living through death

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

Posts Tagged ‘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.


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.

Written by Alex

December 2, 2015 at 10:25 am

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

Breaking God Talk

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[Warning: this is an especially geeky post]

God talk is an impossible possibility. This leads to all kinds of problems. Among them is a situation where many theists and atheists think they’re talking about God when they have not yet risen (or perhaps better, descended) to that level. The problems all flow from God’s eternality, and our non-eternality. I’ve been engaging this difficulty with a friend of mine via email. Below is a recent response by me to him. In the exchange “God talk” is being discussed as “the eternal.” I had said previously that religious belief was in a category of its own due to the eternal nature of its object. I said that religious belief needed to “transcend the categories of merely subjective and objective reflection.” He took issue with this, saying: 1) How can you know this? and 2) It’s impossible. The following was my reply.

The Possibility

It’s an interesting situation we’re dealing with. On the one hand, as you say, you can form a theoretical belief about the infinite that does not “mark it off as an object beyond oneself.” As you point out, I’m doing that when I say that the eternal “includes the reflecting self as well as the reflection.” You are right on both these points. And the fact is, there’s no way around it if we wish to go on thinking or speaking about the eternal in a discursive mode.

The Impossibility

Here we see the point where the trouble starts. Since these acts of thought can be performed, and because they are, in a sense, necessary, it is easy to think that by that very fact they are adequate. They are not. The eternal can never be talked about adequately because we are always in it, speaking, from it. (just like, as you point out, we are in our subjectivity. I’ll come back to that). Because of this there is no simply theoretical, no objective, no detached analytical knowledge of the eternal. This is why, I argue, religious belief is (or ought to be) in a category all its own.

The Paradox

Thus, religious beliefs (including atheistic religious beliefs) are sort of weird. They are irreducibly subjective, but they make universally objective claims.

From this, the terms we use to talk about the eternal need to mirror this weirdness. Their relative adequacy is constituted not simply by a their reflexivity, including the self as an object of reflection (“the eternal as the sum of all things, including myself”). No, as Charles Taylor points out, a radical reflexivity is necessary. The mind must try and fail to grasp as an object the very act of its own reflecting. This is what Robert Sharlemann pointed out as the genius of Tillich’s relation of human reason to divine revelation. In this attempt and failure, something of the eternal is paradoxically understood without being grasped. And from here, a sort of map is given for all further speech about the eternal. There is the attempt to speak of the eternal reality, the failure, and the pointing out of the attempt and failure (It’s rather Christological, if you think about it).

Transcending Our Subjectivity?

As for transcending subjectivity. The claim was that any relatively adequate term must transcend the merely subjective and objective modes. It was not that I have done this and have returned with the eternal Word. You’re right; it’s impossible (hence, what I said in the paragraph above).

How Can This Be Known?

To the question of how I know these things, two responses: 1. This question assumes that we are dealing with a theoretical question. As I’ve shown above, we are not. 2. It happens every time I pray. It is, as Sebastian Moore says, “intersubjectivity with the infinite.”

In closing, the following passage makes no sense if it is read from an “un-broken” frame of mind, one that has yet to meet the failure of radical reflexivity. But from the standpoint of one who as endured this paradox, it is a beautiful extension of the logic I have been describing in this post.


…in a lifetime’s death in love…

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Men’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.

(T.S. Eliot ‘The Dry Salvages’, 5.)

Eliot’s words marvelously point to the reason that a sort of “death” is so important to my developing work (of which I have written in the past). He’s grappling with the problem of the human spirit’s drive to grasp the eternal by way of its own finite resources. We can see the problem again in the very first lines of the preface of Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason.”

“Human reason, in one sphere of its cognition, is called upon to consider questions, which it cannot decline, as they are presented by its own nature, but which it cannot answer, as they transcend every faculty of the mind.”

Consciousness of this problem has emerged repeatedly in the classics of human thought, both East and West. It pervades all dimensions of human being, from our knowing, as Kant points to, to our moral experience, to the dynamics of intimacy. What I’m working to help us see is not a “solution” to the problem, per se, but rather, I hope to help us see the problem itself and to point toward a response that disarms its destructive potential. Eliot is on to it.

When our finite consciousness is impacted by consciousness of the infinite, it stands before a monumental decision. Will we cling to the dimension of our normal experience and thus be tormented by its inadequacy? Or will we, trembling, in fear, and in love, risk undergoing the death that Eliot points toward? Our response to these moments are, in all their variety, the singularly great event in human life. It is the “occupation” of the saint to which all of us, in our own ways, are called. It is the process by which all things are made new, the end of the era of futile possession. It is only here that life becomes pure gift and our hearts swell with gratitude and compassion.

This tradition I’m working in has helped me make sense of Paul’s words “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” Whether or not these words carry any meaning for people in our time, I have no doubt that the form of life they reflect has the power to save us all.

Sunset near Rice, MN

Written by Alex

February 18, 2014 at 9:12 am

The God Graveyard: A Theologian’s Approval

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Yesterday I saw an interesting post come up on the Patheos blog, “The Friendly Atheist.” It was about how certain college atheist groups were erecting “god graveyards” on their campuses filled with the names of the gods we no longer worship. The question they wished to provoke was basically “when will yours be next?”

As a theologian, I thought this was pretty sweet (for reasons that I will point out shortly), so I decided to tell them so.

As a Christian theologian, I support this message. It is at the heart of classical Christian theology that Yahweh, understood as a particular divine being, must have his own gravestone. The death of the Gods is precisely the truth of God who is Truth itself.

The response to this was mostly:

1. A lot of “down votes”

2. Utter confusion

3. General rudeness, or at the very least, hostility.

I’ll take responsibility for 2. I’ve rarely been applauded for my clarity of expression. But I was honestly surprised at 1. and 3. At least one of the other commentors felt similarly, lamenting:

The downvotes here depress me. Just because we disagree or find the message muddled doesn’t mean we should discourage those who want to respectfully discuss the topic at hand.

Here was one that I could speak to. He also authored a brilliant response to a sci-fi fan who was in the process of creatively taking me to task by way of a Star Trek example. I should not have such difficulty speaking to them, my critic suggested, for they were rational thinkers, not like the perplexing Tamarians. He went on,

I am reminded of the Star Trek: TNG episode Darmok, where Captain Picard encounters an alien civilization (the Tamarians) whose language is purely metaphorical. For instance, rather than saying, “I went to the store,” a Tamarian would say, “Darmok at Shaka,” which would reference a famous event of the past where a person named Darmok went to a store in the city of Shaka.

To this my ally responded:

I think the point of that episode was that Picard DID learn to communicate with the Tamarian captain once he abandoned his prejudices and began to listen in earnest (finally accepting the dagger as an offer of alliance instead of conflict, ha, I out-nerd[ed] you).

Truly brilliant, and better, to my point! In what follows I respond to him and do my best to briefly set out what my point ultimately was.

This, I love. The truth of it goes both ways and is really at the heart of what I was trying to suggest. “The gods,” in a very important sense, ARE our prejudices. They are our little securities, the ideas, habits, and patterns of life that make us feel safe in the face of the threats of existence. The trouble is that our little gods necessarily limit us. If they are the source of our security, then fear keeps us living in their power. And in their power, the gods of others can be nothing but a threat, an opportunity for conflict. This is why the graveyard is so appropriate. We are not meant to live in fear, so let the gods die. All of them, regardless of the name we give them, be it Zeus, Yahweh, Reason, Science, or Jesus…

But this leads to my deeper point. It’s not easy to describe, so please bear with me. We say that Jesus revealed God, not because he said he was God; rather, it is because he deflected every attempt by others to make him into “a god.” His divinity consisted in his freedom from “the gods,” not that he was one.

As some of you may recall, Peter wanted Jesus to be the source of his own security. Jesus, on the other hand, said he came to serve and to die. Peter, feeling his security threatened by this, freaked out and tried to stop him. Jesus’ subdued response was basically to call Peter the Lord of Darkness and to suggest that his framework was a bit narrow.

graveyard of the godsAnd that’s our basic human problem. In light of the eternal, all of our frameworks are a bit narrow. That includes my own. To live with faith in God as eternal, is exactly to live free from “the gods” of our narrowness. If we can’t manage this, we’ll cling to our own little constructions, and fear will cause us to lash out at those who pose a threat to our god. Those who have been in some way gripped by the mystery of the eternal feel no such need to defend their own ways of seeing things, for their own gods have already been crucified.

My one concern for this community is that it is not nearly atheistic enough. The rather ‘un-friendly’ reception I’ve been given does not seem to evidence freedom from the gods. Perhaps the graveyard could use a few more tombstones? 

Written by Alex

November 1, 2013 at 9:58 am

Reflections on Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation: Chapter 2, “What Contemplation Is Not”

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Friedrich David CasperThis post is part of a series of reflections on Thomas Merton’s book New Seeds of Contemplation

It is difficult in our day to understand the God that contemplative prayer encounters. When Merton says things like, “The question [of God] is, itself, the answer. And we ourselves are both.”, (4) it seems as though Merton is simply assuming the existence of God, then naming our reality as a divine reality. Yet what if one denies such an assumption, as many in our day do? Contemplative prayer then seems to become a sort of refined practice in wishful naval gazing.

It is impossible to escape this charge according to the prevailing categories of the modern mind. This is why Merton says “The only way to get rid of the misconceptions about contemplation is to experience it. One who does not actually know, in his [sic] own life, the nature of this breakthrough and this awakening to a new level of reality cannot help being misled by most of the things that are said about it.” (6) The reason for this lies, at least in part, in the fact that the experience of contemplative prayer breaks open the very heart of the modern mental approach to existence.

In this meditation Merton goes straight to the cognitive heart of modernity. “Nothing could be more alien to contemplation”, he says, “than the cogito ergo sum of Descartes. ‘I think, therefore I am.’ This is the declaration of an alienated being, in exile from his own spiritual depths, compelled to seek some comfort in a proof for his own existence(!) based upon the observation that he ‘thinks.'” (8) The very same thing applies to the God that Descartes discovers. To the extent that God is for us the conclusion of an argument, God remains forever an external, ever-dubious thing.

“For the contemplative there is no cogito (“I think”) and no ergo (“therefore”) but only SUM, I Am.” This is not the assumption of God, like a premise assumed in an argument. It is an awakening to the realization that we are are “grasped” before we even attempt to grasp God. Strangely, there is an important sense in which this realization does not bring solace to our lives. In awakening to this reality we realize that, unlike the assumptions in our old arguments, we no longer know what God is.

Here we “…may or may not mercifully realize that, after all, this is a great gain, because ‘God is not a what,” not a “thing.” That is precisely one of the essential characteristics of contemplative experience. It sees that there is no “what” that can be called God. There is “no such thing” as God because God is neither a “what” nor a “thing” but a pure “Who.” He is the “Thou” before whom our inmost “I” springs into awareness. He is the I Am before whom with our own most personal and inalienable voice we echo “I am.”(13)

Click here for more in this series of reflections.

Written by Alex

July 25, 2013 at 9:19 am

Reflections on Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation: Chapter 1, “What is Contemplation?”

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This post is part of a series of reflections on Thomas Merton’s book New Seeds of Contemplation

Not too long ago I read Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. Though I thought it was a beautiful book, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, spiritually, it was a sort of young man’s book. It struck me as overly excited about Catholicism and relatively quick to criticize other traditions. (but this may say more about my own concerns than the book’s potential) I had heard a great deal about Merton the spiritual master, so I was somewhat disappointed. At the same time, this is to be forgiven, I think, as Merton really was a very young man when he penned that now classic work. Realizing this, I was eager to get my hands on some of his more mature works.

Just yesterday I received my copy of New Seeds of Contemplation, a much later collection of spiritual reflections. Merton grew up indeed! Here is the figure I was expecting to find. Granted I have only just begun reading it, but all narrowness seems to have vanished and every ounce of passion appears as the passion for God as through yet beyond all concrete being. This is worth spending some time with.

Chapter 1 is a brief meditation on the meaning of “contemplation.” After painting the beautiful image of creation as God asking God’s self a question and contemplation as God’s answer to God’s question he continues…

The life of contemplation implies two levels of awareness: first, awareness of the question, and second awareness of the answer. Though these are two distinct and enormously different levels, yet they are in fact and awareness of the same thing. The question is, itself, the answer. And we ourselves are both. But we cannot know this until we have moved into the second kind of awareness. We awaken, not to find an answer absolutely distinct form the question, but to realize that the question is its own answer. And all it summed up in the one awareness—not a proposition, but an experience: “I Am.”

Screen Shot 2013-07-19 at 10.13.43 AMBefore Paul Tillich opened my eyes to the classical theological tradition, this sort of language would have made no sense to me. It’s not rational in any linear sense. Merton is here speaking the language of paradox. Under usual rational circumstances questions are not, by definition, answers. Questions seek to gain new knowledge about things from which we are separated. But in the classical tradition when when it comes to God, God is not something from which we are separated, at least not in the usual sense. Prepositions and articles become tricky at this point. Here God is not a being, but being-itself. In the language of Aquinas, God is simple. God is God’s own existence in contrast to all creatures whose existence is dependent upon something other than themselves. For us, this means that to the extent that we have being, we participate in God. God is the end of the chain of dependency, though not as the final link in the chain, but rather as the unnameable mystery that grounds the entire chain from the first link to the last. In this way of understanding, to ask the question of God cannot be anything other than an expression of God’s self, for all that is has its source, subsistence, and end there.

This is why “[c]ontemplation is also the response to a call: a call from Him Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is, and Who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our own being: for we ourselves are words of His.”

Merton thus calls us not to a new argument, demonstration, or proof, for such operations only make sense if God is separate from us. Instead we are called to a new awareness, an awareness of the sacred within both ourselves and all that is. The deep question behind our deep questions is thus an expression of eternal Being within created being. And to this extent there can be no creaturely answer, for only the eternal can answer the eternal. The best we can manage is to be encountered by (made aware of) this mystery while ever remaining the limited creatures that we are. To achieve this form of awareness we must release all efforts to accept anything creaturely as eternal, including and especially our conceptual ideas about God and ourselves (Think of what Jesus did to the concepts of divinity that his disciples nurtured). This is part of the way that the eternal question contains its own keys, for the eternal within us will expose the pretensions of all creaturely contenders for divinity. The moment of awakening occurs once the field has been totally cleared, when every last false security has been unmasked or released, this is the moment of realization that only the eternal can ask the eternal question and that we are its voice. Such is not an entrance into creaturely security, for there is none, rather it is the acceptance of eternal mystery and the curious sort of freedom it brings.

Click here for more in this series of reflections.

Written by Alex

July 19, 2013 at 10:13 am