First, I’d like to thank Paul Overend for all his help and advice when he handed over the editorship of the magazine. I have been thinking about his last editorial in SoF 66 and an ongoing conversation with it seemed like a good starting point for my first one in this issue.
In his paragraph about his own theological pilgrim’s progress, Paul describes how a via negativa led him to a philosophical theology where the sublime and atheism meet. I agree with this. God is ‘not that’, ‘not that’, ‘not that’, becoming more and more abstract to vanishing point. Being comes down to beings (plural: Greek: ta onta; or, in Heideggerian German jargon, Sein comes down to das Seiende). The via negativa says that God is not any individual being, up to the point of pure abstraction, which becomes a vanishing point. (Nevertheless, the verb ‘to be’ is notoriously slippery in every language; Anselm’s ontological argument is invalid, but continues to fascinate.) Likewise ‘life’ comes down to the living (also plural). If we say there is life on Earth (or Mars), we mean there are living things on Earth (or Mars). There are living things on Earth but, as far as we know, on Mars there are not. Whereas in T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets, for example, Love is used with portentous religiosity as an abstract noun, it is first and foremost a verb, which only occurs when in a finite tense.
Overend then goes on to say that more important than the quest for mystical or intellectual knowledge, he has learnt (through his study of Levinas) the need for ethical action, the calling to responsibility. He tells me he is now starting a job at Liverpool Hope University, teaching Philosophy and Ethics, and will also be assisting with some modern theology. SoF magazine looks forward to hearing from him in future.
I’d like to suggest that, in Karl Rahner’s words, this is not a case of a ‘polemical either-or’ but of a ‘synthetic both-and’; that the achievement of atheism through a via negativa is closely linked with the achievement of a more adequately human ethic. On the cover I have put a picture of Nezahualcóyotl (Hungry Coyote), the pre-conquest poet-king of Texcoco in what is now Mexico. Texcoco was a lesser city state in alliance with the then dominant power, the Aztecs of Mexico-Tenochtitlan (rather like Britain and the USA today). As well as being a good poet, Hungry Coyote was a philosopher and mystic. He opposed the human sacrifice practised by the superpower culture, went off and fasted for forty days in a forest, hungering for the Unknown God. He discovered a God, whom he called the Life-Giver, who forbade human sacrifice. Directly opposite the temple of the Sun God, who required a constant supply of sacrificial blood to keep rising again each day, he built a temple to this Unknown God, which had no images in it at all. Thus his poetic-philosophical via negativa is accompanied by the achievement of a more humane ethic.
Not that far from ancient Texcoco, in El Salvador, the liberation theologian Jon Sobrino was the Jesuit who was not murdered in the attack on the UCA University in San Salvador in 1989, because he happened to be abroad that night. (The massacre was carried out by the Atlacatl battalion, trained in the notorious US School of the Americas, at a time when the US was pouring millions of dollars into the El Salvador armed forces.) Sobrino defines an idol as a false god that demands and feeds on death and denounces the murderous idols of today (such as Mammon and Oil). For Sobrino God is not a death-dealing idol but the God of Life. Although as a Jesuit his liberation theology is constrained by Catholic orthodoxy, his theological via negativa has something in common with the one described above: at the top there is a vanishing point. Sobrino never denies that God exists, but he says that the place to find God is in Christ and the place to find Christ today is in ‘the crucified people’, the poor and dispossessed. Once again, upon reaching the summit, the search has nowhere to go except come down to Earth, to real people living, hoping and suffering on Earth, and to ethical action.
In his final piece on Radical Theology (also SoF 66) Trevor Greenfield asks, ‘Is God actually an imaginative and poetic construction rather than a philosophical one?’ There is not enough room to explore this fascinating topic here (though I hope the magazine will do so in the future), just to make one related suggestion. We could look at (the apostle) Paul’s description of Christ’s body as a poetic trope or figure of speech called ‘synecdoche’, when a part of something is used to mean the whole, as for example, when workers are called ‘hands’. Paul calls Christ ‘the head’ and the rest of the body consists of other human beings who ‘fill up what is wanting’, so that Christ becomes complete – attains ‘the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph. 4:13ff). Thus ‘Christ’ becomes a poetic or ‘synecdochic’ way of talking about humanity.
This issue of SoF contains two articles about Christians from different parts of the world, the German Dorothee Sölle (who died recently) and the Brazilian archbishop Hélder Câmara. Both of them made an arduous spiritual journey, in the course of which their poetic, mystical apprehensions and contact with real people led them to resistance and involvement with pressing earthly problems.
In his article on US policy and the war in Iraq Mike Phipps shows today’s dominant power still practising human sacrifice to idols, predominantly Mammon and Oil. The main idol of both the Aztecs and the current American superpower is concerned with the supply of energy. Whereas the Aztecs believed that if they did not feed the Sun with blood it would not rise, the US power abuses and kills people to supply its need for oil, upon which its society (and the global economy it dominates) depends. They are not prepared to moderate this requirement (at Kyoto, for example), even at the risk of sacrificing the planet itself.
In the Old Testament, God develops. The God of Joshua not only allows but orders genocide, mass murder of children, land-grabbing etc. (cf. Jos. 8:18-22; 11:6-22), whereas the God of the prophets requires ‘kindness and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings’ (Hos. 6: 6; cf. Amos 5:12-21; 8:4-6). Which is the God of Israel today? God’s development is accompanied by an ethical development and the ethical criterion is a humanist one. The God of Joshua endorses inhuman behaviour. Of course, in one sense we cannot say that the violence and death inflicted on Canaan by the children of Israel and authorised by their God is inhuman behaviour, because, after all, they were human beings and they did it and today too, humans continue to behave like that all the time. Here the word ‘inhuman’ is an ethical term, a judgment of how human beings should and should not behave. The Christian, Jewish and Muslim fundamentalist God, who authorises human sacrifice, comes low down in the foothills on the pilgrimage of the via negativa with its accompanying requirement of humane behaviour. The fundamentalist God of these three great religions looks very similar. Likewise a Christian, Jewish and Muslim humanism would have a lot in common.
So one vital question for SoF to explore further is the connection between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, ontology and ethics. Having struggled to get rid of a supernatural God, what then should we do to live well as individuals, as a species, as an ecosystem on Earth? What is the nature of the link between the via negativa that ends in atheism, and the rejection of human sacrifice?
Anyone who lived strictly by the philosophical adage that no ‘is’ can imply an ‘ought’ would quickly be arrested. Even if you simply ignored conventional codes like a red light meaning ‘Stop’, you could kill someone. Every ordinary mother would agree that ‘my baby is hungry’ means ‘I ought to feed him’. A solar ethic of just beaming like a little ray of sunshine is inadequate. We need an earthly ethic that recognises we are physical and social beings living with our fellow creatures, both human and non-human, on Earth. It is wrong to drop into a blissful void while driving a train or minding a toddler. If someone died as a result, you would be responsible and could be found guilty of manslaughter. The former activity is regarded as a working class job and the latter is usually done by women. Does doing such ‘menial’ work help these ‘lesser mortals’ acquire more common sense (cf. Lk. 10:21)?
So-called ‘non-realist’ theory applied to people on Earth tends to be privatised. However, just as ‘there is no such thing as a private language’ we can argue that ‘there is no such thing as a private ethics’, because we are physical and social beings whose actions affect others. As Shylock says, ‘If you prick us do we not bleed?’ There is a dialectic to explore between the need to get beyond a privatised, ‘life-style’ ethics which can be harmful, even if only by default, and the right of each person to follow their conscience. As we cannot resolve our own or the world’s ethical problems in isolation, since no one is an island, what common ground can we find, what common cause?
In this search, both for personal enlightenment and communion, having de-supernaturalised God, what can we salvage from the religious traditions to which we belong and/or out of which we have come? What is anti-human and needs discarding? What wisdom do they contain in terms of world-view, ethics, stories, poetry, prayer and ceremonies? Oddly enough, many people seem to find no discontinuity in becoming an atheist, especially if they reached that conclusion through a via negativa, which arrives at a summit of abstraction and then has nowhere else to go but down to Earth.