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.

[Link to beginning of article]                    [Link to next part]


Big Myk said...

Defining God as that which calls existence into being has some resonance with Heidegger (although he would deny it). Heidegger distinguishes "sein" (translated as Being with a capitol B) from "seiendes" (individual beings or entities). Although he's pretty caging about what Being is, he says that Being is not something like a being. It's what "determines beings as beings." It's the condition that allows a being to be. My Heidegger professor said that you might think of Being as the process by which entities come into being. Heidegger also talked about Being as the event of the manifestation of beings, the clearing which permits beings to be manifest. While Heidegger adamently rejected any noting that his Being was God, it's a tempting notion.

But the problem of using God as the answer to the question "why is there something rather than nothing," simply kicks the question down the road. If God is something, why does God exist? (Science has the same problem, by the way. You can try to explain the universe popping into existence by quantum theory or some other scientific principle, but scientific laws are things, too -- how did they come into being?)

Anyway, here is Jim Holt's account of his inquiry into this question:

So I called a professor of philosophical theology at the University of Virginia. I asked him if the fact that there was something rather than nothing could be explained by invoking a deity whose essence entailed his existence. "Are you kidding?" he said "God is so perfect He doesn't have to exist."

Then on the street in Greenwich Village, I ran into a Zen Buddhist scholar who had been introduced to me once at a cocktail party as an authority on mystical matters. After a little chitchat, I asked him -- perhaps, in retrospect, a bit precipitately -- why there is something rather than nothing. He tried to bop me on the head. He must have thought it was a Zen koan.

Finally, I rung up a philosopher at Columbia, about the deepest intellect I know. I said I was at the end of an essay about a metaphysical question and the waters were fast rising up around me. When I told him the question, his response was vehement and almost churlish: "Who says there is not nothing?"

James R said...

First of all, you give a pretty good expression of Heidegger's views on being—in a paragraph! Of course there is much, much more, but I have tried, because of space and interest, to keep all of this philosophically and theologically lite—probably with limited success. Hopefully everyone understands, the difference between "a being" and "being" or existence itself. You mention the distinction in a comment to the St. Anselm's definition of God. I have been giving subtle hints, as in apostatizing "a being" from how we think of God.

If you think I am invoking Heidegger in some sort of resonance with Ulanowicz's or St. Paul's definition, then you are being too kind in your comment. One of the few things we can definitely say about Heidegger is that Being, for him, is not God. While your professor, Richardson, uses a similar metaphor as Bob Ulanowicz is using—coming vs. calling—I give him the benefit of the doubt that he is describing God as the calling, not as a being. As I say in the post I see no reason why we should infer that this God is a being. But I hope I did not give any indication that this definition is in any way related to Heidegger's thinking.

Your problem of using God as the answer to the question "why is there something rather than nothing" is the whole point of invoking Heidegger! I'm not introducing Heidegger to discuss being, as much as I would like, but to introduce the huge problem in positing a God who, as you say pulls itself into being. Heidegger uses the latin causa sui. From "Identity and Difference", he states, "Before the causa sui man can neither fall to his knees nor sing and dance. . . .
Therefore, the god-less thinking which must abandon the God of philosophy, God as causa sui, is perhaps closer to the divine God."

I'm only referencing Heidegger to call suspicion on this definition and to anticipate the next one. (For not being a theologian Heidegger strangely influenced just about all western theologians who followed him.)

Big Myk said...

It would be interesting to explore further where Heidegger is going with the abandonment of God as causa sui. But, according to Hans Jonas, Heidegger subordinates God to Being and effectively turns God into a being. My professor, William Richardson, and also a Jesuit (another Fordham philosopher), on the other hand, claimed that Heidegger wants "to guard against the radical transcenence of God whose voice comes not out of Being but breaks into the kingdom of Being from without." The problem is, if God is outside Being but simply allows Himself to enter Being in order to be present to Dasein, that means he most fundamentally is not. Or, put another way, there is no God.

James R said...


(You know Heidegger too well. Both his writings and the huge stir and interpretations he has caused. With Heidegger, I'm reminded of the scene in The Devil Wears Prada where Miranda Priestly/Meryl Streep goes off on why you picked out that precise shade of blue sweater at Sears. I'm sure I'm wrong on the details. But the point is that no one pays attention to the original designer, but the repercussions are throughout society without us realizing it.)