Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31, No. 24. October 1, 1968
God Not So Dead
God Not So Dead
In the accompanying article, replying to John Pettigrew, Dr Roper of the Maths Dept. cites the 19th century philosopher as the prophet of godless generation.
One sometimes wonders just what Nietzsche himself would have to say today in the midst of our present cultural struggles, if he found Christians taking his pronouncement that 'God is dead' so seriously. Be that as it may, the phrase 'God is dead' is a very good one to apply to our contemporary culture, based as it is upon the premise that that to which the word 'God' was once supposed to draw our attention to has never been a genuine candidate for words to refer to. That the subject should be provoking such interest as to have two leading articles in Salient is indeed interesting, giving evidence to the fact that we still do think about the ultimate questions that face man and the meaning of his existence, and also, perhaps, that we realise our culture is very largely built upon the kinds of answers given to these questions.
However, there seems to be a mentality surrounding us today which whilst acknowledging the apparent importance of the questions dealt with, despairs of the possibility of coming to any answers; people seem to argue and hurl bricks all over the place, with no apparent progress. It is very important for both sides to have some way of assessing just what is being said, otherwise a lot can be said about nothing. I would, therefore, like to take the opportunity of attempting to clarify some of the issues raised, whilst acknowledging my Christian commitment, and seeking to sustain its validity.
The two previous contributions have both evidenced some concern for matters relating to 'God', 'morality', 'rationality', 'humanity', the one wishing to sustain that these can only be given real meaning when seen from the stance of Christian Theism, the other denying this. I commend some of Mr. Pettigrew's criticisms of Mrs. Belding's article, which did indeed contain some rather sweeping, unsupported statements. The points I refer to are (i) The importance of being clear in the use of language, so that if by the word 'God' we mean 'order and rationality' or 'blue bananas', then we should make this quite explicit, (ii) The statements relating 'God' and 'rationality'. (iii) The problem of the 'moral structure of the universe and the schizophrenic character of God'.
These points were well made, and make a valuable contribution to the discussion, the essence of which, I would suggest, involves what is meant by the words 'God', 'morality'. 'rationality' and 'humanity'; what is referred to by these key words; and what kind of relationships, if any, exist between them.
It would appear from the way the argument has proceeded that both authors have similar ideas in mind when they get involved in discussion, so that they may proceed from a common basis to obtain genuine conclusions. However it is not as simple as this. Let me consider Mr. Pettigrew's article, which I shall examine carefully, mainly because the views which he holds are held widely and also have an appealing ring about them-Morals without God; concern for the here and now; hope based upon improving the conditions of man, etc.
He begins by making some very good points with regard to the use of the word 'God'. However, he does not appear to be aware that there are similar difficulties with the other key words of the discussion. Let us consider the way he uses 'rationality'. On the one hand he asserts 'It is quite logical for me to believe (as I do) in the rationality of the world without believing in God'. On the other hand he says 'I am quite happy to live with inconsistencies - they make life more interesting and allow for change'. It would seem that if the word 'rational' is used to refer to a statement which contains no inner inconsistency, and also fits within a larger framework of ideas without contradiction, then he does not always use it in this way. Also, within his last paragraph, though strongly disagreeing with Mrs. Belding, he does not wish to change her mind. Perhaps, therefore, we are to draw the conclusion that he is willing for two contradictory assertions to stand side by side, both being true.
Now, let us consider the way he uses 'morality'. He asserts that he can, 'without reference to God, develop a consistent morality to live by', By 'consistent morality', he could mean one of at least two things. Firstly he could mean a set of moral principles which are self-consistent and capable ot being put into practice. The tenets of apartheid as practised in South Africa, and the altitudes expressed in the article 'Interracial Sex Practice in America' in the last issue of Salient would seem, for instance, to qualify for these criteria. Also, the writer seems rather loathe to consider his own moral principles either better or wose than anyone else's, in particular, with any reference to a Christian view. Does he realise that the logic of this position leads him to tolerate apartheid, racism, and other 'inhumane' practices?
However, there is a second meaning that one could attribute to 'consistent morality', and that is an endeavour to bring one's own moral principles into line with the way the universe is-which, of course, opens up a much wider discussion, but one. I suggest, that if carried out could lead away from the path leading to merely subjective morals. For example, from the Christian position, if God is really there, then it would appear necessary, in bringing one's own moral principles into line with the universe the way it is, to consider just what kind of nature and attributes this God may have, and the possibility of his creating the universe with moral aspects, particularly as they relate to man. Thus I submit, that despite the seeming attractiveness of this position in which morals are entertained without God and a concern for humanity evidenced, there are certain dilemmas when one comes to operate with it in practice. Further, I should like to assert that these dilemmas come about for the following reasons:
On the one hand man, in himself, is aware that he thinks, and, in particular, that he can recognize rational statements. In this sense Man is rational. When he comes to think about the world in which he lives however he has to contemplate the question 'Do my rational categories apply to it?'. On the other hand, man is aware of making choices, which, to some degree at least, he makes upon the basis of a commitment to wider principles which guide his choice in the light of the possible outcomes which confront him in a given situation, and it would seem that he is not unaware that in acting himself, or in evaluating the actions and intentions of others the particular possibilities are not to be confronted on the basis of tossing coins. In this sense Man is moral.
Again, however, when he comes to confront the problem of giving meaning to these moral movements within himself, and to act, and judge the actions of others within a larger context there looms up the problem of what validity these have beyond himself.
Thus we could set up the dilemma as follows:
1. Man is rational:
Does his rationality apply to the universe in which he finds himself?
2. Man is moral:
How does he apply these moral movements upon basic issues which do not involve himself?
3. Man has an idea of God:
Does God exist?
Further, we make the following empirical observations, (i) In practice man has to move out of the dilemmas 1 and 2 at least some of the time. This is inevitable, as man is compelled to take part in reality. (ii) When we observe man as he is, we find he disagrees very profoundly about basic matters in principle in regard to religious and moral areas, so much so, that upon an empirical basis one cannot come up with any moral or religious view that has universal validity.
In the face of this total situation, too, it would appear a good question to ask just why does man have these movements of morality and rationality within himself, and the desire to live authentically. Answers to these questions could give us a clue to the possibility or non-possibility of solving these basic dilemmas.
I assert that in confronting the dilemmas outlined above, we can choose one of three possible directions in which to move.
(1) There is no rational answer. One wishes to place a restriction upon those questions which have rational answers, and to limit such investigation to these areas. To put it another way, one moves out of the ego-centric predicament only partly, and from there makes a leap of faith. It would appear that much current thought accepts this framework in some form or other. However, one inevitably asks, where do we draw the line? How do we know which questions have answers and which have not? If one believes, a priori, that certain questions have no rational answers, then the logical thing is not to bother looking for them, and quite possibly to refuse to accept them if they are offered. Logically, however, when one confronts the predicament of whether or not one can apply one's rational categories to the world, and one begins to pick and choose purely subjectively, one is moving in a direction which if carried to the end should abandon rationality in all areas, with the result that all science would cease, and all places of higher learning be disbanded.
(2) One could say that man's movements after religion and/or morality are, in fact, an illusion, and are to be explained upon some other basis, such as a Freudian Oedipus complex, Marxian Economics, or Biochemical determinism. This should then logically lead to the abolition of all religious and/or moral language, and of all institutions associated with the same. For example, if Posivistic Sociology insists that no factual meaning can be ascribed to religious or moral statements and still insists on saying that man needs institutions which cater for these needs, then the sociologist can be charged with inconsistency-practice does not conform with theory. This explanation of the phenomena of morality and religion does not satisfy the requirements of a rational explanation, with the result that we have to go back to (1) or move on to some other explanation.
(3) There is a basis upon which religious and/or moral statements can be given real rational content, and there are answers to these basic questions; but either these have been departed from or else not found yet.
I would like to consider the historic Christian position in this perspective, whilst acknowledging that there are other candidates. They all have to be judged in the light of how well they answer the questions before us.
We have already briefly referred to the possibility of asking the question just why man does have movements of morality, rationality and meaning. Let us consider two alternatives.
(a) The universe had an impersonal beginning (by which we mean that the categories appropriate to its description are not those of purposefulness, love, morality). From this a priori assumption, one struggles in vain to give a rational answer to the validity of the categories which make man what he is. On this basis thev have arisen by chance from a universe which defies description in these terms. Man, as thus conceived, is out of harmony with the universe the way it is, and he must venture forth to create his own truth. To confront the world this way one needs a very peculiar kind of courage, for one must see, that because there is no truth, any ideology, and every form of education, whether it be Marxism. Western Humanism, or Christianity, is but a form of brainwashing, and one wonders just what is in control of things. Man's disagreements on matters of principle would seem intrinsic to a situation in which there is no truth. No-one is right; no-one is wrong. But meanwhile, there is war in Vietnam, the Russians are invading Czechoslovakia, and thousands dies of starvation.
(b) We could consider the alternative of a Personal beginning (i.e. one to which the categories of rationality, purposefulness, morality can be applied). Thus, if we becin in our thinking from the basis of the existence of a Personal-Infinite God (by which we mean that our language of personal categories can be meaningfully thought of in relation to God on the side of His Personality, but must be sharply differentiated on the side of His infinity) and this God creates the universe outside of himself, so that it is not an extension of His essence, but a genuine creation, with man placed within this universe as a creature made in God's image, i.e. rational and moral, with movements after purpose and significance (which are valid on the side of personality if not by the insignificance of his size) then one can validly move out of the dilemma we considered earlier in the article and say that rationality is valid; science is valid; art is valid; morals are valid; but there is a truth to the universe which cannot be seen autonomously, but only properly in relation to the author, who is its architect and interpreter.
However, to answer all the questions, it needs to have an explanation of why man is in his present plight, so that we need not ascribe a schizophrenic character to God. The explanation that man's practical and theoretical dilemmas arise from his choice not to include God in his thinking, but rather to assume the role of autonomy would seem to give the direction of a solution that is worth considering upon this all-important subject, if one wishes to hold to a good and just God.
It is my hone that the above discussion has (i) clarified some of the issues at stake, and (ii) shown that the historic Christian position is at least worth examining before it is glibly passed over as irrelevant, by a generation which has accepted Nietzsche as its prophet.