Tillich-ish, Pt. Three: Wanting to Believe, Assumptions
Thanks for this. It’s very helpful, actually. It’s much easier for me to fire back a few thoughts in response to your positive constructions rather than me feeling like I need to spin out a positive framework for you. The fist thing I’d would want to say is, if you haven’t read Dynamics of Faith, go read it. Tillich is a difficult guy to get, but he is dealing with your problem in a very concentrated way in that book. You may not get everything he’s saying (I still don’t even after having read almost everything he wrote at least once), but it will, nevertheless, show the outlines of a different framework from the one you (and pretty much all evangelical theology) is working in now. Pay special attention to sections I. II. III. & V. If you can get what he means about Christ at the end of section V. you know you’re getting what he’s saying (it takes some wrestling with).
So that’s the first thing. Here’s a few things that struck me as I read your last email. First a sort of umbrella question: Why do you want to believe that a God exists? The answer to this should help us see how your hope for the obtainment of that theory is hooked up to your faith.
You say “… I’ve seen it as appropriate to let the object (or subject… or neither… ha) of knowledge dictate the terms on which it is known.” This is a great place to start. The next question ought to be what sort of “object” do we mean by “God?” You seem to have assumed that God means an existing highest being that’s “out there” somewhere. Since this God is inaccessible to us (unlike other things of sense experience), we need to wait for it to contact us (sort of like how we would need an alien existing outside the range of our instruments to send us a message). This message, it was assumed, is the Bible. Yet, it seems as though you are among the relative few who sought to take the Bible seriously and try to understand it. Understanding requires asking questions and a certain element of self-criticism. Apparently (I’m inferring here, I’m not up on your whole story), this self-criticism lead to doubt and the eventual loss of belief in the status of the Bible as your ultimate criterion of truth.
So now you seem to be in a place where that one element in your framework is rejected, but your framework itself is still more or less intact. You grieve the loss of that element, and you sincerely hope that some turn of events can still validate the ultimate object of that framework and the meanings it mediated to you (i.e. you suggest perhaps disclosure of unknowable facts, or perhaps a visitation… but could not these also be doubted?).
My basic point is to suggest that perhaps the framework itself is corrupt. Tillich’s “A History of Christian Thought” (which I’ve found corroborated over and over), can help one see how the framework you are using developed and that it was not at all assumed by the authors of Scripture. The gist of the problem is that the God of your framework is finite. It’s a being that exists as one member (perhaps the greatest) of a class of existing things. It’s one being among other beings. But we cannot place ultimate concern (faith) in something which is not ultimate, and finite things are by definition not ultimate. For God to be ultimate, God cannot be the object of knowledge without also being subject. That is to say, God must transcend the division between subject and object. God must be the met in the depths of all that is (including our very selves!). In this framework, meeting God (or perhaps, being met by God) and knowing God (and being known by God) does not have to do with striving to make contact with an invisible super-being, but rather entering into the depths of all existence. In a poetic way of speaking, it is the reunion of the separated. Reunion with ourselves, with each other, and with the divine ground in whom the many are one. This movement of separation and return is what we call life; it is what we call love.
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My local libraries don’t have Dynamics of Faith, but I’ve requested an anthology called The Essential Tillich, and I’ll start there. Hopefully it includes some of the sections of Dynamics of Faith that you especially recommended.
I guess I would say that I want to believe that God exists for two reasons. One reason is inertia. As I began to have doubts about God’s existence, I was a committed Christian who was disposed both to want to continue to believe, and to think it would be right to continue to believe. Today, inertia takes two forms. Given my history, I now miss believing in God and relating to God; I miss that world view and that perceived relationship. In addition, my moral intuitions as a social animal agree pretty closely with Christian morality, and so the desire to continue affirming my moral intuitions as reflective of a transcendent morality also translates into a desire to believe that God exists (and underwrites a transcendent morality).
Second, I want to believe that God exists because I prefer that to the alternative. I think that anyone who actually reads the Bible, and not just some stupid tract, can see that Christianity is not just simple wish-fulfillment. Say the magic words and go to heaven? That might be pretty pure wish-fulfillment. But strive and suffer and obey for your whole life, and then be among the few to go to heaven while many go to hell? This is clearly no blank check for wishes. But nevertheless, I think that the Christian picture is still preferable to the atheistic one. I would much rather believe, and have it be true, that all things are meaningful, all people are loved by God, and all people have a shot at heaven.
I mentioned that disclosure of unknowable facts or a visitation would seem to be able to validate belief in God. Yes, these could certainly be doubted. But while I don’t think they would prove absolutely, I do think they would validate. A visitation would be especially fragile, having validity only for the person visited. For beyond that, as it was told to others, it would then be competing on equal footing with contradictory claims of analogous visions. But for the person visited, it would still work. So on some provisional epistemological considerations of what would be legitimate or reasonable or feasible for me to believe, I think these two could cut it.
Now to the assumptions of my framework. At the risk of taking us really far afield, I’ll bring in an analogy to postmodernism. I’ve heard postmodern talk which seems to make moves like those you describe by imputing a modernist framework of assumptions which are particular and fallible. In general, that may well be. But the particular ways in which I’m a “modernist,” or I chafe at some postmodernist language, do not seem susceptible to this critique. I posted a conversation I had with a friend about postmodernism in which I tried (and thus far succeeded, although the conversation may not be finished) to show that I was not making any substantive assumptions that were “modernist” or anything else, and that where I appeared to be, we were really just talking past one another. The only assumptions I was making were rather unavoidable: the assumption of non-contradiction, without which both logic and communication break down; and the assumption that I am not a brain in a vat, which we follow in practice, or else starve.
I’m inclined to mount a similar case in our present discussion. I’m not sure that I’m really assuming anything other than the law of non-contradiction. When I referred to “the object (or subject… or neither… ha) of knowledge,” I should have been a bit more serious and a bit more clear. Let’s say instead “the referent of knowledge,” meaning that to which the knowledge (or would-be knowledge) refers or pertains. Doesn’t that avoid problematic assumptions about subjects and objects? And it was all I was trying to get at in the first place.
I am open to knowledge on its own terms. I’m not demanding a revelation, or a miracle, or a repeatable experiment.
I only begin imposing constraints as the would-be knowledge begins coming in. And the only constraints I then impose are those of non-contradiction. I realize that there may well be partial knowledge, indirect knowledge, etc.; and that it may be imprecisely grasped by my language for it. But for any proposition p, whether I know it in whole or in part, I cannot accept both it and the negation of it, ~p. I cannot accept both a proposition or idea and the negation of that selfsame proposition or idea.
Other Christians, including the authors of scripture, clearly didn’t use this language of propositions and non-contradiction. They didn’t have the same undergraduate symbolic logic class I had, nor did they have the same Western, post-Enlightenment milieu. However, it still seems to me that none of them did in fact reject the law of non-contradiction in human thought, and that none of them could have done so in principle, because their thought would then have become meaningless mush without any content, and without any means to engage or correct the thought of others. There would be nothing to say, because whatever you’d affirm, you’d also be denying; and whatever you’d deny, you’d also be affirming. There would also be nothing to do, for that which is done is also not done, while that which is left undone is also done. This is just nonsense.
So basically, if these are my only assumptions, then I’m not sure what can be wrong with them, and I’m not sure how Tillich can challenge them.