Thursday, January 3, 2008

Gratus as an Ontological Proof - Part II

Here is lengthy response from a reader (whom I always appreciate) concerning the November blog, "Gratus as an Ontological Proof." I have made rejoinders as necessary.

Hi, I found your blog through Emily's blog. I thought I'd jump in and stir the pot a bit.

First, there's no point in pretending I am an unbiased vacuum. So, to give you context of my reply, I am a Buddhist woman. As a Buddhist, I'm a non-theist, meaning that while I find the debate over God's existence a philosophically challenging and fascinating one, I hold that the existence or non-existence of God holds no relevance for the practice, definition and validity of a moral code. So for me, the existence of God boils down to a belief in an ultimate reality versus a nominal/relative one. All very fun, but not really a moral question.

Thanks for the response. Its always exciting to know that someone out their reads my blog, even if they categorical reject the ideas contained within it. Let me retort your response in order.

First, you state, “So for me, the existence of God boils down to a belief in an ultimately reality versus a nominal/relative one. All very fun, but not really a moral question.” It seems obvious in the rest of your response that you are central concerned with a moral code. Whence does the sense of gender equality come from; if simply a modern social more (and while also living in a nominal existence) what ought to direct someone to care about the sensibilities of women? Perhaps you do not want to be saddled with an epistemological locus for your morality, but there is a genesis. If this genesis is situated in culture, which is in flux, it seems that morality is nothing more than a way to get along or more ‘cruelly’ (as you say) a way for women to co-opt the control that has been historically annexed by patriarchy. If it is the latter, then feminism isn’t so much an ideology for women, but simply another socially constructed palliative for a more amiable society (nothing more meaningful than law stipulating that all must wear seat-belts). If it is the former then feminism is socially and inherently antagonistic, and men should not only not heed such an ideology, but explicitly reject and react against feminism. All of this is to suggest that your moral code is betrayed by your feminism. None of this is in chastisement, but simply to illustrate that this is indeed about morality; but we have placed the horse, before the cart. Let us continue.

The most important thing is how you are defining "God". Do you mean a moral arbiter of the Judeo-Christian/Muslim variety? Or the representation of ultimate reality, of an Ultimate Cause (Mr. Big Bang himself!), of the Aristotleian variety? By this one post, you seem to be advancing a more Aristotleian concept: God is the receiver of my gratitude/humility, he is the Cause of what I am grateful for. If I am feeling grateful for something, there must be a God. (Correct me if I'm wrong!)

Second, we must understand what we mean by God. But this too is premature. This discourse was not to describe God, but to posit God. Yet, your question should be answered, nonetheless. You ask; is the God I posit that of the Judeo-Christian/Muslim persuasion or more of the Aristotelian variety. Yet problems here abound. To begin, Judaism and Christianity differ in how God has dispensated how believers are to understand the law – or, how God is the moral arbiter. Further, many Christians theologians have appropriated the Aristotelian construction of God as the first mover. One ought read Aquinas’ Summa Theologica’s questions 1-13, which construct God as the fullness of the Aristotelian concepts of accidental categories. So, back to your question, the God of Christianity or Aristotle? The answer, Yes.

Let me advance my own interpretation of the priest's father, an interpretation shaped by my Buddhism and my feminism. To put it cruelly, I think the father's gratitude "for" his wife is more revealing of old-fashioned gender politics than any spiritual awakening (though, of course, the father took it as the latter - and one could argue that subjectivity and self-identification is the basis of most genuine spirituality anyway!). Yet as nice as a subjective "awakening to faith" is, it is naive to pretend that a man's culture, his internalized perceptions of gender and race and the Other, do not play a significant role in how he interprets reality. It is revealing that he jumps to the conclusion that he must be feeling gratitude to God, rather than, at least for a moment, questioning why he does not feel grateful to his wife (which would be more logical and certainly less self-centered).

Third, you miss the subtle points of the argument. He appreciated his wife, and thus was grateful for his wife. But you cannot be both grateful for an to the same thing, simultaneously for the same thing.

So, he was grateful for many things his wife did for him (companionship, fidelity, etc.), and thus grateful to his wife.

But he was also grateful for his wife. But then to whom could he credit for his faithful and loving wife?

To put it cruelly, it rings almost misogynistic to be thankful "for" your wife, as if she was a "gift from on high" and not just another person, an equal, just like you. It implies a sense of possession. The father certainly didn't consider his thoughts sexist and he probably thought he considered his wife an equal, yet there is such a thing as "color-blind racism" and no doubt "gender-blind sexism". There is something subtly offensive about his inability to feel gratitude "towards" the woman who chose to spend her life with him, who behaved in ways which were agreeable to him, etc. In my opinion, a more reasonable, more generous behavior would have been ultimate gratitude to his late wife. His refuge in the idea of a (no doubt gendered masculine) God "giving" him his wife seems to ring too much of oppressive gender politics rather than any philosophically sound awakening. It is also a bit selfish to be concerned about your own spiritual awakening rather than the passing of a loved one. It's psychologically predictable, it happens all the time when strong emotions are provoked, but it is, in the end, only about you - your new faith, your new religion, your God giving and taking things away from you. (I'm sorry for how callous this sounds.)

Your next paragraph has two larger issues to address: First, you suggest misogyny, and ‘sense of possession’ and charitably offer that it may have been a case of ‘gender-blind sexism.’ This must be rejected. I no nothing of the man and the relationship with his wife save this: it was Christian marriage. For that I must say that they were in possession of one another. Paul says that spouses ought to be subject to one another. This is the essence of the vow, the act of subjecting one another to one another. And it must said, that his wife was a good Catholic woman, and most certainly saw her husband as a ‘gift from on high,’ as she must have seen all humanity, which came from the goodness of God.

Secondly, I agree your argument sounds callous. How ought one be concerned with a passing loved one? You are concerned the husband was too selfish, (also, whence does your concern for selfishness come from, as morality is nothing but a passing fancy) but what could be less selfish than to reflect and realize the death of your wife has made clear the reality of true existence? What good can come to the dead from the wailing and gnashing of teeth? More accurately, he was being incredible other-centered. He was focused on his wife, her life, and his appreciation for her, and only then realizing his feelings, and in a moment of mindful acumen sees that his feelings point to a benevolent God. Who wouldn’t want their death to be such an epiphany for those they love?

After all that, I will admit that I'm nitpicking. The man probably did not consider himself sexist, was not sexist in any drastic way apart from the internalization of a patriarchal culture. Also, I understand that your point is that the ability to feel gratitude - that is, God is the Ultimate Cause of good in the world, the reality which we find pleasurable we can call "God" and feel grateful towards. A valid argument, but the example you chose was less than convincing.

P.S. Also revealing is the father's immediate assumption that he must be feeling gratitude to the gendered masculine, Christian God. I don't trust religion based purely on emotion, and I don't trust religious decisions taken in a moment of high emotion (such as after a trauma). Because then it is more often than not a retreat into the comforts of the normalized superstition. It is limited in its expression, it is driven by anxiety and fear, rather than a genuine probe into reality and morality.

The father did not suddenly exclaim, "Allah be praised!" He did not suddenly realize that God was in his wife, just like the Hassidism (or Philip Pullman) believes. Are these interpretations of God less valid? They certainly imply different things. The father was simply behaving within the confines of his culture. He believed that a Christian God had "given" him his wife - he jumped to the normative conclusion. How valid is a confined, ignorant faith driven by emotion?

I suppose you could say I'm playing the Devil's advocate now. (Nyuk nyuk nyuk.)

Finally, it was not immediately reveling at all what the father meant when he said there must be a God. Certainly, he probably was drawn to a Christian notion of God, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yet, even then this is not evidently (and certainly not Orthodox) a ‘gendered masculine’ God.

He may even in the future find Islam an appropriate religion, even Judaism. But Pullman’s conscious panentheism (which is by happenstance the next item for my blog) could not support the type of ontological theism argument that my post posits.

Yet, what must be finally retorted is your final contention, specifically the interrogative, “How valid is a confined, ignorant faith driven by emotion?” How valid indeed it must be asked. But first, how much more valid is an austere rationalism that makes a calculated analyses and parses every phrase? I doesn’t seem that the sober Enlightenment did anything but dissipated the natural passions to such an extent that faith was not only stifled, but snuffed out completely. Certainly, faith – at its best – seeks reason (Augustine), but reason, but emotion is not some perversion or pure absence of reason. Yet, more concretely emotional experiences often lead us to recognize who we love immanently, why would it surprise us that emotional experience could likewise lead us to recognize God? How often do others realize the importance of someone in their life after some emotional instance such as a birth, wedding, or funeral? Now, are these necessary? No, and need not be for religious conversion; Augustine’s conversion happened in solitude, while quietly sitting under a pear tree.

Ultimately, the thrust of my original argument was that gratitude is an almost surprising emotion that can make one pause to wonder how such a feeling arises. One answer is that it is the feeling for God, and the realization that we all are participating in the goodness of God. Such appreciation from gratitude may behoove one to consider how to behave – to live rightly - not out of a legalism, but out of appreciation for the goodness of creation and also salvation.


still too talkative said...

Thanks for the lengthy reply. It seems we won't convince or convert each other either way, though I will clarify a few points:

1. Categorical rejection? Tut, tut. I'm here, aren't I? I love this stuff, though I may not use the God-idea as my moral basis.
2. I assumed it was implicit that my feminism was a moral stance (not a matriarchal superiority AKA feminazi stance, oh my), though I don't see how moral feminism dents my argument, which is one of illuminating the cultural relativism of one culturally-Christian man's sudden belief in a Christian God.

The fact that I consider the God-idea an amoral philosophical question does not mean that morality doesn't guide my acceptance/rejection of certain God-ideas. For example, I may think certain conceptions of God, such as a fundamentalist one, are harmful and therefore immoral - this doesn't mean I categorically reject God, it means I reject that idea of God. Similarly, I may find a God-idea too embedded in gender roles and cultural conservatism a cause for skepticism of that person's spiritual honesty - and certainly not a very convincing philosophical argument for God.

Also, not everyone agrees with me on what the God-idea is after all, and I recognize that the majority do consider the existence of God a moral question (e.g. Dawkins' New Atheism and all that moral indignation of how the Judeo-Christian God has "harmed" us).

You’re right, in that Buddhism certainly gives greater weight to reason, and I tend to trust reason more than emotion when it comes to moral decision-making (and philosophical sparring!). Emotion, I agree, is a useful spur, but it can't be the motivating factor - or else you go a bit hot and cold on your moral activism. Also, if emotion is needed to spur a person to moral action, why use God as a middleman? This rings of the carrot-stick philosophy in layman’s religion: if you do bad, you go to a nasty place, if you do good, you go to a nice place. And you stay there forever! That’s just playing to the lowest common denominator of our humanity: our fear. So, on the scale of things, I’ll take morality based on reason any day. Unless of course you mean (excellent segue to...)

An emotional connection with the God-idea, the transcendent, the mystical, the sublime! Now this is highly enjoyable, and I do find myself swayed by certain Sufi qawwalis to believing in the God-idea they call Allah – but then that God which I'm suddenly feeling so affectionate for is an ultimate reality, a “beyond things”, the transcendent. That is, "He" is just as easily an aesthetic or an epistemological question, rather than a moral one.

I may be missing the subtle nuances (I certainly missed a lot of your big words!), but I've found that the God-as-a-moral-idea and God-as-a-reality-argument dichotomy keeps things clear in my head.

The Catholic Atheist said...

Still Too Talkative,

You wrote back! I was afraid I wouldn't hear your rejoinder... fear not.

First off. I still think you want your moral(metaphysically grounded) cake and eat it too, but that might not be the most interesting thing to discuss. And as for converting... I don't know what I would convert you to... my blog is called the Catholic Atheist.

I actually am - surprise enough -quite a fan of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Who knew there was someone else in the United States who was too?

Suffism is interesting... If you haven't read, "Conference of the Birds" by Farid Ud-Din Attar, do so. It is really quite beautiful. There is a story entitled, "The story of Shikh Sam'an." The story is a recapitulation of the rest of the book; you must learn to lose everything, even yourself and what you hold most dear, so that you can learn to love something, and when you realize (actualize the experience) that love (that inkling of the transcedent) you can embrace the enormity of the sublime (which is God).

BUT, as much as I like the story and 'emotional' resonate with the it, I have reservations. God for Suffism (and for many, many others, read "The God Who Comes to Mind - Levinas") is purely equivocal; meaning God is purely eneffable; absolutely unknowable in any comprehensible way. What does this leave us? Well, I guess something that looks kinda of like Buddhism... Maybe this works for you.

However, what is persuasive (to me) about Christianity is that God obstensibly has rendered himself intelligible. God and humanity have a relationship, and more than a relationship, one that was asundered but now mended into a unity through Christ. Christ then is the cross - the mediation between both God and humanity. Making humanity whole, and rendering God as historical and particular. The veracity of God then becomes historic rather than mythic (though it still is predicated on faith, but so is the sublime). Thus, God's reality is not some ethereal construction, but a concrete reality made known to all. As the reality of God (Christ) was an act of supreme good - the atonement of sins - and which also confirmed the Old Testament that told that the world was good, and that God was the Good. Thus, the morality does not come from static codes, but through the witness of the goodness of God, which was made example by Christ, who was God.

The point I am trying to render is that the reality of God and morality for Christians are inextricably linked.

Thus, one can grasp the goodness of God through emotion or through reason, but it is never through fear; it is always through love.