Monday, June 26, 2017

Religion As Metaphysics: A Category Mistake

The claim that God is real, or even that God's existence is reality, is problematic chiefly because it incurs the category mistake of treating religion as through it were metaphysics. Rather than being an atheistic argument, obviating the mistake privileges God's radical transcendence. To be sure, viewing religion through metaphysical lenses is problematic for some other, relatively minor reasons as well. 

For one thing, pondering the metaphysical in religious garb may actually be the human mind looking at itself as though through a mirror. “God, as a metaphysical being, is the intelligence satisfied in itself, or rather, conversely, the intelligence, satisfied in itself, thinking itself as the absolute being, is God as a metaphysical being. Hence all metaphysical predicates of God are real predicates only when they are recognised as belonging to thought, to intelligence, to the understanding.”[1] Accordingly, theology “is pre-occupied with the metaphysical attributes of eternity, unconditionedness, unchangeableness, and the like abstractions, which express the nature of the understanding.”[2] But Kant claims that God’s “existence is not susceptible of proof from reason.”[3] Feuerbach explains that the “proof of the existence of God transcends the limits of the reason.”[4] In other words, if God transcends the limits of our intellects, then God as a metaphysical being must go beyond our understanding and its attributes. Hence Feuerbach insists that, “to religion God is not a matter of abstract thought,--he is a present truth and reality.”[5] God as a reality is distinct from attributes of the human mind.

Does this mean, then, that God’s reality is of feeling?  Feuerbach thought that God was a mere projection of human feelings. The philosopher claims that God “in the sense of a nomen proprium, not of a vague, metaphysical entity, is essentially an object only of religion, not of philosophy,—of feeling, not of the intellect.”[6] But whereas reason seeks to ponder reality—even being the real in Kant’s self-serving idealism—feeling is oriented to human experience, which is hardly reality itself. In other words, if God extends (or is based) beyond the limits of human perception too, then feeling also falls short from getting us to the reality of God.

Such an evasive thing that reality is, for besides being mistakenly likened to the human intellect and its abstract ideas, and even feeling, belief itself has been allowed to take center stage. The belief affirming God’s sui generis existence in particular has been allowed to become the definitive litmus test in theistic religions; “belief in the existence of God becomes . . . the spiritual import of the idea of God, a chief point in religion.”[7] For example, a person is “a Christian only through this, that he believes in Christ.”[8] Whether the person values the teachings or the example of Jesus is only indirectly related—the key being the belief in the metaphysics of Christ’s unique existence, or reality. Accordingly, Feuerbach makes the following remark: “If the existence of God, taken by itself, had not rooted itself as a religious truth in minds, there would never have been those infamous, senseless, horrible ideas of God which stigmatise the history of religion and theology.”[9] It is fully in line with the nature of faith, Feuerbach argues, to slap a nonbeliever on the face rather than turn the other cheek, which could alternatively be the Christian’s focus.

In short, the belief that God exists is all that counts to the theist, who is prepared to fight on behalf of the belief, for it is easier for the human mind to grasp such a belief than the nature of God’s reality itself. “The existence in the existence of God is the belief in a special existence,” Feuerbach explains, “separate from the existence of man and Nature.”[10] In other words, “Existence, empirical existence, is proved to me by the senses alone; and in the question as to the being of God, the existence implied has not the significance of inward reality, of truth, but the significance of a formal, external existence.”[11] The special nature of the existence thus goes beyond the belief in whether God exists. As Feuerbach points out, God “is not only a being for us, a being in our faith, our feeling, our nature, he is a being in himself, a being external to us,--in a word, not merely a belief, a feeling, a thought, but also a real existence apart from belief, feeling, and thought.”[12]  

The transcendence of such a real existence is unfortunately undercut by the heavily anthropomorphic nature of the god-man type. Hence Feuerbach makes the following distinction: “But it is equally perverse to attempt to deduce the Incarnation from purely speculative, i.e., metaphysical abstract grounds; for metaphysics apply only to the first person of the Godhead, who does not become incarnate, who is not a dramatic person.”[13] The Trinity thus incorporates the idea that “God is universal, abstract Being, simply the idea of Being; and yet he must be conceived as a personal, individual being.”[14] God as a historical person is difficult to reconcile with the universal quality of reality itself. Likewise, it is much easier to relate Brahman than Vishnu or Shiva to the real in Hinduism. To say that the atman (soul) is the same as Brahman, which pervades everything and everywhere, is of a different relation than that which exists between the atman and one of the deities.

Yet even to say that the Christian Godhead or the Hindu Brahman is real—and in a sense that does not dovetail with the nature of reason or feeling—is misleading, for the association involves the category mistake of taking religion as metaphysics. Is eternity really a metaphysical concept? Is reality a religious concept? If God is the Creator of what exists, then to reduce God to that which is real mistakes the Creator for the creation. Stopping at reality thus falls short of God’s radical transcendence. To yearn experientially for the very condition behind or aside from reality extends the experience of transcendence. To think of God as not depending on reality, but, rather, as giving rise to it pushes the deity that much further away from the entrapments of human understanding, which so likes to capture the divine rather than fall away. To ponder God’s kind of existence as sui generis is thus to unhinge it from even being the real. That sort of existence is distinctly religious, and given the religious notion of transcendence the nature of God’s existence necessarily transcends our intellect. So how could we expect to stay long with the comparatively easy metaphysical notion of reality? It’s time for religionists to leave the foreign garden of metaphysics in order to return home to finally ponder, just what is the native fauna among the untended weeks in the proverbial Garden of Eden?  

Related: Spiritual Leadership in Business: Transcending the Ethical, a short book that is available at Amazon in print and as an ebook.

1. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, George Eliot, trans. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 37.
2. Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 54.
3. Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 201.
4. Ibid.
5. Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 199.
6. Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 186.
7. Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 201.
8. Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 329.
9. Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 202.
10. Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 203.
11. Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 201.
12. Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 199.
13. Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 52.
14. Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 213.