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The Possibility of God:
An Essay in the Philosophy of Religion

by John Paolini

"Quid ergo amo, cum deum meum amo?"
What do I desire when I desire God?
Saint Augustine


After the losing our metaphysical foundations for the existence of God, what are the possibilities of again discovering God?

Religious faith is a private and social treasure. It has been the source of philosophy, art, and ethics. This influence has not only created the best in civilization but also violence.

Many are comforted by pre-modern religion; they find cannot live with uncertainty and a lack of a compass. They also desire God. In the scientific age, religions are embattled. Dr. Wesley Ariarajah, of Drew University, remarked in PRAXIS (12/2002), "... all religious traditions are inadequate to deal with the world in which we live today, a post-modern, post-colonial world. We need each other to be able to move forward. That's why dialogue matters."

Foundational religion is not dying out. It is a growing force in Asia, Africa, and South America. The combativeness of modern fundamentalism, economically and politically motivated, is an impediment to clear religious thought and much needed dialogue. Partisan mentality facilitates violence. Dividing humanity between believers and non-believers causes killing and war. One of the goals of postmodern religion, in the tradition of Emmanuel Levinas, is against war.

I. Violence


As a pre-theology student, I encountered a positivistic metaphysics, which was unconcerned with human events, suffering, or emotion. Religion was a contaminant.

I learned again that there is no metaphysical evidence for God's existence. Medieval philosophers solved this problem by granting God "being." That was before the age of science when the first Soviet spaceman did not discover God in space.

As a pastor I could not find any alternative to foundationalism. What theology I was pointed to was outside the ordinary or possible range of human experience or understanding. I found Paul Tillich helpful.

Using phenomenology, philosophy does show concern with individual experience. French postmodern thinking opens up philosophy to the phenomenology, the awareness, of human events and everyday life. Foundational and traditional, "recipe knowledge," is not enough for coping with the expected much less for coping with the surprise of novelty or crisis.


Continental philosophy is a more living sort of philosophy that accentuates human awareness. Religion is part of that awareness of a post-secular age. Phenomenology, without violence, studies human awareness treating each person as transcendent, beyond the ken of our experience, -- a wholly other.

A speaker's narrative, exactly like a composer's symphony, becomes the text to be interpreted without presuppositions. Even knowledge of the speaker is "bracketed," put aside for the moment. The text is interrogated without the "violence" of outside referents.

The author, if asked to explain a text, like a poem, can become frustrated by inner contradictions, and surplus of meaning in finding the well out of which the poem came. The negative hermeneutics of Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx testify to the hidden-ness of what was said. There are too many meanings in a text or metaphor.

Out of frustration, we too often use an external grid of artificial referents to examine or filter a person's statements. This implies violence to the attempt of the person to explain what is said. Refraining from all-knowing, analytic destructiveness is the first rule for not committing violence and for not succumbing to the narcissistic temptation of over-interpretation.

Individual self-examination is most likely to happen if the subject's thought is not violated by foundational nonsense used as an opiate. A philosopher once used the phrase, "metaphysical moonshine." Rock-solid foundations cannot relieve human pain. What helps an anguished person comes as an unaided revelation, a surprise, from within. Answers even from within are not etched in stone but are dynamic. Seldom are they lifetime lessons but more often ephemeral. They are insight that fits a situation at the time. Like the manna in the story of the exodus, it refuses to be stored up for the future.

Revelation of insight comes for a certain happening. That is enough. Edna St. Vincent Millay put it, "look at those ugly houses on the rock and see my mansion on the sands."

Silent care

While still in seminary, I was pastor of a tiny city parish. One Thanksgiving Day, I was informed that Mrs. Bowers' husband had died. He had been at work. I hurried to visit. Mrs. Bowers was calm and welcoming. Bags of groceries were left unpacked on her dining room table. I appreciated her pain but I could think of nothing to say.

To my mind, as a pastor, I should have had a store of words, rituals, or holy oils as balm to heal sorrow. I, however, found nothing to say and had no remedy. She me told her story. I felt pangs of distress for her and her teen-aged daughter. I knew the daughter from hearing her in the choir. I had no balm or "good words" to erase their hurt. We cried together and then I left. I had failed in my picture of a professional, but I was warmed by their hospitality. It seemed enough.

Avoiding intimate violence

Twenty years later, as Chaplain of a mid-sized hospital, I still had no answers. I learned to listen and let the course of the conversation guide my response. No one ever asked me about heaven or hell or how to be saved. No one wanted theological know-how. No one wanted techniques for dying. No one asked about my theology. Whenever asked if a person accepted God, repented, and had died well, I always gave a resounding, "YES."

At that, time there developed an industry that pushed dying with joy. Performers became professional experts on dying. They invented a rather erotic industry, formed workshops, became consultants, and told beautiful heartwarming stories. To music and joyful songs, we learned about stages of dying and helping the moribund die contentedly. They knew all the answers and methods.

Where I was chaplain, the people I visited did not seem like the promising material for workshop presentation. They had anxiety, dilemmas and were too ill to sing arias. Death is a natural event at once expected but painful, tragic, and disruptive. It is a matter for tears.

One workshop was presented in my town. As they sang and performed, I remembered all those who died in my fourteen years as hospital chaplain. I felt sad for those who I had come to know. I could not fill out the pieces of paper presented to me. What I had experienced with dying folk seemed confidential and sacred ground. A happy, careless view of another's death made light of human existence as a miracle and a prized gift. Death is natural event and a tragedy because a narrative and wonder of existence is lost. I missed people who had died. I still grieve. I did not want to be cured of the ability to grieve.

The workshops depressed me. The presenters seemed like aliens from some other planet, where all dying people came out of the same cast. Levinas would have pointed out that they made people into "sames," things cut from the same pattern. To Levinas, this knowledge profaned human uniqueness, and made the dying into objects. Workshops faded into my mind as images of presenters with cone heads from Saturday Night Live.

Narrative of Ann

On a winter evening in the early twilight, patients talked slowly, masks fading, leaving their faces naked. I had visited with Anna, her husband and nine-year-old daughter. I remembered them as welcoming, but, strange to say, separated by mutual grief. Talking about any depth of emotion was impossible.

This evening, Ann was alone. She had eaten and wanted to talk. Dying from cancer, she would, soon enough, be stripped of her daughter and husband. She did not want to leave her husband, but even more, she did not want to leave a motherless daughter.

Mrs. Ann Becket, in her mid thirties, looked slight under the thermal blanket. Her face was skeletal but her voice was still strong and her gaze direct. "Could you sit and talk with me awhile?"

She took a deep breath. "Since childhood, I have had a longing for God. I've tried all kinds of churches. I'm tired from all the empty words. Traditional churches give answers that are cut and dried. They answer questions that I don't ask. They don't fit my longing for God. The charismatic churches were more interesting at first but then I became aware of the techniques used to manipulate the congregation. The services were carefully choreographed. I could not think in that charismatic fog. That turned me off. Now I am almost agnostic. I do pray and have nostalgia for spirituality. I am fed up with the usual religious bromides. I don't want that kind of 'help.' I need someone to talk to, if only to hear myself think out loud."

Nature of foundational violence

Levinas saw each individual human as a "wholly other" so distant from oneself as to have traces of divine transcendence. Before there was any beginning to thought, philosophy or religion humans were constituted to have responsibility for the other who turns their face toward us. We are obliged to treat them with sacred respect. We give a pledge of non-injury. Others form part of our selves. Responsibility for our neighbor is built into each of us. Giving up the quest for knowledge we are able unimpeded to listen to them. Then we can see traces of an ancient God, the ancient of days, who passed this way. If we force them in any way, we violate them. They become all the same. Not assuming the role of a guest in their lives, not treating them as a mystery, is to put them into bondage.

We can do violence in at least two ways. First, we think, as we do with our children, that we know the other because they are like our selves or someone we studied. This makes them into a same. The second kind of violence is done by doing the other person some good that we are sure they need. For instance, niche counselors like an alcoholic counselor see patterns that he recognizes and then is sure that he can help the other. If the other person defends from that violence, the person is seen as in denial. We learn certain bags of tricks that are salable, give the other a diagnosis, and so capture another trophy with our knowledge.

As a child I was in an evangelistic meeting singing, "Bringing in the Sheaves." Bring the sinners to the "truth." A man tried to talk me into the going to the altar to repent and be saved. My father was sad that I did not go forward. I was unhappy as teenagers often are without much explanation. My father certainly could not figure out what to do for me He loved me and wanted to see me happy. That felt good. He did the best he could.

The evangelist worked my guilt. I had no secrets from him. There was only one pattern for me and that was every man in need of salvation. Only my sinful pride kept me from acknowledging that the evangelist was right! I remember the evangelist use his wiggling finger to show how we were worms before his God.

Giving up power

When I visited Ann, rather than take a position of power, I was asked to be passive and follow, not to lead, but listen and try to understand. While I do suppose that to recognize what is ahead, I would need to have some foreknowledge of what I should meet, still I was to make no mental map of what I would find. Even after I should discover with the other person leading, I was also not to leave a map.

We did not talk about Ann's death. While still alive, Ann could not picture her own death. Ann wanted to talk about her feelings of guilt and anger at dying and leaving her daughter motherless. Both of these emotions left her emotionally unavailable to her daughter. She was distracted from what her daughter was trying to say to her. The daughter certainly was not going to act as if her mother were dying yet in the midst of "carrying on" she was trying to cope with her desperation at losing the closest relation that a human can have. The mother had to be attentive to hear that behind the words.

Feeling guilty and angry, Ann could not look her daughter in the eye. If Ann did look at her daughter while she was angry, it came across as a glare. Anger and guilt impede caring. Ann saw her anger and guilt as wanting to protect her daughter against the possible suffering in her life. The responsibility of protecting her daughter needed to be handed over to her family. If she could do this, she could again be available to her child.

To hand over the responsibility to the family and the future while still keeping the present closeness of mother and child also meant faith in the possibility of love in her daughter's future. The possibility of surprise in the life of her daughter as she progresses in the culture bound stages of life.

Longing for providence

This is a narrative without a plot. There is neither great epiphany nor was there a satisfying denouement. Ann did die. Her family grieved and Ann's daughter is now in her forty first year. What did Ann love when she loved her daughter? I would guess that she loved the possibility and surprise of providence

II. Foundational Violence

Fear of the traditional

Ann rejects all the trappings of conventional pastoral ministry. While she has a desire for God, she claims to be agnostic. She also found that traditional pastoral care is faithful to the context of a church whose theology was violent because it was not faithful to her with her self-discovered needs. She discovered that the survival of the church as institution is more important than her uniqueness.

Negative hermeneutics

Using negative hermeneutics, we can discover that foundational knowledge is violent to the disinherited. Their foundational beliefs come not from scripture but from political and economic interests. Theology has to do with the survival of both the institution and the clergy.

Elaine Pagels in, 'The Gnostic Gospels' explains that, (p.47) "As the doctrine of Christ's bodily resurrection establishes the initial framework for clerical authority, so the doctrine of the 'one God' confirms, for orthodox Christians, the emerging institution of 'one bishop' as monarch ('sole ruler') of the church. ... God (as 'Father Almighty,' for example) serves to define who is included - and who is excluded - from participation in the power of priests and bishops."

While this picture is most obvious in the hierarchy of the Roman Church, it is true all churches.

The God that could be

Jean-Luc Marion adds more in this line. In 'God Without Being he takes God out of the realm of metaphysics. God no longer is seen as a metaphysical "being," which is bound to human limited thought. We must think of God, "outside the box" of ontology, being.

He argues that any attempt to define God is to diminish God and worship an idol fabricated by human thought. He argues that the definition of God the writings St. Thomas Aquinas is a being that created him/herself. This violence makes God into an idol.

Marion is Roman Catholic but not a rebel. He sees himself as a conservative Catholic.

Marion is very conservative but to me he does seem to pay attention to the complaints of the early Gnostics in the Christian church who saw the budding orthodoxy of the early church as violent and confining to an indeterminate God.

Desire for God

Derrida was born a Jew in El Biar, Algeria. At age 19 he left North Africa to study with Emmanuel Levinas and Paul Ricoeur in Paris. Both are, or were, very active in their religious bodies. For Derrida and Levinas, organized religion, through theology has done violence to God. He calls himself an atheist but he has a desire for God.

Derrida was intrigued by Saint Augustine a fellow North African. With Saint Augustine he asked, "What do I desire [love] when I desire [love] my God?" This question has no certain answer but it is worth asking because it opens up expectations and possibilities for God's action. Derrida compared his mother with the mother of Augustine, Monica who worried about their children's faith. He writes, " religion about which nobody understands any more than my mother who asked other people a while ago, not daring to talk to me about it, if I still believed in God ... but she must have known that the constancy of God in my life is called by other names, so that I rightly pass for an atheist, the omnipresence of what I call my God in my absolved, absolutely private language being neither that of an eyewitness nor that of a voice doing anything other than talking to me without saying anything, nor a transcendent law or an immanent schenchina, that feminine figure of a Yahweh who remains so strange and so familiar to me.." (Derrida in Jacques Derrida p.154).

Derrida uses biblical structures in forming his philosophy of religion. These are indeterminate. Paul Ricoeur in an essay, "The Nuptial Metaphor," examines the possibilities of religious structures when thinking about the Song Of Solomon. All insights into this complex metaphor of human desire and divine desire i. e. the sacred erotic desire of God, give a surplus of meaning. All attempts at finding the meaning of the text are provisional. The metaphor is indeterminate but useful.

Derrida uses several biblical metaphors or structures to define his philosophy of religion. One, the messianic, I have defined above. He uses this metaphor as the possibility of God's justice coming in the future. This message as applied to Ann would be that God has not abandoned you, your daughter, or your family.

The second, hospitality, he uses as a way of expressing Levinas' phenomenological insight that deep in human awareness is a command not to harm or murder another human being. Freud in his examination of human awareness also found this forbidden. Levinas wrote that God the "Ancient of Days," has passed this way and has left traces of God's presence in the structures of human awareness. Are these traces that we find those of God or of evil? They are indeterminate. When we find a program for us, or not respecting our neighbor, or acquiescing to injustice, then it can't be God.

A third metaphor is that of the desire for God. There is a long history of sacred desire since the Song of Solomon both in Christianity and Judaism. Rabbis, Saint Augustine, and the mystics all talk of the sacred desire for God and God for us. Fusion in erotic human love and in the love of God is impossible, according to Levinas and Derrida a form of violence, and a shared dementia.

Charismatic intimacy with God, fusion, has as its purpose to control God and turn God into an idol. All theologically conceived gods are idols. With these models we have knowledge of God that is impossible to have. God is transcendent, unreachable, unattainable, as are other humans.

Desire for God is prayer, with tears, to whatever God that may be for justice in our time. I used to laugh that Unitarians prayed to "Whomever it may concern." Well we all do that.


Vocabulary used in "deconstruction" and in the philosophy of religion

(Most definitions are my own effort. Others are adapted from the Internet by Robert J. Belton. Wyschogrod's definitions are noted.)

Alterity Otherness in the sense of "Other" defined below.

Apophatic A theological term meaning knowledge of God obtained by negation, thus 'negative theology' (e.g. 'God is dead').

Aporia Formerly defined as a problem in thought of great difficulty to be resolved with great effort. It could mean reconciling opposites or irony. In deconstruction, it means the point at which a text is explicitly indeterminate or self-contradictory.

Classic Foundationalism holds that "foundations" of basic beliefs are infallible and indubitable.

Deconstruction Jacques Derrida holds that language does not simply consist of names applied to determinate things. It is instead a series of signifiers and signifieds creating relations that we understand to be things. There is nothing present "behind" a sign. Its meaning cannot be understood without ambiguity. The possibility of achieving a determinate, definitive reading of a text is nil.

Desire The object of desire, can be hidden, non-existent or absent. A want, in contrast to desire, can be satisfied within the realm of possibility.

Eschatology The philosophy of the 'last days'. It is also used to express the philosophy of the messianic hope for a new age of justice. See Messianism below.

Hermeneutics of Suspension This negative hermeneutics used for interpretation the theories of Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx.

Horizon The parameters of meaning and values.

Indeterminacy The opposite of determinacy: i.e. the notion that the final meaning of a text cannot be settled once and for all, undermining certainty about such things as closure.

Other (Wyschogrod) Reserved for the special alterity belonging to other persons, who resist reduction to [a] same. ... The other is always higher, commands, and is the teacher of the self.

Messianism In the Old Testament, this referred to the waiting for a figure sent by God who would lead Israel into a future of justice. Derrida uses this structure to speak of the future of the possibility of God.

Metaphoric The meaning of a text is often metaphoric. The attempt to distinguish between denotations and connotations is not useful. Close inspection of the possible significances of a text will generally reveal an aporia. Because of internal contradiction, the illusion of determinacy collapses. The text then deconstructs itself. Paul Ricoeur adds that the meaning of a sacred text produces seemingly infinite possibilities, a surplus of meaning.

Metaphysics is the study of the philosophy of ultimate reality, beyond physics, or cosmology.

Phenomenology describes the direct investigation and description of what is consciously experienced, without theories about their cause and as free as possible from unexamined preconceptions.

Same Pretending, through false intimacy, to nullify the otherness of the world or another person in order to claim knowledge and thus control. Reducing the "other" to a "same" without uniqueness or self-ownership is in theological terms, to be robbed of "Imago Dei."

Totality (Wyschogrod) The view of the whole that destroys the alterity of the "Other" and is therefore an act of violence.

Transcendence Beyond and outside the ordinary range of human experience or understanding.

© John Paolini 2003