Read part 1: Stephen Law on the allegiance of philosophy in the battle between science and religion.
Read part 2: Anglican theologian John Milbank's forthright response to Stephen Law.
Read part 3: Law argues that Milbank's defence of religion is little more than pseudo-profundity.
Many thanks indeed to Stephen Law for his temperate and measured reply to my initial response. We can agree at least on the Confucian need to maintain our humanity – the quality of Ren!
However, I must reiterate my views that first God is not subject to evidence and second that it is not after all so easy to disentangle God and the Good.
First, Stephen claims that my desire to distinguish religion at least partially from magic (and the issues here are more complex than many think) applies only to the question of whether we can influence or manipulate God. However, occult influences cut both ways, as any decent magical practitioner will tell you! Magicians may be able to affect the weather, and even the stars if they are advanced in their art, but the influence of the weather and the stars on us also counts as magical. Indeed the former instance of natural magic remains both apparent and mysterious – just how does material weather affect our spiritual mood? Reverse magic whereby things move minds would seem to be all too real, while, inversely, the complex effect of our minds on our bodies (ranging from moving our limbs to moods affecting physical well-being) would seem possibly to fall within the instance of primary natural magic exercised by mental influence.
I mention these things just to establish, perhaps to Stephen’s relief, that I am not so naïve as to wish to preach the usual pious sermon about religion being completely different to magic. To the contrary, anthropologists have long shown that magic can be regarded as sometimes tantamount to the practical side of religion, or even its dark side when common spiritual goods are manipulated to personal ends. And it is even the case that prayer, ritual and sacrament in their aspect of ‘effectiveness’, as opposed to the gratuitous offering back of glory to the source of glory, are not entirely free of a positive taint of ‘magic’, either in oriental or western understanding. Western tradition, Platonic and Christian, has here often spoken of the ‘theurgic’. To perform certain gestures or to utter certain words, like the Eastern Orthodox mantra of the ‘Jesus prayer’, is to attract to oneself and one’s surroundings not just angelic forces but even divine power itself – not by altering the minds of spiritual realities, or by pulling them towards one by force of uttered formula, but by so attuning oneself to their ultimate nature that we can become open to their influence, can become channels of their eternally good and beneficent nature.
Indeed Confucius, invoked by Stephen, also thought in these terms – but what was interesting about him was that he thought that the appropriate religious performances for attuning oneself to heaven (tian) were everyday, civic and ordinary, rather than being rites of nature and capable of extraordinary transformations, as much more in the case of Chinese Daoism.
What is interesting about this qualifiedly ‘magical’ dimension to prayer and liturgy is that it saves its religious dimension of petition to the gods or God from reduction either to the illusion of changing God’s mind (and then he would not be God) or else from being a disguised mode of self-therapy – prayer as merely making us feel better. Instead, prayer can really be effective and a mode of bringing divine influence to bear upon the world just because God can thereby further operate as he always wishes to, through our receptiveness towards him – while given a necessary openness about the ‘paranormal’ reach of mental influence (if mind indeed be mind beyond matter) we cannot rule out the notion that through prayer we also render our environment, natural, animal and human, more open to heavenly reach. Naturally though, from God’s point of view he is the sole ultimate cause of everything – not just of the results of prayer, but also of the setting in motion of the liturgical process that can open us more to the scope of his eternal action.
But is this divine influence, as exercised through liturgical and all other channels, primarily a matter of ‘magic’? No, because God is not a dinosaur or a remote star, to cite Stephen’s examples. Dinosaurs and astral bodies are still things, even if they are big and ominous. God is not a thing, and just for this reason he may be equally thought of as small and intimate (this is partly why he showed us that he is also a baby) as he is incomprehensibly vast and sublime. And if God is not a thing, then he does not affect us selectively and occasionally, or even persistently but aspectually (like the Sun), but rather all the time and in every possible respect.
This is exactly why the effectiveness of prayer cannot be proved and any ‘proof’ of sainthood needs to be an intuitive, hermeneutic reading, such that one should surely view all-too modern Catholic procedures for canonisation, replacing an older and more authentic populist acclaim, often with some measure of suspicion. God’s influence is more than magical and measurable in relation to our formulas and even our sanctified behaviours because it is inexorable, unalterable and unvariable.
Beyond the realm of tinctures, cures and recipes, God is our entire basic diet, much more akin to what a mother provides for her baby, than the remedy provided by a doctor or the algorithms taught by mathematical masters. God is esse, he is ‘to be’, being itself, unqualified action itself. As such, he is not one influence upon us; he is the cause of our being, he is the being we share in common and he is the unique particularity of our individual being. (Rowan Williams sums this up well in his recent first Cambridge Hulsean lecture.)
So is there any evidence for this God? Not in the way there is evidence that my house, in which I am now sitting at my desk, hammering out this piece on my laptop, evidentially exists. Rather in the way that the entire world exists and being itself and the ‘thingness of things’, ie ‘reality’ exists. The trouble is, then, that there is just too much evidence that God exists and this is the trap which he sets (if Stephen will forgive me), for the intelligent but unwise – the ‘foolish in their hearts’ of whom the Psalmist speaks. For if everything speaks of God, all things symbolise him, then in a sense indeed nothing does – that is to say, literally no-thing does.
So we are talking about a saturated evidence for God – the world is so soaked in this evidence that no particular aspect or item of the world bespeaks God more decisively than any other, albeit it may do so with more intensity. Is this, as Stephen terms it, ‘pseudo-profound’ evasion on my part? No, because the ‘saturated evidence’ is not really and seriously deniable, save by sophistry. There is a mystery of being and of reality. Reading them as the action of a personal or tri-personal God is one serious attempt at solving the riddle of our existence, though not, of course, the only one and not the only religious one. Nonetheless it is clear that if one does adopt this interpretation, then one is not offering a hypothesis about something within the world, subject to evidence and testing, but a thesis about the world as such, about its universal and transcendental dimensions. How can a proposal that seeks to account for the ‘everythingness of everything’ be subject to proposed counter-instances? It cannot.
How then, does all this relate to the main question at issue between me and Stephen, which is that of the compatibility of divine goodness and omnipotence? The crucial point to make here is that being is not the only transcendental – the only term applying to anything whatsoever and not just to a particular kind of thing. Some other terms like this are equally ‘grey’ – like ‘thing’ and ‘anything’ and ‘unity’ or ‘numerable’. But others are more highly coloured – everything that exists is also ‘true’ because it is the case and holds as such, ‘beautiful’ because without some harmony, even of an ash-heap, nothing at all would be apparent to us. And finally it is also ‘good’ as the God of Genesis sees his creation, because anything we see as evil we immediately see as deficient or distorted, or as lacking in a fullness of existence that it ‘should’ have. Without question the default position is immediately to receive any existing thing not as neutrally grey, as if we were metaphysically colour-blind, but as positively good.
Therefore it is not an ascertainable amount of evidence that gradually accrues to evidence God – a mighty pile of fine facts of benignity – but the saturated transcendental universality of goodness. This includes the fact that the most contaminated thing could not exist at all without some germ of benevolence – the always remaining possibility to imagine that such a dire reality could have been or could even now be made to be better, like wasted Europe after World War Two.
Even were the world one vast concentration camp, the fact of their remaining one last believer, one last good person, would still carry infinitely more evidential weight for the reality of God than the all-pervasive horizon of accumulating contaminated dust. Indeed, to a certain extent this is just how some Christians do truly perceive a fallen world. Yet for all Christians, the star and stable of Bethlehem vastly outshine the darkness of the Herodian midnight in which the world has always tended to dwell.
It follows that the logic of the evidence of faith is not that of the logic of the laboratory. This evidence is at once so omnipresent as not to be able to be singled out as evidence for one thing or state of affairs rather than another, and yet equally so very particular that just one instance or exception can establish a universal truth or rule. This is all in keeping with the fact that, as Aquinas points out, God exceeds any contrast between universal and individual, abstraction and exemplification.
How does this relate to the question of theodicy? Clearly the ‘evidence’ for good necessarily outweighs that from evil. But can any amount of evil be compatible with God’s omnipotence? By the logic of privation it can. All being is, just as being, good, and so all action is good and all power. By definition, evil is inhibition of being: an inhibition of action and so of potency. Evil is weakness, a house divided against itself which cannot eventually stand, as Jesus teaches in the gospels. Thus, by definition also, evil is an attempt to deny and resist divine omnipotence which is co-terminous with God’s infinity of act. It is not, then, that the circumstance of evil calls into question divine omnipotence, but that evil ‘impossibly’ attempts to deny and resist it. Only, by contrast, were evil to be wrongly granted real positive force and power would there be any question as to why God authored or allowed instances of malice and suffering.
The question must then be rephrased. How is the impossible possible – the denial of power, action, being and reason, besides the denial of goodness? Here lies a mystery that religion tends (rationally) to recognise as such. Christianity speaks of a ‘fall’. This is meant pre- or meta-historically. The Fall is exactly like a malign transcendental – again not a thing, but a kind of meta-event that taints and stains the entire radiance of being.
Here, after all, is the simple empiricism of Christianity: the world is clearly primarily good if one understands anything whatsoever about ontological priority. (It is usually here important not to be a certain kind of analytic philosopher.) But equally clearly it is tragically riddled with inexplicable natural and cultural evil.
Quite simply then, the doctrines of Creation and Fall tell it as it obviously is. That this obviousness became historically hidden is itself a ruse of fallenness. Thus revelation – everywhere, but supremely with the arrival of God himself as human – was needed in order to disinter the most evident, to unhide the obvious once again. But now for us today to miss this evidence is a further mystery and a further human disaster.
Naturally though, Stephen can still object: if evil is ‘impossible’ in a created universe, then does not the fact that it has nonetheless arisen to despoil existence suggest that we are after all subject to a kind of ‘transcendental illusion’ – that being as good is somehow secretly hollowed out by nullity: an appealing apple that is rotten to the core? Here the religious view is forced to switch from the register of ontology to that of narrative: in particular, the ‘apocalyptic’ perspective as exemplified in the books of Daniel, Enoch (outside the Bible) and the Apocalypse of John (or ‘Revelation’ which brings the Christian Bible to a close). Apocalypse discloses eternal reality to be also (as the German 19th-century romantic idealist philosopher Schelling saw) an eternal ‘Victory’ closing up and closing off history in a struggle that is at once temporal and eternal. If God is good and omnipotent, then indeed we have to have faith that evil will be eschatologically overcome and all creatures be restored and redeemed. It is this apocatastasis which the New Testament and many of the Greek Church Fathers teach – the eternity rather than the penultimate character of hell being a disastrous later misreading, itself arguably responsible for the aberrant view that both punishment and then evil itself can have any positive and so seriously ontological aspect.
But is this faith simply irrational? No, because in the face of the baffling and intolerable mystery of evil, we can only proffer hope – hope which is always hope beyond hope, flying in the face of any possible evidence to believe that if good is indeed good, which is to say a reality lurking in all real things as such, then evil must be unnecessary, overcomable and both eternally and eventually, if for now invisibly, indeed overcome. This hope is naturally linked to our experience that, by enduring evil and forgiving it and seeking to find again the elusive harmony between people, the damage inflicted by evil can be repaired.
The keys to doing so are more a matter of skill, subtle and attentive style and the always novel application of traditional practice, rather than obedience to moralistic injunctions. This is just why the religious step beyond the ethical is so necessary for fulfilling and sustaining the ethical itself – the keys to re-harmonisation lie most of all in ritual practice, perhaps because it concerns the ‘magical’ joining of soul to body and embodied persons to each other whose obscure disruption by perverse passion and despair is usually the source of the worst human misery.
So I am also claiming that it is less easy than Stephen claims to disentangle an ethical from a religious outlook. To be ‘good’ tends to mean to receive the world as a gift in gratitude, to accept both its damage and its more original promise, and to seek to make good that promise after all. That is what goodness amounts to, whether or not one assents to the metaphysics that one’s attitude and actions surely imply. Thus I do not take all that seriously arguments about whether religious people or atheists are ‘better people’ taken one by one – though observation may suggest that faith counts for something when it comes to the cultivation of patience, generosity, or sacrifice. But it is perhaps at the wider, total cultural level that the difference more kicks in.
This consideration is relevant to Stephen comparison of Canada with the USA. It is simply not clear to me that the latter country is more religious than the former. For the US is often dominated by an all-too modern mode of Christianity, often inclined to a kind of gnostic individual spirituality, perfectly compatible with a public and political realm that is arguably more secular, instrumentalised and de-ritualised than those of Western Europe. One can plausibly ascribe the greater peacableness, combination of cultural pluralism with overall integration, strong sense of the corporate, the common good and the need for public welfare to Canada’s ultimate ‘Toryism’ or its founding loyalism, commitment to an anointed monarch and a shared political profession of Christian religious faith.
As to systematic sample comparisons between the children of religious people and those of atheists, one is allowed to treat these with the most extreme scepticism. Who and with what motives is undertaking these surveys? How on earth can other variables on behaviour be neutralised? And, above all, what are taken to be the criteria for ethics?
Even the measure of ‘altruism’ hopelessly skews any such survey, since this is a secular virtue, invented by Auguste Comte as an atheist displacement of Catholic charity. Thus, typically, secular humanism oscillates between ego-based morality (more happiness and more liberty for me) and pure ‘other-regarding’ ethics which ‘empathises’ by projection with the pursuit of the same things in others. When to party and when to endure becomes then undecidable and in consequence the grim doctrine of utilitarianism will tend to suggest that we should all of us suffer as much as possible into an interminable future in order to produce the maximum possible happiness for eventual utopian ‘others’ on a day of course which will never actually arrive. But both ancient and religious virtue ethics are concerned exactly with the issues of when we should party and when endure, and what proportions and right places for these will best go to make up human flourishing. Rather than either egoism or altruism, they are concerned with a reciprocal mourning and rejoicing – and the when, where and why of both.
Equally, religious ethics transcends the false secular moralism of rules without exceptions (whereas religious laws always admit exceptions – such that a sane understanding of the injunction ‘not to kill’ has always taken it to mean also ‘sometimes kill’ precisely to uphold the prohibition and to stop the killing of the innocent etc). Here the notion of the Good as a saturated transcendental is as much relevant to ethical practice as to philosophical theory. For the religious person is not applying abstractly regional rules supposed to protect equally regional rights and modes of happiness, but is rather seeking to instantiate Goodness seen as identical with all-pervasive reality itself. She is trying to be herself in a way that will harmonise with the real as well as with her immediate ecological and human community. Just for this reason, as Kierkegaard taught, religious morality is always singular, non-identically repeated and subjective. It is almost but not quite identical with amoral anarchy and can easily be confused with it. Naturally to the moralistic humanist this kind of being ethical looks simply appalling. And the very worst thing about it if she is any kind of functionary (as most people now seem to be reduced to being) is that it is just not sociologically or statistically measurable at all.
And then we get the red herring of supposed ethical cultures without religion. But any undergraduate would be marked zero if he suggested that, for example, Buddhist culture is like this – rather than being saturated by belief in gods, demons, effective rituals and an ultimate cosmic norm to which we are all drawn.
So I am surprised that Stephen is so gullibly misled by modern Chinese people wanting to claim a pre-invention of a palpably western post-enlightenment notion of ethics without religion. Confucianism commands respect for the gods (shen), besides the normativity of heaven. Its entire focus on the ordinary is in essence a demand that all of life should be one seamless ritual, reflecting as far as possible the true path of the transcendent. Indeed it would be wrong and yet rather more plausible to suggest that Confucianism lacks altogether our sense of the ethical, than that it lacks our sense of the religious.
To reiterate: whatever surveys conducted by dubious sociologists with dubious motives may say, it is manifest and palpable that contemporary society, leached of religion, embraces evermore fearfully an economic and ethical individualism, a sundering of mental from bodily identity (half-baked and increasingly dominant notions of the ‘cultural production of gender’ etc etc) a technological brutalism, a privatisation and criminalisation even of law itself, a collapse of family continuity and community solidarity and (as the French novelist Michel Houillebecq has delineated) a debased cult of the shocking, aberrant, violent and ugly in art under the propagandistic and deluded claim that fantasy and reality are sealed off from each other. Increasingly all these things lead to an arbitrariness about what is allowed and what isn’t – with what isn’t being radically demonised in a desperate attempt to reinstate those boundaries without which no culture can survive.
All this is unsurprising if people no longer assemble regularly in one place simply as human beings with an absolutely unconditional commitment to each other’s flourishing, within the belief that such assembling is in accord with reality and can remove eventually its manifest damage.
Now, it is true that my defence above of religion, belief in God and Christianity has often been framed in terms of paradox and apparent contradiction. But is this cause for suspicion and the ringing of non-sacred alarm bells? (Secular bells, of course, always sound to warn, and never to summons.) No. Rather, it would surely look suspicious if one’s religious discourse were non-paradoxical. For the laws of non-contradiction and of excluded middle, whereby a stone cannot be both a stone and not a stone in the same place and instance, apply, if they always do even here, only to finite things which are alone bounded and definable.
But is reality logical? Many very rational minds, from Plato through Hegel to the analytic philosopher Graham Priest have questioned this in various degrees. Plato thought that nothing finite was purely self-identical and so was not in a sense fully real. Hegel, somewhat in his wake, thought that the tensional striving of finite things at once in contradictory directions was one cause of change – even if he was wrong to see it as the only or the main one.
So the very salve against paradox, the law of non-contradiction, itself looks paradoxical once one brings infinity into the picture. And it is never out of it, though glimpsed but uneasily out of the corner of our daily eye. For the finite runs out into the infinite in every direction and thereby gets mixed up with the paradoxes of the infinite – is there a boundary between the infinite and the finite? There is and there isn’t. Clearly the infinite both includes and does not include the finite. What is more, as Priest insists, the bound of any finite thing both is and is not ‘within’ what it includes. Thus the very thing that renders something discrete is a betraying ambassador to the infinite that surrounds it. Today, then, religious language should admit the contradictory if it wants to avoid idolatry.
The vision of reality as good, spoiled and redeemable is therefore also a vision of the paradoxical reception of the infinite in the finite. For the infinite and the finite operate synergically at incommensurable levels (not each of them contributing different efforts on the same plane) and in this sense do not ‘contradict each other’ in the way that two finite things might. But it remains the case that their co-operation (in nature, grace and, for Christians, the incarnation) is contradictory in another way. For, as Eckhart argued, the finite is both barred by definition from the infinite and yet not so barred since the infinite is also by definition the refusal of all barriers. The very existence of the finite besides the infinite, like something other to God though he is omnipresent, appears to us an ‘impossible’ mystery. It follows that infinite action, since it refuses no limits, can enact and empower at a subordinate level finite action, without compromising its spontaneity, freedom and integrity. Yet it also follows that, since the bounded lies apparently outside the unbounded as negating its unboundedness, the coincidence of infinite and finite in nature, grace and incarnation remains a contradiction: not of two incompatible finite things, but of the realm where there can be incompatibility (the finite) and the realm where there can be no such thing (the infinite). Therefore one is driven to say that in one sense there is no rational gap and no possible contradiction between finite and infinite, but in another there is an incomprehensible and contradictory abyss, rendering their daily collaboration and coincidence an unsoundable mystery.
In the space of this abyss, it seems that a misconstrual can creep in on the part of finite creatures. And perhaps one aspect of this misconstrual that is ‘original sin’ or evil, is precisely the Satanic over-vaunting of reason through unrealistic pride. In that case, the refusal of goodness, action and power is also the refusal of the incomprehensible truth of paradox. We falsely imagine either that the infinite is nothing, or else that it is like an unimaginably vast finitude, whose power, goodness and willing can be validly thought of in terms of unsaturated finite realities.
And the mending of this misconstrual may be the arrival of yet more exorbitant paradox in the mode of the God-Man or ‘absolute paradox’, as Kierkegaard termed Christ. The God-Man unites finite and infinite in non-contradictory compatibility of human enactment of the eternal divine character of God the Son, since his ‘style’ of perfect goodness etc may be as much exhibited in finite as in infinite terms. But this same divine impersonation of the human also unites finite human and infinite divine natures in a single divine substantive being, since only Christ’s divine personhood ‘holds him together’ as a unity. In consequence of this drastic unification, despite the continued differentiation of Christ’s finite and infinite natures which ensures, for example, that he is impassable as God and yet can suffer as man, Christian tradition has often spoken of a more incomprehensible ‘exchange’ of infinite and finite properties, so that somehow God as a person does after all suffer and impersonated manhood becomes after all impassable.
So it would seem that Christianity implies that sin or evil resides originally in one respect in the prideful rational denial of palpable paradox, and redemption consists in the arrival of an exacerbation of this paradox – not merely a synergic conjoining of the saturation of being with limited, unsaturated beings, but the absolute coincidence of the saturated with the unsaturated. But in consequence, while our perplexity is increased, we are also offered a more concrete mystery – a coincidence of Being with event, such that the constantly differentiated repetition of this event provides the ultimate ritual path to weave finitude back into harmony and to reconcile it once more with its infinite origin.
If much in metaphysics, religion and Christianity turns upon the question of real impossibility, real contradiction and irreducible paradox, there would then be a link between the (real) profundity of religious discourse, and the issue about divine power and goodness which Stephen raises.
Read part 1: Stephen Law on the allegiance of philosophy in the battle between science and religion.
Read part 2: Anglican theologian John Milbank's forthright response to Stephen Law.
Read part 3: Law argues that Milbank's defence of religion is little more than pseudo-profundity.
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