(Sample Material) UPSC Mains Philosophy (Optional) Study Kit "Philosophy of Religion (From World to God)"

Sample Material of UPSC Mains Philosophy (Optional) Study Kit

Topic: Philosophy of Religion (From World to God)


IF one is pessimistic about metaphysics and still wishes to defend Christian belief against recent attacks, it is tempting and plausible to argue thus. (i) To have meaning is no more or less than to have a use in language. Christian discourse does have a use-rather, several interconnected uses; therefore it is meaningful. What sort of use does ithave? Cia) In parable-fashion it specifies, makes imaginatively vivid, a pattern of life: in Professor Braithwaite’s language, the agapeistic way of life. Doctrinal utterances about God are analysable, not in terms of a metaphysically mysterious inferred entity-’Other’ and ‘Beyond’-but as the commendation of attitudes and polices in the here-and-now. (ib) Religious language is evocative of ‘ways of seeing the world’. As a painter may see in a landscape desolation or sublimity and expressthese in paint, so religious language expresses a vision of the world as the handiwork of a supremely wise and beneficient creator, and sees humanity in the light of the doctrines of Creation, Fall, and Redemption.

Again, we are speaking only of observable phenomena, and of how we interpret, what we ‘make of’, those phenomena. (ii) Another way of trying to be both a metaphysical sceptic and a Christian is by means of a thoroughgoing Christological theology, in which every statement about God is reduced to statements about Jesus.

This would be carrying to an attractive extreme a strong tendency within contemporary Christian thought. Questions about the divine love become questions about Christ’s suffering for men. Questions about the divine creation are reinterpreted in terms of the New Creation and the Second Adam-and not the other way round.

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Each of these approaches is vulnerable to the same type of criticism. They succeed in salvaging parts of Christian discourse, but they are inadequate as complete analyses of traditional Christianity. Both (ia) and (ib) are objectionable in that they identify God with his manifestations in the world, although in complex and indirect ways. They both seem to imply, ‘If no world, no God’: a view that in fact makes nonsense of divine creation. The source of the trouble is that an essential element of Christianity has been eliminated in both cases, that element which speaks of God as the kind of being who may be encountered, who acts and sends his son, and who, because he is capable of doing such things, is therefore not identifiable with ways of seeing phenomena or with attitudes taken up to phenomena. One cannot both be true to traditional Christian teaching about God and at the same time conceive of him as a logical construction out of phenomena, or as a purely symbolic principle of collection, integrating our experiences of the sublime and the saintly into a single vision. The God of Christianity must be more than this: a God to whom prayer may be addressed, and who can raise men again after death. Within traditional Christian theology, therefore, questions about the divine existence cannot be deflected into the question, ‘Does “God” play an intelligible role in the language-game? ‘ But it might be doubted whether anything I have said, or could say, would lead the (in) or (ib) theorists to recognize their position as inadequate. For the traditional Christian’s counter-statements, like ‘God is really transcendent’: There is a real life after death’, will themselves be analysed as policy-specifying, vision-evoking bits of discourse. One has to admit that no single theological or religious statement would necessarily produce disillusionment: but that, if disillusionment were to come, it would be only by the accumulation of difficulties, of awkward and artificial analyses, increasingly sensed as going against the grain of the evident meaning of the statements analysed. It might also come by some forms of first-hand religious experience, experience as of encounter with God, experience of the ‘numinous’, experiences in which, contrary to the trend of the analyses, God is apprehended as intrusion.

The difficulties in the radical Christological approach (ii), are no less formidable. For at some stage we have to move from talking about the temporal and finite Jesus of Nazareth to talk about an eternal and infinite God; and the claim that these are two Persons of the same deity does not exonerate us from making logical sense of the transition. This is not, of course, to deny the importance of Christological thought for Christianity, but to deny its complete logical adequacy in the absence of a metaphysical account of how the finite relates to the infinite. Appeal to revelation-in-history is not an alternative to appealing to reason, to a reason that plays a metaphysical role. We have to link the allegedly revealing events and persons with the transcendent deity which they allegedly reveal; to show how the first can be a revelation of the second.

Difficulties cannot be avoided by talking of sheer leaps of faith; since equally awkward philosophical questions can be asked about the language that describes in what direction you are leaping and where your leap is taking you. What conclusion can be drawn from all this? That part at least of Christian discourse speaks of God as of some sort of individualalbeit a quite unique kind of individual. The current theological stress on ‘encountering’ God, valuably and dramatically illuminates this. God is one who may be met. It is surely also this strand in Christian thought that keeps back Rudolph Bultmann2 from a complete ‘de-kerygmatizing’ of Christian theology, that prevents him reducing it as a whole to talk of moral policies and attitudes, cl la Braithwaite. Again, T. R. Miles in Religion and the Scientific Outlook goes very far with Braithwaite, but adds to the parabolic analysis religious ‘silence’. Although Miles would, I suspect, be uneasy over calling God an individual, and although the role of ‘silence’ in his account is rather enigmatic, at least it bears witness once more to the inadequacy of merely reductive programmes. If God is to retain the status of individual which some parts of Christian discourse undoubtedly accord him, we need not only a rolein- the-Ianguage for ‘God’, like a set of rules for the King in chess, but also an intelligible procedure for referring to God, a set of criteria for identifying him. And this is a demand of logic: one has either to accept it or eliminate that strand in Christian discourse that makes it a demand. I am not saying that without this we cannot give meaning to Christian discourse: use takes care of that. Thus I disagree with a writer likeJohn Hick (Faith and Knowledge) who depends upon eschatological events to give meaning retrospectively to that discourse. If ‘singling out’, ‘identifying’ God is a logically necessary task, it is also one that can easily be represented as blasphemous. It may be taken to imply that God belongs among finite, limited entities. For if he can be singled out, God can hardly be infinite in every possible way. There must exist that from which he is being singled out—{)ver-against him, as it were. Two comments may be ventured on this antinomy.

(1) Whatever our final judgement, the theologian certainly deserves the utmost logical tolerance in trying to make his case. Because of the nature of the being with whom he claims to be concerned, we have no right to demand close parallels between (a) identifying or singling out a thing-in-the-world from other things-in-the-world, and (b) making the required identificatory gesture from world to God. The minimal requirement for being able to carry through the identifying of God is that sense can be made of the ‘cosmological relation’, the relation between world and God, that relation on which the Cosmological Argument turns. This involves not only the recognizing of the variQus relational characteristics possessed by the world according to the different versions of the Argument-hints of derivativeness, incompleteness, fragmentariness: but also showing what sort of movementof the mind carries one from these to a transcendent God. I want, in fact, to suggest that the Cosmological Argument-or some transformation of it-is not just one approach to apologetics among others, one to be distinguished altogether from apologetics based on historical relation. It is an indispensable part of any Christian apologetics whatever, including those that centre on revelation. For, as we have seen, at some point appeal must be made away from the finite and historical locus of revelation to the infinite and eternal God to whom these allegedly testify. It is clear that if one wishes to affirm the chief tenets of traditional Christianity, there are severe limits set upon metaphysical scepticism. Part of Christian discourse, I suggested, demands a God who is in some sense an individual entity. But other parts seem equally surely to demand a God who emphatically is not an individual entity. A God who is ‘beyond being’ or is ‘being-itself’ can hardly be an individual, nor could a God who is thought of in idealist style as the completion and consummation of cosmic process; as by Errol Harris, recently, in Revelation through Reason. If God-in order to be God-has to be infinite in the sense that involves comprehensiveness, being excluded by nothing, then his nature is again incompatible with any identificatory moves at all. In each of these cases, and many more could be cited, one reaches a notion of God that, for all its nobility, fails altogether to do justice to the first-mentioned part of Christian discourse, that which demands a God who acts, hears prayer, resurrects the dead.

Now these are tensions and strains occurring within the Christian conception of a religiously adequate deity. They may remind us how, in his renowned paper on God’s non-existence, J. N. Findlay argued that the dialectic of the worship-worthy carries one on to a God of such a nature as (logically) could not exist.The present point, though related, is different. The progressive stepping-up of the criteria of worship-worthiness, culminating in the conception of God as infinite, beyond being, etc., leads to judgements about God that clash violently with that other, equally basic strand in Christian doctrine, the strand that thinks of God as an individual. In the latter capacity, God is a being who stands in need of identification-procedures: but with the former notions of God it makes no sense whatever to ask for such. One is forced to wonder whether Christians are in fact making quite incompatible demands upon their object of worship-that he should possess characteristics belonging to subjects of radically different, and incompatible ontological status, while yet demanding that these two subjects should be really one God.

Let us assume for the time being, however, that theology might cope with these difficulties; and take up again the reflections of point (1) above. These concluded that the Cosmological argument was, in some form, crucial to the justification of Christian belief. But has not that argument been shown up as invalid? Does that, therefore, settle the case against theism? No. Those versions of the Argument are invalid, which (a) entail that God logically necessarily exists: that is, that existence is a predicate; or (b) claim that the world needs God as its cause-in the ordinary sense of ‘cause’. But the world-God relation might be characterizable in terms other than these, and the motivepower of the Argument might be neither (a) a quest for logical necessity in the wrong place, nor (b) a zeal to halt and anchor the cause-effect regress. This is not an original reflection: several recent writers have been trying to reinterpret the Cosmological Argument so as to avoid the acknowledged inadequacies of its classical formulations. I intend now not to quote and expound individual new versions-they vary considerably among themselves-but to present briefly the most plausible revised version I can think up with their help. Then I shall raise some questions about its logical status and reliability, questions seldom considered by the rescuers of the Argument themselves.

If the cosmological relation is not a matter of logical dependence, it must be some sort of factual dependence. (Cf. T. Penelhum, Mind, Refusing to be pushed back towards equally invalid causal versions, let us put our whole emphasis on the utter uniqueness of the relation between God and the world. No examples of this relation can be reasonably demanded, for they would have to be drawn from the relations of finite, created thing with finite, created thing. At best we could see the whole cluster of dependence-relations, such as cause-effect, parent—child, etc., as preparing one to make a final, and still sharp, transition in thought to the unconditional dependence of the cosmological relation itself. Because of this uniqueness, the fate of the cosmological movement of thought cannot be tied to the unhappy fate of arguments based on dependence-chains, such as cause and effect, that are exemplifiable in the world of ordinary experience.

The Cosmological Argument, so expressed, might be thought to have a certain autonomy, and to be invulnerable to the usual criticisms. If it is logically odd, strained, or broken, this is not a fatal defect: it is only what one could have predicted a priori. But this is not yet quite plausible enough. There might well be no such relation as is held to be stammered at by these bits of logically broken language. More positive confirmation can reasonably be demanded. It is worth asking seriously whether such confirmation might be supplied, at least in part, by Rudolph OUo’s account of the ‘numinous’. For, on that account, numinous experience is characterized by a sense of out-and-out dependence, derivativeness, and creatureliness, and by a peculiar haunting strangeness-an awesomeness or weirdness.

But all descriptions are held in the end to fail. The strangeness and awesomeness prevent the sense of dependence from being construed as simply cause-effect dependence or as dependence of any other familiar, intelligible type. We are in the sphere of the non-rational, the inexpressible: but it is just such an inexpressible and fundamental type of dependence that our sophisticated versions of the Cosmological Argument are concerned with. Could numinous experience be taken as an actual, privileged awareness of the world as related to God, of God as related to the world?

Supposing it could. It is important to see exactly how far the old Cosmological Argument would have been metamorphosed. It started its career as a rational proof of God’s existence. But it was unable to prove God demonstratively. In shifting ground to the exploration of a possible factual cosmological relation, experienced, however transitorily and imperfectly, in numinous experience, we should be retaining some essential ingredients in the old Argument, but thoroughly changing its status. It would no longer move from premisses intelligible to any reasonable person to a conclusion, by way of a chain of inference open to logical scrutiny. It would be taken now as a form of words that evokes, or evokes the memory of, a special and elusive group of experiences, not obtainable at will, nor perhaps ever actually obtained, by everyone. Yet, once again, the religious person is justified in saying that this elusiveness does not necessarily invalidate the cosmological movement of thought—considering, as one must, the unique nature of its object.

Indeed, an increase in elusiveness seems in general a necessary price of making one’s notion of God adequately worship-worthy. In most primitive religions there was no identification-problem for God. One could straightforwardly point at the divine stone, tree, the sky, at one’s fetish or totem. But it is not possible to point at a God who is no longer exclusively in the tree or in the Temple, but ‘beyond’ or ‘behind’ all phenomena whatever. Yet I have been arguing that Christian theism cannot afford to renounce the identificatory gesture altogether. The more religiously adequate the God on whose behalf one is arguing and whom one is seeking to single out, the less rationally and universally convincing one’s apologetics are likely to become. And the more rationally transparent the apologetics, the less religiously adequate the God. In the work already mentioned, Errol Harris, rehabilitating an idealist type of rational theology, tries to leave a place for the numinous. Numinous experience is, to him, wonderment at a nature imperfectly understood, a nature whose consummation is deity. There is nothing of Otto’s non-rational, surd-like quality in Harris’s version, and therefore nothing of the thrill of mingled dread and strange exhilaration that pervades the Otto experience. The experiences are just not the same, despite the common label. The rational tidiness and integration of Harris’s philosophy of religion are won only through the sacrifice of some fundamental elements of religious experience.

Yoked thus to numinous experience, the Cosmological Argumentin its formulations, dry, austere, and brief-may look singularly illequipped to play the evocative role for which it is now cast. True: but the reluctance of many religious people to abandon the Argument altogether, in face of logical criticism, might in part be attributed to a stiffening of numinous experience, whether developed or embryonic, that is the real though unrecognized source of its power over them. I agree with Professor H. D. Lewis (Our Experience of God), that the original cosmological movement of thought has been mishandled into the shape of a rational proof, whereas it has closer affinities with the poetry of a Vaughan or Traherne, with the Book of Job and some of the Psalms. We cannot leave the matter there. It would be premature to speak of having in numinous experience an ‘insight’ tout court into the existence of a transcendent God. We may have bypassed the logical difficulties of the traditional Cosmological Argument, but that is not to say that the new interpretation has no difficulties of its own. We need seriously to ask, what are the risks of hoodwinking ourselves, of misinterpreting our experience when we make use of it? This is a very hard question to answer: largely because numinous experience is itself notoriously difficult to analyse. It is not very helpful, either to sceptic or believer, to say numinous experience is an emotion. For emotions can be most complex affairs, involving not simply the having of feelings but the making of value judgements, the interpreting and appraising of situations in which we find or imagine ourselves. For example: to feel disdain for someone is to judge that one is superior to him, that to associate with him would injure one’s dignity, and so on. Some emotions certainly carry with them a liability to thrills, shudders, or spine-tinglings, and numinous experience undoubtedly is one such. But having thrills and shudders cannot be the whole of what it is to have numinous experience: for again valuejudgements and situation-interpretations are at least equally important features. Consider some of the concepts involved-concepts like creatureliness, self-abasement, reverence. Otto, of course, is correct, though also tantalizing, in insisting that numinous experience cannot be construed merely as the concurrence of shudderings, self-abasings and the like.

The precise quality of the experience eludes all rational reconstruction. This elusiveness resembles the way in which I may recall on waking that a particular dream was emotionally impressive, and impressive in a quite distinctive way; but although I can recollect the sequence of dream-events even in some detail, yet I may be quite frustrated in reviving the precise emotive quality. That quality cannot be imaginatively reconstructed through reconsidering either events or my behavioural response to the events, i.e. what I did or said in my dream. But our chief task was to say something to the question ‘Are numinous experiences cognitive or non-cognitive?’ Unhelpfully, I cannot see how to decide this issue, either way. It is not that uncertainties of the cognitive-non-cognitive type are unknown in other areas of experience. Thus we may be in doubt as to whether we are still hearing, or imagining that we are hearing, the sound of a distant train, whether we still perceive the ship’s motion or imagine it even when the ship is in calm waters, whether the projector is still throwing a faint image on the screen, or is it I myself who have unwittingly become the projector?

So with numinou~ experience-hovering on the frontier between cognitive and non-cognitive, between imagining and grasping, between fancy and insight, between feeling and perceiving. Only; the other cases mentioned admit of decision-procedures. ‘You could not have been hearing the train,’ we may be informed, ‘it stopped one minute before you spoke.’ ‘The slide had been withdrawn from the projector .. .’ But nothing comparable helps us with the numinous. In the midst of half-lights and inconclusiveness at least one negative point can confidently be made. It will not do for the religious person to present numinous experience simply as something that happens to him, an event suffered. If it were so presented, appeal to it could not possibly ease the theological predicament as we had hoped it might. For we should then need license to take that event as revelatory of God, license to move from the shudders, as finite occurrences, to God, as an infinite being. We should be back where we started, with the task of making sense of the move from world to God. But it was to make sense of that move that we originally appealed to experience of the numinous. Therefore, it is not possible to dodge the perhaps unsettleable issue ‘cognitive or non-cognitive?’ by exclaiming ‘How indisputably real, how intense and impressive, are the thrills and shudders.’

These by themselves are brute psychological events, and they cannot help the apologist where he needs help most. There are quite a few points of close analogy between numinous experience and some sorts of aesthetic experience, types of sublimity, for instance. But the differences between them are all too easily ignored:

(i) Otto himself draws a parallel between musical experience and experience of the numinous. The main point of comparison is the qualitative elusiveness of both. It is often impossible to capture in words the exact emotional flavour of a piece of music; reference to ordinary human emotions, like nostalgia, melancholy, hopefulness, can be almost as misleading as helpful. Likewise, experience of the holy has its analogues in nameable human emotions but also defies analysis in terms of any of these. We do not make a mock of musical experience because it fits none of our conceptual pigeon-holes: how much less should we dismiss experience of the numinous on the same grounds.

But clearly the analogy is two-edged. It does nothing to help one over the decision-issue—cognitive or non-cognitive. To silence the sceptic, one would have to show not only that numinous experience is autonomous and wholly other, in the sense parallel to musical experience, but that it is the experience of a ‘Wholly Other’ being. And this has not been shown. The indescribability of some musical experience does not compel us to posit a mysterious other world of musical entities, to which music gives us access. One may ask: need the indescribability of numinous experience compel us any more to posit a transcendent Source?

(ii) There undoubtedly has been a historical development in the idea of the holy, a movement towards the unity and transcendence of the object of worship; from seeing holiness as in trees, wells or stones, ark of the Covenant or Temple to the final intense and splendid vision of holiness lodged in one deity, whom all phenomena veil. The main question is: how can one be sure that intensification of, and increase in the impressiveness of, the idea of the holy are correlated with an ever more adequate awareness of the one actual God? Of a composer’s eighth or ninth symphony we might say: ‘Here now is the full and glorious deployment of musical resources which were only hinted at in his first and second symphonies and developed gradually during numbers three to seven.’ But in this case, it is not at all necessary or plausible to think of the development as the progressive discovery of something which from the start had existed in the world. Yet it is just this that the religious person is tempted to assume without much examination in the case of the development of numinous experience.

Neither felt uniqueness, degree of intensity, nor any other factor I can isolate in numinous experience guarantees that it is a veridical cognitive experience, that the experience is being correctly interpreted when taken as solving the identification-problem. The situation looks ambivalent in respect of theistic or naturalistic interpretations. But it may be objected that if I am prepared to admit the occurrence of numinous experience, I am thereby committing myself to theistic belief. Definitionally, numinous experience is the experience of encounteringdeity. Strictly, I may have been misusing the expression ‘numinous experience’-using it so as not to prejudge the question of whether it is in fact awareness of actual deity. I have retained a nuance of ‘as if’; ‘it is as if we were encountering .. .’ The jUdgement that the experience is veridical, that encounter is achieved, is not given in the experience itself. Because of this, my use of the expression seems to me a legitimately eccentric one. It is, further, because I am able to have the experiences and yet to challenge their theistic interpretation that I cannot accept H. D. Lewis’s language of achieving, simply, ‘anninsight’ into the existence of a transcendent being.

Not only can one have the experiences and reject the theistic interpretation, but one may oscillate in real and lasting doubt over which interpretation to adopt. The experiences have no claim to be called self-authenticating, immediate, unchallengable testimony to theism. If the situation is ambivalent, this is a different sort of ambivalence from that acknowledged by some of the ‘ways of life’ and ‘ways of seeing’ approaches at which we looked at the start of this article. We might admit that many alternative ways of life can be conceived, and that there are many ways of seeing, many ‘aspects’ in the phenomena, one or other of which will dawn on us as we read various religious documents or participate in different religious cults. But the ambivalence that we are now considering is not a matter of rearranging the common, accepted furniture of the universe, but of whether these bits of furniture are related to what is not simply more furniture, more universe, but something radically different from them all.

One might be tempted to see in that ambivalence a vindication of atheism. For how could such an ambiguous universe be the work of perfect love and perfect power? Could this be a way to love and express love, to leave the loved one in bewildering uncertainty over the very existence of the allegedly loving God? Would we not have here a refined weapon of psychological torture? That is: if the situation is ambivalent, it is not ambivalent; since its ambivalence is a conclusive argument against the existence of the Christian God.

The Christian will protest, however. Ambivalence, he will say, is simply a tantalizing matter of fact to the sceptic, but to the believer it is a religious necessity. If the situation were not ambiguous, if God were incontrovertibly revealed, then our belief would be constrained, our allegiance forced, and no place would be left for free and responsible decision whether to walk in God’s ways and to entrust oneself to him in faith. Divine elusiveness is a necessary condition of our being able to enter upon properly personal relations with God. But, of course, I have not shown that the religio-sceptical situation is ambivalent, all along the line, in its totality: only that it seems to be so at one very crucial point indeed. It might, however, be the case that some problem, say the problem of evil, is overwhelmingly intractable to the Christian: so much that one might legitimately refuse to allow the ambivalence of numinous experience to hold the total issue in balance any longer. Or, the balance might conceivably be tipped the other way, because of incoherences in the sceptical opinion.

At any rate, if this analysis is correct in its main features, there can be no short-cut in the philosophy of religion past the painstaking examination and re-examination of problems in the entire field of apologetics. No single, decisive verification-test, no solemn Declaration of Meaninglessness, can relieve us of the labour.

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