Eckhart and Apologetics

Meister Eckhart, the thirteenth-century Dominican speculative mystic, is one of my favorite writers. I have two favorite quotes from Eckhart:

“Therefore let us pray to God that we may be free of God that we may gain the truth and enjoy it eternally…” (German sermon 52)

and

“The truth is such a noble thing that if God were able to turn away from truth, I would cling to the truth and let God go; for God is truth, and all that is in time, and that God created, is not truth.” (German sermon 26)

What I like about Eckhart is that he is so shocking. What does he mean when he says we should pray to God to rid ourselves of God? How could anyone choose to cling to the truth if that means letting God go? What’s going on?

Eckhart is trying verbally to slap us in the face, to get us to recognize that there is a difference between what we think about when we say the word “God” and the ultimate reality, God. There is a difference between talking about God as understood by finite, temporal, contingent beings, and what Eckhart calls the Godhead or the Ground of Being who is beyond Being and Nonbeing. (Paul Tillich borrows this phrase, “Ground of Being,” to speak of God.)

As shocking as these quotes from Eckhart sound, they’re really not so different from what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 11:14: “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” Whether or not one accepts the existence of Satan as an ontological entity (and I do not), this verse does suggest that not everything that looks like it comes from God is actually from God. God is different from what often passes for God. Moreover, Paul repeatedly points to the limits of human knowledge in 1 Corinthians 13:8-12: “For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away…. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been understood.”

If I understand Eckhart and Paul correctly, then Christian apologetics is utterly misguided. As you probably know, apologetics is the attempt to defend the faith against (secular) attacks. But what exactly is being defended? Isn’t it really a defense of “God,” the “God” who was created when human beings were created, the “God” comprehended by finite, contingent, historically conditioned human beings? We should welcome attacks on this God, especially if this God cannot stand up to rational scrutiny. We should pray to God to rid us of God in order to be rightly related to the Ground of Being. And if we have to choose between what “God says” and the truth, always take the truth. God is not always found where God is, but God is always found where the truth is.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

“God Is God Because He Remembers”

An essay read by Elie Wiesel on NPR’s All Things Considered, April 7, 2008

Good Reasons

I have to admit, I was surprised when Tony asked me to guest blog while he takes a brief break. After all, nobody really knows me, I’ve never written a book, I don’t have my own blog, and I only comment after somebody else says something. But I have to admit I was flabbergasted to see the comments welcoming me to Tony’s blog. Thank you for your warm welcome!

Good Reasons

One of the things I try to do in my comments on Tony’s blog is to give good reasons for what I believe. I suppose my fondness for good arguments comes from my training in philosophy and my having taught philosophy to undergraduates for several years. I insisted that my students give good reasons for their beliefs, reasons that can withstand rational scrutiny. That means that they had to be as critical of their own ideas as they were of ideas they disagree with. (The difference between a partisan thinkers and critical thinkers is that partisans can only criticize their opponent’s ideas, while critical thinkers are as worried about their own beliefs as they are about the beliefs of others.)

I also think that having good reasons should apply to my religious beliefs. For example, is there a difference between God and what I think about God? Almost all believers think so, especially those who speak of being in a relationship with God. But if God is not identical to what I think about God, are all ways of thinking about God equally good? No, some ways of thinking about God are better and worse than others. When we engage in rational discourse about religious matters, we are really trying to evaluate our ideas in order to arrive at beliefs which are more adequate to express the “reality” of God.

But should all of a believer’s reasons be rational reasons? Was Pascal right when he said, “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know”? To answer these questions, let me distinguish between the “rational” and the “nonrational.”

Rational

At a minimum, the “rational” is a sphere of pubic discourse which uses generally accepted rules of ordered thought to reach conclusions based on the best evidence from logic, history, experience, and nature. Further, what is “rational” is publicly justifiable and open to evaluation by other members of the rational community. Finally, rational beliefs and actions are always open to revision based on new knowledge and understanding.

It’s important to emphasize that being rational is no guarantee that one’s beliefs are true or one’s actions are correct. For thousands of years it was rational to believe that the earth was a sphere at the center of the universe around which the moon, sun, planets, and fixed stars moved. Not only did Aristotle and Ptolemy give arguments for the earth-centered universe, but the Bible seemed to confirm this belief, too (see Josh. 10:12-13, Ps. 19:4-6, Ps. 93:1, Ps. 104:5, Eccl. 1:5). This rational belief was proved to be false during the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by better observations and better mathematical models to explain the data. We now understand that the earth revolves in an elliptical orbit around the sun, and we no longer interpret the poetic accounts of the movement of the sun in the Bible as if they were scientific descriptions.

In addition, both Plato and Aristotle offered rational justifications for slavery (the differences between people justified the enslavement of “inferior” people), and Christian slave-holders found ample justification for slavery in the Bible. (Southern slave holders were especially fond of Gen. 9:18-27, since the sons of Ham, who lived in Africa, were cursed to be slaves, and the southerner’s slaves came from Africa.) These arguments for slavery have not withstood rational scrutiny.

So having a rational belief is not the same thing as having a true belief. A rational belief is always open to revision when confronted with better evidence and better arguments.

Nonrational

But what about the heart’s reasons that reason can’t know? Do all of our reasons have to be rational and publicly debatable? Consider falling in love (or falling in deep infatuation). Lovers don’t always act in ways that make rational sense: they spend time and money on their lover when (rationally) they ought to use their time and money for other things. (“I couldn’t study for the test because I had to spend time with my girlfriend.”) Moreover they claim to know things about their lover that nobody else seems to recognize (“You just don’t know him the way I know him.”) Love may not be rational, but it isn’t irrational, either. So we can recognize that sometimes we have beliefs or actions that are non-rational, and that the non-rational may open us to truth that reason can’t fully comprehend.

Nonrational appeals to authority, feeling, intuition, religious experience, mystical experience, etc., demonstrate the limits of the “rational” and suggest that “the rational” is only one kind of consciousness. But the nonrational is only privately justifiable: only the people who share the same authority, feeling, intuition, etc. will buy the justification for nonrational reasons. For example, let’s say that you are a Christian who believes that the Bible is the Word of God. Quoting the Bible may be persuasive to someone who is predisposed to accept the Bible’s authority, but it’s not quite as convincing to someone who does not accept the Bible’s authority. After all, would a Christian be inclined to accept a claim as true if it came from the Koran?

Questions

Is there a good reason to distinguish between rational and nonrational beliefs? And is there a rational moral argument against same-sex marriage, or is the objection really norational because it is based on the authority of the Bible?

Please Welcome Scot Miller

I’m taking a 6-day digital sabbath, my first in a long time. I’m spending a long weekend with Courtney and some friends, and I’m bringing nothing with me but books. I couldn’t be more excited.

I’ve got a few posts set up for my absence. But mainly I’m handing the reigns over to Scot Miller. I met Scot in early 2010 at an event in Fort Worth, Texas, and he has been one of the most faithful — and most thoughtful — commenters on this blog in the past year. If you’ve read the comments, you’ve read Scot.

Here’s a bit about him. I ask you to welcome him heartily and engage with what he writes. And I’ll see you all next week.

Scot Miller

Scot Miller grew up in Lakewood, CO, and moved to Abilene, TX in 1977 to attend Hardin-Simmons University. After graduating in 1981 with a B.A. in Bible and English, he earned his M.Div. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1984. (He lived in the same dorm with Al Mohler before Al got married). He then did graduate work in the philosophy of religion at Boston University, Boston College, and Harvard Divinity School. He was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister in Cambridge, MA in 1985.

While in Boston, he taught as an adjunct lecturer at Tufts University and at Merrimack College. Hereturned to Hardin-Simmons in the fall of 1990 as Instructor of Philosophy and Head of the PhilosophyDepartment.

Given his philosophical, theological, and academic background, it was only natural for him to become the Office Manager in his wife’s pediatric clinic when she went into private practice in October 2004.


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