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God among men

Dan Sportiello | Thursday, April 15, 2010

It is unclear just what The God Debate was meant to achieve.

Imagine, for a moment, that D’Souza had beaten Hitchens — had convinced him, converted him. Could this have changed human nature? Converted our brokenness, our perversity, into something like sanity? Could reason have made men no longer to rebel, when it was not reason that made them rebel in the first place?

Imagine, instead, that Hitchens had beaten D’Souza — had cowed him, silenced him. Could this have changed human nature? Silenced our hunger, our desperation, for the Father we had never met? Could reason have made men no longer to believe, when it was not reason that made them believe in the first place?

In asking whether religion is the problem, D’Souza and Hitchens took themselves to be asking whether God is the best explanation for how things are — for the structure of our world and of ourselves. This is not, I admit, an insignificant question: it has haunted men since they first looked into the night sky and beheld the stars in their courses. We hear even now their echo: this cosmos, magnificent and vast, cannot be born of chaos! There is an order here — a story, surely, in which we are the characters; our author cannot be far. And yet, if it is so, why is he so silent, and we so cold?

Man has, through the centuries, done everything he could to forget this question — a process that has had more to do with bread and circuses than men like Hitchens. Yet each of us must, at some point in his life, come to face it — even if only in the silence of his own heart. It is at this point, of course, that he should realize that it was something rather more than a question all along — something larger than any question could be. “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered,” writes Wittgenstein, “the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.”

God is not — not primarily, anyway — an explanation — not the answer to any question that could be put into words. For religion did not begin as a deviant form of science: both are, along with music and poetry and war, interlocking facets of human nature. Like all such facets, religion is its own language-game with its own rules of play — rules that were never up to us to begin with. For faith is woven as deeply into who we are as are curiosity and love, as are fear and anger and lust. “As the ancient myth makers knew,” says Sagan, “we are children equally of the earth and the sky.” We can no more escape our fractured nature than we can cease to be ourselves.

To ask whether God exists, then, is like asking whether checkmate — or, better, whether amen. It is not coincidence that such questions are nonsense. The only answer to them is to unask them: “The solution of the problem of life,” concludes Wittgenstein, “is seen in the vanishing of the problem.” God is not — not primarily, anyway — an explanation: he is the very grammar of our experience.

It is only with this realization that the true character of the question becomes clear: it is this grammar — not the order of the cosmos, but the very possibility of any order at all — that is the real mystery. “We live,” notes Sagan, “in an in-between universe — where things change, all right, but according to patterns, rules, or, as we call them, laws of nature.” This world, so fraught with confusion, nonetheless conceals a certain order; Thales understood this and so became wise. But presupposed by his particular understanding is the possibility of any understanding whatsoever — that is, the very intelligibility of the world; Pythagoras understood this and so became a lover of wisdom — for, if anything is divine, it is surely intelligibility itself.

This realization too echoed down the centuries: “What every picture,” writes Wittgenstein, “of whatever form, must have in common with reality in order to be able to represent it at all — rightly or falsely — is the logical form, that is, the form of reality.” Logical form is not the order of the cosmos; it is the reason that there is order, not chaos, in the first place. This is the real question — the one that Hitchens and D’Souza should have asked: they should have sought not the architect of reality but rather the scaffolding upon which he builds. The problem is not religion; it is that there can be a world at all.

The intelligibility of the world is identical to the existence of God. “How the world is,” writes Wittgenstein, “is completely indifferent for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world” — he is not, in other words, an explanation for order. He is, rather, presupposed by that order: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” The fundamental mystery is not the structure of the world but rather its existence—not that there is something rather than nothing, but rather that categories like something and nothing can have meaning in the first place. Our experience could well have been opaque to us: things did not have to make sense. Yet they do.

It is this that men are compelled to worship — this God who they cannot name, yet who is presupposed by all of their naming. “Propositions can represent the whole reality,” writes Wittgenstein, “but they cannot represent what they must have in common with reality in order to be able to represent it — the logical form. To be able to represent the logical form, we should have to be able to put ourselves with the propositions outside logic, that is outside the world.” We, in our brokenness, cannot render intelligibility itself intelligible. God stands from us at an infinite remove — so far, indeed, that measurement itself is folly. No matter how far we walk, we cannot reach him.

And yet. For all of his transcendence, God is immanent in every moment of every day — in every move in every language-game ever played. Logical form is the foundation of the world. Every word, every gesture, is a theophany. “Propositions cannot represent the logical form: this mirrors itself in the propositions,” writes Wittgenstein. “That which mirrors itself in language, language cannot represent. That which expresses itself in language, we cannot express by language. The propositions show the logical form of reality. They exhibit it.” Does God exist? Can we speak at all? These two questions are the same: to ask them is to answer them.

To answer them, though, is just to see that one has, in the end, said nothing at all. “All that I have written,” said Saint Thomas at the end of his life, “seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me.” The final answer to the first question is, and must be, silence. When confronted with God, there is nothing more to say. To bear witness to the grammar of experience is just to live.

And so it is unclear just what this column was meant to achieve: all of these are but empty words — graffiti on the face of the void. And yet, somehow, they gesture at something, even if only across an infinite gulf. “My propositions are elucidatory in this way,” writes Wittgenstein: “he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)” This is, of course, the hardest step of all: we men cannot cease from naming. This is our blessing and our curse. “Whereof one cannot speak,” writes Wittgenstein, “thereof one must be silent.” To achieve this would be to transcend ourselves — to leave philosophy behind and simply be, as did Saint Thomas before us. To achieve this — to pass from silence, through words, and back into silence — would be enlightenment — would be the mending, at last, of our brokenness. It would be the very vision of God.

Towards this vision will men, born blind, ever grope, even to the end of the world. In the meantime, we go on as we can. Let us, as we walk, at least be asking the right question.

Daniel John Sportiello is in his second year of the Ph.D. program in philosophy. Listen to his radio show on WVFI every Sunday at 4 p.m. He can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.