Sunday, March 20, 2011


Excerpt from something I wrote a couple years ago that I want to reproduce here...

The reason I asked what your concept of God entails (other than to entertain myself while at work) is that my reaction to the use of this concept is often one of puzzlement and confusion. When it's used to refer to the omniscient, omnipotent, infinitely good, anthropomorphic entity that created the universe that Christians think will bbq their testicles if they have sex out of wedlock, I know exactly what people are talking about. When asked if I believe in such a thing, I reply that it has very little to do with belief as I'm as certain of the non-existence of Nobodaddy as I am of just about anything else. As Nobodaddy is what the overwhelming majority of followers of Abrahamic religions have in mind when they use the term "God", I am comfortable considering myself an atheist for all intents and purposes.

Of course there are enough people who do not have that in mind when they use the word "God" that it can get tricky. Then it seems to refer to a tangle of competing (or even contradictory) thoughts. I wouldn't even say I'm agnostic with regard to the existence of such a thing, since most of the time I have no idea what the person is talking about or why they call it "God". Or if I do figure out what they're talking about, I usually already have another name for it which has nothing to do with God, religion, spirituality, or theology, and I figure the other person is just confused or hasn't managed to convey to me what they're really talking about. Any way, I don't relate to religious or spiritual people in this respect.

Though I was reading a book yesterday (Hegel's god: a counterfeit double? in case you're curious) that helps to sort through some of these concepts through an analysis of the different kinds of transcendence. For those uninitiated into the nomenclature of philosophy, "transcendence" is the quality of anything that is beyond. It's the quality belonging to anything transcendent that makes it that way. Whatever people mean when they talk about God, they much more often than not are trying to talk about some kind of transcendence. Understanding the different kinds of transcendence might be a useful guide to talking to such a person if you're like me and otherwise have no idea what they're trying to say.

There is first transcendence, which is the transcendence of nature. Nature is transcendent, because it is there independent of our thinking and doing, even though it relates to our thinking and doing. There is a certain kind of wonder attached to this kind of transcendence. We feel it when we feel the weight of the question "Why are there beings rather than nothing at all?" This kind of transcendence has import for theology insofar as God is considered to be the reason for (the existence) of the whole of finite beings. (This is what people are supposed to mean when they say that God is the "ground of being".) The mystery attaching to the beingness of beings doesn't go away when we claim God as the reason for them being there. It extends to God as well, such that God exceeds all determinate thought.

That's what the author says. I'd add this bit of commentary. Should you identify God with the ground of being, then the mystery attaching to the existence of beings ("why are there beings rather than nothing at all?") will of necessity extend to God as well. It's like when I was a very small child and asked my father in astonishment, "Why is there any of this?" and he answered, "God." That was unsatisfying for the obvious reason: in asking the question, we seek something to steady us. Astonishment at the existence of things is "wonderful" (we wonder at something mysterious), but it is also something vertiginous and a bit sickening if we're really open to it. God enters as the ground of no ground at that point. By which I mean the question then arises: Wherefore God? We open on to the infinite at that point, which I am not sure is really the terrain of theology despite claims to the contrary.

This brings me to the second point—which is really the same issue from the other side. If you begin not from a theological position (faced with a problem of extrapolating the divine essence) but from an ontological position (simply wondering about existence), then you're not liable to need the concept of "God". It's not clear why one would have at some point to bring in the concept "God" rather than just remaining with the problem of being. Lots of philosophers have dealt in interesting ways with the beingness of being without bringing in God. Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger come to mind. So while there is certainly a connection between first transcendence and God, the connection does not seem to me at least to be a necessary one. And the stronger the connection is made—per what I said above—the less we seem to say that is relevant either to theology or ontology.

Second transcendence is the transcendence of self-being. We encounter it in the self-surpassing power of the human being. This is transcendence as freedom or free finite creativity. We are finite human beings, but we are always already surpassing that finitude by choosing to be something we aren't already. This is the kind of transcendence involved in what I called "autonomy" or "self-determination" the other day. It's what we have in mind when we talk about individual freedom and subjectivity. It may seem odd to call such a thing "transcendence". After all, what could be more immanent than my relationship to myself? But the point is that in determining myself, I am always beyond some determinate concept of who I am. I am not simply what I am, a given thing like a stone or a tree, but rather something continually developing itself. (Even remaining static is a kind of self-determination and hence a going-beyond-oneself.) The question here is: is this self-determination absolutely free, or is it to be understood in terms of a higher form of transcendence? Are we creations of another origin, or are we self-creating (our own origins)? Hegel saw this kind of transcendence as raising all the questions about dependence and independence that constitute modern human subjectivity.

Such transcendence is "excessive" in its own way. Just as the first transcendence (of nature) produces vertigo, there is disorientation attached to this form of transcendence, too, it seems. One useful way to understand the meaning of modernity is to understand it as the domination of nature within and without. Modernity is the freedom of the subject from all arbitrary notions of authority, be they in the form of nature, the passions, the local bishop, whatever. The point isn't so much that we reject all forms of authority, all points of reference for action, but rather that we reject those that are there arbitrarily and without good reason. The problem with this kind of transcendence is that there's a contradiction between reason's demand that everything accord with universal, abstract principles of justice and the particular, material, sensuous world as it actually exists. Reason untethered from nature and tradition wants to be its own ground.

Think here of something like the sexual revolution or the demand for marriage rights for gays and lesbians. The idea motivating these movements is that there's something arbitrary and particularistic in the demand that men and women not be treated equal or that homosexuals and heterosexuals not be treated equal. Just because you're born a certain way isn't good enough reason that you should be treated differently. You're making arbitrary exceptions when you say otherwise. You're not playing "fair", which means, in essence, that you're not thinking abstractly enough. You're seeing the color of the skin or the genitals the person has rather than the humanity. That's reason untethered from nature. We use reason to pass judgment on things in the world, to say they're just or unjust, and we can do that regardless of what the current state of affairs happens to be right at this moment. We are in other words transcending the given when we pass judgment. Here it goes beyond a particular human being and extends to society, but it's the same basic phenomenon.

But many philosophers (and not just the curmudgeonly conservative ones like Allan Bloom) have pointed out that there's something disorienting about this sense of freedom, that in untethering reason from nature, reason, ironically, loses its raison d'ĂȘtre. This is captured well in the question: Why be rational? This has given rise to a debate in contemporary ethics over whether the motivation to be good is internal or external to the reason to be good. Externalists, true to their name, believe the motivation to do good is separate from whether an action really is good; internalists believe the opposite, saying that something is only good if we have good reason to believe it's good. It's really a surface debate. The real problem is the rationality of reason itself. Why should reason matter? Why does it matter to live a life in accordance with reason? Is there any "glue" that will stick reason to action? Are there any affects of import that should make a life lived rationally worth it? We might call this "affective skepticism" to differentiate it from the prosaic type.

Lest you think this is an idle philosophical question, just think for a moment. Why has the ascendancy of modern rationality been accompanied so pervasively by a fascination with and even an embrace of the irrational? Why did faith come to dominate the center of the religious experience at the same time reason came to dominate the center of natural philosophy? Why is there a Jacobi for a Kant? Why is there a Schopenhauer for a Hegel? Why positivism and existentialism? Or—more on the dark side—why does religious fundamentalism become more powerful with the ascendancy of liberal democracy? Why is the information age accompanied by social anomie? Why is it that, the more we're supposedly together, the more lost, lonely, and isolated we feel? Why does an increase in choice and freedom make us feel disoriented and incapable of making decisions?

All these questions indicate that modernity is characterized by the ubiquity of second transcendence but that this kind of transcendence is inherently disorienting. It doesn't simply give rise to its shadow (a kind of unfreedom). It gives rise to a kind of extreme vertigo. Freedom doesn't give rise to slavery so much as it creates a kind of dizziness that brings about a self-imposed paralysis. It's not that one isn't capable of acting. It's that one isn't really sure why one should bother. And that's quite different.

No wonder there's such a strong reaction in the opposite direction. But all these anti-modern tendencies, be they religious, spiritual, political, or what have you, really must be understood as aspects of modernity itself and hence must be understood (ironically) as forms of second transcendence. The rebellion against second transcendence is in fact a form of second transcendence. One doesn't embrace religious fundamentalism for the same reasons people embraced religion in the 12th century. Not even close. Or take contemporary returns to nature as they appear in contemporary new age and new thought practices. That toward which these individuals "return" is not at all the same thing we departed from. Nature can never be a source of authority again. This is proved by the fact that people are able to choose to return to nature. The choice is as inescapable as the fact that it is made in a vacuum. Freedom is absolute, vertiginous, disoriented, and disorienting. This explains the ferociousness with which the shadow of reason rears its ugly head. It's not the otherness which explains the antagonism here but rather the sameness. Its desire for what lies outside of itself becomes a rage for what is new, what is novel, what is spiritual, what is powerful, what is invigorating, what is enlivening—in short, what is other. Freedom is everywhere the same to itself. Transcendence becomes infinite immanence.

I mention all this—which the author does not—because I think it's impossible to understand God in modernity (whatever the concept) without understanding it from within this context. This is one of the main reasons the concept "God" is unclear and seems to point to so many different, contradictory things. "God" is merely the name (for some people) for what is other, what escapes second transcendence. In this way, God (or what is called "God") is no different in form from any other candidate for a kind of transcendence that would break the monotony of modern life and the helpless situation of confusion freedom finds itself in.

Those are the first two kinds of transcendence. The author has a third. I'll deal with it later.

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