August 21, 2006
Selected Minor Works: Mel and Monotheism
Justin E. H. Smith
[An extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing can be found at www.jehsmith.com]
I would probably not consider myself in any position to hold forth on God, were talk of this sort not all the rage in Hollywood, and were I not such a slave to trickle-down fashion. But I remain an ordinary mortal, and would do well to proceed cautiously. I should perhaps begin by defining my terms.
It seems to me that God is nothing other than the inflation to infinity of our experience of paternal authority. I was never all that impressed with paternal authority. I preferred maternal solicitude, which inflated to infinity gives us not God but, well, infinite longing for more maternal solicitude. Our access to this begins decreasing around the time we stop breastfeeding, and when it is reduced to a mere residue at puberty we begin to look for alternative sources of it. For the most part, we look in vain, but the absence of what we long for does not cause us to supernaturalize the elusive object of our longing(save for a few neo-pagans who have made the category mistake of suggesting that God may be a woman).
I've digressed, you say, but my point is precisely that I have not. God is not a universally necessary a priori concept, and it is not the case that for logical or metaphysical reasons beyond dispute there simply "has to be something," as the self-described "non-religious but very spiritual" types like to say. It is not the case that everyone everywhere possesses the concept, and it is not the case that we ourselves cannot dispense with it. Rather, supernatural entities are an abstraction from our natural and emotional ties to humans and other animals, and these are largely determined by our culture's values.
We may individually value the women in our lives, but this is something we are expected to keep to ourselves, and when it comes to candidacy for that infinitely high public office of divinity, only a patriarch will do. In many cultures, the supernatural does not extend beyond dead ancestors, conceptualized as ghosts. Members of these cultures will agree that "there has to be something," but this something is not an omnipotent omniscient creator. It's just grandpa. Our culture, however, has a habit of infinitizing what it values, of projecting our human attachment to fathers and kings into infinity.
I am no more ready to argue, on metaphysical or logical grounds, against the existence of God than I am ready to argue against the existence of the ghosts of ancestors that some Mongolian peasant holds dear. It is simply not my business. Any serious engagement with the problem of God will be not metaphysical but anthropological. Engaged in this way, the question is not whether God --the concept of which is taken for granted-- exists or does not exist, but rather why it is that a society conceptualizes the ultimate grounds of its own existence in one way rather than another.
What we learn when we put the question in this way is quite a bit about the place of fathers and kings and big inflated things in our culture, but very little about the place of, or the logical need for, an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent creator in the universe. To remain content with learning this much may seem an all-too humble scope of interest, but it is not clear that it constitutes a true change of subject. For talk of God, as Durkheim rightly discerned, is really just talk of society. Society is God, as the great sociologist put it, and to this extent, at least, I can confirm that he exists.
In certain times and places, such as second-century Alexandria or nineteenth-century Denmark, philosophers have taken an interest in the concept of God, and attempted to defend it by stripping away the naive anthropomorphisms that the vulgar habitually attach to it. God, they argue, cannot be a man, let alone a man with a long white beard; God cannot really have a face, let alone a backside, even if the masses were pleased to hear that on Mt. Sinai Moses caught a glimpse of the latter; God cannot really have any human traits at all. Indeed, God cannot even be described in human language.
The problem, though, is that when these rigorous demands are pushed as far as they can go, and one by one all the features projected from human experience are stripped away, we find that not all that much is left, and the apophatic path leads us to something that looks troublingly like atheism. God is an old man on a throne or he is, quite literally, nothing. For this reason, tiresome academic debates such as that between Bertrand Russell the "atheist" and Father Copleston the "theist," the one denying that there is some entity x such that x equals God, and the other denying the denial --which for some reason undergraduates always want to reenact, though much less eloquently, in my introductory philosophy classes-- really don't get to the heart of the matter. (I suppose I should not be hard on the youngsters. They're still learning. But grown men should know better.)
To opt for agnosticism is no solution: it is to accept the terms of the debate as laid out by the dithering old dons of a century ago, but to lack the conviction to side with either of them. Agnosticism says that there is something it would be nice to know, but that due to our limited grasp of things we are unable to know it. Agnosticism is failed theism, and I want to say that there is nothing to theism but the projection of what we already value from our mundane experience. It is either this or the empty space left by negative theology, which is hardly worthy of worship either. And it is for this reason that the truly pious disposition can only be atheism: not as the denial of the existence of some entity, à la Russell --as though the problem of God were of a pair with the problem of Bigfoot--, but as a cultivated recognition of the humanness of our projections, and of the cosmic irrelevance of what one's own culture would like to imagine divine. If I may put this point slightly more paradoxically: it seems to me that the true path to illumination, the one sole hope for arriving at an unio mystica with the ultimate source of our being, is to insist unto death on the exclusive truth of the materialist party line.
Consider in this connection the expression of the religious sentiment in art. Pier Paolo Pasolini, before he was murdered by an underage hustler he had unashamedly picked up in some back alley of Rome, managed to make one of the most beautiful pieces of religious art of the 20th century: his film rendition of The Gospel According to St. Matthew. The best religious art of the last 100 years was created by a homosexual communist.
Perhaps the worst religious art (using that term generously) of the same period was created by an aggressive and empty-souled goon with outsized daddy issues who, when on break from belching hatred, remains unable to shut up about his personal relationship with the divine. Rent his Passion of the Christ together with Pasolini's masterpiece sometime, and watch them back to back. Then ask yourself whose side you want to be on come Judgment Day.
Posted by Justin E. H. Smith at 12:10 AM | Permalink
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