Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Apology to atheist readers ::

A commentor below (anon) drew my attention to a really good response to Eagleton's review of Dawkins' The God Delusion. This review of a review, "The God Conundrum", reminds me of how when we debate we often descend to each other's level, but that when we discuss we can sometimes rise to each other's best.

In my trite and gloating quoting of Eagleton's review I made this error. I am sorry. I should have resisted the temptation to enter such a débat de sourds (debate among the [mutually] deaf). Because, I am sure that Eagleton does not hear the real points that Dawkins makes, since he is so busy hearing Dawkins' failure to understand what "God" means.

And now I've lost the opportunity for a real conversation. :-(

Anyway Sean, the poster of The God Conundrum, writes well and clearly, and thinks clearly too. I particularly liked this paragraph:
The problematic nature of this transition — from God as ineffable, essentially static and completely harmless abstract concept, to God as a kind of being that, in some sense that is perpetually up for grabs, cares about us down here on Earth — is not just a minor bump in the otherwise smooth road to a fully plausible conception of the divine. It is the profound unsolvable dilemma of “sophisticated theology.” It’s a millenia-old problem, inherited from the very earliest attempts to reconcile two fundamentally distinct notions of monotheism: the Unmoved Mover of ancient Greek philosophy, and the personal/tribal God of Biblical Judaism. Attempts to fit this square peg into a manifestly round hole lead us smack into all of the classical theological dilemmas: “Can God microwave a burrito so hot that He Himself cannot eat it?” The reason why problems such as this are so vexing is not because our limited human capacities fail to measure up when confronted with the divine; it’s because they are legitimately unanswerable questions, arising from a set of mutually inconsistent assumptions.
Naturally, since we take very different stances with respect to the existence of God, I don't always agree with Sean. Sometimes I tend to agree, but still seem to arrive at a different conclusion. (Because I am agreeing with most of the words, rather than all that was intended by them. So when Sean writes:
But the crucial point is that the emergence of One God was an essentially political transformation.
I agree, except for the innocuous looking "essentially". The claim of monotheism is indeed political, as well as everything else. As a political claim it subverts the claims to divine sanction of David's descendants. Though less directly than it does those of an Egyptian Pharaoh. Basically it seems to me the claim is relational, rather than merely political. (Sean sets the "political" Hebrews against the "philosophical" Greeks. I am happy to distinguish the two approaches, but suspect that Greek thinkers also had political consequences.)

This analysis (and I quite accept Sean's neat dissecting of the problem of two inconsistent approaches) leads to this (partial) conclusion:
For the past two thousand years, theology has struggled to reconcile these two apparently-conflicting conceptions of the divine, without much success. We are left with fundamentally incoherent descriptions of what God is, which deny that he “exists” in the same sense that hummingbirds and saxophones do, but nevertheless attribute to him qualities of “love” and “creativity” that conventionally belong to conscious individual beings. One might argue that it’s simply a hard problem...
The trouble is, it seems to me, that the "problem" is not merely "hard", it is impossible. Attempts to "eff the ineffable and unscrut the inscrutable" are inevitably reduced to analogy and metaphor. And once we talk that language we are again reduced to talk of hummingbirds or saxophones. That's why:
...for the most part, theologians have basically abandoned the project of “proving” God’s existence, which is probably a good move.

But they haven’t given up on believing in God’s existence (suitably defined), which is what drives atheists like Dawkins (and me) a little crazy. Two thousand years ago, believing in God made perfect sense; there was so much that we didn’t understand about the world, and an appeal to the divine seemed to help explain the otherwise inexplicable.
And that in a nutshell describes the fundamental gulf between Sean and me. Sean wants to understand and reason everything. I claim that at its heart the answer to life the universe and everything is not a neat 42, but a relationship. This relationship is nowhere near as simple, or as compelling, as many religionists make out, but it is there deep in my being, in a way that no neat simple argument could ever be.


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