Saturday, March 11, 2006

An (Incomplete) Catholic Doctrine of God (2nd draft)

“Is There a God?”

Although this question is always complicated by the thousands of religions and even the dozens of major (living, ancient) religions, there is something in it which is common to every human being. To accommodate everyone, one might rephrase the question as “What is Ultimate?”[1] What is That, which does not depend on anything else, but everything depends on it? Why is there something, rather than nothing at all? This is not about God creating the world, as if it were “manufactured” in the beginning and then left alone (for then the atheists rightly ask, “Then who created God?”). But to the question, “What is Ultimate,” even atheists have an answer: “quarks” or “space-time” or sometimes “mind”. But even then, the variety of answers can be deceiving. In fact, multiple authors[2] have pointed out that there remains one critical question which divides those answers into two groups: is God distinct from the world?

The Competition Between the World and the Divine

The question, “What is most Ultimate?” is often answered in terms of “What is most ultimate in the world? But as long as something belongs to the world, no matter how spiritual it is, it cannot coexist peacefully together with any part of the world. It must “share the pie of Being,” and so when the Ultimate is magnified, everything else is minimized, and vice-versa. This puts the world and God into conflict with each other—a conflict which can only be solved by absolutizing one or the other. The pagan gods, residents of the world, were merely grandiose and greedy spirits—they were less ultimate than the world in which they lived, or fate, or even sometimes human beings. They competed with the world, and magnified themselves at the expense of human beings, who they depended on for food, pleasure, esteem, and glory. Although they demanded things, the gods did not necessarily demand morality or goodness; these were considered less important than obeying their will. For example, Euthyphro was going to prosecute his father, asking the death penalty for a minor crime, on the grounds that he was imitating the example of the gods. The ancient Jews were persecuted and colonized by pagan religions that practiced ritual prostitution and child sacrifice for similar reasons.

A development of the Greek world was the speculative monotheism of Plato and Aristotle—either Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” or Plato’s Eudaimonia, the Eidos (“Idea”) of the Good. Both of these ‘versions’ of God share a lot of the descriptive language of the Christian God—invisible, omnipotent, omnipresent, the first principle, the highest being, all perfect, all good, etc. But both, like the pagan deities, are ultimately a part of the natural universe—though the first and most important part of it. Nevertheless, like the minor deities, they stand in contrast to the world beyond themselves, while at the same time being completely natural, if metaphysical things (they have their own laws that they must obey, and so they are not free). The Unmoved Mover itself is coeternal with material nature, thus leaving Aristoteleanism stuck in a kind of pantheism (see below). The Eudaimonia is related to the material world as the “perfect original” to the “corrupted copy,” eventually leading to neo-Platonism—Christianity’s first opponent—which preached a hatred for the physical world and for the body.

Pantheism is often mixed with belief in several mythical gods, but the Deus sive natura, “God-that-is-nature,” is completely identified with the world—the world as we know it is God; God is nothing but the world. Thus, the world’s automatic rhythms become the absolute determinant both of God and of ourselves, making us into pawns of a predetermined fate, and it takes away all distinction between ourselves and the natural world. Greek tragedies are the expression par excellence of pantheistic anxiety—we experience freedom and intelligence and society, but all of these things are ultimately empty, and we are simply animals being herded by invisible forces. Communism is the modern, philosophical version of pantheism: the Law of History devised by Hegel and applied by Marx, Lenin, and Mao uses people (under the pretense of revolution and “the Party”) to perpetuate an absolute pre-determined progress which, eventually, devours its own children.[3] Other totalitarian movements—Nazism, the French revolution, and some forms of modern atheism—also tend toward a kind of pantheism.

Asiatic religions like Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism prefer an opposite view: the world is not the Ultimate; rather, the world has no part in the Ultimate. The Tao, the Zen, Nirvana, are states which are reached through gradual negation of the world. But these states are not merely temporary escapes from a concrete world into a haven of contemplation. They are, when complete, the final realization and achievement of total Oneness—not a harmonious unity, but rather the Absolute One: in which the world is absorbed and dissolved, all distinctions are gone, and everything is seen as nought. The additional powers, calm, and peace promised by the Tao is the calm resulting from the realization the world is not real—it is only a lucid dream. Thus, popular films such as “The Matrix” and “Dark City,” where the hero discovers that the world is a deception and that he can shape it by his own mind—are truly Asiatic fantasies. “There is no spoon.” The Tao and its relatives are completely passive, having no will or activity, revelation or relationship. This is why pursuit of enlightenment commonly takes on a methodological shape: we have to do all the work (this is also why these religions are often sharply divided between spiritual masters and “ordinary” people who are unable to attain enlightenment). Consistent philosophies in this regard are also strictly amoral—the human person, the body, the good itself all have no inherent dignity or value; all are mere ripples on an infinite ocean. The world outside of myself has nothing in it that can help me, and for myself the good and the evil are merely indifferent options. This does not mean that these religions despise the material world, like the neo-Platonists do; on the contrary, they see the world, especially the natural world, as the perceivable-but-superficial expression of the balance of good and evil that the Absolute One is supposed to be.

Yet although the Asiatic religions share Christianity’s ambivalent relationship with the world, still they have something more in common with all of the other beliefs discussed so far. No matter how small or how big, how worldly or how “other-worldly” these concepts of the Ultimate are, they stand in contrast to the world as one thing versus another thing.

[1] Personal speculation: This is the first one of four important questions everybody answers for themselves without necessarily having asked them. The next three questions are: “Is this ‘Ultimate’ worth my attention?” then, “Is the ‘Ultimate’ worthy of love?” and finally, “Does/can the ‘Ultimate’ love me?” Historically, the God of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims is the only ‘Ultimate’ in whom all answers are affirmative.

[2] The ones I have read personally are Peter Berger, a philosopher of religion, and Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI.

[3] It is sadly fitting that the philosophy which so emphasizes the primacy of the historical and the concrete be disproved in a historical and concrete way, as the single greatest ideological deathtrap in human history (which, unlike the many bestowings of that dubious award to “religion” or even “Christianity,” is not an exaggeration).

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