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The Games Theologians Play

By WizenedSage (Galen Rose) --

I’ve recently been reading up on a couple of modern theological writers, Karen Armstrong and David B. Hart. It’s been fun, but not particularly enlightening. Armstrong is a former Catholic nun who wrote “A History of God” and several other books.
Il cielo è un puzzle da smontare pezzo per pezzoImage by _strawberryfields_ via Flickr
Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian, philosopher, and author of “Atheist Delusions” and more.

These writers (especially Hart) have criticized the so-called New Atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, et. al.) for being superficial, irrelevant, a passing fad, and nearly everything else but right. The gist of their thinking on the existence of god can be found in a N.Y. Times essay by Armstrong (1), and Hart’s essay, “Believe It or Not” (2), on the First Things web site. Hart’s essay is particularly corrosive as he chides the New Atheists with all the warmth and charm of battery acid.

These writers are so confoundingly abstract that understanding what they call god is a lot like trying to catch fog in a butterfly net, or likening the taste of a mushroom to a C-sharp chord. Their main skill appears to be obfuscation, which, of course, may work quite well with the intellectually insecure. Most of the rest of us, however, will legitimately wonder if they know what they’re talking about any more than we do.

Doubtless, part (and parcel?) of the game here is to define their god in such a way that it bears no resemblance to the god of the Bible, and is so ethereal and ineffable as to make it virtually impossible to argue against its existence (yet their arguments sometimes make their gods look an awful lot like nature). It makes me think of a rainbow, where much can be said about the colors in it, their order of appearance top to bottom, the degrees of arc they transit, the existence of double rainbows, etc., when, in fact, a rainbow is merely an illusion. It is composed of nothing but water droplets and light which make an image that appears slightly different to each observer. What is often lost sight of (if you’ll pardon the pun) is the fact that there really is no object out there in the sky; if no observer, no rainbow. Now, in some ways, that sounds to me a lot like god; there’s lots of talk, but no observer, and no god.

Here’s David Hart’s god:
“The most venerable metaphysical claims about God… start, rather, from the fairly elementary observation that nothing contingent, composite, finite, temporal, complex, and mutable can account for its own existence, and that even an infinite series of such things can never be the source or ground of its own being, but must depend on some source of actuality beyond itself. Thus, abstracting from the universal conditions of contingency, one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such: not a “supreme being,” not another thing within or alongside the universe, but the infinite act of being itself, the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates.”(2)

Now, I could be wrong, because there are a lot of very slippery words there, but it appears to me that he is saying that god is “being;” not “a being,” just “being.” How this definition is of any use to anyone, however, escapes me. Well, there is this, if I believed god is being, then I would have to agree that god exists, because I surely be. Can’t you just picture Mr. Hart praying? “Dear Absolute Plenitude of Actuality, give us this day…”

Ah, but perhaps I’m being unfair. Maybe this will help clear things up. “But such reasoning is also certainly not subject to the objection from infinite regress. It is not logically requisite for anyone, on observing that contingent reality must depend on absolute reality, to say then what the absolute depends on or, on asserting the participation of finite beings in infinite being, further to explain what it is that makes being to be.” Or maybe not…

A question which occurs to me is this: if god is “being,” the whole of being and nothing but being, then why do we even need the word “god?” What’s wrong with simply using the word “being” to describe being? And, can “being” really have any meaning by itself, without reference to a particular thing? I mean, how can “being” just be, without being anything – if you catch my drift. Am I unfair in suggesting that perhaps Mr. Hart has fallen back to a position of defining god as “being” just so he has something to call god? Could it be that Mr. Hart doesn’t believe in supernatural gods any more than I do?

What good does this god do anyone if all it does is be? There is no hint in Hart’s explanation that this god interacts with humans at all. Of course, Hart’s god would have no more meaning to the average Christian than a third derivative or a charmed quark.

And yet, it seems Hart may be a fairly traditional Christian. In a recent interview (3), Hart says:
"For Christians, one must look to the cross of Christ to take the measure of God’s love, and of its worth in comparison to the sufferings of a fallen world. And one must look to the risen Christ to grasp the glory for which we are intended, and take one’s understanding of the majesty and tragedy of creation’s freedom from that."
So, this god which in one place is merely “being,” in another place is capable of love. And he clearly believes in the resurrection. From my perspective, this guy is seriously confused. He doesn’t appear to know what he believes.

It is no wonder Hart is unimpressed by the “New Atheists.” They aren’t talking about his god, and I suspect very few people are, except him. Can you spell sophistry?

Now, here’s Karen Armstrong’s god:
“Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our understanding of God is often remarkably undeveloped - even primitive. In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call "God" is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart.” (1) (Well isn’t that what you thought when you read the Bible?)

Notice the key phrase here, “God …whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited.” Well that’s it then. Roll up the tents and saddle the camels, we rationalists are out of the game, by fiat. The Four Horsemen have wasted their time. God, then, is merely a symbol which points to something else which is intuited by means of spiritual exercises. Could “spiritual exercises” be something like “wishing,” do you think? Again, there can be precious few other Christians in the world (who haven’t read Armstrong) who would define their god this way. Can you spell sophistry yet?

As far as I can tell, Hart’s god is “the absolute plenitude of actuality,” or simply “being,” while Armstrong’s god is a symbol that points (to an “indescribable transcendence”). Now, think about this: are they talking about the same god? Is there any overlap at all? Don’t worry; those questions won’t be on the exam, because I don’t know either.

Is it any wonder the New Atheists are found wanting by theologians like Armstrong and Hart? Their definitions of god bear absolutely no resemblance to the god of the Bible, the one preached about in churches, and the one 99% of today’s Christians say they worship (there’s no resemblance to Allah either, or any other god with a name). Why on earth would Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens bother with these conceptions of god (if they were even aware of them) which hardly anyone but their authors recognize? It appears to me that Armstrong, Hart and their compatriots are merely self-important, fringe elements who deserve no more attention than Pat Robertson, but for different reasons. Can you spell irrelevant?