I wrote the article below in August of last year on a progressive Seventh-day Adventist website where a group of us were blogging through the book, Postmodern Apologetics? Arguments for God in Contemporary Philosophy, by Christina M. Gschwandtner. (The title is misleading. It’s nothing like what the word ‘apologetics’ would lead you to think and it’s less arguments for God and more like possible room for God). I ran across it while trying to locate the other pieces I wrote for this series—a short post entitled, Lévinas and the Infinite.
It’s remarkable sometimes to read what you wrote in the past. In my case it’s revealing to see how far down this path I already was. It will also be interesting to see how you all react to it. I predict that some will be upset at my invocation of God, but I think the thing to notice is the tenuous way I was already talking about God. I actually think I was making it sound more theistic because I was writing for a Christian audience. I’ll probably write more about Merold Westphal in the future. The other piece I wrote about Emmanuel Lévinas is also interesting if you’re curious about how nonbelievers think about the word, God.
A week or so ago I attended and briefly spoke at a funeral for a young man named Tristan [i], who took his own life at the age of 25. His was a story of repeated tragedy: broken family, depression, drugs and alcohol, prison and the attendant violence. He just couldn’t get his footing in the world and after a couple of failed attempts through the years to take his life, he finally succeeded.
Because his older sister has been our close friend and neighbor for the past seven years she asked me to offer some words of encouragement to the family. We gathered at the beautiful Saint Monica Catholic Church in Santa Monica, California. After the priest gave a remarkably appropriate homily and two family members spoke, I stepped to the microphone. Right up to that point I had no idea what to say. Sure, I had some notes, but what do you really say in the face of such unspeakable tragedy? To attempt an explanation was, in my mind, to give power to the evil that took this young man’s life. And yet the family needed a container to hold their grief and give them space to live one more day. So I said something about how the world is a toxic place and some of us have stronger immunity while others are more sensitive to those toxins. He was the sensitive type. In the end, he couldn’t manage it. I reminded us that no one knew what he was going through, but God is compassionate beyond our comprehension.
That was all I knew with any degree of certainty and even with that I was reaching, just like everyone else.
I thought about Tristan as I read Gschwandtner’s chapter about Merold Westphal, and his appropriation of Freud and Marx’s critique of religion. Freud claimed that people project their wishes for happiness onto God enabling them to commit what Kierkegaard called a teleological suspension of the ethical. In short, our belief in God, i.e., “God knows,” enables us to absolve ourselves of responsibility by claiming that God somehow willed a thing that on the surface seems completely wrong. It was not our negligent parenting, our inhumane drug policies, our broken and destructive prison system or our disregard for mental illness that killed Tristan. We are not responsible. Instead, “God called him home.” I wanted to scream, “Bullshit!”
After the service, we spoke briefly with our friend, through her agonizing sobs. In a lame attempt to be comforting I said, “Tristan is okay. He’s going to be okay.” She replied, “Really? Are you sure? Because I really need some evidence that this is not just lights out. Game over.” I didn’t have the evidence she wanted.
The difficult-to-accept reality is that I don’t know very much about any of this. I believe her brother is okay, but I don’t know. Maybe it is just lights out. Game over. In the end, we are left to negotiate this choppy water together. We are in each other’s lives for this reason. This is the meaning of love. When we don’t know what to do and we have no explanation, we hold each other as we weep and figure out together how to do it again tomorrow. I’ve come to believe that this is the presence of God. If God is love, then love is God.
Through the years, Merold Westphal’s writing has become an important companion as I sought to lead a postmodern congregation in a postmodern city. Gschwandtner summarizes nicely one of Westphal’s primary concerns when she says that he
…argues for finitude and humility as important dimensions of faith that can be learned from postmodern philosophy. Onto-theology, as in Heidegger, denotes the modern attempt at erasure of human finitude and the enclosure of the divine into the human system of knowledge (225).
The intellectual control we seek continues to evade us, but this does not mean we cannot act at all or that we are so completely in the dark that we have no idea about what to do. I was most drawn to this part of Westphal’s thinking.
Gschwandtner makes the astute observation that “often piety hides self-righteousness and defense of our privileges” (226). What this means, says Westphal, is that there are two dangers to be wary of. One is in claiming too much, as I’ve said. The other is in hiding our indifference to the status quo behind “vague generality.”
The risk of being wrong and the risk of becoming uncritically and absolutely attached to our historical choices are serious risks. But the apparently safer task is even riskier. To remain safely at the level of Vague Generality is to condemn Evil in the abstract while “enduring,” both in theory and practice, the concrete evils from which our sisters and brothers, especially children, daily suffer and die. By making faith compatible with these evils, we confirm the Marxian charge that religion is the opium of the people. (Suspicion and Faith, 185, quoted in Gschwandtner, 227).
Contemporary religion operates in this Marxian way every week in the pews of our churches. With appeals to sufficient reason we claim to possess the truth. But the truth we ‘possess’ is abstract truth, which ironically gives cover to the evil that is tearing apart our neighborhoods and the lives of people like Tristan. While we piously sing of salvation, the people just outside our church walls are dying.
It seems to me that if religion is to serve any use in the world, for God’s sake, it must leave aside trivial questions of God’s Being and doctrinal precision, and commit itself—we must commit ourselves—to loving our neighbors, forgiving wrongs, and being agents of peace and justice for the sake of people like Tristan. But to do this we must accept that we are not God; nor can we contain God.
[i] Not his real name.