God and the Between
by William Desmond
Wiley-Blackwell, 368 pages, $44.95
Running through William Desmond's latest book—the third in a series of philosophical reflections from the Irish philosopher—is a Nietzschean preoccupation with nihilism.
Nietzsche, who called nihilism the unwelcome guest waiting at the door, wanted to overcome it. Desmond, however, sees that a thoroughgoing nihilism would deprive us of any standard, framework, or orientation and would thus allow no possibility for its overcoming. His solution is to take the nothingness that nihilism claims and turn it instead into the welcome guest who opens up the possibility of a philosophical recovery of being, goodness, and God.
A philosophy that “comes to nothing, that our reasoning reduces to zero” can be seen “as an end that is also a beginning.” The zero enlivens and allows for a “new interface with creation.” Where Nietzsche had detected the sources of nihilism in the theological tradition, Desmond sees nihilism as a prelude to a return to theology.
Like Being and the Between and Ethics and the Between, the previous books in the trilogy, God and the Between is a long, sprawling, and erudite book. It is also immensely frustrating. There are passages in which Desmond's destruction of the distinction between poetry and prose has marvelous effect, but there are other passages in which the writing is simply obscure. Yet, Desmond—now a philosophy professor at the Institute of Philosophy in Belgium and one of the leading contemporary voices in the great tradition of metaphysics—always has something important to say. His learning is inevitably at the service of original, creative thinking within a living tradition of philosophy.
God and the Between admits that nihilism is a perpetual possibility for philosophy and humanity, but it aims its analysis at modernity, where cycles of ambition and despair are always joined—as Hegel's ascendant reason is followed by Schopenhauer's descendant reason.
But Desmond does not focus exclusively on the Nietzschean theory of nihilism as the “devaluation of the highest values.” He offers a cogent analysis of the different sense of nothingness. The word nothing—like its opposite, the word being—has several senses.
There is, for example, the empty nothing of nihilism; the howling nothing of the damned; the nothing of forgiveness practiced by the merciful; and the kenotic nothing of sacrificial self-emptying. In all this, Desmond insists, there is “no escape from metaphysics.” Even after we are driven to one sense or another of nothingness, we must acknowledge that something still is. God and the Between thus revives a version of the classical metaphysical thesis that negation presupposes, and never exhausts, affirmation. Thoroughgoing nihilism is never possible.
Desmond proposes instead a recovery of wonder. Here the perplexity is not about evil, or decay, or the lack of clear metaphysical and ethical foundations for thought and life. Rather, it is prompted by the lingering and mysterious presence of being, goodness, and beauty. As Desmond puts it, our experience of the world is “porous to what exceeds finite determination.” Even as we protest or concede that it all comes to nothing, we recognize that we remain ensconced in being. The givenness of being has the character of “surplus generosity.” We do not seek God merely through negativity but also through the surpluses of finite being.
In flight from metaphysics, contemporary philosophers of religion often speak of God as without or beyond being. Desmond prefers to speak of God as “beyond the whole,” existing certainly but in a mode of existence that cannot be located on the same plane as other beings. If philosophers wonder about the order, beauty, and goodness of being, they are compelled to ask about the source of the whole—a source to which the whole of being points but that escapes delimitation by the categories we deploy to understand beings within the whole.
Perhaps the most important topic addressed in God and the Between is creation. Divine creation is different from creativity as we normally understand it. Creativity is a form of making, in which something becomes this or that through a modification of preexisting material. Creation, instead, “makes finite being possible.”
The distinction between making and creating is palpable; indeed, it is a commonplace of medieval metaphysics. Yet Desmond's point here—that we need to orient our thinking about the whole by means of creation ex nihilo rather than creative making—is not entirely compelling. He urges us to approach the contingency of finite beings at a much more fundamental level than what is captured in the susceptibility of finite beings to be altered in this or that way. This sort of contingency is “not just relative to other finite beings but is inherent in the very being there” of finite beings. This, he argues, will allow us to see that creation is not an event within the whole but rather something that points beyond the whole.
All of this is contestable, and, even if it could be established in a way that excludes alternative interpretations, it is not clear that this gets us to the notion of creation ex nihilo. Both the philosophers Robert Sokolowski and David Burrell have insisted that the distinction between God and the world marked a decisive metaphysical break between pagan philosophy and the great revealed religions. Desmond's account does not make clear whether this distinction can be reached through philosophy or is available only from revelation.
That, of course, is one of the difficulties of Desmond's election to pursue his inquiry at the intersection of, or between, philosophy and religion. Religion cannot escape philosophical perplexity, and philosophy cannot foreclose religion's question of God. Desmond refuses to draw the lines in this peremptory way, of course. But he must distinguish them in some way in order for the term between to have any meaning, and until he does, his source for the evidence of creation ex nihilo—is it philosophical reason or biblical revelation?—remains unclear.
Still, whatever its source, the breakthrough to creation ex nihilo has important implications for metaphysics. Because God and the whole are not codependent, because creation introduces a radical asymmetry between God and all else that exists, there can be no competition between God and other beings. Finite beings are “seconds,” and in the act of creation, the First is not “cloning itself.” Instead, God brings each of these beings into being out of nothing to stand in its own otherness.
Desmond draws two important corollaries. God creates other things in order to let them exist in their otherness, not merely as means or instruments of his own ends. And the motive for such creation must be agapeic: “The good of being is for nothing, nothing but goodness itself.”
In fact, agapeic being is intimately related to the nothing. Desmond speaks of the “agapeic servant who consents to the good by being willing to be as nothing.” Latent in this insight is an account of the hiddenness of God. God hides not just in order to test us but because hiding befits the self-effacing activity of a loving creator.
Of course, God's hiddenness can also be an occasion for the temptation to despair or to assert humanity's autonomy. Those committed to autonomy may find unsettling the asymmetry between God and creatures inherent in the conception of creation as agapeic love. Indeed, in some cases the assertion of autonomy is rooted in a deliberate repudiation of divine agape. This is at the heart of Satan's self-deception and his protest against God in Milton's Paradise Lost. And, as Milton saw, radical claims to autonomy are subject to the law of diminishing returns. Attempting to make ourselves the whole, we decline toward nothingness. Existence itself, an enduring gift from the self-effacing God, undermines the bold affirmation of autonomy. It is “impossible to sustain the ‘to be' outside an affirmation of its goodness,” Desmond writes.
In our experience, in what we do and suffer, goodness is regularly negated and violated through evil. The nothing is important for our understanding not only of creation but also of redemption and forgiveness. Desmond invites us to consider the common phrase “It is nothing,” which can be used to indicate a dismissal of the significance of something, or it can signal forgiveness, a releasing or canceling of evil suffered.
As prolix as his style often is, Desmond's thinking about metaphysics and religion returns with some regularity to the roots of human thought in ordinary language, in the supple ways in which we experience and signify our world. Such a return, Desmond's project indicates, proves equally fruitful for metaphysics and for religion.
Thomas S. Hibbs, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and dean of the honors college at Baylor University, is the author of Virtue's Splendor and, most recently, Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption.