seeking to speak of the transcendent, Borges says,

I do think that it’s safer not to call it God. If we call it God, then we are thinking of an individual and that individual is mysteriously three, according to the doctrine of the Trinity, which to me is quite inconceivable.

Is this heresy? Not at all. It is an essential feature of Trinitarian thought that it is inconceivable. It’s not a description of things that exist in the world. It’s an inadequate formulation using temporal concepts that points to an indescribable reality beyond them. To see the inconceivability as a flaw in the construct is to miss the point. The great father of the church, Augustine, would have enthusiastically agreed with Borges on the inconceivability of the doctrine of the Trinity. Here’s Augustine after discussing the Trinity in “On Christian Teaching.”

Have we spoken or announced anything worthy of God? Rather I feel that I have done nothing but wish to speak: if I have spoken, I have not said what I wished to say. Whence do I know this, except because God is ineffable? If what I said were ineffable, it would not be said. And for this reason God should not be said to be ineffable, for when this is said something is said. And a contradiction in terms is created, since if that is ineffable which cannot be spoken, then that is not ineffable which can be called ineffable. This contradiction is to be passed over in silence rather than resolved verbally. For God, although nothing worthy may be spoken of Him, has accepted the tribute of the human voice and wished us to take joy in praising Him with our words.

A final point is worth mentioning. Borges has what much of our culture has lost: a deep intuition of transcendence. It must be stressed that the early Christian doctrines were formed out of a culture that stimulated this sense. I’ve spoken of this repeatedly on this blog, and I don’t plan to stop anytime soon. The early Christians were steeped in a contemplative form of life in which prayer was essentially the regular practice of ego death. The philosopher Wittgenstein came to hold a view quite similar to Aquinas in which he argued that the meaning of a word is in its use. The form of life from which the words emerge designates their meaning. It must be remembered, then, that early Christian words developed in a context of contemplative prayer that stripped the mind of all images and concepts out of a passion to love God as God is in God’s own eternity, unobstructed by the limitations of our concepts. That is why they were always careful to stress God’s ineffability. They spoke of God, but always with the recognition that their speech was inadequate, though offered in love and praise.

I have a feeling that Borges would rather like this idea. Can you imagine what the world would be like if such a language, born of such a practice, were widely adopted? Would we, all of us, together, speak the divinity we sense in all the various particularities of our life with gratitude and praise, and yet never banish each other on the basis of difference? I pray for the day when we enter a freedom born of knowing that while our particular utterances always fail to reach the mark, our hearts might still break free in a love whose voice sings beyond words.

Written by Alex

November 5, 2014 at 11:06 am