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Saturday, December 25, 2010


Today is Christmas, the second most important day in the Christian calendar. [The first is Easter, contrary to the faux religiosity of Jon Kyl and his ilk, who haven't a clue about real religion. Christmas, of course, is just an old pagan Winter Solstice festival taken over by the early Christian missionaries to northern Europe.] On this blog, I rather belligerently announce myself as an atheist, but one cannot be a lifelong student of the history of Western Philosophy without having spent a good deal of time with texts that treat religious faith seriously. Since nothing of note is happening in the world today [save the threatened collapse of the roof of Terminal One at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, and the evacuation of hundreds of stranded travelers sleeping in the terminal on cots], I thought I might spend a little time describing what I understand genuine religious faith to be. Those of you who cannot stand God talk even from an atheist can return to opening presents, watching football, and overeating.

What is it "to believe in God?" Well, from a Christian perspective, the one thing that it definitely does not mean is believing that God exists. One can ask whether unicorns exist, whether the Abominable Snowman exists, whether King Arthur ever existed, even whether Sarah Palin's brain exists, but belief in God is not belief in the existence of some very odd sort of thing. To understand what the phrase "belief in God means," we must invoke a different sense of "belief in," namely the sense of trusting in God, relying on God, or believing that God will keep His word. At the simplest and most literal level, the Old Testament is the story of a compact made between God and His chosen people -- a "testament." God will make them multiply and be fruitful if they keep His laws. The message of the New Testament is that sinful man, who has proven incapable of keeping God's laws, may nevertheless be saved if he will but believe in the free gift of God's salvation. To believe in God is thus to trust in Him to keep His promise of eternal life.

This belief is called faith, and it, like the ability to keep God's laws, is impossible for man unaided by God. To trust in God's promise, to have faith in the face of all the contrary evidence, is possible for man only with the God-given ability, a gift called grace.

That is the Christian story [and I confess that no other religious story holds any interest for me], but what is it like to have faith? This is not so easy to describe or explain, and to make an attempt at it, I must, rather unexpectedly, speak for a bit about the experience of reading a novel.

A novel is nothing more than a collection of words by which the author, the novelist, calls into being a world - a fictional world. The ontological structure of the world of a novel is fundamentally unlike the ontological structure of the real world. The real world is, as the physicists say, anisotropic. That is to say, each place in the world [and each time] is like each other place [and time.] There are no privileged places, hence no standpoints [in the literal as well as the figurative sense] from which one can gain access to a privileged point of view.

But the fictional world of a novel is isotropic. The world exists from a point of view, that of the narrator. Hence there are privileged places and privileged times. A novel has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but the human world simply fills time and space. A novel can end with the words "and they lived happily ever after," and by the writing of those words, the novelist makes it so, but nothing resembling that occurs in the real world.

A novel has in it only the people and things that the words of the novelist call into fictional existence. In THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER, a town is conjured in which there are very few adult men. But it would be a logical error to say "Mark Twain chose only to write about a few of the men in the town," as though the men exist independently of his words, and simply failed to get honorable mention. In the novels of Edith Wharton , thresholds have a special meaning or valence -- objectively so. This is not merely a statement about Wharton, but also about the worlds she creates through the words of her novels. ETHAN FROME is narrated by a nameless engineer who has come to a northern Berkshire town one winter on a job. His tragic story of Ethan and Matty begins as his foot begins to cross the threshold of the Frome household, and ends as his foot comes down inside the door. The examples are endless. The ontological structure and the moral valence of fictional worlds are perspectival -- they exist from the point of view of the narrator.

Now, as best as I can understand religious faith, being myself devoid -- or should I say bereft -- of it, to have faith -- thus to believe in God -- is to experience the real world in which we live as existing from the perspective of a divine Creator, in whose story we live out our lives. Every part of that world, not just churches or creches or Sunday services or monasteries or convents, exists from that divine perspective. This is, I take it, what it means to say that the world is infused with a Divine presence. In the world as thus experienced, there will be privileged times -- Easter, Christmas -- and privileged places -- Bethlehem, Jerusalem -- toward which I will be oriented. [this, I take it, is the central meaning of John Donne's great poem, "Easter Sunday 1613 Riding Westward."

I do not experience the world in this manner, and so I do not have faith, I do not "believe in God." Thus, I am an atheist. But I think I can at least imagine in some measure what it would be like to have faith, to believe in God, to experience the world as existing from a divine perspective.

Merry Christmas


NotHobbes said...

For my part, I can fully understand how say, the besieged occupants of Antioch in 1098 would have faith, been inspired by Peter Bartholomew's find and sought solace from alleged saintly relics. I cannot grasp faith in the modern world-it's completely beyond my comprehension

john c. halasz said...

"That is the Christian story [and I confess that no other religious story holds any interest for me],"

Why? And why do you just so readily submit to the majority culture?

If I were to convert to a religious faith or observance,- (not bloody likely!),- I think Judaism would be the most reasonable candidate. Christianity demands belief in a dogma with so many elements that are unaccountable, incredible, or prejudicial that it defies rational comprehension, amounts to a deliberate suspension of disbelief. Judaism, by contrast, is not defined through a dogma, but through observance of a law and is doctrinally porous and pluralistic, involving no necessary belief in an afterlife, nor in earth-defying miracles, but rather it's an ethical commitment, in which the critique of idolatry, i.e. of a sacrificial submission to the mythified powers of nature, is the very basis of an ethical compact for recognizing community with others. And there is no narcissistic preoccupation with the salvation of the individual soul and its wish-fulfilling reward of immorality for being "good", all else be damned, but rather the concern is for redemption of an earthly community via a duty toward reparation. And observance of the law is not a matter of preserving and slavishly adhering to some archaic "origin", but rather a matter of constantly extending, re-interpreting and repairing the law, which is the only way the religion endures, after the cessation of the revelation in the "written Torah". Granted there are a lot of bad rabbis out there, but that doesn't preclude the possibility of finding good ones. (And I think Yeshua bin Yusef from Nazareth was actually likely much more such a radical rebbe, that the doctrinaire, cartoonish bully of the Gospel of John). In short, not just because of its lack of dogma, but because the sort of discipline it imposes in allowing rational doubts and skepticism both with respect to oneself and one's own "faith" and with respect to the world renders Judaism far more compatible with the rationalism of the modern world than Christian dogma, (which can only be rationally defended on grounds of absurdity). (I think that is a Key to understanding Spinoza: that he remained far more Jewish in attitude, despite his expulsion from the community, than is commonly recognized. The seeming paradox of an ethics of "autonomous" freedom being underwritten by a deterministic metaphysics, though that is actually quite a general case in the metaphysical tradition, can be understood when one grasps his naturalism more in the manner of the quasi-behavioralism of Wittgenstein or Merleau-Ponty than in terms of the mechanistic behavioralism of Hobbes, upon whom he was performing an Umfunktioierung, and Watson/Skinner: standard Christianity says, "Have faith, i.e. believe in the 'correct' doctrine, and you will be granted the grace to act rightly", whereas standard Judaism says, "Act rightly, i.e. observe the law, and you will come to have 'correct' belief".)

The other reasonable alternative would be certain sophisticated schools of Buddhism, with well-developed traditions of reflection, which not only eschew decrepit motives of personal immortality/denial of death and human finitude, but are basically atheistic, and could be seen to fit in with cybernetic accounts of modern scientific rationality.

I don't know much about Islam, but it too defines itself as much in terms of law as in terms of doctrine and theology. And there is one traditional branch, the Alevis, which are despised as heretics by their co-religionists because they are regarded as atheists!

Is it because you are so wedded to the mainstream tradition of Western metaphysical rationalism that you can't discern the alternatives, but submit to the onto-theological heritage from which it originates, without being able to differentiate it out?

GTChristie said...

I didn't read into the post any hint that Dr. Wolff is wedded to the Christian metaphysic; he merely said he can understand how certain (admittedly uncritical) minds can orient themselves to such a metaphysic (and from a previous post, pay no particular price in the quotidian world for doing so).

So I think your pointed last question is not quite fair, Halasz. Though I do like your exegetic comparison of Judaic and Christian metaphysic.

We should not forget that "science" and "rationality" possess their own metaphysics and most of the choice between those and any religious kind is still an act of belief (as Hume argued, for instance). Or to put it more graphically, there is not much intellectual distance between "Big Bang" and "Let there be light," but nobody yet has fully proven either one -- both are theories. I tend to the "Big Bang" side myself. But one's choice of which world (worldview) to live in depends on which seems more "reasonable" to the person -- which nonetheless means a belief. (We should wonder how far there is any choice in what to believe -- since we are all raised from birth onwards to live in a certain culture.)

Anyway as I perceive it, Dr. Wolff is quite clear about what he believes (and doesn't), and I don't think he's a prisoner of a metaphysics he clearly does not accept. At least that's how I read him.

Bob said...

Thanks for your excellent meditation on Christmas. Faith can indeed be a puzzle. In a review of a recent book on William James I wrote:

Much of the problem with the "f" word comes about because of a built in ambiguity which will be indicated in this review by Faith/faith: Faith = belief without compelling evidence; while faith = trust, or beliefs that are knowable in principle. When my Catholic acquaintance eats the wafer he has Faith that it will transubstantiate; when I go to start my car in the morning I have faith that it will start. If my car does not start it is possible in principle for me or a mechanic to determine what's wrong. If the wafer does not change to the flesh of Christ conversion is the only solution. Source.

Bob said...

BTW, Anisotropic

describes a structure whose appearance varies with the angle of observation.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thanks for the correction.l I thought it meant that each point in space [or time] is interchangeable with each other -- i.e., that the frame of reference is arbitrary, and can by a transformation be moved to any other frame. So in Aristotle's cosmology, there is a natural down [toward the center of the earth] whereas in Newton's there is not.

Sorry about that.

John said...

Wolff's "Meditation" brings to mind an anecdote about the Christian narrative. If I may paraphrase what has been attributed to James Carville, "It's about the narrative stupid"...... When I visit my ancestral home in Western Pennsylvania, I am often challenged by conversations (frequently with Limbaugh or Savage radio programs as background music) with my relatives. These conversations are frequently informed by their particularistic version of the narrative. However, I am never fully prepared for sudden appearance of 'the narrative' in ordinary family' conversations. Sometimes it's form is so vexing that I find an excuse to simply leave and escape. After a few moments of walking around the house mumbling to myself, I retreat to my own isotropic representation of the world by saying to myself "It's's about the narrative ...." and continue the recitation of MY somewhat flawed, elitist narrative by recalling another Carvellism - Pennsylvania consists of Philadelphia in the East, Pittsburgh in the West, and Mississippi in between. Sometimes it works, and I return and have a piece of apple pie. Sometimes I cannot endure the cultural divide and just drive away in the direction of that east coast state which contained the state university where I sought refuge some 50+ years ago, whose name my mother seldom uttered unaccompanied by the adjectve "godless."

Bob said...

John, I love your comment! And besides that, it is true judging from my experience with family in the Mississippi portion of the state.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

There must be some reason why the State legislators, in their widsom, placed Penn State in the exact geographic center of Pennsylvania.