Thursday, February 7, 2013

In Summary: The "Maybe-God" and "Seekularism"

My last three posts rambled on a lot and took a lot of tangents because I was working out my thoughts here. In summary, I've been working through my thoughts on belief both personal and social, and how we are to approach it. There was a time when I thought it was sufficient to just view belief as personal with no sociological dimension. I thought that it wasn't important to have a "political" vision since no individual can be obligated to implement an entire social system, and so worrying about Christendom and such was pointless, serving strange psychological purposes. (Then again, there was another time when I was insisting on a totalitarian vision of Christendom, for indeed strange psychological purposes of my don't look to me if you are looking for someone who never changes or evolves!) 

Now, this remains in some sense true: the practice of faith cannot depend, strictly speaking, on having an already perfect community or social framework created for us, as we need to "live towards" that. If my practice of religion is paralyzed until I've fantasized into being a medieval religious "paradise" or something like that, this is no religion at all. However, just because we can't immanentize the eschaton socially (and, I'm learning, neither can we personally), doesn't mean that belief isn't inherently social or political. Specifically, I don't think belief can be separated from a social vision; imagining the good life necessarily involves imagining the good society.

And this creates not only desires for how we wish ourselves to be, but involves a certain desire for how we would want others to act and be. And yet, there is clearly a big issue here; most of us nowadays (especially readers of this blog) see the notion of imposing our beliefs on other people as problematic. Even if the imposition only takes the form of a wish, wishes express themselves in attitudes and behaviors towards others and society, both in our political actions and in the personal sphere. Believing in a truth requires at least hoping for something regarding other people as well. And, in a certain sense, our political vision of the world comes to exist in microcosm in our own mind; how we engage ideas becomes how we engage people, and how we imagine God socially is reflected in how we relate to Him personally (and vice versa).

However, what does this mean for Christians? This is what I have spent the last few posts fleshing out. I have concluded that we cannot rightly imagine a world where our God is the "public God" (ie, the transcendent organizing value or final good organizing social life) because by institutionalizing Him, "enforcing" Him through an alliance with Power...means that He then becomes an idol ("God™") and besides, that is the recipe for all manner of totalitarianism and persecution politically and socially. This is equally true for God(™) psychologically for the individual if we have that sort of attitude. Pluralism developed so that we wouldn't kill each other over invisible things and questions without immediately tangible concrete effects in the public sphere. But hating is as bad as killing, as Christ made clear. So we must also cultivate a "mental pluralism" or else we risk becoming a dictator in our own personalities (as it were: the superego entirely in control.) An "open system" is instead required.

However, I discussed how pluralism on first glance seems to contain a variety of internal contradictions. Specifically, there is the paradox of "no meta-narrative!" becoming a meta-narrative itself. The threat of a "dictatorship of relativism" was not mere fear mongering on Ratzinger's part, for there is a real sense in which relativism itself just becomes then a bizarre "exclusive claim against exclusive claims," and one wonders what the point of not asserting a truth is if that itself is not supposed to be a truth. So there is a very real danger that secularism or pluralism of the wrong sort can become just another ideology, even while they claim to be ideologically neutral, securing a free market for ideologies (as, analogously, a free market and democracy themselves, conceived wrongly, can become equally oppressive if they merely represent "freedom from" rather than "freedom for," or the regulation of an amoral freedom). 

The problem is that it often seems like secular pluralist systems try to solve the problem of having no official public god for the community by simply proposing no god at all, as if that means that they're neutral! But it doesn't. Because "no god" is also a god, of course, the god (or, rather, "non-god") of atheism. As such, this sort of pluralism that throws the weight of society and/or the State behind No God winds up actually supporting atheism in a certain very real sense (and, ironically, turning the non-god of atheism into a god-shaped void of an idol).

But is there any way out of this? Can there ever be a truly neutral system that proposes no god, if even proposing no god is, in effect, just proposing another (non-)god, another ideology implicitly? Arguably, no. Many would conclude from this that we must then fight for our God to be made the Public God. But this winds up making Him into God™ as I discussed. But if God cannot be the public god, but there is always some public God...what are we supposed to desire or imagine?? It seems a damned if you do, damned if you don't sort of situation (literally, perhaps!)

In truth, this is what my previous post was about, on the Death of God(™), about the danger of reducing God to a straightforward self-equivalency (which notion of identity always breaks down). The way, I think, to solve the conundrum outlined above is not to make the public god the Non-God of atheism, but rather what I would call the "Maybe-God" (such as might be associated with true agnostics). But the Maybe-God is not just the God of agnostics. Rather, that "maybe" can of course be identified with our God, with any God, even with No God. 

If the public attitude of society is not one of there being no god (at least, effectively), of acting "as if" there is no God, but rather one of there being "maybe God," acting as if there might be, then no particular ideology is favored. Society would then not promote any one Truth as The Truth(™), but nevertheless would actively support the search for Truth, whatever it may be or not be.

Zizek said something about how the believer is the truest atheist, and the atheist the truest believer. I would not be inclined to say that (I don't understand the statement enough to comment!), but maybe I could agree to an idea something like that the truest believer must be the truest agnostic. A true believer will have no idols, not even the idol of ideology, and so all our beliefs must be "open" epistemologically. There may be one sense in which the word "doubt" describes a particular sin against faith; I can't speak to that really, I am not an expert on the infused theological virtues. But there is another sense of "doubt" which is essential for believers.

Basically, I think society (and the Church too in its pastoral politics) should not be indifferent to the question of God or Truth or Goodness. It can't be, for one. The No God of atheism is also a god, as I've said. The No Truth of relativism becomes its own Truth. The No Good or No Meaning of nihilism becomes its own vision of the good or of meaning. Rather, society or politics should be about that "freedom for" rather than "freedom from," and that "freedom for" is freedom for seeking the Maybe God, the Maybe Truth, the Maybe Good, the Maybe Meaning. This has implications for our own personal morality and spirituality too, as I've said. And it certainly doesn't prohibit individuals from coming to hold a specific non-agnostic vision of God or the Truth or the Good or Meaning (or the absence of these); in fact such a system encourages people to strive towards finding such a vision (or non-vision)!

This Maybe God might be identified with Eckhart's "Godhead" that I discussed in the previous post. The God beyond God, the God beyond the Being/Non-Being and God/Not-God dualities, the divine essence of which we believe God to be the "instantiation" as it were. By proposing this Godhead as the god of pluralism, we avoid both idolatry and ideology. Everyone has their God (including the atheists with their non-god), or is seeking one, but society should value Godhood first. In other words, we all believe that some things are the truth, but we must always remember that Truth comes before "The Truth" and that we can make an idol out of "The" if we let it become The Truth™. 

So maybe Prince Charles's idea of being titled "Defender of Faith" rather than "Defender of the Faith" not so absurd after all, I'm thinking. I don't know what such a system would necessarily look like concretely, but perhaps it would involve things like how certain European countries fund religious groups (ie, fund all religious groups, or their non-religious ideological equivalents, in proportion to their populations), or how Canada has a public Catholic school system (though, again, for all groups that want to have their own schools). Rather than being officially "secular" in a way that is indifferent to the deeper questions of life (and thus secretly not indifferent to them, like atheism) perhaps, for true pluralism, society or the State should construct itself as Seeking (or "seekular"?? lol...I like portmanteaus!)

I said at the beginning of this post that believing in a truth requires at least hoping for something regarding other people as well. Christians are believers in the Dead God, the God beyond God, a people who with Meister Eckhart understand that "Godhead" takes priority even over "God." So what we should hope for others is that they honestly seek Him and have the freedom to do so (again, this is Mother Theresa's "help a Hindu be a better Hindu" idea, I think). So thank God for Vatican II! Society can and should value and actively promote Goodness and Truth (or, at least, "Maybe Goodness" and "Maybe Truth") and see freedom as freedom for those things (rather than freedom from)...yet still without taking any particular position on what constitutes The Good or The Truth (ie, still having freedom from oppression). And, I think, it can actively support the Maybe-God of Seekers (by which I mean, I think, the Dead God) without making any god (or non-god) The God™ publicly (who can only ever be an idol and an ideological tyrant.)


General Ursus said...

Thanks for posting. I've very much enjoyed these last few articles. It's sparked much discussion amongst my friends and I. I'm having trouble trying to explain what you mean by idolatry. Would you mind writing a definition for how you use the term? My apologies if you've already written this elsewhere.

A Sinner said...

I suppose there are several ways to describe it.

Most simply, of course, we can consider as "idolatry" the idea of making something the "god" of your life, the master you serve before all others, etc etc. Of course, the simple-minded might say "Well, but of course God is supposed to be your god. The whole problem with idolatry is that it gives some other god the place that only God should hold."

But I think really, as I described, this notion often involves a sort of "objectification" of God (I described in the last post about "quantum locking" Him into a Weeping Angel). It involves turning God into a straightforward self-equivalence, a Being among other Beings, but simply the Highest Being.

And He may be that, of course. But is that the important thing about God, is that the final category or transcendence? Rather, I think, there shouldn't be any "final capstone" closing your ontology. If we speak of Supreme Being, this cannot be the end (or beginning) of the story. If there is, it's an idol, because what should really hold that place is "God beyond God" to use Eckhart's term again.

Basically, it boils down to asking oneself something like, what's more important: Truth, or the truth (or "The Truth(TM)")? Obviously, in some sense, Truth must take priority over "the truth" because THE truth is only valuable inasmuch as it is Truth. It's certainly not valuable because of "the," if you see what I'm saying. It's valuable because of WHAT it is, not THAT it is.

Often, I fear, that when people worship God conceived of in a totalizing or "closed" manner, what they are doing is worshiping His Being. Again, maybe fine in itself (if it is not limited to this). But even if we say something like "God is our God" the important word in that sentence "is" or is it, rather, "God"??

Worshipping God "as God", which is to say (by manner of self-equivalence or identity) AS a Being, would imply that Being is the highest category and that which makes God worthy of worship, when really that should be Godhead.

Nominally Catholic said...

"In truth, this is what my previous post was about, on the Death of God(™), about the danger of reducing God to a straightforward self-equivalency (which notion of identity always breaks down). The way, I think, to solve the conundrum outlined above is not to make the public god the Non-God of atheism, but rather what I would call the "Maybe-God" (such as might be associated with true agnostics). But the Maybe-God is not just the God of agnostics. Rather, that "maybe" can of course be identified with our God, with any God, even with No God. If the public attitude of society is not one of there being no god (at least, effectively), but rather of there being "maybe God," then no particular ideology is favored. Society would then not promote any one Truth as The Truth(™), but nevertheless would actively support the search for Truth, whatever it may be or not be."

Whether called upon or not, God will be present. --Carl Jung

Jung came to this same conclusion working with the mentally-ill. From his studies of the seriously disturbed, he found that myth and religion were essential parts of humanity's subconscious. However, does that mean that there IS a God apart from God(TM)?

There already exists as the "Sea of Faith Network," dedicated to "Exploring and promoting religious faith as a human creation".

Philosophers like Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard and Schopenhaur dealt with faith as well. The analytical tradition of philosophy too has gotten into arguments for and against the "epistemology" of religious belief, by way of people like Hilary Putnam and Alvin Plantinga. The epistemological tradition in philosophy also truthfully demands a "maybe-God," since you cannot prove the premise "there is a God" to be true, but you can nevertheless give plausible arguments and good reasons why that premise may be true. You can do the same for any other religious belief, however. And in all of this, how do you refute the claim that God may or may not be a human creation, a product of our own minds?

Nominally Catholic said...

"Society would then not promote any one Truth as The Truth(™), but nevertheless would actively support the search for Truth, whatever it may be or not be."

Yay, Hiedegger! The only problem with this is that you then have people counseling elders into assisted suicide as a "dignified" and "authentic" way of ending their lives. So yes, let's thank God for Vatican II, for defending each person's authentic truth as a way of being "pastoral"--but at which point does our pastoral lenience become actions of demonic???

Nominally Catholic said...

That is, when does Satan himself turn around and tell us the "Haha" of the Simpsons' Nelson Muntz?

A Sinner said...

Sea of Faith looks really interesting. I'm not sure I'd unequivocally affirm its assertion of religious faith as "human created," but I do think the idea of holding to our truths "provisionally" (which I take to mean in an "open" manner) is important. If religious faith is approached as a "human creation," what we must mean here is that the spiritual traditions of mankind are the product of our grappling with and seeking after the Divine, and as such are valuable as the products of that search whether they've entirely succeeded or not. But I see no reason to insist on the idea that no one has ever actually found the truth, or that none of the systems out there on the market are actually Revealed by God. I think the whole premise of the search is that something MUST be the truth, whether it is an "existing product" on the market or something yet to be discovered. But it must be discoverable. As Catholics, we belief it is the revelation of God in Christ through His Church. But that doesn't change the basic pluralistic respect we must have for Truth before "the" Truth.

A Sinner said...

Actually, the Sea of Faith website offers a really fascinating way to define the "idolatry" General Ursus was asking about: perhaps it could be defined something like making a god out of our CONCEPT OF God.

That concept may or may not be accurate (though it will never be "complete"). I find it odd that SoF insists on a non-realist theism rather than remaining agnostic on the realism/non-realism question.

I do like their refute to "fundamentalist atheism" that says "there is no such thing as God, because God is not a thing!"

But insisting positively that no concept of God is accurate rather than just focusing on how a concept of God, whether accurate or not, can become an idol...seems a little bit like the same paradox I've been describing about making an exclusive claim against exclusive claims.

I'd be more comfortable with SoF if they focused on how "Theistic ways of making meaning are valuable whether or not there 'really' is a God" instead of insisting that "Theistic ways of making meaning are valuable even though there is no 'real' God." If they're so against dangerous certainties, why go so far as to insist THAT with certainty? As, it seems to me, the problem isn't having Reality or Being as a part of our concept of God (they're certainly a part of mine!), but rather making an idol OF that concept, of any concept.

But either way, an idolization of our human "concept-of-God" is what God™ is in whatever form He™ takes (and here's the important part: this remains true EVEN IF we believe it is an accurate form).

But, thankfully, that God(™) is Dead.

Nominally Catholic said...

I have to say, this is a great way to respond also to the "God causes innocent suffering" argument. It pins God(TM) apart from GOD. GOD doesn't cause innocent suffering but God(TM) does. So it's a battle of images of God and the realities we attribute to them. So the loving God versus the Judgmental God...which one wins?

Bridget said...

"I feel it "squares the circle" and eliminates the contradictions laid out at the beginning of this post. For, lo and behold, I don't consider this sort of openness "essential" for ideological communion with me (though I personally hold it)! So (ala Edwin Markham) while they may draw a circle to shut me out, I draw one to take them in, and the system as a whole (even in spite of their attempt at self-enclosure or division of the world into 'us' and 'them') remains open for me by refusing to "return in kind" the division or exclusion"

But without division or exclusion there is no form, nothing de-finite. You speak as though the word "closed" were a dirty one.
But dogma emerges as a reaction: it is formulated to exclude error, not to include truth.
Would the circle you draw exclude no error? And if it does exclude error, in what sense is it not closed.

For each step in which there is an increase in our freedom for Truth, there must be a preceding step in which our freedom from truth decreases. 

And is this refusal of yours to "return in kind" a dogmatic one, or are you just being perverse?

And I do not like this gnostical sounding monism of the God behind the God stuff. The Trinity is not bigger than the individual persons. It does not contain them. 

- Bridget

Anonymous said...

If I may, this reminds me - somehow - of Rashi's perspective on the Torah, the Ark of the Covenant, and the Temple (maybe Joachim of Fiore/Hildegard of Bingen and the Church, too). Scott Hahn - rightly, I believe - in his scholarly works believes that the Apostle Paul saw the Law in the same way as Rashi did - a tutelary punishment like Paul, Justin Martyr, and Origen saw the pagan gods. When the people refused to go up to Mt. Sinai and placed Moses in their stead, God gave them the Decalogue, the Ark, and the Tabernacle as the mediating presence of God (TM). They objectified God - much as Karl Rahner said the Serpent was the first theologian, objectifying God in the third person. The kings tried to ensnare God (TM) in the Temple and Jerusalem.

Yet God objectifies Himself in the Glory and the Word in His own self-comprehension. One might say that the entire world and the angelic hierarchy is an objectification of God done on His behalf. Yet one might say that the Word's function is unite all of nature comprehended in the Word back to God Unoriginated.

One might say that just as mankind underwent a Fall through the happy fault, fell again at the Tower of Babel (read civilization with all its travails and glories a la Jacques Ellul), Israel was doomed from the beginning of the Covenant to fall (cf. Deuteronomy) and the Golden Calf, Jesus the Son and Word was crucified, and the Church has risen and waned. Yet God prevails. Indeed, as Paul said, prophecies go and tongues fade but Love remains.

I don't know. Maybe these ramblings are falling into some kind of antinomianism or Joachimism (Heaven forbid).

Yet, I could not help but think of St. Hildegard and Joachim when I read this post. At the same time, when I read this post, I became a little uncertain about the future.

- Alcuin of New York

Anonymous said...


A very old debate, I must say the best essay I read on trying to deal with the Trinity as Unity and Persons is Stratford Caldecott's essay on Meister Eckhart and the Trinity.

As for the statement concerning dogma, I think I agree with you. I think - at least, I think since I could not understand completely this post - what A Sinner is saying that God objectified in the human mind is distinguishable from God in His essence, both Being and Above-Being - and in some sense idolatrous. I think he is saying that dogma can be treated in the same way - that is, as objects, or as he said in an earlier post "I believe them not simply because they are true."

I don't know.

Nominally Catholic said...

"what A Sinner is saying that God objectified in the human mind is distinguishable from God in His essence, both Being and Above-Being - and in some sense idolatrous."

The only idol-less God is the Holy Trinity, which, I think, for the Christian at least is a being which men and women can know in the person/humanity/being of Jesus Christ. Jesus offers us the option of knowing the Trinity intimately in our own being through his being. Exalting a Unitarian God above the Trinity is heresy. Every prayer must begin and end with the Trinity in Christian thinking.

Nominally Catholic said...

Even Mary is not an idol in the sense that her very being points to the being of Jesus which points to the being of God as Trinity. Not in vain is Jesus' prayer to the Trinity in the New Testament, nor Mary's Magnificat about the holiness of God the Savior.