Friday, December 11, 2009

Divine Mystery and Divine Goodness

In a comment on my previous post, “Gods of the Imagination,” Speaker for the Dead raised an important issue: if one takes God to be entirely outside the sphere of rational conceptualization, we’re afforded no basis for being critical of claims that are made about God.

Consider hellists—by which I mean those who think that God consigns some of the creatures He loves to an eternity of excruciating torment, torment that does them absolutely no good. While some hellists seek to offer a “theodicy” of hell—that is, an account of why such divine activity is compatible with the goodness of God—others retreat behind the cloak of divine mystery. They point out that God’s ways are not our ways, that divine goodness transcends our comprehension, and that it is therefore simply presumptuous for anyone to question the (supposedly clear) biblical teaching that God expresses his perfect goodness in part by subjecting some creatures to unremitting anguish more extreme than we can possibly fathom.

And the same strategy is, of course, available to anyone who wants to reconcile God’s goodness with their pet views, no matter how horrific: In some mysterious and inexplicable way, God’s perfect benevolence is compatible with commanding genocide, or endorsing the patriarchal subordination of women (or the social marginalization of gays and lesbians), or calling for a terrorist strike on the Twin Towers, etc.

In short, if we shroud God in total mystery, the claim the God is good becomes compatible with any motives or behaviors or commandments we might possibly attribute to God. But if that is right, what are we saying when we say God is good? If saying this about God is compatible with asserting simply anything else about God--if nothing is either implied or excluded when we say it--are we really saying anything at all?

This is an important concern, and one that becomes very real if we fail to make some crucial distinctions. While I think it is important to stress that God is, in many ways, a transcendent mystery, it should be clear to all who have read my work that I do not want to cloak the divine in such a shroud of mystery that “anything goes” in what we attribute to God.

Let me begin by clarifying what I mean when I say that the God who is the proper object of religious devotion defies the imagination. When I speak of the imagination, I mean that faculty which takes concepts and ideas derived from empirical experience—from our engagement with the physical world of matter and energy—and recombines them in ways not seen in empirical experience, producing “pictures” of possible states of affairs and entities that we have never actually encountered in experience.

Using this faculty of imagination, we can come up with sea serpents and unicorns and screaming banshees—things we have never experienced, but which are, in a sense, possible objects of experience insofar as they are made up of more basic elements which we have experienced. Any God constructed in this way would be a spatio-temporal God, a God who is a part of the physical world and a possible object of scientific study. Zeus and Odin are examples.

When I say that God defies imagination, I mean that the kind of entity I refer to with the term “God” is not something that can be depicted imaginatively in this way. More significantly, if the numinous experience which seems to be at the foundation of so much religious life cannot be adequately described in terms derived from empirical experience, it follows that the object of such experience cannot be a construct of the empirical imagination. Why? Because the empirical imagination lacks the building blocks to construct an experience of that.

In this sense, there is an enormous difference between someone who claims to have encountered a pink elephant in the kitchen or a golden dragon in the woods, and someone who claims to have encountered God in the way that mystics claims to have encountered God.

But if no God-concept constructed by the imagination will track onto the object of numinous experience, on what basis is the mystic even justified in using the term “God” to name the object of that experience? The answer comes when we admit that there are non-empirical concepts, and that the mystic’s understanding of God is primarily in terms of such concepts (even if the mystic's experience of God exceeds this understanding).

Although Hume would deny this (insofar as he insisted that all concepts are empirically derived), I am convinced that there is a difference between saying that God cannot be conceptualized at all and saying that God defies imagination. One of the points I made in the previous post, but failed to elaborate on, is that I believe in non-empirical concepts and that “goodness” is one such concept. This point, I think, is crucial for avoiding the kind of “anything goes” approach to theism that Speaker for the Dead is worried about.

As anyone who has read my book will tell you, I define God primarily in moral terms—as that whose existence would fulfill the “ethico-religious hope,” that is, the hope that the universe is in some ultimate or fundamental way on the side of the good. The object of Simone Weil’s experience can justifiably be called “God,” on this definition, because among other things it is experienced to be fundamental (a non-empirical concept, I think) and good (another non-empirical concept).

I want to focus my comments here on the latter: goodness. Goodness is not the object of ordinary empirical experience (no scientific instrument can measure it), but seems rather to be a concept we have from some other source and bring to bear on the objects of empirical experience—a fact which has led some to treat it as nothing more than a projection of psychological preferences (more about this in a moment). Put another way, although we recognize a good act and are prepared to call it good, goodness isn't some feature of the act that we see or smell or taste or touch (or detect through sophisticates scientific equipment). So if it's an actual property of the act, it's not an empirical one, and our concept of it isn't derived from empirical observation.

But I want to endorse the idea that “goodness” is and actual, objective property of things, even if it's not an empirical one. It is true of a certain action that it is good, even though this goodness is not reducible to any empirical fact about it.

That the latter is true is clear enough. A scientist could exhaustively study all the empirical properties associated with my son’s act of giving the entire contents of his piggy bank to the Salvation Army bell ringer outside Walmart (it was his idea to do this, by the way)—but the goodness of the act would not be included in the description.

Logical positivists, of course, conclude on the basis of this that “goodness” is nothing but a projection of our attitudes onto the field of experience. Based on their prior commitment to the view that all objective properties are empirical, they’re forced to subjectivize the wickedness of child rape and the goodness of a generous gesture. These things aren’t real features of the acts in question, but just attitudinal responses to them. The effect, in my judgment, is that logical positivists are forced to impose on moral claims a meaning that is entirely at odds with what actual people actually mean to say when they use moral language.

I can only sketch out my reasoning here, but a sketch is better than nothing, so here goes: When we say that child-rape is evil, we’re not merely expressing out attitude of disapproval. We mean to be saying something about child-rape, something that is true of it. And when we say this, our utterance is intended to imply that any who deny the wrongness of child-rape are failing to recognize something that is true of it. In short, when we call something “good” or “bad,” we mean to attribute to that something a property which (we think) it actually possesses--but a non-empirical property.

The ethical subjectivism of logical positivists does not permit us to do so. As such, this subjectivism implies that when we make claims to the effect that child-rape possesses this property of wrongness, we are attributing to child-rape a property that nothing can possess, since there are no non-empirical properties and wrongness is clearly not an empirical one. In other words, ethical subjectivists are really saying that all moral utterances are false, at least when these utterances are given the meaning that we intend them to have when we use moral language in the ordinary way.

Put more simply, ethical subjectivism is really moral nihilism in disguise. It claims to offer an account of morality (to the effect that it's nothing but a projection of our attitudes); but this account attaches to our moral utterances a meaning at odds with what we intend when we make such utterances, and denies that what we do intend to say can ever be truthfully said. Sounds like nihilism to me.

Notice that universalizing subjective dispositions does not solve this problem. If all of us happen to have the same subjective reaction to child rape, this is a collective fact about us, not a property of child rape. And so, universal horror at child rape is not the same as child rape having the property of being wrong. The latter would entail that horror is fitting, not merely a fact. What would make horror fitting is that child-rape possesses the (non-empirical) property of being morally horrible. And if it has that property, then horror is fitting whether it’s universally felt or not. And we are justified in condemning the attitudes of those who fail to feel horror.

(I should point out here in passing that one of the big problems with Dawkins’ effort to ground morality in evolutionary theory is the fact that all he can do is show how natural selection might generate a general disposition to feel horror at child-rape. Evolutionary theory cannot show why it is true that child-rape is horrible, and hence why it is true that evolution in this case has generated in us responses which fit with morality).

To avoid moral nihilism, I'm convinced we must treat goodness as a non-empirical property. In fact, I would go further (although I cannot make the case for this here) and say that we need to adopt a metaphysics according to which the good has a foundation in reality that is not reducible to any set of empirical facts. But if we do so, then our grasp of goodness cannot be somehow derived from our engagement with the empirical world, but will be something drawn from something that "transcends" the field of empirical experience (even if it may very well be part of the same reality that we encounter in empirical experience).

Put simply, our concept of the good will be drawn from a “transcendent” source--in the technical sense according to which “transcendent” refers to empirically inaccessible dimensions of reality, that is, dimensions of things-as-they-are-in-themselves that we cannot see, hear, smell, or taste, but which remain real. And if our concept of the good is to have such a source, it must be the case that we, as moral beings, are somehow in touch with this transcendent source from which the concept of goodness immediately derives, even if our connection to it is not empirical.

And so, to say that God defies imagining (to say that any construct of the empirically derived imagination will not map onto God) is not to say that our concept of the good cannot be invoked to assess claims about God. Because our concept of the good might apply to God even if no empirical concept does.

The concept to which Weil refers when she uses the term “God” is not one constructed from empirically derived concepts but is, rather, the object of an experience that cannot be adequately conceptualized…except in this crucial respect: there is a pure, unvarnished sense of goodness that attaches to the otherwise ineffable object of experience.

Of course, the sense of goodness isn’t the whole story. There is also the sense (well-documented by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience) that the experience is of something vastly more real or “fundamental” than what we encounter in ordinary empirical experience, as if we have seen past the surface of things and are in direct touch with the source of reality. In any event, it is these features of the experience—the conformity of it to these non-empirical concepts—which justifies the appellation “God.” We have the immediate sense of our relatedness to something fundamental and good, and so the immediate sense that our ethico-religious hope is indeed fulfilled.

By contrast, were the object of experience every bit as ineffable but shrouded in an aura of malevolence, the mystic wouldn’t be justified in calling it God--because this wouldn't be an experience of encountering something whose existence fulfills the ethico-religious hope.

My own view here is that our ordinary moral sense is the immediate intellectual appropriation of the transcendent insofar as it has implications for how we engage with the empirical world, whereas numinous experience is “the immediate awareness of an existential relation” (to quote Schleiermacher) with that same transcendent. Moral sense and numinous religious experience are thus different ways of relating to the same thing. And I think that both the substance of numinous experience and its pragmatic effects in terms of character transformation support this view. While goodness isn't something we can see, hear, smell, or touch, in mystical moments we seem to do something very like this: goodness seems to become the direct object of experience in something like the way that blueness is the direct object of a visual experience of the sky.

The result of all of this is that even though God is unimaginable in the sense of being impossible to reconstruct in terms of empirically-derived concepts, moral concepts can be properly (if fallibly) attributed to God—in fact, it is these moral concepts that provide the conceptual parameters for what counts as “God” in the first place. The reason why Weil is justified in calling the object of her experience “God” is precisely because, despite being ineffable, despite defying all attempts to define it in terms of empirically-derived concepts, it is experienced as good in a profound way. Empirically-derived concepts don’t fit with the experience except in metaphoric or poetic terms…but the concept of “goodness” not only fits the experience but is enlivened by it. It’s as if numinous experience deepens our understanding of the good.

A being that is said to behave in ways radically at odds with the good is, therefore, a being that falls outside the conceptual parameters for what counts as “God.” And our conceptual grasp of the good is not to be dismissed as inapplicable to God in the way that empirical concepts are to be dismissed. Rather, we should presumptively trust our moral sense (or at least its clearest and deepest urgings) when it comes to claims about the transcendent.

As such, we should presumptively trust that if a claim about God flies in the face of the clearest and most vivid urgings of our moral sense, this claim should be rejected. In other words, moral concerns pertaining to religious doctrine cannot be dismissed by a hand-waving invocation of mystery.

It is for this reason, by the way, that I think the problem of evil poses the most substantial challenge to theism and must be wrestled with seriously by theists. While it is not impertinent to note that God may have morally good reasons for allowing evils, reasons which are inaccessible to us, I believe that more than this is called for in response to the reality of evil. Theists cannot ignore the project of attempting to account for why a good God would permit evil—what is called the project of “theodicy.”

But neither does the legitimacy of theistic belief hinge upon a fully adequate theodicy that completely explains why God permits every evil that there is. What the credibility of theism requires, I think, is that the project of theodicy offers a framework within which it makes sense to say that God is not on the side of the evil found in the world despite God’s unique relation to the world as its creative principle. My problem with the classical doctrine of hell is that it attributes something to God that my moral sense finds repugnant. Likewise, if it were maintained that God endorsed the Holocaust or regarded its occurence as ultimately a good thing, my moral sense would revolt. As such, my moral sense revolts against certain theodicies because they attribute to God horrific motivations and intentions.

There is a difference between doing that and attributing to God nothing but motivations and intentions in keeping with my deepest and most stable moral sense of good and evil, but then puzzling over why, if such a being is the fundamental reality, there is so much evil in the world of a sort that would horrify such a being. It seems to me that a crucial part of the task of theodicy is to listen to our moral sense in these things, and to reject any account of why God permits evil which makes horrors out to be anything less than horrors.

The crucial question then becomes this: Can one reasonably believe that the most fundamental reality is on the side of goodness given that there really are genuine horrors in the world, monstrous evils that would make any being on the side of goodness weep? If there is a God who is on the side of goodness, why wouldn’t He act? Why wouldn’t such a God stop these horrors? That is the anguished cry that demands an answer.

Theists cannot hide from that cry. They must, instead, honor it. The deep question is how best to do so. While some atheists will glibly say, “You honor it by abandoning belief in God,” the problem with that response is that the very same anguished voice that cries out for an explanation also cries out for redemption. And the atheist’s response takes the hope of redemption off the table.

I do not think that the human experience, taken as a whole, either forces such a move or is best made sense of in terms of a worldview in which the hope of redemption is lost. And while I think much of the answer to the anguished cry—“Why, God? Why?”—will inevitably be shrouded in mystery, the mystery does not extend to whether genocidal campaigns are really evil. They are. And so, even if it remains a mystery why God is prevented from acting, given the horrors in the world we must believe in a God that weeps.


  1. Thank you for one of the most profound things I've ever read. It's like you found the right words to say what it was I was thinkng and didn't know how to say.

  2. Eric:

    I don’t think that it is proper to use “empirical” in the sense of “amenable to scientific measurement”. Websters dictionary defines “empirical” as “derived from experiment and observation rather than theory”. Suppose then I have heard people speak of how apples taste but have never tried one myself; if I then make the experiment and bite into an apple I will learn empirical data about how apples taste like. But how apples taste like cannot be measured with scientific instruments.

    In my discussion with naturalists I have observed that they tend to conflate “existence” with “physical existence”, “evidence” with “physical evidence”, and so on. But this use of words impoverishes language and indeed represents a hidden begging of the question. A theist might suggest that using language in the same truncated way that naturalists use it will make it easier for them to understand theism, but I think the opposite is the case. Indeed this semantic issue may deny us theists useful insights. Take for example the much maligned logical positivism. The way I understand it, it makes the plausible point that only propositions that have some empirical relevance are meaningful. Indeed I don’t see why one should think about propositions whose truth value can make no difference whatsoever, not even indirectly or in principle, to one’s experience of life. Now whether the rape of a child is objectively evil or not can make such a difference. After all, arguably, the existence of objective moral truths implies the existence of God, and that existence has of course huge relevance to our experience of life (e.g. to the existence of the afterlife), indeed to the very choices we make in life.

    In your article you say that God is mysterious because God defies the imagination, and you define imagination as what we can conceptualize using concepts and ideas out of our experience of the physical world. Well it’s obviously true that God, not being a physical thing, does defy imagination defined in this way. But why define imagination in this way? Language about God is metaphysical language, i.e. language that refers to the reality in which we exist and which produces our experience of life. In this context what defies imagination is what is supposed to be real but which cannot be described using concepts we understand. So, metaphysically speaking, it is the naturalistic idea of, say, an apple which defies imagination. After all, how would one conceptualize what an apple is in a naturalistic reality? Naturalists claim it is an agglomeration within spacetime of more primitive physical things, namely elementary particles such as electrons. So what are electrons? We have no experience whatsoever of them, indeed cannot even imagine how it would be like to experience them. But what’s more relevant the ontological description of electrons defies not only imagination but also credulity. They are supposed to have properties such as mass and electric charge, but no naturalist actually defines what these are in reality. What’s more, primitive electrons without any internal parts or access to computing machinery are supposed to display highly computationally complex behavior, which is as much a “magical” claim as I have ever come across. But if the parts of an apple defy imagination so does the entire apple. Those who think that an apple is easily imaginable simply confuse the ontological with the phenomenal natures of the apple. [continued in the next post]

  3. Now let us compare this state of affairs with theism’s view of God. This view is expressed using concepts such as personal being, freedom of will, perception, thought, knowledge, intentionality, love, beauty, power, personal relationships, joy, suffering, justice, morality, value, action, etc. – which are all concepts we can imagine very well, indeed intimately understand, because they are the concepts we would use to express ourselves. Of course there comes a point in our knowledge of God where our cognitive powers are spent up, simply because God is a limitless object of knowledge whereas our minds are limited. But this point comes long after one has knowledge of God with a clarity that does not start to compare with the mysteriousness of the ontological nature of the naturalistic apple, let alone of the naturalistic universe and its propensity to produce conscious experience without which there would be no knowledge of apples whatsoever.

    In any case I do agree that theists’ propensity to talk about the mysteriousness of God does not produce good fruit because it misleads both atheists who get the impression that God is therefore not a proper object of knowledge and must be believed “on blind faith”, and also misleads theists who get the impression that it’s OK for them to accept claims about God that make no sense whatsoever. Incidentally, mysterianism has gained some ground in naturalism too, and I am not just thinking of Collin McGinn’s response to naturalism’s mind-body problem. Rather I have found that when discussing with naturalists the many conceptual problems entailed by their worldview they sometimes end up suggesting that our little brains have not evolved to understand the ontology of the vast physical universe, and that it is therefore to be expected that physical reality strikes us as so mysterious. Actually I’d like to use an implication of Plantinga’s argument against naturalism and suggest that it is more reasonable for a naturalist to claim some kind of mysterianism as a last resort response to naturalism’s problems, than for a theist to do the same for theism’s problems. For, it seems to me, a perfectly good God would not create us lacking the cognitive capacity to understand what is useful to understand in our current condition.

  4. Enjoyed reading your excellent effort to wrestle key issues to the ground.

    I would suggest that understanding issues of mystery and evil requires an understanding of our spiritual nature and our relationship to God.

    We too often denigrate subjective awareness (which is the only way we know anything) in an attempt to satisfy those who argue from the premises of naturalism.

    As Dianelos hints, the naturalists end up relying on blind faith more than theists, as their premise that matter exists prior to and independent of consciousness can never be observed or verified. (No consciousness means no observation means no verification.)

    In Taming the Wolf I address the problem of evil at a practical level within the context of conflict resolution.

    In conflict resolution we must assess whether or not we are dealing with evil. We consider how we might handle evil. In this model, free will plays a key role as the factor that allows evil to exist.

    Free will must be explored within the context of our essential nature and the nature of our relationship with God.

    When one takes this perspective the idea of a God as puppet-master who determines all events without our involvement fades in importance.

    Hope that suggests another line of thought you may wish to add to your analysis.

  5. Nice post.

    I certainly agree that morality cannot be derived from studying naturalism, evolutionary theory, etc. Morality is a "leap" - a step forward based on values whose origins can perhaps be explained by evolution, but are not required to have by evolution (since natural selection, as a mechanism, has no foresight)

    But I don't think that a person who rejects "ultimate" meaning or transcendence, is morally nihilistic. That would imply that they believe that in the place of God there is a hole of despair or something. Rather, they don't think there is a God, so morality is very real and present now - even if the universe will end in a heat death billions of years in the future regardless of what we do.

    Of course, this view shares much in common with Universalism - in the end we end up the same, so morality is more about the present than some payout in the future. Suffering and pleasure are both very real regardless of our beliefs about God.

    But I also agree with you that ignoring our direct experience of the world is no way to live and is not necessarily justified. I see no reason not to live in hope, in goodness as a quality.

    So I have a problem when atheists deny that they have indefensible, self-refuting first principles (which everyone does). But I have a problem with theists who claim that morality is dependent on an "ultimate" view of the universe.

  6. Hi, Eric

    I recently finished your book, and I thank you for your earnest insight into rational theism.

    I was raised Catholic, went through a period of charismatic Christianity, and then made a gradual transformation to agnosticism. I consider myself now to be an actively ever-seeking agnostic. I continue to open every door I find to look for God, and each time I find a beautiful aspect of Truth, but no God. I continue to believe and hope for Good, but I remain unconvinced that Good ultimately dominates Bad.

    Three years ago I began a concentrated endeavor to philosophically and pragmatically scrutinize theism. I read Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. I also read some of their critics. The precipitate of this scrutiny consisted most strongly in doubt.

    My philosophical musings abruptly materialized into a personal, agonizing questioning and reevaluation in light of personal tragedy. In one year's time, I suddenly lost my husband and all my dreams, my 4-year-old nephew drowned due to parental neglect, and my young children and I moment-by-moment watched and cared for my father as he suffered and died of bone cancer.

    My ensuing grief and suffering were wrought from hell. I opened myself up in desperation to divine comfort. I fell helplessly onto the compassionate arms of my family, friends, and community. Any inkling of comfort my soul received was from the certain knowledge that people so ardently cared and sympathized with me. The uncertainty and mystery of a good God gave me no consolation.

    I offer you my testimony in response to your assertion that "salvation" from life's horrors cannot come from us, that a disbelief in God can offer no comfort. Days after my father's death, I gave a speech about my personal journey with this issue. I invite you to watch the 3-part video of the speech, or read its transcript, found here:

    I remain searching. I believe in the certainty of searching, because Truth seems to be, from all my experience and evidence, Infinite.