Friday, June 25, 2010

Reflection: Irreligion -- On Knowing God

I was doing what I do as often as I can – browsing the shelves of a local bookstore – when I happened upon irreligion by mathematician John Allen Paulos. I spent little time with the book, but I was intrigued by one reviewer’s comment: “[Paulos] is as sure-footed as a tiger as he prowls through the theocratic landscape, pouncing on sloppy thinking. To a large extent he succeeds in demolishing the arguments of believers” (Phillip Manning, The News & Observer, Raleigh).

Well, good for Paulos: to the extent that he demolishes false ideas about the God in whom I believe, may that same God in whom he does not believe bless him. This is, after all, venerable work, the same work – through not conducted in the same spirit/Spirit – as that of the Fathers, of the theologians and teachers of the Church, of the Ecumenical Councils and Creeds. It was the work of St. Paul, a work he described as warfare.

For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every though into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor 10:4-5, NKJV).

As believers, we inevitably formulate and express ideas about God. Those called to academic theology seek to systematize those ideas, to make connections among them – to build arguments, the review might say – to express a faithful worldview or body of Tradition. When this is done well, when the work passes the test of time and earns the general approval and acceptance of the Church, we believe it is the holy work of the Holy Spirit. It is not always done well, either personally or corporately. When it is not, the Church creates and bows before false conceptual idols. In its better moments, when the Church is truly the Church, it welcomes Elijah – even in the person of a skeptical mathematician – to cast down and destroy the false prophets of Baal with their false teachings and detestable idols.

I doubt, though, that Paulos was engaged in this type of holy work. Having read a few of his other books – all mathematically oriented – I suspect that in irreligion he seeks to destroy any notion of God, at least of any god other than human reason. I have seen such efforts before; they follow a similar tack: believers make foolish and logically inconsistent statements about God – here, let me show you a few – thus, the god in whom they believe – and, by extension, every god – must fail to exist. Since human reason has dethroned every false contender for the title “God”, reason must be the closest thing we have to god; let us, therefore, bow in worship unto ourselves and our marvelous intellect.

This process, this type of thinking, has a fatal flaw at its core: destroy every notion or argument believers have about God, notions true and false, and you still have not touched the essence of God, for God is not idea or argument but Person(s). The point here is ironically Cartesian: the fact that all thought may be erroneous does not negate the existence of the thinker. Likewise, the fact that all thought about God may be foolish and inconsistent – and certainly much thought is – does not thereby disprove the existence of God. Sloppy human thinking does not necessarily negate the Subject (I cannot say object) of that thought.

Of course, we – believers – are complicit in the error of such skeptical thought to the extent that we present God as idea and not Person, to the extent that we replace relationship with that Person with thought or talk about that idea. Certainly, we must think about and talk about God, but we must never mistake our thoughts or words about God for God himself; the map, after all, is not the territory, nor is the word the thing. A judicious, humble apophaticism – a “not knowing” intellectually – is often appropriate.

The Church is the remedy for these errors in thought and emphasis: in the faith it lives (as well as proclaims), in the Sacraments it administers, in the life of askesis it prescribes. All of these offer the real possibility of relationship with the real Person of God, a relationship that subsumes thought and argument. Water, oil, bread, wine: these host the real Presence of the real God. Word, prayer, fasting, service: these are not ideas, but gifts of God for the people of God. All of these are given to initiate and sustain our relationship with Him, until we become full partakers of the divine nature.

Those who are willing to engage only ideas about God through the agency of human reason but not God, himself, through His abundant gifts of Presence are unlikely to find God. Even our best ideas about God seem foolish when confronted with the cross and gospel of Jesus Christ.

For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God – and righteousness and sanctification and redemption – that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the LORD” (1 Cor 1:26-30, NKJV).


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