Monday, September 22, 2008

What is God, Anyway?

This isn't exactly The Founding, but it touches on so many of the theological discussions in our comments sections lately, I thought it might be helpful for clarity's sake. Plus, I don't think things have changed all that much from the Founding era.

National Review Online writer Mike Potemra gives us the shocking news:

Christopher Hitchens Does Believe in God!

[H]aving just attended a discussion between Hitchens and Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete at New York's Pierre Hotel, I think his case is even more interesting than that. In the course of the discussion, Hitchens claimed not to be a reductionist; he said mankind cannot do without the "numinous" and (I think this was his other phrase) the "transcendent." (He located this in, for example, Verdi's "Requiem.")

Now the numinous and the transcendent are exactly what we believers mean by God. Hitchens says what he doesn't believe in is the "supernatural" — but that's merely a quibble about words. If you use the word "nature" — as so many people do — as interchangeable with "what is" or "being," then God is not "super-natural" at all, because — as Aquinas, chiefly, reminds us — God is the pure act of Being itself, Ipsum Esse Subsistens.

Many times during the debate, Hitchens ranted (it's not too strong a word; I was there) against religions. And just as often, Msgr. Albacete responded, "I couldn't agree with you more."

[snip]

Finally, and ironically, what Hitchens is is not an atheist at all, but a Puritan — and I have good news for him: When he meets the real God, he will not be disappointed. He will not feel "oppressed" by a celestial "Big Brother;" he will find the one in whom we cannot rest "until we rest in thee" (to quote another famous person who converted). And he'll finally have mercy on believers — we were, after all, doing our best.

24 comments:

Phil Johnson said...

TVD wrote, "When [Hitchens] meets the real God, he will not be disappointed.
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You write as though you mean to say that you have some substantial knowledge about the real God.
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Is that so, Tom? Do you?

Tom Van Dyke said...

That was Mike Potemra, Phil. I just pass it along for thinking people.

I myself don't really write like that for reasons previously expressed. But a look at Maimonides or Aquinas on the knowability of God might disabuse some people of the notion that theism must equal certainty.

Ray Soller said...

TVD, in his own words, wrote,"I thought it [the Potemra article] might be helpful for clarity's sake. Plus, I don't think things have changed all that much from the Founding era."

Being the simple minded person that I am, I would like some more clarification, especially since, even though the Founding era found its own way to cope with the likes of Thomas Paine, this era never met up with the likes of Christopher Hitchens. Pray tell, how might founders like Washington and Adams respond to Hitchens, where he says, "I am absolutely convinced the main source of hatred in the world is religion, and organized religion?" (see video)

Tom Van Dyke said...

I dunno. Voltaire was around in the Founding era, quite influential, and not dissimilar in his weltanshauung than Hitchens' atall atall.

You have the floor. Declarative sentences, por favor, Ray. If you have a point, please make it. I'll get your back on it no matter what's on your mind. I trust you won't behave swinishly.

But when Hitchens uses the word "religion," we might acknowledge how ambiguously the Founders used the term. Washington used "religion" in his Farewell Address in a salutary fashion, as being essential for the health of the new American republic; others used it as a synonym for sectarianism, those minor conceptual differences between men that gives them an excuse to return to being at each other's throats.

If you're genuinely interested in starting at the beginning, Ray, Aquinas' God-as-Ipsum Esse Subsistens is a not-bad place to start. I once called Maimonides the "Jewish Aquinas," but as Maimonides came first and brought not only Aristotle but the great Islamic philosophers to Christendom's attention, Aquinas is more properly called "the Christian Maimonides." Christendom remains in Judaism's debt, at its beginning, in the middle, and on this very day.

Dave2 said...

On this watered-down definition of theism, does everyone who really likes music count as a theist?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Hey, you gotta start somewhere...

Phil Johnson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Johnson said...

Tom, you have certrainly put me in my place. Can you forgive me for my hasty and blundering response to your quotation?

Charles said...

"the numinous and the transcendent are exactly what we believers mean by God"

"When he meets the real God ..."

Even with allowances for the casual style appropriate to a pop culture publication and literary license, it seems reasonable to assume that a writer seemingly trying to make a semi-serious point takes some care in their choice of words. And Mr. Potemra's implication that one will "meet" the "numinous and transcendant" seems to exhaust those allowances and attain the status of an abuse of language.

This is not just (though perhaps mostly) nit-picking. One of the main criticisms of the so-called "New Atheists" (another abuse of language) is that they are sorely lacking in appreciation of the subtleties of theology, in particular that they address primitive concepts of "god" in which few actually believe - a criticism that strangely ignores that millions of Americans speak and act as if they do believe in a most anthropomorphic version.

Could it be that notwithstanding his claim that "we believers mean by God" something close to - perhaps even identical with - what Mr. Hitchens considers indispensible, deep down Mr. Potemra is one of those millions?

- Charles

Phil Johnson said...

The idea of the "numinous and the transcendent" is, in and of itself, something that explains its own meaning.

To give expression to that which is outside the human ability to percieve.

Where, in the history of all human experience, is there any substantial evidence of an actual diety?
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Charles said...

Not directly on-topic, but this sounds interesting. I haven't read it yet, but the description suggests that it might offer support for (what I understand to be) Mr. Van Dyke's position re the importance of religious belief per se.

http://lsolum.typepad.com/legaltheory/2008/09/koppelman-on-co.html

(Koppelman blogs at Balkinization.)

Charles

Ray Soller said...

Tom, you're "dunno" works for me, but, in contrast, I see a drastic amount of change between the Founding era and the weltanshauung of today.

I agree, those interrogatories are usually a cop out. My interest in the "beginning" tries to focus on empirical events like the astrological basis for the "seven days" of creation, historical dates for the DOB & DOD of Jesus, and finding out what happened at GW's first inauguration. My quarrel with Maimonides is that he messed up dating the occurrences of Sabbatical years during the biblical period.

Pardon me, I do have another question: How did piggly wiggly get into the mix?

Matt Huisman said...

Charles, I'm not sure I follow your criticism of Potemra's choice of words. If anything, I would have thought Hitchens - who has the greater burden since he is the one stirring things up here - would be a more ripe target.

Potemra is spot on when he refers to Hitchens as a Puritan, only, Hitchens has no text.

Numinous? Transcendent? God only knows what he means by that.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The terms are from man's point of view, of course. I'll break my rule about the Wiki: Numinous..

Hitchens isn't just an atheist, of course, he's an "antitheist." As we see, he starts at the end, where "religion" means the Inquisition, the slaughter of the Anabaptists, or today's jihadists.

Theologically for him and many others, "religion" is the televangelists you catch while channel-surfing, and Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

[We're all sinners of course, even Jonathan Edwards.]

But what we see today [and I see it on this blog, which is why I brought it up] is quite backwards, God in the hands of angry sinners. And damned angry, some of them.

So best to start at the beginning, instead as the monsignor does. Hitchens says he's not a reductionist, so we ask why is he moved by Verdi's "Requiem" more than by a pile of pig poop? This much we can witness for ourselves in man.

Ray, Voltaire was quite in the mix back in the day, and the variations of deism took full flower shortly thereafter. As for the days of creation and all that, I've never understood how people who laugh at fundamentalists become fundamentalists themselves, the least charitable of interpretations. [Per the Big Bang, Maimonides seem to have been right about creation, you know. Aristotle was wrong, thinking the universe was eternal. We don't hold that against Aristotle, do we?]

And Phil, my brother, of course. Seven times seven, as the saying goes.

Phil Johnson said...

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If Hitchens is saying that God is a numinous transcendental being, his point has to be that only God can know what God is--that the identity of God is outside human ability to comprehend.
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Charles said...

matt -

"... the numinous and the transcendent are exactly what we believers mean by God." - Potemra

I am neither criticizing nor defending Hitchens. Although (according to Potemra) Hitchens introduced the words from a secular perspective, Potemra is the one who associated them with God. Hence, my wonder at "meeting" an entity describable by such words.

My point is that this seems a specific example of a tactic some "believers" use to refute logical, evidentiary, etc, criticisms of a concept of "god" - claiming "transcendance", "beyond human comprehension", et al, while simultaneously describing in some detail non-transcendental characteristics of that "god". Logically, it would seem that if one conceives of "god" as something that transcends human comprehension, there isn't anything concrete to be said (at least by humans) about that "god".

- Charles

Phil Johnson said...

."Logically, it would seem that if one conceives of 'god' as something that transcends human comprehension, there isn't anything concrete to be said (at least by humans) about that 'god'."
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That's the point isn't it?
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It begins with the Enlightenment when humans first accepted the idea that society--the world--is man made. Unless I'm mistaken, that's what the word, historicism, deal with.
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Premodernism claims that man has nothing to do with the unfolding of history--that it is all part of some supernatural plan. We;re just players on a stage acting out our roles--Calvinistically. Right?
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Phil, since I've spent more time with these guys like Strauss and Ryn than most folks, I'll just inject that "historicism" indicates a belief in human progress. Strauss would say that the Problem of God and the "theologico-political" problem will be with man until the day his sun blows up or dies first from, say, his global warming.

Charles, I don't believe in "tactics," as that's mere sophistry if not postmodernism, basically that everything's bullshit.

After you peel away any convincing-sounding rhetoric---if you are able---what remains is stuff like Verdi's "Requiem" and why man tends to respond to it in a different way than, say, this.

I'm the bass player, BTW, tucked in below the "singer's" left elbow. ;-[D>

It was cool. I can do nihilism, I'm bilingual.

Phil Johnson said...

I can't say a lot about Strauss; although, I do have some of his work on my shelves and I've done some study on it. I believe he was an ideologue and that his teachings, pretty much, inform the Neo-conservative movement of our present day.
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Maybe you brought him up because I mentioned the idea of history?
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I think there is a lot of evidence being ignored here. But, the subjects are so specialized it could take us years to get a good grasp. In the meantime, it seems like we're caught in the eddies.

Matt Huisman said...

...Potemra is the one who associated them with God.

I suspect that he's merely using this as a ploy to draw Hitchens further out (as there are few things more certain than Hitchens' disavowal of God). Since Hitchens rarely (ever?) acknowledges the foundation of his criticism, it is frustrating to hear him retreat to some place called 'Numinoustan' - and then quickly change the subject.

Charles said...

"Hitchens [is] an "antitheist." ... he starts at the end, where "religion" means ... today's jihadists."

I wonder if this isn't key to his support for the Iraq war, which he presumably considers a necessary step in combatting Islamic fundamentalism. Among other things, Hitchens is an Orwell scholar (or at least fancies himself one - I have no idea what, if any, standing he has among other Orwell scholars). Having just reread "1984", it occurs to me that he may see the seeds of Oceania-style totalitarinism in religious fundamentalism in general, and Islamist fundamentalism in particular. If so, he presumably would consider the latter an existential threat to be resisted at all cost.

Or (more likely) my "analysis" may be a crock. But if there's at least a kernel of truth to it, I think Hitchens has his political geography wrong. As I was reading the section of "1984" that is dominated by Goldstein's description of the "philosophy" behind Oceania's totalitarianism, I saw a playbook for the Republican party as it has functioned for a couple of decades. Except that they recognized (possibly subconsciously at first - I'm not a fan of conspiracy theories) that in a mass media-saturated, ignorance-dominated democracy, torture isn't necessary to enforce conformity, slogans don't have to be force-fed, and uniformity isn't necessary (marginalizing the opposition suffices). So, Hitchens is terrified by the "far enemy", I by the "near enemy". (I should note that I single out the Rs only because they have been more effective, not because of any illusions about the other party.)

As for Hitchens' recent more vocal and militant anti-theism, my guess is that to some (possibly large) extent it's opportunism; the anti-god genre has, of course, been very profitable lately, and he is assured of an eager readership (usually including me, although I didn't bother with his late entry to the genre, having already OD'ed on Dennett, Harris, and Dawkins).

- Charles

Jonathan Rowe said...

I've never been into noise for the sake of noise. It's like a way of covering up for the fact that there's no music there.

Even with punk, if it's simple that's fine but it still needs good melodies (like Nirvana and the Ramones).

Now if only I could write melodies like THAT, I'd be a rich man.

Tom Van Dyke said...

You'd make for a lousy nihilist, then, Jon. Noise is just the same as Verdi's "Requiem." Everything is subjective.

Charles, based on my reading of him, I believe your guess about Hitchens' rationale for supporting the Iraq war is spot on. As for the rest, well, he did start out as a Trotskyite, after all. If I were a betting man, I'd say Hitchens will go kicking and screaming into that good night denying God, but he's young yet and still growing up.

Phil, I like Ryn's scholarly criticisms of Strauss, but he's positively psychotic on the Strauss-neocon connection. For one thing, Strauss openly mocks the Wilsonian "making the world safe for democracy" idea. And as previously noted, Trotskyists and their descendants in the modern left conform far more closely to Jacobinism than "neocons." The Jacobins believed that society's just an arbitrary construct, and that human nature is infinitely malleable. Strauss rejected the latter proposition, which in turn necessarily leads to certain patterns in the former.

Phil Johnson said...

I haven't run into much of Ryn's criticisms of Strauss.
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So, I can't do very well in a discussion of that with you.
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