In rather surprising fashion, much of my reading of late has returned repeatedly to the importance of God’s transcendence for every area of human life and thought. William Placher, in his marvelous book The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking About God Went Wrong, argues that much of the distaste which contemporary thinkers have for the cold, distant “classical Christian God” was in fact aroused through 18th-century rationalistic and deistic innovations in theology. It did not–ironically enough–have much of a connection at all to the God of historical Christian orthodoxy. Looking particularly at the doctrine of God and the dynamics of His relationship to the world in the mature thought of Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin, Placher ably demonstrates that the best Christian thinkers have steadfastly refused to measure God by human reason, given their prior convictions that God is radically “other” than us. For them, any analogical language which seeks to be descriptive of the ways of God with humanity must, therefore, be committed to working from the top-down, and never dare to initiate from the bottom-up. In fact, it was the tragic dawning of just such intellectual sentiments during the Englightenment which finally issued forth in the reversal of these foundational intuitions in the piety of the West. The divine became basically human, and the human became practically divine.
God became, on the one hand, less impressive, less mysterious–and more like us. On the other hand, human reason became exponentially more capable of traversing divine heights once God descended into the stratosphere as a mere “explanation” of all the other things we found more fascinating than Him and were curious about. Once the transition took place from God as the One who is transcendently above and beyond the chain of existence, to the god who is merely the biggest, baddest, coolest entity within the sphere of being, the gospel was tamed and the cheap substitute of hyper-rationalistic religion arose in its place. The implications of this basic transition in the way European intellectuals began to view the world are innumerable. William Paley, in Natural Theology, could devise a scheme–apparently without blushing and all the while putting on a straight face–in which the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob became the “God of the gaps,” merely filling in for whatever science or moral theory could not at present comprehend, analyze or explain. How considerate and helpful of him–and which, come to think of it, is exactly how an educated English gentleman is supposed to act, after all. Christian ethics, once radical and counter-intuitive to those who remain outside of the story of Jesus, became self-evident, ahistorical moral truths knowable apart from the crucified and risen Jesus and easily translatable into any sort of theistic religious framework one could manage. The kingdom of God and Christ has become the kingdom of the world.
The greatest tragedy, though, is that Christians as much as atheists have gladly given their assent to this pagan conceptuality, and in the process doomed themselves from the get-go. David Bentley Hart, in a recent essay on Heidegger, puts it this way:
“Modernity, for Heidegger, is simply the time of realized nihilism, the age in which the will to power has become the ground of all our values; as a consequence it is all but impossible for humanity to dwell in the world as anything other than its master. As a cultural reality it is the perilous situation of a people that has thoroughly—one might even say systematically—forgotten the mystery of being, or forgotten (as Heidegger would have it) the mystery of the difference between being and beings as such. Nihilism is a way of seeing the world that acknowledges no truth other than what the human intellect can impose on things, according to an excruciatingly limited calculus of utility, or of the barest mechanical laws of cause and effect. It is a ‘rationality’ of the narrowest kind, so obsessed with what things are and how they might be used that it is no longer seized by wonder when it stands in the light of the dazzling truth that things are. It is a rationality that no longer knows how to hesitate before this greater mystery, or even to see that it is there, and thus is a rationality that cannot truly think…
Whatever its material causes (about which Heidegger really had nothing to say), the founding ideology of the modern vision of reality was, he believed, easily defined: the triumph of subjectivity in philosophy and of mechanism in science; egoism and technology. A crucial boundary had been explicitly crossed, he believed, in the thought of Descartes, who entirely inverted what hitherto had been regarded as the proper relation between the thinker and the being of the world. Whereas almost all earlier philosophers had assumed that the ground of truth lay outside themselves, and so had believed philosophy to be the art of making their concepts and words conform to the many ways in which being bore witness to itself, Descartes’ method gave priority to a moment of radical doubt about everything outside the self. Earlier philosophy had generally treated epistemological skepticism as a frivolity to be rejected; Descartes saw it a as a problem to be solved.
Hence, rather than beginning from wonder before the mystery of being (the origin of all philosophy), Descartes began by trying to certify the reality of his perceptions and on the foundation of his own irreducible subjectivity as a ‘thinking substance.’ To do this, Descartes actually was first obliged temporarily to blind himself to the witness of being: ‘I will close my eyes,’ he says in the third Meditation, ‘…stop up my ears…avert my senses from their true objects…erase from my consciousness all images…’ Only then could he rationally reconstruct the world for himself, on the fundamentum inconcussum of his own certainty of himself.
Thus, in a way that Heidegger regarded as genuinely ‘impious,’ modern philosophy makes the human being—the self—the first principle of reason and then determines what does or does not count as truth on the basis of what the self is capable of establishing by itself. The certitude that Descartes achieved was really of a rather trivial kind and a poor substitute for the wonder that he had forsaken. Moreover, the world he saw when at last he opened his eyes again and graciously granted it license to be was no longer the world on which he had refused to look. It was a fabrication and brute assertion of the human will, an inert thing lying wholly within the power of the reductive intellect. The thinker was no longer answerable to being; being was now subject to him. Under the intellectual and cultural regime announced in Descartes’ writings, the mystery of being has simply become invisible to thought. Even the mystery of God is forgotten, says Heidegger; the God of Descartes is a deduction of the ego, serving as a secondary certification of the verity of experience and defined as a causa sui precisely because even divine being must now be certified by modern reason’s understanding of causality. God thus is just another kind of thing, the chief function of which is to provide ontological and epistemic surety for all other things.” (David Bentley Hart, “A Philosopher in the Twilight,” First Things)
In the Terry Lectures at Yale a few years ago, prominent literary critic (and Marxist!) Terry Eagleton also posits that much of the “New Atheism” actually turns out to disbelieve in this Enlightenment God who does not transcend our existence, in turn failing to grapple at all with the God of Jesus who calls into being the things that are from the things that are not:
“God the Creator [is not] some kind of mega-manufacturer or cosmic chief executive officer, as the Richard Dawkins school of nineteenth-century liberal rationalism tends to imagine—what the theologian Herbert McCabe calls ‘the idolatrous notion of God as a very large and powerful creature.’ Dawkins falsely considers that Christianity offers a rival view of the universe to science. Like the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett in Breaking the Spell, he thinks it is a kind of bogus theory or pseudo-explanation of the world. In this sense, he is rather like someone who thinks that novel is a botched piece of sociology, and who therefore can’t see the point of it at all. Why bother with Robert Musil when you can read Max Weber? For Thomas Aquinas, by contrast, God the Creator is not a hypothesis about how the world originated. It does not compete, say, with the theory that the universe resulted from a random fluctuation in a quantum vacuum…Dawkins makes an error of genre, or category mistake, about the kind of thing Christian belief is…But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov…Creation is not about getting things off the ground. Rather, God is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever. Not being any sort of entity himself, however, he is not to be reckoned up alongside these things.” (Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, pp. 6-8)
In confessing the God who names Himself as “I am that I am,” and in singing of the One who was, who is, and who is to come, Christians must strive to recognize how at odds their faith is with every syncretistic, empty rival conception of “god” in the abstract, as constructed and sustained by human imagination. We inhabit a culture in which the dominant plausibility structure revolves around the idea–taken absolutely for granted, as obvious to us as the nose on our face–that God is basically like us, that He is known primarily through my subjective thought processes, and that His agency in the world is limited by my moral sentiments. As we seek to be transformed by the renewal of our minds, let us not ignore the radical implications of the utter transcendence of God, lest we also become immune to the scandal of the God who freely took on flesh in the Incarnation, becoming what He once was not.