living through death

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

Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Aquinas

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.

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Written by Alex

November 5, 2014 at 11:06 am

A Brief Reflection on My First National Conference

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My blogging pace as been a bit off as of late. The last few weeks have been a flurry of activity (and general anxiety) surrounding a trip to Baltimore to present two papers (one at the the American Academy of Religion and the other at the North American Paul Tillich Society). Happily, the whole thing went off without a hitch, and a wonderful time was had by all.

Baltimore Inner Harbor

If you would like to see my photo set of the whole adventure, you can check out my Flicker page here.

The two papers I presented surround the cataclysmic transition in my theological thinking.

The first paper marks the “death of God” in my thought. Here, in the mode of moral ontology, I show how our ability to doubt any concrete answer to the question of moral foundations makes it impossible for God (understood as a being existing apart from us) to anchor the moral good. Such a conception cannot answer the question, “why must God exist for moral goodness to be Good?” If God is thought of as a concrete particular, then, no, God is not necessary for morality (or anything else for that matter). I’m with the atheists on this one, but then again, so is Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Paul Tillich. You can read the full paper here: Yes, But Only If God Does Not Exist: A Tillichian Answer to the Question of God’s Necessity for Morality

The second paper I presented situates “the death of God” within the process of spiritual awakening. Here I argue that the death of God is, in essence, a moment in the emergence of the life of the Spirit. A sort of religious and developmental paradigm shift is pointed to in this paper. As Robert Scharlemann so nicely stated, “…the untruth of the Gods is precisely the essence of the true God, the one who is truth itself.” Awakening to this truth has salvific value, I argue, since it frees us (and those around us) from all our self-saving efforts and death denial strategies by dying to the illusion that our conceptual grasp of God, self, and world offers true security. Instead, I argue that for God to emerge in our lives a continual death to, or, relativization of, our conceptual/egoic grasp is necessary. Beyond that, a continual return to the depth of life as ever-emerging in the present moment is presented as the essence of religious encounter. You can read the full paper here: “Intimacy Through Self-loss: Intersections in the Paradoxical Soteriologies of Paul Tillich and Sebastian Moore”

In short, the conference was a very good experience. Next time, however, I think I’ll stress less, take more walks, and generally try to take more advantage of all the potentially fantastic conversations that are to be had in such a setting.

P.S. Special thanks to Spencer Moffatt, Erik Leafblad, David Stewart, John Fournelle, Kiara Jorgenson, and Paul Greene for being such a wonderful mixture of insightful, encouraging, crude, hilarious, provocative, and kind.

Written by Alex

December 5, 2013 at 9:40 am