On being unreasonable


There is a much-quoted polemic by the early theologian Tertullian (c. 160-220 CE) which encapsulates a seemingly eternal tension between philosophy and religion, faith and reason:

What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon, who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.” Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief.

This antagonism between faith and reason was earlier played out in the death sentence passed on Socrates for refusing to recognize the state deities, and later in Spinoza’s expulsion from the Amsterdam Jewish community. As the pendulum swings in the opposite direction, we witness the continuing ascendancy of Western European secularism and, as it reaches its zenith, New Atheism. For myself, and in my conversations with friends, both atheist and theist, from deeply secular to doggedly religious, this dilemma is often experienced as the pull of the noetic against the tug of the affective: the voice that demands, “Why can’t you explain what you mean?” and the one that replies, “Why don’t you shut up and listen?” It’s worth remembering, however, that the division does not correspond neatly with the division between religious believer and secular atheist. Among people of faith and even within the minds of adherents, there is conflict and cognitive dissonance – which is at the same time a visceral unease –  between the God of the philosophers and scholars, and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

I started the philosophy of religion course I am teaching at the London School of Philosophy by looking at three ways at looking at religion. Functional definitions concentrate on the role religions play in society, for example by binding individuals together in cooperative wholes. Traditional and especially analytic philosophy of religion tends to focus on the substantive aspects, viewing religions as if they were constituted by sets of beliefs which can be analysed, dissected and measured against a standard of evidential warrant and rational justification. This approach demands that statements such as ‘There is a God’ are supported by rational arguments – or at least by an account justifying the redundancy of such arguments.

However some writers claim that religions should not be viewed as if they were a system of doctrines at all. One example is the Wittgensteinian philosopher D.Z Phillips (1934 – 2006), who suggests that the substantive conception of religion  misses the point. Rather, he claims, religious language, expresses a heartfelt need, existential anxiety or deep wondering:

To ask whether God exists is not to ask a theoretical question. If it is to mean anything at all, it is to wonder about praising and praying; it is to wonder whether there is anything in all that. This is why philosophy cannot answer the question ‘Does God exist?’ with either an affirmative or a negative reply […] ‘There is a God’, though it appears to be in the indicative mood, is an expression of faith.

~Religion without Explanation

Reading Phillips might point us towards such an expressive conception of religion, a third way of viewing religion as an affective response to our deepest questions and yearnings. This is what the theologian Paul Tillich called our “Ultimate Concern”.

Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern. Man, like every living being, is concerned about many things, above all about those which condition his very existence, such as food and shelter. But man, in contrast to other living beings, has spiritual concerns — cognitive, aesthetic, social, political. Some of them are urgent, often extremely urgent, and each of them as well as the vital concerns can claim ultimacy for a human life or the life of a social group. If it claims ultimacy it demands the total surrender of him who accepts this claim, and it promises total fulfilment even if all other claims have to be subjected to it or rejected in its name.

~Dynamics of Faith

Martin Buber makes perhaps the the most radical, almost ascetic, demand of our understanding of religion, that it can only be attained, not in examining the doctrinal belief but in the act of encounter:

Philosophy errs in thinking of religion as founded in a noetic act, even if an inadequate one, and in therefore regarding the essence of religion as the knowledge of an object which is indifferent to being known. As a result, philosophy understands faith as an affirmation of truth lying somewhere between clear knowledge and confused opinion. Religion, on the other hand, insofar as it speaks of knowledge at all, does not understand it as a noetic relation of a thinking subject to a neutral object of thought, but rather as mutual contact, as the genuinely reciprocal meeting in the fullness of life between one active existence and another. Similarly, it understands faith as the entrance into this reciprocity, as binding oneself in relationship with an undemonstrable and unprovable, yet even so, in relationship, knowable Being, from whom all meaning comes. [Italics mine]

~Eclipse of God: Studies in the relation between religion and philosophy

It is important to note that Buber is not suggesting that this encounter is purely subjective and that with which it takes place is ‘mind-dependent’ or a mere idea or social construct. Rather, what he elsewhere refers to as the Eternal Thou is real even if undefinable. Buber insists, “Many true believers know how to talk to God but not about Him. If one dares to turn toward the unknown God, to go to meet Him, to call to Him, Reality is present.”

So do we have to choose between the two: set aside our Aristotelian rational souls in order to apprehend an ultimate reality promised by religion, or alternatively pull back from the abyss of  Leap of Faith before and sacrifice our deepest yearnings on the uncertain altar of the Enlightenment?

Yesterday I serendipitously encountered a possible solution, or at least a rephrasing of the problem,  in my reading of two books:  one was Letters to a Buddhist Jew by Akiva Tatz and David Gottlieb, the other the Book of Genesis. Towards the end of the narrative of the Flood, we read that Noah blessed two of his sons (though rather unfairly it seems not Ham, whose son Canaan is cruelly cursed), namely Shem and Japheth.

And he said,

  “Blessed be the LORD

  The God of Shem;

  Let Canaan be a slave to them.

  May God enlarge Japheth

  And let him dwell in the tents of Shem;

  And let Canaan be a slave to them.” (Genesis 9:26-27)

Now tradition has it that Japheth was the ancestor of the Greeks. The early rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel interpreted this as sanctioning the Bible being translated into Greek, while no translation into any other language was permitted. And the nineteenth-century Hassidic rabbi Tzaddok HaCohen quoted ‘Japheth will dwell in the tents of Shem’, as being fulfilled when, after the Hasmoneon victory over the Greeks, the Jews were able to integrate Greek philosophy into their own culture. But HaCohen also believed that the Jewish exile had a Divine purpose, to absorb ‘points of essence’ from the host cultures, this being a reading of the mystical idea of Tikkun, the reclamation of the hidden, divine sparks in order to restore the world to harmony.

So rather than faith/reason we have a different duality, that of host/guest, where the same person or the same tradition alternates between the two different roles, or can even perform both simultaneously – in relation to the stranger within its midst as well as to the greater nation within which it is a stranger. Some would say that we are ultimately guests of the Infinitely Great on whose land each one of us is merely a resident alien.

Richard Kearney in his provocative book Anatheism: Returning to God After God takes as an exemplar the first patriarch Abraham. Despite being, in the words of Psalm 119, “a stranger on this earth”, Abraham offers hospitality to the three divine ‘men’, angels perhaps, at the Terebinths of Mamre (Genesis 18). In the face of theophany, he humbly offers them water and bread. And perhaps as his reward, the angels announce the future arrival of another stranger, the child Isaac that his elderly and barren wife Sarah will bear.

For the atheist, openness to the unknown other does not mean embracing ‘the delirious delusions of theism’. Nor for the agnostic or the reflective theist, does it enthrone a new belief or religion. ‘It simply invites us to see what has always been there a second time around.’

Can we take the risk, gambling all that we have, yet knowing we can never possess the prize, even if we know what it was? As Kearney suggests:

For in surrendering our own God to a stranger God, no God may come back again. Or the God who comes back may come back in ways that surprise us.