Just get on with the gardening

Mark Vernon tells us that the key issue in Kant’s Critiques was understanding the limits of human knowledge.

When Kant said that Enlightenment was maturity this is what he meant, being able to live with this finitude and not reach out for false certainty. So we have Enlightenment humanism as scepticism and grappling with the reality of human knowledge and experience. This I would actually relate to a tradition within religion, though it is one lamentably in decline today. It is called the ‘apophatic’, meaning ‘negative way’. It stands in marked contrast to the ‘cataphatic’, meaning ‘positive way’, the strident assertions of indisputable religious dogma and divine truth. The apophatic is a way of approaching what is ultimately unknown by identifying what that unknown cannot be. In religion it says God is not mortal (immortal), not visible (invisible) – note, saying nothing positive about God.

Okay…but if you say nothing positive about God, how do you know it’s ‘God’ that you’re talking about? Or to put it another way, why is whatever the [?] you are talking about called ‘God’? Why that name in particular? Why not a different name, for a different subject, since this ‘God’ does seem to be a different subject. The ‘God’ that is usually meant by ‘God’ is not ‘that which no one says anything positive about’ – on the contrary. So why use that one name for two such different items?

Well, because we have to have ‘God,’ because it wouldn’t be respectable not to, so we have to hang onto it by simply doing away with all the rules and saying God is this, God is that, God is not this or that, God is everything, God is nothing, God is whatever. God is just whatever you want God to be, darling, and nobody can tell you otherwise. We can be apophatic one day and cataphatic the next and there is not a damn thing those pesky secular bastards can do about it.

Anthony Gottlieb is not much impressed by the whole ‘apophatic’ thing.

Consider, for example, “The Case for God”, the latest of 22 books on religion by Karen Armstrong, who was once a Catholic nun but now espouses a vague, universalist religion of compassion. In her opinion, God “is not good, divine, powerful or intelligent in any way that we can understand. We could not even say that God ‘exists’, because our concept of existence is too limited.” Her main idea is that the only authentic and defensible God is one who utterly transcends human understanding and therefore cannot be described at all…What is even more baffling is the idea that one can talk about a wholly indescribable God who cannot be said to “exist” but who nevertheless in some sense “is”.

Quite. Gottlieb goes on to Eagleton next (Armstrong and Eagleton should form an act of some sort, like Abbot and Costello). Same kind of thing. He concludes sagely: ‘A wiser response to the apparent inexpressibility of statements about God may be simply not to express them, and just get on with the gardening.’ That’s my view. If you’re going to be apophatic, why not just move on and do something else? What is the point of saying you don’t know and calling that ‘God’?

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