Theology’s Cloud of Unknowing

No part of the quest for knowledge of truth, goodness, and beauty matters as much as the search for God. It is only in the last year that I have found myself comfortable in that effort for two reasons: I have resolved to my own satisfaction some difficulties inherent in religious commitment, and I am beginning to understand the categories used by religious apologists.

The greatest proof of God’s existence and nature I can discover is neither the ontological nor any of the cosmological proofs. It is the existence of free will in the face of determinism. Frankly, it puzzles me that this argument is not used more extensively by religious apologists. On the contrary, atheists and agnostics hurl scientific determinism in the face of those who wish to claim that God acts in the world. I have argued the futility of religionists disputing determinism in the observable universe (please see “Religionists Fighting the Wrong Battle” ). It seems a fool’s errand to deny determinism, for that would demand denying the truth of scientific discoveries based upon it. But these are pretty difficult to repudiate since they include not only the eerie correlation between mathematics and empirical research, but also the amazing interlocking bases in the truth claims of all the natural science disciplines. And don’t forget the deal breaker: the technological marvels that science has given mankind. Put simply, to deny determinism in the physical world is to deny that science works. Those who wish to argue that God acts in the world must refute the counterargument that the world unwinds itself in completely predictable fashion, such predictability constituting the lodestone of all scientific endeavor. Now at this point it might seem that I am switching sides, for the argument just given is the atheistic one: God’s action cannot be found in reality because determinism is irrefutable. Allow me to spring my trap now. The stronger you make the determinism case, the more you also make the case that God does indeed act upon reality. For to argue is to choose a side. And to choose is implicitly to deny determinism in favor of free will. Not even the most committed scientist can deny that she chooses her field of study, her theoretical and experimental efforts, and the conclusions she draws from them. The greatest refutation of cosmic determinism is our own sense of freedom.

Now I will confess that I was stymied at this point for the last decade or so, dismissing this sense of freedom as an error and a self-delusion, the same kind of error we make when we trust our direct perception of sense data or when we assume the virtual circle we create from applying reason to sense data is reality itself. I dismissed our sense of free will as just another hiccup in the epistemological/ontological linkage.

Only it isn’t. I am perfectly willing to relinquish any claim to free will, at least in the abstract. Logically, I can hardly do otherwise, for every libertarian and compatibilist argument that attempts to reconcile determinism with free will has failed. As we are indubitably material substances, I am perfectly willing to accept that we are as determined in our choices as the most inert object of scientific inquiry. But no scientist committed to such an inquiry would be able to reconcile her trust in determinism with the simple truth that she cannot avoid feeling free to commit to that trust. The great mystery is not that we are determined but that we feel free despite our knowledge to the contrary. I can no more stop struggling over my choices of what to judge true, good, and beautiful than I can stop my own heart from beating. My brain seems designed to recognize the natural freedom that lies at the center of my humanity, just as it seems compelled to exercise the preferential freedom involved in weighing choices as it yearns for the flourishing that accrues to wise action (for more on these three levels of freedom, please see my blog entry Our Freedom Fetish”).

Now this truth leads me to one of two conclusions. Either I truly am free, and along with others like me therefore the only free things in a deterministic universe, or I merely feel free as a condition of my own consciousness along with others like me, also demonstrating some odd uniqueness of human nature impossible for other material substances in the universe to duplicate (so far as we know and with a minor caveat for very modest choice-making for higher mammals). I have come to realize that it hardly matters which of these options pertains. Either true freedom or the inescapable sense of it serves as a proof of human uniqueness. Granted, the notion that human beings alone among created matter are actually free would argue for the existence of the soul and place us in contiguity to God. But the other option also works. Even if my perceived freedom is an illusion, one has to ask why that particular illusion? Why can I not escape moral responsibility for my judgments? I could tell myself my options are limited by heredity or environment, but that would do nothing to remove either my sense of moral responsibility or of culpability for wrong choices. C. S. Lewis once remarked that our sense that reality is unfair is proof enough that we possess some sense of divine justice, but I would argue that such an understanding rests on a prior sense of what is due, and even such a vague moral outlook is equally convincing evidence of our uniqueness. So it hardly matters whether we are truly free or err in our sense of moral freedom. Human beings are choice making machines, but it hardly makes evolutionary sense that we expend so much energy agonizing over illusory choices when instinct would prove a far more efficient director of our actions. We don’t live in the kind of world many religionists would prefer: one in which everything operates directly on God’s orders, resulting in a miraculous and therefore incoherent reality that would frustrate any rational agent’s attempts to choose well. So we don’t live in a world where we do not feel free or one where everything else does. We see two foundational oddities at work here, our sense of freedom and reality’s enslavement to determinism. The clincher is the third oddity that marks the connection between the two: the way these antitheses work together to bestow upon us a sense of rationality that guides our moral choosing. Nothing in the strongest case to be made for determinism forbids God’s action in the one area of reality we cannot help feeling exempt from determinism: our sense of moral freedom. Both this sense and reality’s determinism seem signs of the kind of Creator who choreographed the dance between the universe’s determinism and our ability to make choices in it.

As Kant said, the starry heavens above me and the moral sense within me. That point of view might seem irrefutable, at least until one reads Karen Armstrong’s “The Case for God.” Her richly sourced investigation –I count 374 in her bibliography– makes a rather different argument: we can know nothing of God’s nature using reason or reasoned experience. Whatever we learn entails more negative capability than positive knowledge. It is a curious argument for several reasons.

First, it is odd that such a claim is structured as an argument. Armstrong traces a long tradition of mistrusting ratio (reason) as a means of comprehension of spiritual reality, though she acknowledges its success in the kinds of endeavors ordinary life hands us. She prefers muthos (myth) as a means of religious knowledge. This sort of effort does not merely call for a rejection of reason as a means of knowing. Armstrong seems to think its success requires real affronts to our rational capacity; disorientation, contradiction, paradox, koans, and self-neglect are her route to God, one that deliberately frustrates the reasoning we apply to the rest of our experience for the very good reason that nothing else in our existence bears the slightest resemblance to the ineffability of the divine, and our natural inclination to use the tools of ordinary knowing tend to reduce God to something more familiar and pedestrian, an idol. Her exhaustive historical account shows that reduction to be a constant temptation for religionists, one quite understandable since she acknowledges reason’s central role in human activity. Her approach owes something to Kant’s aesthetic theories, and in her conclusion, Armstrong explicitly compares religion and art. Kant thought aesthetic reasoning to be fundamentally different from practical reasoning because it recognizes the unique quality of aesthetic objects that exist for neither practical use nor classification. Armstrong makes a parallel argument for our thinking about God, saying that we cannot regard God as a being, for that would mistakenly place the divine in a class with other beings. She differs from Kant only in arguing that we are incapable of thinking about God at all. For that reason she also favors what might be seen as imaginative alternatives to reason: myth, metaphor, analogy, poetry, visual arts, and music. She devotes a good deal of attention to these qualities in the holy texts of the world’s religions. The third route to religious knowledge Armstrong highlights involves the importance of will: commitment, ritual, prayer, altruism as an antidote to egoism, and meditation.

She charges Christianity with two historical rational errors. The first came with efforts to standardize Christian doctrine in the first few centuries after Christ. Old Testament writings and New Testament candidates for orthodoxy were gradually aligned so as to give logical force to claims for Jesus’ divinity, something Armstrong argues was never implicit in earlier Christianity. Even so, she charges that interpreting scripture as historical and inerrant truth was only made normative after the Enlightenment. Like other religious apologists who view science as an affront to religion (please see the blog posting on “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”), Armstrong sees religious fundamentalism as a defensive response to the aggressive assaults of positivist science. Interestingly, she argues that this response has distorted and threatens to destroy religion since such a defense attempts to rationalize religious belief and place it on an equal footing with other means of warrant more suited to practical reasoning than theology (Please see “The Latest Creationism Debate). In any case, she neither recognizes modernity as an ad hoc response to the self-destruction of authority in the Reformation nor postmodernism as a fundamental challenge to religious faith, though to her credit she does see the human sciences as a threat to contemporary religion if only because the clergy are so eager to wrap themselves in the reflected glory of science. I must add that the same motive moves human sciences in their imitation of the hard sciences (for more, please see my blog posting “The Calamity of the Human Sciences,”).

Other facets of Armstrong’s analysis are also troubling. First, her argument about God’s creation of the universe ex nihilo indicates that this “invention” of theology somehow negates any possibility for inferring the nature of the creator from the creation, but why should that be so? Both St. Paul and St. Augustine make explicit that we can indeed rationally infer something of God from the nature of the universe, and the assumption that it differs from the divinity that made it does nothing to invalidate that connection, so long as we never forget that we can only draw imperfect conclusions from imperfect reasoning applied to an imperfect creation. Secondly, she raises but hardly settles the issue of what the alternative approaches to religion she champions can warrant. She repeatedly argues that religious faith is useful as a source of comfort in the face of misfortune and death, that believers have found a life of altruism to be richer than one of self-centeredness. But she never argues that muthos reveals or can reveal any real truths about the nature of divinity or morals, nor that the pragmatic benefits of religion are anything other than a gratifying illusion. Thirdly, Armstrong repeatedly fails to distinguish between muthos as an extension of reason and as an alternative to it, citing testimony from thinkers as divergent as Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, Aristotle and Paul Tillich. This is quite a crucial question that characterizes two wildly different traditions in all organized religions, but Armstrong’s eagerness to advance her case blinds her to the distinction. My own sense of faith is that its proper role is to extend reason to the corona of uncertain truth claims we simply cannot warrant with confidence (Please see  “Religion and Truth”). I also doubt that what Armstrong recommends can be accomplished, for we are too reliant on reason to make sense of existence to ignore its dictates in any one sphere of activity, especially one so central as theology (for more on this, please see my blog entry  “The Tyranny of Rationality”). Further, it seems that the only way Armstrong can claim that muthos is equal or superior to the kinds of truths ascertainable by reason and reasoned experience is to warrant it in a purely coherence sense if only because the kinds of intuitions such efforts justify are so deeply personal. But a coherence warrant for a correspondence truth contains the seeds of its own disintegration (please see “Can Belief Be Knowledge?”) as well as the grossest sort of intolerance for differing interpretations. I find it deeply disturbing that in her entire analysis, Armstrong never once considers the power of authority as warrant to truth and goodness claims, but instead seems to validate psychological need as a sufficient justification for embracing the truth of religious claims. It seems too obvious to mention, but since she doesn’t, I will: people embrace all sorts of things regardless of the truth in pursuit of psychic balm. I hesitate to charge her with bad faith, but if innocent of that charge, she surely is guilty of sloppy categorization, for the question of whether faith supplements or supplants reason is one of the core questions of theology. Adherents of either tradition would surely resent being lumped with their opponents as Armstrong repeatedly does.

As one who as struggled for decades with the apparent irrationality of religious belief, I found perhaps too much comfort in Armstrong’s assertions that the core texts of religious dogma were never meant to provide rational warrant for religious faith, that their power lay in some allegorical, analogical, mythical, or poetic meaning (for more on the problems such a view engenders, please see my posting “The Problem of Metaphor in Religion”). The message I take from such an argument is that any search for correspondence warrant stronger than authority in primal religious texts is doomed to failure, and that any exegesis is as much a creative as an explanatory endeavor.

So we are left with the plodding work of inference based on the nature of creation and the moral sense that shapes human nature. Perhaps Armstrong is correct in her central contention that we can know no essentials of the deepest mystery and pervading immanence of the Creator, but our minds seem ordered by both the determinist nature of creation and our unique sense of freedom to make the attempt.

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