Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Patrick Appel has a long, introspective roundup of reader reax to some posts on atheism at the Dish. He closes with a personal take, acknowledging

there is a connection between pantheism, agnosticism and atheism. [ . . . ] Most of the tension between the terms does revolve around “God” and how you define it. As for the connection between agnosticism and atheism, the Pope has a point when he discusses the difficulty of living an agnostic life. From Benedict’s Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures:
Even if I throw in my theoretical lot with agnosticism, I am nevertheless compelled in practice to choose between two alternatives: either to live as if God did not exist or else to live as if God did exist. If I act according to the first alternative, I have in practice adopted an atheistic position and have made a hypothesis (which may also be false) the basis of my entire life . . .

By this measure I would be an atheist. I no longer believe in a personal God that possesses consciousness as we understand it or requires prayer and obedience. I’m not sure I ever did. And I live my life as if God does not exist. At the same time, I’m overwhelmed by the complexity of life and my inadequacy in understanding the systems that created and maintain the universe. “God” seems like an appropriate term for these mysteries.

Call it “Appel’s Paradox” — a tension or anxiety experienced, I think, by quite a lot of people nowadays. One can approach this paradox seeking to cure or to cope with it. A life lived according to a final choice between as-if theism and as-if theism, even if ‘merely practical’, aspires to cure Appel’s Paradox. But it’s to be expected that the cure never really comes; the predicament of the agnostic mirrors the predicament of the believing Christian, who must make a worthy home of this temporal vale which can never provide us the full measure of respite and repose that we dream of when we dream of home. But the consolations of faith fortify Christian pessimism in a way that the agnostic, to follow this line of thought, cannot enjoy. When the incredible can no longer be denied, even atheism becomes unbelievable. But the failure of the agnostic to find repose, in faith or out of it, leads him or her altogether past any basis of an entire life and into a long, chaotic oscillation, moving between living as if ultimate meaning shaped life and living as if it did not.

The promise of the therapeutic is that this chaos may be ordered institutionally — a task that requires ritual-making and ritual-breaking performances of commitment and de-commitment. Pessimism, from this standpoint, tends too severely toward the nihilistic embrace of complete randomness or meaninglessness. The promise of the therapeutic, then, holds out the prospect of coping with the soul’s wearying oscillations by sustaining performative change in a condition of open-ended linear progress. The linearity of contemporary optimism, often deemed the logical consequence of modern scientific thinking, can actually be sourced independently or alternatively in our passionate efforts to escape the destructive exhaustion of our souls or psyches, and seek repose without God.

Even our therapeutic optimists realize that we finally have to be pessimistic about technology’s ability to provide that repose. Ultimately, they must be optimists about our ability to provide it to one another — despite the many ways in which we tacitly (at least) consent to mistreating and instrumentalizing one another. I think that this view our our human interrelationships leads us forcefully to think of persons as containing powerful qualities that we can access and enjoy, pick up and put down, almost like deities in a polytheistic cosmos. But no matter how profoundly our individualistic qualities can be turned against our integral individual being, they are not gods, as we readily admit. Away from polytheism, and toward pantheism, we go.

UPDATE: Patrick enrages a pantheist , whose remarks fascinatingly and suggestively hop among Spinoza, Islam, and gnosticism.

More on: Culture, Religion, Theory

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles