Thursday, January 1, 2009

"asking the wrong question"

The title of Alan Mittleman's essay in this month's issue of First Things.

Here are some excerpts, starting with an aspect of apologetics: the question of "does God exist?"

[The question] tilts toward the atheist’s strength, for it assumes that the religious believer is committed to the existence of something akin to unicorns or gremlins, for which there is not the slightest bit of evidence. In asking “Does God exist?” the atheist challenges the believer to produce sufficient evidence to persuade him. The believer cannot.

Key words in that next-to-last sentence: produce, sufficient, and him.

Then, an interesting story with some reflections on the mystery of God.

Martin Buber, on the eve of the First World War, was asked by a visitor, an English clergyman who worried about Buber’s soul, whether he believed in God. As Buber waited with him for the train and the indefinite parting to which the war would condemn them, Buber answered, reluctantly, yes. The pastor was satisfied.

Later Buber ruminated on what he had said. He felt that he had erred. The God he encountered in prayer, awe, wonder, and the small graces of the everyday was not a being about whom one could speak in the third person. God was not the sort of thing about which one could say, yes, it exists or no, it does not exist. To speak in this way was already to be estranged.

God, Buber felt, could not be discussed but only addressed—and that in the second person as “you.” To speak of God as if one were speaking of a thing, however recondite and mysterious, or of a distant person, was to speak of nothing more than a fictive character. For Buber, it seems, the word God named nothing real. Rather, the use of the word God, in the context of address, absorbs one in a way of life that touches on the real. All that we can really say of God is what we can say to God.

Faith, in this view, is never a set of belief claims. It is a way of life marked by trust, by affirmation of the goodness of being, by the repudiation of despair, and by an infinite openness to others and their needs. Buber contrasted religion, invidiously, to faith. Faith needs no tall tales. Religion cannot exist without them.

There is much that is wrong with this thoroughly existential view. Historical religions, as complex cultural and moral systems, do not fare well under it. (Buber was not an observant Jew in any traditional sense.) Nor am I sure that it sustains rational coherence. But there is also something honorable and right about it. The refusal of the faithful to be boxed into the existence question, as if it were the one thing needful, rings true. The faithful know that their way of life springs from mystery and goes to mystery....

And then back to the opening pseudo-question-- with some suggestions for improved questions...

I suppose that the question “Does God exist?” will not go away, for many people find it crucially important. Nonetheless, I would like to see it put aside. I would rather hear questions such as these put to atheists and persons of faith: Could you please make sense of love, courage, hope, and virtue? If you think that belief must be tied rigorously to evidence, on the basis of what evidence ought one to live a life of love, courage, and hope? What stories bear truth for you, and on what basis do you believe they do so?...Can persons in the end live without a sense of the sacred?...


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