A LOVE SUPREME

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

a/theism

Traditionally, the two terms "theism" and "atheism" mean two opposite extremes. To be a "theist" is to believe in one or more gods. To be an atheist is to deny the existence of any gods; it is to be a disbeliever in any deity. Traditionally, we have defined ourselves with these labels. We say, "I am a theist, so I believe in God." Or we label ourselves a disbeliever in God (or gods). There are other labels, of course. We may prefer the label "agnostic," suggesting that we are suspending our belief in deities: we do not know, or we cannot tell at this point whether or not a God (or gods) exist. Once we have conveniently labeled ourselves, then we can go to work in defending our position against the others and/or show that those who wear the other labels are wrong or mistaken...or perhaps even insane!

To use the term "a/theism" is to begin to think about faith and belief in God (or gods) in a very different way. It is to suggest that the distinction between "atheism" and "theism" is not as simple as it may appear. It is to suggest that elements of belief in God invade the heart and mind of the atheist. Conversely, it is to suggest that elements of atheism and disbelief are active within the soul of the believer.


Writing a postmodern word

The term "a/theism" is something of a postmodern form of writing. It is poststructuralist, to be more precise. Poststructuralism, as you may have guessed, came after and in response to structuralism. Although poststructuralist theorists never defined themselves as such, one name commonly associated as poststructuralist is Jacques Derrida. He questioned the "binary oppositions" of terms that were traditionally formed as strict dichotomies. Terms like "nature" and "culture" and terms like "theism" and "atheism" were traditionally said to exist in opposition, with one term typically dominating or set off against the other. Catherine Belsey has written a nice little booklet on poststructuralism, published by Oxford University Press. It is concise, clear, and yet retains some of the ambiguity inherent in the various poststructuralist positions. Her thoughts are helpful in understanding "binary oppositions":

"Western culture, Derrida argues, depends on binary oppositions. In this respect the structuralists were heirs to 25 centuries of thought. Moreover, these oppositions are always hierarchic. One term is highly valued, the other found wanting. Nature is privileged over culture, just as speech is privileged at the expense of writing. But these terms can never sustain the antithesis on which they depend. The meaning of each depends on the trace of the other that inhabits its definition." [1]

Later, Belsey clarifies by elaborating on the nature/culture dichotomy:

"How do we define nature? Not by reference to flowers and tress, probably, since they are found in parks and can be cultivated, but as wildness, the absence of culture. By reference, in other words, to the term that is excluded by and from nature itself. And yet it is precisely from within culture that we are able to identify nature at all. The one term cannot be excluded from the meaning of the other. Meaning depends on difference." [2]

If meaning depends on difference, then each so-called "opposing" term or viewpoint depends on the other in some way to sustain it and give it meaning and purpose. This leads us to question, then, whether there is a "pure" concept, like natural or cultural. According to Belsey, the conclusion for Derrida, then, is that the oppositions do not hold: "Binary oppositions do not hold, but can always be undone. The trace of otherness in the selfsame lays all oppositions open to deconstruction, leaving no pure or absolute concepts that can be taken as foundational." [3]

To use a term like a/theism is to suggest that although these terms appear to oppose one another, this opposition may in fact be undone. It is to suggest that there are traces of belief within unbelief and traces of unbelief within belief. It is to question whether one can use a label in any absolute sense. In the term a/theism, the use of the backslash between the "a" and the "t" does not allow our eyes to see two separate terms; rather, the two opposing viewpoints are separated and yet are not separated. The two opposing terms become one term and although the distinctions remain, the distinctions are, at the same time, blurred. It suggests that the reader must sort out out the details.


The a/theology of Peter Rollins

I recently posted on Peter Rollins's How (Not) To Speak of God. What was perhaps most interesting to me about Rollins's little book is that he spends a good deal of time discussing his idea of a/theology. As the title of his book implies, Rollins is concerned that we do not overextend our certainty about who God is. Additionally, Rollins finds it important that we apply the same measure of humility to our own understanding of our relationship with/to God. We should acknowledge and explore issues of doubt, uncertainty, unbelief, and darkness. His direction of thinking implies a certain opportunity for "fellowship" (my word, not his) between believers and unbelievers and the ability to open space for dialog that seems to be rare for religions that use binary oppositions to set their beliefs off against the unbelievers.

Says Rollins,

"By combining theism and atheism in an a/theistic discourse we are able to develop a way of thinking that brings the speaker into an awareness of his or her limitations and a space of knowledgeable ignorance. [4]

"What unites Christians is not that we somehow grasp the true meaning (another way of saying 'my meaning') of the painting, as if it can be reduced to a singular message, but that we are seduced and transformed by it.....The deconstructive language being forged here acknowledges itself as a dis-course that sends us off-course--that is, our reflections on God never bring us to God....speaking of God is never speaking of God but only ever speaking about our understanding of God." [5]

For Rollins, doubt is no longer something to avoid or something to be feared. Rather, doubt has real value for faith. In fact, as we will see later, Derrida suggests that without doubt, faith is not faith.

"Doubt provides the context out of which real decision occurs and real love is tested, for love will say 'yes' regardless of uncertainty. A love that requires contracts and absolute assurance in order to act is no love at all. [6]

"The believer ought to acknowledge and even celebrate this dark night of the soul, understanding that this is not a threatening darkness which conceals an enemy but rather is the intimate darkness within which we embrace our faith." [7]

As we continue with Rollins, we find that it is transformation rather than doctrine that testifies of God.

"The point of this a/theology is that it understands that God is testified to in the transformed lives of believers rather than in some abstract doctrinal system." [8]

Here I hit the pause button for a brief moment to question whether or not Rollins has not perhaps set up his own binary opposition. Is "transformation" something that is set against "doctrine"? Has he dichotomized the two concepts, set them against each other, and privileged transformation over doctrine? It is an interesting question. Briefly, I would suggest that creating binary oppositions may be, in some sense, a necessary feature of our existence; however, as Belsey noted above, such binary oppositions can always be undone.

Okay, hitting "play" and resuming the feature film:

"The job of the Church is not to provide an answer--for the answer is not a phrase or doctrine--but rather to help encourage the religious question to arise.

"Central to this approach is the idea that God stands outside our language regimes and cannot be colonized via any power discourse. This means that the Christian faith is extrapolated via a powerless discourse which, at its most evangelical, attempts to create a space in which others can seek for themselves. Consequently, one of the roles of the Church is to provide a sacred space." [9]

I was very intrigued by this last line, and it prompts me to raise the question: have our churches created sacred spaces? Has the body of Christ truly created sacred spaces? For me, this is the key question to ask at the turn of this new century. The body of Christ, I suggest, should no longer rely on "outreach" or "evangelism" or any other program of proselytizing but should instead create sacred spaces for others. Is the body of Christ providing sacred contexts where all lines of inquiry can be explored and examined with care, love, and thoughtfulness? Is the body of Christ creating a sacred space for sacred silence, in the midst of our noise- and image-saturated culture? Or are we merely creating more noise? If we try outshout those who compete for the attention of the 21st century schizoid man, then we will be forced to become simply another propaganda machine trying to sell religion. In this sense, we will merely become one of a long line of manipulating competitors all jockeying for the attention span of humanity.

An a/theistic approach, on the other hand, would appear to step away from the noise and the competition by creating space--sacred space and sacred silence. I tell you the truth, I dream of a community of believers dedicated to creating sacred spaces.

I finish Roolins with what may be taken as something of a summary of his a/theology. I like the analogy that he uses here of a dark glass:

"Our a/theology should be a dark glass which protects God from being spoken, which responds to and returns to the love of God, and which encourages others to seek God for themselves. God is not revealed via our words but rather via the life of the transformed individual." [10]


Derrida on a/theism

Derrida not only wrote theoretically about binary oppositions, he also applies it to religion and speaks directly to the issue of a/theism. For Rollins, doubt is productive. The same is true for Derrida, but Derrida goes farther and suggests that doubt is absolutely necessary for faith, thus further blurring the lines between "belief" and "unbelief".

At youtube, I found an interesting question and answer with Derrida. Someone (who sounds a bit irritated to me), asked Derrida: Why do you say that you "rightly pass for an atheist"? Why do you not just say, "I am an atheist"?

Derrida questions even the very existence of theism if it is not at the same time atheistic. This is very Kierkegaaridan. Says Derrida, "If one does not go as far as possible in the direction of atheism, one does not believe in God." Believers must "run the risk of being radical atheists." Derrida suggests, somewhat controversially, that, "if we do not go as far in the direction of atheism, the belief is naive."

Derrida cites the mystics, that they "pray to someone who does not exist, in the strict metaphysical sense." God is a being beyond being. Believing beyond being is to believe as an atheist. For the mystic, then, this is believing as a nonbeliever.

In conclusion and in answer to the question, Derrida does not define his belief: We cannot say 'I am this and not the other'. Who can confirm, 'I am a believer'? Who can say 'I am an atheist'?"


Conclusion (or, concluding for an opening)

The suggestion of a/theism is not simply that believers experience doubt; it is stronger than merely asserting that believers hold on to faith in the midst of doubt. An a/theistic understanding of faith locates faith as movements between genuine theism and genuine atheism. The faithful do not merely doubt but also truly disbelieve. And conversely, the suggestion is that the staunch atheist also experiences genuine and true belief. The result is obvious: The "faith" of a Christian becomes more difficult (if not impossible) to define. It is not enough to merely intellectually believe in God. Faith becomes more intangible and difficult to pin down.

If we could peer deep inside, is it possible that we could find in the heart of the atheist the remnants of the deepest longing for God? If the unbeliever "suppresses the truth" (Romans 1) of their belief in God, is it possible that the believer suppresses their unbelief in God?

The conclusion of a/theism in its practical outworkings seems to be the opening of space and the opening of dialog. The body of Christ no longer seeks to define itself as opposing the nonbeliever or even as trying to convert the nonbeliever; rather, the body of Christ would focus on creating sacred spaces for openness, thoughtfulness, respect, and authenticity. Creating such sacred spaces seems to me to be reflective of some of the early church communities.


Notes
[1] Catherine Belsey, Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 75.
[2] Ibid., 83.
[3] Ibid., 87.
[4] Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2006), 31. I liked Rollins's book. It is an easy read if you are familiar with continental philosophy. If not, then the reading will go a bit slower, but the book (by and large) avoids using technical terms, so the book is still accessible, even to those without an interst in philosophy. Rollins has a website, with a blog he seems to maintain somewhat regularly: http://peterrollins.net
[5] Ibid., 32.
[6] Ibid., 34.
[7] Ibid., 35.
[8] Ibid., 40.
[9] Ibid., 40-41.
[10] Ibid., 42.

29 comments:

Scott Overpeck said...

good stuff. I think that many nonphilosophical thinkers will struggle with the idea that they are a little atheist, but it is imperative that we as the Church encourage doubt and questions. I know of so many people who never doubt or question until they are out of the safety of their homechurchs and family and friends. Doubt with community is sure to lead to stronger community stronger faith and strong minds for engaging others.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Thanks Scott.

To me, there also seems to be a sense in which the church has helped to cultivate atheism because we have created such a sharp dichotomy between belief and unbelief.

I don't mean to suggest that all atheists are the same, but I can't help but think there are a good deal of atheists out there who will be commended by God for their faith. At least, that's a hunch I have. I say this because there are a good deal of theists in churches who, in fact, are atheists but just don't realize it yet!

Scott Overpeck said...

We often see a direct correlation in the percentage of professing Christians and professing atheist in survey data. A couple theories are hypothesized.

1. More Christians gives Satan stronger motivation to attack.

2. More Christians means strong chance for mob mentality which can lead to radicalization of one sect or another leading to the angry dichotomies we have been discussing here and on my site. Which of course then radicalizes the atheists who now must perceive the christians as the enemy.

3. Erdman's brilliant thoughts on a/theism?

It could work.

Any relation to a Matt Erdman?

samlcarr said...

Good stuff indeed Jon. I guess this means that the long-running convo with Ivan (from Oz over at Ktismatics?) is actually NOT an argument - or could we perhaps just call it an a/rgument!

Jonathan Erdman said...

I'm sure Ivan will be thrilled to know he is a theist in atheist clothing!

ktismatics said...

This post looks like an essay complete with references -- are you going to submit it to a journal? It's clear, well-written, ought to be published if that's your intent.

"I tell you the truth, I dream of a community of believers dedicated to creating sacred spaces."

Sacred/profane is probably the strongest binary of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The whole point of the Mosaic Law was to draw the dividing lines, first between the holy nation and the rest of the world, then topographically within Israel itself between sacred and profane spaces, then behaviorally between holy and unholy actions of the Israelites. Christianity has tended to perpetuate the sacred/profane distinction, with Christian/non-Christian being the first and most important division, then also between the church and the rest of the world. How do you see sacred space as offering a significant difference from this long binary tradition?

You cite Rollins: God is not revealed via our words but rather via the life of the transformed individual.

I'm sure you'd agree that this transformational metric is subject to as much abuse as the verbal one; e.g., the unhappy and angry person hasn't been transformed, therefore s/he is less godly. I wonder: is it evidence of struggle rather than contentment that's more indicative of the presence of God? Or is looking for criteria indicating God's presence an inherently futile endeavor?

Lacan once said that God isn't dead; he's unconscious. I've read only a little bit of Rollins, but I could see Lacan's idea in his "negative theology" (there's a fancy term for it but I can't remember it). God is in what you can't say, can't demonstrate, etc. But I would think that, as a conscious agent in the world, the seeker would be trying both to hear what God is saying outside of words and actions and also to formulate these experiences in words and actions as best as s/he can. But the experiences, the words, the actions might be different for each person, and each of us might understand the other differently. This seems like an emergence that doesn't remain unconscious but that also doesn't become formulaic.

Jonathan Erdman said...

No plans for academic publication, but thanks for your encouragement. Being in the field of academic editing, I find the academic style comes quite naturally. After I completed the post, I thought that perhaps the footnotes were unnecessary and made the post look pretentious; but I was too lazy to go back and change them!

K: Sacred/profane is probably the strongest binary of the Judeo-Christian tradition....Christianity has tended to perpetuate the sacred/profane distinction, with Christian/non-Christian being the first and most important division, then also between the church and the rest of the world. How do you see sacred space as offering a significant difference from this long binary tradition?

I agree with your analysis of the situation. At first blush, it seems that the binary oppositions are strongest as one goes back deeper into the OT. However, for me it is key to note that Abraham was justified "by faith" and through him "all nations" were to be blessed. As you know, Paul picks up on this in Galatians and suggests that whatever God did with Abraham's direct descendants, the promise of blessing to all through faith remained (chronologically, at least) primary.

I think there is also movement, as well--a shift between OT and NT. You have recently posted about the Jew/Gentile dichotomy that Paul states has been destroyed (ore merely transcended) "in Christ." I would combine this with the motif of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5) found in the NT and then suggest that there is a movement toward rising above divisive binary oppositions in the name of creating sacred space--spaces for reconciliation to occur.

So, personally, I would say that the NT (and the OT) gives us the push needed to take the message of reconciliation a bit farther and minimize the pride of place that institutionalized Judeo-Christianity has accorded to binary oppositions. In other words, there is a sense in which I would say that a re-turn to the text takes us a bit beyond the text. This is what Paul himself does when dealing with the OT (to say nothing of the author of Hebrews!); Paul always interprets the scriptures of the past in light of the work of God in the present.

Your comment on Rollins deserves some thought....i'll be back to that later.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I think you (Ktismatics) make a good point here:

I'm sure you'd agree that this transformational metric is subject to as much abuse as the verbal one; e.g., the unhappy and angry person hasn't been transformed, therefore s/he is less godly. I wonder: is it evidence of struggle rather than contentment that's more indicative of the presence of God? Or is looking for criteria indicating God's presence an inherently futile endeavor?

Or one could set up a binary opposition between "those who look for criteria" and "those who do not look for criteria." It could become easy to be judgmental of others who are judgmental, if that makes any sense!

I don't think criteria is inherently "evil." Paul talks about the "fruit of the Spirit." The Spirit brings freedom from law. So, Paul suggests some frames of mind and some actions that would seem to be a result of a "walk with the Spirit." But if we focus on criterion, then (from my experience) we typically lose sight of the freedom and the "walk" with the Spirit that produces such freedom.

Perhaps the important thing to remember--as you suggest below--is that criterion should never be absolutized or formulatized. Criterion and measurements are always clumsy at best and harmful at worst.

It seems that we should not, then, be fruit inspectors.

K: But I would think that, as a conscious agent in the world, the seeker would be trying both to hear what God is saying outside of words and actions and also to formulate these experiences in words and actions as best as s/he can. But the experiences, the words, the actions might be different for each person, and each of us might understand the other differently. This seems like an emergence that doesn't remain unconscious but that also doesn't become formulaic.

Well said.

tamie said...

I, too, long to be part of a community dedicated to creating sacred space. I long for it with all my heart and soul. Silent space, light-filled, darkness-filled, beauty-filled, ambiguity-filled, empty, agenda-less space.

The sacred/profane binary: Bono once said that he loved visiting Las Vegas, because he loved finding the holy there. I absolutely concur, although I find it difficult not to just glorify the twisted, instead of actually finding the holy.

Language seems inherently binary to me, in the sense that a word is itself because it is not all the other words. But then again, poetry undoes the binary, as does some of the best prose. Silence absolutely undoes the binary. This is why I trust silence and poetry more than I trust linear speech (this is a dualist thinking in and of itself, I acknowledge) because it coheres with my experience of the complexity and ineffability of human being.

A binary I think that the church is choked on is the insider/outsider binary (hence the need for evangelism). I wish I could find this ethereal Church because I would say: give it up already. We're all insiders. We're all outsiders. We all need transformation, we all need to recognize that we're loved.

Scott Overpeck said...

tamie,

i think a lot of people regardless of their belief systems are longing for the kind of place you describe. Jesus spent his time with the outsiders of his time but didn't make the insider outsider distinction. I think even very missional and intentional churches still make the mistake of making the distinction. its the our church is better than that church because our insiders spend time in the slums and the bars etc." Jesus just loved people and didn't see the insider or the outsider in them. He saw the son/daughter whom he loves. and because of that people trusted in him. As the church this is suppose to be what we strive to be.

daniel said...

Tamie said:

Language seems inherently binary to me, in the sense that a word is itself because it is not all the other words.

A word is also not what it is.

This is the post-structuralist position, entirely conclusive with regards a system of meaning in difference (structuralism) but somehom dissatisfying in confrontation with meaning in the world. Thus, the poststructuralist ends with a focus on hyper-reality ala Baudrillard, because of a radical rejection with the discomforts of reality as commonly defined.

Lacan is the most nuanced of the ps thinkers in my view, but (and its a big disclaimer) for all his cleverness the uses to which he puts ps theory (such as his discourse analysis) are brilliantly redundant.

That's the danger of straying too far beyond common sense.

A sacred space defined in terms of the hyper-real...

Or, a sacred space: on your(metaphorical or actual) knees in prayer!

daniel said...

A word is not what it is - an obvious point - is a dog (word) a dog (quadraped, mammal, carnivourous, etc.)?

ummmmm..... no.....

How did such a silly insight spawn the poststructuralist beast?

Maybe I'm not in the mood for this....

daniel h said...

Western culture, Derrida argues, depends on binary oppositions. In this respect the structuralists were heirs to 25 centuries of thought. Moreover, these oppositions are always hierarchic. One term is highly valued, the other found wanting. Nature is privileged over culture, just as speech is privileged at the expense of writing. But these terms can never sustain the antithesis on which they depend. The meaning of each depends on the trace of the other that inhabits its definition."

I disagree with Belsey with regards nature/culture. Nature is not the signifier with a higher value attached as opposed to culture, in fact in most discourse it is precisely the opposite - culture dominates nature.

The same contention can be made for speech and writing, where writing "is privileged at the expense of speech".

However binary oppositions needn't involve value, and binary oppositions despite the simple construct are complex when it comes to associating value with words.

Therefore I don't feel comfortable with these blanket statements "nature is priveleged over culture and speech over writing in the binary opposition" as I believe discourse to be far more subtle.

In a certain way I am forming an opinion that straight forward referential meaning may yield a more accurate analysis of discourse than the structuralist/post-structuralist perspective of meaning in difference, as beguiling as it may be.

But I can only think about this in conversation. Is Ktismatics the master word around here?

chris van allsburg said...

if we can't define faith, how can we talk about the apparent congruence, or schizophrenic relationship between faith and doubt?

the epistemic result we have when we dismiss any foundational certainty regarding definitions concludes in the inability to fully understand the relationships between concepts (faith/doubt; theism, atheism).

binary propositional thought is necessary if we are going to make sense of these ideas. oil and water don't blend, they separate in a bifurcated coexistence--depending upon the medium (jar, body of water)--they are "together but separate" and the separateness is real.

daniel h said...

the epistemic result we have when we dismiss any foundational certainty regarding definitions concludes in the inability to fully understand the relationships between concepts (faith/doubt; theism, atheism).

Well said Chris. I would say that faith is born together with definition, with value for words like grace, truth, patience, and other foundations of life in Christ.

Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Romans 10:17)

Jonathan Erdman said...

Chris,

Thanks for the comment. Very good.

Here's my thought.....yes, there may be a pragmatic sense in which binary propositional thought is necessary, but it does not follow that such binary oppositions hold in an absolute sense.

We may use binary oppositions to aid in our thinking process, but that only means that binary oppositions are helpful to get our minds going. We may find that after exploring the issue, the binary oppositions that used to seem like such a good idea actually aren't as tight as we thought. Imagine if we said that there is "hot" and there is "cold," two binary oppositions; but then when we started to discuss what temperature is "hot" and what is "cold," we discovered that these definitions were relative and that it might be difficult (and even undesirable) to define "hot" and "cold" in any absolute sense. It just seems better to allow for some ambiguity.

Sometimes the ambiguity is better than establishing things in an absolute sense. I think that in the case of atheism and theism, there may be a sense in which it is better to be ambiguous.....but I'm not making this suggestion in any absolute sense, because I suppose I can imagine times in which establishing the absolute might be useful (as you suggest)!

chris van allsburg said...

Jon, I have thought about the "hot and cold" thing, but in a different manner, with little illustrations from life.

for example: there is an ant on my picnic table. But, we put up with it. Now, how many ants does it take for us to be upset enough with the presence of more than just one ant? Two? Three? At what point does it mean that there is a "swarm" or them? 100, or 1000? you get the point: it dies the death of a thousand qualifications. The same with the hot and cold. With micro-measurements, we can easily lose the line of demarcation where "hot" becomes "warm" and eventually turns "cold."

One problem with this is that is stinks of Hume's skepticism regarding induction. The second problem flows from the 1st. I know VERY WELL when I've put my hand in hot water! And I know very well when I've drunk cold water (or, insert the microbrew of your choice).


This pragmatic approach runs into not only the epistemological dilemma I have mentioned, but also an existential one.

I'm glad to see you agree that there may be times when "absolute" language may be useful. (Jesus certainly speaks this way--and his use of language regards our eternal states, often enough).

Regarding atheism/ theism, the Bible does speak in absolute terms when it says that the fool has said in his heart there is no god (ps 14).

But the bible also takes a blended approach to the this particular problem when it also asserts that humans who do not claim Yahweh as the one true god, also know this god for certain. Romans 1 affirms the schizophrenic state of the one who denies jesus as the son of David: they suppress the truth in unrighteousness, and they have no "apologia" for their ideas.

I think it would be better to affrirm absolutes in the ultimate sense, and to affirm a variegated, relative use of language in describing certain existential qualities of life-situations: we use adjectives to describe certain aspects of atheism--hard, soft. We use adjective to describe theism as well--truine, monist, and others.

thanks,
chris

chris van allsburg said...

even if i'm wrong, i think we can absolutely say, that i've come a long way since my days of dropping acid, smoking mounds of weed, drinking entire cases of beer, and squandering my dad's money.

i owe jesus...

Jonathan Erdman said...

It is true that Psalm 14 says that the fool says in his heart that there is no God; but Paul also says that we are fools for Christ, and he also states that the wisdom of the cross is foolishness to those who do not believe. So, I'm not sure what the point of Psalm 14 is, but being a fool isn't the worst thing in the world!

I like that you distinguish between epistemological and existential categories. Epistemologically, one may affirm that they believe in God (theist) or that they believe God exists (atheist). This is their official epistemological position. The question is whether or not one's epistemological position is truly reflective of their existential position. For some, it may be consistent. For others, however, there are many moments of doubt (theists doubting God's existence or goodness or power; atheists doubting God's nonexistence and hence experiencing moments of believe in God). We see Job swing through periods of great faith and also moments of sarcasm and bitter anger (thus calling for the rebuke of his kind friends!). In this post, I referenced Derrida's comment that if one does not risk going "as far as atheism," then one's belief is naive. That is, doubt may be a very necessary (and even indispensible) aspect of faith. And I would suggest that the converse is perhaps also true: that the hardcore atheist must risk going as far as theism in order to confirm his/her unbelief.

For still others, there are moments when one may truly believe and also not believe. Hence, I referenced the man who cries to Jesus "I believe, help my unbelief!" In these cases, belief and unbelief somehow occur simultaneously. In other words, it is not about going from one thing to the other, we actually experience real unbelief and real belief at the same time.

For Rollins, a/theism is a process of grasping to define and understand God and then repenting (in a sense) and affirming that these definitions will fall short of the "real" God.

All of these are more existential than epistemological, but for the a/theist (and for the Christian mystic as well as others throughout the history of Christianity and faith), the existential perhaps takes pride of place. In that case, one's official epistemic position becomes swallowed up in the existential process of faith. Or perhaps they are just at odds: "I believe (epistemic), help my unbelief (existential)," or "I believe (existential), help my unbelief (epistemic)," or even "I believe (epistemic/existential), help my unbelief (epistemic/existential)."

daniel h said...

Jon, when you speak of hot and cold, it reminds me of Revelations 3:16 -

Since you are lukewarm and neither hot nor cold, I am going to spit you out of my mouth.

A/theism, then, could be an epistimological lukewarmness towards God. Neither theism, nor atheism.

This is different to the role of doubt within faith. The man who came to Jesus was confessing his doubt - the way to deal with it - not clinging to it. We may say he was "getting hot"; and the only way to get hot is to draw nearer to God.

While I agreed with Chris's post on the need for foundational definitions, I disagree with the need for binary opposites in thought. This is a variation of Manicheasm, which is inherited from the Greek philosophers but alien to Christianity, as God has none beside him (Deutoronomy 4:35).

God is the absolute, the great "I am that I am" (Exodus 3:14). God is who He is because of his attributes - not because he is not something else.

This is where structuralism and post-structuralism go wrong imo, that meaning is constructed in a system of difference. In other words, all meaning is negative: a dog is not a cat, is not a door, is not the sky etc. There is no intrinsic meaning or value.

That is the existential side of the argument, where for eg. hot is hot because it is not cold...

But I'm saying NO! hot is hot because of its intrinsic hotness.

Jon, one cannot seperate the epistemological from the existential, because the invitation in scripture is to "taste and see that God is good!" (Psalm 34:8).

Jonathan Erdman said...

Daniel,

Yes, I can see how a/theism can be seen as neither hot nor cold; however, I have been thinking of it in terms of both/and: both theistic and atheistic. Also, as a side note, the hot nor cold reference seems to reflect the church's passion (or lack thereof) for the faith. Some commentators speak of the hot/cold metaphor as referring to usefulness: hot water is useful for cooking and cold water is satisfying to drink but lukewarm water has limited usefulness. Seen from this perspective, Christ (in the book of Revelation) is saying that they are either useful (whether hot or cold it doesn't matter) or useless (lukewarm). If they are useless (due to a passionless and unproductive faith), they will be cast aside.

As a question: do you think that doubt is wrong or sinful? Is doubt only positive if it is moving us toward certainty?

And what, exactly, is your beef with Manichaeism? How does it related with our discussion on binary oppositions? I'm not as familiar with Manichaeism (specifically) as I would like to be.

It's interesting that you mentioned the name of "I am." The I AM is the one who does not define himself with a name. Is he suggesting that he cannot be captured with language? Or that he will not be labeled in any way? If so, then maybe labeling God with attributes limits him in a way he did not intend.

Daniel: This is where structuralism and post-structuralism go wrong imo, that meaning is constructed in a system of difference. In other words, all meaning is negative: a dog is not a cat, is not a door, is not the sky etc. There is no intrinsic meaning or value.

Well, I suppose it would depend on who you were referring to....as to whether all meaning is negative....as I recall, Rollins doesn't go that direction.....I wouldn't go that direction with my thoughts on a/theism either. Nor am I at the point where I would suggest that there is no intrinsic meaning or value....although I'm not so sure about that last one. It's hard to make a case for intrinsic meaning/value (imo) because meaning/value seems to be in the eye of the beholder. All we have is interpretations b/c we are by nature interpreters. None of us has a God's eye view (at least I don't), and as such all we have is our interpretations (i.e., our own meaning/value that we assign to things)....still, there are certain things that many of us find more meaningful/valuable than others, so meaning/value does not seem to be all in the eye of the beholder.....Gadamer suggests something of a dynamic interchange, where meaning is produced by engagement and interaction between two things (or people).

Daniel: Jon, one cannot seperate the epistemological from the existential, because the invitation in scripture is to "taste and see that God is good!" (Psalm 34:8).

I actually tend to agree. I liked how Chris separated the two for sake of discussion, but ultimately one cannot dichotomize these two things and make them mutually exclusive....or, if you will, one should not make them binary oppositions!....or, if you will, one should be cautious with all binary oppositions!

daniel h said...

Hi Jon, thanks for responding.

The problem with "binary oppositions" is that it becomes a catch phrase. We know they are "not right", so we "deconstruct" them.

Well where does it come from, what are the roots of this way of analysing meaning in the world?

The linguist Saussure got the ball rolling when he defined meaning in terms of a system of difference.

Firstly, there is a difference (split) between the signifier and the signified. A word is not the same as the thing it refers to. Furthermore, a word refers to something because it does not refer to something else. This is the so-called arbitrary nature of the sign, and the birth of structuralism (where meaning is defined primarily within structure).

But post-structuralists working in different fields like Lacan, Derrida, Baudrillard, Deleuze, pointed out that one never reaches a place of significance: there is an endless play of difference.

Binary oppositions make it all the more fun, because it can be demonstrated how language and discourse have created false universes of meaning around such opposite terms as good/evil, man/woman, public/private etc.

This is all very well for getting to grips with the truth that things are not what they seem in the world, there is an underlying insufficiency of language to connect with reality.

Here is where I agree with you Jon: God is apart from this play of language. He is not to be and cannot defined in these terms. This is also why I believe Christianity, insofar as it has to do with God, is beyond good/evil and other dichotomies.

That's where the Manichaen heresy comes in. It puts forward a level field where everything has its opposite, and is a part of its opposite. Even God, in this system of thought, has a part of his opposite.

But we know that God has no opposite! He is God all by himself, there is none beside him.

So if you want to limit the conversation to hot and cold, yes let's engage in word play. There is a point where cold becomes hot and vice versa, and it will be different to you and to me.

(BTW, I tend to agree on the interpretation of hot/cold = useful but lukewarm = useless).

But to extend this way of thinking to our position on God, makes no sense to me, as in the a/theism construct. I don't necessarily have a problem with it, but it does nothing for me.

Here's why:

I believe that faith comes from God. We do not work it up ourselves. Is doubt and unbelief the same thing? What about disbelief? Are these the opposite of faith, or is fear the opposite of faith, or what about despair?

It is possible to construct a binary opposition with regards faith, but if faith comes from God, if it is in essence of God, then truthfully it has no opposite.

As such, atheism and theism are not opposites, they are completely different things! Theism is full of faith in God, and atheism full of something resembling faith (but not faith) in something resembling God (often science and human progress!)

Jonathan Erdman said...

Daniel,

What if someone suggested that God himself was a binary opposition?

Consider 1 Samuel 16, where an evil spirit is sent from the LORD.

14 Now the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.

15 Saul's attendants said to him, "See, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. 16 Let our lord command his servants here to search for someone who can play the harp. He will play when the evil spirit from God comes upon you, and you will feel better."

17 So Saul said to his attendants, "Find someone who plays well and bring him to me."

18 One of the servants answered, "I have seen a son of Jesse of Bethlehem who knows how to play the harp. He is a brave man and a warrior. He speaks well and is a fine-looking man. And the LORD is with him."

19 Then Saul sent messengers to Jesse and said, "Send me your son David, who is with the sheep." 20 So Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine and a young goat and sent them with his son David to Saul.

21 David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul liked him very much, and David became one of his armor-bearers. 22 Then Saul sent word to Jesse, saying, "Allow David to remain in my service, for I am pleased with him."

23 Whenever the spirit from God came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.


Or consider the parallel stories about David being incited to take a census (something prohibited). 2 Samuel says that the LORD incited David, which 1 Chronicles states that Satan incited David.


2 Samuel 24
1 Again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, "Go and take a census of Israel and Judah."

2 So the king said to Joab and the army commanders [a] with him, "Go throughout the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beersheba and enroll the fighting men, so that I may know how many there are."

3 But Joab replied to the king, "May the LORD your God multiply the troops a hundred times over, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it. But why does my lord the king want to do such a thing?"

4 The king's word, however, overruled Joab and the army commanders; so they left the presence of the king to enroll the fighting men of Israel.
10 David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men, and he said to the LORD, "I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, O LORD, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing."

11 Before David got up the next morning, the word of the LORD had come to Gad the prophet, David's seer: 12 "Go and tell David, 'This is what the LORD says: I am giving you three options. Choose one of them for me to carry out against you.' "

13 So Gad went to David and said to him, "Shall there come upon you three [b] years of famine in your land? Or three months of fleeing from your enemies while they pursue you? Or three days of plague in your land? Now then, think it over and decide how I should answer the one who sent me."

14 David said to Gad, "I am in deep distress. Let us fall into the hands of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into the hands of men."

15 So the LORD sent a plague on Israel from that morning until the end of the time designated, and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beersheba died. 16 When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the LORD was grieved because of the calamity and said to the angel who was afflicting the people, "Enough! Withdraw your hand." The angel of the LORD was then at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.


1 Chronicles 21
1 Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel. 2 So David said to Joab and the commanders of the troops, "Go and count the Israelites from Beersheba to Dan. Then report back to me so that I may know how many there are."

3 But Joab replied, "May the LORD multiply his troops a hundred times over. My lord the king, are they not all my lord's subjects? Why does my lord want to do this? Why should he bring guilt on Israel?"

4 The king's word, however, overruled Joab; so Joab left and went throughout Israel and then came back to Jerusalem. 5 Joab reported the number of the fighting men to David: In all Israel there were one million one hundred thousand men who could handle a sword, including four hundred and seventy thousand in Judah.

6 But Joab did not include Levi and Benjamin in the numbering, because the king's command was repulsive to him. 7 This command was also evil in the sight of God; so he punished Israel.


I recall that at the beginning of Job's story, he rebukes his wife for questioning God and says, "Shall we accept good from the Lord and not evil also?" (Job 2:10)

ktismatics said...

I'm a bit off-topic here, but I think the avant-garde evangelical penchant for postmodernism stems from the PoMo rejection of empirical evidence as foundational for truth. Structuralism disconnects language, and hence truth st statements, from the real world. Signifiers acquire their meaning not by what they signify in the world, but by the intangible structure that holds the system of signifiers together. Christians like this sort of thing, since God can be the Master Signifier without having to manifest Himself materially.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Yes, K, Structuralism always strikes me as easily incorporated into the Christian worldview....which is kind of odd to say, at first, because Structuralism was (in part) a reaction against Existentialism and Satre et al's questions of meaning/purpose.

I've been reading through Rob Bell's Sex God book with a small group of fellow Xians. Bell was listed recently in TIME as one of the world's (or America's?) most influential religious leaders and he's been called "the next Billy Graham."....admittedly, he's a bit overhyped, per the usual....but what is interesting about Bell's book on sex is that he is always looking for the underlying structure of "how the world is" or "what we were made for." He does not go the route of "premarital sex/homosexuality/etc. is bad/wrong/evil/etc." Bell appeals to "human nature" and so-called fundamental needs, leaning heavily on the imago dei in some places. It seems like every chapter I find myself marking the term "Structuralist" in the margins b/c he works so much in that manner....looking for how the structure holds the system together, as you say.

Of course, with Bell questions of meaning/purpose are incorporated into the structure, so he's not a pure Structuralist, by any means; however, his approach is very influential and is likely the way many Xians will go who are trying to get away from the Deontological (moral duty) approach of Modern Xianity but still anchor their beliefs in something more concrete than more purely postmodern Christian projects. Structuralism is a nice middle ground for Xians uncomfortable with the (so-called) extremes and excesses of Modern and Postmodern philosophy/theology.

daniel h said...

Jon, are you into ying-yang at the mo?

Another question: have you ever been an atheist?

In response to your question:

This is the message that we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light, and in him there is no darkness-none at all! (1 John 1:15)

Something else off topic, but what is it about tha allure of pluralism, that we have allowed faiths and thruths into our discourse?

You and Kt make an interesting point about structuralism and the contemporary milieu.

Structuralism predates Sartre though, and the two streams of existentialism/epistemology continue to colour this conversation. Are they a binary opposition?

Following up an earlier point about God not being labeled, in Hebrew there are many names for God that name His attributes - Saviour, Healer, Provider, Lord of Hosts, Holy God.

But when Paul went to the Greeks, he returned to the idea of the "unknown God" (Acts 17:23-27) - the uncontainable, uncreated God whom we can still find when we look for him...

chris van allsburg said...

Jon,
I think the reason I mentioned Ps 14 and the fool, is because it fits the binary idea you are talking about. That is, it serves as an example of what you might perceive as that.

I use this illustration to show that the bible uses absolutes, bifurcations, lines of demarcation and specific categories when talking about knowledge, life, and ultimate reality.

Words can have a wide semantic range without us having to blend the interpretations of the word and consequently the essence of the word into an absense of a concrete ideal and subsequent meaninglessness--which is what i think is one of the faults of postmodernism (there , indeed, are good things about PM).

When PS 14 uses "fool" it speaks in terms of a moral judgment. When Paul uses the word "fool" in 1 cor 4, he is using sarcasm. He uses the same word in Romans 1 to describe, imho, a moral as well as an intellectual corrupt human race.

So my point is that the word "fool" has a specific category of meaning, and like most words, can be used with wide semantic range. so the word still employs the use of binary, categorical meaning.

(Also, I don't keep epistemology and ethics as separate categories. I see them as flowing in and out of each other. i.e. there is an "oughtness" to our knowledge claims, and thus our epistemic theories have ethical import).

cheers,
chris

hoosier reborn said...

Jonathan,

Being an architect, I had to comment on the statement about creating sacred spaces. This is at the very heart of my pursuit as an architect and is actually "prescribed" by one leading architectural philospher, Christopher Alexander. Albeit, Alexander does not draw a line of distinction between the religious and non-religious. He implores the architectural community to create sacred places regardless of the genre of architecture. Creating such spaces lift the soul, he states, a spiritual experience. While I believe churches can take the responsibility of creating these spaces, they may be more apt at creating spaces for celebration..mostly different than spaces for contemplation/silence; both are necessary and acceptable to me. Alas, our society fails miserably at creating sacred spaces, and in the case of nature, preserving these spaces. We are too wasteful, and with immediate gratification at our core, too lazy to even pause for such reflection. Thanks...you've given me a great post idea. And I like what you've done with your site.

kurt

Derd said...

Jason Mraz's poststructuralist song:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7l74d1fmZbw