If there is anything redeeming at all in the scourge that is postmodernism, it is a critique of Modernity’s excessive belief in Reason. While a large percentage of the population may indeed struggle with reaching up to Reason’s door, an overweening excess of faith in the power of Reason leads to troubles well-known. Reason is a tool and, like any instrument, it has its necessary uses; however, attempting to chop down a tree with a spoon will adequately demonstrate the finitude of any individual tool’s utility.
For reason to function, it must function within an overarching paradigm and from a particular perspective. Any perspective is necessarily in flux and is an amalgam created by social, economic, historic, and—yes—theological forces. Beside involving forms of reason and evidence-sifting, any perspective is also founded on values, emotions, and prejudices. These other foundations are indeed quite separate from reason; while they may be and are molded over time through the application of reason to them, they are not in themselves supplied by it. Because of this, it is actually very difficult to use reason to move between paradigms (on this point, I refer the reader to an earlier musing on Kierkegaard’s “leap”).
Von Kilmarnock implies that somehow faith and reason are incompatible (by believing there is a G-d, and knowing there isn’t). In my book, that is not faith but delusion. Faith is not wishful thinking nor the wilful obfuscation of what one knows. Faith is a kind of evidence, but more importantly it is an orientation towards. Ultimately, faith is a gift which cannot be forced. Attempting to force faith makes it either into a falsehood or oxymoron or into “the greatest work ever conceived” to quote Tillich. To follow the language previously used here, faith provides the framework in which reason operates.
The framework for Christian reason is theological. The core Christian conviction is that Jesus is the self-revelation of G-d—not the Bible. It is through the life, death, and resurrection of this man that Christians see the nature of G-d most fully revealed, and that in history. This is an approach far removed from philosophical speculations over the Primum movens; it is also opposed to Fundamentalist interpretations of the scriptures, as it affirms that revelation only occurs within human history and within human cultural contexts. Christ came as a man since in the first century only a man could demonstrate the abandonment of hyper-masculinity.
This brings us to the issue of knowledge of G-d Himself. There are two theological traditions I would highlight in this regard in contrast to the evil boogie G-d conjured by our interlocutor: apophatic and narrative theologies. The former highlights the danger of making definitive statements about the transcendent and reminds us that theology must maintain the utmost humility at all times. Theological hubris is as dangerous as pride in any other realm. Second, narrative theology reminds us that in both the HB and the NT G-d is primarily depicted as the G-d who acts; the prophets never state G-d is, they only state how He is working. For Christians, He is primarily expressed through the Gospel narratives. A focus on the Gospel narratives reduces the impetus towards unfruitful speculation (and thus to over-confidence) in the realm of Theology Proper.
While I am certainly sympathetic to concerns over the results of rabid secularism in contemporary society and its mores, the implication that a theological attunement to the transcendent is necessary for ethics is troubling; I must demur. Besides the peculiar insistence on a faith-that-isn’t-faith, ethics can be grounded on a number of things without devolution into Nietzschean nihilism. Ethics can subsist without theology, but its nature changes dramatically. I would point to Camus as the example of what happens if G-d is removed; and, I believe, if G-d does not exist, then Camus is right—all one can do is to spite the absurdity of human intelligence in a meaningless world by clinging to meaning. Of course, I do not believe this is necessary or properly reflective of reality.
What does this perspective do to our “rather amiable old uncle with a dark side”? There are three aspects to this view which I think require comment—and from my perspective, theological critique—the issues of severity, modern “spirituality,” and Agape.
First, severity. Any form of monotheism cannot escape the “demonic” side of G-d. The mainstream of Judeo-Christian tradition certainly does not shirk it (Is not the Day of the LORD darkness and not light?), and philosophical theodicy has traditionally highlighted how a monistic principle demands it on some level. However, I think that even more fundamentally than this, a sober look at reality requires it. The world contains evil, and this evil has severe repercussions. Any theology or philosophy which fails to take this into account is nothing more than a Mickey Mouse diversion.
Second, the sham that often passes as “spirituality” in the modern age bypasses the importance of this sobriety in facing reality. Ancient religions—especially the “pagan” ones—certainly did not miss this. It is writ large into the very centre of cultic activity: sacrifice. The idea that there is no life without death, no purity without bloodshed, is well established across most ancient religions. Fluffy, happy platitudes and avoidance of uncomfortable truths is not spirituality worthy of the name. It is merely opium, whether for the masses or not.
Third, the message of the Gospel is that this “dark” side of G-d has been overcome by G-d himself to our benefit. He has taken the darkness and its effects into Himself and shown us instead the way of love. This “love” is not some sentimental bullshit but a hard, “dark” road which leads to unconditional acceptance. The sacrifice of others is turned into the sacrifice of self. The materialistic divine whipping-boy is only half-correct; he certainly has a dark side, but it is a dark side directed at Himself for our benefit.
All of this still begs the question which our colleague first approached: the role of theology in public discourse. First let us dispose of the garbage in the room so we can focus on the real issues at hand: yes, Dawkins is a moron focused on a lame-ass theology proper based on “the G-d of the gaps.” No real theologian believes in this G-d, and I doubt any real religious person does either, if pressed on their actual worldview. Second, theology is not necessary for an ethical discourse—Camus manages. With those aside, what role does theology have in a society which has enshrined a separation between church and state? How do we respond to the need to build a common value system in a situation of profound pluralism?
These latter questions are deeply problematic questions; only pokes can even be pretended here (see what happens when one becomes an academic? Evasion, evasion…) A few comments will be all I will say, at least while I await further erudite response. One, all public discourse presumes values, whether these values are ‘secular’ or ‘confessional.’ That said, religious values belong at the table as much as any other. These values are outside the scope of “pure” reason; therefore, an appeal to limit discourse to reason is impossible. Second, theological discourse must never have pretensions beyond itself: it is primarily within a system and can only properly speak negatively, to remind us of our own humility. However, theology also forms an orientation which carries within itself values, and these cannot be ignored, even by unbelievers. Lastly, I maintain an adherence to the importance of Truth, however dimly humans may be capable of grasping it. If theology is the “search for ultimate reality” as Tillich would phrase it, then I think it is something which cannot be abandoned without turning into a species of ostriches. Further, since I believe G-d is, I cannot drop it without sacrificing Truth.Jason not-von-Kilmarnock, 10 October 2010