Thursday, 24 March 2011

On the Absence and Unknowability of God

One of the weird things about Western theology is how completely it ignores the existence of Orthodox Church. People often talk about the difference between Catholics and Protestants as though they're the only sort of Christians. The Orthodox have various responses to this oversight on our part: sometimes they ignore us right back, sometimes they take revenge by arguing that everything that is wrong with the world is the fault of the West.

Christos Yannaras is one of the people we perhaps shouldn't ignore. In the Orthodox Church he's like Rowan Williams crossed with Stanley Hauerwas crossed with John Milbank. Maybe. Andrew Louth says that he is 'without doubt the most important living Greek Orthodox theologian'. Bet you feel about about not having heard about him now, huh?

Yannars' On the Absence and Unknowability of God takes a classic contemporary Orthodox-theological approach: he highlights a problem in Western thought, explaining why it's the Catholics' fault, and argues that if we'd just stayed Orthodox everything would have been fine. In this case, the problem is the death of God. Nietzsche announced that God was dead, and he's sometimes blamed for the subsequent growth of atheism in the West. But Heidegger argues that it's not Nietzsche's fault: all he was doing was prophetically announcing the imminent failure of European metaphysics. He says that European thought has basically turned God into nothing more than an anchor for everything else: God is there so we can explain why the universe made sense, so we can say that there's some original source from which everything else comes. God is the answer which puts a stop to the endless question: but why? Eventually, the answer is 'Because God'. Why do we exist? Because God created us. How can we trust our reason? Because God is rational and God came first. As soon as we start to use God like that, there's always the possibility that someone will come along and prove that there isn't any guarantee that we're rational, and so the whole idea of God will collapse, which is roughly what Yannaras thinks has happened in the West.

Apophatic theology, in this God-logic, ends up being part of the problem. If we can never fully understand the rational principle (God) on which everything else depends, we can start asking questions. We get skeptical, we get agnostic and then, bang! All of a sudden, we've become Richard Dawkins. But for Yannaras, God was never meant to be an axiom, a first principle, a logical necessity. We have a relationship with God, who loves us, and apophatic theology isn't meant to be about a logical incomprehensibility at the foundation of all being, it's meant to be about the fact that we can never fully articulate our experience of loving and being loved by God.

So for Yannaras, Heidegger and Nietzsche aren't atheists exactly, but point us towards a better, more plausible idea of God. Instead of thinking they understand what God is and how he caused everything, they leave God's place empty. God isn't dead, God is absent or unknowable. To think about how we come to know God, Yannaras uses the Eastern distinction between God's energies and God's essence. God's essence is, er, the essence of God, God in Godself. God's energies are God's activities in the world, creating, redeeming, and all that shebang. We can know God's energies but not God's essence, so knowing God through the world is a bit like knowing Banksy only through his artwork, or knowing Salinger only through Catcher in the Rye. An artists' work can tell us a lot about the artist, but they can't tell us what the artist is like in themselves.

So apophatic theology for Yannaras is important for two reasons: firstly, because of the unbridgeable divide between God's essence and God's energies, which means we can never speak about God's essence; and secondly because language always falls short of the richness of relationships: with God, we can experience more than we can speak of.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Tracy Emin will save us

I think I'm right in saying that Iris Murdoch is the only Booker-prize-winning novelist to also write works of philosophy, and as you might expect, her philosophy is full of the themes of her novels. Her main work of philosophy is Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, where she argues that philosophers have tried to separate out questions of the way the world is from questions of how we should live in the world. You can't do that, says Murdoch, because as soon as we look at the world we judge it; we make decisions about whether it is good or bad, beautiful or ugly, real or unreal. Our ethical decisions rely on our perception of what's going on in the world: there's no use giving food to someone who isn't hungry but is sad; there's no point dedicating your life to being Brian's disciple if he's not the Messiah but a very naughty boy.

For Murdoch, the hardest ethical task is simply to see the world as it is in itself, not as something that we can use, or something that we like, or something that threatens us, but really truly as it is, as something that is not ourselves. And so art is, for her, central to the two inseparable tasks of philosophy and ethics. Art teaches us how to look at the world, how to really see it. She quotes, approvingly, Rainer Maria Rilke's description of Cézanne, "that he did not paint 'I like it', he painted 'There it is.'"

Photo: Cézanne's Still Life with Curtain.

Friday, 4 March 2011

In Defence of Difficulty

Everybody knows that ideas can be dangerous. Dionysius the Areopagite spends a lot of time urging his reader to make sure that his text doesn't fall into the hand of immature people, who will inevitably misunderstand what he was saying and be damaged by it. I once led a church service based on Dionysius' Mystical Theology, which proved to be even more controversial than anticipated. After I led the congregation in a hymn which began 'God, you're not our God, you were not before all things', several people complained to the church leader, and there was a heated debate on the church website about why people were so unhappy with what had happened. What none of the unhappy people did was to come and talk to me and say 'Hey, we felt uncomfortable in that meeting. We think we might not have understood what was going on. Can you explain yourself better?' (Bitter much?)

So the point is this: ideas can mess with people's heads, and even if we think that sometimes that's a good thing, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's always a good thing. Sometimes people just misunderstand or get hurt and instead of being challenged and transformed; they hunker down into a more rigid version of the world they were living in anyway. One way to avoid this is to try to control who has access to dangerous ideas. That was easier when Dionysius was writing, when most people couldn't read anyway, and as there were only a few copies of any given book it was pretty straightforward just to keep them all away from the wrong people.

We don't like the idea of keeping books away from people any more, and even if we wanted to, it would probably just end up leaked on the internet (cough cough, Julian Assange). But there's another way of making sure that the Wrong People don't have access to your ideas: make them really difficult to understand. You can do this in several ways: you can build in lots of references to other thinkers, so that before people can read your book, they have to read and understand lots of other books. You can use complicated technical terms to ensure that people have to have a certain degree of knowledge about the subject you're writing on. There are probably more, but my point is this: whether intentionally or unintentionally, a feature of a lot of theology and philosophy books these days is that they are really inaccessible to the uninitiated.

You could read this inaccessibility as elitism: academics think they're better than us so they deliberately keep their ideas out of our reach. But here's a more charitable, Dionysian way of reading the situation. The thing with Dionysius was that he doesn't think that there are people who fundamentally aren't good enough to be allowed to read his books. His worry is about immaturity. Some people just aren't ready to read his work yet … but they could become ready. Some ideas really do require a certain degree of education and maturity: you wouldn't teach quantum physics to someone who had never studied any science at all. You can't just sit down with Hegel and understand him straight away: you have to really work at it, and maybe it's ok to ask people to work hard at understanding what they read.

Have I persuaded you yet?

Photo credit: zebbie