A Sophisticated Theologian asks if God is part of the material universe

The Templeton Foundation’s Big Questions Online site went moribund for a while, and now has come back in a much subdued form, with only an occasional post.

The author of the latest:  Father John Behr, described as “Dean of St Vladimir’s Seminary, Professor of Patristics at St Vladimir’s Seminary and Distinguished Lecturer in Patristics at Fordham University.” (“Patristics,” in case you didn’t know, is the study of the writings of early Church fathers.)

Behr’s question (notice that there’s no attempt to hide the religious agenda here) is this: “Is God wholly separate from the material universe?”  The essay is completely opaque to me, for it simply assumes a God without proof, and then doesn’t appear to answer the question, swathing it in layers of fine theological verbiage. Behr equivocates, making up stuff as he goes along. If there’s an answer to the question, it’s this:  “it’s . . . a dynamic tension!”

The Christian tradition, with its fundamental convictions that God is the Creator and that the Son of God was incarnate within this world, approaches this Big Question in a very particular way, holding its various elements together in a dynamic tension.

. . . On the one hand, the claim that God created the world, understood to mean the universe, underscores the radical otherness of God. If God is the creator of all that is, then God is not part of “all that is”; God is not somewhere out there, beyond the limits of what we can see or beyond the boundaries of the universe in a realm that we can’t see. And neither, consequently, is God subject to the various limitations of created reality; God is not spatially and temporally restricted. As one Eastern theologian from the Byzantine period, Gregory Palamas, put it: “If God is being, we are not being, if we are being, God is not”. One cannot use the word “is” of God and created reality synonymously or in parallel.

On the other hand, despite the apparently enormous difficulties that this seems to raise for even speaking about God, a God who “is” not (at least as we use the word “is” for things in this world), it also opens up a very dynamic space in which God can act. God and created reality are not set in opposition to each other, as they would be if God were somewhere “outside” the material universe. Nor does any particular aspect of created reality, say the “spirit,” have any greater kinship with God than any other, for instance the “flesh.” We might hold that one aspect of our being is higher, superior, or more noble or supposedly “divine” than another, but all aspects of our being stand together on this side of created reality, in distinction to the God who has created all things.

Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me. It’s Sophisticated Theology™!  Pity me for having to read this stuff.

But wait, there’s more! A lot more!  I won’t inflict it on you, but here’s the ending. This is where Templeton’s money is going (they announced a while back that they pay handsomely for such pieces):

Beginning with Kant, modern thought has often found itself in a bind, trying to make a connection between “things in themselves” and our perception, intuition, or concept of them, situated as this must be within our minds and structured accordingly. All we can actually know, it is argued, are the intuitions we have of the “things in themselves,” and our only secure knowledge is of this and the categories by which the intuitions are structured. Marion argues, on the other hand, that we should begin with the “givennness” of the “phenomenon” (meaning: “that which appears”), recognizing that it always exceeds our attempts to grasp it, that there is more to what appears than is captured by our perceptions, that phenomena are “saturated”.

Beginning with this givenness of what shows itself to us, as it shows itself, phenomenon are “saturated,” as Event (saturating according to quantity, unable to be accounted); as Idol (saturating according to quality, being unbearable by the look); as Flesh (saturating according to relation, being absolute); and as Icon (saturating to modality, being unable to be looked at). Accepting phenomena as saturated in this way, also means accepting their revelatory nature, accepting that something is being revealed to us, rather than “things in themselves” being posited as correlates of our own internal intuitions. Moreover, according to Marion, these four modes of saturation culminate in the figure of Christ, “precisely because as icon He [Christ] regards me in such a way that he constitutes me as his witness rather than as some transcendentalIconstituting Him to its own liking.” If we learn to “see” again, Marion is suggesting, to see what is shown as revelation rather than by setting it in a world which we ourselves create by our own thought processes, we will not simple see more but rather see anew, with new eyes in a new world; as the Psalmist puts it, “in Thy light we see light”.

Note that both passages contain large number of words in quotation marks. That’s there to add the needed ambiguity—as if any were needed.

As H. L. Mencken said when reviewing a dreadful book by Thorstein Veblen, “What is the sweating professor trying to say?” I would add: “How does the sweating professor know this stuff?”

If any scientist wrote with this degree of unnecessary opacity, she’d be kicked in the rump and made to express herself more clearly. The reason for the opacity, of course, is that the writer doesn’t really know the answer to his question, but has to say something to get those Templeton bucks.

77 Comments

  1. Alex SL
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 4:29 am | Permalink

    “Patristics,” in case you didn’t know, is the study of the writings of early Church fathers.

    First time I read that term, so thanks for that.

    it simply assumes a God without proof

    Ha, you make it sound as if there were a relevant amount of theology that does not work the same way…

    • Julia
      Posted October 27, 2012 at 9:11 am | Permalink

      Did anyone else misread ‘patristics’ as ‘parasitics’?

      • Posted October 27, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

        I was actually about to “correct” our illustrious host’s speeling error right out of the starting gate. The other word that jumped out at me was “peristaltics”, as in the distortions, contortions and contractions one’s (fondled) intestines have to go through to push theological boluses out one’s anus.

  2. Posted October 27, 2012 at 4:55 am | Permalink

    I, for one, do empathize with you for reading this crap. Thanks again for taking one for the team.

    My take however is not that the answer is a “dynamic tension.” That’s just the way “christian tradition” holds the question!

    This shouldn’t even be a worthy question for orthodox Christians to ask. Of course Jesus is part of the natural universe. That’s the whole point of Christianity.

    I guess we should at least be encouraged that they’re shy about saying it plainly.

    How about some posts on the Workshop? Very eager to hear of the goings on.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted October 27, 2012 at 5:03 am | Permalink

      I’ve prepared a post about the workshop which I’ll put up in an hour or two. Also, remember that all the proceedings are being videotaped and will be made publicly available, though I’m not sure how many people want to watch twenty-odd hours of debate!

    • Posted October 27, 2012 at 5:29 am | Permalink

      Except that’s only the view of Christianity which is now orthodoxy. It appears at least that there were competing versions, which involved immaterialist christologies. Read E. Doherty on what Paul says, for example.

  3. Jeannette
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 5:03 am | Permalink

    Number one reason I no longer read these apologetic tomes: they assume there is a god in the first place without providing some evidence.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted October 27, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

      This is known as “presuppositionalism” in the God-promotion trade: Believers simply assume God’s existence, as they (incorrectly) contend that atheism assumes God’s non-existence, since (they contend) every analysis must start from some set of presuppositions. For obvious reasons, theists find this leap liberating, since it allows them to jump to their desired analysis without getting bogged down in first principles. It has given rise to lively (and often quite nasty) schools of apologetics.

  4. Marella
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    You don’t have to read this crap for my sake. I’m no more inclined to have someone fry their neurons with religious nonsense for my sake, than to have them nailed to a stick.

  5. Posted October 27, 2012 at 5:09 am | Permalink

    “God is not spatially and temporally restricted.”

    IOW, all-encompassing, ubiquitous bullshit.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted October 27, 2012 at 8:01 am | Permalink

      Do Christians worry that God is in the bathroom with them while they have a bowel motion? For if God is everywhere he is in the bathroom, in the person, and in the bowel movement.

      If this is too ‘icky’ for people the alternative is that God is not everywhere…

      • Posted October 27, 2012 at 9:47 am | Permalink

        Short answer: some do. Some worry about God watching them in the glory holes. (I know this to be true, after a crusader from Focus on the Family with a rabid fixation on adult bookstores was caught attempting to make an unauthorized deposit).

        • Posted October 27, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

          Of course he is! Why else would they be called Glory holes?

          • Posted October 27, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

            Kind of gives the song “From a Distance” new meaning, eh?

  6. Dermot C
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 5:20 am | Permalink

    The good theologian is restating, especially in the first three paragraphs you quote, the orthodox position arrived at by the time of Niceae and Chalcedon.

    The corollary, a theme in the non-canonical 2 Clement for instance, and referred to by Hitchens in his closing remarks versus Dembski, is that you are dead unless you have faith in this God and follow the Law. If God ‘is’ and we aren’t, then we have to prepare for ‘real’ reality, if you’ll pardon the expression.

    That’s how I interpret it. This Gregory Palamas seems to have been a proto-C.S. Lewis in his formulation of the contradiciton between God and humankind.

  7. greyhound1405
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    Sorry to be pedantic Jerry, isn’t ‘sophisticated theology’ an oxymoron, much like military intelligence?
    Good article nonetheless.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 27, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      I don’t see how the subject is aerated at all (“oxy-“). No contact with the outside.

      It is just moronic.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted October 27, 2012 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      If you look back through these posts, you’ll find that Jerry has trade marked this very expression to describe the sort of oxymoronic bullshit that theologians spout.

      I am grateful to DiscoveredJoys over at choiceindying.com for this wonderful idea:

      A great deal of Theospeak seems to be written in Mobius form. Each neighbouring concept seems to be logical, but if you keep going you’ll find yourself back at the beginning but upside down.

      Mobius Theospeak sums it up nicely.

      • Matt G
        Posted October 27, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

        That’s a keeper!

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted October 28, 2012 at 2:40 am | Permalink

          I wish I had thought of it. I’m thinking of changing my nickname to Dr Mobius Theospeak, or perhaps Professor Theo Mobius.

  8. Greg G
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    The real Santa Claus is “as Event (saturating according to quantity, unable to be accounted); as Idol (saturating according to quality, being unbearable by the look); as Flesh (saturating according to relation, being absolute); and as Icon (saturating to modality, being unable to be looked at).”

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted October 27, 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      Now I understand why he disappeared when I was seven.

    • Sastra
      Posted October 27, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      That passage reminded me of the sort of thing I used to do as a teenager –invent categories in which things are placed, with some things placed only where the categories overlap. This was supposed to help me figure out the world by putting it all in order and see how it fits together. I think it just made me over-confident about how well I thought I understood the world.

      Although I have not yet looked it up, I suspect these particular categories (Event, Idol, Flesh, Icon) were not just pulled out of Beher’s butt. They were probably pulled out of some medieval church father’s butt — and automatically granted and eventually obtained the status of a deep insight with which we must work.

  9. Posted October 27, 2012 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    “If God is being, we are not being, if we are being, God is not.”

    How wonderfully well stated!

    And, as Descartes so eloquently put it when he described the findings of the most elementary empirical observation possible, we are. The necessary conclusion of the Byzantine’s logic is inescapable.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted October 27, 2012 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      “Oh, dear” said God, “I hadn’t thought of that”, and promptly disappeared in a puff of logic.

      H2G2

      • Posted October 27, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

        …which is why I’m particularly wary ’round zebra crossings. Especially when listening to The Beatles.

        b&

        • Bebop
          Posted October 27, 2012 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

          “Your inside is out when your outside is in. And your outside is in when when your inside is out, so c’mon…”

    • Circe
      Posted October 27, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      That sounds awfully like a verse attributed to the medieval Indian mystic and social reformer Kabir. The verse in question (translation mine) is:

      जब मैं था तब हरि‍ नहीं, अब हरि‍ हैं मैं नाहिं।
      प्रेम गली अति सॉंकरी, तामें दो न समाहिं।।

      When I was, Hari was not; now Hari is and I am not.

      The street of love is too narrow; in it two do not fit.

      Kabir, though, was a fierce critic of all organized religion*, though he was some sort of a pantheist himself. “Hari” was the term he used for his version of a pantheistic god.

      *Two of his famous verses in this regard go as follows:

      They pile bricks on stones, and build a mosque.

      Then a mullah climbs it and croaks: has god gone deaf?

      and

      If Hari was to be found by worshiping stones, then I would worship a mountain,

      This stone grinder is better that those statues: the world eats by its grace.

    • Bebop
      Posted October 27, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

      God is beyond the opposites by which we can grasp the world. That is why our intellect, logic and language aren’t efficient when it comes to describe the unconditioned and uncreated phenomenon we call God.

      • Posted October 28, 2012 at 1:44 am | Permalink

        But we don’t grasp the world through opposites!

        Poop!!

        /@

  10. Posted October 27, 2012 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    Such is the fate of substance dualist arguments. By dim and twisting passages, they all end up back at the mouth of Plato’s cave. You can build a consistent picture beginning with the assertion that intuitions or any sort of phenomena are properly basic. In other words, you can use the word “soul” in a valid statement, but once you claim it is a thing in itself, irreducible and undefined by any relationship it has to other objects, shouldn’t you be done? Yet theologians press on to speak with confidence about the nature of the soul and god based on their justified intuitions about their (or their predecessors’) prior intuitions.If intuitions are justified beliefs, how does one distinguish ‘real’ intuitions from those of a paranoid schizophrenic in a world of opaque, basic phenomena? Why do these poor fellows persist when all they’re left with is a raft of logically consistent statements whose truth value is not knowable? Seems like an uninteresting dead end to me, but one person’s dead end is another’s snug cul-de- sac, I suppose.

    • Bebop
      Posted October 27, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

      Is our intellect limited?

      • Posted October 28, 2012 at 5:30 am | Permalink

        Certainly, but that’s the point. Since we are visually oriented, how about a visual analogy: There is a dark room which I cannot enter. I say, “I think there’s something in there, I just don’t feel like the air movement or the reflected sound feels right for an empty space.” OK, people might say my sense of things is wrong, but even the naysayers would greet my statement with equanimity. However, I go on to say, “Now let me tell you what he is wearing and what I feel he must think about hot, man-on-man action (he’s against it!).” Is my second statement coherent or incoherent? Will my listeners shrug once more, or will they back away slowly while trying to dial 911 by feel?

  11. ReasJack
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    Ick. Just Ick. I start to shake reading too much of this sort of thing.

    Embedded in all his hand waving is an apologist’s move that always gets my goat.

    “Marion argues, on the other hand, that we should begin with the “givennness” of the “phenomenon” (meaning: “that which appears”), recognizing that it always exceeds our attempts to grasp it, that there is more to what appears than is captured by our perceptions”

    Note how smoothly and without justification this dismisses any possibility that our attempts to grasp often exceed what is actually the case. Yet we make such errors all the time. Intellectual history is littered with big pictures that in the end imagined more than was actually there, mixed in with failures to grasp a larger picture when it actually existed.

    Of course the purpose of this sleight-of-hand (or dick move, as all the cool epistemologists call it) is to prohibit conclusions that rule out an omnipotent supernatural god from the get go.

    • Posted October 27, 2012 at 6:20 am | Permalink

      Of course the purpose of this sleight-of-hand (or dick move, as all the cool epistemologists call it) is to prohibit conclusions that rule out an omnipotent supernatural god from the get go.

      Never misunderestimate the power of Christ’s Colon and Thomas’s desire to clutch it to bring the theologians crashing back down to Earth.

      “So, considering that incident when Doubting Thomas attempted to grasp God’s guts, shouldn’t we take the givenness of the phenomenon of Christianity to mean that it’s nothing but some really bad slasher zombie fiction from a couple millennia ago?”

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted October 27, 2012 at 9:51 am | Permalink

        THERE’S that bit of peristalsis I was looking for. I knew it would crop up in this thread somewhere. You never disappoint, Ben.

        • Posted October 27, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

          Well, I do have my standards to uphold….

          b&

      • ReasJack
        Posted October 27, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

        Absolutely, with the caveat that bad slasher zombie flicks are-occasionally at least-FUN.

        And cheers to you as well.

  12. Bob Carlson
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    Thanks for clearing things up. I now realize that the significance of Mittster Romney’s religiously sanctioned underwear relates to its dynamic tension and patristicity.

  13. Kevin Alexander
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    If you used that language you could just as easily describe what god is wearing or what he had for breakfast.

    Made me hungry just reading it. But in a spiritual way. I think I’ll have me a big bowl of transcendentalIconstitutiOs

  14. Sagra
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    I don’t know. It doesn’t seem any more or less connected to reality than any other theological discussion. An empirical basis would kind of disqualify it from being theological, no?

  15. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    Part of the reason for the opacity is that some of this stuff was worked out long long ago in the context of Greek metaphysics, which is no longer believed by anyone outside of theological circles. Other terminology and ideas are taken from modern existentialist phenomenology, a school of philosophy which is well-liked by theologians, as it seems to be especially amenable to theological “plug-ins”. The general ideas are a combination of ideas from these and also Eastern Orthodox mysticism and modern process theology.

    There’s a question-for-discussions section at the bottom.

    The final question is “If you do not claim a faith tradition, what do you believe about the nature of the material universe?”

    Well, there’s something for Carroll and company to work on, I guess.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted October 27, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      What I believe about the nature of the material universe is that the faith traditions know nothing about the nature of the material Universe.

  16. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    The distinction between “is” and “act” is of course a deepity nowadays.

    So are philosophical ideas of these two, e.g. Kant.

    This is ever since mechanics based observation in reality. (First with Newton’s “action-reaction” hypothesis.)

    So, no gods, a state known for some 400 years and counting. Next (Big) Question?

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted October 27, 2012 at 8:07 am | Permalink

      E-Prime (short for English-Prime, sometimes denoted E′) is a version of the English language that excludes all forms of the verb to be. E-Prime does not allow the conjugations of to be—be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being…

      Some scholars advocate using E-Prime as a device to clarify thinking and strengthen writing. For example, the sentence “the film was good” could translate into E-Prime as “I liked the film” or as “the film made me laugh”. The E-Prime versions communicate the speaker’s experience rather than judgement, making it harder for the writer or reader to confuse opinion with fact.

      I don’t think you could write apologetics in E’.

      • DiscoveredJoys
        Posted October 27, 2012 at 8:08 am | Permalink

        The first two paras were from Wikipedia.

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted October 27, 2012 at 9:22 am | Permalink

          I just quote you above, before reaching this point. I hope you don’t mind, but I love your Mobius Theospeak.

  17. Brad
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    I wish the tone here were more more sympathetic, less disparaging. Consider this, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whom I think we can all agree is intelligent, required a full ten years of secular exposure in the Netherlands before rationality could become the ground note of her worldview. God belief has teeth. The clamp of it’s bite needs to be systematically pried apart with reason’s best tools. There is a place for compassion in this in this process. Just saying.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted October 27, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      “Tone”?

      Fr. John Behr & his fellow theologians base their entire careers on the fine art of obfuscation. He is a theologian who is having a ‘conversation’ with mostly other theologians in an endless back-and-forth whirligig of irrational blogs, articles, books & talks. Very, very few of them are inclined to examine the foundations upon which they’ve built their reputations & livelihoods. If any of these people ever came up for air & touched the real world of work what would they be good for?

      Ask yourself how do these snake oil salesmen support their theological investigations? Who in the end is paying for all this garbage?

      Save your compassion for the dupes who regard people like Fr. John Behr as their connection to the divine. Don’t you think this is just a more sophisticated version of the stage medium who performs for dollars? Behr deserves exposure, ridicule & mockery just as much as any other purveyor of profitable lies. People who prey on the credulous & the weak deserved to be slammed. Hard.

    • Sastra
      Posted October 27, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      A more sympathetic tone might be more disparaging. When I make my best argument to a Person of Faith, a pitying smile and a gentle reassurance that theology is hard to understand and there is a place for compassion in this process of accepting faith does not comfort me. So I’m not sure it would comfort them.

      • Brad
        Posted October 27, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

        Atheists and the scientific community in general burns through a lot of fuel refuting nonsense. It needs to evolve. A science of conversion needs to be devolped. We need to start understanding how to unpack a god-believing mind, extract the irrational structures in full and then put it all back together. We need a science of exposure that tells us in great detail how exactly a God-believing mind comes to be. If we don’t fully understand how it was programmed how can we de-program it? A shift in focus is needed. Science can not just state it’s case with sound arguments. More science must be created. Rational arguments don’t work or haven’t you noticed…

        • Posted October 28, 2012 at 1:15 am | Permalink

          Rational arguments do work for some people. See Dawkins’s “Converts Corner” for anecdotal evidence.

          Irrational arguments (ridicule, &c.) work for some people.

          Improved social justice works for some societies.

          Something is working! See the latest polls on the growth of “nones” in the U.S.

          (Which is not to say that what you’re suggesting wouldn’t work better. But also I think work on the [anthropological, sociological] origins of and psychology of religion are moving in that direction.)

          /@

        • Posted October 28, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

          We need to start understanding how to unpack a god-believing mind, extract the irrational structures in full and then put it all back together.

          That’s pretty much already all been done by psychologists.

          The tendency to see agency in all things is pretty well understood and has a solidly plausible evolutionary underpinning; the ape who thinks the rustling in the grass is something stalking him is more likely to survive than the one that dismisses it as the wind mindlessly blowing.

          That account for much of the origins of religious hypotheses, but not really for why religious institutions have held power long after their sell-by date. After all, it’s intuitively obvious that the Earth is basically flat; it takes perspective and observation and critical thinking skills far beyond those a hunter-gatherer would have to come to any other conclusion.

          So, then, why have we abandoned so many of our ancient naïve beliefs in favor of positions supported by rational empirical observation, except in the case of religion?

          The answer is two-fold.

          At the large scale, religions accreted unto themselves a great deal of power. After all, if you’re the official spokesman (and it’s almost always been exclusively men doing the official speaking) of the ultimate force in the universe, you yourself wield a great deal of that power by proxy. And, if history has shown us anything, it’s that virtually no institution and very few people ever cede power without a fight.

          But that doesn’t explain how that power is maintained at the individual level. For that, we need look no further than the science of cognitive dissonance. This isn’t the space to explain it, but the fact that so many people remain steadfast supporters of the Catholic Church in spite (and, even, paradoxically, because) of their scandalous international child rape racket for its own power brokers…well, that’s a textbook example of cognitive dissonance at play.

          Short version? There’s an internal dialogue going on: “Good people only pledge allegiance to good institutions. I’m a good person. I pledged allegiance to the Church. Therefore, the Church is a good institution. If the Church isn’t a good institution, that means I’m not a good person — but I’m a good person, so the Church must be good. The alternative is to painful to contemplate, so I’m going to not only ignore the alternative, but focus on all the reasons why the Church is a good institution. And, incidentally, good institutions don’t run international child rape rackets — and, since we’ve already established that the Church is a good institution, I can sleep soundly at night knowing that the child rape racket thing is either an outright lie or way overblown.”

          Hope that helps….

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Sastra
            Posted October 28, 2012 at 10:29 am | Permalink

            +1.

            That internal identification where being religious/spiritual = being “good” (moral, wise, open-minded, far-seeing, humble, obedient, trustworthy) is not going to be broken if there’s a common agreement that we “respect” this identification and thus tread gently and sweetly. We need to break the identification.

            And yes, we need to understand the bottom-line basis of where it’s coming from, psychologically and culturally. To understand is not always to forgive.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted October 27, 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      Perhaps the “tone” you perceive is more a self-generated judgment of “tone”?? We all here are not on television, broadcasting to unwitting viewers. As long as a commentary is not an unconnected, non-specific ad hominem I do not accept that a comment regarding “tone” is relevant.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted October 27, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      How about this for a tonal improvement: despite the fact that you are an idiot, you are a really nice idiot?

      Just kidding.

      I think often people are led to vent their frustrations and understandable impatience with believers tendency to just make stuff up, and confuse that which feels good in their imaginations with what therefore “must be”.

      I agree with you that we need to have some compassion for those struggling against the illusions our mind is so skillful at fabricating. But it isn’t always easy.

  18. Scott near Berkeley
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    Perhaps I am alone in this crusade, but I dislike seeing “proof” creep into any statement from the naturalist point of view:

    “.. for it simply assumes a God without proof ..”

    IMO, better stated would be “for it simply assumes the certainty of God, with no evidence.”

    “Proof” requires a closed system. I’ll not forget my high school algebra, when we began the year with “a+b=b+a” etc. and it seemed so obvious, but the teacher was wise and competent, and explained why seemingly obvious “proofs” were necessary to build the system of algebra. “Proof” is also established a priori in systems of law. In Islamic law, there is an accepted gender bias. Perhaps in some African cultures, a witch doctor can make a statement that sweeps away all others, yet would probably be a negative in our system.

    “Proof” and “theory” are two widely misused terms in our culture, and are foundational words for the fortress of religionists. (All IMHO).

  19. Strider
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    If god is outside the universe then what mechanism does this sophisticated theologian use to derive any of the codswallop…er, assertions that follow? Maybe I missed because, admittedly, I skimmed some because it’s *so* poorly written.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted October 27, 2012 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      One facet in the religionists’ world that never gets addressed in detail is the interface between the supernatural realm and our own natural realm. In less knowledgeable times, mere distance, as in “way far away” from the geocentric universe (Earth at its center) was all that was needed, as no one could access even one hundred feet up, much less thousands of feet up, into the air, and approach heaven. God was up there: lightning, thunder, light from the sun… all very supernatural!

      Pretty obvious now, that distance alone doesn’t work. Those phenomena are now known to be natural, not supernatural. So where is that interface between the supernatural, and the natural, and what are its characteristics?? Why would say, “a communication from God” only arrive in one person’s head, and not spill over to the person standing next to them? What is the nature of that transmission, that it enters only one person’s head, yet is undetectable by another person’s head? You could have a hundred radios in a room, all tuned to the same station, and they would all spill out the same sound. Yet, if you have one hundred people in a church, they don’t get the same “broadcast”. By what natural physical phenomenon in a person’s brain does this message arrive in one head, and not in all, or 50% or ….???

  20. John
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    “The essay is completely opaque to me, for it simply assumes a God without proof, and then doesn’t appear to answer the question, swathing it in layers of fine theological verbiage.”

    If people could prove the existence of a god, theology would be unnecessary; it would be called science.

  21. Sarah Walker
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    The comments are interesting, but aren’t you all rather preaching (sorry!) to the choir here? Why not actually engage with Fr John in the discussion?

  22. Posted October 27, 2012 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    “Is God wholly separate from the material universe?”

    Lol. No sense of irony whatsoever :)

    • Posted October 27, 2012 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      I wish WordPress would leave my emoticons alone. Even Mr. Clippy would *ask* before making “helpful” changes to my text.

  23. MadScientist
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Short story: My True Magic Holy Book makes little sense – the stories contradict reality. Ah, therefore the Magic Man must be so truly wonderful – he exists beyond our reality! Yeah, now my True Magic Holy Book has no more contradictions (provided I never think about it again).

  24. mandrellian
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    The next time someone name-drops a “sophisticated theologian” or refers me to some post-modern pre-suppositional god-waffle as some kind of logical/epistemic slam-dunk for Jesus, I’m going to refer to Michael “Boobsplosion” Bay as a visionary filmmaker and tout his entire body of work as the best possible example of science fiction theatre. When they raise an eyebrow and look at me incredulously, I’ll say “See? Now you know how it feels to have your intelligence insulted.”

  25. Kevin
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    The essay is completely opaque to me, for it simply assumes a God without proof

    Only insofar as one can be said to assume existence without proof.

    • Sastra
      Posted October 27, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      But “God” is not an obvious, uncontroversial experience with consensus like “existence.” It’s an inference from experience. Don’t put it in the same category.

      I really hope you’re not starting some lame presupp. My apologies if you’re not.

  26. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    As to “How does the sweating professor know this stuff?”: The operating principle for God-promoters like Behr seems to be that they are free to assume as fact anything that is not foreclosed by well-settled science or irrefutable history. In other words, “If you can’t prove it’s false, I can claim it is as true, and use it as a foundation for my beliefs.” You’d think they would want some affirmative reason for choosing among all the competing contentions that haven’t (at least, yet) been proven false, but they don’t. That a contention supports their world-view is enough to assume its truth.

    Anyway, thanks for the link to the Mencken piece on Thorstein Veblen (one I hadn’t come across before). That was Mencken’s acid pen at its corrosive best (though, as is all too common with Mencken, marred by a gratuitous anti-Semitic jape). So gloriously vicious is it, as to suggest Mencken was pulling his punches in his famous obit of William Jennings Bryan. It makes other legendary literary take-downs, like Twain’s of James Fenimore Cooper, seem downright collegial by comparison.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted October 27, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

      The Mencken piece also has some cringe-inducing commentary on women, though the sexism on display there was endemic to the times, and our cringes, thus, an indulgence in presentism.

  27. Posted October 27, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    Two quotations from a seminal work by a compatriot of mine seem aposite:

    Frank N Furter: He’ll do press-ups, and chin-ups.
    Do the snatch, clean and jerk.
    He thinks dynamic tension must be hard work.
    Such strenuous living I just don’t understand.
    When in just seven days, oh baby, I can make you a man.

    I don’t want no dissension. Just dynamic tension.
    Janet: I’m a muscle fan.
    FrankWhen in just seven days, I can make you a man.

  28. Posted October 28, 2012 at 4:03 am | Permalink

    Now this is the sort of stuff that you excel in, JAC. Stick to it – and of course your science.

    TH
    Pretoria

  29. Posted October 28, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    I think “material” universe is the wrong question. It’s the “experiential” universe that’s first important. Clearly, incidents such as the Burning Bush indicates that the Biblical God is not causally isolated from the experiential.

    I think the biggest hand waving is at the concept of “saturating”, in that it tries to carve out a section of the experiential as some sort of “no trespassing” zone for science. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work; the only distinctions within the experiential must be based with reference to experience. Trying to say pattern A governs on this side of the fence and some other pattern B governs the other neglects that there is a composite pattern (A on first side, B on second side) that governs the whole. Science thus may address all of it. The alternative is that any appearance of pattern is mere local illusion, which leaves no way to prove that the theologian is not a very cleverly disguised cabbage.

  30. acitta
    Posted October 28, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    What I really want to know, is the Flying Spagetti Monster wholly separate from the material universe? Are there any sophisticated Pastafarian theologians who can comment on this important question?

    • Posted October 29, 2012 at 9:08 am | Permalink

      Aren’t you supposed to eat the FSM? How’re you supposed to eat that which isn’t there?

      b&

  31. IW
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    “If any scientist wrote with this degree of unnecessary opacity, she’d be kicked in the rump and made to express herself more clearly…”

    What’s with the genderism? The way to correct genderist faults of the past is not to push the pendulum entirely in the opposite direction, but to stop it firmly in the middle.

    “If any scientist wrote with this degree of unnecessary opacity, they’d be kicked in the rump and made to express theirselves more clearly…” may not be entirely the best grammar, but it’s perfectly aceptable and avoids genderism entirely.

    • Posted October 29, 2012 at 5:23 am | Permalink

      Third-person singular neutral (gender inspecific) “they”/“their”/“theirs”/“them” are well attested in English for a good few hundred years. It’s only 20th-century grammarians that had a problem with it…

      I’d use it all the time, but our Editors* insist on clumsy “he or she”/“his or her”/“his or hers”/“him or her” constructions!

      /@

      * They deserve capitalisation because they are higher powers in our firm.


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