by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.
I know atheists for whom discussion of God is equivalent to quibbling over whether or not invisible pink rabbits exist. They have been educated into imbecility. While capable of shrewd, instrumental acts of reason, they naively accept the rough, pragmatic materialism that passes for metaphysics in an age of barbarism. Yet one can almost forgive them if they have a dismissive view of theology. Either as panderer to contemporary ideological obsessions or as purveyor of abstruse cogitations devoted to arcane matters, theology often appears to glaze the eyes, to make God dull, worse, merely fashionable, or to repeat tired orthodoxies without any sense that wonder and perplexity accompany every step of our journey through time. Conversely, usually in small, zealous circles, theological discourse can take a different turn, becoming an exercise in dialectical gamesmanship. In Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus, the sophist, is described as a kind of wild beast. Today, Thrasymachus would be a professor in a university or a politician. He would tack to the prevailing opinions and make a fine career for himself. When Thrasymachus engages Socrates, he believes dialectic to be akin to professional fencing. Truth is not a reality to be discovered, certainly not beneficent or in any way a gift. The bestial sophist wins by persuading others through appeal to expediency or to their higher nature, by bullying or by preaching compassion, by the allure of power or the promise of a pleasant life, anything at hand so long as it works, to accept the world picture he conjures with his words. It is a form of black magic where the lonely ego attains a temporary advantage over its competitors – and the other is always a rival, never a friend. The baseness and deep ignorance of Thrasymachus explains why he presumes Socrates’ strange ways are merely tactical, for wisdom as he understands it can be nothing besides war covert or naked. What follows is not intended as neatly arranged argument. I am uninterested in merely scholastic back-and-forth, nor am I looking for laurels. I am searching for an enigmatic Good. I am going to circle and meander, because that is the way of the river on its way to perfection, the elemental impermanence seeking the ocean of infinitude. I sometimes confidently assert a particular metaphysical or theological position; sometimes I hold tenaciously to what I believe beautiful and good, even if it requires antinomies or having to appear a sloppy thinker or the fool. So, I do not pretend to fence though I will occasionally swing a broadsword.
But just between us, who do you think you are? Where do you think you are going? What are you doing with your precious, finite grains of sand as they implacably fall through the hour glass? You are surely going towards death. Does that make any difference? Does it unsettle certitudes? If not, why not?
One of the last things the late Kim Fabricius wrote: “The best that I can say about me is that I am a placeholder for what I will become.” The apophatic manner resists the temptation to closure. It resists forms of logic that bracket out the eschatological, as if we had genuine knowledge apart from God. If the Sermon on the Mount, among other things, is meant to portray Jesus as a new Moses, inscribing words of life upon hearts made living rather than upon dead stone, they are words difficult and inscrutable – unless rendered anodyne by pious rhetoric that sweeps away the sting and the darkness. Have you journeyed with the God rich in grief? There are tears in abundance. If you love a worm, you will cry for that burrower of earth. Does it trouble you, when it rains, to see them wriggling on the ground or dried out by the sun? There is a savage spirit that comes upon men. Then they rejoice to destroy and torture. A few days ago, some fellow took a rifle and told his friend he was going to use it to kill a dog. Then he acted as a sniper, shooting from the window of his friend’s apartment an eight-month old Chihuahua dog as it was happily going for a walk with its owner’s mother. No apparent motive other than pure meanness wed to arrogance that would play at Zeus. There is a callous “just so” that weeps not for the sparrow that falls. Nature is profligate, so why grieve over the death of single puppy?
Blissful are those who mourn. Myself, I shake my fist, and groan, and wish that I had never been born. It is a horrific world and the vile so often prosper. I shouldn’t mind so much, of course, if life was sweet for me and mine. Glimmering moments of grace come to all men, I know. Yet “there is a shattering,” says William Desmond, “being abandoned, being forsaken, as the Psalmist has it … God forsakenness … Here the most extreme willing of God is asked … the question of ultimate trust in face of the absolute nothing” (God and the Between, p. 339). Forensic justification does not know the Cross. A jejune religious sensibility will not walk with Christ. It wants to leap across agony and bewilderment. God has accomplished this for us, but not within us. The life of Christ only washes away our moral failures, does not live in us. A breakdown of temporal selving, a winnowing that disorients and puts in question an entire lifetime, often incurring the helpful consolations of Job’s counselors – how can this be anything but terror and ashes? You cannot ask for this. It would take a God-Man to willingly embrace it, to “set his face on Jerusalem.” But Desmond asserts that here is the door to liberation: “This is the freedom to give oneself up to consummate trust in the intimate companionship of the hidden God” (p. 339). Well, I am not free like that. When I am in a joking mood, I tell the One Beyond Names “too much kenosis!” When I am sunk in misery and fear each day like a threat, I rage that the Omnipotence has ruined my life. Blissful, indeed … In delight, in wonder, surrounded by beauty, loved and loving, no one asks if it is good to be. No one is perplexed by God. When folks debate modal collapse and divine simplicity, the question of whether necessity bears upon God with regards to creation and the like, do they do so in a comfortable arm chair? I have nothing against comfortable arm-chairs, by-the-bye; or a good dark porter, Audrey Hepburn, a playful cat sitting placidly upon the one book needed amidst a copious library, Bach’s cello suites, I could go on. Yet it is the anguish of the abyss that calls for the answer of love. When life becomes a horror, the soul in crisis cries out for the God who saves. And then it is not a matter of historical lineage or logical asperity that carries weight. If I argue for divine simplicity, it is not because Aquinas said so, but because without such, the unique divine transcendence that founds radical intimacy is lost and the latter is the secure bond of love that promises to remove all tears.
This is the intimacy that Desmond refers to when he speaks of the passio essendi. This is our coming to be that founds all becoming, all our attempts, evasions, wandering desires that aim at flourishing life. Forgetfulness of the gift turns existence into a barely registered given, a shallow marker of mere fact. (Babe Ruth is real, the Gorgon is not – I bow slightly, but equivocally to conventional judgment here.) Implicit in this fundamental metaphysical error is ignorance that one’s deepest interior is not an absurd mistake, an adventitious occurrence, or an isolated possession. Being is intrinsically dynamic and relational. Person is inherently characterized by porosity to the other. Plato aimed to dramatize in the Meno the strange presence of the end of all our searching within us; otherwise, we would not be moved to quest at all. The human yearning for truth is made possible by an origin that is not a point in time, but an eternal gifting that sustains every moment of being. (Desmond is often reacting against Hegel and Hegelian dialectic. Hegel’s Absolute begins in poverty, erotically seeks out the other in order to attain perfection, ultimately dialectically subsuming the other into a serene possession that echoes the solitude of Aristotle’s thought thinking itself. (I don’t know why, exactly, but such divinity suggests to me the odd picture of a narcissistic pudding enamored with its own completeness.) Desmond invokes terms like over-saturated, over-determined, the hyperbolics of being to gesture towards an Origin that is not poor, not needy, but an aseity of “pluperfection” infinitely generous and solicitous for the well-being of the other. The gift of being is always intrinsically a “for-giving.” The alpha is the omega; the teleology of human knowing is rendered possible because the end accompanies the searcher from the beginning. Birth and entry into the family is a natural analogy that can be teased for intimations. As Goethe rightly noted, “Everything that happens is symbol,” though none of this is explicable as “clear and concise idea.” It cannot be measured by the mathesis of Galilean science or expressed in “plain” rhetoric devoid of finesse. Here is how Desmond describes it in Ethics and the Between:
… this double – intense longing, need of the mother, say, but also the stirrings of anxiety that one will be lost in the mother; a yearning to die again into nonseparateness, but also a trembling that one will be devoured by nondifference. This might be called a nostalgia for the predeterminate rapport; for determinate difference and identity bring pain (algia); but this is pain for one’s own (nostos). But one’s own is the beloved other, not oneself simply; the mother or father, but one is the mother and the father too. So this nostalgia is not a narcissistic retreat to solipsistic ownness but sorrow for the immediate rapport that is an elemental intermediation, hence always a predeterminate being with the other. (Think how consoling the simple touch of another can be.) (p. 400)
By adverting to the initial state of the child before psychic development has clearly demarcated a border between self and other, Desmond points to the maternal presence prolonging the sheltering womb so that normally the world first presents itself as safe, warm, nurturing. And yet, Desmond refuses to interpret this first meeting of person and world as “narcissistically enclosed.” It’s true, he indicates, that the emerging self will look back in a kind of instinctive reflection with ambivalence at this first experience where metaphysical affinity is felt as welcoming rapport. To know determinate being is both to discover (the world begins to appear, intellect begins to grasp intelligible natures) and also to suffer the pains of separation from an unreflective communal peace. Those who focus on the freedom of the self as the acquisition of autonomy are likely to understand this pain in egoistic terms. It will be narrated unambiguously as the necessary pain of epistemic gain whereby individual awareness sheds the illusion of cosmic amity dependent on ignorance of separate identity. But this is not what is happening: rather, there is both gain and loss. The child “knows in its bones” that a real, if non-conceptual connection has been allowed to perish (or better, to recede into depths no longer palpable). Desmond therefore resists the fashionable depiction of nostalgia as infantile reaction (politicized often enough as mask for institutional power, patriarchy, the usual suspects).
An account of nostalgia as a regressive flight from difference is only true at a level that does not go to the deeper level where the predeterminate rapport with the other is working . . . At this more primordial level, nostalgia shows a love of difference, the other, though it is a love that cannot truly name itself, since it is lost in the other, though at a more superficial level it seems to be consumed with itself and its own anxiety before difference. Such an account does not do full justice to the love of the other already ingrained in one’s intimate being, a love whose elemental unnamed effectiveness resurfaces in the experience of “nostalgia.” The deeper account shows: One’s own is not one’s own; or what is not one’s own is one’s own. (p. 400)
And this, at the natural level, echoes the divine flame or as Teresa of Avila calls it, the interior castle. One’s innermost identity is both the most intimate personal secret and an other. You have to discover yourself as gift. It is not just a question of an isolated will defending its autonomy. Indeed, that is a lie most pernicious. This event is outside time, perpendicular to all temporal happening. It is metaphysically prior and coincident with the gift that is passio essendi. Thus, there is always mystery to identity because identity is a participation in divinity and entails infinite depths. The refusal of the divine kiss, the attempt to autonomously possess what would disappear into nothing apart from the continuing gift, is precisely the Fall. The error of literalist attempts to discover in Adam and Eve’s transgression a merely moral failure bringing death is multiple, but in two ways especially does it fail. First, it treats Adam and Eve as if they were modern, atomized individuals making libertarian choices, evincing near complete insensibility to the kind of identities that operate in mythic story-telling. Second, and more damaging, it thinks of the event of the fall as occupying a space within determinate being, as a purely cosmic, temporal consequence within history, whereas culpable forgetting of the gift truly lies in a metaphysical refusal at the level of coming into being: it is not simply a product of conatus essendi – the striving self in its distinct acts in the world. Sins manifest a wound that is prior to history