Thursday, March 28, 2013

It's All Over But The Shoutin'

Nate Silver is never wrong.  He has no bias (or so he claims); he just looks at numbers.  His state-by-state predictions in the last presidential  election were frighteningly accurate.  He even accurately predicted this year's Oscar winners -- at least in those categories for which he said he had enough data.

So, I've found myself not worrying so much about  the outcome of the same sex marraige cases just argued before the Supreme Court, either Hollingsworth v. Perry, challenging California’s Prop 8, or United States v. Windsor, challenging DOMA.  In a sense, thanks to Silver, we've already been to the mountaintop on this one.  We can see the promised land, and it really doesn't matter what happens with these cases now. 

Back in 2011, Silver projected public support for same sex marriage using mathematical analysis way too complicated for me.  Here are his predictions, if ballot initiatives were held on same sex marriage every four years: 

In 2004, only 33% of Americans polled supported same-sex marriage.  Support for same-sex marriage then began to rise at a rate of about 2 percentage points a year, growing to an average of 37 percent in polls conducted in 2006, and 41 percent in polls conducted in 2008. It has continued to increase at about the same rate since then. At some point in 2010 or 2011, support began to outweigh opposition.  Among the 37 polls conducted since 2012, all but four have shown more Americans supporting same-sex marriage than opposed to it. As Silver shows in his analysis, there is no reason to think that this linear progression will not continue.

Jeffrey Toobin sums it up quite nicely:  "The question about marriage equality for all Americans is not if it will pass but when. The country has changed, and it’s never going back to the way it was. Though the battles continue, the war is over." 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Original Shakespeare

Some highly unusual Shakespeare was performed at the O'Reilly Theater today. I joined Peter and Lisa and Martin in watching Liberty School participants compete for the grand Shakespearean prize of Pittsburgh. The star of the show was the precociously gifted Michael in the roll of Juliet in a scene from Romeo and Juliet.

We all know that originally Shakespearean females were played by males. Michael's group of four went one better. In true Shakespearean tradition all the sexes got mixed up. Juliet's tyrannical father was a suitably overbearing (on stage) girl to Michael's weeping Juliet. The father's wife and Juliet's maid were both males. Barely two words were out of Michael's mouth when one of the judges just lost it and let out a howl. I suspect this gang of four will be back for an encore. If Shakespeare has been fading lately in our culture, he just got a big boost.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Harvey March Madness Bracket Challenge

If anyone would like to take part in the Harvey Family & Friend's March Madness Bracket Challenge, I created a group here:

You just need to sign up using your email address or facebook.  The password to join the group is harvey.  The tournament starts on the 21st I think, so get them in!  Each person can submit up to two brackets.  It makes watching the games a little more exciting. Obviously, anyone is welcome to join- they would just need the link and password.

Hope everyone is well!


The Top Ten Definitions of God - 1

1. God is that which destroys all gods which we might ever want to use as cover or as justification for our actions
— Michael L. Harvey, holy man

Nepotism be damned. The number one definition for God comes not from a (canonized) saint or (as yet) famous philosopher, but from our own midst. Perhaps it was revealed by the Loving Surprise Herself. It is so great I need another top 10 list of reasons why:

10. Like The active relation between ideal and actual, it can appeal to both sides, the simple atheist and the simple believer. Wait! It can even appeal to those seeking more educated answers than either of those certainties. There is no dogma or doctrine involved. It is non denominational.

9. Like God is the great companion—the fellow-sufferer who understands, it focuses on what God does, i.e. destroys, not what God is. God is not an aloof, static entity, but a continual force, one event after another, and each event is personal in which we have an active roll. Further, it promotes the give-and-take relationship with God. We recognize that without God there is no us, but, perhaps more important, without us, there is no God.

8. Like There is no God but God, it avoids the idolatry of giving God attributes. It has scriptural backing of all the world's major religions. All warn against idolatry. All hold us accountable for our actions.

7. Like the Tao Te Ching, it provides the way. It is not metaphysical, as much as ethical. It is not intellectual, as much as psychological. It is an operational definition, challenging us to find the way of God.

6. Like God is that which calls us into being, it is understandable without a degree in theology, philosophy or a deep knowledge of scripture. It requires no elaborate metaphysical scaffolding. It is practically self evident.

5. Like God does not exist, it is not pantheistic or humanistic or onto-theological by turning God into the universe or what we learn from the universe or some philosophical construct. In fact it does what practically no other definition does—constantly warns us against the idolatry of making God into our desired image.

4. Like God is the mother of all metaphors, it does not embrace a particular religion or doctrine. On the contrary, it unequivocally addresses the common (mis)conceptions that religion is based on certainty or that it is a set of beliefs. It explicitly tells us we cannot rely on a set of rules or beliefs when dealing with God.

3. Like God is love, it makes a difference in living our life. It calls us to action. What need is there for a God that doesn't change our life? It is not self-referential by simply saying God is unknowable. In fact it is quite specific and personal. An impersonal God is useful only in theological arguments.

2. Like God is surprise, it is mysterious and completely unfair (in human terms). We are thrown into a situation (life) for which we have no cause nor responsibility, yet are called to be responsible—that's so typically God.

1. Most importantly God is not irrelevant, nor even ancillary. God is the primary force in keeping you from making excuses for your behavior. It reminds us that God's only importance is influencing how we live, how compassionate we are, how much we take responsibility for our actions. If God doesn't change our life, as defined here, then God has no purpose, which is infinitely more important than God's existence.

I'd like to end by encouraging thought and criticism. Myk's Santayana comment under God is Love nails the purpose of this series and, indeed, the purpose of philosophy and theology in general. Unlike science, philosophy adds no new facts, but it does something more powerful and dangerous. It changes us. It makes the familiar strange. It distances us from our settled beliefs. Philosophy should come with a warning: Herein lies lost innocence. Like the last definition, it destroys our comfort of certainty. And there is no guarantee that the change makes us better. It could make us worse.

In fact, a common reaction to philosophy or theology—or this top ten list, might very well be: what's the point? It's just a lot of bullshit—all fluff, with no answers. We've been asking the same questions for thousands of years and, if this list is any indication, we haven't settled anything. Well, philosophy has a word for that. It's called skepticism. It can paralyze us with apathy or despair. Philosophy also can respond to skepticism. I'll let Immanuel Kant handle it, "Simply to acquiesce in skepticism can never suffice to overcome the restlessness of reason.”

So I challenge you to pursue "the restlessness of reason". Hopefully, we are now asking better questions. Yet, there is something radically more important than all the philosophical enquiries we can ask. As stimulating as this list may be in catching a glimpse into what religious experts have said about God, it means nothing without acting. Karen Armstrong sums it up with her criticism of the religious, though it could be said of everyone: "a lot of religious people would rather be right than compassionate." You can't be right, but you can choose to be more compassionate. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Top Ten Definitions of God - 2

2. God is surprise 
—David Steindl-Rast, Benedictine monk
The definition is itself a surprise! Throughout this list we've felt the continual undercurrent of God as other, unknown, and what God is not—even to the point of not existing. Now we find interfaith Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast asserting, "The only name that does not limit God — is Surprise." From the moment we are born to the moment we die, this is how we know God. From existence to science to imagination to, well, life, it's one surprise after another. And even the repetition of, say, the sun coming up each morning, is a surprise beyond anyone's wildest imagination. Heaven is always depicted as solid on a deep foundation of serious and stable truth—in short, boring. Where does that come from?—not from our experience. I picture heaven as an infinite ring circus where each surprise tops the last. God is action, creativity and riddles.

Surprise is eye-opening action, and only through God's act can we talk of God, said Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann. Like others we have seen, he preached that God was, by definition, 'wholly other'. However, he not only stripped away the metaphysical doctrines of the church fathers, but also the mythological and historical stories of the Gospels—surprising for a Biblical scholar. In this Bultmann may have gone further than any other theologian in opposing idolatries of God. You would think that no theologian could go beyond "God does not exist", but Bultmann, it could be argued, asserted that everyone, who thought of God as something, or even acting, in the world, was an atheist or idolater. "To be sure, it is wanton and shameful to proceed from some fixed concept of God.", and "God is not the essence and origin of the word of mind of which humanism speaks.", and for Biblical scholars and pantheists, "God's revelation can never be in history. . . . God's revelation is not at the beck and call of human criteria: it is not phenomenon within the world, but his act alone."

According to Bultmann, we can only speak of what God does to us. "Since human life is lived out in time and space, man's encounter with God can only be a specific event here and now." To my mind, 'surprise' seems to capture the essence of that event. Bultmann writes, "Indeed, what is God, if not the infinite fullness of all the powers of life that rage around us and take our breath away, filling us with awe and wonder? . . . who is full of creative might and joy, of endless forms and riddles?" God is not only surprise, but your own personal surprise.

Surprise is not an idea or thing, but an event; it is not just an event, but our personal reaction to an event; it is not belief or dogma, but a challenge to accept and understand. Surprise, by definition, is born of the unknown, but it is we who give it meaning.

For some surprising reason, until recently, we thought that assigning a logical explanation to how the heavens go, i.e. planetary motion or evolution or electromagnetic fields, explained away the (God of) surprise—as if consistency denies wonder. Even Chesterton, the prince of paradox, did not go far enough. He believed "mathematical and logical sequences" are fundamentally true and necessary in Elfland as in our world. "Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne: and we in fairyland submit." He couldn't foresee that science and quantum logic would surprisingly question human logic. (No cards or letters please. I, and more importantly Bultmann, do not imply that the loss of current human logic in any way proposes that God is now back running the universe, as some 'religious' people believe. He may or may not be, but theologian Bultmann says only science explains the universe, not God, and if you think God runs the universe, that is idolatry.) The point is, if you think everything can be explained logically, be prepared for a surprise.

God is even surprise to holy men and theologians and, yes, atheists. It's surprising how much our notions of God have changed over the years. Certainly it's surprising to an atheist to discover that he has been both right and a believer at the same time when he learns from Tillich that "God does not exist." It reminds me of an old sufi story (on which I will take poetic license):

Mullah  Hodja sat on a river bank when an atheist shouted to him from the opposite side: "Hey! how do I get to the other side?"
"You are on the other side!" Hodja shouted back.
And here's another sufi surprise:
Mullah Hodja was serving as qadi (judge) listening to a case. (It may have been about God's identity.) After hearing the plaintiff present his side, Hodja remarked, “You’re right.”  
Then, after the defendant had presented his case, Hodja again remarked, “Yes, you’re right.”   
All the people in the court rose up and shouted, “that doesn’t make any sense—how can both the defendant and plaintiff be right?” 
“You know what?” the mullah responded. “You’re right, too!”
As theologian Karl Barth said, "The Gospel [God] is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths."

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Top Ten Definitions of God - 3

3. God is love
—St. John the apostle, 4:8, 4:16
This may be the most generally accepted definition in the top ten. Plus, it finally got a saint on the list. But, why is it so acceptable? Love, i.e. agapao (compassion, kindness, charity), is a very human trait and applying it to God seems suspicious. "God is love" makes little sense for a monotheistic God. How can a monad be selfless love? Christianity cleverly addressed the issue by positing "three persons in one God." It is that communion of three persons in one that allows love. But that strikes me as a bit of trickery at best. On the other hand, we probably should take a closer look, since any definition that makes perfect human sense inevitably makes a perfectly nonsensical God.

One reason it is accepted is that every major religion embraces love in its center. Sure there are plenty of instances in the various scriptures of violence, racism, bigotry, contemptuousness of women, and hostility toward free inquiry—and that's just from God. But the big picture, at least compared to what else was going at the time, is remarkable in its promotion of love—for one's neighbor and often even for one's enemy. Where does this come from? Currently all things seek a Darwinian explanation, but if we turn to On the Origin of Species we find, on the contrary, an emphasis on competition and natural selection. Darwin himself doubted an "omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice." Well, most of us would choose different examples of pain and suffering in our world, but Darwin's example works just as well.

But even Darwin states in The Descent of Man: “Important as the struggle for existence has been and even still is, yet as far as the highest part of our nature is concerned there are other agencies more important. For the moral qualities are advanced either directly or indirectly much more through the efforts of habit, by our reasoning powers, by instruction, by religion, etc., than through natural selection.”

And though it might surprise us that Darwin thought love and morality were more important than natural selection for advancing our species, if we look at our lives, we realize that astonishingly we see love everywhere. Lack of love as witnessed on nightly news is the aberrant exception from our daily associations with family, friends and colleagues.  In fact more than any other idea or concept, our lives could be said to be driven by the love of others and our need to be loved. This obsession with love seems pretty strange in a cold, uncaring universe. Or put another way, our universe appears quite different than the observable universe.

French philosopher Michel Henry recognized this duality of viewing the world. There were two modes of manifestation, he said: 'exteriority', the visible world; and phenomenological 'interiority', which is the mode by which we manifest life. He defines God in a phenomenological point of view similarly to Tillich: "Life loves itself with an infinite love and never ceases to engender itself; . . . Life is nothing but this absolute love that religion calls God."

If primitive man projected an omnipotent and all powerful masque beyond the planets, then today we project the God-dance of love. And nowhere is this expressed as well as in the truly remarkable 14th century anonymous mystic text, The Cloud of Unknowing:

You will ask me, 'How am I to think of God himself, and what is he?' and I cannot answer you except to say 'I do not know!' for with this question you have brought me into the same darkness, the same cloud of unknowing where I want you to be! For though we through the grace of God can know fully about all other matters, and think about them - yes, even the very works of God himself - yet of God himself can no one think. Therefore I will leave on one side everything I can think, and choose for my love that thing which I cannot think! Why? 
For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

One sentence to rule them all

Today's The Daily Dish had a comment by Ron Fournier who saw, in a NYT article about papal politics, a universality among our institutions. Fournier points out that this sentence in the NYT article could be used for almost any organization:
“The next pontiff must unite an increasingly globalized church paralyzed by scandal and mismanagement under the spotlight in a fast-moving media age.”
For example:
“The next governor must unite an increasingly globalized state paralyzed by scandal and mismanagement under the spotlight in a fast-moving media age.”

Fournier's noble purpose was to criticize institutions in all walks of life, from governments to businesses to charitable organizations, in their failure promote their purpose rather than the power of the organization. He is losing hope in our big organizations.

I have a more modest interest: to save time and effort on the part of the reading and writing public. Can we make one sentence that we can just re-use for every news story? Think of the time savings in this age where time savings is our mantra. I modified the NYT's sentence a bit:

The next [noun] must unite an increasingly contentious [noun] paralyzed by mismanagement and misinformation under the spotlight in a fast-moving media age.

Let's give it an ultimate test of sorts right away:
"The next sentence must unite an increasingly contentious readership paralyzed by mismanagement and misinformation under the spotlight in a fast-moving media age."

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Top Ten Definitions of God - 4

4. God is a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought. It's as simple as that. 
—Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) writer of comparative mythology and religion

Well, not quite that simple. I think he meant to add:
Everything else is a metaphor for that which does not.

Campbell's definition, I admit, lacks a certain je ne sais quoi to achieve the number 4 spot. However, after Tillich, it became fashionable to argue the merits of a metaphorical vs. an ontological God. It's hard to say whether Tillich's God was not ontological, but Campbell's is definitely metaphorical. So I place it after Tillich where it gains some depth and diversity. 

What is important is not that God is metaphorical, but what that means. And here (Renée, are you reading?), we need to dip into epistemology. 

From Language, Mind and Culture, linguist Zoltan Kovecses writes, “External reality does exist, but we have access to it only in our particularly human ways. We see categories in the world only as a result of our uniquely human experiences. . . . The world, for us, is a ‘projected’ reality that human beings ‘imaginatively’ create.”  Kovecses goes on to say that "The  processes by which we 'create' the world include “categorization based on prototypes, organizing knowledge in terms of frames, and understanding experience through metaphors.”

Rabbi Toba Spitzer tells us in "God & Metaphor" that the challenge for the early Torah writers was how to represent "the impossible contraction of the verb 'to be' . . . Y-H-W-H . . . in words, in stories, in prayers?. . . . Our ancestors' answer was: with lots and lots of different images—with metaphors, that is."

However, unlike science which readily replaces old metaphors, such as ether, with new ones like fields, religion stumbled. "Through the influence of Greek ideas that made their way into both Jewish and Christian philosophy, we got the notion that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, unchanging and perfect. This sadly was not a God of many metaphors, but a philosophical abstraction that has caused a lot of trouble." writes Rabi Spitzer. 

Campbell was not a theologian, but his study of religions led him to the same conclusion. He felt that any idea of God is not God. "Catholic nuns do not have visions of the Buddha, nor do Buddhist nuns have visions of Christ." Any such God must therefore be a metaphor. "For any god who is not transparent to transcendence is an idol, and its worship is idolatry", he writes. Curiously, this is a recognized statement of truth for all the major religions from Hinduism to Sufi Islam to the Christianity of Saint Thomas Aquinas to Judaism. Yet, sadly, it is not much emphasized today. 

Many would consider Campbell a humanist rather than religious, but while he loved the humanities, he did not embrace Dewey or the many varieties of humanism. On the other hand, it certainly was not the supernatural that inspired him, but rather "the supernatural wonder of being which is for me the richest gift . . . of human experience." Humanism seemed a "stilted tradition . . . not open to the winds of mystery and rapture that are synonymous with the breath of life. For nature is to me supernatural in its mystery, and absolutely so." 

I'm intrigued by his phrase, "the supernatural wonder of being" so in an attempt to spiff up his definition, I'd like to suggest the more memorable:

4.1 God is the mother of all metaphors

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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Short Poems

About 10 days ago, I heard an installment of NPR's "Talk of the Nation" which focused on short poems.  The guest on the show was Brad Leithauser, a novelist and poet, who had recently written a piece for The New Yorker's Page-Turner blog entitled In Praise of Concision, where he discussed how profound short poems can be.  

Reportedly, Marilyn Monroe once remarked that she enjoyed reading poetry “because it saves time.”  If poetry is "the chiseled marble of language," these poems have been chiseled more than most.

One of the poems mentioned on the show was The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams:  

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

I remember from my childhood Bill drilling into me the significance of this poem:  how in just a few spare lines it evoked the entire panorama of farmlife.

Leithauser also discussed a poem I hadn't heard before.  I guess that I'm just an old softy, but I really liked it. It sort of had the defiance of John Donne's "Death Be Not Proud."

Jenny kiss'd Me by Leigh Hunt

Jenny kiss'd me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss'd me,
Say I'm growing old, but add,
Jenny kiss'd me.
Leithauser also mentioned Dorothy Parker, but failed to point out her best short poem, "Resumé."

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
Finally, one from the Greek poet Sapphos not mentioned:
Death is an evil; the gods have so judged; had it been good, they would die.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Top Ten Definitions of God - 5

5. God does not exist. 
—Paul Tillich (1886-1965) Lutheran minister, philosopher and theologian

Also from Tillich:

"The God of theism is dead" 

"God is the symbol for God."

The idea of a rationally constructed theistic God, a being with attributes, was repugnant to Paul Tillich. It's as if Christopher Hitchens got his ideas from the minister's lectures: "God appears as the invincible tyrant, the being in contrast with whom all other beings are without freedom and subjectivity. . . . This is the God Nietzsche said had to be killed. . . . This is the deepest root of atheism. It is an atheism which is justified as the reaction against theological theism and its disturbing implications."

God is not a being, says Tillich. "Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him." In other words by saying God exists you must mean something exists. However, God, insists Tillich, is not a something. God does not participate in existence as we or any something does. God is also not Being or existence for "existence refers to what is finite . . . and cut off from its true being."

However, the human situation reveals that "an awareness of the infinite is included in man's awareness of finitude." We can sense that existence hints at a reality upon which all else is based.  He maintains that we should "transcend the theistic idea of God" to a conception he calls the "God above the God of theism." Everything is a metaphor for God except, in Tillich's cherished phrase, "the ground of all being." God is not the fact of existence but the basis, the ground, upon which things exist.

He continually insisted that the existence of God is not open to argument, neither can it be proved or disproved. In fact Tillich felt the words "God" and "existence" should never appear together, except to say "God does not exist." So this is no parlor trick where God vanishes, but is brought back in the final reel. Well . . . God sort of comes back, but not as you would expect. God does not exist—period.

Once you understand that God does not exist, then, he says, "The name of the infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of our being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern. . . . If one could say "life has no depth! Life itself is shallow. Being itself is surface only", then, "if you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not."

The depth and ground of life points to "ultimate concern". Thus our notion of God is tied to our notion of what we have faith in that concerns us unconditionally. What is life's ultimate concern or meaning? (Obviously, this could be knowledge, or power, or nationalism, or even wealth.) As Tillich says, "It is obvious that such an understanding of the meaning of God make the discussions about the existence or nonexistence of God meaningless. It is meaningless to question the ultimacy of an ultimate concern. . . ." He also says, “Man's ultimate concern must be expressed symbolically, because symbolic language alone is able to express the ultimate.”

Religion, felt Tillich, is both important in the practice of ritual—reminding us in our pursuit of "ultimate concern", but also one of the greatest dangers to religious life because of its rigidity and tendency to suppress the inquiry.

Karen Armstrong has a pertinent line in A History of God: “The only way to show a true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God’s existence.”

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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Top Ten Definitions of God - 6

6. God is that which calls us into being
— Bob Ulanowicz (University of Maryland Ecologist)

In a religious discussion group participants were asked to write down on a 3x5 card their view of God. Bob Ulanowicz's response makes it into the top ten—with an assist from St. Paul who in his letter to the Romans 4:17, writes of God who ". . . calls into being what does not exist." (I'm still looking for a saint.)

If we strip away thousands of years of western thought concerning the transcendent nature of God and reality, and Eastern thought about the immanent nature of God and reality, aren't we left with just one big elephant in the room—existence? Science is trying its darnedest to rationally explain essence, i.e. what exists, and does not feel it has the tools to deal with existence itself. Yet it is the one compelling fact that won't go away. Why not just start and end with that?

Existence is persistent and pervasive; pondered by every one of us as we take stock of our lives before falling asleep at night. Even if we do not have a poetic bone in our bodies; if we believe that all is as rational as billiard balls; even if we stubbornly hold to a completely understandable, finite world, we still run up against the ponderous problem of existence. What calls us or anything into existence? Isn't that why this word was invented in the first place?

Now I won't pretend this is any sort of validation of God. Yes, we have a very basic, intuitive understanding of existence in which we participate through no fault of our own, but, as we know, intuition is often faulty. And, who knows, we yet may find that science unwittingly has something to say about our notion of existence. Of course, it's possible that science may yet say something about our notion of science.

However, beyond this speculation, there is an even greater objection to any philosophically fashioned idea of God. In this case God is that which calls us into being is an intuitive active presence leaving open the rhyme and reason of the calling. Additionally, it is not some metaphysical being. But any rational attempt to construct God has a problem.

The objection is that any philosophical God is itself idolatry. 'Onto-theology' is a term originated by Immanuel Kant, but made famous by Martin Heidegger. It simply means the western tradition of metaphysics in developing a philosophical, rational theology and a humanly understandable God, e. g. the God of Aristotle or St. Anselm or Dewey.

I'll turn to Fordham professor emeritus Merold Westphal to explain Heidegger's objection:

First, it deprives the world of its mystery. Second, it gives us a God not worthy of worship. . . . no one would be tempted to pray or to sacrifice and that this God evokes neither awe nor music and dance. Onto-theology is hostile to piety. 
Third, having deprived the world of both its mystery and of a God worthy of worship, onto-theology opens the way for the unfettered self-assertion of the will to power in the form of modernity, namely the quest of science and technology to have everything at human disposal. This is the ultimate hubris of western humanity. . . .
Thus, again, we create God in our own image: God is what we reason God to be. Heidegger's objections to such a rational explanation of God caused some mighty peculiar repercussions that we will see as we breach the top five.

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Monday, March 4, 2013

The Top Ten Definitions of God - 7

7. Tao that can be tao'd is not constant tao
—Tao Te Ching, traditionally attributed to Lao Tzu, 6th-4th century B.C.
I'm kidding, slightly. The real, full definition is Tao Te Ching, chapter 1:

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.                              

Translated by Stephen Mitchell (1988)

Luckily we have expunged all previous ideas of God because we now take inscrutability to a new level. In fact one could argue that there is no God in Taoism; others insist there is; and still others say the question is pointless or only answerable by practicing Taoism. Yes, tao means 'way' but that is a translation. It may be thought of as a mass noun 'the way' as in a collection of ways. Secondly, western thought focuses on metaphysical or epistemological terms such as 'being' or 'truth' or 'meaning' while Taoism centers on the scarcely salient 'way', referencing ethics, politics, education, and psychology. Thirdly, tao or 'way' may be used as a verb. So the famous first line of the Tao Te Ching above can be, and has been, translated, "tao that can be tao'd is not constant tao".

This is just one of hundreds of translations of the Tao Te Ching—all different, often significantly. The ancient Chinese language in which the text was written does not lend itself to abstraction or logical structure. Each word is less a concrete idea than suggestive associations. This makes perfect sense in defining God, but "perfectly impossible" for a satisfactory translation, according to fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin, who has studied the Tao Te Ching for forty years and published her own translation. Notice the last word has been translated as both understanding and mystery—completely contradictory ideas in English. This could be the top definition if you learned ancient Chinese.

That you haven't is part of the reason it's here: we are reminded that God is a translation. That from ancient Chinese to English is impossible enough. That from God to language and the modality of thought is beyond impossible.

Of course any self respecting Taoist would laugh at this list since we are wanting a definition of God, and according to Le Guin's translation, "the ever-wanting soul sees only what it wants." Finally, in accord with the laughing Taoist, I'd like to share another passage from Tao Te Ching:

When the lofty hear of Way they devote themselves.
When the common hear of Way they wonder if it's real or not.
When the lowly hear of Way they laugh out loud.
Without that laughter, it wouldn't be Way

[Note concerning tao as a verb: More and more as we proceed through this list, we will find that God seems less a noun than a verb. However, even in this age of google and friend, though many write about God as a verb, they don't mean it nor practice it. Whether through lack of commitment,  intelligence, or proof-reading, how curious is it to read article after article arguing that God is a verb and seeing it used only as a noun! Here might be the first time: "There is no reason to believe the universe was created, and neither was it Godded. On the contrary, it Gods." or "God that thought." or "The sign read 'No frisbee playing or disrobing on the beach'. Thank goodness it said nothing about Godding." or, finally, "After throwing the winning touchdown pass, any thought of supernatural assistance or personal blessing was Godded from him immediately."]

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Friday, March 1, 2013

The Top Ten Definitions of God - 8

8. There is No God but God 
—The Qur'an, 610-632 A.D. 
Islam in many ways remains the least complicated of the major religions. Central to Islam is the oneness of God—no human attributes, no dimensions in time or space, no personalities, no images—Islam still emphasizes what God is not, not what God is. It could be argued that no definition better expresses God. As Reza Aslan says in his book titled the same as the definition, "Even the Quran . . . lacks the capacity to shed light upon God's essence. As one Sufi master has argued, why spend time reading a love letter . . . in the presence of the Beloved who wrote it?"

Islam may say it best, but I suspect (without studying every one) all religions contain this denial of knowing or understanding God. Buddhism even takes this a step further to the point where it is unclear if there is a God. For all other religions which profess the fundamental inscrutability of God, that's an enviable goal to follow. Religion is contradictory. What could be more so than Hinduism with its panoply of gods, and yet in Hindu writings one of the most common phrases is "neti, neti", not this, not this. In Christianity a central statement is the Apostles' Creed which begins "I believe" followed by a whole litany of objective truths about God. This completely contradicts practically all church leaders including Thomas Aquinas who said things like "We cannot know in what consists the essence of God". "There is no God but God" tries to counteract all the idolatries which inevitably keep popping up when you are trying to defined the undefinable.

In the spirit of Lent, the time when we interrupt our normal routine, this definition invites us to apostatize all our images and ideas of God, both from childhood and later study. A person—out; a being—out; creator—out; perfect—out; omniscient—out; omnipresent—out; great—out; vast tapioca pudding—out. And why not? We know for certain that our image of God is wrong. Once we can truly grasp this Islamic definition, then others will come easier and make more sense.

In good Islamic tradition I must include a few sufi quotes on God:
"Silence is the language of God,
all else is poor translation."   — Rumi

"Whatever you think concerning God—know that he is different from that!"   — Ahmad Ibn Ata'Allah

"What limits God? His name."   — Hazrat Inayat Khan

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