Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Tough-talking thoughts on "The Ground of Being"

Or, to riff on a professor at my old conservative Lutheran seminary, "The Ground of Bullshit." (He claimed historical-critical theology was a bucket of warm shit.)

My thoughts, and ire, are piqued by three recent Christmas-faith columns in the New York Times, two of them previously blogged about in these pages.

In the first, Simon Critchley gives the usual crappy reading of Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor that Dostoyevsky himself gave us. No surprise that Critchley works with continental philosophy, since it gave us the dreck behind "Ground of Being" in the first place; Critchley explicitly embraces the "death of god" idea. Anyway, I show how both he and Dostoyevsky are wrong here.

In the second, Britain's chief rabbi says, in essence, cognitive science and evolutionary psychology show the need for religion not only in past and present but in the future. I've already shown how wet he is.

The third, about which I had not blogged before, is here, as MoJo Dowd at the New York Times lets her column get hijacked by a liberal priest.

Here's the nut graf of that one:
I believe differently now than 30 years ago. First, I do not expect to have all the answers, nor do I believe that people are really looking for them. Second, I don’t look for the hand of God to stop evil. I don’t expect comfort to come from afar. I really do believe that God enters the world through us. And even though I still have the “Why?” questions, they are not so much “Why, God?” questions. We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not.
Really? I can flip that on its head, and say that how we are with one another in suffering and dying reaffirms the brotherhood of mankind while, quite possibly, once again showing that Christian attempts to explain God's theodicy flop on the floor like an 86-year-old newlywed Hugh Hefner not taking Viagra.

A bit more seriously, saying "I don't know why" ultimately leads to Yahweh's answer to Job: "I'm god; you're not. Therefore, I don't have to explain myself to you, so STFU."

Now, none of these used the phrase "The Ground of Being," made popular in mid-20th century US liberal Christian theology by Paul Tillich, but its vein of thought ran behind all three in some way.

As part of "process theology," if you will, it's an attempt to get an Eastern-type immanence imparted to the monotheistic god while yet avoiding pantheism, panentheism or similar.

But, it's still bullshit.

It's bullshit in two ways.

First, per physicist Wolfgang Pauli, the phrase is "not even wrong."

Second, per philosopher (including philosopher of language) Ludwig Wittgenstein, any discussion of any "Ground of Being" is nonsensical.

And, it's upon that angle that I shall concentrate.

First, capitalize Being all you want, process theologians, it's still not a personal noun. As an editor and writer, I can tell you it's a gerund. Yes, it's a noun, but a verbal noun of a status. It's not a concrete noun. Capitalize it all you want, you can't change that fact.

Look! Here's the ...

"Ground of Dying." (Process theology meets Kali in India.)
"Ground of Football-Loving." (Process theology comes to Texas.)
"Ground of Digesting." (Process theology meets food addict.)

Etc. ad nauseum.

Anyway, for anybody not a process theologian in denial, you get the drift. "Being" ain't a person, ergo ain't a personal divinity.

Well, a diehard process theologian might say, "What about 'Ground'?"

Nice try.

Yes, "ground," when lowercase, is a concrete noun. But, anybody advanced into Piaget's abstract thinking phrase knows that it, when capitalized and used like this, is metaphorical. (As is true in general with capitalized nouns from process theologians and New Agers.)

Beyond that, if you want to worship "Ground," process theologians, it's called "Gaia"; join the New Agers.

As for phrases that "transcend boundaries," per the Wikipedia entry on "Ground of Being" linked above ... so does "eternal male orgasm," or, to properly capitalize it, "Eternal Male Orgasm." But, even a triple-Hefner dose of Viagra doesn't make that one any more real than "Ground of Being."

Basically, religious existentialism too often jumps off the verbiage cliff, and here is a clear example. And, it's more than that. Just as more conservative Christians basically postulate a "god of the gaps," well, "Ground of Being" has the same function for liberal-critical Christian theologians.

Again, nice try. It sounds more intellectual. But, it's no more real, and it's no more intellectually substantive, than the ideas of your conservative brethren.

Besides changing the third-word gerund, I could also change the first-word metaphorical noun.

We would have "Sky of Being," or "Ocean of Being," or "Bayou of Being," or "Iceberg of Being," etc. Again, silly. Or, if you want me to hew more closely to "Ground," we could have "Soccer Pitch of Being," from sports, or "Peat Moss of Being," or "Quicksand of Being."

Actually, in expressing how I feel about process theology in particular, and modern liberal-critical systematic Christian theology in general, "Quicksand of Being" sounds about right.

Your mileage may vary.

Update: Some Facebook dialogue helped me to see more of where I was really heading with this post, especially vis-a-vis Dowd's priest, who was writing in light of the Newtown mass shooting.

And, beyond criticizing the Ground of Faith, it's a warning shot related to that old Gnu Atheist word "accomodationism."

Sometimes, that's not a four-letter word, but potentially an actual problem for some secular humanists.

Let's take Dowd's priest or Chritchley. I could do interfaith fundraising for Newtown victims' families with them, or whatever. However, if I were asked to speak at a memorial service for Newtown victims with them, even if the service had no fundamentalists or conservative evangelicals, if they made comments like here, I would have to publicly respond.

No, I wouldn't use the word "bullshit" at an event like that. But I would "call them out," politely but firmly.

And the one person with whom I was in dialogue? I have the feeling he would not.

And so, "accomodationism" is not always a four-letter word.

And so, too, while I'm not a Gnu Atheist evangelical, and can readily mock their stupidities, Gnus aren't always wrong, either.

The theodicy of liberal Christians is, in its own way, just as anti-humanistic as that of conservative Christians. As is the reincarnationist theodicy of Hindus and the reincarnationist atheistic "theodicy" of Buddhists.

Secular humanists should never forget that.

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