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Wednesday, April 07, 2010  

Faith, Knowledge, and an Unkempt God

It was ten years ago that I had the experiences I would single out should anyone ask me to point to a decisive moment in my "faith journey." I'm always going to argue for the mysticism of daily life, but these were experiences that I would call mystical in the more usual sense. One was a physical, almost visual awareness of a presence in a moment of dire need. The other was a dream in which I met God. Now I'll admit up front that some serious spade-work was done before this point, and I'll further grant, for the sake of argument, that both experiences were, like anything else, the result of snaps, crackles, and pops in the old cranial meatsack (if God exists, I'd have no trouble believing that he works by just such means). But the fact is that I wasn't going to church and wasn't all that interested in church when these experiences happened, so the power of suggestion does not seem to be a plausible explanation.

It would have been a little philosophically ungenerous, and more than a little taken with the imperial power of my own mind, to just write these experiences off as meaningless. Indeed, this is most certainly what I would have done had I met Thor in a dream or had a moment in which I was convinced that a guardian leprechaun was watching over me. As it happens, however, there was a place to go to weigh such experiences, to seek corroboration, and to explore the possibility that the trim, business-casual white guy with salt-and-pepper hair standing in for God in my dream (no super awesome transgressive God images for me, unfortunately) was saying something true and real to me. That place was the church, with its ministry of word, sacraments, and holy community. Has any of that subsequent experience taken away my doubts? Certainly not, but it has confirmed me in the conviction that it was true enough to give my life to it.

I've been thinking a lot about why we believe what we believe in light of the epistemology colloquium we saw on the internets last week. Freddie DeBoer landed a few good blows on atheists who can't quite take the last step implicated in their philosophy: namely, the abolition of transcendent objective knowledge. Julian Sanchez responds, pointing out (rightly, I think) that "God or whatever other transcendent sources of certainty we might posit just serve as baffles to conceal the ineradicable circularity that’s going to sit at the bottom of any system of knowledge." I am not a philosophy major nor the son of a philosophy major, so I will not get into the weeds of what these gentlemen take to be a debate--though I strongly object to the teleology that Sanchez sneaks in through the back door, claiming that we've finally arrived at the capacity to reject all foundationalism out of a dark and barbarous past while simultaneously removing any conceivable grounds for the idea that we can arrive anywhere or make any progress at all. I share Sanchez's anti-foundationalism, but I'm also pretty sure it just represents another turning of civilization's wheel, another spontaneous adaptation, another moment in the undirected and underdetermined process by which human thought evolves. It will pass.

Anyway, God is always waiting in the wings in these conversations, and I don't think that's right. I mean, it's inevitable so long as God is understood as occupying a place in the philosophical flowchart, grounding our perceptions and reasoning or dictating our moral postulates. And it makes a lot of sense when you consider that this God-role was later transferred to some other faculty of the human mind. But all of this is a hangover from the Biblical tradition's encounter with Greek philosophy. The God of the Bible, after all, was an embarrassment to sophisticated, worldly Jewish and Christian thinkers in the pagan era, a philosophically unkempt deity who stooped in the mud to make humans, who changed his mind, who got angry, who singled out individuals for vocation and blessing, who was born in a stable and died on a cross, etc. From Philo to Maimonides, from Origen (at least) to Aquinas and beyond, this God had to be primped and trimmed and, where necessary, stretched and hammered into the form of the rationally superior truths of philosophy. This, too, was adaptive: it allowed Christianity to subjugate a vast empire. The form of philosophy kept the content of faith alive for other times and places--times and places that had no notions of Platonic overflowing, of spheres and demiurges and philosophical necessities.

The problem for Christians--and for atheists, too--is that the form became confused with the content. Read the Bible without your Greek goggles, and you see that God typically does not reach out to a human being while carrying along transcendent attributes, philosophical realism, eternal abstract truths, free will, or disembodied moral principles in his train. God reaches out as one subject to another, not as an unmoved mover attracting the rational faculty as the beloved attracts the lover. The Bible rarely traffics in abstraction, speculation, eternity, or anything that could be used as a philosophical foundation in the usual sense. God introduces himself in terms of actions ("who brought you out of Egypt") and relationships ("God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob"), not as any magic-consciousness-granting pixie, nor a frosty immovable moral and epistemological center. I wish this were better appreciated. Scratch through the powdering of Biblical images in a lot of Christian writing and you'll find an underbaked cake of neo-Platonism, yearning for a distant source of being from which we have fallen away rather than reaching for the word close at hand and the near God with whom we cannot stop quarreling.

I mention all of this because arguments over God neither require nor benefit from the believer's claims about the moral or intellectual necessity of God. If nothing else, that would totally misrepresent my own reasons for believing and living as I do, and my hunch is that most of the faithful would have to agree. Faith, as my tradition holds, is not a matter of objective knowledge but of trust, and trust is an unavoidably inter-subjective thing. It need be nothing more than the charged motion of an electrified meatsack slamming into something, slamming into it again, and deciding to live as if it's real.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 5:12 PM
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