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 recently 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.

Foremost among the difficulties is to find proper terminology. This task is difficult enough conceptually. The necessary terms — knowledge, trust, belief — are closely related in their traditional meanings (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief“). But the two great epistemic crises that have scrambled the axioms of our moral thinking have hit them particularly hard (see “My Argument in Brief”). To discuss the question of God requires first that we lay out the boundaries of the conversation. My interest is primarily to investigate the issue of our correspondence knowledge of God’s existence and nature to the degree that such an investigation might prove possible and profitable rather than look into the various modes of belief that must emulsify knowledge with desire. I will also avoid a recourse to authority on the grounds that no consensus knowledge can be derived from that source alone. As the subject is so vast, my focus must be on the frontier where knowledge shades into belief.

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 (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 truth claims of all the natural science disciplines. And don’t forget the big finish: the technological marvels that science has given mankind. Put simply, to deny determinism in the physical world is to deny that science works (See “A Preface to the Determinism Problem“). 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. Ockham’s Razor forbids introducing unnecessary complexity into explanations. Why imagine a puppeteer when the marionettes can move on their own? 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. She may prove determinism with every experiment, but she disproves it with every hypothesis. The greatest refutation of cosmic determinism is our own sense of freedom (see “The Determinism Problem“).

Now I will confess that I was stymied at this point for a decade or so, dismissing this sense of freedom as an error and a self-delusion, the same kind of mistake we make when we unthinkingly rely on our direct perception of sense data or when we assume the concepts we create from applying reason to experience have actual existence. 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 knowledge of determinism with the simple truth that she cannot avoid feeling free to accept or reject that truth claim . 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 (see “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 are the only material substances that are actually free would argue for the existence of the soul and place us in contiguity to God, the uncaused Cause. 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 notion of divine justice, but I would argue that such an understanding rests on a prior sense of what is due us as a result of our moral choices, and even that vague sense 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. It would be less odd if we lived in a world where we do not feel free or one where everything else does. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. 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 rational predictability that guides our moral choosing. And this odd congruence between nature’s determinism and our own sense of freedom also allows something the God-of-the-gaps theories of divine impotence cannot deny. Nothing in the strongest case to be made for determinism forbids God’s action in the one area of reality we cannot help thinking is exempt from determinism: our sense of preferential freedom. Human consciousness and conscience provides a pretty big stage for divine intervention, especially if all the material scenery on the stage is predictably placed.  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.

If we seek knowledge of what that Creator is like from our own sense of freedom and from the knowable nature of material reality, we will find both deep complexity and deep mystery. The universe is so complex all the way through that we are only on the threshold of understanding it. Every layer reveals ten finer layers for reason and experience to investigate, and as very, very odd as the physics is, the layers seem dynamically related in even stranger ways. Nature is always far more complex than we initially thought. If nature’s God is to be inferred from its complexity and immensity, it is no wonder we must consider that God to be transcendent to our knowing, in which case our search for knowledge of the divine must end sooner rather than later. The universe and our perception of moral freedom seem to conspire to provide to an open mind just enough knowledge to inspire belief but too little to direct 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. Nature’s God must be an absent one, and faith must prove a blind leap not only beyond reason but into irrationality. 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, though she never makes clear how knowledge could be severed from reason in any case. This sort of effort does not merely call for questioning 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 reductionism 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 (see “Awe“). 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’s view of aesthetics 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.

All mainstream religions have their fideist and their rationalist wings. The “double truth” approach to Christianity regards spiritual knowledge as being of a different substance from ordinary reasoning. Now it is an open question of whether we can call such a thing knowledge at all, for its champions see it growing out of divine immanence, which must always be a profoundly ineffable sort of revelation, insight, intuition, or belief. Because it purports to be a direct but wordless communication of a transcendent God, we must also suspect that the truths thus communicated must always be private regardless of their profundity and certitude. Such experiences are the essence of mystic visions and conversion experiences that are frequently transmuted into religious authority over generations through the media of holy texts, dogmas, and traditions. The truths thus communicated and the practices thus legitimized are claimed by adherents to be true knowledge of the divine, but since authorities vociferously disagree about their contents, we are entitled to wonder with Armstrong if the authorities have gotten the knowledge quite correct (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”).

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 (see “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 (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 (see “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. In her earlier The History of God, Armstrong rather tiresomely argues that mysticism served as a corrective to rational religion. But what is the proper degree of correction: as an extension of our ordinary means of knowing or as a rejection of it? Many of the religious luminaries Armstrong drafts in her cause would regard her mysticism as unacceptably fideist and would regard such a rejection of ordinary reason as an impermissible rejection of divinity’s greatest legacy to humankind, and no mainstream religion has resolved the issue sufficiently to suppress dissent even within its own tradition. 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 ( see “Religion and Truth”). I also doubt that what Armstrong recommends can be accomplished, for we are too reliant on reason as the interpreter of experience to ignore its dictates in any one sphere of activity, especially one so central as theology (see “The Tyranny of Rationality”). She demonstrates that reliance by her repeated testimonials to the pragmatic and psychological benefits of belief. It seems she is unable to refrain from subjecting her faith to rational scrutiny so as to nestle it into her system of value, as I suspect we all are. But she seems to be specifically warning us away from such attempts at making sense of faith. If reducing God to one being among others is idolatry, what would she call reducing God to a worry stone or a lucky charm?  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 (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 (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism“). 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 (see  “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. The hard point is knowing at what point to surrender that effort and having done so, on what grounds to indulge belief (see “Religious Knowledge as Mobius Strip“).

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