Friday, 14 May 2010

'Not All Theists Believe God Exists' by John Maus

As a theist, I am often asked, “why do you believe all that foolishness?” What exactly am I supposed to believe? That a god exists? Of course not, at least, not in the sense a stone, or a house, exist; not even in the sense a subatomic particle, or a number, exist. But then what is it to exist anyways? A great deal of twentieth century philosophy was dedicated to this question. That effort may seem nothing more than pointless. However, the rationale was, because science rests on some presupposition of being—analyzing this or that being, but never being as such—we should try and understand what being means. Philosophy wanted to understand the meaning of the word “being” because some presupposition about its meaning is the very condition of possibility for science; not to mention history and politics. This concerns theism, then, because it raises the question: how can we know whether or not the divine is when we do not know what it means to be? We know, for example, the stone is, the house is. But none of this is at question, what is at question is what it means that these things are, what it means to be, and whether or not we can attribute the predicate of being to the divine without first understanding what this predicate means.

Assuming we did know what the predicate of being means, many theists would not attribute it to the divine. These theists understand the divine as that which escapes, in a certain sense, all predication, including existential predication, because, for them, the divine is the very possibility of any predication whatever. The divine, as these theists understand it, is without being or non-being, because, for them, it is what calls non-being to being. This particular concept is, then, necessarily different from other concepts; especially the usual beings theists are accused of believing in. It is not a new concept either. The Gospels, for example, do not present the divine as a being. More importantly, they do not present the divine as an answer to the problem of evil; as if there could be justification of the unjustifiable, as if merely attempting such justification would not itself be barbarous. Instead of all this, in the Gospels, Christ himself asks “Why?” The divine is presented as love; the humble and always fleeting trace of the Word, or something glimpsed in the faces of the poor and suffering.

I have referred to the Gospels. The Bible has many fantastic stories. Already in the second century CE, the Church Father Origen explained these stories should not be read literally. Even so, many people do just that, and some of them even boast when the stories fail to withstand this literal reading. Why frame a text solely within a context radically hostile to it? This is like those Evangelicals who try to prove biblical stories using science. It intentionally misses the mark. Anyways, do human beings really possess a means of common measure for that which has nothing in common? With this question, we might be reminded of Marx, for whom the real bad faith was always in a universal equivalence.

We must remember the truth: there is no truth, but rather only the creative possibilities of reckoning with this absence. Regardless of how we enhance our sensory abilities, our knowledge of things, our consciousness, and so on, the world will never cease being mediated to us. We will never have immediate access to the world. Even mathematics is founded on the axiomatic method. Science is only one, albeit extraordinarily productive, way of mediating the world, and it is not above historical mutability or political interest. Consider love. The descriptions given of it by poetry are surely as true in their own right as those given by biology. In a similar way, couldn’t the story of creation given in Genesis be as true as the one given in The Origin of the Species? To insist otherwise betrays a violence, a failure of the imagination, an unthinking opposition to alterity. It is the same posture that suggests religion is something “backwards,” something we are now “growing out of.” By this logic, one is justified in approaching, for example, an indigenous people, and explaining to them everything part and parcel with their culture and their way of life is “old fashioned,” and that they should embrace science in its place. This is precisely the logic used to legitimate the colonial projects that decimated entire peoples. Besides, to believe in progress, in this general sense, is to have learned nothing from the camps.

The supreme question of theism was never a question of being. Theism, as currently embodied in the three great monotheistic traditions, is essentially faith the divine marks the possibility of a relationship—collective or individual—with that for which there can be no idol. There will always be reprehensible human activity in the name of this relationship, just as there will always be reprehensible human activity. To answer the question “Why is such a relationship desirable?” would be to make the divine answer to something other than itself. In other words, it would be to make what is, for those who have faith in it, the absence of any absolute, what exceeds any and every absolute, answer to some absolute. It is not a matter of use, nor is it a matter of certainty in the sense of causality or a positive fact; it is a matter of being faithful. It is certainly not a matter of cowardice or ignorance. This faith is what the philosopher Friederich Nietzsche was about in his famous declaration on the death of god: creative fidelity to the absence of any absolute. In his famous parable of the madman, it was the so-called atheists who did not understand what was meant by the death of god, merely laughing instead, like so many today, “Where then has he gone? Did he lose his way like a child?”

The choice is between worship of an idol or worship of the divine. If they are not demanding whichever fanatics they have taken as exemplary of theism give up one idol for another, many of the so-called atheists of today demand nothing less than the divine itself become an idol, the deus absconditus become the deus manifestus, like the centurions mocking Christ, “If you really are a god, then…” For many theists, however, the whole point is to kneel, precisely, before no idol at all. This does not mean these theists do not recognize the truths of science, of art, of politics, of love, but rather, for them, these truths are not mutually exclusive. This is because they have faith in, and so a relationship with, what lies outside any of these.

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