A new kind of atheist

Bertrand Russell once wrote a book called Why I Am Not A Christian and, for the most part, that is what the book was about. The arguments against Christianity are lucid and polemic, but many of them are outdated now. For instance, he cites the lack of evidence in support of theism as a reason belief in God should be abandoned, but this has ceased to concern many theologians years ago who are now much more interested in the power of religiously inspired imagination to shape reality. Furthermore, Russell highlights the evil acts performed in the name of God throughout history and the hypocrisy of many Christians in failing to live up to the kind of life they espouse, but these have both been absorbed by the Church as an impetus for renewal rather than renunciation. This does not mean theism has won out and atheism now bears the burden of proof, it just means the arguments have changed.

Brian McLaren once wrote a book called A New Kind of Christian and, for the most part, many of his ideas were not new. They are, however, a popular blend of theology-meets-postmodernism that is circulating around anglo-saxon academies today, albeit in a more erudite manner. These are the kind of arguments currently being debated in religion and ones any “new kind of atheist” would have to take seriously lest he or she fall into the quasi-agnostic majority. I will not repeat these compelling arguments in expanded detail here (look here and here instead for a review), but simply quote a text that brings us right to the contemporary deadlock.

Insofar as it is practical, reason demands completeness; but it believes in the mode of expectation, of hope, in the existence of an order where the completeness can be actual.

Let me briefly recap. After reason critiqued itself and fell on hard times it appeared as though some sort of extrarational standard would have to save the day by filling in the newly created vacuum. This extrarational or irrational stopgap usually translated into a kind of leap of faith or wager on the eternal. In the text quoted above, Ricoeur is saying that once reason has recognized its own limits in attempting to understand and explain existence then expectation in an eternal completeness is our only hope. I think that “a new kind of atheist” has to seriously grapple with this impasse and I would at least like to point out a of couple directions.

First, eschatology for me is only slightly better than natural theology. I think that eschatology saves the day when reason defaults, but it is still unable to provide the things most in need of explaining. Let me explain. Faith comes on hard times when it is put to the test using critical reasoning skills, but, as Ricoeur shows, it comes out stronger than when it went in, if it comes out at all. This has mostly to do with letting go of all the superstitious beliefs and retaining the elements of faith that are “practical” for lack of a better term. The primary way Ricoeur believes faith survives in this process is because hermeneutics, or biblical interpretation, makes it flexible. In other words, we can tease out many meanings—even contradictory ones—from the exact same text. Although we clearly cannot make a text say anything we want, a text certainly possess a wide interpretive base. One of the stronger interpretations in Ricoeur’s opinion is that we will eventually see the completed whole in eternity and need not impose a premature totalization of reality. But the sleight of hand Ricoeur performs is the apparition of a senseless double. Stated otherwise, Ricoeur believes our interpretive problems will be solved by making his own interpretation of how exactly the interpretive problems will be solved. It just comes down to another interpretation, even if it is a good one. Many people have different views of the afterlife. For some its oblivion, others believe there is a divine separation between the saved and the damned, perhaps its messianic universalism, and Ricoeur thinks it’s a beatific vision. Therefore, I think, even if life after death can be proved scientifically or theologically it still remains an empty, ambiguous, and unintelligible category in need of further content. I parallel this to natural theology because even if God can be proved, ontologically for instance, we are still unable to prove things about the character of God, which happens to be the most important thing in need of proof (see here for further elaboration).

Secondly, what if it could be argued that our overdetermined and inconsistent meanings are the whole truth of reality and not a lack of its completion? What if the flat contradictions and inconsistencies of existence and the difficulty of pinning down knowledge is the full revelation in purity? (For an analogous reading in Proverbs see here). Certainly this would make any paradox between rational atheism and irrational theism superfluous. Perhaps nihilism is not the boogeyman and maybe extrarational faith is not needed.

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6 responses to “A new kind of atheist”

  1. Matt Martin says :

    I have been discussing with Matt two related issues. Specifically, we have been debating the equivocal and overdetermined nature of eschatology. Matt’s argument is that it is so equivocal and overdetermined so as to demand an ambivalent response on our part. I disagree our response must be ambivalent. More generally, we have been debating the need for theology as a dialogue partner with what Matt sees as two primary traditions of critique: philosophy and poetry. I argued philosophy and poetry alone create a closed system, and that theology is needed to break open a closed human system to the transcendent. Matt argues that, while it creates a circular system, such a system is not closed. He remains uncommitted as to whether or not theology need (should?) be a dialogue partner with philosophy or poetry.

    The discussion began here, but because Matt’s position is more clearly born out in this post, this is where I will post my rebuttal.

    In the linked post, Matt concluded his informed response to my concern with the following statement:

    “My deliberation in pushing this conclusion forward, however, is that I think hope in the otherworldly is just as opaque as hope in the present. Both are overdetermined and both are equivocal.”

    Likewise, here Matt states the following:

    “Many people have different views of the afterlife. For some its oblivion, others believe there is a divine separation between the saved and the damned, perhaps its messianic universalism, and Ricoeur thinks it’s a beatific vision. Therefore, I think, even if life after death can be proved scientifically or theologically it still remains an empty, ambiguous, and unintelligible category in need of further content.”

    In other words, simply put, Matt is arguing that the inherent equivocity of the doctrine of eschatology demand what Matt has termed in personal conversation an “ambivalent soteriology” (and hence eschatology, as the two are organically linked). Utilizing this logic, I imagine Matt may have a similar argument to make regarding the doctrines of justification, theodicy, and creation, as well as Christology and the nature of God. I say this because, in the canonical texts of the orthodox Christian faith, the relevant texts to each of these topics are, to varying degrees, also overdetermined and equivocal.

    In light of this, if I understand Matt correctly, his argument is that eschatology needs to be demystified and scrutinized by the same philosophical and poetic tools that overturn and re-express our present thoughts and hopes. When this is done, we realize that our “literal” myths are more equivocal—submitting to multiple meanings—and far more “overdetermined”—deriving from multiple causes and requiring multiple explanations—than a dogmatic or literalist inflexibility would permit to be seen. If we are too sure of our eschatology and soteriology—too certain in our hope—we are failing to realize that our icons are part idol. This in turn, some might argue, leads not only to lack of self awareness and idolatry, but also to a violent suppression of difference. We can avoid these pitfalls by submitting faith to “critical reasoning skills” so as to allow ourselves to let go “of all the superstitious beliefs and [retain] the elements of faith that are ‘practical’ for lack of a better term.” When we do so with eschatology specifically, we realize it is “empty, ambiguous, and unintelligible”.

    Before replying in depth, I must note I regret the fact that I do not have a clearer understanding of what exactly Matt means by certain words. For example, Matt’s meaning is too vague in his notions of “demystified” eschatology or “practical faith”. Likewise, one wonders to whom, for whom, and by what standards one “proves” eschatology—what standards of discourse and “proof” is Matt working with? This is important, because Matt alleges that any proof of an eschatology would ultimately be “empty, ambiguous, and unintelligible.” However, I am unsure what Matt is actually saying here. Is an ambiguous or unintelligible concept automatically an “empty” one? Luther, in his debate with Zwingli on the Eucharist, certainly thought not, but perhaps Luther is wrong and an unintelligible (i.e. irrational?) Eucharist is ambiguous and empty? The concept of the Trinity is ambiguous, and it is certainly unintelligible to a degree. Does this mean it too is empty? And, are such notions empty in the ontological or epistemological sense, or both?

    Thus, I will make a best guess here so as to Matt’s intended meanings so as to be in a better position to reply (I hope fairly!) to Matt’s position. In using the notion of demystification, I do not think Matt has in mind a Bultmannian demythologization of the texts. Rather, it seems he is seeking a de-centering of any given interpretation’s priority. When a position is demystified and scrutinized, it will have been “overturned” to tease out new meaning.

    Matt’s notion of the “practical” is even less clear. He opposes the “practical” elements of faith to “superstitious beliefs”. Such terms are so loaded (overdetermined and equivocal, even) that it is difficult to know what Matt means. Again, what I do not think Matt means is a Bultmannian demythologization of the texts and doctrines of the Faith, or a Humean rejection of the miraculous. I suspect, by “superstitious beliefs”, he means a certainty in specific interpretations. Thus, one holding an assured belief in messianic universalism or in a Reformed double predestination would be holding “superstitious beliefs”. What is “practical”, then is a position that recognizes all such interpretations as tentative, and that we cannot know and should not seek to know God’s eschatological will and workings. The “practical”, then, would be those doctrines (if there are any?) which admit to enough certainty to be practically useful in everyday life and academic discourse.

    What is Matt implying in his reference to emptiness, ambiguity, and unintelligibility? I suspect Matt is arguing that because eschatology admits to no standard, universally-accepted norms of rational proof, it is meaningless for us. This would be the unintelligibility. However, as to Matt’s reference to ambiguity, I am left unsure of his meaning. Surely, he cannot be arguing that an ambiguous concept is an empty one, so I am left to guess that ambiguity coupled with unintelligibility leads to a claim of emptiness (an ambiguous concept is not necessarily an unintelligible one, while an unintelligible concept includes ambiguity as a necessary condition). Matt of course can correct me if I have misrepresented him.

    I now begin my rebuttal, and it starts with the very problem (in my mind) of Matt’s notions of demystification and practicality in theology, as well as his mention of “critical reasoning skills”, by which he presumably means those of philosophy. I stated above that Matt seems to be calling for a much more tentative approach to eschatological doctrines—what one might call a penultimate approach. However, Matt seems to be doing far more than this. For example, Matt concludes the above post with this paragraph:

    “Secondly, what if it could be argued that our overdetermined and inconsistent meanings are the whole truth of reality and not a lack of its completion? What if the flat contradictions and inconsistencies of existence and the difficulty of pinning down knowledge is the full revelation in purity?….Certainly this would make any paradox between rational atheism and irrational theism superfluous. Perhaps nihilism is not the boogeyman and maybe extrarational faith is not needed.” (italics added)

    Coupled with previous comments in personal discourse regarding an “ambivalent” approach to soteriology and eschatology, one begins to suspect that Matt’s argument is moving in a direction far more radical than mere penultimate doctrinal humility. Rather than admit to the unavoidable ambiguity of penultimate thought, we would claim that the ambiguity regarding the IS is itself what IS, or IS NOT, as the case may be.

    What Matt suggests as a possible response for the new atheist is exactly what Conor Cunningham discusses in his controversial Genealogy of Nihilism (2002). Cunningham notes that nihilism (which, after all, we must define to discuss) “is” a logic: “a sundering of the something, rendering it nothing, and then having the nothing be after all as something.” (2002, xiii) Of course, philosophers—especially in the analytic tradition—take strong contention with the nothing “as” something (see Khazaee’s particularly critical review). Space does not permit a debate here, but the general point, if it holds, of Cunningham’s work is that, severed from theology, philosophy has created an abstract intellectual version of Jastrow’s duck-rabbit. In the duck-rabbit, we have a “nothing”—the squiggly line presenting itself as a “something”, and indeed a contradictory two somethings—a duck and a rabbit. However, neither the duck, nor the rabbit, actually is. Rather, “what” we have “is” an ambiguous “nothing” presenting “itself” in a permanent interplay of duck-rabbit. The nihilism comes in from the fact that, behind the flux, “is” an ambiguous “no-thing”. Or, to attempt to put it in more representative language, behind the flux, “naughts” an ambiguous “no-thing”.

    Cunningham is right. The logic doesn’t work—there cannot “be” “no-thing” (this is where I would argue Khazaee misses the point). In spite of the fashionableness of notions of permanent interplay and equivocity of meaning (or, as is often actually meant, being), some-thing must be. While we might pretend that such equivocity and overdetermination is a modern insight, we can go all the way back to Heraclitus to see that it has been a vexing problem for philosophy, and one which Heraclitus himself sought to solve with an elemental something: Fire. Heraclitus might seem a strange ally for my case. After all, he said that we cannot step in the same river twice, for the identity of the river is predicated on its ever-changeingness. However, Heraclitus’ insight was not so much that everything is always changing, but that, behind the change, is an unchanging “is-ness”. Fire, while always changing, always consuming, is also always and ever the same—the stable, almost immobile flame of the candle.

    Of course, one can always make the (at its core) Hegelian move and substitute primary Being with Becoming (think Hegel’s Spirit). In this way, one salvages the notion of equivocity and indeterminability at the core of existence. One has the added bonus (for modern thought) in this Hegelian move to bestow upon the notion of “change” a positive factor of either implying continual progress toward greater truth (Hegel), or baptizing change itself as inherently good apart from any progress toward or regress from an alleged “truth” (Matt’s final paragraph). The problem, of course, for Christian philosophers is that such a notion is highly difficult, if not impossible, to square with the revealed God of canonical Scripture. Let me briefly examine this complex discussion from two points of view: logical and hermeneutical.

    Philosophically, the classical argument against such a notion is that “God” (or the ultimate god, as may be the case in polytheisms) is traditionally defined not only in orthodox Christianity but in the world’s major religions as a being (not a becoming), and this being, as God, is perfect being. If it were not perfect being, then it would not be God, because there would, to use Anselmian language, be a being capable of being thought which would be superior to this non-perfect being. Yet, if God as Being is Perfection, perfection essentially entails unchangingness, for there is no improving upon perfection. If a critic tells me God isn’t perfect, then I will simply say that said critic is not talking about God at all, but rather a being sub-God. It should be noted that this perfect Being need not be a Hellenic “unmoved mover”, deistic and unemotional. Indeed, such a stoic God is as unscriptural (if not more so) as a “becoming” God. However, at the ontological level, such a perfect God cannot change God’s being and still be perfect, for God would then cease to be perfect and, ergo, cease to be God.

    Looking at the matter hermeneutically, however, some may contest this claim, pointing out, for example, that the Hebrew Ehyeh of God’s Ehyeh asher ehyeh in Exodus 3:14 is translatable literally into “I will be who I will be” (though the common scholarly translation is “I am who I am”). Richard Kearny is one example of this move, in his The God Who May Be (2001). In fact, Kearny, as he is in the phenomenological tradition of Ricoeur, is likely a strong representation of Matt’s argument, though applying it to the “post-metaphysical” identity of God rather than to the doctrines of eschatology and soteriology. Without engaging in a lengthy debate regarding metaphysical versus post-metaphysical approaches to God (a debate which, admittedly, I am unequipped to prosecute at this point), I will simply point out that the “post-metaphysical” God of “becoming”—with “becoming” being God’s ontology—fails to square adequately with the whole of canonical Scripture, or with the traditions of the orthodox Christian faith. I can simply point out that the Ehyeh asher ehyeh, given the historical and Scriptural context, is referring most likely to God’s revealing God’s nature through God’s actions. Given a Christian interpretation, this would be the Christ-event. This is more supportable than using the text to imply a change in God’s being (if indeed it is translated as “I will be who I will be” at all, as opposed to “I am who I am”).

    In spite of all this, however, and despite Matt’s closing paragraph, I doubt that Matt is ultimately arguing an ontological nihilism—that he is seeking to extend the equivocity and overdetermination to being, rather than meaning. Additionally, Matt would likely reply to the above argument by saying it is trivial—i.e. even if we establish the above, it says nothing about God as God relates to us (whether it would or not, I leave aside for now). Rather, it seems Matt is seeking to make a case for doctrinal humility in the face of the limits of human knowledge. Now, if this is simply a call for penultimate doctrinal humility, the argument, with all due respect, is simply a fashionable restatement of an ultimately uninteresting observation that any text can have multiple meanings, or that different groups hold different convictions regarding core doctrines (i.e. ransom versus Christus victor theories of atonement or pre-millennial versus a-millennial theories of eschatology).

    However, Matt seems to be arguing for more than this, as his insistence on the “emptiness, ambiguity, and unintelligibility” of eschatology demonstrates. Matt is rather arguing for an agnostic skepticism regarding eschatology. Or, perhaps more accurately, he is saying eschatology is ultimately meaningless and therefore irrelevant to those of us who are rightly seeking a “practical” approach. For example, regarding eschatology, would Matt not simply point out that I myself have underscored this very point in my above discussion of Exodus 3:14? Is not every text (and hence every doctrine based upon that text) equivocal and overdetermined? Matt writes:

    “Although we clearly cannot make a text say anything we want, a text certainly possess a wide interpretive base. One of the stronger interpretations in Ricoeur’s opinion is that we will eventually see the completed whole in eternity and need not impose a premature totalization of reality. But the sleight of hand Ricoeur performs is the apparition of a senseless double.”

    In other words, even Ricoeur, in supplying what he believes to be “[o]ne of the stronger interpretations” regarding eschatology, is himself providing “a premature totalization of reality”—he is forcing a single interpretation onto a future that, it seems, can only be met with an informed agnosticism (“ambivalence”, in Mat’s words).

    It is undeniable both that we cannot make a text say anything we want, as well as that every text has (to varying degrees) a broad range of likely/legitimate interpretations. However, it simply does not follow that, in many cases, one specific interpretation does not present itself as the strongest interpretation to a wide range of scholars. For example, let us look at I Tim. 2:8-15. Here, St. Paul writes that women are saved through childbearing and that they should “learn in silence with full submission”. (I Tim. 1:11) No woman can have authority over a man, and Paul even prescribes the proper dress of women. For those knowledgeable about the context in which St. Paul was writing this letter, it seems highly probable that St. Paul was not providing a universal standard for women’s engagement in the Church (think Perpetual) but rather a temporary and extreme set of laws to head off the dangerous and infiltrating effects of the Artemis Cult in Ephesus. This reading squares well with St. Paul’s corpus as a whole, as well as with the vision St. Paul gives of inter-personal relations in the Body of Christ: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. (Gal. 3:28) Of course, this does not eliminate other readings. However, I am skeptical that we must agnostically approach every interpretation that falls within the broad range of potential interpretations. Authorial intention and historical/textual context give us critical tools for understanding intended meaning of a text. I reject, at least to a certain extent, the notion that once a text leaves its author’s desk, its meaning becomes uncontrollable.

    Of course, a critic can reply that I chose an easy text. Regarding eschatology, the murky apocalyptic literature of Revelation certainly leaves us as many questions than answers. After all, our discussion is specifically about the usefulness of eschatology. If indeed eschatology is so equivocal and overdetermined that it only permits an ambivalent response, it is irrelevant which interpretation we select. More basically, Matt would likely reject my argument from authorial intention and context, utilizing Ricoeur to push the idea that, regardless of what the author may have intended, a text will obtain a freedom of its own, admitting to multiple and potentially contradictory meanings. Moreover, this fact is positive, for it prevents us from making a “premature totalization of reality”. Thus, my third appeal—this time to Tradition—would likewise do no good in the mind of one accepting Matt’s argument, because Tradition itself is viewed negatively as just such a “premature totalization of reality” that likely needs to be overturned to mine for new meaning.

    At this point, the possibilities of persuasion either way really begin to break down. The reason is that it seems we are accepting contradictory views regarding the role of Tradition and Authority as it applies to certain knowability of doctrine and textual interpretation. As a medievalist leaving Protestantism in favor of either Catholicism or Orthodoxy, I reject what I see as post-Enlightenment “rejections” of Tradition and Authority (I put “rejections” in quotes because I argue they ultimately did no such thing, but merely swapped one Authority and Tradition for another in a sleight of hand. However, such a discussion takes us well off course).

    It seems we also tentatively disagree on the relation of philosophy to theology. I am a medievalist who accepts Saint Thomas Aquinas’ distinction between the two as follows: philosophy is grounded in human reason, while theology accepts revelation as a source of authority. In other words, the one is, as I am quoted saying here, a closed system. Theology, however, is open to the transcendent in its accepting revelation as a source of authority. This does not mean that theology is irrational, or that philosophy cannot discuss the transcendent. Rather, it means both are needed.

    This also means that Matt and I likely disagree on what we see as the purpose of philosophy. It sounds as if Matt understands philosophy primarily as critical theory—as the continual criticism and re-adjustment of pre-existing ideas so as to combat totalitarianism and create space for new meaning. However, while I see this role in philosophy as indispensable, I also argue philosophy is constructive (as opposed to merely deconstructive). What I mean is that, given what has already been argued, philosophy can seek the truth actively rather than passively, though only in conjunction with a theology that breaks the closed system of the human mind and makes manifest the world.

    I am hesitant to attempt articulating Matt’s position more than I already have, for fear of misrepresentation. Thus, I will simply lay out my own assumptions above as I have, with the suspicion that Matt’s position in each area is simply “other” than my own. So where does this leave us? At this point, I can only seek to make manifest what I see as inherent dangers with an argument for an ambivalent soteriology or eschatology, hopefully in a way that might be convincing regardless of assumptions regarding Authority/Tradition or Philosophy/Theology.

    Remember that the core point of contention in the debate is the argument that even if an eschatology were “provable” scientifically or theologically, it would still be, essentially, useless. The case Matt makes in support seems to involve both a subordination of faith to reason, as well as postulating as necessary an ever-unjustifiable “leap of faith” beyond reason.

    Problem One: Thus, the first problem is the question of where the line is drawn? If eschatology, by mere fact of the presence of multiple interpretations, is equivocal and overdetermined to the point of being content-less and (simply put) irrelevant, what does this say about other equally-contested doctrines? Do we adopt ambivalence in Christology or atonement theory? If not, why? And, if so, and such doctrines, like that of eschatology, simply call for an ambivalence from us, does not all of theology demand ambivalence? For, it seems, Matt’s “ambivalent” soteriology and eschatology sounds a lot more like an agnostic soteriology and eschatology. How is this any different from a secular flattening out of the world, such that we concern ourselves with more “practical” matters and leave the foolish and arrogant speculation to theologians and metaphysicians?

    More to the point, why do we restrict ourselves to the orthodox Christian tradition? The Church of Christ argues that doctrine itself should be left to the conscious and reason of individual believers, and that the Church is a body including anyone who simply believes that Jesus died for them. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that such an inclusiveness is so vague as to admit to virtually no boundaries, and to despair of our ever being able to actually know anything about God or God’s working in the world. Gnostics, Apollinarians, Arians, Pelagians—all become the Church, as no one is actually able to say anything by virtue of the fact that other people think something different.

    Of course, one can appeal to Tradition and Authority, or perhaps to canonical Scripture, but if one does this, then why does one reject it in regard to eschatological doctrines? In other words, the orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware believes in universal salvation. However, he admits that this is only a justifiable hope, as eschatological theory and canonical Scripture admits to more than one eschatological possibility regarding the place of the sinner (regarding the saved, it is much clearer). Yet, it does not follow that Ware must throw up his arms and declare an ambivalence toward eschatological theory. Ware does anything but, writing extensively on Christian eschatology as a key Christian doctrine, and providing (in my mind) intelligible and unambiguous arguments in favor of his position.

    Thus, even while admitting to multiple interpretations, orthodox Christianity has always affirmed the central importance of eschatology. Matt has not adequately provided a reason why the mere equivocity of interpretations regarding a key doctrine demands ambivalence toward that doctrine. Nor has he clearly articulated why he regards eschatology with ambivalence while (as far as I know) he does not treat Christology or ecclesiology the same way. If he does, then he is simply articulating an eloquent agnosticism, which he seems to imply he is trying to avoid with his reference to the “quasi-agnostic majority” (a label I agree with regarding the majority).

    Problem Two: Matt’s seeming skepticism regarding our ability to ever settle on a likely given interpretation is based, I suspect, on a tentative rejection of revelation (in addition to Tradition) as a justifiable source of knowledge. A rejection of revelation as a source of authority, however, implies two claims, the second flowing naturally from the first: (1) contextually-based and linguistically-imprisoned humans are never able to “know” manifest truth from God, even if God reveals it to them; hence, (2) God is either deistic or is not omnipotent.

    On the surface, it is contestable that (2) flows naturally from (1), but I beg the reader’s continued attention. If God does not reveal Truth to God’s creation, God has removed God’s self in a deistic fashion. If God does reveal Truth, but takes no notice that that Truth is incapable of being comprehended by the beings God created, God is still deistic, though in a soft sense. If God does take notice, but is unable to break through the linguistic and cultural prisons in which we find ourselves trapped, God is not omnipotent.

    Of course, almost any good Christian theologian will merely point out that we are blinded by sin, and therefore incapable of ever fully-perceiving revealed Truth. Rather, we must await the Beatific Vision, when that Truth that we are able to comprehend and which God chooses to reveal will be fully comprehensible. However, it does not follow from this argument that we must be ambivalent about revealed Truth penultimately. Matt has to demonstrate why the Church is so incapable of gaining access to revealed eschatological Truth as to necessarily adopt an ambivalence toward it. If Matt makes recourse to linguistic imprisonment, linguistic variability, or rational limitations, he has to explain why God is not able or not willing to overcome such limitations to reveal Truth.

    Two immediate responses will rightly be made to the above argument, however. The first is that although God reveals Truth to us, we can do nothing but interpret that revelation according to our language and context. To this, I absolutely agree. However, again, it does not follow that we must adopt an ambivalence toward revealed knowledge, giving up the academic and pastoral enterprise of establishing the most likely interpretation(s) (after all, a text can admit to multiple non-contradictory interpretations and still bear witness to reality). Moreover, it rejects out of hand as even possible the mystical and phenomenological experience of the Divine.

    I suspect the second response to this problem will be that God purposefully reveals, conceals, and overturns knowledge so as to constantly be avoiding a “premature totalization of reality”. After all, look at Jesus’ method of teaching in the parables. In fact, if this is Matt’s response, I find nothing wrong with it per se, and in fact whole-heartedly agree. However, the devil is in the details as the saying goes. For example, if God reveals, conceals, and overturns in such a way so as to make everything tentative (in this case, everything having to do with eschatology), God simply becomes, to some extent, Descartes’ Evil Genius. God will reveal the future to us, but all the while know that such revelation is so empty, ambiguous, and unintelligible so as to be completely useless to us. If we have no assured eschatological hope, then Christianity itself becomes evacuated of content, for Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, which manifest a coming (and present) reality—the now and the not yet—itself becomes meaningless apart from some vacuous (and itself ontologically meaningless) moral exemplar theory.

    Let me put it another way. If we become ambivalent regarding either eschatology or soteriology, we become ambivalent about the heart of the Gospel. This does not mean all Christians need to be messianic universalists or Reformed double predestinarians. Rather, it means Christians must have enough faith in God that God actually reveals to us in ways that are fruitful for the Body of Christ. When God reveals the messianic prophecies of Isaiah, the Israelites’ response wasn’t to throw their hands in the air and claim that, well, that could mean almost anything and that eschatology is too ambiguous and unintelligible to be “practical”. Far from it. Rather, it was the most practical doctrine of all, for it gave Israel hope in the face of its trials, and faith that God would fulfill God’s covenant with Abraham.

    Counter Claim: So what then my alternative to Matt’s proposal? Regarding eschatology, how can we avoid the horns of agnosticism on the one hand and fideism or intellectual arrogance on the other? I would begin with a quote from St Diadochos of Photiki:

    “We ought at all times to wait for the enlightenment that comes from above before we speak with a faith energized by love; for the illumination which will enable us to speak. For there is nothing so destitute as a mind philosophising about God, when it is without Him”.

    Saint Diadochos demonstrates both an epistemic humility and a confidence in the power of divine revelation, and bears remarkable resemblance to Saint Anselm’s “Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam. Nam et hoc credo, quia, nisi credidero, non intelligam”: “Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand.” Likewise, Saint Augustine taught crede, ut intelligas, “believe so that you may understand”. This clearly avoids agnosticism, but does it avoid fideism or intellectual arrogance/idolatry?

    I argue it does. Saint Anselm, Saint Augustine, and Saint Diadochos all recognized a central epistemological truth that is deeply unfashionable today: that our rationality, our way of seeing and interpreting the world, our very act of being is dependent upon an always pre-rational mythopoeia. Simply put, this is the same as saying that there is no “view from nowhere”—no objective place to see and interpret the world from and no objective rationality or standard by which to determine something’s truth or falsehood.

    What Saint Anselm, for example, was attempting to demonstrate was that all knowledge follows belief, not precedes it. This is a complete inversion of modern popular epistemology (think scientific epistemology). Here, something has to be proven to us before we can assent to believing it. Our belief must be earned by demonstrating a claim as a fact through use of mutually-agreed upon methods of establishing truth claims. The convenience of such a move politically speaking is that it banishes religion and religious claims to a interior “private” realm where modern secular society will be safely inoculated against opposing voices. The reason this occurs is that we accept scientific modes of enquiry as those leading to truth. Hence, when, for example, Matt notes that in society the “burden of proof” is on the theist rather than the atheist, much more is actually being said than appears in the sentence. What the new atheists (and society as a whole in the secularized world) mean is that theism has to prove itself in an atmosphere in which the underlying mythopoeia is stacked against theism. Because faith claims cannot “prove” themselves using the accepted, universalized epistemic methods of this secular mythopoeia, the only “legitimate” responses to faith claims end up being atheism, agnosticism, or radically “irrational” leaps of faith.

    For Saint Anselm (and arguably the whole of pre-Enlightenment humanity), faith and reason were not opposed. In fact, faith is the condition of the possibility for reason, for it equips one with the conceptual tools and standards of a specific mythopoeia with which to reason about the world.

    This is in part what is puzzling about Matt’s comments that eschatology will always be unintelligible. Unintelligible to whom? It seems it is only unintelligible to one who rejects what Charles Taylor, in his outstanding history A Secular Age (2007), an “enchanted worldview”: i.e. a world hooked to the transcended, rather than flattened out in a closed naturalistic circle. Of course, by “unintelligible”, Matt may simply mean ambiguous and admitting to multiple interpretations. I have already argued that this would not entail an ambivalent response on our part. Additionally, if Matt means unintelligible in terms of the inability of human knowledge to grasp the Divine, he is only partially right.

    For example, consider the Hesychasts of the Orthodox Faith. Theirs is a monastic meditative community that seeks direct experiential knowledge of God through unique meditative and life practices. Assuming that they actually do achieve such direct experiential knowledge (to simply assume otherwise would be to beg the question against the miraculous ala Hume’s stunningly poor arguments), this knowledge actually does give human access to the transcendent, apart from any linguistic or cultural imprisonment. This experience is then filtered into the Church at large via such writings as the Philokalia, where it becomes part of the tradition, life, and dialogue of the Church’s theologians, philosophers, and laity at large. Likewise, the authors of canonical Scripture were inspired to compose writings that reveal Truth to the Body of Christ. Of course, again, such an argument will run into the immediate objection that, even if such claims are true, as they percolate outward from the initial source of revelation, they inevitably become interpreted and “equivocal and overdetermined”.

    Again, as I did above, I recognize this as an inescapable fact of fallen and embedded human existence without succumbing to a radically-skeptical pessimism that this means we must simply despair of ever “knowing” revealed Truth or reality (whether such pessimism be about specific doctrines such as eschatology or about reality as a whole). The leap from the former to the latter is simply too strong and too poorly supported. Again, let us look at Saint Anselm.

    Saint Anslem recognized that we would always be in dialogue with the Truth. He did not throw human rationality or philosophy overboard in a fideistic retreat into Church dogma. Rather, he realized that certain starting assumptions are necessary before we even begin talking about what is knowable, and for him (as it would seem to be for all Christians), faith in God as the revealed and revealing personal God in Christ is a necessary precondition for Christian thinking about the world and human epistemic possibility. Ultimately, it boils down to the following claim:

    (1) If there is a God as that Entity is conceived in Christian doctrine, that God is a God of revelation.
    (2) A God of revelation is a God Who can be known

    Like Saint Anselm, Saint Augustine, and Saint Diadochos, I do not claim that we can know God in a circumscribable sense. We can never know with certainty God’s being, God’s will, or God’s work in history, anymore than we can know with certainty God’s plan for the future. In fact, Matt’s concerns have already been addressed within Christian faith in the form of apophatic theology. The difference between what seems to be Matt’s position and the position of apophaticism is that apophaticism always works in conjunction with cataphatic theology. In this way, I appreciate Matt’s concern about not applying a totalized and premature vision to reality. However, his seeming ambivalence and agnosticism regarding eschatology is not the appropriate nor the necessary response.

    This is the irony of Matt’s claim. Eschatology, far from being an otherworldly, speculative free-for-all, is a practical bedrock of the Faith. To paraphrase Martin Luther, everything in the world is done by hope. Revealed eschatology, even while ambiguous and admitting to multiple legitimate interpretations, still speaks with a unified voice regarding what is most important: God’s Will will be done, and justice and salvation will be had by those who have suffered in faithfulness throughout the long march of history. We need not be ambivalent or agnostic toward eschatology or soteriology, for if we are we cease to mine the Truth and meanings that it bears through time for us. An ambivalent soteriology and eschatology is scarcely better than a blatant atheism. Rather, as Christians, and with all penultimate doctrinal humility, we humbly submit to the God of Hope while never despairing of that God’s desire for us to never stop seeking Truth as best we can. While our knowledge of God and God’s workings, even eschatologically, will always be partial, this in no way entails ambivalence as the appropriate response.

    • Matt Cullen-Meyer says :

      To reply more thoroughly to Matt’s long and intelligent response I must first add that I was much more close to Bultmann than Matt graciously gave me credit for. Partly, I was accidently complicit. Ricoeur directly references Bultmann when he speaks of demythization and I clearly did not make any separation in my post. With that said, I think Matt clarified my own thought and kept us on track with the real issue. As he says: “Thus, I will make a best guess here so as to Matt’s intended meanings so as to be in a better position to reply (I hope fairly!) to Matt’s position. In using the notion of demystification, I do not think Matt has in mind a Bultmannian demythologization of the texts. Rather, it seems he is seeking a de-centering of any given interpretation’s priority. When a position is demystified and scrutinized, it will have been “overturned” to tease out new meaning.” Well put Matt. I think this is what we were saying along but I was much more Bultmannian than I think I would have liked to be. As most theological intelligencia agree today, demythization is a luke-warm position to hold. It’s a half-way house between secularity and religiousity but does not add anything to either. I think I took the middle road though because I am lenient to speak of revelation or spirit but I am not yet willing to let the theistic stack fall. I will be the first to admit I am worth spitting out!

      As far as my reference to the “practical” aspects of faith I meant only how mythopoetic imagination shapes reality. It is practical in the sense that it changes the world by interpreting it. I should have been more clear.

      I think applying the “overdetermination” category to ecclesiology is really where I need to turn and, I think, is partly where I’ve been the past year without realizing. I was punch drunk on the idea that the church is a socio-political alternative to surrounding society but erronously conflated this with the Kingdom of God. I kind of forgot that the church is animated by the Spirit and is only the first-fruits of a more whole eschatological reality. My practical lived understanding of this anticipated its high theory twin because I always found theology very interesting but dreaded going to church. In other words, I liked the church on paper but never wanted to get stuck in the muddle of its practical existence. I invite anyone to read with me Christ, History, and Apocalytic: The Politics of Christian Mission for this task.

  2. Matt Martin says :

    My apologies. I forgot to transfer my hyperlinks over from the Word Doc. The only essentia hyperlink was to Matt’s post below regarding “Circular Dialogue in Non-Enclosed, Non-Vicious Loop: http://ecclesiaviatorum.wordpress.com/2010/05/19/circular-dialog-in-non-enclosed-non-vicious-loop/

  3. Matt Cullen-Meyer says :

    Beautiful, voluminous response. I certainly have my worked cut out for me. Therefore, I will commit to blogging on the following topics to clarify my thought in the coming month:

    1. Apophatic theology applied to christology and ecclesiology
    2. A third way beyond both nihilism and creatio ex nihilo (creatio ex profundis)
    3. Revelation and cataphatic theology

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