Thursday, September 21, 2006

More on the Pope's Regensburg Address

(Continued from here)

Since Eric Phillips has taken up the challenge of espousing the (more or less) anti-voluntaristic side here and here, I wanted to make it clear exactly what it is I am arguing. There's voluntarism and then there's voluntarism. I am only going to do this in relation to the Pope's speech since I would probably not be too coherent if I tried to do more.

First the context: the Pope is speaking about dialogue with non-Christian religions and philosophies on the basis of reason. This means that acceptance of the doctrine of the incarnation cannot be a basis of this dialogue, because those who accept the incarnation are Christians of one sort or another. What he has to proposing is that we can know theses like "God does not approve of coerced belief," "God does not approve of violence," etc., through our own ethical reason, and know them through our reasonable apprehension of God as He is in himself, apart from Christian faith. So when he writes:

God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf.

-- I think there is a fatal ambiguity here.

"God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf" -- what does he mean by "revealed himself"? Become incarnate in Jesus Christ? Then I would agree, but such a statement is obviously useless for inter-religious dialogue, because those who can accept it are already Christians.

But if he means "revealed himself" to include "revealed himself" in nature, through philosophy, through general theistic revelations accepted by all believers in God, then I disagree: the God accessible to nature is only ambiguously, if at all, "acting lovingly on our behalf."

What does Paul say in Romans 1 is revealed by nature? "Even his eternal power and Godhead." And how are we to react? By glorifying Him as God and being thankful, and eschewing idolatry and immorality. Power and glory, above all. Indeed the natural concept of God, is that we should die for Him and by no means Him for us -- the latter is indeed absurd as our Muslim neighbors know so well. And while insincere, coerced thankfulness is definitely worse than sincere, coerced thankfulness, it is hardly obvious that it is not better than openly expressed rejection and contempt.

Let us argue from human reason to divine as the Pope calls on us to do: is it worse for someone to obey the laws and recognize sovereign authority sulkily and by threat of prison than willlingly and sincerely? Certainly. But for all that do we forego the use of force to compel those who reject sovereignty to recognize it by paying taxes, testifying in court, and obeying the commands of appointed agents from police men to airline flight attendants?

Do we allow people to say, "I will no longer pay taxes, because I have decided the government doesn't exist, and if it did, it would be unjust"? Of course not. Just so the Muslim argues, that while it would be nice if all were sincere Muslims, still it is our job, as God's appointed agents on earth, to at least suppress open contempt for and disobedience to Him. Such reasoning is perfectly coherent on the basis of God as creator, monarch, and sovereign.

It is, on the other hand, suddenly cast into the shade when God himself submits to the unjust and wicked decrees of His own creation -- but that's not something that can be said of a God approached solely through reason and analogy from human things.

Similarly, what is God's attitude toward His creation, seen in the light of reason and nature? I think Harriet Beecher Stowe put it best when she characterized it as a kind of general benevolence -- the world is indeed teeming with the life that He loves -- but exercised at a terrible cost in individual suffering, to which He often seems so callously indifferent. Or even more severely, here is what Luther wrote:

Behold! God governs the external affairs of the world in such a way that, if you regard and follow the judgment of human reason, you are forced to say, either that there is no God, or that God is unjust; as the poet said: 'I am often tempted to think there are no gods.' See the great prosperity of the wicked, and by contrast the great advesity of the good. Proverbs, and experience, the parent of proverbs, bear record that the more abandoned men are, the more successful they are. . . . Is it not, pray, universally held to most unjust that bad men should prosper, and good men be afflicted? Yet that is the way of the world. Hereupon some of the greatest minds have fallen into denying the existence of God, and imagining that Chance governs all things at random.

And here Luther cites not just Epicurus, but Pliny and Aristotle (two Greeks and a Roman) on the non-existence, or else indifference of God or the gods to human injustice.

And then there is of course the Biblical testimony of God's utter freedom and transcendence -- just to take a few:

And he said, I will make all My goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy. And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.

Lo, He goeth by me, and I see Him not: He passeth on also, but I perceive Him not. Behold, He taketh away, who can hinder Him? who will say unto Him, What doest thou? If God will not withdraw His anger, the proud helpers do stoop under Him.

All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; he doth according to his will in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth, and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou.

Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?

Is there anything in this with which a Muslim would disagree? Is there anything in this that is unreasonable, given the premises of theism? But let me ask the proponents of approaching God through human intellect -- is this the sort of thing you would chose to calm a raging mob intent of killing those they think (rightly or wrongly) to be idolators or blasphemers? Me neither.

About the arguments presented by Eric Phillips, one thing, historically, is clear: Luther was absolutely sure, every day of the week, that God in Himself, apart from the incarnation (whether accomplished or foreseen), as understood solely by human reasoning from the premises of theism and the facts we see around us, is something no man can see and live -- certainly not with any comfortable assurance that He is "acting lovingly on our behalf." I can say that without fear of blasphemy, because He Himself has said so.

And because another thing that is clear is that the Word of God Incarnate is absolutely trustworthy. Thus a Christian may be sure that God's promise, whether it be "in Isaac shall thy seed be called" or "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house" are sure and solid. So when Moses or Abraham plead the promises already given by the utterly free God, in foresight of the incarnation, they are doing rightly -- and still reserving their Lord's right to be utterly unbound by any mere conception we might have of Him, anything except His will in which He binds Himself.

So when God asks Abraham to sacrifice Himself, Abraham can think the promise already given must be sure. He can think "God will find some way to raise Isaac from the dead -- because He has freely given His promise." But what he can't do is reason with himself thus, that Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul; "God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably ("syn logo") is contrary to God's nature" and then refuse to perform His unreasonable command. At least he can't if he wishes to become the father of faith.

So what would I use to argue against religious violence, Muslim or otherwise? For a Christian there is sympathy for the shocking death of our Lord as an innocent victim accused of blasphemy -- but that is obviously worse than useless against a Muslim who see the very possibility of such a death of God at the hands of His creatures as blasphemous.

So I would turn instead to all the good arguments, mostly civil and prudential, proposed over the centuries for freedom of conscience and speech and that condemn vigilanteism and mob action. And I would remember that the Law that makes peoples' actions reasonable on the outside is different from the Gospel that makes peoples' hearts good on the inside, and leave each to do their proper job.