The fear of the Lord is the
beginning of knowledge.
In God's Name: A Judeo-Christian Worldview
Nythamar de Oliveira
Reformed Catholic Jew
"In God's Name" nations have waged war against each other and human beings have brought about good and evil actions alike. Now, to recall Juliet's oft-quoted metaphysical question:
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet"
(William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet II, ii, 1-2)
What does God mean? What's in God's name after all? What does it mean to evoke, write, talk or think about "God"?
As a Visiting Professor in the Philosophy Dept at the University of Toledo, I was required to fill out many different forms, among which one particularly interested me because it was a form meant to celebrate diversity. As stated on the UT Diversity homepage: "Diversity is multifaceted, and The University of Toledo is committed to promoting diversity in culture and perspective while supporting a culturally-inclusive environment that respects and values differences across its campuses." A very good definition of diversity can also be found in one of their related links: "Human diversity is variety in group presence and interactions. It includes, but is not limited to, age, color, ethnicity, gender, religion, disabilities, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, and national origin."
Now, as an instructor of Philosophy of Religion, Eastern Thought, and World Religions & Globalization, I have been asked about my own personal beliefs and philosophical positions regarding this complex field of studies. Of course, this could be done out of sheer curiosity, as someone might wonder from which particular religious background an instructor is, after all, talking about religion, God, faith and reason... So I decided to post this page just to let others know how I personally got interested in this whole business, as a human being and as a philosopher.
First of all, just to go straight to the point, let me confess that when I was prompted to state my religious preference in said diversity form, I didn't hesitate to write down: "Reformed Catholic Jew." Just like self-perceptions and self-understandings of multicultural backgrounds (in my case, Latino, Afro-Brazilian, and Native Amerindian, or from indigenous peoples in Brazil), when someone claims her self-identity in such and such terms, that means, above all, that this is the way one thinks of herself, for instance, insofar as religious preference is concerned. And that has to do both with our passive, received traits of personal existence and our active, chosen features (or, in Ricoeur's felicitous formula, "existence subie et existence choisie," our lived existence and our chosen existence). As I once heard in a seminar on self-identity in Jerusalem, the self-understanding of one's own identity must begin with the question: "Who am I?" and with ultimate answers of the kind: "before anything, I am a human being," "I am a woman, man, gay," "I am an American, a Brazilian, a Palestinian, a Hispanic," or "above all, I am a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, an atheist." Some people might even argue that for them, above all these possibilities, it is a matter of dying for Communism, Socialism or Animal Rights, or even rooting for Chelsea, Milan, Barcelona, Gremio, Fluminense or some great soccer team! In effect, there is a common saying in Brazil that one must always avoid discussions about "religion, politics and soccer," as they tend to be biased and no one is ready to change her most sacred views. So I must concede, from the outset, that part of it has to do with the way I was socialized. And yet, there is also an element of personal choice, to wit, an existential commitment to a certain philosophical daimon which, like Socrates' inner voice, keeps me awake to pursue new inquiries and question anew: "Who am I?"
I was raised in a Christian home in Brazil and was baptized as a child in the Presbyterian Church. My father comes from a Marrano background (Sephardi Jews converted to Roman Catholicism) and my mother from a Congregationalist family. I attended a Catholic Marist school as a kid, so that I early on became familiar with Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic traditions. After a couple of years attending an engineering college, I entered a seminary to study theology and philosophy. I had then the opportunity of living in a kibbutz in Israel (6 months) and of spending some 7 months at L’Abri Fellowship (Switzerland), prior to finishing my theological studies at the Faculté Libre de Théologie Réformée, in Aix-en-Provence, Southern France. Upon earning a "Licence en Théologie" (1985) and a Master's degree in Aix, with a thesis on Liberation Theology (1987), I did all the coursework and comprehensive exams requirements to become ABD in the Ph.D. program in Theological Hermeneutics at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, in 1990. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida were some of the most influential readings that consolidated my philosophical vocation, as I did a Master's in Philosophy at Villanova (1988-90), under Jack Caputo, and a Ph.D. in Philosophy, at Stony Brook, under Ken Baynes, with a dissertation on Foucault's "Genealogy of Modernity" (1990-94). I got a tenured teaching job in philosophy in a Pontifical Catholic University at Porto Alegre, Brazil, where I have been teaching Phenomenology, Ethics and Political Philosophy since 1999. Thus, I regard myself as a Reformed, Catholic Jew. In Toledo, OH, I and my family have been worshipping at St. Andrews Episcopal Church and, in Porto Alegre, we attend a local Catholic parish of the Metropolitan Archdiocese, founded by the Jesuits. Here and elsewhere, I am at home in the synagogues of the world and homeless in my philosophical odysseys, as I still regard myself as an Abrahamic, wandering Jew, in endless wholly-other conversions and self-identity deconstructions, as I embrace Rosenzweig, Levinas, and Derrida's takes on Judaism as an ethic of reciprocity, alterity, and hospitality.
Reformed, Catholic, Jew: three names, three words, three traditons. In effect, these three strands of confessional theology actually belong to the same monotheistic triad of so-called "religions of the Book," which includes also Islam. Together with Buddhism, we may also think of Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Taoism, and many other imaginable triads that actually refer to other communities of religious beliefs –orthodox and heterodox-- and many other ways of talking about "God." What has been celebrated nowadays as a postmodern pluralism of God-talks does indeed reflect the historical transformations and hermeneutic shifts that have been taking place from Hindu and Eastern religions towards Judaism, Islamism, and Buddhism, from the emergence of Christianity as a Jewish sect to the Reformed denominations and myriad of Protestant sects, and towards the fragmented, secularized trends that still seek some ultimate meaning for human existence. This globalizing, self-deconstructing movement as a radical hermeneutics of self-understanding is, in effect, what has always set Western philosophy itself in motion, throughout the centuries, from one philosophical parricide to another, as attested by the great critical ruptures that lead us from Plato and Aristotle to Augustine and Aquinas, and a fortiori, by modern trinities of sorts, such as the Cartesian rationalists (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz), the British empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, Hume), the three H's (Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger), and the masters of suspicion (Nietzsche, Freud, Marx). Religious pluralism is a fact in our world of diversity --just like linguistic, ethnic, and national diversity. I am personally interested in pursuing the problem of "religious pluralism" as it relates to what John Rawls termed "the fact of reasonable pluralism" in our liberal democracies, especially in light of the ongoing phenomena of secularization, democratization, and globalization. The very question of toleration --which for Rawls clearly began as a religious problem in the Enlightenment-- can be also extended to the problem of international relations (e.g. human rights, multiculturalism, and global justice) and the challenge of sustainable development. Thus one may wonder how so-called primitive peoples (with their "primitive" religions!) have somehow managed to preserve their ecosystems or at least haven't threatened a sustainable co-existence with natural resources and other peoples. So my personal, existential beginnings with liberation theology have led me a long way to recast problems of ontology, subjectivity, and language, in search of a method --transcendental, semantic, perspectival --in a typical, lifelong philosophical pursuit. Hence, instead of offering 11 Theses I should like to raise a few questions about these very problems that occupy our minds when dealing with the philosophy of religion. Of course, the first and leading question must be: "What is religion?" From the standpoint of the philosophy of religion, however, it is not only that we may fairly approach such a complex phenomenon in sociological, anthropological, and historical terms (i.e., within the broader, interdisciplinary framework of Religious Studies), but also in strictly philosophical terms, by asking questions such as:
1. Is it reasonable to sustain that only one religion is the "true religion"? Is it philosophically plausible to hold a pluralistic view of religion? Is it compatible with actual religious confessions? Is universalism compatible with communitarianism?
2. Is theological realism defensible? Can one speak of God's objective reality in the same way, say, one may speak of physical and natural phenomena?
3. Are rational and philosophical arguments of any use for actually believing in God or for embracing a certain religion?
4. Is it possible to talk about the ineffable? How can we talk about God if God is the Wholly Other? How can we talk about life after death before our own death?
5. How does one relate faith to reason?
6. Is religion reducible to a social phenomenon?
7. Is religion reducible to ethics? Can religion account for the problem of evil?
8. Is it plausible to relativize or deconstruct a given, traditional understanding of religious concepts so as to make them more defensible or acceptable? If secularization and other cultural movements seem to have succeeded in relativizing given religious traditions, how do religions manage to stick to an othodox identity without breaches, divisions or separations?
9. How does one make the disciplinary distinction between the philosophy of religion, on the one hand, and other scientific approaches to so-called "religious studies" (say, in the sociology, anthropology, history, and psychology of religion) and theology, on the other?
10. Is there any difference between religion and mysticism?
11. Can believers, agnostics or atheists have the last word?
These questions, problems and imaginable theses on the philosophy of religion, however, seem to make the whole problem of God quite undecidable. So undecidable remain the arguments and conclusions of atheists, agnostics, and believers alike. Hence the so-called Fundamental Paradox of Religion:
(1) All religions are right on their own, as they all claim to be absolutely true.
(2) All religions are dead wrong, insofar as they cannot be all absolutely true at once.
Accordingly, most believers and many religious studies theorists evoke (1) in order to point out that religion is such a universal, complex phenomenon that makes us confident about our own particular religious beliefs and respectful of each other's conceptions of religious truths. Universalism and particularism seem to be made thus compatible, as in a leap of faith, without any recourse to a reasonable, sustainable argument. Most atheists and agnostics (like Dawkins and Dennett) evoke (2) precisely to justify their unbelief or skepticism regarding religious faith. A transcendental, semantic perspectivism –this is my working hypothesis and guiding thesis— can actually account for both (1) and (2) and make them compatible, just as universalism and particularism can be rationally justified in moral epistemology. If the word "transcendental" bothers you (it does bother many philosophers, agnostic or not), you might want to resort to a formal, pragmatic perspectivism instead, which will do the same trick (just as it does for Habermas and other agnostics). At any rate, one has to deal with the problem behind the name of God --even if this is just a name, like any other name, to name the ineffable. As Richard Dawkins put it so interestingly,
"Some people have views of God that are so broad and flexible that it is inevitable that they will find God wherever they look for him. One hears it said that 'God is the ultimate' or 'God is our better nature' or 'God is the universe.' Of course, like any other word, the word 'God' can be given any meaning we like. If you want to say that 'God is energy,' then you can find God in a lump of coal." (The God Delusion)
In spite of the Fundamental Paradox of Religion, and precisely in its light, I still believe, nevertheless, that one can make sense of their being Reformed, Catholic or Jewish by claiming to be at once Reformed, Catholic, and Jewish. As opposed to different versions of particularist paradoxes (such as the "inside" and the "outside" in most communitarian self-understandings, the "sacred" and the "profane," the "eternal" and the "temporal," the two natures of Jesus Christ, etc), the above-cited paradox is fundamentally prior to any particular conception of ontology, subjectivity, and language in religion overall, as it unveils their very correlation in semantic, perspectival terms. The postmodernist buzzword "anything goes!" wouldn't take us too far, though, as we think of "God" as the transcendental signified inevitably leading to an infinite interplay of other imaginable transcendental signifiers --or maybe it could, as Postmodern Theology defies our traditional conceptions of theo-logy... A particular experience or any case of religious experience cannot be reduced to an instance of a self-defeating private-language argument --unless we've definitely come to a standstill, as we become speechless in mysticism or indifferent in our atheism or agnosticism. It seems, however, that one cannot avoid not to talk about the ineffable, about this very unspeakable G-d word which many even refrain from pronouncing or writing out of fear and trembling. "The fear of the Name is the beginning of knowledge" --such is the principle of deconstruction in Judaism, Catholicism, and any semper reformanda self-understanding of our universalizable human condition. At least, in my case, that happens to be the case: the way certain events led me to take certain positions, abandon others or review previous ones. That is why we must keep examining ourselves as endless "works in progress," and in this case, philosophy of religion can be a great way of relating theoretical, philosophical projects and thoughts to our ongoing experiences in real life, as we get to know different people, other cultures, and diverse ways of being. As long as we seek to foster cultural diversity, we are all contributing "to promote the human condition," which is indeed the main mission of the University of Toledo.
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