Some Reflections on Life, Life

Keith Ward was Regius Professor of Divinity, Oxford, from 1991-2003. His most recent book is The Case for Religion (2004) (see our review by Patti Whaley). The text is the editor's precis of a verbal presentation to the SoF UK 2004 national conference, and is therefore not as the author's written text would have been.

I want to ask some questions about some of the issues that Don talks about in his latest book Life, Life. Firstly, Don claims that there has been 'a turn to the world' and away from a supernatural vision of God. It's true that in religious affairs in Europe there was a turn to the world beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries. Perhaps its greatest philosophical representative was Hegel. Hegel thought that Spirit or Geist - the universal world spirit that you might call God - is not a being other than the universe, but is some how the all inclusive totality of the universe itself. You might well say Geist is Leben, that is life. And this all-inclusive Spirit (it's not quite clear whether or in what sense it has an independent consciousness) expresses itself in the world.

If I use the Hegelian word Geist and quote something from Don's book Life, Life let's see what it sounds like. Geist 'endlessly and restlessly pours itself out, always seeking more of itself actively relishing novelty rejoicing in its self-enhancement and creation.' Now that could indeed come from Hegel. Don says he's not really doing theology; but this emphasis on the world seen spiritually is rather Hegelian. But what it is to see the world spiritually? You're not asking about another being somewhere, but you are saying here's "something" which pours itself out, which enjoys being itself in constant change and flow.

For Hegel, the dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis is somehow a necessary expression of what Geist is. Perhaps that's where Don differs from Hegel, because Don constantly stresses the contingency of the world. Don says life is finite, temporal, contingent, includes all opposites, is shapeless, chaotic, varied, messy, arbitrary, cruel, unjust, continuous, flowing, restless, ever changing, pitiless and harsh. Is that what life is like? Well, for some people it is; perhaps you'd think for most sentient beings it is, but it must be said that for Hegel it wasn't. Hegel had the idea that life was rational and, therefore, a rationally necessary self-realisation of Absolute Spirit.

Does Don capture what life is - cruel, pitiless, arbitrary messy baggage? It's difficult to tell. With Don I heartily reject the allegedly Platonic idea that there are timeless necessary forms (ideas, or essences) and that it would be better if things in this world didn't exist, for all they do is participate, in part, in those forms. I reject the idea too that the destiny of the soul here is to escape from this mess and be reunited with the pure, intellectual world. But that, I think, is not Plato's view at all, even though it is propounded so powerfully by characters in his dialogues that many people think Plato did believe it.

What Plato really thought is found in the Timaeus in which Plato says time is not bad, pitiful, or half-real: time is the moving image of eternity and the world is as perfect as any creator-being, or shaping-being, can make it. So I go for this bit of Plato, which again is rather like Hegel. It is a dialectical expression of things, as it were, in the mind of God - of possibilities of being, which are actualised in the world of time and wouldn't be actualised outside it. That's the Plato the Middle Ages knew. The Timaeus was used as a sponsor for Christian views of creation, not too unlike this view of life spilling out from Absolute Spirit.

Don opposes very literal pictures of God. But you can have a form of Platonic theism that is much more positive and life-affirming than the conventional stereotype of Plato. So the classical Christian idea of God owes much to Plato. It achieved its main formulation in the work of Aquinas. It is difficult to find a way of putting across what Aquinas is saying without it seeming to collapse, because God is not a thing, an object with properties. In the Summa Theologiae Aquinas said quite plainly that God is not a substance, God is not an object, God doesn't have properties. Nothing you say about God is literally true. Some of the things we say about God are true, but only analogically true and not true in the sense that you normally understand these analogies. You may well want to ask; what do you mean by saying it's true that God is wise, but not wise in the sense that we think anything is wise. Is that different from saying God is not wise? Aquinas didn't want to say that, quite. So Aquinas's view of God is really apophatic; it is a qualification against any anthropomorphic view. Any view which says that God is a being who interacts with the universe Aquinas would undoubtedly reject as absolutely false.

So is there a big difference between Hegel, Aquinas and Cupitt? There are differences, but they are all people struggling with an apophatic theology and trying to work out how spirit is involved in this reality. Is it Life? Wouldn't it be better to look at these apophatic writers - and you could add AI-Ghazali from the Muslim tradition and Maimonides from the Jewish tradition - and say, what they're saying is that everything that is said of God is said analogically. Then you might want to say, well, are they realists about God?

Now, what would it be to be a realist about God? Would it be to say that when I say God is a father who sits on the clouds and shoots arrows at people I have to believe that that is literally true? If so, then no major theologian in the Christian tradition has been a realist. Is speaking analogically speaking realistically? In the Christian tradition what the greatest theologians have been saying is not literal, absolutely not literal, but still real. I agree with Don that most of the things we say about God are metaphorical, and in that sense 'non- realist', but so do most Christian theologians.

Language does not picture reality as in a correspondence theory. In a correspondence theory of truth I utter a word and it stands for some reality. I happen to think that the correspondence theory is roughly right. Is there not something to which my words actually correspond when I say them? This is where classical theologians have been impaled on a dilemma, because if I say there is nothing my words correspond to, then what entitles to me to use them? When Don says life is messy, chaotic, anarchical, are those terms appropriate to life, or selected because he just happens to feel like this one night? What is the rationale for saying those things about life? Are there rational criteria for Don saying of astrology and magic crystals 'it's all hokum' or would you say, it is true for those who believe it because life is what you make it. What are the criteria for making judgement? I suspect that what Don really thinks is that the scientists have got it right and one reason that we know there's no supernatural reality is that science has shown that we don't need one and that, in fact, praying for rain doesn't work.

Now, of course, if it's different from that - and if you want to say the theory of evolution and quantum mechanics are just constructions too - you have to think what you mean by constructions. I believe that mathematics is totally constructed; we make it up, but I think it's true. And if you disagree with a proven mathematical theorem, like Fermat's last theorem, you're either right or wrong. Now, is there nothing in religious faith that is remotely similar to being right or being wrong? And if somebody says that black people ought to be squashed as soon as possible and Jews ought to be exterminated, is there nothing wrong with that? Or is it being wrong just a matter of that's what you feel like? What's in between those possibilities?

J. L. Mackie said, we think ethics is objective, but of course it's really just an illusion. We actually make it up. Mackie didn't quite see that you could construct it and it could be true, could be objective like mathematics. So what makes it binding? The answer might be, once horrifyingly put to me by the philosopher Phillippa Foot, it has to be a con. You have to con people into being moral, because there is no real reason for being moral, though you might have an easier life. What's in between the rather immoral view that it's just a matter of arbitrary choice and the view that it's objective? I suspect that if religion is a respectable enterprise at all there must be some area where there are ways of telling what's right and what's wrong. But I think there remains a puzzle, because nobody's quite clear what these ways are.

So, if you are somebody who thinks that religion is a human construction, what makes it a good human construction? And are there constructions that are more appropriate to the way life is than others? If you're a real non-realist you would have to say there are just different life choices and that's OK. Don is writing some brilliant things, but how do I know that these are perceptions and not illusions? I'm inclined to say that if you are a real non-realist you would say they are all illusions. If you are making your life choice, you are a non-realist in the sense that you choose the way that things should be: you construct it. I find that the most puzzling question in the whole debate about non-realism, if you're going to reject realism, is what are your criteria for truth, if there are any?

There is another matter that puzzles me about ethics. Why should anybody take any notice of what another person says about what's right and wrong? I think we're all agreed that it's infantile just to say, do it because they say so! And it's equally infantile to say, do it because God says (and you go to hell if you don't, perhaps). So dispense with those. What then would the rational policy be? I'm pretty convinced that if I weren't religious I would say that the way you should live is to appear being moral, while trying to get away with being immoral whenever you really can. People can get away with a great deal, actually. But you get yourself into a position where people are arguing for the moral standards that they want other people to maintain, so they won't get robbed or mugged or the like. Is this Machiavellian attitude a serious moral attitude?

So what grounds moral seriousness? I remember the last section of Jean-Paul Sartre's Being & Nothing, which is called 'Moral Seriousness'. Sartre says taking morality seriously is the ultimate sin, because morality is just invented. You live the way that you choose and mustn't think that there are objective obligations. Don says (p45) 'there is a sacred obligation fully to appropriate my own life', 'to live life to the full'. The book reads as though there is a way I should live which is better than the way I shouldn't live. And Sartre is involved in the same paradox, because although Sartre says 'just make it up, there's no moral seriousness', Sartre also said you can live inauthentically or authentically. And living authentically is being yourself. This is almost the opposite of what Don says because for Sartre acting a role is another bad thing to do. For a waiter to simply act the part of waiter, to seem to be what a waiter is, is what Sartre calls 'bad faith'. So Sartre says you shouldn't do that: be yourself by not acting a role. Don seems to say you are yourself by acting lots of roles, because life is a theatre and you choose the part to play.

I see God, however metaphorically, as a being that places obligations on people. The obligations might not be what some religious believers think they are, that is to say a lot of religious traditional believers might think that it is your obligation to respect all human life at all times, but do what you want with animals? I would tend to say that's not the obligation that God places on you, but I would tend to say God does place on you an obligation to care for animals.

The question is upon what are your ethical sentiments based? I suppose the traditional anti- religious answer is they are just sentiments and you must educate your sentiments, because it is good to do so. My worry about that is, if people get to know this then they will not take morality seriously. And if you said to dedicated and successful criminals, 'just explore your possibilities, playas many different roles as your can', I don't think the consequences would be acceptable. So the morality of self-realisation is a very middle class morality when it comes down to it. What you are saying is, if you have been trained well and your basic moral sentiments are healthy, then realise them. And, of course, traditional Christian morality has been founded on these principles.

Aquinas said that morality was founded on natural dispositions. You ask the question, what am I naturally disposed to do? Because God put your natural disposition into you, you say, I do that. But Aquinas was presupposing these were divinely implanted natural dispositions. John Calvin would say that natural dispositions would be the depraved, corrupt, sexually rampant and violent consequence of Original Sin. Is Calvin right about the basis of morality, or is Aquinas right? I'm not quite confident that somebody is right, but I am confident that some people are absolutely wrong. So while a lot of traditional believers have misidentified what ethical obligations really are, there still are some. But once you've realised that a lot of religious people have had horrifying beliefs, you can no longer say it is enough just to believe in any old god. The question is, is there a God which might preserve obligation in a sense which you think is worth preserving and which would maintain that as a morally serious and, in the end, the true, or at least not false, option?

What I really think is that Don is a theist, really. But what puzzles me is that he keeps saying he isn't. He's not the bad sort of theist who's got this dictating God who tells you what to do; but he's the sort of theist who thinks there's this force, Life. He says you mustn't reify it, but nevertheless even though you don't reify it, it is endlessly, restlessly, pouring itself out. This lovely phrase, Being pouring itself out, is Thomas Aquinas's way of thinking too. Being pours itself out, out of love, into the riotousness of life. Think of Augustine - creation is a plenitude of every possible thing that could ever be just overflowing from the being of God. I think there is something to be said for that vision.

I'll end with two questions. One question is if there are many choices in life, what's wrong with choosing a contemplative Platonic option? Doesn't that have a place in our spirituality? Is there a place for talking about the interior life; as that part of human life that no one else really ever has access to which only you know about in the secret of yourself? You may not tell from looking at somebody what their inner spirituality is, but it may make all the difference to the way they experience life. The other question is, is there a way of speaking of appropriate spirituality? I spend a lot of my time talking to fundamentalist groups in America and I always try to persuade them that they're wrong. I wish to see a form of Christianity which is not repressive but would still claim allegiance with the tradition. Don's clearly made that choice as well, really, in remaining in the priesthood.

So why do you choose to stay in the tradition? How far do you think you could or should change it and do you think, if you change it, you're changing it because it's appropriate to do so? What would make it appropriate to do so? Maybe there isn't an answer, but there needs to be some way of working out what things appropriate, and I suppose the Sea of Faith is the sort of group in which we could possibly work them out.

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