Monday, June 15, 2009

God, Poetry and Emotion

[I am repeating this post from earlier, as becoming increasingly relevant to recent discussions of "sophisticated" theology]

Following on from the previous post on God and indefinability, I have been thinking a bit more about Sam’s sophisticated theology.

I have been suggesting, rather bluntly (!), that Sam is (unwittingly) falling for, and applying, several rhetorical devices in order to try to deal with the problem of evil. These include:

(i) Playing the mystery card (See my The God of Eth)
(ii) Now you see it, now you don’t
(iii) Pseudo-profundity

I think there are lots more sleights-of-hand and rhetorical devices in play here, too. Perhaps I should go right through them all in detail at some point. My view (again, to state it bluntly) is that, once you’ve unpacked and disarmed all these various ploys and manoeuvres, what remains – the actual content of theism (to the extent that there actually is any content left in “sophisticated” theism once all the sleights-of-hand, etc. have been exposed) - is pretty obviously a load of cobblers.

But perhaps there isn’t any content at all? I’m not sure.

I just read the Book of Job and have been thinking about the poetic and inspirational use of language. Religion makes very great use of it, of course. Lots of “Lo!”s and words ending “-eth”. Here’s a bit:

9:4 He is wise in heart, and mighty in strength: who hath hardened himself against him, and hath prospered?

9:5 Which removeth the mountains, and they know not: which overturneth them in his anger.

9:6 Which shaketh the earth out of her place, and the pillars thereof tremble.

9:7 Which commandeth the sun, and it riseth not; and sealeth up the stars.

9:8 Which alone spreadeth out the heavens, and treadeth upon the waves of the sea.

9:9 Which maketh Arcturus, Orion, and Pleiades, and the chambers of the south.

9:10 Which doeth great things past finding out; yea, and wonders without number.

You get the idea. But, other than bigging up God, what is actually said here? Well this:

“Who hath hardened himself against him, and hath prospered?”

It’s a rhetorical question. The answer is clearly supposed to be “No one! So fear him! He gets angry!” It’s a veiled threat. But the actual answer is pretty obviously “Loads of people (me included!)”

And there are also some scientifically inaccurate claims, such as that the earth is set on pillars.

Now the sophisticated theologian will tell us not to take these passages so literally. But then what’s left? Just the expression of a sort of reverential, “Oh wow!” attitude. This text is designed to press our emotional buttons and get us reverberating in tune with it (three key emotions being awe, reverence and fear).

Being reasonably emotionally literate, I know when my buttons are being pressed. Spielberg is a master, of course. At the end of E.T., I can see exactly how Spielberg is manipulating me emotionally through very careful control of the music, script, etc. It’s almost formulaic. Yet I still start blubbing.

I get exactly the same feeling reading the Bible - and especially this passage from Job. The emotional and psychological manipulation is pretty transparent, I think. You can almost feel your buttons being pressed.

There is a mystery about why there is anything at all. We are awestruck by nature. And rightly so. Religions take these basic feelings of awe and mystery and build on them – using poetic, inspirational language.

But when you strip away the poetry and get down to the actual content of a particular religion, what’s left?

Claims, which, shorn of all the emotional button-pressing, and jotted down on the back of an envelope, are pretty obviously ridiculous.

Imagine writing down the core claims of Christianity – including the resurrection, etc., - in a matter-of-fact, bullet-point style and giving them to say, a Chinese person unfamiliar with Western religion. Their likely reaction would be, “You believe that? Why?!" The claims just don't work any more once stripped of all the emotional and other psychological packaging.

On the other hand, remove these claims from a religion and what's left? No content as such: just the reverential, “Oh wow!” attitude (which may also be happy-clappy or self-loathing, etc. etc. depending on which sect you end up in).

It seems the sophisticated theologian who rejects the ridiculous stuff is then just left with little more than the attitude. Of course, they think there’s something more. There still a sort of content left, they suppose. But when you ask them what the content of their belief is, they say – “Well, I can’t say, exactly – you see, it’s, um, ineffable, it’s a mystery.”

Hmm. My suspicion is they have simply projected an ineffable “something” to be the focus of all the emotional, psychological baggage they still find themselves left with.

23 comments:

Steven Carr said...

Having a go at the Book of Job for using rhetoric is a bit like attacking Shakespeare for having is characters soliquise a lot, when they wouldn't in real life.

Job 9 is wonderful passage which trashes the idea that this god is good. Job just says God is mighty and a law unto himself

' 23 When a scourge brings sudden death,he mocks the despair of the innocent.

24 When a land falls into the hands of the wicked, he blindfolds its judges. If it is not he, then who is it?'

Jo 9 is portaying the God of Judaism as a monster who is judge, jury and executioner of all humanity , finding them guilty with no possibility to appeal.

Theists still have the same problem that the author of Job had.

If they believe in a mighty judgemental God, then it is obvious that suffering is the result of God ruling by fear.

'When a land falls into the hands of the wicked, he blindfolds its judges. If it is not he, then who is it?'

If it is not the all-mighty God who decrees that evil things happen and justice is denied, then who is it?

Martin said...

Stephen sees all the "evidence" of the bible, finds nothing, and stops there.

But it is the nature of existence that as soon as a nothingness is found, a something is brought into being.

Theists take this "something arising" and claim it is a God. They have managed to turn the nothingness into the very thing which has created everything. This is the aim of Theology.

I sat through a year of Philosophy of Religion seminars which were entertaining if not instructive. Equally populated by Christian Theology students and atheist Philosophy students there was little agreement between these two sides. The most telling thing was that the Theology tutors were thoroughly cross that one of the Philosophy tutors had declared himself a Buddhist, even though he came from a Christian background.

I learnt precisely nothing about Theology, except that its proponents can waffle on for hours using an arcane vocabulary to effect sophistication, and that Christians were deeply annoyed to lose one of their own to a rival religion.

wombat said...

"Imagine writing down the core claims of Christianity – including the resurrection, etc., - in a matter-of-fact, bullet-point style and giving them to say, a Chinese person unfamiliar with Western religion."

Funny enough it crossed my mind when reading the "Historical Jesus" thread to ask whether there had been any historical research done by scholars bought up in the say a Buddhist or Hindu culture? I suspect it is very difficult for Western historians to avoid being contaminated by the industry that seems to have arisen around the Dead Sea Scrolls etc.

scott roberts said...

Imagine showing a Japanese Zen master the Sermon on the Mount. Well, you don't have to imagine it, as it happened, and his response was to consider the Sermon the work of an Enlightened being.

But when you strip away the poetry and get down to the actual content of a particular religion, what’s left?

Claims, which, shorn of all the emotional button-pressing, and jotted down on the back of an envelope, are pretty obviously ridiculous.


Not all the claims are "obviously ridiculous" to an idealist.

Steven Carr said...

The Sermon on the Mount is the work of an enlighented being?

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Put oil on your head when you fast, so you get rewards?

Which idiot comes down from heaven to spread a divine message and spends his time not telling people to abolish slavery or stop conscripting children into armies, but spends his time telling people to put oil on their head when they fast?

wombat said...

Perhaps he did rail against slavery etc but that didn't make the final edit? Or maybe he just got booed off when he tried that material.

Andrew Louis said...

What is pseudo-profundity?
It seems to me this is nothing more than a word given to people who don’t believe words are representations. In other words, if you cannot formulate (lets say) a materialist justification, then you’re just trying to be profound and pry at my emotions.

Andrew Louis said...

PS,
So what’s being said is that, if an emotion has no material content, than its meaningless and/or pseudo-profound? If I’m correct, one of the big dogmas of empiricism, (materialsm/Reaslism) is the whole idea that to have a thought is to have an object before the mind.

Andrew Louis said...

Oops, sorry, I see all this was talked about in the previous thread....

M. Tully said...

"Imagine writing down the core claims of Christianity – including the resurrection, etc., - in a matter-of-fact, bullet-point style and giving them to say, a Chinese person unfamiliar with Western religion."

Here's an artistic method. Read Job and then sit down and watch "Trading Places" with Murphy and Aykroyd.

That is a moment of zen!

Kaz Dragon said...

@Steven Carr
Put oil on your head when you fast, so you get rewards?

I think the idea of that passage was to say "if you are fasting, act normal and don't be a drama queen about how pious you're being."

Steven Carr said...

Don't be a drama queen when fasting?

You mean don't go around telling everybody what you are giving up for Lent?

And who cares about fasting? Why not teach about slavery or not burning heretics or not making homosexuality illegal?

The Sermon on the Mount is outdated.

We don't put oil on our heads.

Getting morality from the words of Jesus is like doing arithmetic using Roman numerals.

They are totally out of date, and everybody who uses them secretly converts everything to more modern terms anyway, even if they pretend they are following 2000 year old methods....

M. G. Ulrik said...

You are forgetting that the main point in Job (and really the whole Old Testament) is that you shall trust in God.
All that anti-slavery has got nothing to do with the bible, or Christianity per se. The Old Testament doesn't tell you to be a good person, it tells you to follow the law put down within it.
The dollar says "In God We Trust" and the dollar, quite ironicaly, knows what it's talking about. Even if nobody but the Americans care for such a degrated currency...

Besides it's a little unfair to battle Christianity with quotes from the Old Testament, anyway, Jesus did rebel against most of it, after all.

And finally; why do you suppose that you even can take away poetry and emotion from theology?
It's imposible. You see theology is actually the study of how to interpret an old book and just like you can't ask a student of litterature to ignore poetry and emotion, you can't ask that of a theologist.

p.s. And since we can neither logically rebut the existence of God, or logically prove His existence, why bother arguing?

Stephen Law said...

Hi MGU

You said: 'And since we can neither logically rebut the existence of God, or logically prove His existence, why bother arguing?"

This is a mantra of religious folk - they repeat it whenever the argument is not going their way, despite the fact that they have no argument for it, and indeed there's no good reason to think it true.

Have a look at this...

http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2007/02/atheism-faith-position-too.html

Stephen Law said...

and then here:

http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2007/02/atheism-faith-position.html

Kaz Dragon said...

@Steven Carr

Don't be a drama queen when fasting?

You mean don't go around telling everybody what you are giving up for Lent?


Yes. I think there are numerous places in the bible where it is suggested that piety should be a private thing. I recall verses telling people to "pray in their closet" or similar, and specifically Jesus haranguing some elder priests about their ostentatious displays of how godly they are (while chastising them for insisting he washes his hands before eating - go figure).

I think that "oiling your head and washing your face" in this context is supposed to mean "do what it takes to look normal". Perhaps head-oiling was the local fashion, or something.

(not that I believe any of this stuff.)

M. Tully said...

"Besides it's a little unfair to battle Christianity with quotes from the Old Testament, anyway..."

Really?

What about, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them."

Seems a liitle contradictory to me. If I can use what the prophets of the OT said to reinforce the case of messiah, I will. But, if those same prophets said things contrary to modern moral understanding well then, let me tell you about Jesus the Rebel.

Curious, very curious. Almost as if someone had to ad-hoc pick and choose verses to support one argument and then ad-hoc pick and choose other sections to support other aguments, even when the selections chosen contridict each other.

I believe there is a term for that but, it slips my mind at the moment.

Dick said...

'head-oiling' that people are laughing at is normal practice in most parts of the world, including Britain. We have eight different bottles of conditioner in our shower . . .

The Book of Job tries to explain suffering from various perspectives (both pious and not-so-pious) but Job rejects all attempts at rational explanation and demands that God explain himself. God doesn't. It seems to come to no conclusion (the 'happy ending' is believed by many scholars to have been tagged on later). I can't see that this writing is trying to manipulate anyone emotionally into any particular response. The writer is as outraged and unpersuaded as any, but refuses to be dishonest. The most interesting recent interpretation I've come across is in 'The Monstrosity of Christ' (Slavoj Žižek & John Milbank), p.55 - 6, which I quote :

"What, then, if . . Job . . remained silent neither because he was crushed by God's overwhelming presence, nor because he wanted thereby to indicate his continued resistance - the fact that God avoided answering his question - but because, in a gesture of silent solidarity, he perceived the divine impotence. God is neither just nor unjust, but simply impotent. What Job suddenly understood was that it was not him, but God himself who was in effect on trial in Job's calamities, and he failed the test miserably. Even more pointedly, I am tempted to risk a radical anachronistic reading : Job foresaw God's own future suffering - 'Today it's me, tomorrow it will be your own son, and there will be noone to intervene for him.'

If you want to strip away all the stuff that rationalism can't accept, and then explore what's left - this is what's left : a crucified God. 'Foolishness to the Greeks' (as Paul had it). It doesn't "explain" anything, but maybe (as Marx once wrote) the point isn't to explain it, but to change it.

Steven Carr said...

So Jesus came down from heaven to earth with a divine message to behave like normal practice

When he could have used the Sermon on the Mount to attack child conscription, or slavery or announce that homosexuality was not sinful.

As for a crucified god, I guess God had to suffer to learn what it was like for humans to suffer.

God had to learn what it was like to be gassed in Nazi gas chambers while people screamed to the god they worshipped to help them.

Martin Gifford said...

Just some thoughts:

The grandeur and mystery of the universe means something great exists. But that thing might be the universe itself rather than God.

Obviously, something great is going on that is way beyond my comprehension. I look at a forest or sunset or the stars or a beach and I find myself thinking, "God is great." Yet, I don't know if God exists.

Certainly the normal formulation of God (omniscient, omnipotent, all-good, etc.) can't be correct because such a God would not let people and animals suffer so appallingly.

If God exists, then God would be undefinable. Human senses and minds are too limited to comprehend reality, let alone God.

I think the significant arguments against God are that the normal formulations of God are unreal. But is there some great being who has different attributes to those formulations? How would we know?

Mikethelawstudent said...

I think a possible modern interpretation of Job might be that supposing there is an omnipotent god then he being the ultimate standard in the universe can't really be questioned. So the answer provided in Job for the "problem of pain" is that its not for man to know because our problem with pain is how can god be just if there is pain, but if god is the standard then injustice isn't possible for him. I am not totally satisfied with that answer. But at the same time logically that particular problem doesn't really poke holes in the concept of god.

Mike

TOPEKA ATTORNEY

Nathanael said...

Thank you for your probing, accessible work.

How can one harden himself against something that does not exist?

Speaking of having to "strip away the poetry and get down to the actual content" does not do justice to the whole realm of aesthetics. I respect much of your writing, but in the area of literary theory I feel as if you have let yourself down.

My response would be not venture a defence of Job or religion, but I would in defence of poetry.

There are much better ways, I think, to critique the philosophy of Job, than to complain about it's poeticism.

awed by God said...

"There is a mystery about why there is anything at all."

I'm surprised that you consider that the presence of the universe should necessarily evoke no emotion - once a person knows that God created it, then one is necessarily awed by the God who created it.

No one created it? nothing creates .....

It wasn't created? out of nothing, comes ...