Debate between two theologians

A: So of what are we trying to convince the atheists?

B: That God exists, I suppose.

A: But that’s not why either of us believe in him, is it?

B: What do you mean?

A: No one gave us arguments that took us from non-belief to belief. Speaking for myself, I found myself believing and got interested in the arguments later. Sure, they helped my belief and gave it some support, but the belief itself was always something else.

B: I guess I had the opposite experience. I really didn’t believe and came to belief through the argument.

A: But, still, you don’t relate to your faith like a ongoing convention dedicated to theistic argumentation, right?

B: I guess not. It’s not a seminar on rational theology.

A: There’s some sort of gap between reasons and what we would want those without belief to have, just as  it would be odd to talk about your belief in the Pythagorean theorem. Accepting something as true allows for a detachment from it that belief in God can’t allow for.

B: Proofs always allow for some detachment from conclusions, but don’t we believe in them in the sense that we trust them to work?

A: That’s an interesting take. On this account “belief in God” in the sense that rational theology can impart is the argument that God can be counted on to deliver some result, the way we believe in Newtonianism to faithfully get the rockets to the moon and back.

B: A faith in one who is faithful first.

A: But this can’t be quite what our belief is. If it was just a matter of trusting something to work it only has to be close enough to true, and neither of us believes in God as something close enough to true. Why can’t God belief be like the engineers at NASA using Newtonianism to guide rockets? They know its ultimately not a description of how things are, but its simple enough for what they are doing. Analogously, belief in God doesn’t reflect how things are but we go on believing because its the simplest thing for what we need it to do.

B: Like what?

A: Ensure moral codes or intelligibility or give us something to thank or whatever. It’s presently our only alternative to a Nietzchean abyss.

B: But all this is the fallacy of the consequent. If we prove that God exists, then we should believe that he is faithful so far as it goes. But it doesn’t follow that our arguments go no further than the ways in which God is faithful to creation.

A: You’re arguing that our arguments about the existence of God go far beyond whatever practical effect they might have to human life.

B: Of course! This is just what makes them rational. It’s sensation that is only interested in objects for what practical benefit they might serve to life. Practical effects and consequences for life are essential elements of our knowledge, but only so far as we are a sort of mortal animal. They result from the ways in which knowledge is subordinate to life, and this can only occur to the extent that activity is secondary to existence.

A: This leads to a fascinating paradox – as our knowledge of nature advances, it gives us greater and greater control over nature and so makes it more an more an object of practical knowledge. In this sense, we are becoming more and more like God, for whom all of nature can be an object of practical knowledge. But the same advance makes the universe an object for us so far as we are mortal animals, making it less and less like an object with a relation to a divine being.

B: This is humbling for those of us who trusted in the advance of human knowledge to finally open up into a vision of divinity.

A: Isn’t it stranger than humbling? Empirical knowledge of the world seems simultaneously to take us closer to a vision of God and further away. As knowledge advances, the world seems more an more divine and more and more something that we don’t need a divinity for. In this sense theism and atheism are two sides of the same developing advance into the mysteries of nature.

B: Well, if you put it like that I’m left feeling deeply ambivalent about human knowledge, or at least with what we take as the paradigm case of human knowledge, sc. a rational insight into nature that would make it transparent to rational reconstruction.

A: So we shouldn’t ever want our arguments to be rational in this paradigm sense of human knowledge, where knowledge is always proportionate to control of the environment or at least to the benefits and consequences that the knowledge has for life.

B: Well, we should be ambivalent about having that kind of knowledge.

A: Maybe we need to be more precise: we need to be ambivalent about knowledge about God from the universe so far as we view this knowledge as extending no further than what has practical effects like an increase in power or a benefit to life.





  1. Geoff Smith said,

    May 30, 2017 at 1:51 pm

    Do you take either side?

  2. Lucretius said,

    June 2, 2017 at 12:25 am

    I have a question sir… You hold up Virgil’s final words to Dante as an insightful account of the end of morality and virtue, but I’m trying to understand exactly what he and you have in mind when he says that our “will” is free, erect/straighten, and whole (by “will,” does he mean both will and emotion together, or just the intellectual appetites?) What does it mean to be a lord of yourself?

    Thank you for your time.

    Christi pax.

    • June 3, 2017 at 3:47 pm

      It means there is only one sense of want whereas now there are two. If you see a guy who wants to see if there’s gas in his tank and so is striking matches to get enough light to see, you can tell him “you don’t want to do that” (call this want 1), even though he clearly wants to do the thing he is doing (call this want 2). The reason for the different senses of the word is a deficiency of prudence or the lack of conformity to right appetite.

      You can give a few accounts of what it is to be Lord of yourself, but the simplest is that you do what you want in all possible ways, which happens when want 1 and want 2 coincide.

      • Lucretius said,

        June 5, 2017 at 7:21 am

        Okay, I see now, thank you.

        Christi pax.

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