Sunday, March 08, 2009

Reply to my critics

On theism.

It is objected that my fifth proposition in defense of theism (“Where is God in propositions about him? He is the is”) still belongs to the form God is P, “only using the copulative grammatically as a descriptor,” as Jim H. says. But this is evidence merely of the limitations of language. I am not seeking to define God, but to describe his presence. When Moses goes to the Israelites and says, “God of your fathers has sent me to you,” he warns, they will protest, “What is his name?” God replies: “Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh. . . . Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you’ ” (Exod 3.13–14). A little later, after convincing the people (4.31) but then failing to secure the liberation of the Israelites in the first interview with Pharaoh (ch 5), Moses reproaches God. “Why did you send me?” he wails (5.22). God replies that Pharaoh will soon release Israel “because of a greater might.” Then he reintroduces himself to Moses: “I am YHVH,” he says. “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them by my name YHVH” (6.2–3).

Is God lying? Has he a bad memory? Abraham invokes YHVH by name (Gen 12.8), Isaac builds an altar at Beersheba and does the same (26.25), and in his dream of a stairway reaching to the sky, Jacob is addressed by God, who stands beside him and says, “I am YHVH, God of your father Abraham and God of Isaac” (28.13).

But these incidents do not contradict God’s claim to Moses in Exod 6.3. According to me, what he did not make known to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was the secret of his name, its meaning, which is rooted in the copula lihyot. In the Sabbath hymn “Adon Olam,” the Jews sing in praise: “V’hu hayah, v’hu hoveh, v’hu yiyeh—And he was! And he is! And he will be!” If you take the letters of the copula’s conjugation and recombine them, you end up with YHVH. As a student of mine once quipped, the name is a contraction of hayah and hoveh and yiyeh—sort of like “He wasiswillbe.” The name contains all possible conjugations of to be.

Now, usually the verb to be is suppressed and merely understood in Hebrew. When God addresses Israel at Sinai, for instance, he introduces himself by saying, “Anokhi YHVH eloheykhah—literally, “I YHVH your God” (Exod 20.2). Early in the Hebrew bible, though, the word is expressed, and in a most interesting form. The first words out of God’s mouth: “Y’hi or vayhi or” (Gen 1.3). The English translations do an injustice to the stark parallelism of the Hebrew. What is worse, they shift the tense, which remains the same when repeated in the Hebrew. Although not exactly right, this is closer than the traditional renderings: “God said, ‘Light is,’ and light is.” No cause-and-effect relationship is being implied, however. Rather the Hebrew is saying simply that light is because God says that light is. The is-ness of the light is God’s speech; that is, God himself.

God makes himself known by being. Heidegger’s first metaphysical question (“Why is there something rather than nothing?”) is not a problem for theists. Because he is. Or, rather, to answer in Hebrew: Why is there something rather than nothing? Is.


Novalis said...

This is fascinating, because a great illustration of why theists and agnostics seem destined to talk past one another.

The question is not whether or how God exists in the Bible (certainly he does, and how), but whether the Bible is, in addition to the prodigious work of literature that it is, an irresistibly compelling demonstration of God to anyone who is not already eager to embrace it as such.

Once one has arrived at belief, the passages you cite certainly deepen and strengthen it, but no mere words (including such non-answers as "because he is") get one to the point of belief.

All of the great religious texts are after-the-fact justifications of non-verbal spiritual experiences. Words like the ones you cite become true (only) for one whose own experience demands that they be true.

D. G. Myers said...

Yep. What did I write before? Propositions about God are not philosophical efforts to define him, but liturgical efforts to praise him. There is no possible language in which theists and atheists can address each other. The latter insists upon proof and evidence. For the former, these are irrelevant. (Do I need proof and evidence that my wife is the most beautiful woman who has ever lived?) There is only the experience of God’s presence, or no such experience. The rest is praise of God, or of the superior wisdom of self.

Jim H. said...

Dr. Myers,

I appreciate the opportunity to dialogue with you on a subject that is obviously near and dear to you (as it is to me). I am way out of my depth with respect to Hebrew conjugations (I barely survived two semesters of Hebrew at [a Christian] divinity school) of the copula, but I do take the thrust of your argument and even alluded to it in my reference to Tillich (himself deeply influenced by Heidegger) and his notion of the 'ground of all being.'

It is not profitable for the atheist (or agnostic) to attempt to convert (or disillusion) the theist. True belief, when challenged, only digs in its heels—which is, I would suggest, definitional. And that is not my aim (as it is, say, that of Hitchens, Dennett, et al.)

To make a quick distinction, the atheist is all about conversion because the atheist is as much a believer as the theist—another adamant heel-digger-inner.

The agnostic, on the other hand, is not after conversion. The question, from my point of view, is different:

Logically, the theistic argument 'x is the case' is no different from the atheistic argument 'not-x is the case.' (Where x = 'God exists', no matter how the term 'God' is defined)

Epistemologically, belief is a species of opinion. It is not fact-based. 'Jesus loves me. This I know, because the Bible tells me so.' is a statement of faith. 'I believe the flying spaghetti monster exists' doesn't differ formally from 'I believe the flying spaghetti monster does not exist.'

It comes down to the meta-philosophical questions: How can we decide the issue? What evidence will we accept as probative? Is there any standard we can agree on such that if the standard is met the theists win the day and if the standard is not met the atheists win the day? Is there necessarily a certain answer?

My point is that the issue is formally and substantively undecidable. And, again as you have done, one must acknowledge the limits not only of human language but also human capability.

A theist and an atheist both hold that there can be an answer to the question 'Does God exist?' One says 'yes', the other says 'no'. [In this, I disagree with your response to Novalis; theists and atheists have a very real language in which to address each other: that is, their certainty that the questions of theism are answerable.] Both agree that the question has some sort of an answer, and they debate back and forth until they're blue in the face over how to answer the question and what that answer is. They don't agree as to what counts as proof: beliefs, experiences (individual and corporate), texts, traditions, arguments, prophets, witnesses, priests, rabbis, philosophers, authorities, etc.

My point of view is that these are questions without answers. Or, if there are, indeed, answers, they are unknowable by us. And, even if an answer were to present itself ('God spoke and said so,' 'God intervened in history [or politics or the football game],' 'some fishermen witnessed God's incarnation,' 'God took somebody on a magical horse ride and gave him an unassailable vision,' 'So-and-so 1 conquered so-and-so 2, so so-and-so 1's God is real,' 'there is light,' 'there is an intelligent design to things,' etc.), who's to say it is right and, more importantly, how? My pov is analogous to Keats's Shakespearean 'negative capability': "when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason."

Again, I'm not trying to be a troll, or a even a 'critic', or monopolize your fine site (on another matter, I've been in ready agreement with a lot of what you've been saying in your recent posts about Nabokov). Please adhere to your faith; it is an integral part of your and our common humanity. I'm simply putting forward an argument that too often gets short shrift or even ignored when the topic of theism comes up.

Jim H.

D. G. Myers said...


You write, “Logically, the theistic argument ‘x is the case’ is no different from the atheistic argument ‘not-x is the case.‘ ”

Wrong. Or at least wrong where this theist is concerned. I am not making a case for God’s existence. I don’t know how I would go about making one, since reducing God to a proposition entails subordinating him to my reason and therefore treats him as something other than God. Novalis says that “theists and agnostics seem destined to talk past one another.” But this is the case if and only if agnostics like you and him insist upon reading me as making a case for God’s existence. I am trying, instead, merely to describe my experience of his presence.

You go on to say that “Epistemologically, belief is a species of opinion.” Wrong again. For if it is an opinion it can be proven false. Belief in God is not an opinion, because—at least among Orthodox Jews—it is not submitted to rational inquiry. As the biblical scholar Jon Levenson (my rabbi in such matters) says, the Jews are just not interested in theology.

Among the Jews, belief in God is simply the basis of further action. I keep kosher, I guard the Sabbath, I wear kipa and tsitsit, because I believe in God. The first commandment is: “Anokhi Hashem [YHVH] eloheykhah—I am Hashem your God.” Belief is not commanded; it is assumed. (God precedes the commandments.) What is commanded is obedience—that is, performance of the subsequent commandments.

You conclude by saying: “My point of view is that these are questions without answers.” Mine too. I have not been debating God’s existence. I refuse to debate atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. What would be the point? I do not wish to win any converts—to either theism or Judaism. All I want is to find a language adequate to my own experience of God’s presence, without having to slip and slide in the muck of memoir.