Thursday, July 29

Building Triangular Gods


A little over a week ago, as this is written (28 October 2016), I published a “Skeptic’s Collection” column in which I adopted a rather “contrarian” view of three well-known texts in the Bible:  Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac (the Akedah), the Annunciation, and the Crucifixion.  As I said at the time, though without using this analogy, all three narratives have a kind of Jungian “shadow” side, i.e., morally and psychologically dubious aspects that most Christians are careful to avoid thinking about, but that, in the name of simple intellectual integrity, deserve to be acknowledged and foregrounded, even on a cursory reading.  There are several ways of dealing with this textual “shadow,” one of which is asserting that, since God gave human beings intelligence and a rational faculty, we should use both to critique the chthonic aspects of these narratives in the interest of domesticating them so as to selectively use them for moral reflection and practice. Superficially, this sounds quite reasonable, and so it is.  I don’t know that I want to interpret the Akedah as authorizing wholesale child sacrifice on the pretext that “God told me to do it”. But at the same time, rational critique of such texts does raise two issues that deserve acknowledgement no less than the texts themselves:  (a) the possibility that unrestricted critique of “difficult” texts like the Akedah and the Annunciation amounts to a strategy of eventually adopting atheism a millimeter at a time – with which I have no problem, providing only that it is done with both eyes open -- and (b) the perhaps even deeper question of precisely what it is that religious people are attempting to preserve by recourse to (a).

Nicolas Poussin -- "Joshua's Victory Over the Amalekites"

If we refuse, as I do, to read the various narrative texts in the Bible as factual, space-time-historical accounts of events that actually occurred and see them instead as “just-so stories” encoding a culture’s theology, then we immediately have a problem:  the truth-status of these parables.  What are these  stories, anyway, in a generic sense?  Take an example:  the slaughter of the Amalekites in I Samuel, chapter 15. Note that we need not take the story literally as a record of something that occurred in space-time history to take it seriously as a culture’s reflection on the character of its God, any more than we need to take Moby Dick literally as an account of an actual whaling voyage to take it seriously as Melville’s reflection on the dangers of monomania and obsession. But even interpreting the story as a parable leaves the issue of truth-status untouched:  is the theology encoded in the story of the genocide of the Amalekites true … is God really, actually that way?  Does God really, actually condone – at times even command – genocide?  At this point, unless we are hopeless moral illiterates, we recoil in revulsion and horror:  “Of course not!” we choke out, gagging on the noxious fumes of moral putrefaction.  Our 21st-century, Enlightenment-tutored, Christianized sensibilities (but there are "shadow" problems even there ... see above "Skeptic's" column) kick in and we reject out of hand any hint that God – at least any God worthy of our belief and worship – would condone, let alone command, genocide.

Fair enough … I share that revulsion, in fact. But this begs a little giant of a question:  Why? That is to say:  in any confrontation between a monstrosity of a biblical text like I Samuel 15 with our contemporary moral sensibilities, why must the latter prevail, be granted preference? Because, as good chardonnay-swilling, Obama-/Hillary-voting, marriage-equality-supporting, pro-gun-control progressives, we are opposed to genocide as a human-rights matter, per the lights of our Enlightenment-trained rational faculties? But, of course, not everyone agrees. I have had any number of conversations with conservative Christians – not all fundamentalists – who condone the genocide of the Amalekites, either as an interpretation of the parable or as a matter of actual historical fact. Without exception, the latter are personally and individually revolted by the story, but they are willing to grant God a “pass” because God is … well … God. Just as Kierkegaard was willing to entertain the suspension of ethical norms in the case of the “knight of faith,” they are likewise and to an even greater degree willing to suspend ethical norms when the ethical agent is God Godself.


And I think the reason is not far to seek.  To a far greater degree than chardonnay-swilling, Obama-/Hillary-voting … etc. … people like me, and many of you who read this column, my conservative Christian friends have a greater (more or less intuitive) appreciation for the consequences that must eventuate from an unrestrained extrapolation of a purely rationalistic moral critique of such transgressive biblical narratives as I Samuel 15 (or the Annunciation or the Crucifixion … etc.). They may never use the term, but on a visceral level, their theology is founded on the bedrock of God-as-ganz-andere (“wholly other”). This German phrase is something progressive, farther-left religious believers bandy about, also, but on a much more cerebral, much more purely academic – and much less visceral – level.  With them, also, God is ganz andere … but only, as it were, in principle. By contrast, my conservative friends recognize that, once we concede that God is ganz andere on the level of the glands and the amygdala, not just the prefrontal cortex, then two consequences ensue:  (a) we cannot indiscriminately apply a reason-based critique of biblical theology (in either Testament) and consequently (b) there is no a priori reason why God cannot, e.g., order genocide against any given people … or rape a virgin … or kill God’s own Son. Precisely because God is "wholly other," all bets are off.  If, as Kierkegaard argued, a merely human "knight of faith" cannot be judged by rationally and sociologically grounded ethical principles, how much less is God subject to those judgments! Reason is often relevant but seldom dispositive. Because God is ganz andere, God is like the singularity at the center of the event horizon.  Just as spacetime warps at the center of a black hole, so do ethical criteria when the Subject under consideration is God. The usual and customary rules are out the window:   some moral principles may be applicable; others not; and all we know is that we have no way of distinguishing one case from the other.

One more level down, and the reason for this is also not far to seek:  the alternative is atheism in slow motion. Voltaire once said that, if triangles believed in a god, the god of triangles would be three-sided.  By subjecting the theological parables of the biblical text to a rationalistic, Enlightenment-informed, science-centric critique, we are insisting that God – gradually over extended historical periods – assume a form congruent with and congenial to our human conceptual categories. We are revolted by genocide, therefore God must also be so. We are insisting that, because we are triangles, our God must perforce be … well … the Great Triangle. Persist in this long enough, argue conservatives, and God becomes a theological Cheshire Cat:  the "God-ness" of God -- God's "ganz-andere-ness" -- gradually fades away, and all we are left with is the Cheshire-Cat-like smile of a purely formal theology:  not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but, as Archibald MacLeish said in JB, "God the boiling point of water". Something like this must be what Samuel Taylor Coleridge meant when he said that the average Englishman’s conception of God was “as of an immense Clergyman”. And the only way to prevent God from snowballing into Coleridge's "immense Clergyman" is to take with unqualified seriousness God-as-ganz-andere per Isaiah 55:9. But that means refusing to dismiss out of hand the possibility that God may, at times, act in ways we would consider flagrantly immoral.Der Untergang der Titanic

Now, I happily concede that what follows may be deeply unfair. I want to own that up front. Certainly there is an element of the subjective in the following. I mention it only because, even when I was an orthodox, church-going Christian, I had the following discomfiting perception.  But the impression persists in my own mind that, when people attempt to apply a rationalistic, Enlightenment-centric critique to biblical texts, and especially when they do so in such a way as to "domesticate" those texts and thereby render them consistent with such a rationalistic world-view, they are, in reality and in a manner perhaps even they themselves are not necessarily conscious of, attempting to preserve belief in God, not discover deeper insights into God's actual character. In that regard, people who engage in this kind of critique are practicing a theological analogue of Charles Sanders Peirce's pragmatism, as described in his long essay "The Fixation of Belief":  they are attempting to "fixate" belief, even if only for themselves, not necessarily to elucidate the nature and character of God. They want to preserve belief in God, even in the face of allegations of God's advocacy of, e.g., genocide, rather like a loyal wife who finds lipstick and the aroma of a foreign perfume on her husband's shirt -- but nevertheless insists that her husband is faithful to her. Or the die-hard geocentric cosmologists in the 17th century who, upon seeing the phases of Venus, nevertheless insisted "But dammit ... the sun orbits the earth!".

Please understand:  these remarks are entirely without rancor or censure.  And perhaps most of all without ridicule. We are all Titanic survivors floating in a freezing ocean, and we all -- your Resident Skeptic no less than you -- need a piece of flotsam to cling to as much as Leonardo DeCaprio and Kate Winslett. My flotsam is no better than yours. My concern, rather, is, not to debunk your flotsam, but to give you permission -- which you certainly don't need from me ... but to encourage you to give yourself permission -- to keep a light grip on your particular piece of wreckage. Cling to it too tightly, and it may well disintegrate, leaving you alone in a vast ocean like the lone sailor on the Andrea Gail at the end of The Perfect Storm. Lean on it too insistently, and theology -- any theology -- will always disappoint.

James R. Cowles

Image credits
Woodcut ... Artist unknown ... Public domain
Impossible cube ... M. C. Escher ... GNU Free Documentation License
Joshua's victory over the Amalekites ... Nicolas Poussin ... Public domain
Titanic sinking ... Willy Stower ... Public domain

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