Thursday 1 March 2012

Belief in God (2012)

From The Philosopher, Volume 100 No. 2
Centenary Special 1913-2012

The depiction above of the Islamic philosopher is a detail from the Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas in Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Although Thomas Aquinas and later philosophers owed Averroes a major intellectual debt, they also fiercely criticised his writings. In this fourteenth-century fresco, Andrea di Bonaiuto placed Averroes with the heretics Sabellius and Arius in the space beneath the saint's throne

And Belief in the Existence of God
By Yahya Haidar

Distinctions are a thing of subtlety. And it would be safe to assume that to distinguish, or to be able to tell the ways in which one thing differs from another, is both the beginning and end of philosophy. Aristotelian Categories could hardly exist without them, while Muslim philosophy defines knowledge (gnosis) as simply the 'aptitude to find distinctions' and, of course, analytic philosophers live for nothing else. Yet as philosophy takes on the task of understanding the finer distinctions in the world of meaning, it has often found itself in bitter dispute with theology.

At one level, there is no clear necessity for this: philosophy is by definition concerned with wisdom, sophia, or 'being understood as being', while Theology invariably revolves around the precepts of God and sanctity. And the subjects have a common claim to one unique truth, be it in the form of metaphysical reflection or revealed doctrine, and it is this that makes their relationship a particularly vexed one. Here, I shall try to distinguish between two deceptively similar statements: 'Belief in God' and 'Belief in the Existence of God', as it sheds light on the larger paradoxical relationship between Philosophy and Theology.

In a religious or a spiritual framework, knowledge of truth or reality is synonymous with knowledge of God. In effect, what can be termed the 'theological knowledge of reality' is intended as the fabric of the religious life for the formation of doctrines (religae) that instigate and govern a way of life - a religion. And, insofar as our faculties can differentiate theory from practice, the way of divine life, of being religious, is distinguishable from the corresponding sacred doctrine. Therefore, in this context, two modes of knowledge attainment can be identified: the first is theoretical knowledge (of doctrine); the second is practical knowledge (of practice). However, a crucial paradox arises with this distinction. The study of doctrine does not necessitate religious life, and there is little doubt that perfect practice can come about without the necessity of doctrinal claims.

If divine life or practice is the sought after ideal of the religious life, philosophy on the other hand favours a preoccupation with thought, and reflecting upon the essence and existence of the world, its truth and reality, is the mainspring of philosophical intellectualism. The most direct difference between essence and existence is in the meaning of definition where two modes of defining make up philosophical inquiry: defining ultimate existence brings about seeing the world as it is (being defined as being) and, as we seek definite, precise definitions, the appropriation and fitting of our knowledge of essences in their rightful place or classification. Again, this poses a question which has been central to the history of Western philosophy: should our point of departure be, using a methodological distinction from the science of Kalam (Islamic Theology), to existentialise or to essentialise Being? Should we follow Plato or Aristotle?
Now Aristotle's emphasis on existence is well-established and his taxonomical zeal has left behind many of the categories that we use today. Platonism, on the other hand, proposes truth to be necessary, unbounded by categories of existence. In effect, Aristotle's concept of existential being stands face to face with Plato's notion where the Ultimate essence is a limitless horizon of knowing. This dualistic difference between essence and existence has been the locomotive of the established, conventional, history of Western philosophy which sets Aristotle's peripatetic philosophy in sharp contrast with Platonism.

But what governs the dualistic relationship between essence and existence? It is ultimately a question of priorities. Avicenna (the Latinised name for Ibn Sina, 980-1037 A.D.) framed the difference between essence and existence in terms of precedence. The essence of God in Avicenna is his existence, as opposed to all other beings, where one has to sharply distinguish their existence from their essence. Avicenna sees existence as not identical with, but accidental to essence. Averroes (the Latinised name for Ibn Rushd, 1126-1198), on the other hand, strongly criticised Avicenna on this point.

A pioneer of Aristotelian philosophy, his overarching concern was to show that notion of the pure accidentalism of existence is simplistic. The vast majority of Latin scholastics followed Averroes's interpretation, notably Thomas Aquinas (circa 1226-1274). However, Aquinas did accept the validity of Avicenna's distinction between essence and existence while (in virtue of his theologo-philosophical canonisation of Christian doctrine in terms of categories of existence) making sure to distance himself from any form of essentialism. To him, essence and existence are not only identical in God, but God is above all esse subsistens (exists by Himself), affirming existence as the essence of God.

It is no mere accident then that scholastic theology has been predominantly Aristotelian, as opposed to various forms of mystical, theological Platonisms. By definition, Theology, as science of God, is not the same as metaphysics, or science of being, as in Philosophy. However, for Avicenna, philosophical sciences are divided into theoretical and practical, and metaphysics is basically the study of being, and although God is not its first object, it is its most noble one.

The idea that God 'is not its most immediate object' is of course something at odds with theology, where God is the object of sacred doctrine, bounded by divine revelation as its essence and source of authority. One can simply look at the history of heresy, to see that the primary indicator of heresy has been whether or not philosophies are founded on pagan Greek philosophy rather than divinely revealed doctrine.

It is difficult for theology to be a-philosophical in the Greek sense (signifying absence), for, to borrow a phrase from Martin Heidegger, the necessity of discourse/utterance to break the silence of Being. A-philosophical theologies, however, staying away from postulates of existence, have a sense of yearning towards non-existence, a sort of conceptless-ness of truth, or indeed a form of 'blind faith'.

Theologies with little concern for doctrine, by comparison, are by definition practical. Philosophical appropriations of religious doctrines have a focus on the 'How' to be religious as opposed to 'What' religion is; to allow practice to supersede theory, and to make the duality 'essence/Being' primary to that of 'existence/doctrine'. The 'mysticism' of the Desert Fathers is one example from Christian ecclesiastical chronologies. Here, theology, if exists at all, is at best a mode of being-towards the essence of doctrine to refine religious practice, which could include prayer, giving to the poor and honouring thy neighbour.

Yoking philosophy on to theology invariably requires existential questioning as to what doctrine is, or whether a particular stance on the substance of Angels, or Demons, is True or False, and as far as the activity of religion is concerned, doubt is the vacuum in which practice halts. Practitioners of faith are less worried as to whether doctrines, fixed and unchanging, are true or false.

For them, the task of the intellect is to know the practice of being in faith, and in due time the deepening conviction of it. Theology - or knowledge of God - as a way of life in a-philosophical theologies, such as that of the early Christian fathers, becomes a corpus of treatises and wise sayings on how to manage and organise a monastery, with touches of mystical reflection; in them one sees an unsystematic theology, scarcely philosophical and purely dedicated to betterment of one's self in relation to God and worship. At the same time, Aquinas becomes the epitome of philosophical theological thought, wholly concerned with whether God, the ultimate religious reality, exists.

Belief in the existence of God, and knowledge of that God, is philosophical theology's ultimate concern, and the mainspring of its self-reflection. However, searching for what God is comes with the implicit premise that God is a reality, hence predicating essence over existence. Philosophical theology thus operates as a set of inherited ways - somewhat unchanging, fixed in time - where practice is open-ended, corresponding to knowledge of essence, and where the self is the free possible horizon, not God's impossible, necessary existence.

Therefore, Belief in God, the result of mystical practice and knowledge, is not the same as Belief in the Existence of God, because the former rests on implicit knowledge of reality, while the latter rests on the vindication of its very existence, on truth. One approach is a struggle to know the already knowable, while the other is an endeavour to fathom an accidental property of Being - that of existence. In other words, knowledge of reality from within 'belief in God', is of 'what' this reality is, its meaning and relevance, whereas knowledge from within 'Belief in the Existence of God' is of vindication and proof; reality in the former sense is looked at in the face, and in the latter the human intellect is preoccupied with the demonstration of its being 'there' – of its existence.

To Avicenna, God is the Necessary Existent, which might imply in the outset that the essence of the ultimate is existence. But, this kind of existence of God is clearly set apart from the idea of existence given to Beings other than God. God exists 'in virtue of Himself', that is: He is necessarily existent. On the other hand, lesser Beings exist 'by virtue of another'.

Proposing a distinction between philosophical and a-philosophical theology whereby belief in the existence of God belongs to the former, and the latter is Belief in God, may imply a rigid paradox between essence and existence. But this is not necessarily the case. Though identifying essence with existence in God is commonplace both in philosophy and theology, it is again a question of the priorities that run through discourse on Being; breaking the silence of Being.

Thinking in terms of 'Whether ultimate Reality exists' terminates the possibility of essence, and reduces it to confessional vindications of truths. Thus, existence becomes the essence of all essences, at all levels. More importantly, this being the case, Necessity enters into the realm of speculation and doubt, making the critical balance between theory and practice difficult to attain. On the other hand, still assuming identity of essence and existence in God, if essence precedes existence, the existence of God becomes accidental to his essence and his existence - if talked about - becomes necessary, infallible and beyond existential questioning.

Of course theologies abound in different forms, and it would be imprudent to classify one theology as being one or the other. The distinction I have made here must not imply a classification where one theology can only fit in one or the other, but rather that theologies have a sense of yearning, an inclination towards non-concept, and non-existence.

Even the theology of Anselm of Canterbury (circa 1033-1109) could be seen to remain 'philosophical' in spite of the fact that it shows a tendency towards God not merely as a concept but as a reality that one has to come to terms with - a yearning to the Desert Fathers' unsystematic, indeed un-philosophical mysticism.

Anselm seems to push aside the question of God's existence to the utmost limit of possible silence-towards-God because for him the question of God's existence is only the 'fool's questioning'. It is the fool's foolishness that makes them think they could in their heart reject God, or rather say that he does not exist. Anselm's essence comes with the definition of God as 'that than which nothing greater can be conceived'.

Such conceptualisation presupposes three parameters that lend to non-concept and non-existence in the philosophical sense. The first is the hierarchy of Greatness. All renderings of what God is, is doomed to falsehood, therefore the ultimate essence is beyond apprehension. The second parameter is the 'that-ness', or otherness of God. God's identity is not an immediate premise, it is beyond and necessary. Finally, and most importantly, the human limit as to the attainment of final knowledge of God's essence.

Putting God in the sphere of existence is in itself a false negation or rejection of the inconceivable greatness of God. In effect, God's untenable greatness does not allow for existence to be in question; it is irrelevant, accidental, foolishness. Anselm's God is great to the point of inconceivability of both existence and non-existence, and as a category it is implicit and necessary. Existential questioning as far as Anselm is concerned is a result of ignorance of the undeniable essence of the unmoved mover.

But is Anselm's definition of God really an extrapolated 'ontological proof of God's existence'? In this sense, his account on God is not so much a 'proof' as a descriptive doctrine about Reality and the essence of God's Being. As much as it could look like a philosophical proof of God's existence from the point of view of our own philosophical interests and questionings, or as French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) reformulated it as an 'ontological proof' for the existence of God, it might not have been the point of view of Anselm himself. His definition does not seek to vindicate God's existence by way of demonstration; rather it puts the questioning agent in a place where they are ignorant of the true nature of God. It is at best a criticism of the very attitude of yoking existence onto God, because God's essence according to Anselm is an implicit truth, existent by itself and for itself.

Anselm moves from philosophy to what I have called a-philosophy, insofar as his thought emanates from the premise that God's existence is necessary, an implicit truth uncontained in doctrinal discourse. For Anselm, the essence of God is the ultimate concern for the community of the faithful, whereby any questioning concerning existence is for the ignorant. For him, belief in God is an authentically simple concept, a complete faith-driven idea of Him with little concern for existence. In Anselm's theology one sees a priority of essence over existence.

Belief in God is different from Belief in the Existence of God. And, this distinction, in turn, sheds light on the difficult relationship between Philosophy and Theology and between essentialism and existentialism.

Address for correspondence:Yahya Haidar, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Australian National University, Canberra

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