Law vs Milbank: Belief and the Gods - part 2

The Anglican theologican responds to Stephen Law.

Read part 1: Stephen Law on the allegiance of philosophy in the battle between science and religion.
Read part 3: Law argues that Milbank's defence of religion is little more than pseudo-profundity.
Read part 4:
Milbank argues that, when it comes to metaphysics, paradox is inevitable.

As so often in the case of debates instigated by the ‘new atheists’, Stephen Law’s piece has to be interrogated first at the level of what he supposes religious belief to be about and only secondarily at the level of whether it is reasonable to hold it.

On the first count, Law assumes that the religious beliefs of ordinary people are much on the same level as credulous beliefs in fortune-telling, clairvoyance, spiritualism and the like. Without wishing in any way to prejudge issues concerning the paranormal and the occult, I would nevertheless submit that most believers manifestly do not think of their beliefs in this way. They implicitly or explicitly suppose that there is a distinction between religion and ‘magic’. The latter involves belief in either extraordinary and somewhat manipulable natural forces within the world as we know it, or else in practical benefits resulting from the manipulation of hidden spiritual powers or even God himself. By contrast, religious believers, however far they may allow that, in a God-created universe, there are powers not generally known to us (angels and demons etc) are primarily and overwhelmingly focussed upon the super-natural in the technical and not populist sense: that is to say with God himself, who alone stands beyond nature, because he has brought it into being. This supernatural God may be worshipped and experienced but not manipulated, since his omnipotence is not constrained by his creatures in any way whatsoever. Naturally, this non-manipulability includes the truth that he cannot be subject to verification or falsification in a ‘scientific’ sense, which is finally concerned with empirically observable items.

This is for two main reasons: first, God, if he is truly God, is clearly not one other item within the world – instead he is ‘everything’ just because he is the ‘source of everything’ and nothing lies outside his omnipresence. Such a statement need not be construed as simple pantheism if it is thought that every ‘thing’ within ‘everything’ has the character of a ‘gift’ arising from a mysterious beyond. Thus Christian orthodoxy, like modes of Judaism and much of Islam in effect affirms that God is paradoxically at once ‘all’ and yet beyond the ‘all’ considered as a mere sum.

Now Law will reply that is all pompous pseudo-sophisticated tosh. But he is very keen on facts and in this case he has his facts entirely wrong. He imagines that the faith of ordinary people and of honest philosophers more corresponds to belief in clairvoyance and the summing up of spirits. Yet the overwhelming evidence of the best historiography is that this kind of faith, if it exists at all, exists only in the modern period, largely as a direct result of trying to think of religious truth unnaturally on the model of that of experimental science. The same goes, unfortunately, for the reflections of many Anglo-Saxon ‘philosophers of religion’. However, again, an overwhelming amount of scholarship shows that, to the contrary, traditional Christian, Jewish and Islamic theology on the whole guarded against reducing God to the status of another, if very ‘big’ object, subject to evidencing and testing. Instead it variously saw him as ‘being itself’, the ‘indivisible one’ and so forth, often only to be spoken of through the deployment of remote analogy and paradox. If all this is evasive academic wiliness, then there is absolutely nothing recent about it.

Yet even today, most ordinary religious belief has not been debased. People pray not in order to ‘get things’ or to ‘test God’, but rather in order to attune themselves to his goodness and will. If they expect indeed that good can result from this attunement then they do not suppose that such results could possibly be predictable or provable. To deny this is not an evasive protection of a belief that would be otherwise readily falsifiable, but rather is part and parcel of belief in a transcendent God, rather than some sort of created, idolatrous substitute. For clearly, if God is goodness itself, and so is the very criterion of goodness only partially known by us (and it is patently the case that no human being has ever yet or ever could fully fathom the depths of the good) then we cannot ourselves impose criteria on him. In contemplative prayer to become aware of God is to become aware of the good, and any good that arrives is naturally a new manifestation of the divine, because of this transcendental identity. It also follows that any good that arrives is necessarily an answer to prayer, since prayer is by definition an openness to the good and the good cannot arrive in the human world without human consent. The doer of good is praying, whether she knows it or not, and inversely the praying person is already bringing about good. To say beyond this that there is also an unknowable horizon as to the efficacy of prayer in terms of the inter-psychic and the mysterious influence of mind and body necessarily follows if one allows the irreducibility of mind to body and the mysterious origin of both from a creative source.

Thus no authentically praying person would imagine that she was truly praying if this were thought of as something whose ‘results’ could be tested. Her engagement, if you like, is at the ontological level of being as such and not at the ontic level of interaction between beings. However inchoately, the ordinary believer implicitly realises this and one can note here the natural alliance of folk wisdom with metaphysics, as against the half-baked quasi-reasonings  that have insinuated themselves into our culture ever since middle-class people assumed that they could read the scriptures in abstraction from liturgical tradition, whose primacy ordinary people naturally experienced and grasped.

Therefore expensive experiments to test the efficacy of prayer are as sad as they are laughable. But there is something very important to add here. It is not, as Law suggests, only in the religious realm that we admit of truths beyond the identically repeatable. There would be no genuine poetry or art if it were the case that reality can only be apprehended by natural scientific procedures which are focussed either on the manipulably replicable or on the quantitative classification of the unrepeatable unique (as with fingerprints).

But many phenomena in reality do not present themselves to us in either of these two ways. Indeed it is instead the case that, as rigorous scientists realise, science approaches reality in a narrow, selective and artificial way for essentially technological purposes. Most of the time, instead, we experience unique, unrepeatable days, moments and scenarios, which nevertheless cannot be pinpointed with pure objectivity, in abstraction from the fuzzy edges of phenomena, their echoes and anticipations of other phenomena, besides our emotional responses.

Natural science tends, for its own important purposes which include the exploration one aspect of the real, to be restricted by a certain positivism and pragmatism that brackets the full import of a philosophically realist attitude. But the latter allows for the greater fullness of the real as it daily presents itself to us – as involving the vital, as it were ‘musical’ unfolding of non-identical repetition, which is as full of surprises as much as continuities. Also as having a strange kinship with our moods – and it is only an arbitrary, positivist decision that supposes that our moods cannot be disclosive of truth. Indeed it is to succumb to a single, and very ‘male’ mood: that of ‘objective’ cool detachment. Can anyone still seriously suppose that this mood is merely innocent?

Thus very little in the world is subject to empirical testing and especially not human behaviour. So even though I have insisted that God stands beyond the realm of mere ‘things’ and hence our relationship to him is in a unique case, it is nevertheless true that the world is naturally experienced as resulting from his consistency and yet unpredictability that belongs to his transcendentally ‘personal’ nature. Thus while each ‘thing’ is indeed not ‘everything’, nevertheless it is one might say ‘signed’ by the fact of its emergence in being at all by the ‘mark’ of its origin in an ‘everything’ identified by both reason and faith as generous. This mark is its uniqueness and surprisingness and yet its given and potential harmonisation with everything else. Taken together these two things constitute the ‘form’, shape or eidos of each thing, as affirmed by both Plato and Aristotle in different ways. It is this ‘holding together’ in certain patterns of things and between things that science cannot really explain or even explore and yet which it must presuppose in order to operate, else there would only be a ‘booming, buzzing, confusion’.

Thus religion engages with the ordinary real world in a way that science cannot, nor should it, since that is not its point or purpose.

How does all this then relate to Law’s crunch point about the disprovability of an omnipotent good God? The riposte is easy, entirely traditional and follows from what has been said so far. For religious believers, the existence of good things in the world is not evidence of a good power lying behind the world. Rather it is immediately the experience of good as the outflowing to us of a gift – as neoplatonism taught and as any traditional person or child experiences when they look at nature. Equally, the thought of a good to be done is again immediately the thought of the need to impress somewhat upon the world a higher, more real and hidden ideal order. As Prince Charles rightly stresses in his book Harmony, this is again as true for most tribal societies and ancient civilisations as it was for Plato. Therefore to see the good is not to infer God but to receive him.

So what of evil? Evidence against God? Only for a modern outlook that began (even in the later Middle Ages) to think of ‘being’ as in itself morally neutral. In consequence an evil existence becomes something ‘positive’ that needs explaining by what Leibniz called a ‘theodicy’. But prior to modernity there was no problem of evil even though people were as tortured by wickedness and suffering as they are today. The reason for this was that the realm of evil and that of the irreducibly problematic were held to coincide. Again, evil was not first observed and then causally considered, rather it was immediately perceived as a failure of causality, a failure of emanative transmission, a deficiency of reason,  a weakening of the good and so of being itself, since existence and its various modes were regarded as inherently benign and wonderful. It follows that there was no problem of evil because evil was, by definition the inexplicable, the monstrous, even the impossible. At the intellectual level this was the mystery of ‘privation’ or of lack, at the popular level of the perversely demonic. In neither case was this seen as evidence against God who is wholly the provider of good (albeit in sometimes mysterious and torturous ways) but rather of cosmic, spiritual and human enmity against God. As Kenneth Surin now long ago pointed out, evil did not in the past pose a theoretical challenge but a practical one. How might it be extirpated? How might we be redeemed?

It is then all very simple. For the religious person, even the smallest scintilla of good ‘proves’ God because it is of God, even is God, if he is love. The light shines in the darkness and so not even a prevalence of black icy comfortless night over ice-creams and bikinis on tropical beaches could count against the reality of the divine. Indeed, even such a prevalence would rather also count for it, since insofar as we perceive evil as evil and not just as a fantasised projection of our inconvenience or discomfort, then we also perceive the reality of the good as also not our mere projection but as a true arrival from an ‘elsewhere’. The latter must be presupposed else we would imagine that we had exhausted the plenitude of goodness which in fact defines it.

Law is inexplicably stuck, like so many ‘philosophers of religion’ who are simply behind the curve, in a long-ago exploded (by Sellars, Quine, Davidson, Rorty, McDowell, Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault etc) philosophical world view for which truth can be neatly divided between truths of fact and truth of logic, between the lab and the armchair. Equally between both and claims of value, which therefore must be airily subjective and surely the masks of power as Nietzsche taught. One is here so disappointed with the lily-livered character of recent Anglo-Saxon atheists, who will not boldly and bracingly embrace, like the Alpine philosopher, the collapse of all ethics that must follow in the wake of the death of God. For nihilism is worthy of respect but not humanism – the ultimate result of Protestant middle-class and middle-brow culture, despicable to all peasants and nobility alike!

But Law needs to leave behind the vapour of value, get out of his armchair and stop hovering outside labs. Instead he needs, like any real philosopher, to read much history, look at nature more, walk about a bit in the city and connect to some action. Then he will surely become quickly discontented with a philosophy that stays with the equal reality of both good and evil. For either this will require him to become a serious Zoroastrian, or else he will be forced to concede that what he really means is that both good and evil are human fantasies, like ‘humanity’ itself. In the first case, if evil is equally real, then it would seem that there is little that can be done about it. In the second that ‘doing’ anything would be weak and pointless.

By contrast, only if evil is seen as perversely real, and yet as diminishingly real and inexplicable, as it is by most religious people, can there be any hope in the face of evil, or any point in trying to fight it. This is one huge reason why we need today in Europe the religious attitude to reality – were we to be swamped instead (as we are coming to be) by the primacy of the scientific attitude, then we would surely have embraced nihilism and likely the eventual demise of western civilisation and culture.

Read part 1: Stephen Law on the allegiance of philosophy in the battle between science and religion.
Read part 3: Law argues that Milbank's defence of religion is little more than pseudo-profundity.
Read part 4:
Milbank argues that, when it comes to metaphysics, paradox is inevitable.

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Terri Ann 4 February 2016

I see a few serious problems with this reasoning, if you can call it reasoning. Firstly, there are way too many 'weird' sentences that I guess are meant to sound profound and inspired and highly intellectually clever, but in reality they are nonsense, in that they don't actually make clear logical sense.
Secondly, there are some really far fetched assumptions too, such as assuming "The demise of western civilisation and culture" if we don't believe in a god. How silly. The vast majority of hatred, evils and 'sins' are committed not by the atheists, but by the religious. Atheists abound, especially in academia and the scientific community, and they are not the 'criminals'.
Quite simply, I would say it this way:
If god created everything, absolutely everything, then he, and he alone, created evil. If he created in man the ability to think and do evil, then he did a very cruel thing. No parent I know would ever deliberately make their child evil, and then tell the child he/she has to overcome that evil by themselves using their 'free will', in order to be accepted and allowed into the family, or burn in fire in agony (hell) for billions of years after you die.
So, either god is unable to eradicate evil, meaning he in NOT omnipotent, and therefore not god, or he is unwilling to eradicate evil, which means he is NOT love, but is in fact very cruel and heartless, and has no compassion for human suffering. Therefore he is not god.

Cornell Anthony 22 January 2016

The problem of evil is an empirical argument that rests on a priori uses of justification.

Take out the a priori and everything empirical crumbles.

The argument from evil is nothing but an argument from atheistic personal preference.

David Morey 2 21 January 2016

I like some of the above, the world is both open and closed/repeating (see Hilary Lawson's Closure and Robert Pirsig's Lila) and we have to come to terms with becoming, being and begoing but I have no taste for creating a personal god idea to relate to this process, I prefer to explore post-religious philosophy, art and culture and let science study whatever regularities and patterns we can identify. I prefer to relate to existence as both a creative and destructive process, one that we can relate to with many emotional responses, but for me not seen as divine or god coloured (others may want to use these cultural artifacts but I prefer to put them to one side, although they fill our cultural history nonetheless) and this is of course an awesome and frightening process, and so vastly open and full of potential, yet as finite individuals also at times painfully closed and restricted. Worshiping or trusting such a process is no doubt comforting but a more critical and open approach is my preferred choice.

Roger.Cavanagh 18 January 2016

The link to Part 1 is incorrectly set to Part 2 at both the start and end of this piece.