Karen Armstrong, the new physics, and religion

Karen ArmstrongKaren Armstrong’s The Case for God is an impressive, impossible survey of beliefs about God from 30,000 BCE to the current God wars between the new atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, among others) and Christian fundamentalists.  Armstrong synthesizes an enormous amount of material, including basic introductions to Buddhism and Confucianism, while concentrating on the Judaeo-Christian tradition.  Her work is aimed at the well-educated lay person. 

Where she goes wrong is in imaging that developments in the new physics, such as indeterminacy, can change the way we think about God.*  She’s wrong because while the new science of sub-atomic physics, strangeness, string theory, and quarks may inspire us to think more flexibly about God, there is no reason that it should.  The same may be said of astrophysics, and the fantastically beautiful images of distant galaxies brought back to us by the Hubble and Webb telescopes.  The situation laid out by Albert Camus remains.  We call out for the universe to tell us that we are not abandoned, isolated, and alone, and the universe is silent.

The absurd is born of the confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (Camus, p 28)

The new science is a source of the sublime, that experience that shatters our previous categories of experience.  “Beauty is the beginning of terror we are still just able to bear,” said Rilke.  The new science is beautiful; the new science is terrifying.  But unless one is looking strictly for inspiration, it does nothing to change the absurdity of human existence.  Humans long for a world that cares about us, and the world cares not.  Camus calls that the absurdity (absurdité) of the human condition, and it’s as good a word as any.

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Albert Camus, the Plague, and Belief in God

Albert Camus, the Plague, and Belief in God

Life in the midst of Covid seems like a good time to revisit Albert Camus’ The Plague, his fictional account of life in an Algerian city overrun by the bubonic plague in the 1940’s.  Sometimes read as an allegory of the German occupation of France (the German occupiers were called the peste brune, the brown plague), it’s not a very good political metaphor.  But it’s a great account of what it would mean to live a good life without believing in God. 

A common argument in favor of religion is that it gives meaning to life.  Without belief in God, there can be no meaning, and hence no firm basis for morality.  I don’t think it’s true.  God doesn’t give life meaning.  It is we who use the presumption of his existence to give life meaning.  Which at least suggests that creative humans might find other ways to give life meaning.

Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, is his most serious philosophical work about life in the absence of belief.*  But it is The Plague that tells us what that life without religious belief would look like at its best.

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On two plagues: Bishop N. T. Wright & Albert Camus

On two plagues: Bishop N. T. Wright and Albert Camus.

Bishop N. T. Wright has written a challenging book about Covid, titled God and the Pandemic.  It’s challenging because it requires us to rethink God.  We tend to think of God, if we think of him at all, as all powerful, able to fix Covid in a moment if he wished, as Jesus healed the sick and the lame.  So why doesn’t he? 

Wright’s answer, though it takes a while to figure it out, is similar to that finally arrived at in several places in the Bible.  God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).  Job comes to a similar conclusion.  The best way to understand God in the face of Covid is to accept that we shall never understand.

Wright does not stop here, however.  He says that God’s non-answer is really an answer.  God is a God of suffering and lamentation.  Until we understand that God is not a mighty warrior who exists to vanquish our enemies, we shall be lost.  Consider what Jesus first did when he learned of the death of Lazarus.  “Jesus wept,” the shortest sentence in the Bible (John 11:35).  Consider Jesus hanging on the cross, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) 

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David Hart’s defense of God turns religion into philosophy

David Hart’s defense of God turns religion into philosophy.

David Bentley Hart has written a book that proves that God exists.  However, by the time I finished reading it I no longer cared, for the God he writes about has nothing to do with any God I would bother  worshiping.  For Hart, God becomes a Platonic form (eidos, είδος).

Hart writes that “it is impossible to say how, in the terms naturalism allows, nature could exist at all.” (p 18)  By “naturalism” Hart means materialism, and the scientific method by which we study matter.  I think what he is trying to say is that science can’t answer a basic question that puzzles a lot of philosophers, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”  The universe didn’t have to exist; why does it?  An answer like “the universe was brought into existence by the big bang” doesn’t answer the question, because the big bang is part of the story of existence.  One might as well ask “why did the big bang exist?”  I’m sure there are scientists puzzling over this question right now, but no answer they come up with could satisfy Hart.

It’s kind of like the question about “what does the earth rest on?”  The shoulders of Atlas, ancient Greeks replied.  And what does Atlas stand on, one might respond?  A giant turtle?  And what does the giant turtle rest on?  Another giant turtle.  And what does the second giant turtle rest on?  “Hey, man, it’s just turtles all the way down.”

To some people this answer, or rather its philosophical version, is deeply upsetting.  It is to Hart.

An honest and self-aware atheism, therefore, should proudly recognize itself as the quintessential expression of heroic irrationalism: a purely and ecstatically absurd venture of faith, a triumphant trust in the absurdity of all things.  But most of us already know this anyway. If there is no God, then of course the universe is ultimately absurd, in the very precise sense that it is irreducible to any more comprehensive “equation.” It is glorious, terrible, beautiful, horrifying — all of that — but in the end it is also quite, quite meaningless. (p 19)

            What’s so bad about that?  The universe is absurd, in the sense that it has no meaning other than that given to it by humans.  God didn’t write the Bible; humans did.  Even belief in God is absurd, in the sense that we give meaning to life by positing God.  (Which doesn’t say anything about whether God actually exists.  Perhaps God put this posit in us.)  Albert Camus, the foremost absurdist, has shown us how to live meaningfully in an absurd universe, one that does not respond to my demand for recognition.  Humans create a meaningful world by giving it meaning, beginning with human basics such as love and attachment, and then trying to overcome what we experience as the hostility of nature, “fighting against creation as he found it,” as Dr. Rieux says in Camus’ The Plague, a tale for our times.

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Camus’ absurdism lacks imagination

Camus’ absurdism lacks imagination.

Camus insists that he is an absurdist, not an existentialist.  OK, but it is important to figure out what he means.  Camus thinks a Christian can be an absurdist.  I don’t.  I do think that absurdism is the leading alternative not only to Christianity, but religion. 

Religion is said to be based on faith, as it is.  Camus’ absurdism is based on a particular heroic ideal, a man who faces the truth head on, as if it were that simple.  All quotations are from Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays unless otherwise noted.

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Did Camus want to be baptized?

Did Camus want to be baptized?

First a discussion of the religious beliefs of Jean-Baptiste Clamence in Albert Camus’ novel, The Fall.  Then a discussion of Camus’ request to be baptized according to Howard Mumma in Albert Camus and the Minister.  There is a connection.  It has to do with faith.

The Fall, Camus’ last novel, is set in Hell.  Well, not exactly.  It’s set in Amsterdam, where the canals are laid out in concentric circles.  That and the foggy atmosphere are both intended to remind us of Dante’s circles of Hell.  Mexico City, a bar in the inner-most circle of hell is where Jean-Baptiste Clamence holds forth.  He is the novel’s only speaking character, and we must not take him literally.  He would have us think he is in a type of Hell, but he may be playing games with the reader, and himself.

I won’t summarize the book.  The only thing you need to know is that Clamence was a wealthy and successful Parisian lawyer and all-around good guy (lawyer and good guy are not automatically antonyms).  After a series of minor mishaps, culminating in the not so minor mishap of ignoring a drowning woman’s cry, he exiles himself to one of the seedier bars in Amsterdam, where he tells his tale to any who will listen.  His goal, it seems, is to justify his drinking and whoring by constantly pointing out how bad he is.  An odd strategy, designed it seems to preempt judgment. 

About Christ’s guilt

Clamence tells us that not only is he guilty, but even Jesus Christ was guilty, merely by being born in a certain time and place.  Consider the massacre of the innocents, in which Herod orders all male children in Bethlehem under two to be killed in order to avoid a prophecy about the “King of the Jews,” who he believed threatened his throne (Matthew 2:16-18).  Wasn’t that the sadness one sometimes sees in Jesus?

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