Monday, 24 August 2009

A reply to a recent comment

A while back I posted a few pieces reflecting on Easter and the meaning the cross might have from an atheistic perspective which drew quite a few comments. Just this week someone called Rod (greetings Rod) posted a comment (which you can read here at the bottom of the page) to which I wrote a reply. However, Google inform me it is too long to be posted as a comment! (Me writing things that are too long - surely not . . .?). However, since it connects with my current vacation reading and, undoubtedly, to what I will be exploring in the coming months it seems not inappropriate to post my tentative reply to Rod here. 

Dear Rod,

Thanks for your comment. I'd forgotten how many there were on this post. Anyway your question relates to some of the questions I have been considering during my vacation so it has been helpful to me to formulate a tentative answer - thanks.

I realise what I am trying to say is not easy to understand but that is, in part, because I have come to think (after Wittgenstein) that traditional metaphysics is impossible. The language we use in religious and philosophical circles in the West has always (or for time immemorial) been rooted in a belief that traditional metaphysics could be done and so it is natural that people should think that in my writing and speaking I am trying to describe the world "as it is" - or as I think it is. In my case that has been that the nature of the world is best thought of in a Spinozistic or Lucrecian/Epicurean manner rather than in a Christian fashion in which the world was created and ruled by a transcendent omni-present, all-powerful, perfect personal being. I ought to add that I, too, can now and then still easily fall into this trap (what Wittgenstein describes as a fly-bottle) and (temporarily) believe my own metaphysical talk. Apologies for that but what Wittgenstein was encouraging us to do is not easy at all.

But, as I say, I no longer think that metaphysical language can describe an objective reality and that, therefore, metaphysical language only makes any sense and truly connects with the world through the practical USE that might be made of it. It is helpful, therefore, always to ask about a metaphysical system Lenin's famous question "Who, whom?" - i.e. who is doing what to whom and who suffers or benefits as a result?

It seems to me that traditional theisms, because they hold God to be a transcendent creator and ruler, inevitably encourage repressive conceptions of God and, therefore, understand humanity as essentially subjugated to the will of that God; we must do what God wills and our various religions will enforce that will upon people (or at least its understanding of God's will). Such metaphysical systems are sadly often used as instruments of repression.

I was (still am really) attracted to Spinoza's thought because it allowed me utterly to dispense with need for such a transcendent personal God - I saw it could be considered sufficient to understand God as Nature and Nature as God. But, although Spinoza's philosophy gets rid of the need for a personal God it leaves, as a kind of after-image, an impersonal law-like necessity that, although not morally horribly judgmental in the way a personal God is (even a God of love), is utterly indifferent to humanity's many beautiful Utopian desires and hopes. Even with Spinoza we discover we are subjugated in another sense. As a system of thought it too seems capable of being used as an instrument of repression although, historically, it hasn't had much of a chance to prove this.

Now, although I'm not wholly unsympathetic to such a Spinozistic conception of God (for at the very least it reminds us that we are not the centre of the universe and that we are profoundly limited creatures) it seems inadequate to leave it there - it is, in a way, inhuman to do this  -  and here is where I think Ernst Bloch's variety of Marxist thought becomes a very valuable and suggestive guide.

Bloch saw that the Judaeo-Christian texts enshrined at least two pictures of God. On the one hand there was the creator God of the 'Priestly' writer (e.g. as in the first chapter of Genesis) and, on the other, there was the God of Exodus. The former is very much in charge and Lordly - a fixed, eternal and perfect being. The latter, however, encourages his people to rebel against all forms of subjugation (not only 'Egypt' but also the conception of God envisaged by the Priestly writer) into genuine creative freedom and the fullest possible human flourishing. Bloch thinks that Jesus' choice to use the title "the son of man" rather than the "son of God" suggests that Jesus is best though of as being loyal to the God of the Exodus - a God who 'walks with us' and who is desirous to help us to a full human flourishing and, ultimately, even independence from God 'himself.' In the former conception of God the 'Alpha (perfection)' is with God at the beginning of time and eternally. With the latter conception the 'Alpha' (perfection) is, paradoxically, only to be found in our loyalty to the call to become more fully what we are not - to set about creating the kingdom of God/Heaven ourselves.

So - the 'personal' God in which 'I believe' - or better the conception of a personal God which I USE and which I inherit from Jesus - is the God who is calling us into freedom from all traditional conceptions of God that make 'him' a transcendent ruler and dispenser of justice. As Bloch provocatively said: "only an atheist can be a good Christian; only a Christian can be a good atheist."

For Bloch the best thing about religion was that "it makes for heretics" - those who heed the call to move from slavery and subjection (and incompleteness) into genuine freedom and a more abundant life.

Remember I'm kicking this around simply as part of an attempt to find a practical religious tool to living in THIS world; I'm not trying to build another shaky metaphysical edifice to counter other shaky metaphysical edifices. It's just one way one might follow Jesus honestly and coherently without needing to believe in the Christian God - in fact believing in any theistic God.

Not an easily understood answer I know and, for that, I apologize but it's the best I can do in an hour whilst on holiday (the picture in this post is one taken whilst cloud gazing a couple of weeks ago in a secluded meadow by the river Cam).