Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Unnecessary God

My friend, Father Stephen, has posted a very interesting blog article entitled, "The Unnecessary God." I enjoy reading his blog because I do know him personally, as he is an Orthodox priest around Knoxville, where I grew up. He also writes some of the most original and well thought out theological blog topics on the internet.

In the article, he posits a classic example of the difference between apophatic and cataphatic theology, which is fancy seminary-speak for how we, mortals, with limited language try to define God. Basically, this entails defining  or viewing God either by what God is (cataphatic or 'positive' means) or by what God is not (apophatic or 'negative' means).

For example, if I say "God is love," that is a cataphatic definition because it is defining God by what God is (in this case love.) Conversely, an apophatic way of describing God would be to say that God is not a created being or that God is not knowable. Really, the two terms are two sides of the same coin. One is simply trying to describe God in positive or concrete ways while the other tries to define God by eliminating what God is not. Basically, the concept is not that dissimilar to the classic glass half empty/glass half full kind of thing.

Viewing God in the negative or apophatic way can seem a bit foreign to Western Christians. Western Christianity has largely gravitated over the centuries to a cataphatic understanding, or lens if you like, of viewing God. Eastern Christianity has a much stronger sense of the negative lens for viewing God, as Orthodoxy is much more informed by Holy Tradition, particularly of the Patristic fathers, many of whom were much more informed by Greek philosophy and Platonism.

Ever since Thomas Aquinas basically reintroduced Aristotelian philosophy to the West, this negative or platonic view on theology has largely been submerged to the point of completely disappearing in theological discourses in the West. This tendency was only further reinforced by the debates of the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment philosophies that stressed the natural, knowable world as opposed to any sense of mysticism or mystery that is crucial to Eastern Christianity.

I bring up these discussions because the blog article above touched, in its own way, an issue I have been pondering. I have been wondering how best the Church can respond to God critics like the New Atheists (you know, the Richard Dawkins/Christopher Hitchens crowd.) I've found that the Church has largely taken two (not particularly helpful) tracts in responding to the New Atheists, one is to completely ignore them and the other is to get sucked into debating them by their own terms and parameters of discussion.

I, personally, tend to fall into the former camp, with my knee jerk reaction being to just ignore them. I do this not because I am threatened by them or naively hope that they will just go away, but actually for reasons just the oppose. I find most of their argumentation to be little more than a completely illogical series of non sequiturs. I see people like Richard Dawkins who foment the exact kind of hateful fundamentalism that they claim to abhor in religion. As such, they just seem to me to be weird, shadowy reflections of that which they claim to despise about religion, ironically creating a zealous, hate filled religion unto itself.

For example, their basic argument is usually something like either, "Oh, look at all the bad things that religion has done, therefore there must be no God," or "The world is inherently unjust, therefore there is no God." Both of which are completely illogical trains of thought. The first is illogical because they never acknowledge the good things that religion has done (for instance, hospitals, public schools, ending of child labor, etc...) Anything humans have a hand in can become corrupt. Christianity does not deny this, in fact we embrace the fact that we are imperfect and sinful and try to repent of it by the grace of God. Everything from science to religion to politics to atheism has at times been co-opted for the greater evil. Read Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, particularly the part about the "island" where they sent mere religious prisoners, if you think atheism has clean hands in terms of oppression as opposed to The Church. 

Likewise, the second line of thought is a complete non sequitur as it relates to the existence of God. Hitchens and other celebrities do this all time in this cutesy little rhetorical trick where they dreg up images of starving children and tsunami victims. "If there is justice, how can a just God allow this?" Therefore since its unjust there is no God, thus, they try to make the evidence somehow self-justifying. That simply does not follow in a logical debate because what they are doing is using emotive imagery to make an illogical point. One can look around the world and think that the world is unjust, but that can only serve the logical end trying to prove that if there is a God, then God is unjust. It has no bearing on the question of whether God exists or not. Just because God does not run the world the way you would run the world if you were God does not prove or disprove the existence of God. That's a wholly separate issue.

There are those Christians who feel called to take on the New Atheists in rhetorical form, publishing various books and the like. A few of which are quite good, with the works of people like Anglican Priest and Scientist John Polkinghorne coming to mind. Many, however, are utter failures at debating the New Atheists. Scour the book lists of religious printing houses and you will find a myriad of them. They fail, I believe, because they get sucked into the trap of trying to logically debate the new atheists on their own level.

Such Christian rebuttals invariably get sucked into the non sequitur domain and rhetorical constructs of the Atheists. In other words, its like having a rugby team challenge a baseball team. Instead of playing a neutral game, like bowling or basketball, where neither side has the advantage, the rugby team tries to play the game of baseball with the baseball team. The baseball team knows the rules and the game much better because its their game. Likewise, when one side gets sucked into trying to argumentation that is inherently non sequitur and polemical from the get go, they will invariably lose. The cards are simply stacked against them.

I bring all this up because I think many Christians try to debate the New Atheists on their own turf, and by doing so get plugged into only playing half the tools in their rhetorical arsenal. But debating Atheists only in terms of cataphatic theology (i.e. if God is love, then how can this dreadful thing happen...), Christians seldom use a logic of apophatic theology, and I believe to their own detriment in terms of logic in this arena because Atheism is the ultimate player on apophatic theology, positing that God is simply not.

As the blog article I linked to above states quite eloquently, "creation does not need to exist." Therein in the question that most atheists try very hard to sweep under the rug because it calls into question the basic philosophical dilemma that logic cannot explain away for the atheist. If, as they posit, that God is simply not,  the base philosophical question is thus, "If there is no God, why is there something rather than nothing?" Why does any of this thing we call reality or universe ever come into being in the first place at the dawn of time if there was not a trigger? How did the primordial matter of the big bang theory ever come into being? Why is there not just a vast nothingness?

If there is no God, then there should be nothing else in existence either, and yet there is.

Food for thought...arrived at by an apophatic theological supposition that there be such a theological position of "The Unnecessary God."

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