Against Natural Theology

These are some scattered thoughts arising in relation to a paper I’m working on for a class in Process Theology.

Alfred North Whitehead godfather of Process Thought argued for a God within his overall cosmological system.  Fairly unique contribution relative to modern era philosophers in that regard. So Process Thought is deeply imbued with a Natural Theological strain.  David Ray Griffin one of the godsons (I suppose) of Process Theology wrote a classic text arguing for a new Christian natural theology.

Natural Theology is the belief that arguments at the level of reason alone can be proferred to prove the existence of God.  Usually these arguments grow from a study/interpretation of the natural world.

One of the classic arguments in this regard is Thomas Aquinas’ Argument from Necessity.

Observing that every being in nature requires another being for its existence (i.e. everybody has ‘rent[s] in the universe) Aquinas argued that therefore the entire universe was (in the parlance) contingent.  And therefore the universe itself required a being to bring about its existence. Namely God.

The problem with this theory is the extrapolation from individual cases to the universal.  Just because all beings in the universe require a cause does not mean the universe is the same as individual beings.  Aquinas to his credit did leave open the possibility that the Universe was eternal (though intriguingly for the purposes of my argument he believed the universe had a beginning in time because the Church said so–i.e. it was an article of faith).

He argued that the Universe could not have existed (true) and therefore there must have been a Necessary Being to get the universe going (wrong). Or rather why would that being be Necessary and not simply another in a causal chain?  [Aquinas has to assert without evidence that an infinite causal chain can not be–but why is that automatically the case?].  The argument only functions if you can prove that there is no infinite causal chain.  But you can’t prove there is no infinite causal chain without proving a Necessary Being (i.e. the difference between causing to be and causing to exist I would argue is already a theological distinction which assumes that which it is supposed to prove) but you can’t prove the Necessary Being without proving there is no infinite causal chain which in turn you can’t prove without proving a Necessary Being which you can’t prove without proving no infinite causal chain, which you can’t…..and you see the circularity.

Later came the classic argument from design–that the Universe was like a watch and therefore just as a watch required a watchmaker so the Universe requires a designer.  Of course the idea that the universe is like a watch is a human construct and metaphor.  It’s a human interpretation.  It’s an interpretation btw of a well educated, Western European in the modern period (like William Paley who wrote this in the 19th century) because watch making was considered a high art and technology in his day.

What both of these arguments are getting at and what I think can be established through science and philosophy is that there is Eros or a potential for Emergence in the Universe (see footnote26).  But that is nowhere near the same as proving the existence of a God.

The question of a god/God is always part of a religious tradition.  It is always part and parcel of the intersubjective, linguistic reality in which we are formed.  Natural theology being a 3rd person “ITS” view of things, forgets the inter-subjective construction of reality and believes there is a way to get to The Objective Truth once and for all.  [Classic modernist fallacy].

How that this shakes out in practice is something along what the lines of Derrida describes as the absent shaping the present.  In Process Thought, Whitehead describes God as All-Compassion (Love).  But why would be the case?  In a certain strand of Buddhism, for example, there is the concept of the alaya vijnana (the so-called Store House Consciousness).  Which is also elsewhere called the Causal Consciousness.  The store house ‘stores’ all the memories of the Kosmos in a way very similar to how Whitehead’s Process God is the one who integrates all reality into itself and re-members it.  (Everything is redeemed through the Divine’s Memory).

Now of course the Process view has an evolutionary twist that the store house lacks–since evolution was not understood in the intersubjective when the notion arose in Buddhism.  But notice in the Store House concept is no necessary description of Love per se.  Because that is a construct built out of the Biblical heritage.

Which is exactly my point–back to Derrida for a second.  The absent is theology and the intersubjective.  [Whitehead’s philosophy is only partially intersubjective not fully so].  Because Whitehead, as the son of an Anglican clergyman, grew up in the Anglican tradition of Holiness/Beauty of God, this has to be background for his philosophy.  Doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it just means the idea that this provable from the exterior world or from interior (individual-subjective only) reflection is way off base.

Caputo’s (Weak) Theology of the Event

John Caputo came at spoke at my school the week before last week.  I was only able to attend one his lectures, on his signature Weak Theology or The Theology of the Event as he calls it.  (In distinction to the famous Theology of the Word school).

Here is a solid Review of The Weakness of God Caputo’s book by Peter Heltzel.  Although one criticism of Heltzel is his invocation of Jurgen Moltmann’s “divine restraint” is exactly what Caputo still thinks of as a sovereign theology (“strong God”).  Caputo hit this point repeatedly in his talk the other day.  He cited Carl Schmitt that sovereignty is the ability to break the rules (and get away with it–see Bush and Torture, for example).  By that definition, even Moltmann’s “self-restraining” God is still a sovereign/strong God.

To really get a grasp on Caputo you need to have some background in Derrida and Deleuze.

Deleuze, unique among post-structuralists, was interested in a cosmology/metaphysics.  [Most post-structuralists, Derrida being the classic example, were interested in linguistics].  For Deleuze, Western philosophy is too buit traditionally around substance (from Plato through Aristotle on down) and should rather be interested in Event or events.  This is somethign akin to Heidegger’s distinction between the Being of beings (Event) and Dasein (being-in-the-world) except that Delueze has a background in physics and mathematics (interestingly) so his view of the Event is much more spatio-temporal than Heidegger’s more cultural-praxis oriented understanding.

The Event Captuo says is that which happens within what is happening but is never captured by what is happening.  God for Captuo is a name we use to point to the Event related to the name of God.  God then is an Event not a be-ing.  It’s a non-essential understanding of God.  Event however for me is a little too static.  I would prefer Rabbi Cooper’s notion that God is a Verb.  God-ing if you will.  Event-ing.

The Event is virtual, it is potential/openness.  This is why God is weak.  God is the name for the possibility fo the Event–in Derrida’s terminology the undeconstructible.  Or rather the pre-deconstructible (before deconstruction).

Here is where the structuralist side comes through.  The Event is a field, an anonymous one at that.  Recall that structuralism proclaimed The End of the Author and The End of Humanism–The End that is of the Subject.  According to post/structuralism subjects are constituted not constitutive.  The transcendental conditions exist not in the mind (a la Kant and modern philosophy) but in linguistic (Derrida) or eventual (Deleuze) networks.  Which are apersonal–hence when applied to theology, so is God.

Religion, then, according to Caputo, is performance (attempted performance/attempted enactment) of the Event.  Theology is poetics (theo-poetics).  For Caputo, here combining Derrida with Deleuze, the Event is the Promise of Justice.  What Derrida in his later writings talked about as the Coming of the Messiah. The Messiah in this case being a messianic consciousness/field/network sprouting up through the universe.  Not a separate being (a la classical theology) who represents a Strong God and wins a victory or so.  [e.g. Book of Revelation]

Also from Derrida, Caputo has picked up on Derrida’s argument for the centrality and primacy of grammar (over spoken word).  What Derrida calls the illness of Western philosophy as logocentricism (as opposed to grammo-centricism).  For Captuo this means that God (The Event) is archae-textuality, God is Archae-Grammer.  God is always Incaranted as in Fleshly or Embodied like a Text.  (Derrida:  “There is nothing outside the text”).

Religion is the performance of the Event.  Ethics is an enacted parable of the Event.  One that (via Levinas) calls for true plurality and peace at the heart of being.  The invitation to the neighbor.  As Jesus said:  Give to those who you know can not give back to you.  Pray for those who persecute you. Love your enemies.

The Event is always potential and always possibly to be (slightly never perfectly) revealed.  For those outside the kingdom (i.e. The Event) everything must be in parables, the Gospel of Mark tells us.

Reflections on all of this:  It’s definitely a different take and opens up all kinds of new avenues for thought, philosophical and theological in nature.  It reveals that Derrida is not a relativist but a pluralist with a focus on the underside.  It’s a deep “positive” postmodernism if you will and sees deconstruction rightly in certain regards in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets.  Derrida’s understanding of apophatic theology however is seriously problematic.

But again ultimately with a structuralist background, there is no subject.  So how do we talk about enacting or performing an Event when there is no subject?  What choice is there in such a view?  How do the structures ever change if we are constituted by them (as opposed to constituted by and also constituting)?

If deconstruction is as Caputo says (correctly imo) a transcendental, that is a condition that makes anything possible, then how did Derrida come to knowledge of deconstruction without itself being deconstructed?  How it is a whole thought?  Isn’t there a subject there?  Isn’t there presence, at least for a second, as opposed to absence, which Derrida sees as primary?

It’s the same question for Kant frankly:  if one comes to the knowledge of the Subjective Transcendental Conditions, one knows there is noumena and phenomena, then isn’t that one that knows not limited by the Conditions?

I would say yes, and I would look there for a God.

Derrida Construct Aware? Redux

Warning: Nerd Alert. Heavy integral theorizing ahead.  Read at your own mental peril.

A while back (June of last year to be precise) I wrote a short piece commenting on an article by Gary Hampson in Integral Review. Gary just recently commented on the original post, along with some questions for me.

Gary’s original article is available here in pdf from. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and click the link next to his name.

My original post from last year is here. Gary’s comment is at the bottom of that post.

I’m going to take a bigger view and hope that in doing so I cover the questions Gary has asked.  Much more after the jump: (more…)

Published in: on July 1, 2008 at 11:06 am  Comments (3)  
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