Saturday, 4 February 2012

The Eternal Question of God

“God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

It is a question which won’t leave me alone, like a scab which keeps on itching and demanding that I scratch it. In the ordinary course of rationality, it should be a door I closed many years ago – at the end of a long process, I admitted to myself that I did not believe in God and this admission was, at the same time, honest, difficult, and liberating. So why should I find myself continually coming back to it?

My arrival at non-belief was the end of a long journey, one which had at least as much to do with the unfolding of my personal story as it had with the arrival at the conclusion of a rational discussion. That rational discussion was central; I am a person for whom the application of intellect and understanding to questions has always been of primary importance – I’m a head-type rather than a belly-type. It was my head, primarily, that had led me – a believing Catholic – to join the Dominican Order in my youth; the conviction that, if the Christian message was true, then there could be nothing more important than to dedicate my life completely to that truth.

In the nine years I spent in the Order, I studied history, philosophy and theology and, the more I studied these subjects, the more problems I developed intellectually with mainstream Catholic and Christian thinking. But, for one with growing doubts, a theology study can be useful, for it provides one with the intellectual framework and conceptual possibilities to redefine that which one professes as faith (within a particular tradition) so that it continues to be intellectually acceptable. The 70s and the 80s (when I was going through this process) was a particularly good time for such exercises – there was a tendency towards openness, intellectual experiment, testing the borders within the Catholic Church, the consequences of the opening of the windows with the Second Vatican Council, initiated by Pope John XXIII. For the survival of the faith of most intelligent, reasonable people, such an openness was vital. Can you really accept that the world was created in seven days, six thousand years ago and that Adam and Eve, our ultimate ancestors, fucked everything up by eating an apple? You don’t have to; these kinds of stories were the way pre-scientific societies with very different perception of the world explained things. The central message is that God is responsible for the “world,” his creation, loves it, cares for it, has a specific plan and goal for it and humanity has developed trouble in its co-operation with the achievement of this goal. There was a lot of talk of salvation history as opposed to literal, “real” history.

A useful – and indeed necessary – way of thinking for intelligent believers. It allows you to make use of much wider categories of talking about truth; symbolism, metaphor, deeper meaning, etc. It permits the use of (more or less) scientific methodology with reference to faith matters – archaeology, textual criticism, hermeneutics, for example. The question arises, however, about how far you can take this mind-set. What about the “virgin birth” of Jesus – does this really mean that Jesus didn’t (couldn’t) have a human, biological father? Are the depictions of the miracles of Jesus in the scriptures to be taken as literal descriptions of what really happened? And what does it really mean to speak of the “resurrection” of Jesus; is this some kind of proto-zombie Dawn of the Dead story or has it more to do with the communal realisation among Jesus’ followers that the man and his message – in some powerful sense – lives on?

There are hundreds of such questions which can be asked and discussed, and they map out the territories in which intelligent, thinking, questioning believers work out and define their understanding and expression of their faith. The alternative is to become a literal, unquestioning fundamentalist, praising Jesus and waiting for the rapture.

Such an approach brings other problems with it though. Where do you set the boundaries? In Catholicism these are officially set by tradition, enshrined in the “official” teaching of the Church, residing ultimately in the Councils of the Church, the bishops, and the pope – known as the Magisterium. However, the authority of this Magisterium, as defined by itself, is extremely extensive and generally very stringent and, it can be argued, implicitly not accepted in this form by the majority of Catholics and quite a large component of theologians, priests and people deeply engaged in the Church. It certainly wasn’t accepted in this form by me, during my time as a “professional” Catholic.

One well known example makes this clear. The official teaching on birth control is clear and has been pretty consistently propagated by almost every official incidence of the Magisterium ever since Pope Paul VI published the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968. Basically, it teaches that the use of artificial contraception – the pill and condoms in particular – is wrong. Period. Millions of Catholics – and tens of thousands of their pastors – have simply ignored this for over forty years.

I would like to be able to claim that my break with the Catholic Church came as a result of the development of my thinking with regard to Catholic doctrine and my own intellectual journey to a stage where I finally reached the conclusion that my rational convictions had reached the point at which I could no longer reconcile my position with that of the Catholic Church in a number of fundamental areas and thus felt myself forced to formally sever my connections with that organisation. It’s not true. Rather, in common with not a few others, I fell in love, found that it was impossible for me to continue living according to the Catholic requirement of priestly celibacy (even if interpreted in a very “liberal” fashion, as a prohibition of a deeper relationship with another person, expressed sexually, rather than a complete blanket prohibition of any kind of sexual activity), and just quit.

In the end, a decision based on the heart and not on the head.

* * *

Fast forward, fourteen years later. During this time, my religious faith, my obsession with God, has receded somewhat; I’ve been too busy dealing with more practical aspects of life. I had formally converted to the Lutheran-Reformed denomination of Christianity, the mainstream variety of Protestantism in the region of Germany in which I live, but had never really become seriously involved in the life of that church. To be honest, part of my motivation to this step was purely practical; I had trained as a geriatric nurse, and around three quarters of the institutions involved in this work in Germany were church-run – I had a family to take care of and a career to get going.

Things weren’t going well; my marriage had broken down, work was going badly and I was coming to the realisation that my long-time, deep relationship with alcohol had also become completely destructive (for me, the alcohol would certainly survive). After a lot of suffering, I finally put my hands up and took my first shaky steps down the road generally characterised by regularly meeting others with the same problem in a group and saying, “I’m Francis and I’m an alcoholic.”

It’s a stage of your life – if you’re unfortunate enough to finish up there – where you really hit bottom. In this situation, there’s a strong tradition of throwing yourself into God’s hands; admitting that you don’t have the power to cure yourself and that you need help from a higher power. The first three of the famous Twelve Steps formulated by the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous are as follows:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Fortunately, I was desperate enough at that stage to try anything – fortunately, I say, because I am convinced that the only way to recovery is the absolute admission that you are incapable of dealing with this problem on your own and need help. If someone had told me then that planting cabbages upside-down in the garden and then dancing around them naked waving a feather-rattle would help, I’d have been prepared to try that too.

But in another sense I was also fortunate because I found a self-help group (and, believe me, if you’re trying to kick an alcohol addiction, a self-help group is almost essential to survive those first few “dry” years), which, although it took a lot from the AAs, was consciously non-religious and non-theistic. I describe this as fortunate, because there was one aspect of the AA concept which definitely didn’t apply to me – the “Higher Power” thing.

It is the classic approach to that rock-bottom phase of alcohol addiction that when you find yourself in that empty, desolate wasteland of the realisation of what alcohol has done to you, where you look around that inner desert and see only the various parts of your life and soul that you have wrecked and poisoned under the influence of alcohol, you finally cry out to that “Higher Power” and find yourself, in some sense, supported, carried, borne up by It.

In the words of Psalm 130 (De Profundis), “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord, Lord, hear my voice.” In my desperation I called out to the God, my obsession with whom had determined so much of what had happened in my life and, I like to believe, my call was honest and sincere. And the answer I received was … Nothing. Nada. Zilch. I felt alone; the God to whom I had called in honest despair was supremely absent.

The strange thing was the result of the realisation that God was not there for me, that the Loving Father in whom I thought I believed was not giving me his grace, his comfort, his support – it was a feeling of deep relief, of liberation. Much of the conflict, the intellectual, moral and emotional struggles which had influenced my life so deeply, fell away in that moment. I felt like an astronomer at the end of the 16th century, driven half mad by the complicated mathematics involved in predicting the movements of the planets according to a geocentric model, first encountering Copernicus’ heliocentrism. Following this deeply subjective experience, I was able to revisit all the intellectual discussions and positions I had taken up to now and apply my new, improved, personalised model of Occam’s razor. I accepted that, as I did not believe in either the divinity or resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, I could no longer call myself a Christian. Moving on from that, I realised that I did not find the rational arguments for the traditional theistic arguments for a God personally concerned for and involved in the universe he/she had putatively created intellectually convincing. I spent a while longer in a kind of minimalist “watchmaker deism, before realising that – for me – the various arguments pointing out the flaws in this analogy (and other formulations of the teleological argument for God’s existence) made sense.

And so, I realised that, for all practical purposes, I had become an atheist.

* * *

This essay has become more personal (and lengthy J) than I had envisaged when I began writing it: That the question of “God” still fascinates me has, I think, much to do with my own personal history – and this is how it should be. For we are formed in our deepest attitudes, beliefs and intellectual positions by much more than just the rational part of our selves. In the end, it is our whole experience and history which make us what we are and, much as we often like to deny it, all the various aspects of our personality – including our “rationality” – are not hermetically sealed off from each other but are constantly dialoguing with and influencing each other.

It is this realisation which makes so many of the arguments between “believers” and “atheists” (and you can find a plethora of them on the web) so unsatisfying. Ostensibly rational, in fact nearly all of the protagonists have no real interest in seriously listening to what their opponents are saying, which is why one of the most common debating fallacies trotted out by both sides is that of the strawman. Proponents of the New Atheism (particularly Richard Dawkins) are just as guilty of resorting to this position as their opponents, who regularly resort to describing atheists as “immoral” and “spiritually impoverished” – though I will readily admit that the tone taken by believers with (dis)respect to atheists can frequently be seen as extreme provocation of the latter. And if you have trouble believing this, then I recommend that you just tune in to the current fight for the Republican presidential nomination in the USA, where, apparently, for a large proportion of Americans, atheists are in the same category as rapists.

At the beginning of this post, I placed Nietzsche’s famous “God is dead” quotation, intentionally extending it beyond its first three words so as to show something more of what the author was trying to say. The “killing” of God is not an easy option; it is a challenge to find grounds for order, morality, beauty and transcendence without short-cutting to a “Heavenly Father” (whose existence, purpose and will – in the Christian iteration at any rate – are ultimately more a matter of faith than reason). And it is a challenge to which most atheist thinkers rise magnificently.

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