Dr W Large



The fact that theology still exists today should be surprising to you, and even more so that there could still be something called philosophy of religion. No doubt, this might be due to the inertia of institutions, which continue to teach subjects even though their relevance to our present lives might be genuinely difficult to see. The dubious status of theology has nothing to do with fashion, as though in the future it might return with renewed vigour and strength, but with great epochal shifts in human thought. These shifts, additionally, have nothing to do with the successes of science, which many believe are the cause of the death of theology,  because these triumphs themselves, and especially their internalisation as the ideology of an age, are dependent on the epochal shifts themselves which have occurred in Western Culture since the Renaissance.

Following Deleuze, who is agreeing with Foucault in this instance, we might speak of two great shifts in the general organisation of human knowledge.  The first belongs to recent history, and the second we are undergoing at this very time.[1]  What interests us in the question about the relevance of theology is the first shift.  We might characterise this shift as follows:  it is a movement from the form of God to the form of Man as being the essential organising principle of all knowledge.  This organising principle has its effect on all aspects of live, from moral and political choices to theoretical and even scientific questions.  The point is that the world in which man is the centre and the world in which god is the centre are quite different worlds.  One cannot make sense of the one world by the other,  and from the perspective of one world the other appears wholly alien and strange.

But this shift is also a historical, following the arrow of time.  This means that one cannot live in the world in which God is the centre after the shift has occurred, even if one wished to, since the conditions that this made possible no longer exist.  Nor is the relation between the one world in which God is the centre and the other in which Man is, contemporaneous, so that one trace you could trace your steps backwards. The direction of time is unilinear. You cannot turn back the hands of time. What is done cannot be undone. And this is why one form of religion at one time (fundamentalism as it is now called) would make perfect sense, but is simply a sign of ignorance and stupidity now.

One recognition that we no longer live in the age of dominated by the idea of God is the recognition of the existence of history, such that God is a historical idea. History is the death of God as an eternal timeless essence. If we wish to mark the end of God philosophically, then it is the work of Kant, Kant’s is the first philosophical system that is grounded on human finitude.  This is the primary meaning of the famous Copernican turn.  When Kant says that objects must be conform to our knowledge, rather than our knowledge to them, then he is putting Man at the centre and not God.  Even He must conform to this new schema.  There is no great step then to Feuerbach’s thesis that God is merely a self-projection of humanity itself externalised in eternity, but which on closer inspection shows all the traces of the movement of human history.

Now the important point is that all the logical proofs of the existence of God which are the main stay of any philosophy of religion course belong to the age of God, rather than the age of Man.  Thus, if we were to look at these arguments in detail we would see that is not merely a question of logical showing them to be false, but that even if they were true that they are historical irrelevant.  Now the problem with most analytic approaches to the existence God, like analytic philosophy as a whole,  is that it wholly ignorant of history.  Thought for analytic philosophy moves in the eternal sphere of necessity.  Thus even though it believes itself to be the most modern, especially, for example, in its slavish idolatry of science, it is the most irrelevant to its own time.  It really believes that Quine could have an argument with Aristotle or Aquinas, as though all these people existed in the same world.  This is because it separates thinking from its historical situation.

This explains the strange feeling that one gets one reads analytic philosophers speaking about God, because in this instance the distance between our world and the world of Aristotle and Aquinas seems so remote.  It is a distance which no logic can cover over.  Thus no matter how much we might admire the logical arguments, or even the ability of modern logicians to reformulate then in modern symbolic notation, it makes not a jot of difference whether we believe in God or not, whereas it certainly did for those who first put forward these arguments. As everyone knows, for example, for Anselm and Aquinas, they did not need to prove that God existed since they already believed in him. Only a atheist requires proof.[2]

But surely this makes only a theology of a certain kind redundant and not all theology? This is what Levinas will argue in ‘God and Philosophy.’[3] Yet what is very significant in this instance is that he in no way advocates a return to classical philosophical theology.  Indeed, he argues that classical philosophical theology is the problem, and the atheism of the modern age, typified by such thinkers like Nietzsche, is its result rather than opposite. When we reach this point in the course, we will need to ask ourselves whether this position is a repetition of a very old distinction between faith and knowledge, or whether it is something quite different.  It is possible to agree with this statement, if one makes theology something quite different from what it used to be, but then there is a danger that it will change so far that it will no longer be recognisable as theology.

There might be, therefore, two possibilities open to theology.  One is the description of faith and belief.  But this cannot be a philosophical defence of theology nor less a convincing argument about whether belief in God is rational or not.  This is the usual manner in which modern theology is continued, whether in the form of Wittgenstein’s idea of a self-justifying language game, or the ontological descriptions of faith in continental theology.  But this is not the only way to think about theology.  One can do it in a negative manner as the marking of the disappearance of God, as the experience of the strangeness of the arguments about the existence of God and the rising up of new forms of thought, in which religion is just as dependent as any other human practice.  Finally, this thought directs itself to the movement of history itself, in which even the centrality of man is seen as a passing phenomenon; the death of God  carries in its wake the death of Man.  This way of doing theology would be best described as an what Rosenzweig calls an ‘absolute empiricism’, which we shall discuss at the end of the course.[4]

Let us think about where we have got to at this point.  We are asking ourselves about what it means today to talk about God.  We want to make the basic point that talk about God cannot remain the same across history, as though concepts were eternal carriers of the same meaning.  It cannot be true to say that the word ‘God’ means today what it might have meant centuries ago.  This seems obvious.  But the important point here, is to ask oneself what it would mean to apply this historical understanding to philosophical arguments.

There is no doubt that traditionally speaking philosophy has seen itself as being immune to history.  The aim of philosophy is precisely to think against history, to find those truths which float above the tempest of becoming and irreversible decay.  And is not the concept of God the concept the most ahistorical of concepts, the highest degrees of non-historical thought?  Thus to think God historically, is not just to think theologically in a different manner, it is to think against a whole tradition of philosophical thinking.

But let us return to this question, which is the most pressing question, what is does it mean to think about God as being in history, rather than outside of it?  One way of expressing this idea is by saying that the conceptions which human beings have had of the divine has changed through time, and that any anthropological investigation of religion will show that they all, even monotheism, have their origins in the social world.  But it is not just this kind of change which is the important one, and it is not this kind of change which is visible in philosophical texts.  This is not to argue that philosophical texts, in some kind of peculiar manner, are immune to social change; philosophy itself has is social origin as classical scholars such as Jean Paul Vernant have shown.[5]  Rather, philosophical texts can demonstrate to us that historical change is not incremental or evolutionary, but discontinuous.  This discontinuity is marked in philosophical texts by absolute shifts in types of arguments which cannot be demonstrated as having their origin in the form which they supersede.  This is what we meant when we said that we could not get back to the classical conception of God, even of we wanted to.

Thus, for example, we can speak about the interminable conflict between rationalism and empiricism being silenced by Kant’s transcendental philosophy, but this is not at all the same as saying that the form of his response is to the found in this dispute.  There is something entirely new in the first pages of the Critique of Pure Reason, as though one were leaving one country to enter another, but in this case this leave taking meant leaving behind a deserted country forever; one can never go back.  This is certainly not to suggest that the history of philosophy is the motor of history, rather that epochal discontinuities are more visible in philosophical works which always bear the marks of their age, even if they believe they speak from the standpoint of eternity, for all to see.

It is not enough to define what the concept of God is and simply leave it at that, as though one could be finished or not finished with God simply on the level of definition.  Still less, like some later day, Rudolph Otto, is it a question, through a quite dubious reading of Kant, to declare that beneath the rational appearance of God there is inner noumenal mystical core.[6]  Rather what is required is look behind the concept of God to see what it is concealing.

When one makes this effort, one soon comes to the surprising conclusion that the concept of God is not first, but secondary.  Thus the usual philosophical arguments about God have got everything the wrong way around.  They start with God as the First Mover, or the Primary Cause, and then, the task, so it appears to themselves, is to try to fit the real world around this origin.  What they do not realise is that it is their understanding of the world which necessitates that they have an such a philosophical concept of God.

This understanding of the world is essentially metaphysical.  It is the belief that everything which happens must have a reason.  The principle of sufficient reason, as it is so called, is the real origin of the concept of God.  As soon as this principle, with the revolution in the historical understanding, becomes inconceivable, then the whole edifice which has supported the concept of God and which it itself concealed falls down

Thus the idea of history is the end of the concept of God in a specific way.  It is not simply the cancellation of the idea of eternity, because we realise that the content of this idea is changeable and not eternal, but because the metaphysics that supports the idea of God itself has vanished.  It is this death of a certain metaphysical vision which marks the real end of the idea of God, for without it it has no fertile soil in which to flourish and propagate.

[1]For Foucault description of  the movement of epochs within Western history, and especially what the third form might be, see Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses, (Paris: Gallimard, 1966), 394ff.  In English, ‘Man and his Doubles’ in The Order of Things (London: Tavistock Publications, 1975) 303-43. And Deleuze’s description of this,  Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, (Paris: Gallimard, 1986), 131-134.

[2]There are much deeper undercurrents here about the relation of the centrality of God and ideals of logic.  Could it be the case that there is close connection between an epoch dominated by the form of God ends up with logic as its ultimate telos (one thinks of Leibniz).  As regards this matter, it is interesting to note that the first thinker of finitude, Kant, adopts a transcendental argument and not a logical one.  Our analytic friends have just begun to stumble upon the nature of transcendental arguments, Cf., Hilary Putnam,  Reason, Truth and History, (Cambridge: CUP, 1981).

[3] You can find this essay in Of God Who Comes to Mind, tr. Bettina Bergo (Stanford University Press, 1998).

[4] See, Franz Rosenzweig, New Thinking (Syracuse University Press, 1998). See also Kevin Green ‘ The Notion of Truth in Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption: A Philosophical Enquiry.’ http://mj.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/7/3/297.pdf. Accessed 28 September 2006.

[5]The  milieu of 5th century Athens and its affect on the emergence of Greek philosophy is described in Jean-Paul Vernant, Les Origines de la pensée grecque, (Paris: PUF, 1962). The argument of this work is also briefly summarised by the same author in ‘Social History and the Evolution of Ideas in China and Greece from the Sixth to the Second Centuries BC.’ (with Jacques Gernet), Myth and Society in Ancient Greece, (New York: Zone Books, 1990), pp. 79-100.

[6] Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy (Oxford: OUP, 1968).