Scattergories: “Theology,” Alex!

Thousands of you have done one or many of the following over the past few weeks, as I’ve been slaloming through the history of the “Faith & Reason” debate: email, text, direct message, instant message, Skype, Facebook update, tweet, hashtag, blog post, blog comment, FB Like, anonymous review, post rating, FourSquare check-in, P-to-P download, voicemail, snail mail, malware, Luv virus, brain connection, public address system, skywriting, punch in the kisser.

"Get to the point, dude!"

And as one, you have asked but a single question: “I thought you were looking for God, bro. Why are you talking about philosophy?”

As the great, late Catholic church historian Raymond Brown said: “One of the worst things you can do as a teacher is assume the audience is going to understand what you’re getting at.”

So here automatic for the people is a quick backgrounder on the problem: as always in theology, things are not as simple as they seem. Searching for God is like walking through a whiteout.

To answer the question “Does God exist?” we must first answer at least two others: “What do we mean by ‘God’?” and “How can we know that what we mean by ‘God’ exists?” It’s the second sub-question we’re attacking with all this blather about Faith & Reason.

Let’s broaden sub-question part deux and ask “How can we know anything about ‘God’?” One way is through faith, which is an inner conviction. Another way is through reason, or the use of our minds. Most believers and atheists actually rely on both for their response. The question naturally arises how — or even if — Faith and Reason relate.

Over the past 2,500 years, three basic positions have been taken:

  1. Mortal Enemies — likes cats and dogs, faith and reason can not even agree to disagree: one is right, the other wrong. Sadly, this is a modern phenomenon. Fundamentalists don’t listen to reason. Atheists devoutly wish for The End of Faith.
  2. Incompatible — they are talking about different things. There is no real conflict because reason and faith are in different boxing rings. Varieties of this position include mysticism, which elevates faith into a realm of intuition beyond the senses, and so-called “negative” theologies like those of Eckhart and Pseudo-Dionysius. Unlike, say, Fundamentalists, incompatibilists tend to see religious language as approximate or metaphorical.
  3. Compatible — even when there appears to be a conflict, there isn’t. There is only misunderstanding. Faith can be both justified and enhanced by reason. Either we can observe natural phenomenon and induce God (Aquinas, Aristotle), or use reason alone to deduce truths about God (Anselm, Descartes). This approach is very Medieval and, later, characteristic of so-called “natural theology.”

For what it’s worth, The God Project Dot Net believes (1) and (3) are dead ends that lead to agita. But (2) has potential. Agreed?

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3 responses to “Scattergories: “Theology,” Alex!

  1. As a keen follower of this debate and this blog, I find myself being drawn closer and closer to the incompatible answer. If you believe in God, you can come up with some way to rationalize that belief (even if the method is somewhat suspect). If you believe purely in reason, I cannot see a way in which that belief can get you to God. People seem to come out with a richer, more detailed version of what they came in with. Sure, there are the occasional conversions from one “side” to another, but I wonder if the converted are simply people who want to be converted. The question has been leading me in the direction of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. The constant thread in the debate seems to be the will. If one wills that their world needs God, reason can be a way of making what one already “knows” more plausable. If you will a world of no God, you can easily justify that as well.

    My personal answer is becoming “I don’t believe there is a God, but (more importantly), I have not been given the proper equipment to answer this question and, therefore, will never be able to come up with the answer.” But, maybe I do have the proper equipment to assess this, even if I did, how could I ever know that I do? I am left with blind belief in something that sounds absurd or the belief that my senses and my mental functions are so acute that they can figure out the answers to an infinite universe of billions of lifeforms using the freaking scientific method. Both seem like ridiculous solutions.
    The state of human life seems to never know or to not know even if he is able to know because he can never know for sure.

  2. Very well said, as usual, Keith — I’m beginning to think that it’s the process of pondering these mysteries, rather than arriving anywhere absolutely concrete, that is the point. We are supposed to engage with the mystery — or rather, let’s say we as people naturally incline to these questions. But I’m finding for myself anyway, the more I think about God the less I understand what I’m talking about. The more you know, the less you know. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be so hard. (I think that’s a line from a song … or may it’s Yogi Berra.) …

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