The God of the Philosophers

Another item from the August/September issue of First Things not only caught my eye but impressed me as being, perhaps, the most interesting and thought-provoking thing I have ever read in that interesting and thought-provoking journal. It will come as no surprise to some of you that the piece can be found in the While We're At It section of Fr. Neuhaus's The Public Square. In noting the passing of Anglican theologian John Macquarrie, Fr. Neuhaus mentions the present infatuation in the mass media with folk atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. I found what Fr. Neuhaus had to say so striking, so important, that I've been thinking about it now for quite some time.
Many critics have pointed out that Hitchens, Dawkins, et al. set up a caricature of religion and then giddily demolish the straw man of their own creation. That is true enough, but more important is the idea of God that they insist upon denying. Let me put it bluntly: I do not believe in the God that Hitchens, Daniel Dennet, et al. do not believe in. We should even be made nervous by talk about "the existence of God," which invites the idea that God is one existent among other existents. The word God refers to the predication of existence itself. This reflects, of course, the traditional language of God as pure Being. In this understanding, to deny God is to deny reality. Macquarrie is right: Faith's name for reality is God. Whether or not one uses the word God, we are all engaged in a discussion about the nature--the ultimate nature--of reality. That discussion involves many disciplines, most notably philosophy and theology. Christians are those who believe that the revelation of God in the history of Israel and the Christ event is true and therefore, as Macquarrie puts it, "creation and its existence are good." Or, as 1 John puts it, "God is love." Hitchens, Harris, et al. are not really making the case for atheism. They are attacking the grab bag of evils and absurdities associated with that amorphous reality called religion, which is an easy thing to do. "Religion" has to do with human beliefs and behaviors that are as riddled with nonsense as any other human enterprise. Christians, qua Christians, have no stake in defending "religion." Much of what is called religion is false and meretricious....Now, if Hitchens and company want to talk about God, i.e., Reality, that would be a most welcome discussion.
There is much to ponder here, not the least of which is the question of what it means to suggest that God is not himself a mere existent like any other existent. I've discussed this notion of God being "beyond being" in other posts, notably back when I was engaged in something of a dialog with some very interesting and intelligent Orthodox bloggers for whom much of this probably seems like old news.

The simplistic and naive god of the "philosophers" is not the God of the Christians, though it is the whipping boy of the atheists, who snicker and slap each other on the back like frat boys at a cornhole party, pointing at what they take to be religious doctrine and spewing forth the intellectual equivalent of rude laughter. To some extent they need no answer, any more than creationists do. And yet, if you look at any textbook in the philosophy of science, you will almost invariably find an entire section devoted to the controversy over "intelligent design", in spite of the fact that there is no real controversy at all. So, too, I suppose, there will always be a felt need, if not a genuine one, to say something about the Dawkins and Dennetts of the world. What Fr. Neuhaus has said strikes me as very well said indeed, but it will not be the end of the story, any more than Michael Ruse's refutation of intelligent design has put an end to that story.

On the other hand, perhaps the Harrises and Hitchenses do serve a useful purpose: they provide a target at which folks like Fr. Neuhaus may shoot--though it is rather like shooting fish in a barrell--thus providing the rest of us with interesting and thought-provoking reading material. O felix culpa!


NeoChalcedonian said…
(1) Is Fr. Neuhaus restating the Scholastic teaching that God is Pure Act?

(2) So if Dawkins & Hitchens want to talk Thomistic natural theology Fr. Neuhaus is game for it?
John Farrell said…
It's a pity one couldn't get one of these three, Dawkins, Harris, or Hitchens to discuss this point. Oddly, from what I've seen or read of Dawkins, I think he'd be the least scornful of Neuhaus's point--if you could get him away from the limelight. Harris and Hitchens, I'm afraid, would probably just stare at you, uncomprehending...

This bears out what Gilson had to say, if I recall correctly, in God and Philosophy, about the unintended consequences of Descartes' decision to describe God in terms--not of being--but as the Author of creation. It didn't take long for those who followed to wonder why you need an author at all.
Jewish Atheist said…
I've heard this line of reasoning before, but it doesn't really make sense to me, for two reasons:

1) The God that Hitchens et al disbelieve in is in fact the notion of God as it was traditionally understood and as is probably understood by a majority of theists even today.

2) If God is identical to Reality or Being, how is it possible that He intervened in history or was incarnated as a man? It seems like you want to have it both ways.
Apollodorus said…
From my theologically sophomoric perspective, it sounds like Neuhaus is reiterating Scholastic, or at least Thomistic, theology. What little I've read in that tradition makes the same claim that God is not one existent among existents. Then again, the excerpt at any rate sounds rather close to pantheism, which is not at all what Neuhaus must have in mind and is certainly not what the Thomists I've read have in mind. Those authors (chiefly Brian Davies and Herbert McCabe, though also some stuff from a Jewish perspective drawing on Maimonides by Lenn Goodman) have answers for the kind of objections that the Jewish Atheist raises, usually focusing on the variously non-literal nature of human language about God and emphasizing the tremendous difference between divine and natural causation. I'm not sure that they're fully satisfactory answers, but they are answers that can't be easily shrugged aside.

One inescapable consequence of their view, though, does seem to be that a whole lot of ordinary believers and even philosophers have deeply mistaken notions of God. I guess we shouldn't really be surprised about that, though; if God is anything like what God must be in order to be God, he's got to be hard to understand. Most of us have seriously flawed understandings of phenomena that are, empirically at any rate, far more familiar. Besides, so many incompatible things have been said about God that it simply must be the case that great numbers of people are mistaken about him. And if any of the monotheistic religions are true, then understanding the metaphysics of divinity is not really necessary. Just as people can be at least fairly virtuous without a deep knowledge of moral philosophy, so too people can develop the theological virtues without a deep knowledge of philosophical theology. Or so it would seem.

Dawkins, Harris, et al. pretty much just blow a bunch of hot air, as far as I can tell. What surprises me is that gung-ho atheists don't read more work by legitimate philosophers; they offer up arguments that are at least a little bit more challenging, and don't pretend that 'science' somehow disproves the reality of God.
John Farrell said…
If God is identical to Reality or Being, how is it possible that He intervened in history or was incarnated as a man? It seems like you want to have it both ways.

Well, if I recall correctly, Thomas based his reasoning on Exodus, when God told Moses "I am Who Am." So the notion does have a Biblical inspiration at least as far as Aquinas is concerned.

But I think the answer to your question is that God doesn't necessarily have to dissociate himself from his reality to participate in the creation that he has brought about.
Apollodorus said…
Well, John, I'm not sure your answer really helps all that much. In part that's because the claim that God is 'reality' or 'being' hasn't been disambiguated from the pantheist claim that God is the whole of reality. Even with that confusion laid aside, though, whether God is 'reality' or a being who so thoroughly transcends nature that he cannot be said to be "one existent among existents," it becomes very puzzling how God could interact with the world at all and how he could become incarnate as a human being.

On the first issue, we may be limited to saying what divine causation cannot be. If God really does transcend nature, then the categories that we use to understand nature will not apply to him in the same way. That sort of negative theology will leave plenty of people unsatisfied, but I can't imagine why we should expect to be able to achieve complete cognitive clarity when talking about God.

On the second issue, there simply is no good explanation I can imagine of how God could become a human being and yet remain God. We might be able to imagine that certain key concepts -- the Trinity, say -- must play a role in making the Incarnation possible. I doubt very much, though, that any perfectly coherent explanation of the Incarnation could be given. That also seems to be as it should be; it is a mystery, after all. I don't think I equivocate when I insist that we can't fully explain or understand those kinds of mysteries.

Atheists should not insist that theists be able to provide comprehensive and unproblematic accounts of the nature of God before they will grant the possibility that God exists (or, as Neuhaus may prefer, 'is real'). A demand of that sort is epistemologically naive and metaphysically inappropriate. Few of us can offer comprehensive and unproblematic accounts of anything at all, and any god that might exist should, by its very nature, escape our complete comprehension.
John Farrell said…
Appollodorus, well said. (Of course, mystery is exactly what seems to drive modern atheists nuts whenever the discussion comes up.)

Apollodorus said…
Mystery drives people nuts because appeals to mystery so very often are or at least seem to be attempts to dodge the hard questions. I've certainly been around for plenty of conversations in which 'mystery' was apparently expected by some to loosen the knots of any difficulty or apparent inconsistency. I tend to respond to such things much like atheists do, though perhaps not so angrily. In some ways, they are right to be frustrated. In other ways, though, they are too quick to dismiss mystery.

I think of one of the many quotations I've read from Newman: "ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt." If a person's belief is genuinely immune to doubt regardless of how many and how serious the difficulties, then we have little or no reason to consider it a rational belief. Beliefs are rational when we hold them for reasons. If we actually hold a belief for reasons and do not merely rationalize our irrational beliefs to others when challenged, then we will be at least somewhat sensitive to considerations that bear on the truth of our beliefs. If we continue to believe something despite a tremendous number of serious difficulties, then we most likely cease to have a rational belief.

So far I think most whitebread, average guy atheists would be with me, and would think that theism can't possibly be rational. I'm not a theist, but I disagree. On the one hand, theists seem to be able to deal reasonably well with many of the central difficulties that face their position. More importantly, though, it seems to me that theistic belief can be rational even if it is beset by a great number of difficulties. Newman is right so long as he isn't interpreted to mean that belief in God is completely immune to doubt derived from difficulties. In particular, it seems to me that the case for believing in God -- whether we are talking about philosophical arguments, historical arguments peculiar to Christianity or Judaism, arguments based on tradition-specific experience, or whatever -- does not depend on anyone's ability to explain the nature of God or how God works in any serious detail. Of course, we must be able to say something, otherwise it won't make any sense to say that we believe, disbelieve, doubt, affirm, etc. Yet I can see no reason why an inability to explain very much at all about God should all by itself lead a person to conclude that God is not real. The last I heard (6 or 7 years ago, so it may be false by now!), astrophysicists were pretty well agreed on the existence of dark matter, but they had no real idea what it was, where it came from, what it did, how much of it there was, etc. They affirmed its existence for reasons -- though not, I think, because any direct observation was possible -- and did not put its existence into question simply because they could explain almost nothing about it. The theist is at least potentially in the same boat; so long as his reasons for believing in the existence of God do not themselves encounter serious and irresolvable problems, then ten thousand difficulties really need not make one doubt.

Of course, tremendous difficulties do seem to be incompatible with the kind of dogmatic self-assurance that characterizes much popular religious discourse. Religious people hardly have a monopoly on dogmatism, however, as we all know too well.
John Farrell said…
Again, well said. You're certainly not the kind of non-theist one comes across in the comment boxes at sites like, oh for example, PZ Myers.


By the way, I had a look at your profile and thoroughly approve of your tastes in books and movies.
CPKS said…
Appollodorus says: "Beliefs are rational when we hold them for reasons." This is not quite right. Surely it would be closer to the truth to say that beliefs are rational if there are good reasons for holding them. Person A may believe that P for excellent reasons; person B may also believe that P, but for quite bad reasons, or no reasons at all (by "hunch"). The rationality of belief that P is independent of the reasons which any particular believer may in fact have for believing that P.
Apollodorus said…
Cpks: I don't think you and I disagree at all, so long as you can recognize that there is a difference between holding a belief for bad reasons and holding it for no reasons at all. Being mistaken is not the same thing as being irrational. People may use the word "irrational" to describe beliefs held for bad reasons, but then they would use it with a different sense than I have been using it. For the sake of clarity, I should also point out that holding a belief for "reasons" means holding them for the relevant kind of reasons; a person who believes in personal immortality simply because it makes him feel better certainly has a "reason" for believing, but not a reason of the relevant kind.

John: I'm glad you approve of my favorite books and movies; I'm sorry you don't feel the same way about the music! I have, I admit, retained some favorites from my adolescence. You might feel better to know that I really do like Gregorian chant and polyphony, I just haven't listened to nearly enough of it. Scott's review list strikes me as a pretty good beginner's guide, though...
John Farrell said…
Appollodorus, no disrespect to your taste in music intended at all- it was just the books and movies caught my attention more.


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