Monday, April 13, 2009

The gods cannot be proved

In a provocative day-after-Easter post, Elberry considers the historical basis of Christianity—the subject also of an early essay by Michael Oakeshott, which I commend to him. Basing a religious understanding upon historical events is objectionable, Elberry says; few would find themselves driven to Christ even if it could be proved that his resurrection was a historical fact. “The gods cannot be proved,” he writes. Oakeshott elaborates:

Religion demands not that the necessity for the existence of what it believes in should be proved, for that is an academic interest, but to be made intensely aware of the actual existence of the object of belief.[1]That is, the historical claims of Christianity serve the purpose, not of fixing an event in the past, but of giving it “a permanent and not merely a temporary meaning.” Through rituals like the Easter service, Christians reexperience the resurrection in the present. Not for nothing do the Jews recite from the Haggadah during the Passover seder:In every generation, one is obliged to regard himself as though he himself had actually gone out from Egypt, for the Torah says: “You shall tell your son on the day saying, ‘For the sake of this, the LORD did for me when I went out from Egypt.’ ” Not only our fathers were redeemed by the Holy One, blessed be he, but he also redeemed us with them, for so it says: “And he brought us out from there, so that he might bring us and give us the land which he had promised to our fathers.”These claims are not proofs, but invocations. They are attempts to reexperience the actual existence of God—in the same terms that generations of believers have experienced it. While nonbeliever and naïve believer assume that the Bible and its historical events are intended to be a “compelling demonstration of God,” they are better understood as an effort to provide language adequate to the experience of his actual existence.

The effort is doomed to failure. As Elberry points out,If there is any determining purpose, a god, it lies outside of the world, or it is just another counter we push around, a pebble we shift from pocket to pocket. If an absolute meaning is to be communicated to the world it must do so within the world; and so it cannot be absolute, or it would destroy the world—that is, it would not be apprehendable in worldly terms; the world would end where it began.The prooftext for his view, a brilliant anticipation of the kabbalistic concept of tsimtsum or God’s self-withdrawal from creation, comes at the end of Exodus, when the children of Israel have completed work on the Tabernacle: “Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the LORD filled the Tabernacle.” God must leave for man to enter. He can only be sought in his absence.

Elberry has it exactly right, and the atheist, exactly backwards.

[1] Michael Oakeshott, “The Importance of the Historical Element in Christianity” (1928), in Religion, Politics and the Moral Life, ed. Timothy Fuller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), pp. 63–73.


elberry said...

Gosh, that's a good response! - i'm very pleased to have triggered it.

Anonymous said...

Please note that your theology is at odds with what is pretty consistent Christian theology. I don’t say that to quarrel, merely to bring another perspective.
Mainstream Protestant and Catholic theology would have it that the God of the Bible is very much a historical God, that is, One who interacts with human history (or human “reality.”)
And the mystics show that religious experience, however it is failed to be described, can be experienced outside of the Bible.
Man’s failure to describe that experience is a different matter.
So simply because the descriptive failure exists, I don’t think that “God must leave for man to enter. He can only be sought in his absence.”
He Is above and beyond -- “I Am Who Am.” (We can’t even translate that correctly (e.g., Christians hold that "No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father's heart, who has made him known" (John 1:18)
But Christ has made Him known to us here. And since Christ is part of the Godhead, then it is with Christ we can know God.
So you can see that is a little different than saying that the absence of God is where He is found. Rather, a very real Person, Christ, and a very real Thing, the Holy Spirit, ensures God’s appearance to us -- which is the only appearance we can stand now.
God is too much for us to experience. He would blow our circuits. But he has put in “tunnels” from Himself to us that we can experience -- Christ and the Spirit. Going one step further, Christian theology would also have it that we have to experience those real and tangible aspects of God -- the only ones we can connect with, in fact, given our limitations (we can only see through a glass, darkly) -- to find God.

D. G. Myers said...

An Orthodox Jew’s reflections on “I am who I am” is here.

To say that the Holy One, blessed be he, “interacts with human history” is not the same as to say that Sinai or Calvary were historical events. History is the effort to specify the meaning that an event had in the past; religion seeks a permanent meaning in the present.

And so I should like the names, please, of Mainstream Protestant and Catholic theologians who defend (in Oakeshott’s phrase) the importance of the historical element in Christianity.