The latest strip from the irrepressible Jesus and Mo may seem like a typical dig at the inconsistencies and illogicalities of religious faith. But, in its own inimitable way, it taps into one of the most difficult theological conumdrums for believers.
A common argument in the increasingly tedious ‘God Wars’ is the claim by believers that atheists are naive about religious belief. They read holy books too literally and think of God as an old man with a white beard. But, say believers, religion has long since moved on from such unsophisticated conceptions. It is, for instance, the argument that lies at the heart of Terry Eagleton’s broadside against Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and other New Atheists. Among the latest to join this chorus of ‘We’re more sophisticated than you’ is Ross Douthat in the New York Times.
Atheists can indeed be naïve about religion and theology, and I myself have been critical of many of the arguments. But the apologists for religion are equally naïve, not to mention disingenuous, in their defence of belief. It is true that there has long been a sophisticated strain of theology that sees God not as a person but as the ‘condition of being’, the prerequisite for the existence of the universe and the functioning of life. But there has also been a constant and profound tension between this abstract, non-figurative imagining of God and the God that does all the other things that religion requires of Him: perform miracles, answer our prayers, wrestle with the devil, set down moral law, explain the finer points of sex, punish sinners. And tell us to keep off the bacon sarnies.
The idea of a ‘wholly simple’ God – simple in the sense of possessing no parts, no body, no physical existence, and being immutable, unchangeable, necessary – goes back to the early days of Christianity, and in one sense back further to Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. It was, however, within the Muslim Rationalist tradition, between the eighth and twelfth centuries, that, as I have previously argued, the notion was first properly theologically fleshed out. Many of these Muslim Rationalist ideas came to influence Jewish philosophers, such as Moses ben-Maimon (or Maimonides), and Christian theologians, especially Thomas Aquinas, from whom derives much of the contemporary discussion about God as the ‘ground of being’.
Central to this tradition was the concept of God as an all-powerful, all-knowing, completely good, wholly simple being. As pure being, God was not like any created matter, nor like a human person. As an expression of perfect unity, He was not divided in any way. He had no brain through which to think, no soul through which to express Himself, no limbs through which to act, no vocal cords through which to speak.
Not only was God wholly simple, but humans possessed no language through which to describe God as a Being-in-Himself. Humans cannot talk positively of God, only negatively. This was the via negativa, the belief that human can only define what God is not – He is not human, He is not material, He does not consist of parts – not describe what He is.
How could a God outside of time, and without physical or metal attributes, act upon space and time? And how could humans describe the actions and activities of a being about whom humans could talk of only negatively? Muslim Rationalists argued that He could not, and they could not. God, the great Muslim philosopher Ibn Sina suggested, is far too exalted to partake in the humdrum reality of human life. He knows the human world only in general and universal terms. God does not get His non-existent hands dirty or deal in particulars.
It was a view that set the Rationalists against the Muslim Traditionalists. The Traditionalists could not imagine Allah as possessing no attributes or as unable to intervene in every aspect of human life. As for how a being outside of time and space and possessing no parts could also have a face, a body, sit on a throne and be wise and judicious, as described in the Qur’an, the Traditionalists’ answer was to shrug their shoulders. ‘Bila kayfa’, they said – ‘Don’t ask how’.
Aquinas, too, attempted to marry the idea of an all-powerful, all-knowing, completely good, wholly simple God to the God of Scripture, who far from being outside of space and time, actively intervened in both, a being that was immanent as well as transcendent, intimately involved in creation, and in the everyday workings of the universe. God, Aquinas suggested, acted timelessly to bring about an effect within time, an argument of which even the sympathetic theologian Peter Vardy says that ‘It is, admittedly, hard to understand what a timeless action involves’. It was Aquinas’ more sophisticated version of the Bila kayfa shrug.
For most believers, of course, all this is irrelevant. Faith does not require all the pieces to fit. It is precisely because people feel the pieces do not fit, that normal language and logic is incapable of answering some of their most profound questions, that they turn to faith. As I put it in my review of Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation:
In a world in which people often feel estranged from themselves and from others, and appear to lack control over their destiny, they often seek consolation in the belief that destiny is controlled for them. It is not theology that makes people irrational as Harris believes. It is rather the seeming failure of rational humanism that leads many to embrace religion.
For philosophers and theologians and those who seek rationally to defend religious belief, or rationally to criticise atheism, the tension between the ‘two Gods’, does, or should, matter; no amount of insisting that ‘that’s not how we imagine God’ will resolve it. And historically that tension has mattered immensely in the development both of religion and of secularism.
In making God so transcendent, pure and good that He could only be spoken of in the negative, and in insisting that God was reason itself, the Muslim Rationalists paradoxically both diminished the status of God and exalted that of humans. Human reason had to be powerful enough to divine God’s message and human will had to be strong enough to act upon it. Within Islam the tension between the two Gods, between the wholly simple God and the loving, acting God of scripture, between the idea of God as the condition of being and that of God as lawmaker and judge, was resolved to a certain degree in the separation of the Rationalist and Traditionalist movements – and in the victory of the Traditionalists. The insights and advances of the Rationalists, and especially of the greatest of Muslim philosophers, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, eventually had greater impact upon Christianity and Judaism than they did on Islam.
There was within Christianity the equivalent of Rationalist and Traditionalist strands, but the tension between the two kinds of God did not separate out, as it did in Islam, into distinct theological movements, but remained at the heart of the faith. That tension became one of the springs for the transformation of Christianity and eventually fed into the secular tradition. That story, however, is for another day, and another post.
So certainly, let us not, as many atheists do, caricature the character of religious debate. But let us not also, as apologists for religion do, pretend that their oh-so-sophisticated non-figurative conception of God is somehow an answer to atheist critiques. It is not even an answer to the questions that have been raised for two thousands years from within faith.
And as for me, I’m off to snaffle a bacon sarnie.