Bruno Latour on Religious Language

At its best, religious language does not mystify and blur, but focuses the attention with absolute precision upon some expansive reality. The ongoing use of language tends to render once-crisp metaphors stale and cliche. Given that religion tends to deal in so many intangibles and has a strong inclination to preserve and pass on particular formulations, its language is especially susceptible to codification into strange esoteric systems in which very many words are employed to say very little. This whole article is worth reading, but I was particularly struck by the description (more of an exhortation, really) given to religious language.

Uncomprehending outsiders will assume that the transformative truths of religion are about getting yourself teleported to some other, better world, but for insiders the opposite will be the case: religious truths serve to remove distractions, enabling us to focus on what is taking place in our space and in our time – to attend to incarnation, to the flesh, to a face, a stone, a child, a fly, a tomato or a piece of wood – and to find them replete with significance, and calling for no response except gratitude, reverence and love.

Religious language can be risky “it requires great care,” Latour says – “it might save those who utter it” but it is never mysterious: it contains “nothing hidden, nothing encrypted, nothing esoteric, nothing odd”. It has its own robust wisdom, and does not need to beg for “tolerance”, or to plead with tough-minded sceptics to concede that the facts of science are too dry for some tastes, and that a spoonful of “wonder” or “quaint religious feelings” might make them much more palatable. Contrary to what we have been brought up to think, the daring heroes of intellectual escapology are not the religious believers but the practising scientists, going boldly into the unfathomable mysteries of eternity; while religion, properly speaking, is a set of exercises in “breaking the will to go away, ignore, be indifferent, blasé, or bored”, and focusing our minds on the intimate textures of what lies close.

via The cult of science — newhumanist.org.uk — Readability.

arguments for God’s existence :: Paul Tillich

I’ve been delighted by a few gems here and there while reading through Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology, but one of the best so far has been his treatment of arguments for the existence of God. Beyond a bit of freshman excitement, I can’t say that I’ve ever invested myself too heavily in arguing for God’s existence—it has just never seemed like the sort of thing where arguing actually did much good.

Well, Paul Tillich gave the issue a genuinely intelligent treatment that I haven’t heard before in quite these terms:

It is a remarkable fact that for many centuries leading theologians and philosophers were almost equally divided between those who attacked and those who defended the arguments for the existence of God. Neither group prevailed over the other in a final way. This situation admits only one explanation: the one group did not attack what the other group defended.

Tillich goes on to argue that, among other confusions, attributing “existence” to God is already problematic insofar as it renders God a determinate Being among beings.

Actually they [the scholastics] did not mean ‘existence.’ They meant the reality, the validity, the truth of the idea of God, an idea which did not carry the connotation of something or someone who might or might not exist.

He continues by arguing that every argument for the existence of God is more or less a failure qua argument, but that these arguments are unparalleled statements of the inerradicable question mark overhanging human finitude.

The arguments for the existence of God neither are arguments nor are they proof of the existence of God. They are expressions of the question of God which is implied in human finitude. This question is their truth; every answer they give is untrue.

What the arguments end up “proving” is that there are trajectories in the structure of human existence that remain inexplicable in terms of human experience.

The ‘first cause’ is a hypostatised question, not a statement about a being which initiates the causal chain….In the same way, a ‘necessary substance’ is a hypostatized question, not a statement about a being which gives substantiality to all substances.

The finite conditions of goodness, being, causation, truth, meaning, purpose, etc., all depend for their validity on some unconditioned Highest instance. The trouble occurs when this necessary structural position in human thought and experience is identified, point blank, with God. Onto-logical necessities are taken to indicate the existence of a highest Being. Unfortunately, this is already to “fit” God into the structure of Being-as-we-know-it, which is an implicit denial of God’s transcendence. God is, of course, wilier than to be pinned down so easily!

All quotes from Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 204-210.

Charles Taylor :: secularization conference

Tomorrow morning Carolyn and I are going to drive over to New Haven in order to spend a few days listening to people interact with Charles Taylor’s recent book, A Secular Age. Taylor has become something of a hero to both of us in the last year or so, and we are both looking forward to meeting him there. In particular, Taylor (along with Alasdair MacIntyre) has helped me to articulate the instincts and patterns of thinking that foment doubt. Situating those patterns of thought historically and culturally  does not make them go away, but it strips them of any claim to absolute objectivity—and in so doing, increases the plausability of faith (which nonetheless always remains a “leap”). This is not the place to go into the exact shape of my doubts, but by “patterns of thought” I am referring to fairly common tendencies in our culture; a penchant for reductive explanation, instrumentalizing and pragmatist thought, and the critiques of characters like Feuerbach and Freud.  Taylor did not set out to write an apologetic in either Sources of the Self or A Secular Age. Nonetheless, both of these books have allowed me to see through my own doubts in fairly significant ways—which is something I count as a great gift. 

In the next few days, I intend to post basic outlines/notes from a few of the sessions at the conference (a schedule is available here). I am not sure whether we will have internet access in New Haven, but regardless postings will appear soon. Your thoughts and comments are not only welcome but solicited. 

To start things off, I’ll offer a few quotes that adumbrate the basic argument behind Taylor’s attempt to tell the story of secularization in a new way in A Secular Age:  

“The change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others. I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my faith, but there are others, including possibly some very close to me, whose way of living I cannot in all honesty just dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith (at least not in God, or the transcendent). Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives. And this will also likely mean that at least in certain milieux, it may be hard to sustain one’s faith. There will be people who feel bound to give it up, even through they mourn its loss. This has been a recognizable experience in our societies, at least since the mid-nineteenth century. There will be many others to whom faith never even seems an eligible possibility. There are certainly millions today of whom this is true…

“Now in this regard, there has been a titanic change in our western civilization. We have changed not just from a condition where most people lived ‘naively’ in a construal (part Christian, part related to ‘spirits’ of pagan origin) as simple reality, to one in which almost no one is capable of this, but all see their option as one among many. We all learn to navigate between two standpoints: an ‘engaged’ one in which we live as best we can the reality our standpoint opens us to; and a ‘disengaged one in which we are able to see ourselves as occupying one standpoint among a range of possible ones, with which we have in various ways to coexist.”

For Taylor, the story of secularization is not primarily the story of the removal of religious figures from positions of political power (the disestablishment of churches and the separation of church and state), nor is it the story of the decline of religious belief and practice (however that may be measured), rather the story of secularization is the story of the plurality of plausible interpretations for human experience, and the inability to reach a perspective where one can finally and decisively inhabit one interpretation or another. As such, Taylor is arguing that secularization is not the result of the inevitable march of scientific knowledge or changes in political and economic structures; rather, it arises as the result of the surfeit of plausible self-understandings, some of which have no recourse to any transcendence.

The thesis of the text, (which will likely need some unpacking in the next few posts) is this:

“I would like to claim that the coming of modern secularity in my sense [the third “story” in the paragraph above] has been coterminous with the rise of a society in which for the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true.”

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Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 3, 12, 18.