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December 2, 2005

Terry Eagleton on God

I have just finished reading After Theory (New York: Basic Books, 2003) by Marxist cultural theorist Terry Eagleton. Eagleton is hard on postmodernism and even harder on God. Brilliant prose stylist that he is, Eagleton gives forceful expression to the problems atheists have with the existence of God.

1.If God truly existed, the world would be a better place.

Eagleton writes thus about those who claimed God to be the ultimate foundation of the universe: ". . . if God really was the foundation of the world, he had clearly rustled the whole thing up in a moment of criminal negligence and had a lot of hard explaining to do. Quite why he needed to provide us with cholera as well as chloroform was not entirely obvious. The whole project had clearly been insanely over-ambitious and required some radical retooling. It was hard to reconcile the idea of God with small children having their skin burnt off by chemical weapons" After Theory: 195).

2.The idea of God is superfluous; it is not essential to understanding the universe.

"What you needed from a foundation was a sense of why things were necessarily as they were; but God was no adequate answer to this. . . . God is the reason why there is anything at all rather than just nothing. But that is just a way of saying that there really isn't any reason" After Theory: 195).

". . . if it [the world] worked all by itself, then where was the need for a God? We could develop instead a discourse which accepted the world in its autonomy and left aside its absentee manufacturer. This was known as science. God had been made redundant by his own creation. There was simply no point in retaining him on the payroll" (After Theory: 196).

It was [Friedrich Nietzsche] who pointed out that God was dead, meaning that we no longer stood in need of metaphysical foundations" (After Theory: 197).

3.The idea of God is not harmless; it burdens society with unwanted consequences. For example, it gives rise to totalitarian societal monsters like fundamentalists.

Fundamentalism "is an attempt to render our discourse valid by backing it with the gold standard of the Word of words, seeing God as the final guarantor of meaning" (After Theory: 202).

". . . the paranoid principles of fundamentalism are far more likely to bring civilization crashing to the ground than cynicism or agnosticism. It is deeply ironic that those who fear and detest non-being should be prepared to blow other people's limbs off" (After Theory: 205).

4.The existence of God cannot be demonstrated or proven; it is therefore not a fact or a truth.

Absolute truths "are truths which are discovered by argument, evidence, experiment, investigation. . . . Not everything which is considered to be true is actually true. But it remains the case that it cannot just be raining from my viewpoint" (After Theory: 109).

"Culture only seems free-floating because we once thought we were riveted in something solid, like God or Nature or Reason. But that was an illusion. It is not that it was once true but now is not, but that it was false all along"(After Theory: 57).

5.The idea of God is simply a projection of the human psyche. It is an exercise in anthropomorphism.

The idea of God is the construct "of those who want an authoritarian superego or Celestial Manufacturer to worship or revolt against" (After Theory: 177).

"This God is also a wizard entrepreneur, having economized on his materials by manufacturing the universe entirely out of nothing. Like a temperamental rock star, he fusses over minor matters of diet, and like an irascible dictator demands constant placating and cajoling. He is a cross between a Mafia boss and a prima donna, with nothing to be said in his favour other than that he is, when all is said and done, God. . . . The real challenge is to construct a version of religion which is actually worth rejecting. And this has to start from countering your opponent's best case, not her worst" (After Theory: 177).

For what its worth, here are my reflections on these points:

1.If God truly existed, the world would be a better place.

I say simply this: 1) Not believing in God won't help alleviate the suffering of innocents. If anything, billions of human beings with no foundational belief in something higher than themselves could well make this planet even worse by adopting a selfish carpe diem philosophy; 2) Despite the innocent suffering it may occasion, adversity makes the world better by keeping humans humble. If we had heaven on earth, where would be the challenge of living or the impetus for character building? Perhaps the world as it is makes sense--even with the idea of God.

Complaining that a "good" God would have given us "heaven" on earth seems like whining to me. The same people will say they wouldn't want to live in heaven anyway because it would be too boring. Bottom line: Refusing to believe in God out of pique, spite, or sour grapes won't make the human condition any better.

2.The idea of God is superfluous; it is not essential to understanding the universe.

Until someone comes up with a better explanation than an eternal universe, some "first cause" will always seem logical and necessary to the average person. Galileo, Newton, and Faraday were all believers in God. So are many contemporary scientists. Einstein frequently made reference to the "Wise One" and to other terms he used to denote a creative mind behind creation. There is a "will-to-believe" that is historically common to humanity and to its efforts to comprehend what is. The idea of God has a good track record of giving human life meaning and purpose. Those who say there is any real meaning apart from transcendent meaning are "whistling in the dark."

As Eagleton writes, "Dead bodies are indecent: they proclaim with embarrassing candour the secret of all matter, that it has no obvious relation to meaning. The moment of death is the moment when meaning haemorrhages from us" (After Theory: 164). Just imagine a society of hedonists trying to get all they can in this life before their personal meaning bleeds away. The idea of God does not seem so superfluous.

3.The idea of God is not harmless; it burdens society with unwanted consequences. For example, it gives rise to totalitarian societal monsters like fundamentalists.

As Eagleton says, you have to counter your opponent's best case, not his worst (After Theory: 177). Marxism is not to be judged by the abuses of Stalin, and theism is not to be judged by the worst it produces either. Human beings are capable of perverting every good thing.

On balance, religion has been a civilizing force that has fought slavery, built hospitals, and founded universities. Would a completely non-religious society be egalitarian and compassionate or would it be a Darwinian jungle of masters and slaves? We will never know. The societies whose leaders reject or ignore religious teaching don't strike me as particularly noble. But whatever one may speculate about a future world without religion, it is clear to fair-minded people that our present civilization has often benefited from its religious influences.

4.The existence of God cannot be demonstrated or proven; it is therefore not a fact or a truth.

The ability to prove or disprove God's existence by human methods would make humanity the arbiter of God's existence. Ambiguity and uncertainty deny humanity that power. It seems God is content to be a "value" rather than a "fact" in human philosophical terms. If he does in truth exist, what difference should it make how we mortals categorize him?

Perhaps the very persistence of the idea of God surely counts as some form of evidence. I think that's what the old bumper sticker meant by saying "God is Dead—Nietzsche / Nietzsche is Dead—God." In other words, philosophers come and go, but theism, like DNA, persists.

5.The idea of God is simply a projection of the human psyche. It is an exercise in anthropomorphism.

Could it be that atheism is a projection of human pride and self-sufficiency? Assertions like these are simply statements of unbelief. They prove nothing.

I should think atheists must find cold comfort in their disbelief. Some who will to disbelieve may feel superior to the "benighted" believers they scorn (see Nietzsche). They may take pride in their ability as conscious beings to defy the ultimate meaninglessness of existence (see Henley's poem "Invictus") and in their opportunity to create a personal, if transitory, meaning (see Jean-Paul Sartre). Others may feel sorry for believers who are psychologically unable to accept the reality of their eventual non-being (see After Theory: 213-214).

Pascal's wager says believers have nothing to lose and everything to gain. If our individual consciousness faces extinction at death, then atheists will be unable to exult in the conclusive proof that they were right. If consciousness survives death, then atheists will have to deal with that to their eternal chagrin. While Pascal's argument may seem too calculating to produce sincere faith, it nonetheless illustrates the cold comfort of unbelief.

December 5, 2005

A Brief Philosophy of Life

I think it is useful to articulate core beliefs clearly and succinctly. It clarifies thinking and makes it possible to share one's life experience with others. While life is complex and should not be oversimplified, we should all be capable of outlining the basic principles we live by.

Here are mine:

1. Keep your own doorstep clean.
(From the seventeenth-century English proverb: If everyone would keep his own doorstep clean, the whole world would be clean)

It is difficult to help others if you need help yourself. It is difficult to persuade others to accept your advice unless you have personal credibility. Therefore, I try to keep my own life under control.

Recognizing, over the years, how difficult it is to accomplish this one objective, I have made it a priority.

Keeping your own doorstep clean involves, among other things, earning a living, living below your means, providing for future needs, maintaining good health habits, nurturing your personal relationships, being a good citizen, being a good neighbor, and living with as much personal integrity as possible.

2. Lead a life that is outwardly simple yet inwardly rich.

The best life is a life of moderation. I try to avoid both conspicuous consumption and joyless asceticism. Simplicity often involves setting boundaries and saying “no” to otherwise worthwhile activities. It is a constant process of making choices. As I observe the world around me, it often seems that nothing is as uncommon as the ability to apply common sense to the vagaries of life.

Making your life inwardly rich means directing your life toward a set of worthy yet attainable goals. To a large extent, these goals must be self-defined and will vary according to the individual’s talents and inclinations. For me personally, a rich life involves reading and writing.

3. When in doubt about to how to act, adopt the wisdom of the New Testament.

I have found the Christian life rewarding. I enjoy the company of committed Christians. Following the principles of the New Testament has yet to betray me. The wisdom of the New Testament is summed up, to my mind, in certain key passages I have tried to memorize and repeat to myself regularly: Matthew 5:1-12; Matthew 22:36-40; Galatians 5:22-24; James 3:17-18; Philippians 2:3-8; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; James 1:26-27.

By the words “when in doubt,” I mean such things as when in doubt about which career path to follow, when in doubt about what your priorities should be, when in doubt about what is the most ethical choice to make, when in doubt about how to treat another person.

December 6, 2005

African Proverbs Compiled by Kane Mathis

A bird is in the air, but its mind is on the ground. (Mandinka)

A person should not forget where he came from and what is important.

A ripe melon falls by itself. (Zimbabwe)

All things happen in good time.

The dead say to each other: “Dead one.” (Mandinka)

The pot likes to call the kettle black.

A student doesn’t know about masterhood, but a master knows about studenthood. (Mandinka)

A disciple is not above his master.

Every time an old man dies, it is as if a library has burnt down. (Mandinka)

Every person is a storehouse of oral tradition.

Even the Niger River must flow around an island. (Nigeria)

Sometimes even the strongest must turn aside.

Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. (Nigeria)

Those who write history are its heroes.

The hunter does not rub himself in oil and lie by the fire to sleep. (Nigeria)

Human life does not prosper without common sense.

Even the mightiest eagle comes down to the tree tops to rest. (Uganda)

No mortal is above the laws of nature.

Although the snake does not fly, it has caught the bird whose home is in the sky. (Ghana)

The lowly can do what they put their mind to do.

A man does not wander far from where his corn is roasting. (Nigeria)

People are practical and tend to their own self interest.

December 14, 2005

Reading the New Testament for the First Time

I recently heard Al Franken, reared as a Jew, say he had never read all of the New Testament. I suspect many Christians haven't either.

Actually, the New Testament isn't that long and isn't that hard to read with enjoyment. It's definitely not as obscure or boring as some other ancient religious books. But it can be intimidating (and a little boring) if you read the "books" of the New Testament in the order in which they occur in modern Bibles.

The 27 "books" of the New Testament were grouped long ago by category. The four gospels (introductions to Jesus, but not biographies) come first, then Acts, then various letters addressed to specific churches, then letters addressed to individuals, then general letters (or essays) addressed to Christians at large, then the final book, Revelation, that encourages Christians to bear up under trials and keep the faith.

The traditional order of the books is roughly chronological in that the gospels deal with the life and teaching of Jesus, whereas the other other books speak to issues that arose in Christian assemblies after his death.

There is no good reason, however, to read the "books" in this particular order. They are not, for example, grouped in order of composition. Some of the letters were written before the gospels were composed. Acts is a sequel to Luke but is arbitrarily separated from Luke by the gospel John because Acts deals with events after the death of Jesus.

Furthermore, it is better not to read the gospels back-to-back inasmuch as they repeat much of the same material. A reader of the New Testament can better appreciate and enjoy the individual personalities of the gospels by spacing them out.

Some of the letters are less theologically dense than others, that is, they require less knowledge of the Hebrew Bible (aka the Old Testament) and the culture of Judaism in the first century. These less difficult letters generally outline what the Christian spirit and lifestyle should be.

In the Middle Ages, the "books" of the New Testament were divided into sections called "chapters" and, later on, into "verses" so that people could refer to passages accurately and locate them rapidly. These divisions also make it convenient for someone to read the New Testament in short segments without getting unduly bored or overwhelmed.

That said, I suggest you read the New Testament "books" for the first time in the order below. By reading just three or four "chapters" a day, you can read the entire New Testament in 90 days or less.

1 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians

1 Timothy
2 Timothy

1 Peter
2 Peter

1 John
2 John
3 John

1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians

Al Franken and others, take note. Here is a three-month reading plan to let you know where Christians in the red states might be coming from. It also will provide you with ammunition to refute "right-wing Christians" who are not really as Christian, by New Testament standards, as some would have you believe.

About December 2005

This page contains all entries posted to Trite but True in December 2005. They are listed from oldest to newest.

January 2006 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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