ReMorePlusAgain sophistification

This time it’s a piece in the Irish Times, by Joe Humphreys, about a new book by Richard Kearney, who is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. What the article neglects to mention is that Boston College is Catholic.

The subject is familiar – the current discussion of theism and atheism is simplistic and boring; we need something more sophisticated than that. Enter the guy from the Jesuit college.

The philosopher is trying to move the discussion onwards through his writings and The Guestbook Project, which is described as an “experiment” in hospitality and inter-faith dialogue and is sponsored by his employer, Boston College. In his book Anatheism: Returning to God after God, Kearney rejects the notion that we must chose between either theism or atheism. This forms the basis of today’s idea: God is a symbol that constantly requires reinterpretation.

So you say, but to many millions of people “God” is the opposite of that: not a symbol, and not subject to reinterpretation. It seems absurd to use “God” to mean something radically different from what it has always meant to most people. It’s as if I started using the word “marmalade” to mean “dog.” I’m allowed to do that, but it’s not a very useful thing to do.

All I’m saying is that God is a word – Augustine said it before me – for what we hope for. It is a word we use, and has been used by all wisdom traditions to try and connote this thing we hope for, this thing we long for, this surplus of meaning we call mystery.

But then why not talk about that instead of talking about “God”? Why not just talk about that? Talking about what we hope for could be interesting. Talking about “God” seems to me very uninteresting indeed.

A critic might say you’re only picking out the nice bits from religious teaching to make it more appetising. Yours is surely a selective reading of the Bible.
Of course it’s selective. It has to be selective, otherwise you’re uncritical, you’re a dogmatist. I grew up being taught there was one reading, and there are Protestant, evangelical sects that are even stricter than the Catholicism that I learnt.

Yes, but if you are selective, you’re agreeing that it’s humans who decide on what morality is and that the bible has no more to do with that than any other book, and the bible becomes just one more book, as it should have been all along. If you’re going to go that far you might as well go the rest of the way.

What is your impression of God?
It is the vulnerable, fragile stranger who knocks and invites us to more life. And there is nothing particularly new about that. It’s not some New Age religion. It’s the three strangers knocking at Abraham’s tent. It’s Gabriel knocking at Mary’s room. It’s – as Jesus says in Matthew 25 – the person who is hungry, the person who is thirsty. Walter Benjamin has a beautiful line where he says we must consider each instant as a portal through which the Messiah must enter. It’s always knocking, every moment.

But why is that god? Why isn’t it itself, instead of being god?

I never understand that.



  1. says

    Sure, I’ll talk about “god”, the idea and literary character, and depending on the day, perhaps even call those longings and awareness and such “god”. But I’ll only enter into those conversations with people who understand that language, and that pretty much limits me to a very very small circle of friends and acquaintances who share the god-is-not-my-magic-invisible-friend understanding and vocabulary. For everyone else, and in virtually all public conversations, I’m an atheist. And even before I called myself an atheist, I said often that the god that I believed in was basically indistinguishable from the natural world and humanism that my lifelong-atheist husband professes. Too many people insist on belief in the magical invisible friend for me to think that statements about how it’s impossible to define “god” are remotely useful in public discourse.

    And don’t get me started on how the Christian definition of “god” is actually not the only one.

  2. screechymonkey says

    But why is that god? Why isn’t it itself, instead of being god?

    I never understand that.

    Because God is a good brand name — it has widespread recognition and a generally positive image with consumers.

    If Kearney said the same stuff without invoking god, then he’d be left with something like the “New age religion” that he scornfully insists he isn’t pushing.

    It’s much easier to sell books, or earn the praise of your fellow religious philosophers, if you market your vague pseudointellectual musings about “hope” under the rubric of God. Especially if you pitch it to believers as a way to intellectually justify their belief in their version of God. They don’t mind so much that their version of God is nothing like yours, the point is just to be able to say that this professor of philosophy has written a defense of believing in God that uses lots of big words and flowery rhetoric. “If smart people believe in (some version of) God, then my belief in (a different version of) God is intellectually justified! Take that, New Atheists!”

    It’s the same bait-and-switch they always pull. “Oh, of course we don’t think the Bible is literally true, you silly atheist! But there’s lots of nice poetic metaphors in there — even Christopher Hitchens said so! — from which we may derive insight and wisdom…… And therefore, you must respect my belief that [gays are not entitled to equal rights/you should die of sepsis rather than have an abortion].”

    It’s also helpful if you’re in the atheist-bashing business. Basically, you want to dehumanize atheists, and thereby make believers feel better about themselves, by implying that atheists don’t feel things like hope or love or awe. Less sophisticated writers will just flat-out say “atheists don’t believe in hope or love or awe,” but that leaves you vulnerable to accusations of strawmanning. So the sophisticated types take the semantic tactic of defining “god” as being “feelings of hope or love or awe,” and then, well, by their own admission, atheists don’t believe in god, so….

  3. says

    The philosopher is trying to move the discussion onwards

    Not working. Nothing new here, we already know the any-old-apologetic-for-god game. And most of the god-believers will buy this even less than us. We, who gave you some window shopping time, at least. (But if you want to market a book or lecture to the liberal, loose believers and New-Agey types, you might have yourself a viable market.)

  4. iknklast says

    But why is that god? Why isn’t it itself, instead of being god?

    My guess is because that’s not what they really mean when they say God. They can’t define their god, so they fill it with fuzzy buzz words that sound smart but mean essentially nothing.

    Reza Aslan was once telling Sam Harris that god is just a language people use to communicate; it doesn’t really mean anything but communication. I heard this same thing from Greg Epstein. I asked Epstein if he was willing to stand in front of my fundamentalist father and tell him he really didn’t believe in God, it was just a language. Epstein avoided that question and answered something else.

    This language is just for people who aren’t really to concede to atheism, but they find God impossible to believe in, so they try to recreate God, and in the process, deconstruct him down to nothing but human emotions. It’s safe ground. You can call yourself a Christian, and not get hate e-mail.

  5. says

    Whenever I read one of these articles, I’m always tempted to try to convert to the religion of the writer while quoting him. In my imagination, I go to the nearest Catholic church and say that I believe that “God” is an important symbol that invites us to “more life.” Of course, I’ll continue to sleep with whomever I want. I’ll continue to support reproductive rights. I’ll continue to use birth control. I wonder how long they’ll humor me?

    The Walter Benjamin bit sounds like one of those name-dropping references that is supposed to keep us forever reading other things before being allowed to say, “I don’t believe in any gods.” However, I’ve already read some stuff by Walter Benjamin. Unfortunately, that was in college decades ago. Let’s just say my b.s. meter is clanging. Does anyone have a better recollection of Benjamin? Is Benjamin a reasonable person to invoke while trying to explain why people should be practicing Catholics?

    Really, I want to join some sect that would accept me with a sophisticated notion of God. After bouncing around trying on different majors, I finally finished as a literature major. I’m really good at twisting words and finding symbolism. I’m sure with a little effort I could become a super-sophisticated believer. Then after I join this hypothetical sect, I hope they can appreciate my sophisticated notion of a donation. You know, it’s not really that you’re supposed to give them “money.” “Money” is just a symbol. It represents the concept of value. So anything you value, like your good wishes, is “money” and an appropriate donation to the Church.

  6. Andrew B. says

    “Because God is a good brand name — it has widespread recognition and a generally positive image with consumers.”

    Yep, that’s pretty much what I’ve always felt.

  7. anteprepro says

    Even when they are blatantly saying “it’s metaphors all the way down!” , God still winds up being an anthropomorphic entity and the Bible is still an Authority for some reason. Sophisticated theology indeed.

  8. brucegee1962 says

    My interpretation of this goes all the way back to the Greeks — my understanding is that for people like Plato and Aristotle, the understanding was that of course the gods were imaginary human inventions, metaphors to influence human behavior. But they thought that the “common” people needed metaphors — it was better for society for people to believe that a metaphorical representation of “good” is actually real, than if they had no such unifying moral concept.

    It sounds as if Kearns (Shelby Spong is another one) are basically saying, yes gods are human inventions, but most people aren’t wise enough to be good without them. Which is of course extremely elitist, but also a good argument for universal higher education.

  9. says

    Is Benjamin a reasonable person to invoke while trying to explain why people should be practicing Catholics?

    Well, Benjamin was Jewish. He wrote that when the Nazis were taking over Europe, and later committed suicide when stuck at the French-Spanish border trying to escape.* After the Allies’ victory, people in the Catholic Church helped many Nazis escape to South America and elsewhere.

    I suppose, since the Nazis were ultimately defeated, after murdering millions of people and causing unimaginable suffering, you could make an argument for the deep religious hopefulness of Benjamin’s words, but I find this use, to put it politely, unsatisfying. In any case, I think hope is entirely rational and religious claptrap not only adds nothing to but detracts from our efforts to create positive change.

    * Erich Fromm’s wife Henny Gurland and her son were with Benjamin in the escape attempt, and were able to get to Spain and then out of Europe. Years later, she also probably committed suicide. These are tragic stories, and it upsets me to see Benjamin’s words used in this way.

  10. says

    After the Allies’ victory, people in the Catholic Church helped many Nazis escape to South America and elsewhere.

    See, for example, Gerald Steinacher’s 2011 Nazis on the Run.

    [Some people in the comments criticize the reviewer’s note – “All the more pity, then, that it is written in such poor English and so shoddily edited that it does the reputation of Oxford University Press’s New York office no good at all.” The part about the editing is true, though. It was an attempt to turn a dissertation into a (more) popular book – which, given the subject matter, had great promise – that failed. The editors have to be to blame. But if you’re interested in the subject, it’s definitely worth reading.]

  11. says

    But why is that god? Why isn’t it itself, instead of being god?

    This is the key question. Symbols and metaphors are generally used to help us to communicate concepts or to better grasp their meaning. Calling concepts capturing elements of human emotion or experience “God” does nothing to aid in communication or understanding of these concepts – quite the contrary. But it does serve the purposes of religious leaders and spokespeople, who can play on the double meanings (“God is love!” “God is a person!” “God is hope!” “God is vengeful!”) to enhance their own status and power as wise intermediaries.

  12. screechymonkey says

    brucegee1962 @9,

    Yep, that’s the argument, all right: what Daniel Dennett calls “faith in faith,” and Jerry Coyne calls “the Little People Argument.” Atheism is all very well for you and me, but the Little People need to be supported in their religious beliefs. Because, you know, without religion they will fall into despair. I mean, atheists seem to manage just fine, but I’m sure that’s just because we’re the extra special cream of the crop, which is why there’s so few of us. Uh, except in countries like Norway and Sweden, but pay no attention to that.

    You see, without the promise of a heaven for good people and a hell for bad people, the Little People will all choose to be bad. Again, except for the atheists. And many Jews, since Judaism is a little fuzzy about that stuff. But aside from them, it’s very very important!

    And with no real downside, because it’s not as if any of the Little People will suffer stress and fear about them or their loved ones suffering eternal torment. Religion makes it very clear that you can avoid that as long as you accept Jesus into your heart. Or Mohammed. Or… well, I’m sure those little disputes won’t amount to anything. The point is that you need to accept some form of this God person into your heart, and then you’ve got no worries on the hell issue. Uh, unless some of them are told that God predetermines who gets into heaven and who goes to hell. But I’m sure hardly anyone would believe such a thing.

    No, at the very worst, people will believe that it’s good works that get you into heaven instead of hell. And there’s no way such a system could go wrong. I mean, Christianity is very clear on what’s right and what’s wrong, and provides good clear moral direction for the Little People. It’s not as though its holy book contains any contradictions, or endorses any disgusting and barbaric practices. And even if it did, it’s not like anyone would take it literally.

    No, it’s all worked out quite well. It’s not as if substantial segments of Christianity spread misogyny, homophobia, sexual repression, or other harmful beliefs. And even if a few oddball sects got some of that stuff wrong, it’s not like they’d try to impose their beliefs on the rest of us, or react violently to criticism of their beliefs.

    Worst case scenario, they’ll get a few abstract moral issues wrong, but that’ll be largely a theoretical matter. It’s not like any children will be molested with no repercussions, or pregnant women allowed to die because of, say, bizarre fetus-worship, by some obscure sect. And certainly these quaint beliefs that are so helpful to the Little People won’t interfere with science education. In fact, believing that the Earth was created just for them will probably cause all the Little People to be committed environmentalists. They certainly won’t assume that global warming isn’t a problem because God will take care of it, or that the future of the planet is irrelevant because the end of the world is coming soon.

    Nope, this “religion” stuff sounds like exactly what the Little People need, and us enlightened folk should be sure to support it wholeheartedly whenever they’re in earshot. What could possibly go wrong?

  13. says

    This time it’s a piece in the Irish Times, by Joe Humphreys, about a new book by Richard Kearney, who is a professor of philosophy at Boston College.

    Featuring the obligatory picture of Richard Dawkins.

  14. Pierce R. Butler says

    Prof Kearney – A century or so ago, publishing such sentiments would have earned you a swift excommunication and your book a place of honor on the Index Prohibitorum.

    Another century or two, and you would (at least in most Christian-dominated countries) have won yourself a central place at a public ceremony featuring a lifetime’s supply of firewood.

    Please remember, even though these opportunities have been denied to you in the present place and time, that the spirit behind such reactions is always knocking, knocking, knocking!

  15. steffp says

    Re: Walter Benjamin’s use of the topic “Messiah”
    It’s shameless name-dropping. Messiah-nism was a secular school of socialist thinking of the 19th/20th century (namely Herman Cohen, following Moses Hess), and the Messiah, for Benjamin, stands for those who are ready for revolutionary action. To use thiss revolutionary pathos for simple name-dropping and tongue-in-cheek “redefinitions” of the Catholic God is pretty weird.
    I mean, it’s difficult enough for a more traditional god to make a human female carry his progeny. How a hope, or any other emotion could archive this to produce a human sacrificial lamb… is beyond my ability to twist my brain.

  16. sailor1031 says

    Kearney is obviously not a philosopher. He is a theologian. Big difference.

    God is a symbol that constantly requires reinterpretation.

    If doG is only a symbol then we should deal with the underlying reality not with the mere symbol. If we changed the symbol from doG to Odin or Quetzalcoatl or Glooscap does it change the underlying reality? Of course not. Just as we could reinterpret Einstein’s equation as F=Nd^2 without changing reality. So it is the underlying reality that is subject to reinterpretation. This is possible because there is no underlying reality and therefore one can make it be whatever one wants today. Tomorrow it’ll be different – ‘reinterpreted’ as we sophisticated theologians say.

    Kearney – a Plantinga wannabe – succeeds only in being a tosser of a low order.

  17. Crimson Clupeidae says

    The main problem, IMO, with all these writers, is that they seem to be aiming these articles at us (atheists), when really they should be directing it at the butts in the pews and the bigger butts behind the lecterns. (see what I did there? 😉 )

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