Jesus and Mo on apophatic theology

Well, it can’t be coincidence: the mysterious artist of Jesus and Mo is clearly reading about the science-versus-religion debates and transforming them into hilarious strips.  His/her latest is about apophatic theology, which is precisely the theology that Karen Armstrong touts in her new book, The Case for God.   Apophatic theology is apparently this:

. . . negative theology is far more than a puzzling emblem of antique theology; it is the foundation of serious reflection about the divine. He understands negative theology as consisting “in a critical negation of all affirmations which one can make about God, followed by an equally critical negation of our negations.” In his words, “without the negative theology our representation of reality loses all depth and becomes abstract, flat, and unreal.” This happens because we lose sight of the divine whenever we accept as final or complete any conceptual representation of it.

o.k., this is clearly a theology which is practiced by beefy, well-fed liberal theologians rather than the average believer.  It appears to be summed up by the statement,  “We can’t conceive of God until we stop thinking about him.”

Whenever I read stuff like this, it reminds me of George Orwell’s great statement in Notes on Nationalism:

One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.

When are intellectual theologians going to realize that “religion” as practiced by most people does not consist of their oh-so-genteel musings? It’s fine for theologians to indulge in these lucubrations if they want, but not to pretend that science and faith are compatible because everybody practices the theologians’ own liberal form of faith — a faith that sometimes verges on agnosticism.

Oh, wait, maybe I should like this kind of theology because it tells believers to SHUT UP.

Enough ranting; on to Jesus ‘n’ Mo:

2009-07-07

59 Comments

  1. Brian English
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    Genius!

    • Fact
      Posted July 21, 2009 at 12:55 am | Permalink

      “pretend that science and faith are compatible ”

      Yeah, that statement is genius alright. Except it negates the fact that Christian church fathers such as Augustine of Hippo insinuate exactly that. ” Wherever there is truth, it is the Lord’s”, says Augustine. I.e. never deny truth no matter where it is found because it from God. This was eventually expanded upon by Francis Bacon and others who worked extensively with ” the book of nature”, which was regarded as studying the truths of God through nature. Scripture explains God’s will, while nature explains his truths. Francis Bacon, as in the guy who influenced the founding of the Royal Society ( which contributed greatly to our modern form of science).

      By all means though continue to label Christianity as an ignorant religion, so people who are even vaguely familiar with it’s historical roots can continue to laugh at your ignorance.

      • Fact
        Posted July 21, 2009 at 1:03 am | Permalink

        Theology and Science as ideals don’t contradict each other, scientists and theologians do.-Lindberg I believe

  2. ennui
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Meditations on Jabberwocky

    sunsets and rainbows and butterflies and the sweet smile of a toddler

    what is the sound of one brain flopping?

    we are too militant to get it, get it?

  3. newenglandbob
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    I guess this all means that less is more.

    Therefore those who dilute medicine by a factor of 100,000 must have it right! No – they talk about it. Oh, I am confused.

    It also means that Thor, Zeus, Isis and all the other forgotten gods are more powerful than Yahweh and Jesus and Allah.

    I knew we shouldn’t have talked about the Flying Spaghetti Monster who is now diminished.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted July 8, 2009 at 8:17 am | Permalink

      Therefore those who dilute medicine by a factor of 100,000 must have it right!

      You might be on to something there.
      The apophatic deity = homeopathic God.

  4. Steve13
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Why can’t they just practice what they preach and shut up

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted July 8, 2009 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

      Because the parasitic memes that infect their minds will not allow themselves to be neutered in such a fashion by their host meat-robot.

  5. Posted July 8, 2009 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    I know what average rainfall is, but what is an “average believer”? Is there some actuarial table we can refer to that measures religious apophasis against cataphasis?

    Armstrong may not sell as many copies as the KJV, but she is a bestselling author, and not all her readers are ivory tower eggheads (she’s probably too middlebrow for most of them anyway).

    Using “average” and “typical” as a cover for the fact that not all religion has the properties you attribute to it (and that you can’t even measure, except by anecdote, what the breakdown is) makes you seem more and more like a curmudgeon and less and less like someone with a serious point to make.

  6. Posted July 8, 2009 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Oh good, the argument from best-sellerdom – that’s convincing.

    “makes you seem more and more like a curmudgeon and less and less like someone with a serious point to make.”

    To whom? The average believer? The average blogger? The average bystander? Or just…you know…you?

    Anyway – the great Chris Schoen telling Jerry Coyne that he seems less and less like someone with a serious point to make – mmpph. That’s a good one!

  7. origin
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Slightly o/t here, but..
    I have never seen one, but I would be interested in seeing a timeline for theological biblical interpretation.

    Did theologians decide the bible was full of myths and parables gradually, in response to certain historical happenings or scientific discoveries? Or did Aquinas or someone important declare once and for all that obviously part of the Bible was false or aesthetic?

    What can we learn about a religion that has not yet been watered-down to the point of conceding that many passages are myths or parables, like Islam?

    Just thinking out loud, don’t mind me…

  8. Posted July 8, 2009 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Ophelia, I’m glad to see your reading comprehension is as acute as ever. I don’t argue that KA is correct because she sells books; merely that her book sales indicate some amount of affinity for her ideas, and that we need to take the affinity seriously even if the ideas we cannot.

    Now, perhaps her readership is composed entirely of non “religious” people on the outside looking in. It can’t be ruled out. But short of the kind of analysis being conducted by no interested parties to this conversation, it is specious to appeal to the “average” believer and marginalize the exceptions to the rule, when one’s whole argument rests on the idea that religion monolithically “is” something (stupid, harmful, anti-science, whatever.)

    Dismissing Armstrong on these grounds is a exercise of the No True Scotsman fallacy, in other words. It’s a major weakness in the incompatability hypothesis. I don’t call it a fatal one, just one that I haven’t seen a thoughtful response to from Coyne, Carroll, Dawkins, Myers, or anyone else.

    • articulett
      Posted July 8, 2009 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

      And Ophelia inferred that she hasn’t seen a single thoughtful response from you. I concur.

      Maybe your inability to understand the “thoughtful responses” of those you criticize has more to do with the Kruger-Dunning effect (the incompetent are too incompetent to know they are the incompetents), rather than the lack of thoughtful responses from the list of people you imagine yourself superior too.

      I find Coyne, Carroll, Dawkins, and Myers all more coherent than you and all more intelligible than Karen Armstrong. You imagine that the former are committing the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, when, in fact, they are pointing out that Karen Armstrong (and the other accomodati) have “no true arguement” in any of their verbiage.

      Sadly, the same goes for you. Just because you know the names of logical fallacies, doesn’t mean that you have any ability to recognize them. This is yet another area where your incompetence makes you unable to recognize your incompetence. Like those you imagine yourself defending, you generate giggles in the irony-loving crowd.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted July 8, 2009 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

        You got it exactly right, articulett, except for one small thing – it s guffaws, not giggles from the irony-loving crowd.

  9. Posted July 8, 2009 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Chris Schoen, you don’t argue “merely that her book sales indicate some amount of affinity for her ideas, and that we need to take the affinity seriously even if the ideas we cannot” – you don’t actually argue anything. You simply make an announcement about Armstrong’s status as a best-seller, and I labeled that announcement “the argument from best-sellerdom.” Notice that I didn’t say what the argument actually was; that’s because I had no idea.

    This is the sum total of your argument, in case you can’t be bothered to scroll back –

    “Armstrong may not sell as many copies as the KJV, but she is a bestselling author, and not all her readers are ivory tower eggheads (she’s probably too middlebrow for most of them anyway).”

    Does that translate to an argument that “her book sales indicate some amount of affinity for her ideas, and that we need to take the affinity seriously even if the ideas we cannot”? Hardly!

  10. newenglandbob
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    …but she is a bestselling author…

    By the end of WW II, Mein Kampf about 10 million copies of the book had been sold or distributed in Germany.

    But the ideas expressed were still wrong.

  11. Posted July 8, 2009 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    NE Bob: if it wasn’t clear before that I wasn’t equating sales with truth value, I hope it is now.

    The point is that Coyne wants to dismiss Armstrong as irrelevant because she doesn’t fit into his definition of religion (as necessarily incompatible with science, as necessarily ignorant or delusional). He employs the word “average” to establish this, which (like “typical”) is as weasel-wordy as they come.

    I could make a lot of statements about humanity in general by appealing to some (unquantified) “average.” But that’s just crude cynicism, not science.

    • articulett
      Posted July 8, 2009 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

      She’s irrelevant because she uses bullshit language to imply “higher truths” just like her more literal religionistas. She’s just a little better at using semantics to convince herself of a lie than average believers.

      This nuttery appears to work on people such as yourself who desperately wish that god belief was more rational than demon belief or fairy belief.

      It sounds good to their faith-damaged brains, but it says nothing. It makes the believer feel like they are “in on” some mystical higher truths without there being anything of any truth value there at all! It’s mumbo jumbo designed to make people feel proud and humble while holding childish-arrogant beliefs about reality.

      Karen Armstrong nauseates my “ground of being”.

  12. Posted July 8, 2009 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Chris Schoen –

    Well then how about withdrawing the rude remark about my reading comprehension?

  13. Posted July 8, 2009 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Ophelia,

    I believe the appropriate response to having your honor impugned is to challenge the offender to to a duel. Pistols at dawn?

    Reading over my original comment it still seems to me that it was clear in the context of Coyne’s post (which asserted that apophatic religion is only for eggheads, not for the man or woman in the street.) I know that you are intelligent enough to grok this, even if the medium of blog commentry encourages the reactive response over the thoughtful. (An offense I can plead guilty to many times over).

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted July 8, 2009 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

      For it is worth, this retort of yours comes across as excessively puerile, if not actually infantile.

  14. Posted July 8, 2009 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Bloody hell, Chris Schoen – you could just withdraw the aspersion.

  15. Posted July 8, 2009 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    God damn – I’m always being told that men are crap at apologizing, but I tend to be skeptical. But that really takes the biscuit. Say sarcastically “I’m glad to see your reading comprehension is as acute as ever.” Then say you argued something you didn’t argue. Then upon being corrected realize you didn’t argue what you said you argued. Then make silly jokes instead of withdrawing the casual insult! Fucking hell – I didn’t even ask for an apology – I just asked you to take it back! And you don’t even have the decency to do that. Unbelievable.

    Another entry for the hall of fame.

  16. Tulse
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    “her book sales indicate some amount of affinity for her ideas”

    What percentage of believers have bought her books? 2%? 1%? Less? How do her book sales undercut Coyne’s argument that her position is not that of the majority of believers?

  17. Posted July 8, 2009 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Ophelia, my dearest, has my opinion suddenly become meaningful to you? I’m touched. Why, just moments ago my very name (“the great Chris Schoen”) was synonymous with sillyness and unseriousness.

    I don’t really care about the ad homs. I’m not running for office. But they hardly rocket you to the top of my list of people whose umbrage merits my serious consideration. Plus: I really do think you misread my comment. But what do I know?

    • Posted July 8, 2009 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

      You do realize, I hope, that addressing a woman you don’t know as “my dearest” is one of the red flags of misogyny?

      • Elephant
        Posted July 9, 2009 at 5:27 am | Permalink

        Whereas “men are crap at apologizing” is a perfectly acceptable statement, right?

      • Posted July 9, 2009 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

        @Elephant: unfortunately, Chris Schoen didn’t exactly take the opportunity to prove her wrong, did he?

    • articulett
      Posted July 8, 2009 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

      Your whole post denigrated Coyne, Carroll, Dawkins, Myers, and “all others” who haven’t made what you consider a thoughtful response. You imply that you are one who makes thoughtful responses and that Karen Armstrong has made an argument worthy of a thoughtful response. Neither implication is supported by evidence.

      To recap: You voiced your nasty unsupported opinion of others… continued to do so… and got your feathers ruffled when OB returned her opinion of your opinion. And you continue to dig a deeper hole every time you speak up. From this viewers perspective you are causing your case as much harm with your continual tangents as Mark Sanford is causing his case every time he opens his mouth.

      Moreover, you defended Karen Armstrong with a non-argument and made a straw man about how nobody here addressed this non-argument. Then you went off on the bizarre woo tangent that atheists think all religions believe the same thing. We know they don’t–but they all make claims about supposed truths that they cannot support through evidence and they use such fuzzy semantics that you can’t tell what the hell they actually believe (which still doesn’t make it off limits for criticism, btw.)

      Who cares what brand of woo religious people subscribe too or what language games they play to convince themselves the invisible friend they believe in is real? Your side never makes a good argument as why we should treat one bullshit superstitious brand of gobbledy gook differently than all the others. Why should we treat god belief differently than we’d treat belief in demons? Bullshit is still bullshit even if it’s wrapped up in a pretty bow, you know.

      Karens’ argument could be used to support all sorts of beliefs she doesn’t have. Just because Karen Armstrong’s verbal wankery sounds like a good argument because it confirms your own delusions, doesn’t make it an actual good argument for believing in invisible magic sky fairies.

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted July 8, 2009 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

      I made an error previously by referring to your post as possibly ‘puerile’.
      Alas, this especially egregiously pathetic update of yours confirms my suspicion that the lofty heights of 13 year old puerility are beyond your grasp, and you must wallow in the depths of misogynism.
      Your parting rejoinder: “But what do I know?”, I assume was rhetorical, but expect to get some damning responses from those who actually care about truth and honesty.

  18. Posted July 8, 2009 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Tulse, those are my questions exactly. We ca dismiss her (or not) as not germane to the conversation of what religion “really” is when we have a precise and substantial answer.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted July 8, 2009 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. I won’t have any misogyny on this site, and “dearest” is a specimen. Please refrain from this kind of condescending remark.

      • Posted July 8, 2009 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

        I was indeed being condescending, but I’m sorry to have given the impression this had anything to do with gender. I would have found something equally patronizing to say if OB were male.

        That is, I took a liberty based on interactions between us that precede this thread. Right or wrong, it had nothing to do with sex roles.

  19. Tulse
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    “We ca dismiss her (or not) as not germane to the conversation of what religion “really” is when we have a precise and substantial answer.”

    There are approximately 228 million Christians in the US. For her to have been read by a mere 10% of that group would mean she had to sell nearly 23 million copies of her book. That is close to the number of copies sold of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

    Or, conversely, The God Delusion has sold over 1.5 million copies, which is surely in the same ballpark as sales of The Case for God — does that mean that Dawkins has an equal say in what religion “really” is?

    Or consider that the dispensationalist fundamentalist Hal Lindsay has sold over 35 million copies of The Late Great Planet Earth — by your logic shouldn’t we consider his views to be more representative of Christian theological beliefs?

    I think anyone with a lick of sense and a moment’s reflection would see that arguing about Armstrong’s representativeness from her book sales is pretty silly.

    • erp
      Posted July 8, 2009 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      One book sale may mean multiple readers (e.g., a couple will probably buy one book for the two of them, or a book is passed on to a friend or sold to a used bookstore or a library purchase [I note my local library already has two holds on the book and it hasn't even shown up in the library yet]). A book does not have to have anywhere near Harry Potter sales numbers to be influential (otherwise an influential book would show up once a decade).

  20. Bryan
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    I wonder how Karen Armstrong’s book sales compare to that of evangelicals like Lee Strobel? How about CS Lewis? Rick Warren probably sold more books in a month than Armstrong in her life. Even by Chris Shoen’s own standard of judging Armstrong’s influence in religion, it should be clear that she does not have anywhere near the following of these other types of religious writers. If book sales are relevant at all, clearly the “average believer” prefers the orthodox sorts of Christianity to that put forward by Armstrong.

    Chris Shoen: “Using “average” and “typical” as a cover for the fact that not all religion has the properties you attribute to it (and that you can’t even measure, except by anecdote, what the breakdown is) makes you seem more and more like a curmudgeon and less and less like someone with a serious point to make.”

    Hasn’t Coyne been doing the opposite? He has already stated that some religion such as Deism is compatible with science. And here he is pointing out that there are other attempts to do that, and those attempts might make compatibility more likely but they do so by removing content from the religion and moving the views far away from the way religion is usually practiced.

  21. Posted July 8, 2009 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Tulse,

    As you know, silly is my middle name.

    But you misconstrue my argument. I’m not saying that Armstrong is “representative” of religious belief generally. Hal Lindsay (or Rick Warren) are clearly more so. But representation is not zero sum. Coyne is asserting here that only “liberal theologians” go for Armstrong’s proffered interpretation. This approaches a tautology by putting all non-Armstrongian religion in the category of the “average believer.” What do these terms even mean, and where are the numbers to back them up? What is the proportion of believers less than which represents a statistical anomaly rather than a meaningful minority just as entitled to the descriptor “religious” as the folks in the fat part of the bell curve?

    Without data these divisions are just word play, and suggest to me a kind of confirmation bias that real science would not be ensnared by.

    • Posted July 8, 2009 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

      Given that the two largest Christian denominations in the US, Catholic and Baptist, already make up about 40% of the population, and that their doctrines are not at all like what Karen Armstrong describes, I’d say it’s a pretty safe assumption that her position is a minority position among Christians. I don’t think we really need a detailed survey to tell us that.

      • Posted July 8, 2009 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

        Deen,

        I’ve nowhere said Armstrong doesn’t represent a minority.

        My question speaks to the presumption that Armstrong’s minority is so small and marginal as to be excepted from the larger phenomenon we call religion. It’s not “real” religion because the “average” believer’s theology is positive not negative. Where is the data that defines the terms of this presumption, and presents us with meaningful quantities?
        What is the line that distinguishes the “average” believer from the theologian? A divinity degree? What about the trends of positive versus negative theology over time? Are they in motion, historically? Isn’t this relevant to the question of each’s cultural weight and significance?

        Why must this case rest on such mushy terms and dubious categories? Are we scientists or propagandists?

    • articulett
      Posted July 8, 2009 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

      Religion is just “word play”… and your posts are “word play” designed to keep you from realizing that your beliefs are no more supportable than the conflicting beliefs you dismiss.

      You posts are rife with your inability to distinguish opinion from fact–another kind of “word play”. I’m not sure you are the type of spokesperson scientists would ever consider taking advice from. Your own inability to use language makes you a very poor guide for delineating what “real science would not (want to) be ensnared by.”

      I think you might be better off learning from those you criticize rather than imagining that they have something to learn from you.

  22. Posted July 8, 2009 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    “Ophelia, my dearest”

    It never fails. The sexism always shows up sooner or later. Either epithets or condescension – one way or another, out it comes.

    • Wes
      Posted July 8, 2009 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      At least now, after the sexist comment, we know why he seems to be flippant about what you have to say and dismissive of your reading abilities. He may have just outed himself as being not worth the effort of arguing with.

  23. Tulse
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    “Without data these divisions are just word play, and suggest to me a kind of confirmation bias that real science would not be ensnared by.”

    “Word play” is an amusing charge from someone who has failed to come to grips with the actual data presented. Armstrong’s book sales, which YOU raised initially, are by any objective measure a tiny fraction of the English-speaking Christian world, a “statistical anomaly”. A failure to recognize this, and to continue to muse about her representativeness, is indeed an example of a confirmation bias.

  24. Posted July 8, 2009 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Tulse,

    This book sales thing is turning out to be a McGuffin. I brought it up as a casual, not evidentiary counter to the *presumption* by Coyne that only theologians care about Armstrong. I don’t think that book sales prove anything one way or the other; there are too many other variables to argue for a simple correlation one way or the other. This is not a petard I will own, let alone be hoist on.

    The point remains that the division of religious belief into camps of “average believer” and esoteric theologian is unsupported by data (At least Coyne has not supplied any). Referring to nothing overt or concrete, it will always be self-confirming. It’s easy to say that Armstrong represents no one worth bothering about, but this raises the question of where the line is that indicates when it would be worth bothering about. Who is willing to define this, and on what grounds? What percentage of touchy-feely apophatic religious observation would satisfy you that it was an actual “religious” phenomenon, of real meaning and value to its adherents, and not just an airy pursuit for detached academics?

  25. Tulse
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    “This book sales thing is turning out to be a McGuffin.”

    Well, you were the one who originally raised the argument, so if you want to abandon it, that’s fine with me.

    “The point remains that the division of religious belief into camps of “average believer” and esoteric theologian is unsupported by data”

    I pointed to Lindsey’s book sales, and others have suggested Rick Warren’s. I take those to be data points suggestive of what are in fact the popular theological positions among Christians. Is there any reason not to use those as evidence, however flawed?

    “What percentage of touchy-feely apophatic religious observation would satisfy you that it was an actual “religious” phenomenon, of real meaning and value to its adherents, and not just an airy pursuit for detached academics?”

    I don’t at all doubt that there are some genuine adherents of apophatic beliefs, but that really isn’t the issue. The question is whether such beliefs are at all what most people mean when they talk about religion, especially in the US. I think the evidence is that the vast majority of US Christians think God does indeed have specific positive (as in “can be spoken of and defined”) qualities. I think to deny this is to be doggedly obtuse.

    • Posted July 8, 2009 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

      “Most people.” “I think.” “Vast majority.” If you had more precise terms, I suppose you’d use them.

      I don’t dispute the general sentiment. Positive theology would seem to be the majority position, at least in the US. But to take the next step and call only positive theology “real” theology is a bit like saying that only free market political views are real in the US because we don’t have well organized organized or funded Socialist or Green parties.

      If politics are the sum total of all political persuasions, all of which are equally “political,” it seems only consistent to say that religion is the sum of all religious beliefs, and not rope off certain subspecies as mere intellectual fluff because they don’t fill the megachurches.

      • articulett
        Posted July 8, 2009 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

        You miss the point as always…

        The point is that faith and science are not compatible even when you bend over backwards to make your god unintelligible and your reasons for belief semantically vague.

        From the point of view of science, god belief… even Karen Armstrong’s god belief has no more evidence in its favor than the demon belief. Is demon belief scientific? Does it matter what “brand” of demons people claim to “believe in”? Is fuzzy demon belief “more scientific” than more literal demon belief?

        Even Karen Armstrong’s fancy non argument can’t really make god belief “rational” or “scientific” or “off limits to mockery”. So the only thing your side has left is to continually mishear, misrepresent, attack and even “advise” (ha, ha, ha) those who dismiss your silly beliefs and opinions for the silly beliefs and opinions they are.

        You started the criticism to build up your own imagined expertise on “what people believe” and you had a little tantrum when it was pointed out that your criticism would be better aimed at yourself.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted July 8, 2009 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

        ..it seems only consistent to say that religion is the sum of all religious beliefs, and not rope off certain subspecies as mere intellectual fluff because they don’t fill the mega-churches.

        You are absolutely correct. All religious beliefs are mere intellectual fluff.

        (there are those guffaws again)

    • wilderness voice
      Posted November 9, 2009 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

      >I pointed to Lindsey’s book sales, and others have suggested Rick Warren’s. I take those to be data points suggestive of what are in fact the popular theological positions among Christians. Is there any reason not to use those as evidence, however flawed?

      Well, YOU apparently think so:

      >I think anyone with a lick of sense and a moment’s reflection would see that arguing about Armstrong’s representativeness from her book sales is pretty silly.

  26. Greywizard
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that the point of this discussion was lost as soon as Chris started talking about popularity. This is not a question of popularity at all. The question has to do with the function of apophatic or negative theology in relation to positive theology. And when you look at it this way, Karen Armstrong’s argument is really irrelevant.

    She wants to say that the ‘new’ atheists have got it wrong, and they get it wrong because they do not understand theology, and haven’t bothered to familiarise themselves with it. But this is completely beside the point. The question of negative theology is an inner-theological question, not something that can be used to argue for the existence or the non-existence of God.

    Apophatic theology comes in when theologians begin to recognise that nothing that they say can really capture the essence of God, and that arguments for God are really misleading as to what they want to say about God. Theologians want to say positive things about God, not just negative things, like omnipotent (not limited in power), omniscient (not limited in knowledge), and so on. The negative things are easy. God is everything that we are not. But the positive things are difficult. God is love, say. What does that mean? We don’t really have any sense of what an infinite love would be like.

    Although I have not read Armstrong’s book, I take it that she has made a rather serious mistake. She thinks that negative theology, apophatic theology is the way into the real conception of God, that we say most about God when we fall silent. This is a mistake. Christians and Jews and Muslims, etc., have always wanted to say positive things about God. In fact, only this will allow them to shape their lives in ways in which they believe God would approve.

    So, they must go far beyond silence, and they always do. And this is where the fluffiness of religious belief comes in, and Armstrong doesn’t solve the problem; she exacerbates it. What she acknowledges is that there is no rational way into the question of God. We must go by way of unknowing and silence. All we have to go on is some very vaguely defined ‘experience’. It all comes down to faith in the end.

    So, while she may deplore fundamentalism, Armstrong has nothing to put in its place. Yes, of course she will say that nothing is to be understood ‘literally’, but once she’s said that, what else can she say? What does the contrast between literal belief, and, say, the use of the same beliefs by way of analogy, really say? Jesus is not ‘literally’ God’s son, but talking about Jesus ‘as’ God’s son tells us (analogically) something important about the very nature of God?

    So, when it comes right down to brass tacks, Armstrong is not saying anything that, say, a fundamentalist need disagree with. Because religion, to have any purchase at all, must begin somewhere, and it must say something determinate. If it doesn’t, what is religion about, after all? Christians and others will go on talking about God, and how God is related to the world and individuals and their lives, sometimes in detail. And then, all the questions flood back in, because, with the best will in the world, it is impossible for the religious to lapse into silence.

    Theism makes claims, whether Armstrong wants to admit it or not, and once it does, then, as Simon Blackburn points out, where it goes is entirely unpredictable. And it is precisely this unpredictability that puts it at odds with science, and scientific modes of thinking. If the reviewers of Armstrong’s book are right – even the one by Christopher Hart, who thinks she has nailed down coffin lid on the ‘new’ atheists – she has not made a case for God; she has, in fact, seen him off the field.

    Of course, this doesn’t mean that religious beliefs, as existential demand, are just silly. Feuerbach, long ago, noticed that religions are, at the very least, attempts to understand the depth of human life. Just as Freud and Jung used myths to understand some of the complexity of what it means to be human, so religions are ways of giving individual lives a depth and seriousness they might otherwise lack. The problem arises, as Armstrong apparently claims, when we take religious language to be descriptive of reality; and this, as she must know, is really unavoidable. If you talk about gods at all, they have to be recognisable, and once you do this, then you’re well on the way to constructing a superperson. All theistic religions do this, and Armstrong knows that they do. They can’t shut up, and with the best will in the world, negative theology won’t make them.

  27. Posted July 9, 2009 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Chris Schoen – just for the record –

    “Chris Schoen
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 5:03 pm |
    I was indeed being condescending, but I’m sorry to have given the impression this had anything to do with gender. I would have found something equally patronizing to say if OB were male.

    That is, I took a liberty based on interactions between us that precede this thread. Right or wrong, it had nothing to do with sex roles.”

    The only “interactions between us” that precede this thread consist of you following me around and picking fights with me. You conform to a class of males who adhere to this pattern; I tend to suspect that they (perhaps unconsciously) loathe uppity women.

  28. John Tate
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    It seems this apophatic theology is the religious equivalent of homeopathy. You keep diluting whatever you start with, until it is so far attentuated that nothing of the original remains – then claim it has miraculous properties, and dare anyone to prove a negative!

    There are universities that award degrees for this sort of bollocks.

  29. John Tate
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Ooops…just noticed posts 3 & 4 already made that point…sorry.

  30. santitafarella
    Posted July 10, 2009 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Prof. Coyne:

    I actually think that talking about God in “negative theology” terms is not so crazy.

    In fact, if God exists (and as an agnostic I don’t claim any knowledge about this one way or the other), then negative theology must certainly be an important conceptual piece of the puzzle with regards to God’s existence. I offer the following defense:

    When we think about our planet, we recognize that for billions of years it consisted of one thing: matter. But about 100,000 years ago, a wildly improbable thing occurred: a world of blind matter started manufacturing self-conscious minds. That’s a stunning fact. Mind emerged from matter. Suddenly, this was no longer one world of objects, but two sharply distinct worlds: the world of objects and the world of subjects.

    You and I and Prof. Coyne and the other posters at this thread are not just more of the same. We represent a radical and fundamental disjuncture on our planet—and perhaps the universe—from everything that has gone before. Indeed, if you were to try to describe our mental states—that is, the subject world that we humans live in—to a cat (in terms of the old object world of blind material and unconconscious forces), you would have to speak in terms of “negative humanology”: The experience of full consciousness, Mr. Cat, is not a piece of wood, it is not a moon, it is not the jump of a frog, it is not a ball of string, it is not the wind brushing a leaf.

    In other words, every single phenomenon and thing—everything!—in the object world would have to be negated—“It’s not this, it’s not that, it’s not this, it’s not that”—until you had literally catalogued the whole object world. And you could set that list against human consciousness and say: What is human freedom, consciousness, and love? They are none of these things. They are not just more of the same; they are a disjuncture from all that has gone before, and cannot even be remotely understood in terms of what has gone before. They completely transcend the object world, not just superficially, but radically. They touch, that is true. They interact. In short, humans are immanent in the object world, but they are not the object world.

    You might offer analogies to help Mr. Cat: Being depressed for a human is a bit like looking down into a dark well; passion is like a cow’s heart boiling on a stove. But analogous language would always have to be qualified: Depression is not a dark well; passion is not a cow’s heart boiling. It’s just the best that we could do to explain the transcendent mental world to a creature embedded in the object world.

    Now if we simply add a catalogue, not just of the object world, but of the human subject world, to our list, and say—“God is a third category”—a disjuncture like the disjuncture between the human and object world—then we have negative theology. We can no more speak of God in human subject terms than we can speak of humans in material object terms. We can use analogy, we can sing, we can light candles, we can pray, we can reason, but really these gestures are just placeholders on the mystery of the ground of Being. God is like hate, but God is not hate. God is like love, but God isn’t love. God is like unfulfilled longing, but God isn’t unfulfilled longing. God is that third disjuncture that transcends the subject-object universe (even as we transcend the object world). We can’t reach that third disjuncture from where we’re at, and our gestures toward it are akin to poetry sent to a distant lover. We’ve got to keep sending that letter again and again without ever being able to say it all. Think of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.” That’s about it. Gnawing on the same old bone of longing. Repetition and variation. Negative theology suggests that perhaps another good response to such a disjuncture is silence. That, of course, is also Witgenstein. What we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence.

    Now as good rationalists, we must ask: Is there any evidence that such a third disjuncture might exist? It’s one thing to posit it; another to make it reasonable. And I think that there are some things that suggest it is a reasonable inference: (1) the curious cosmological constants in physics that have led to a very complex universe of objects and minds; (2) the fact that the object-universe is mathematical and comprehensible to the human mind; (3) the fact that the contingent object universe appears to have had a beginning, and is now thermodynamically unwinding, and so has not always existed.

    And perhaps most suggestive of all: Our very real dilemma, as humans, attempting to comprehend our universe’s “beginning.” There are only three basic possibilities, all dumbfounding and subject to question begging: (1) matter created itself from nothing and, via a blind process over billions of years, itself generated the mental universe you and I inhabit in our heads; (2) matter is eternal and coexistent with nothingness; or (3) an eternal mind or telos of some sort—that third category?—made matter “in the beginning” with the property of evolving minds (akin to itself) over time.

    This is the disjuncture to which negative theology addresses itself—the boundary upon which our empiricism cannot reach—nor our minds fully comprehend. We seem to inhabit a universe founded on King Lear’s paradox—nothing can come of nothing!—and yet here we are. Trying to get our heads around nothingness and the “viva negativa” is not a form of irrationalism, but a necessary part of understanding. It is a paradox in need of explanation. If God exists, it’s somewhere in this puzzle, and in the contemplation of nothingness, and as a third disjuncture as large and difficult to comprehend as the first two (the subject and object worlds).

    • newenglandbob
      Posted July 10, 2009 at 9:24 am | Permalink

      Here we go again – complete and utterly useless nonsense.

      Spiritual woo masquerading as logic.

      1. Everything before humans are objects – yeah right, complete lunacy!

      2. Once again with his “immanent” baloney…lol

      3. Yeah, a cat is a negative human – what utter dementia this is!

      4. Paragraph 7. Here we go with his next definition of God – and he calls himself an agnostic – poppycock!

      5. “Now as good rationalists, we must ask:…” – no one here would EVER include Santi in THAT category!

      6. The rest of that paragraph – Santi says 1 plus 1 equals 72 trillion!

      7. “There are only three basic possibilities…” – He spewed this nonsense before and we ripped it apart – I guess he thinks we are too stupid to remember!

      8. “Trying to get our heads around nothingness…” Reading Santi’s posts DEFINES nothingness and makes we want to hurl.

      Same old Santi nonsense – see his last 100 posts, people, move along.

      • wilderness voice
        Posted November 9, 2009 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

        >1. Everything before humans are objects – yeah right, complete lunacy!

        I take him to mean that before consciousness there were only objects, no subjects. Seems straightforward. How is that lunacy?

  31. santitafarella
    Posted July 10, 2009 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Ophelia:

    In looking at this thread, unless I missed it, you seem not to have offered an explicit opinion on the philophical merits of negative theology. I know you attacked the bad logic of appealing to book sales, but do you think there is any value in philosophizing about nothingness and the paradoxes surrounding it?

    —Santi

  32. A different Chris
    Posted July 26, 2009 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    1) As a warning, I am a female. Maybe not uppity. But I have a feeling Chris Schoen isn’t going to have much issue with what I’m about to say anyway.
    2) I am an academic, or at least the “Dr.” thing preceding my name would suggest that I am.
    3) I believe in evolution.
    4) I am a Christian. Perhaps not your “average American Christian.” I belong to no church, in part because I believe that Christianity in the U.S. misses the point, largely due to this issue of negative theology, but also because of a whole host of other interpretive issues. I believe the point was the riddles, and I believe those riddles were intended to create dialogue and encourage thought, not to crush it. Outside of the U.S., quite a few denominations (and other religions) would agree with me.
    5) This conversation seems to have been largely focused solely upon the writers’ issues with American Christianity, which I would say is not unwarranted, but it would be nice if the majority of you could bear that in mind and reflect it in your words. Some of you have been more specific. Thank you for that.
    6) I don’t care if you do not believe in God, so I do not understand why it matters whether or not I do. The only difference between your beliefs in science and my belief in God is a matter of semantics. The formula recently discovered for the appearance of valleys on the earth’s surface? That is an example, to me, of our putting into language and understanding a small aspect of a larger whole, a larger pattern that empirical evidence for centuries has concluded to be proof of God. The low-level light that we have recently discovered is emitted by humans? Divine light. God is, to me, the manner by which we are all so counter-intuitively interconnected, and I think that is a pattern that is larger than at least our current understanding. I’m sorry if you think that makes me an idiot, but to me there is no reason for science and theology to be in dispute. And as for the merit in their coexistence, I would say that, for one, we achieve a greater understanding of where both fields fall short in providing insights. For another, it could feasibly provide an understanding of our historical and cultural understandings.
    I understand that science seeks to explain “the everything,” and perhaps that creates problems between it and negative theology on some level, but then, science relies upon the use of a constructed language, so until we are able to get around that, even it will always fall a bit short. The God business is handy in this manner, simply because it is capable of taking into consideration languages’ unique shortcomings. That, in turn, causes us to strive farther in our understandings, pushing our inquiries, which seems to be a healthy exercise, usually.
    So, I guess, whatever. Go forth and be fruitful with the scientific pursuits. Some Christians are not rooting against you. Maybe consider our existence the next time some church in Texas tries to ban evolution from the schools. Some of us are out here screaming along with you.

  33. Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    t get too much direct heat during the cooking process.
    If you don’t, then you will have to bake each loaf separately.
    There is also the question about whether to use a pizza
    stone, ceramic tile, or the pizza screen.


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  1. [...] a comment » Atheist biologist Jerry Coyne, of the University of Chicago, has a rather nasty post at his blog deriding negative theology, but I think that negative theology has some merits that Coyne [...]

  2. [...] have both shown yourselves, time and time again, to be worthy of the title; however, Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, has recently [...]

  3. [...] view of this brand of theology. The first thinks it’s just atheism in disguise, and the second tosses it off as so much intellectual [...]

  4. […] have both shown yourselves, time and time again, to be worthy of the title; however, Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, has recently […]

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