“Tyrannical say so-ing Gods both reflect and produce tyrannical say so-ing humans”

The suspicion that God’s transcendence implies arbitrariness of divine power persists, nurtured by biblical stories such as the awful command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the Voice from the whirlwind silencing Job. How distinguish the divine from irrational will and avoid making creation just the absurd surd that atheists like Sartre have affirmed finite contingency to be and where the master of the world exchanges place with the slave master.

A dualistic orientation can yield this view, a metaxological approach need not. Certain forms of religious dualism do tend towards tyrannical divinities. Certain dualisms, we saw, can darken our attunement with creation, fostering a pessimism of corrupt nature overseen by a voluntaristic God that expresses and reinforces the radical precariousness of worldly being. The divinely arbitrary God produces an arbitrary deconsecrated world; produces its human image in a will to power, basing itself on the arbitrary will at the base of all being. What does it matter if it is this or that, thus or otherwise, so long as I will it so? All the better that I will it strongly and with sovereign say-so, instead of feebly and with the ontological blahs. Tyrannical say so-ing Gods both reflect and produce tyrannical say so-ing humans.

What we have here is a degeneration of the erotic absolute. The agapeic God is not to be defined in terms of such arbitrary will, nor indeed can richer versions of the erotic absolute. When the erotic absolute coexists with an accentuated feeling of ontological lack and a clouding over of the “It is good,” eros itself tends to change from eros ouranios to eros turranos, thence into will to power. We need to be cautious of speaking of “will” in God, modeled anthropomorphically on a determinate agent determining between determined options. This is closer to the demiurgic model than the creator view. If we are to speak of “willing,” we must think of a more primordial “willing” than just a matter of determinate will that wills this or that. Our willing wills a determinate realization of a possibility, or a self-determination of one’s own possibility. Divine “willing” as creating cannot be thus determi­nated or self-determined. We must think agapeic willing, as opposed to a determinate free will, or self-determining willing, or will to power. Determinate will in us, as well as self-determining will, are more proximately formations of the endeavor to be, the conatus essendi in us, but more primordial than this is the passio essendi, and the porosity of being. It is relative to the latter that a more agapeic sense of willing needs to be thought: an overdeterminate willing(ness) as much patient as active, as much letting be as intimately involved, as much self-reserving as self-communicating.

If the origin is beyond essence and determination, this does seem to ally its being with will, in so far as the movement of willing is itself not reducible to a determination or an essence: it is an open determining, an initiating determining that opens. Arbitrary will cannot be the way to talk of this superessential determining; arbitrary will is already in the space of determinations between which a choice is made. If there is a meaning to divine “willing” it is beyond this determination. It must also be a willing more than self-determining, since the willing of the good of the created other is the issue of its initiative. Beyond determinate will, beyond self-determining will, beyond will to power there is an overdetermined willing(ness): this is wise willing, the good willing. This exceeding willing(ness) is because its willing is goodness. There is no disjunction of this willing and the good being good. Good willing, highest willing is, wise will: the integral intimacy of being truthful and being good.

William Desmond

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20 Responses to “Tyrannical say so-ing Gods both reflect and produce tyrannical say so-ing humans”

  1. I was recently wondering whether pondering the nature of god or philosophy in general is a mere facet of human uncertainty and unhappiness. I for instance, though and atheist, am fascinated in the nature of consciousness, randomness, free will and all sorts of related concepts. I have never been the most placid or happy of individuals but I have to report that on those all too rare occasions when my internal sun shines and my perceptual sky is blue, I don’t really give a damn about these matters. I just enjoy, exist, do. Just a thought!

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    • brian says:

      If you sometimes experience an elemental joy, there is something in the experience that transcends your striving, perduring anxieties, determinate thinking of problems and possible solutions. There is an ecstasy in joy that draws one out from the kind of guarded, enclosed Cartesian ego thato judges apart from the inert Nature that is extrinsically “out there.” What Charles Taylor calls the modern “buffered self” is surprised out of complacency by an unexpected porosity, a community of being that is genuinely revelatory. Then one is asked to discern the message, to ponder mysteries present in an equivocal reality that both perplexes and calls forth the dynamism of the mind to reach towards ultimacy. In short, metaphysical thinking is intrinsic to responsible engagement with reality. Desmond suggests, here, that much atheism is reactive to indigent theologies that are themselves projections of vain, finite being. Hence, theological wisdom cannot naively read the Scriptures in a fundamentalist manner that refuses to separate what is rooted in deficient anthropologies from what is truly revelatory of a divine Creator.

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      • “If you sometimes experience an elemental joy”.
        I do indeed. But my sort of divinity, ultimately, is that of an infinitely advanced society like that described by Frank Tipler in the Omega Point.

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        • “If you sometimes experience an elemental joy”.
          I do indeed. But my sort of divinity, ultimately, is that of an infinitely advanced society like that described by Frank Tipler in the Omega Point. In case you are unfamiliar with Tipler, let me tell you just a little about him. He was an atheist and a scientist. He came to believe that by the end of the life of this universe the surviving civilization would be so sophisticated that it would be able to re-create in virtual reality every person who had ever existed. He thus came to believe in resurrection and became a Christian. I realize the such a train of thought is most unlikely to appeal to a traditionalist, nonetheless that is my sort of god.

          An incredibly sophisticated and advanced people of this world or this multiverse able to do things we would now conceive to be godlike.

          You might also have a look at the Ian Banks “Culture” novels. Again,that is my sort of societyand his “Minds” are my sort of gods. His “sublimation” is my sort of heaven.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Zeno, I don’t see how progress within the sphere of being can account for its existence. The lesser gods utterly fall short on the ultimate question.

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          • brian says:

            Zeno,

            I am slightly familiar with Tippler. You might want to look into the Russian philosopher, Nikolai Fyodorov, who had somewhat similar ideas back in the nineteenth century. Tippler’s basic idea seems vaguely Hegelian in the sense that “god” emerges at the end of a historical process. Tangentially, I am bemused by those folks who are intrigued by the ancient aliens hypothesis where an advanced culture from another planet is posited as the source of human teleology. Such folks, like modern cosmologists, never really ask the question of being. Their aliens are just as contingent as the rest of finite being. The mystery of Origins cannot be addressed along that line of causal thinking.

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          • I don’t think the origins of life, complex or otherwise are much in question post Darwin. I don’t share Tiplers religious fervour at all. But it does make sense to me that possibly and infinitely wise civilisation may one day emerge. As for first causes, perhaps it is best to side with the Buddhists and assume there wasn’t one. Or with those scientists who posit something very similar with regards to black holes.

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          • Thank you for the Fyodorov reference. I will look him up.

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          • Jack says:

            Interesting thoughts, Zeno. But as a Christian, I don’t want “my sort of society, god’s, and heaven”. I want the Heaven that “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard”. I want the God Who is Triune Love who infinitely exceeds not only me and what I want, but any multiverse or collection of such. I want a society transformed and perfected by this Love.

            Futurists like Tipler, Deutsch, and Kurzweil are interesting, but their faith is the myth of progress in an atheist universe where science and technology are our salvation. No offense, but I I am not sure how anyone can espouse it without stutter after what happened in the 20th century, that great era of science and “progress.”

            Besides that, what is so great about life in futurist heaven? What is there to guarantee but a “bad” univocal “infinite” where you get the same thing ad infinitum? What is there to guarantee eternal novelty? In the end its just another tower of Babel.

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          • Takes all sorts Jack! I’d settle very happily for living in Ian Banks Culture or subliming along with the elders. I prefer a hi tech heaven but I can understand that is not everybody’s idea of fun.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      As a long-time fan of Babylon V, I have long believed that humanity will evolve into pure energy beings, and we will rule the Vorlons and the Shadows and all the lesser races. 🙂

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  2. What I don’t understand is how God speaking to Job out of the whirlwind and silencing his questions or accusations, whatever you will call them, could possibly tend towards the interpretation of arbitrariness in its current normal (negative) English usage. That God (and goodness) is Who and What He is, and Himself is the only reason He is Who and What He is, certainly. But tyrannical arbitrariness? No.

    I think of God’s “Sovereign Love.” His will is His goodness, His Love.

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    • Yep. Job. Jeremiah, the Children of the Middianites. So many people got a very rough ride from Yehovah who only seemed to have much interest in a small Tribe in Israel. Although let’s face it he didn’t treat them very well either. Exiles, Soddams, Gomorrahs etc. Don’t much fancy that sort of deity myself I have to say!

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      • I’ve read Job. I don’t see how God’s answer to Job out of the whirlwind reflects arbitrary tyrannical who-knows-what. That we cannot understand ultimate reality? That there is purpose we do not know? That since even the finite we cannot grasp, how much less can we grasp the infinite? All of these are points made there. But arbitrary tyranny? I don’t get that one.

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    • Dear old Yahweh just wasn’t a very nice bloke I’m afraid. I noticed in Canterbury Cathedral one afternoon that the choir didn’t sing one of the verses of the psalm. When I looked it up it was about some horrible violence against enemies. Just a reflection of human violence I suppose. But then I fear we have made our gods in our own image.

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  3. Robert Fortuin says:

    Raina, I believe Desmond is pointing out how this passage in Job can be, and has been, read as demonstrating God’s intent and purposes as capricious and tyrannical; that is, without His will grounded in love and a divine telos which seeks the good for all and is founded upon the logos (ratio) of truth and meaning which liberates rather than enslaves. As Desmond states, according to some, “God’s transcendence implies arbitrariness of divine power” and certain biblical stories are used to further such absurd accounts. Desmond is leaning against anthropophatic accounts which project human pathos onto the divine. In my assessment Desmond is spot on – such uses of biblical passages “reflect and produce tyrannical say so-ing humans.” Mind you, not the biblical accounts themselves (although these too can indicate pathos) but how people use them.

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  4. brian says:

    There are certainly theological tensions in the Scriptures. I like Mary Douglas’ reading of the book of Numbers — In the Wilderness — for instance. Drawing more from a background in anthropology than biblical exegesis, Douglas gives an interesting interpretation that sees Numbers as a priestly effort to include the “people of the land” as part of God’s chosen as opposed to the rigorous exclusivity asserted by those returning from Babylonian exile. Ezra and Nehemiah would represent the latter perspective. Jonah recapitulates the theme. Jonah, a prophet from the North, is called to preach to Nineveh, the chief city of the Assyrians. Probably by the time Jonah was written, the northern kingdom had disappeared from history at the hands of the Assyrians. It was akin to asking a Jew to go preach to Third Reich Berlin. Jonah might have fled out of sheer fright, in addition to understandable antipathy. The question of the mission of the chosen people was also a question of whether it was reaching out towards the nations and ultimately the entire cosmos, or a more insular form that understood holiness and purity as resistance to profane contamination. Something of this tension is still present in the New Testament where Temple culture and the Judean ethos habitually looks askance at anything coming from the North (like Christ and a rabble of Galilean fishermen.)

    More generically, one cannot bring all the threads of Old Testament revelation — history, wisdom literature, prophets, apocalyptic, etc. into a coherent whole. Only Christ provided the unexpected synthesis, and even then, the New Testament exhibits its own fruitful plurivocity. For certain, it is a rough, simplistic hermeneutic that would seek to smooth out differences or bring into a kind of univocal conceptual clarity a reality that will always exceed our attempts at comprehensive possession. In the light of the Gospel, where the metaphysics of divine love becomes more adequately available to human understanding, surely one must repudiate, for instance, the picture in Genesis where God becomes reactively sick of humanity and determines to make an end to a bad result. There is equivocity in the end of the book of Job. One can read it as God tacitly encouraging Job’s “temerity.” The pious counselors do not know God. The traditionalists actually want to keep God at bay; they refuse the struggle and drama of existence, enclosing it in moral certitudes that evince a complacency that does not want to be provoked to seek God in perplexity. In this respect, the God of the whirlwind who transcends finite understanding welcomes dialogue. In another respect, one can read God’s response to Job as overwhelming and not fully answering Job’s questions, which are ultimately linked to the irreplaceable uniqueness of the beloved. In this sense, the happy ending is tacked on — the new children cannot really make up for the lost children — and God’s mystery and infinite superiority can be read as a retreat into an apophatic reserve beyond the “wisdom of creation” that in itself exceeds Job’s frail humanity. This latter reading must conclude in a superficial comedy that masks a deeper despair. It is only the Cross that reveals God’s passionate abiding with mankind at every level of confusion, ignorance, and sorrow. A deft, “musical” capacity to sense nuance, complexity, repetition along an analogical scale, the eschatological depths of an inherent symbolism that is part of creation, all this must be constitutive of our attempts to listen to revelation with reverent attention to its infinite fecundity, joy, and surprise.

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  5. John Reimer says:

    Thank you, Brian. Your contributions to this website help to make it one of my favourite sites, one to which I turn each day.

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  6. brian says:

    Thank you, fellas. Eclectic Orthodoxy is a unique community for which I am truly grateful.

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