The Road To Nonrealism

Though Hegel's philosophy has been influential, there has been a general reaction against claims that pure Reason can discern the ultimate nature of Reality, against claims to discern wide-ranging patterns of spiritual development in history, and against the view that Reality is somehow mind-constituted or mind-dependent. These reactions have given rise to diverse forms of post-Hegelian thought, which has often been atheistic. Those who reject the pretensions of Reason to disclose a coherent truth about Reality have sometimes insisted upon a rigorous empiricism. The philosophers who comprised the Vienna Circle in the early twentieth century—most notably Schlick and Carnap—inaugurated the radically anti-metaphysical school of Logical Positivism. This school of thought is Positivist, insisting that all meaningful assertions must in the end refer to 'positive' facts, states of affairs which are subject to testing by observation. It is Logical, propounding a theory of meaning according to which no statement is meaningful unless it is verifiable or falsifiable by sense-observation. Statements like 'God is love' or 'The Absolute manifests itself in history' are declared to be senseless, because they are unverifiable. Such philosophers assert that they do not deny the existence of God. They simply point out that statements about God, like statements about round squares, are senseless and so not worth philosophical consideration. The basis of these Positivist views about God is explored fully in chapter 20. There the reader will also find set out the connections between positivism and re-interpretations of conceptions of God which stress the links between, on the one hand, the sense of the idea of God and, on the other, human practice and the ethical requirements upon it. Such re-interpretations, in the hands of thinkers like R.B.Braithwaite, eschew the idea that 'God' is the name for a metaphysical reality beyond the universe. The particularly Wittgensteinian version of this last thought in the writings of D.Z.Phillips is the net effect of all these departures from a metaphysically-based theism (however great the differences between them may be) to exclude much that has been characteristic of theological ideas of God.

Such views of God are at odds with most Christian tradition. They entail that God does not literally answer prayer, raise the dead or judge the world. They raise the question of why one should adopt a Christian way of life, when so many alternatives are available. And they seem to many to eliminate any cognitive element in religion, thereby devaluing the mystical traditions of prayer in the Church. lan Ramsey, in Religious Language (1957), attempted a more cognitive analysis. He roots religious language in experiences of a special character, 'disclosure situations' of cosmic discernment and total commitment. One discerns a 'depth' in things, when one sees the empirical and something more that cannot be described. There is a sort of verification here, and so a cognitive element, though it is admittedly 'odd', in that the experience is indescribable. 'Miracle' marks such a moment of disclosure, though it does not contravene the laws of nature. The way of life which one commits oneself to is not arbitrarily chosen, but is a response to a discernment which cannot be guaranteed, but which may be evoked by the use of God language. On such a view, the word 'God' is used to express and evoke a depth disclosure which re-orients one's life. All talk of God is symbolic, taken from contexts in which disclosures occur and used to evoke them in others, not to describe the ineffable.

Ramsey's view is similar in many ways to that of Paul Tillich, who insists, in Systematic Theology (1951-63) that God is not 'a being', one individual to be set over against others. Rather, God is 'Being-itself', beyond subject-object duality, the abyss and ground of all beings. This 'God beyond god' is the ultimate reality in which the world is rooted, but it is not an individual. It is known in 'ecstatic experience', when one perceives the depth and power of being in and through all beings. For Tillich, all talk of God is symbolic, except for the sentence, 'God is Being-itself', which is itself primarily apophatic. He holds that any 'literal' talk about Divine omnipotence and omniscience (about a being who can do anything and knows everything) must be abandoned. One must speak instead of 'the power of being which resists non-being...and is manifest in the creative process' (Tillich 1968: vol. 1, 303), and of the fact that 'nothing falls outside the logos structure of being' (ibid.: vol. 1, 309).

I think it would be fair to regard both Ramsey and Tillich as holding that the concept 'God' does refer to facts, but not in the same way as ordinary empirical discourse. In this, of course, they agree with the classical tradition of philosophical theism, both in its Thomist and Hegelian forms. They differ from the tradition in denying that God has particular causal effects in the world, that God ever contravenes the laws of nature, and that God will ensure a literal life after death—'participation in eternity' is not 'life hereafter' (ibid.: vol. 3, 437). They differ, in other words, about the empirical features of Christian belief. It is obvious that Positivists would simply discard all talk of 'Being-itself or of 'cosmic depth' as vacuous. Since Logical Positivism, however, both as a theory of meaning and as an account of the basis of all knowledge in the apprehension of sense-data, has been fairly thoroughly refuted, this is hardly decisive. More difficult questions are whether empirical and causal elements can be eliminated from the concept of God, whether the idea does not essentially embody metaphysical claims, and whether the idea of objective truth (of 'realism') is not more important than such accounts imply.

The classical tradition based its concept of God on a key metaphysical insight—either into the necessity of the causal principle, in Aquinas, or into the rational structure of Reality, in Hegel. Tillich retains a Hegelian tendency, though he also tends to select appropriate symbols for God because of their efficacy in promoting the New Being in Christ. Ramsey more explicitly selects models for God because of their moral or salvific efficacy. In this respect, a pragmatic element becomes dominant in much twentieth-century theology. John Hick, in An Interpretation of Religion (1989), returns to the Kantian view that Reality in itself is wholly unknowable. He then selects as authentic symbols for this reality those which are salvifically effective, which bring joy, compassion and wisdom to human persons. The Christian God is one of these authentic symbols. Like Ramsey and Tillich, he is reluctant to abandon truth-claims about Reality altogether. He holds, however, that since the noumenal Real is unknowable, apparently contradictory concepts—of God and Nirvana, for example—can both be true of the phenomenal world. The hold on reality, now being divorced from any possibility of empirical testing, has become very tenuous, and it is the pragmatic test that is doing all the work. Thus he holds that 'the truth [of religious concepts] lies in their soteriological effectiveness' (Hick 1989:373), their ability to lead one from self-centredness to altruism and happiness.

Pragmatist theories of truth tend to oscillate between saying that 'X is true' means that X produces happiness, and saying that 'X is true' is to be accepted because it produces happiness. The objection to the former interpretation is that many truths make one very unhappy. The objection to the latter is that it is hard to distinguish rational belief from mere wish-fulfilment. However, one may be able to defend a more complex view that human language exists to serve basic human interests and dispositions, which may indeed conflict and cause unhappiness. In religion, the proper question to ask may not be, 'Does it correspond to reality?'—which is uncheckable— but 'What interests does it serve?' What is sometimes called 'post-modern theology' works with such a generally pragmatic view of truth, and of language in general. If one cannot check for correspondence with reality, one can examine the forms of life which such language supports. There is a tendency to see particular language-games as stratagems for supporting particular power structures. Various forms of liberation theology, black and feminist theology, practise the 'hermeneutic of suspicion', to reveal the hidden power plays which concepts of God may express. For example, the idea of God as a (male) omnipotent monarch many legitimate partriarchal and hierarchical social structures. Such theologies seek to uncover the social agenda of language-games. One criterion of choice among concepts of God, for Christians, might then be to ask which concepts support the poor and oppressed? Which legitimate oppression and control?

At this point there is often a link between such functionalist analyses of God and Marxism, which is another form of reaction to Hegel. Marx famously said that he turned Hegel on his head. Hegel had seen all history as the self-realization of Spirit, but was unclear about whether Spirit had any existence independently of history. Marx adopted the Hegelian philosophy wholesale, except that he subsumed Spirit completely into the material order, and saw history as a dialectical process moving from a material basis towards a society of free creative spirits. Spirit becomes wholly immanent in the material, and is the dynamic progress towards a just society. It is 'materialistic', only in the sense that the bases of all causal change are the economic and social structures which are inevitably developing dialectically towards the goal of the classless society. Classical Marxism was atheistic, in denying the existence of a substantial personal being who could give life after death as a compensation for life's injustices. However, it retains the idea of a purposive movement towards a moral goal, announced by the 'prophet' Marx, and aimed at the liberation of humanity from slavery and oppression.

Liberation theology has been influenced by a 'soft' version of Marxism, playing down the violence and elements of class-conflict which are central to political Marxism. The link with functionalist accounts is that 'truth' is an expression of certain social and economic circumstances, and the 'final truth' means only that, when a truly just society exists, all will agree in their basic judgements. However, there is a central paradox in this view: if Marxist analysis is itself true, that cannot be simply a matter of agreement, since very few people agree with it! But if it is just one view among others, why should one not reject it on the good pragmatic ground that it produces suffering and hatred in practice? Or simply that one prefers a hierarchical and ordered society?

For classical Marxists, God is a symbol of oppressive social structures, to be overcome. It is possible, however, from a generally Marxist base, to see God as a symbol of liberation from oppression, as the 'eschatalogical future', which calls the present towards itself. This is a view taken by Jürgen Moltmann, who tries, for instance in History and the Triune God (1991), to interpret the Trinity as a paradigm of an egalitarian society of free and creative persons. It does seem, however, as if Moltmann is making a claim about truth—i.e. that history actually will end in a certain way, whether or not anyone thinks that it will. How can a functionalist account of truth contain this possibility, if truth is something like agreement? In the end, to make 'God' a key concept in one language-game among many others seems very hard to reconcile with the claim that God is the creator of all things, and would exist even if there were no language-users. It looks as though the language-game which contains the word 'God' carries, as part of its internal grammar, the claim that God exists outside of all language-games. This makes a purely functionalist or pragmatic account of 'God' very difficult to sustain.

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