The Corner


Bad Theology, Bad Atheism

The Talmud (Wikimedia)

“Why is there anything rather than nothing?” Accept the question as a koan, not a challenge to debate, and you will have a mystical experience, although you may need to walk away from your screen, still your mind, and sit alone quietly in your room for a few minutes before the strange wonder that the question points to begins to register.

The “answer” to the question is not a proposition. It’s an experience — of astonishment, as you stop in your tracks before the inscrutable reality that things . . . exist, your own self being the thing you feel most keenly. You didn’t will yourself into existence. How did you get here? Look to your parents, and from there to their parents, and so on, back to . . . primordial dust? The Big  Bang? Bracket for a moment the question of what we should call the thing where that regression into the past comes to its final stop. Bracket the question of what the thing is exactly. That it was there, rather than not there — that’s the stubborn mystery.

Give a non-theistic cosmologist that one free miracle, the mystery of being, and he’ll explain the rest. The rest is what he’s interested in anyway. Those who dwell on the one free miracle, meanwhile, are liable to find that it never gets old, that it moves them on occasion to blurt, mentally or out loud, something like “Oh my God.”

Did someone say “God”? Here we go.

These days the most common arguments for atheism involve the assumption that God is an idealized imaginary person whose name Christians and other monotheists robotically plug in as the answer to the big ontological question, Why isn’t there nothing? Any theists who do that shouldn’t, and no atheist should accept them as spokespeople for what he thinks he’s arguing against, because they’re all too happy to join him in missing the point. The decline of sound popular theology is reflected in the poor quality of our atheism, which consists of a growing number of people rejecting an insufficiently thought-through understanding of God and thinking that’s that. A few polemical atheists may dumb down their understanding of God on purpose, to make their work easier, but I’m inclined to think that on the whole they’re sincere.

I give the benefit of the doubt to Peter Atterton, a professor of philosophy at San Diego State University. In an opinion piece in the New York Times on Monday, he runs through a list of attributes that philosophers over the centuries have speculated that God must possess.

Atterton asks whether God could make a rock heavier than He could lift. If He couldn’t, He wouldn’t be omnipotent. If He could, He still wouldn’t be omnipotent, because what He couldn’t do in that case was lift the rock. The paradox has been batted around over the centuries. The question at the heart of it, of course, is not about God but about omnipotence: Is the concept self-contradictory?

In Catholic elementary school, a classmate of mine posed that question to a priest once, about the rock. As I recall, the priest was respectful and patient as he answered the kid but slightly bemused. He and the kid were playing a certain game of catch, a practice so longstanding you could call it a tradition. You can imagine Thomas Aquinas and his students tossing that ball back and forth at the Angelicum or the Sorbonne in the 13th century.

Atterton takes up the question as his segue to a riff on theodicy, which many theists would agree is where a certain conventional understanding of God, as both all-good and almighty, becomes difficult to support. If God was able to create a world in which creatures had perfect free will but from which evil was absent, why didn’t He? The conflict between our understanding of the good and our experience of evil in everyday life — not just moral evil but also natural evil, the cancer that cuts short the life of a child, the storm that wipes out a seaside village — leads us to doubt God’s helpfulness to us. If you look for a God who arranged the events of human history so that the Holocaust never happened, you won’t find Him. If you look for a God who didn’t tell Abraham to kill his son, you won’t find that God either.

Insofar as Atterton reminds complacent theists that this problem persists, he performs a service, although most of his theist readers are probably already familiar with the Psalms or otherwise have grappled with the inescapable truth that God and evil are simultaneously real. As soon as we try to sketch the nature of God, we encounter difficulties and contradictions. Apophatic theology, based on the idea that the best we can do in this regard is specify what is not true of God, has the advantage of doing less than almost any other kind of theology does to obscure His mystery, by which I mean the mystery of being, the mystery that there is anything at all rather than nothing.

That’s the heart of the matter about God. If only those who believe they are atheists would address it with clear eyes and without rancor. Their case against “the God of faith” is usually clear. Their case against “the God of the philosophers” suffers from a failure to engage the ontological question head-on and stems, as far as I can tell, from an incomplete understanding of “God” as a philosophical term, which is a placeholder. God’s name is not “God.” “I Am Who Am” is. I wrote about this several years ago.

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