Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Indeterminate, overdeterminate?

In my Louvain philosophy days, I had the pleasure of taking a class, "Philosophy of God", by William Desmond, an unabashedly Catholic philosopher finely attuned to postmodern sensibilities and whose books bespeak an Irish poet's heart as much as they do a mind full of breadth and depth rivaling the Greeks. That might sound like a lot of blustering, but Desmond is something else. I'm not always certain that even he is always aware of the landscape of his own thoughts; he is not what one would call an analytic philosopher. But by golly, if an analytic philosopher had a problem with Desmond, it would be more like that he simply didn't understand, rather than that he would ever catch William in an actual contradiction. Sometimes I wonder whether Desmond has this in common with John Paul II--whether his writings contain the purest of truth like ore in a mine, too coarse and heavy for practical consumption, but if processed into convenient coins (such as Christopher West has done with "Theology of the Body", God bless him) would lose its more subtle value.

One of the distinctions Desmond made in the class, and that he makes in his books, is between speaking of God as "indeterminate" and as "overdeterminate". The error of speaking of God as "indeterminate" is the implication that the question of God languishes because of a hung jury and a certain poverty of evidence. One may easily--and positivists often do--speak of God as "indeterminate" in exactly the same voice with which they speak of aliens, the loch ness monster, big foot, and the living Elvis Presley. In fact, such indeterminacy is exactly the core of Richard Dawkins' atheism.
A friend, an intelligent lapsed Jew who observes the Sabbath for reasons of cultural solidarity, describes himself as a Tooth Fairy Agnostic. He will not call himself an atheist because it is in principle impossible to prove a negative. But "agnostic" on its own might suggest that he though God's existence or non-existence equally likely. In fact, though strictly agnostic about god, he considers God's existence no more probable than the Tooth Fairy's.

Bertrand Russell used a hypothetical teapot in orbit about Mars for the same didactic purpose. You have to be agnostic about the teapot, but that doesn't mean you treat the likelihood of its existence as being on all fours with its non-existence.

The list of things about which we strictly have to be agnostic doesn't stop at tooth fairies and celestial teapots. It is infinite. If you want to believe in a particular one of them -- teapots, unicorns, or tooth fairies, Thor or Yahweh -- the onus is on you to say why you believe in it. The onus is not on the rest of us to say why we do not. We who are atheists are also a-fairyists, a-teapotists, and a-unicornists, but we don't' have to bother saying so. *
Desmond grants, as any Christian grants, there is no determining of the question of God. Indeed, the very thought is a contradiction; de-termining, to have reached the end, the limit, the boundary; and having done so, speaking from that position. No doubt the word is very authoritative sounding. But to call something incidentally indeterminate is no great scandal. Science can't even determine whether redheads feel more pain or less pain than other people; it shouldn't arrogate to write a textbook on the Almighty.

Yet secularists of an evangelical strain see that the question of God is, as AJ Ayer would put it, nonsense in the most literal, and thus also the fuller meaning of that word. Theists, incidentally, agree. They just don't see why such niggling facts should stop them.

Anyway, the term "overdeterminate", as best as I understand, grants that God is nonsense, but takes a thoughtful stab as to why. It is not the "not-enoughness" of God, but the "too-muchness" of God. The intellect, like a man stranded on an island, dies equally from thirst as from a Tsunami. And it is precisely that God explodes so over-completely above and beyond and over, not only what we know, but what and why we are, that determinations are impossible, de jure.

To translate this analytically, the notion is really quite simple. Every science (in the broad sense of the word) is grounded by principles that lie outside of its purvue. Each science cannot question its own principle; it can only presuppose it. The historian cannot use the tools of history, no matter how vast they be, to examine whether history is true.

Well, extending this notion by analogy, the principle of everything is of its very nature outside of anything's ability to speak of it. Once we have gotten this far, there is nothing left in speakable nature to appeal to; nothing left available to pry the unspeakable loose from its awful necessity.

One might accuse me of saying too much about the thing I'm calling unspeakable, and to a certain extent they're right--I know as well as any theologian who takes the Thomistic oath that our words are offensive nonsense compared to God. But the thing about the unspeakable is that, for small systems as well as the System, the Universe as a whole, that the unspeakable is, is beyond question.
By conceiving God, who always exceeds our reach, as the horizon presupposed in the movement of knowing, freedom and love, Rahner provided a way for talking and thinking about God as "mysterious," that is to say, as a reality who is known, but only reflexively and indirectly—and perhaps not even consciously—as the ever receding horizon of the human spirit. *
So, Desmond's point is that God is as much the "ever advancing" horizon of the human spirit, as the "ever receding"; a horizon not so much as a line in the distance as the ground underneath our feet or the whatever beyond being and non-being. That is the over-determinacy of God.


Yet what a friend of mine is mentally wrestling with right now is not so much the language of indeterminacy vs. overdeterminacy, as the business of the "hyper-real" of John Caputo.

For by allowing this name [of God] to fluctuate in all its undecidability and provocativeness, by releasing it from its servitude to being in order to free it as a promise, we free it from its service as the name of a res, even the most real of all real beings, but we do not deny thereby that it has any reference to reality at all. Rather, we enlist it in the service of a certain 'hyper-reality,' reality of the beyond, the reality of the hyper- or ueber. Accordingly, weak theology takes the form neither of theological realism nor of anti-realism, but of a magnifying hyper-realism of the event, one whose passion and existential intensity are correspondingly magnified by this very undecidability. By this hyper-realism I mean the excess of the promise, of the call, of the endless provocation of an event that calls us beyond ourselves, down unplotted paths and into unexplored lands, calling us to go where we cannot go, extending us beyond our reach. Hyper-reality reaches beyond the real to the not-yet-real, what eye has not yet seen nor ear yet heard, in the open-endedness of an uncontainable, unconstrictable, undeconstructible event. - "The Weakness of God, 11-12" Emphases mine.

My stomach needs to settle a little bit before I continue...


If Caputo were making the relatively banal point that God is, in a certain sense, nothing; i.e., no-thing, (and is thereby released from "servitude to being"), this would be a nice intro to a 10th grade theology textbook. But for Caputo it is a crass superstition to suggest that God might ever reach beneath the beyond; even all of his works must be "freed" from the messy and mucky business of historically conditioned "being" (yuck!) He has a Buddhist reverence for the sheer Otherness of the Other, the "uncontainable, unconstrictable, undeconstructible event". And so, I suggest, Caputo makes himself even more pious than God; for it was always God, and never Caputo, who thought that being was worthwhile enough for divinity to inhabit.

What is not assumed is not redeemed; if God and God's works are quarantined by the "hyper-real", then the merely real has none of the hope that Caputo promises.

Thus today we stand somewhat baffled before this Christian "revelation" and wonder, especially when we compare it with the religiosity of Asia, whether it would not have been much simpler to believe in the Mysterious Eternal, entrusting ourself to it in longing [Caputoian?] thought; whether God would not have done better, so to speak, to leave us at an infinite distance; whether it would not really be easier to ascend out of the world and hear the eternally unfathomable secret in quiet contemplation than to give oneself up to the positivism of belief in one single figure and to set the salvation of man and of the world on the pinpoint, so to speak, of this one chance moment in history. - Ratzinger, "Introduction to Christianity" 55

Whether overdeterminate or indeterminate, the question Caputo refuses to ask or answer is whether the determinate - that is, us, our history, our particularity, our ordinariness - has a value of its own that God, the overdeterminate, has himself glorified in Jesus Christ. So far as this goes I believe it is not helpful to draw a sharp distinction between the Resurrection and the other miracles of Christ, as between the "important thing" and the "not so important things". All, together, are bound up in a singular mystery that the Infinite being not only permitted finite being to exist; Infinite being breaks into finite being. It does so in ways that certainly do not rob infinite being of its infinity (its hyper-reality), yet which do not leave finite beings unchanged or unsaved.

Believing in miracles is of one piece with believing in salvation. God bless the determinate.