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Oct 07 2013

She is too enraptured by the mystery of the divine

There’s another odd thing that Meghan Florian said in that Religion Dispatches/Salon article that’s been nagging at me.

I can’t pull off atheism. I am too enraptured by the mystery of the divine, too convinced of human limitations, too busy continuing this life of faith seeking understanding.

In a way it’s not worth trying to make sense of it or pointing out why it doesn’t make sense, because it’s just normal religious bafflegab – just a string of poeticky words that don’t actually mean much, but sound nice. That’s what they do. They have license to do that, because religion. That’s one of the many reasons I dislike religion: because it not only allows, it encourages empty bafflegab, and expects everyone to be impressed by it. It’s yet another subhead in the major category Cheating, and I’m seriously annoyed by religious cheating.

So in another way it is worth trying to make sense of it or pointing out why it doesn’t make sense, because it disrupts the social habit of politely ignoring the emptiness of the bafflegab.

1. She can’t pull off atheism because she’s too enraptured by the mystery of the divine.

What is the divine?

Does she mean “God”? She must sort of mean that, since the subject is atheism, not adivineism. I don’t bother being an adivineist, because I don’t know what “the divine” refers to.

I suppose she sort of means “God,” but also sort of means something more nebulous and poetical and “mysterious” and pretty.

What does she mean when she says she’s “enraptured” by it? I suppose that it’s nebulous and poetical and “mysterious” and pretty, while also being “God,” who both is and is not mysterious and distant.

Or maybe not. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe she means something much deeper and also more sophisticated and also full of particulars, that she learned from Duke Divinity School, where she earned a Master of Theological Studies. But if so, what?

What does she mean about being enraptured by the mystery? What’s enrapturing about it? Why is it never instead seen as a cold cruel heartless withholding? At least, never except by people who actually take “doubts” seriously as opposed to brandishing them at outsiders as a badge of haha skepticism. Imagine a cold starving ill child whose parents hide themselves. Is that child “enraptured” by the “mystery” of the hidden parents? Or, to look at it another way, is anyone “enraptured” by the “mystery” of the non-appearance of Hamlet or Medea or Huckleberry Finn? Of course not, because we know they’re characters in stories. So why do people bother to be “enraptured” by the “mystery” of the “divine”? What is that melodious phrase but an endlessly repeated advertising slogan?

2. She can’t pull off atheism because she’s too convinced of human limitations.

Wtf? What, because atheism is not convinced of human limitations? Atheism thinks humans are infinite?

Why isn’t it the other way around? Why isn’t it theists who aren’t convinced of human limitations? Theists think we’re immortal! It’s ludicrous to claim that atheists as such are not convinced of human limitations. You don’t have to subscribe to the idea of “sin” to be convinced of human limitations.

3. She can’t pull off atheism because she’s too busy continuing this life of faith seeking understanding.

No, she’s not. She’s kidding herself. “Faith” is not the right way to try to achieve understanding. It’s exactly the wrong way. Atheists have a much better shot of achieving some understanding, other things being equal, because they’re not impeded by the need to defend all the things that are accepted on “faith.”

I take it that what Florian means is that she doesn’t want to be atheist. She should just say that.

29 comments

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  1. 1
    Kausik Datta

    What does she mean about being enraptured by the mystery? What’s enrapturing about it?

    E-X-A-C-T-L-Y!! It’s high time someone asked the all-important question: what the fuck is the ‘Mystery of the Divine’? Perhaps she means the mystery of how her ‘divine being’ never seems to be around even when the devout keep calling during emergency circumstances?

  2. 2
    Eamon Knight

    Dear Meghan Florian: You’re not allowed to talk like that unless you’re stoned.

  3. 3
    J

    I read that passage as: I’m too busy being self-absorbed to bother paying attention to the real world, but I’m self-aware enough to realize this makes me an asshole. So I’ll try to convince myself and others that my narcissism is actually a virtue by framing it in the language of deepity.

    And thanks for taking the time to break down what she’s actually saying. I totally missed her second point when I read the article, sandwiched as it was between the nonsense words. WTF indeed.

  4. 4
    shari

    there are reasons – certainly touched on by her words/phrases/style – why certain convents/monastery’s turn Down applicants.

    Too many people already spacing out looking for God.
    Not enough people doing God’s work in the community. They don’t want people who are hiding from the real world.

  5. 5
    Bjarte Foshaug

    Daniel Dennett famously used “love is just a word” as an example of a “deepity” (an ambiguous statement that is trivially true in one interpretation and false in another). Well, love may not be “just a word” but God (or the divine) most certainly is. Most “sophisticated” believers don’t seem to have any idea what it is they actually believe in* except that it’s called “God” (why “God”? Why not “Ogd” or “Dog”?). Until they can come up with a definition of “God” that’s sufficiently specific and unambiguous to even give us something to argue intelligently for or against, a sentence like “God exists” falls into the category “not even wrong”.

    Which is off course the whole point: You cannot be accused of saying anything wrong if you haven’t really said anything at all. Other believers can easily interpret a supernatural, intelligent creator of the universe into whatever sounds are coming out your mouth, but atheists cannot find anything specific to argue against, and any attempt to do so can easily be dismissed as strawmanning: “What you are arguing against is not what I mean by ‘God’ blabla strawman blabla philosophically unsophisticated blablabla…”. Virtually all of “sophisticated theology” seems to boil down to this kind of double talk.
    ____________________________________________________
    * At least – to quote Greta Christina – not “when anyone is watching.”

  6. 6
    Bjarte Foshaug

    2. She can’t pull off atheism because she’s too convinced of human limitations.

    Wtf? What, because atheism is not convinced of human limitations? Atheism thinks humans are infinite?

    I suspect she is referring to the old trope that atheist think they know everything while the believers are the ones who really recognize the limitations of human knowledge… Ergo God. Because obviosly non-belief takes omniscience while belief only takes lack of definitive proof for the non-existence of something called “God”.

  7. 7
    AsqJames

    I am too enraptured by the mystery of the divine

    Religious people always proclaim god/the divine to be “mysterious” and “beyond human understanding”…unless they’re talking about something they think other people should/shouldn’t do. Then they know exactly what god thinks about it. He’s got rules for everything from what we eat to how we dress to how we farm to who we’re allowed to fall in love with to which bits of the genitals he gave us he wants our parents to chop off.

    But apart from all that, “the divine” is a complete mystery.

    [I am] too convinced of human limitations

    Yeah, immortality. Also, we’re so limited we can’t possibly hope to understand the divine plan…yet Christians are forever claiming to know how you can fulfil your part of it (and they’ll let you in on the secret too if you send them enough money).

    [I am] too busy continuing this life of faith seeking understanding.

    Hang on, if you’re “enraptured by the mystery” why would you seek understanding? Wouldn’t that destroy the mystery?
    And if humans are so limited, how can we hope to understand all that deepity deep stuff religion lays claim to as its own private purview anyway?

  8. 8
    Eamon Knight

    I’ve occasionally found myself caught up (the literal meaning of “enraptured”) in a bit of mathematics or physics, such that I would ponder on it during otherwise mindless moments (like long drives, or when falling asleep at night). And there’s this sense of exploring a mysterious, fascinating territory. Eventually I either figure it out, or write a program to brute-force it, or (these days) consult Google and find that real mathematicians and physicists (ie. people who aren’t me) have already been there and devised tools to describe it. Sometimes I get into a similar mindset when trying to figure out how to do some personal project.

    The point is: the exploration is fun, but it leads to an answer — I get an expression, or a number, or the thing gets built, and there’s an esthetic satisfaction to the experience. My “seeking understanding” actually finds something.

    Can theology ever say it’s found something out about the Divine? Something that isn’t just a reflection of the theologian’s own mind? Can it ever know that, eg. Paul Tillich was right and Rick Warren is wrong in the way we know that Einstein was right and classical mechanics was wrong, or this bridge design will stay up whereas that one will collapse?

    Or do theologians just enjoy being “enraptured” and “seeking understanding” too much to ever spoil it with anything so mundane as, you know, answers?

  9. 9
    AJ Milne

    What continues to impress me (it no longer amazes; I am too used to it) is how safe she seems to figure the smear against unbelievers is, and how almost, I dunno, generic it is…

    I mean, it seems pretty blatant, to me. ‘I can’t pull off atheism; I’m too deep or somethin… See, I’m seeking understanding, I’m so wisely aware of human limitations (spoiler: as if), whereas those people over there (gestures insouciantly sideways with thumbs), well…

    And ‘pull off’ is an interesting turn of phrase, innit? And even without that, what is implied about atheists is clear enough, and never mind what a broad brush it is, what a weaselly little insinuation, really…

    It seems to me she figures it’s perfectly safe to slip that in, and and ole’ reliable for scoring points with readers, and I expect she’s right enough. In parallel to Barnum and ‘no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public’, I expect few bubbleheaded pundits ever regretted dumping a rhetorical pail of slops on unbelievers…

    Honestly, it’s just so standard, too. She probably figures it’s hardly a thing at all. Everyone does this, everyone talks this smack; why wouldn’t she get away with it?

    Seems funny to me, especially because you always hear about how ‘militant’ atheists have been of late… For anything from failing to be properly invisible, to actually talking back to believers, in a fashion Florian does, here, to them (and never mind that Florian rather personally and specifically earns such dismissal; this isn’t the point)…

    The point is: will anyone call this piece of blithe nonsense of hers ‘militant’? I expect not. Oh no. The world’s too used to hearing such drivel, so it just goes by. It’s like people have been lulled to sleep by it. Hush little baby, don’t say a word, by the way, atheists are shallow, unthinking, ‘unspiritual’ people, deepity deepity, mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird…

  10. 10
    Marcus Ranum

    What does she mean about being enraptured by the mystery? What’s enrapturing about it?

    She mistook “ignorance” for “impressive” — which is pretty simple to understand if you’re outside looking in.

  11. 11
    screechymonkey

    AJ Milne @9:

    And ‘pull off’ is an interesting turn of phrase, innit?

    It’s a classic #humblebrag. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly ‘pull off’ atheism. It would be wonderful to be that arrogantly confident, I’m sure, but I’m afraid I’m just too weighed down by all these deep thoughts and humility about my own knowledge.”

  12. 12
    Omar Puhleez

    I will try here to reveal something of the mystery of God.
    1. God is infinite in power (ie omnipotent).
    2. God is not limited spatially (ie is omnipresent; God is everywhere. And of course, nowhere.)
    3. God is all-knowing (ie omniscient.)
    4. God is single, both in the numerical and marital sense. Much effort was expended by eminent theologians in the early days of Christianity trying to figure out how God could be simultaneously both the Father in Heaven, and Jesus Christ His only Son Our Lord – along with the Holy Spirit, the mysterious Trinity. After much debate, they decided to put it in the Too Hard Basket, under the label Holy Mystery.
    5. God is male. There are no female gods in the Abrahamic tradition, though the Virgin Mary is about half way there. In this, and only this way, God is limited. That is, limited to maleness and excluded from femaleness.
    6. Though part of the rapturous experience is the claim to ‘know God’, this can only at best be limited knowledge. The faithful can know God in a limited way via His limited revelation in Holy Scripture, but nobody has ever claimed it to be a full revelation: just all one needs to know. I seem to recall a passage somewhere of God (the Father) actually revealing himself to some prophet or other and the experience was literally blinding light.
    From all the above, we can deduce Proposition 7, which is:
    7. God can, and does. know Himself. Therefore He is not beyond understanding. And indeed, God has made a few attempts at expaining Himself to us mere mortals via Holy Scripture. So he is not infinitely unknowable or infinitely mysterious. There is a limit to His Mystery, set by the omnipotent Him. He could not simultaneously study Himself, come to understanding of Himself, and simultaneously place and keep Himself beyond his own ken and reach, because then He would be like a dog chasing its own tail.

    I had a dog once that liked to do that. Why? How should I know?
    It’s a mystery.

    I hope the above helps this discussion. I think in my own limited way that I would have made a good theologian. But I went into science instead.

  13. 13
    Ophelia Benson

    Eamon – exactly. It just seems like wallowing, this marveling at mystery as mystery.

    I can see being enraptured by marvels – hummingbirds, the starry sky, music, that kind of thing. I can see the kind you talk about. But just The Mystery? No.

  14. 14
    Ophelia Benson

    And Andrew. Yes. It’s just so routine, so normal. “It’s just how I am, I can’t help it. I just happen to be better than atheists.”

  15. 15
    PatrickMefford

    “That’s one of the many reasons I dislike religion: because it not only allows, it encourages empty bafflegab, and expects everyone to be impressed by it. It’s yet another subhead in the major category Cheating, and I’m seriously annoyed by religious cheating.”

    I don’t understand how anything in that article is empty bafflegab, the entire article made sense to me, even if I disagree wsome her judgements. I’m curious as to what kinda criteria of meaning do you have that makes words like “Divine” bafflegab?

  16. 16
    Ophelia Benson

    Patrick, ok, what does she mean by “the divine”? What’s she talking about? What’s the referent?

  17. 17
    Daryl Carpenter

    Sounds like the old “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio” method of argumentation. “Your worldview is just so blinkered and narrow, whereas mine is a wide-screen plasma expanse of infiniity that also happens to be as sexy as hell”, etc.

  18. 18
    Al Dente

    PatrickMefford @15

    The “mystery of the divine” is bafflegab. It’s “nobody can understand it but we’ll pontificate on it anyway.” Essentially it’s just pointing in the dark and pointing in a particular direction because other people seem to be pointing that way.

  19. 19
    notsont

    I always assumed “Divine” was like the best tiramisu there ever was +1. (the +1 being as much as you want of it) Perhaps i’m not deep enough though because I just couldn’t pull off blind faith, I was always too enraptured by the mystery of the universe to put much effort into nonsense.

  20. 20
    Great American Satan

    Don’t have time to read comments so I’m sure I’m adding to the chorus – Human limitations are a good reason to be humble in assertions about reality, and the idea the universe was made by something that looks like a man ISN’T EXACTLY HUMBLE.

  21. 21
    Ophelia Benson

    @19 – ah yes, Patrick asked about “divine” not “the divine” – maybe we misunderstood each other.

    No, Patrick, I have no problem with the word “divine” used as a word for “really really good”…as long as the user realizes it’s a bit camp, at least. But that wasn’t the word used in the article. “The divine” is not the same as the “divine” in “this Greek yogurt is divine.” It’s “the divine” that I consider bafflegab, not just plain ol’ divine.

  22. 22
    screechymonkey

    Great American Satan @20,

    Yeah, it’s interesting what passes for “humble,” isn’t it?

    “I don’t know all the details of how the universe was created, but science has a pretty good framework that is supported by a lot of data” is arrogant.

    “I not only know how the universe was created, but I have a personal relationship with the Creator, who loves me and listens to my requests” is oh-so-humble.

  23. 23
    smrnda

    Religious language is empty fluff, words that mean nothing so well that they can mean almost anything, and repeating them provides some with the impression that something is being said.

    On human limitations, if you want to get in touch with human limitations, study science. Learn about cognitive biases. Learn about what macronutrients we can’t survive without. If you’re going to talk about human limitations, talk about them in a precise, meaningful way.

  24. 24
    PatrickMefford

    Hi Ophelia,

    “Patrick, ok, what does she mean by “the divine”? What’s she talking about? What’s the referent?”

    Well there would be no higher authority than the author herself, but since you asked me I’ll give it a shot. From the context of the article, I gather the author is a confessing Christian and a member of the clergy. I think it would be safe to say that “Divine” in this context means anything that participates or shares in the nature of the Triune Godhead and its decrees.

    A couple examples might be (i) the old doctrine of “Divine Right of Kings” is understood in European political history, the King has a “Divine” right to rule because it is God’s decree that it should be so. Another example would be (ii) angles are “divine messengers” because they carry the decrees of God.

    With all that in mind, here is how I understood the particular passage:

    “I can’t pull off atheism. I am too enraptured by the mystery of the divine,”

    I think what she was trying to convey was that she really enjoys the unknown (and perhaps unknowable?) nature of God and dwelling on that. I think it is somewhat akin to people enjoying the mysteries of the Universe (e.g. alien life, weird quantum stuff, why are things X and not Y) or whatever their favorite topic is.

    Of course, being atheists we assert the Divine doesn’t actually exist so we’d suggest she become enraptured with something more substantive, but she seems to acknowledge that we believe this. I think it was just her ponderous way of saying “I don’t want to be an atheist because I enjoy my Christian life”.

    “too convinced of human limitations“

    My guess is that this a swipe at Humanism, she is probably of the idea that the human condition (such as it is) is full of suffering and the final solution cannot come from human innovation and progress.

    “too busy continuing this life of faith seeking understanding.”

    Usually when I see this turn of phrase, it is a believer who is comfortable with a messy worldview that can’t offer neat and tidy explanations for everything.

  25. 25
    Eamon Knight

    I think what she was trying to convey was that she really enjoys the unknown (and perhaps unknowable?) nature of God and dwelling on that. I think it is somewhat akin to people enjoying the mysteries of the Universe (e.g. alien life, weird quantum stuff, why are things X and not Y) or whatever their favorite topic is.

    Except that, as has been pointed out above (by *ahem* Yours Truly among others), we connoisseurs of the Mysteries Of The Universe (a.k.a. professional scientists, and amateur enthusiasts) actually think our inquiries are going somewhere — we discover the Higgs boson, examine the atmospheres of extra-solar planets, and reconstruct the phylogenies of long-dead taxa. Hell, even philosophy sometimes makes progress in clarifying the nature of knowledge, or delineating the bounds of possibly-workable ethical systems. Because there exist referents out there against which our hypotheses can be checked.

    Meanwhile, the Florians and Karen Armstrongs of the world are, as Ophelia put it, wallowing in the Mystery Of The Divine — in a manner which suggests a vehicle stuck quite firmly in the mud, going nowhere. But they love the sound of the engine revving and the wheels spinning.

    Usually when I see this turn of phrase, it is a believer who is comfortable with a messy worldview that can’t offer neat and tidy explanations for everything.

    No doubt, and that’s an improvement over the simplistic certitudes of fundamentalist belief. But then smart atheists (there are stupid ones who really aren’t much better than religious fundamentalists) are comfortable with that, too. We realize that what we know is a very small slice of the universe, and that important questions about ourselves and our societies remain barely defined, let alone answered, that reality is messy and ambiguous. But we believe that, unlike Sophisticated Theologians[tm], we can find out some of that.

  26. 26
    Ophelia Benson

    Patrick – well good grief – do you not notice the way everything you said in that comment simply coheres with what I said in the post (which you rebuked me for saying) while it contradicts what you said in your comment? I mean you start right off by saying you’ll “give it a shot” – which takes it for granted that the meaning is not limpidly clear. Well that was my point!

    And then you end up saying it was just her ponderous way of saying “god” – well that too was my point. And everything in between simply underlines the pointless pompous manipulative bafflegab of theistic rhetoric.

  27. 27
    Margaret

    My bafflegab to English translator gives:

    “enraptured by the mystery” -> “ignorance is bliss”

    “too convinced of human limitations” -> “too convinced of my limitations to want to think for myself” -> “too lazy to think for myself”

    “too busy continuing this life of faith seeking understanding” -> “too busy trying to justify my fantasies/prejudices”

  28. 28
    PatrickMefford

    Hi Ophelia,

    “Patrick – well good grief – do you not notice the way everything you said in that comment simply coheres with what I said in the post (which you rebuked me for saying) while it contradicts what you said in your comment?”

    Nope. This is not the case at all, and I’ll show you why. Take this comment from your OP:

    “I suppose she sort of means “God,” but also sort of means something more nebulous and poetical and “mysterious” and pretty.”

    There is nothing I wrote that coheres with this. Creedal Christianity has pretty well defined notion of the nature of God. It isn’t nebulous, it isn’t poetic, and it isn’t pretty.

    “I mean you start right off by saying you’ll “give it a shot” – which takes it for granted that the meaning is not limpidly clear.”

    The difference is that I’m applying doctrinal standards to someone whose affiliation I’m not clear about, it was a simply a conditional preface that warns people that. I’m making an informed guess. You simply dismissed.

    For example of this kind of dismissal, from your OP:

    “Maybe she means something much deeper and also more sophisticated and also full of particulars, that she learned from Duke Divinity School, where she earned a Master of Theological Studies. But if so, what?”

    I dunno. Duke is a seminary for the United Methodist Church. UMC is heavily influenced by the theology and politics of John Wesley who was a fairly innovative theologian who wrote a great deal about God. To affirm the kind of Arminianism that a modern day follower of the Wesleyan tradition commits the believer to saying a great deal about what God is and what God is not.

    But then again, trying to understand someone on their own terms is a lot more difficult than simply calling it “bafflegab”. It is clear that Meghan has a shallow understanding of any sort of modern day atheism, why return the favor by being just as shallow?

    “And then you end up saying it was just her ponderous way of saying “god” – well that too was my point.”

    This does not represent what I actually wrote, which is:

    “Of course, being atheists we assert the Divine doesn’t actually exist so we’d suggest she become enraptured with something more substantive, but she seems to acknowledge that we believe this. I think it was just her ponderous way of saying “I don’t want to be an atheist because I enjoy my Christian life”

  29. 29
    PatrickMefford

    Hi Eamon Knight,

    “Except that, as has been pointed out above (by *ahem* Yours Truly among others), we connoisseurs of the Mysteries Of The Universe (a.k.a. professional scientists, and amateur enthusiasts) actually think our inquiries are going somewhere — we discover the Higgs boson, examine the atmospheres of extra-solar planets, and reconstruct the phylogenies of long-dead taxa.”

    Point taken! I tried to express as much when I wrote:

    “Of course, being atheists we assert the Divine doesn’t actually exist so we’d suggest she become enraptured with something more substantive…”

  1. 30
    Guest post: the exploration is fun, but it leads to an answer » Butterflies and Wheels

    […] Originally a comment by Eamon Knight on She is too enraptured by the mystery of the divine. […]

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