People often tell me that I have a skewed view of religion because of my frequent participation in creationist gatherings. Yes, obviously, the fundamentalists are out of their minds, and it is discouraging that they give religion a bad name generally. But there is also a rich body of serious, probing work in Christian theology that is full of nuance and texture.
Or so I am told. I have yet to encounter it, and not for lack of looking. To me it always seems like an awful lot of intellectual energy wasted on a foolish and pointless project.
Part of the problem is that often, when I read books and essays written by devotees of the more sophisticated sorts of religion, they speak in ways I simply do not understand. The words on the page obviously held some meaning for the person who wrote them, but to me they are rather more opaque.
As a case in point, take this essay by Nathan Schneider from Sunday’s New York Times.
Schnieder opens with a few words about the ontological argument for God’s existence. A few paragraphs in we come to this:
It was the summer after I finished college, and I was passing a few weeks at home in Virginia before moving to California. I stretched out on the carpet floor of my old bedroom in the basement, reading Anselm’s “Proslogion,” finally, for the first time. Dangling on the lonely precipice between a certain past and a long, uncertain drive west, I thought back on the bizarre choice I’d wandered into, almost four years earlier, when I got myself baptized a Catholic. Now, moving far away, with the chance to start over, I started to wonder if I believed in any of it anymore. Did I still even think that God exists?
Anselm’s proof rained on me a drop of consolation. It filled my head enough to cover over the hollow low in my stomach.
That’s clear enough. A young man having a crisis of faith finding solace in the work of a great theologian. The trouble, though, is that whatever Anselm’s merits as a philosopher and theologian, the ontological argument just does not hold water. Schneider is aware of that. After a few more paragraphs about the argument he writes:
I let the rapture in his proof take hold of me. For passing moments, lying on my back with the book in my hands, I came to sense the whole enormity of a God wrapped around my little mind, like a lonesome asteroid must feel touching the gentle infinity of space. Then, always, my mind wandered elsewhere and I forgot some movement of the logic. The whole thing dissolved away, along with the sense of certainty. I started to remember the echo of Kant’s devastating complaint against Anselm: existence is not a predicate. God seemed to disappear.
That’s also pretty clear. Initially he was very taken with Anselm’s argument, and it helped to shore up his waning faith. Sadly, further thought and an understanding of at least one refutation of the argument showed him that the ontological argument is not very good, and his faith began to wane once more.
That’s where things get weird. the next paragraph is:
But I read on. I was reminded it wasn’t God’s existence that plagued Anselm — of that, he had no doubt — it was the phrasing. Modern arguments and evangelists and New Atheists have duped us into thinking that the interesting question is whether God exists; no, what mattered for Anselm was how we think about God and about one another.
Well, yes, actually I do think the interesting question is whether God exists. Where is he going with this?
When Anselm discovered his proof, he was still a precocious young monk in the quiet of a monastery. He loved silence and contemplation, yet constantly he reached out beyond it. The letters he wrote to far-flung friends in those years overflow with longing, in language eerily like what he used to describe his proof. “Everything I feel about you is sweet and pleasant to my heart,” Anselm wrote to another monk named Gundulf. “Whatever I desire for you is the best that my mind can conceive.” His passion in friendship is so palpable, and so unusual for its time, modern scholars have wondered whether these relationships were entirely celibate. (They probably were.)
The God he conjured in proof he had learned from his friends. The fullness, the absence, the solitude and the hunger — I recognized myself. The answer I found in his proof is no answer at all, no truly abstract, autonomous assurance that I can have all to myself. I have to stitch it out of memories, hopes and loved ones, as he did. It is no self-thinking thought; it’s a pleasure built out of language and sharing.
Setting off for a new place, I was saddled in the past, in what I had been and done. My conversion, and with it God, is not a thing I can live down, but something I’ll always have to live in, through and around. The very fact of it, that it happened at all, is a proof for its own ongoing existence.
What does that last sentence mean? To what does “it” refer? The best interpretation I can come up with is that in his past he had a conversion experience that convinced him of the reality of God. The very fact that this experience happened at all is, he believes, proof of God’s existence.
What, then, of his earlier crisis of faith and his search for a good argument for God’s existence? The sequence of events seems to be: He had a conversion experience, began to doubt its veracity, read Anselm and was initially taken with his ontological argument, decided the argument wasn’t so great after all, read more Anselm, decided it was best to take God’s existence as axiomatic, concluded that his conversion experience is proof all by itself that God is real.
For myself, I have never had any such conversion experience and theological writing has never had much emotional impact for me. I’m still stuck on the existence question. Shows you what a silly New Atheist I am.
We all have moments of fullness, absence, solitude and hunger, but what has that to do with God’s existence? And we all shape our views of life in part from our experiences, memories, friends and loved ones. Again, though, what has that to do with God? If the goal is to find meaning and purpose in life (which seems to be what Schneider has in mind) I fail to see how a God of uncertain existence provides much help.
But perhaps I have misinterpreted him in some way. Let me know what you think.