Sunday 16 March 2014

Speaking of God in the present tense

[I actually wrote this post last November and saved it as a draft (long before the recent pluralism hoopla, although it relates to those exact same issues).  I'd forgotten about it until now so it's just been sat there.  I'm not sure why I didn't post it originally.]

I am [or rather was!] just reading Isabelle Stengers' Thinking With Whitehead.  Actually, I am re-reading part of it.  I got about half way through it about 18 months ago and then gave up.  It is a tough read!

One thought: the even-handed way that Whitehead's God is treated is very interesting.  Not just for the ethically and politically 'diplomatic' reasons of engaging with values, nor simply for the scholarly reasons of articulating a philosophy in its own terms without reactionary judgement.

God is an awfully difficult figure to kill off.  First of all in philosophical terms.  He has played some kind of role in most philosophies.  Sometimes He was largely a political addendum designed to ward off accusations of heresy (often unsuccessfully).  However, quite often His presence was a technical necessity.  So it is for Whitehead (according to Stengers).  That technical requirement needs to be taken seriously.  We cannot simply assume that the heart of these philosophies can be ripped out and there will be no adverse consequences.  "I am afraid we cannot get rid of God because we still believe in grammar," as Nietzsche put it.  How many traces of God remain in our allegedly secular discourses because we believed that mere disavowal would be sufficient to drive a stake through His heart?

Second, in terms of sociology.  Religion has performed far more profound functions in our history than simply being a bunch of explanatory tenets that people 'hold.'  Human beings are not analytical philosophers.  The intensely political elements of religion can't be written off just by appeal to the crimes of this confluence.  The Inquisition doesn't prove or disprove anything in and of itself, nor do the Crusades.

Not only do we still believe in grammar but we structure our entire civilisation around the Invisible Hand.  That is the major inheritance we have received from our religious 'past.'  Societies structured around the machinations of this ghostly spectre are, ironically, gradually made irreligious as they become socially atomised.  Why do so few Europeans of Christian genealogies religiously participate these days?  It is certainly not due to people getting more intelligent or rational.  Nor is it even entirely due to increased scientific education.  Few of us go to church any more.  That locus, that heart of the community beats ever slower, ever emptier.  That is our principle religious inheritance.  The Invisible Hand that gradually erodes the outstretched, visible hands of community.

There is so much more to God and to religion than in the atheists' imaginations - this I can believe.

Atheists and secularists of all stripes need to take God very seriously and not just as something to 'fight against.'  God is not nothing.  We may convince ourselves that the wind whistling through the rafters is not a ghostly howling - but we can hardly write off the eerie draughts as non-entities.  We cannot shunt the whole assemblage into a category marked 'non-existent' and then forget about it.  We would be replacing draughts with a vacuum.  Likewise with God.  We needn't accept either the all powerful, transcendent God of Religion or the fragile, immanent God of certain philosophers but we would do well to heed the various philosophical, political, cultural, social Gods who have been very real within our communities in the past (and remain so in the present).

We may insist that God is an unholy amalgam but we should not write those parts off as trivial, nor expect that we will not miss them, nor arrogantly assume that they can be so easily replaced.