This post originally appeared on Groundmotive.net.
There are countless ways of understanding God’s nature. New atheists such as Daniel Dennett, for example, reject a variety of theisms that defines God as a supernatural agent who desires humanity’s worship. Peter Rollins, a self-identified emergent Christian defines God as “that which we cannot speak of [and] the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking.”* Rollins finds inspiration in Christian mystics such as Meister Eckert, tending away from anthropocentric understandings of God like the one Dennett rejects. Like Dennett, Rollins aims to disturb conventional theism while, unlike Dennett, maintaining a semblance of orthodoxy. Jack Caputo, taking these ideas a step further, conceives of God as an “insistence” with little agency in the world other than the ability to disturb and haunt our actions.
Conceptions of God play a critical role in shaping our moral lives; some theists practise an escapism because their God shuns the world, while others become champions of social causes because that is what they believe God desires of them. This post will work backwards, so to speak, considering how our daily attempts to act ethically can shed light on God’s nature. To this end, I will employ virtue ethics’ approach to moral life, a school of ethics that emphasizes virtues, opposed to an emphasis on the need to follow rules (deontological) or an emphasis on the consequences of one’s actions (consequentialism).
In a nutshell, virtue ethics claims that we should always make decisions that encourage health. On a personal level, this means being concerned with one’s character, believing that if one engages in the daily practice of care, for example, one will be prepared to act caringly when a weighty ethical situation demands such action. Similarly, on a societal level, a subscription to virtue ethics would aim to develop life together in ways that encourage healthy relationships — for example, by building neighbourhood landscape that create opportunities to practice hospitality.
But what does this ethical school have to do with our conceptions of God?
This last semester I’ve been involved in a reading group exploring Caputo’s new book, The Insistence of God, with Jim Olthuis, Author, philosopher, professor, and rollerblader. Last week, Dean, a fellow student who also has a blog and has written about our reading group (his blog is so good I encourage you to stop reading this and head over there), brought our attention to Caputo’s decision to focus on the topic of religion. Caputo gives two related reasons for focusing on religion, even though, according to him, he could just as easily focus on being and finitude. First, religion is more important and less obscure for American culture than being and finitude. Second, Caputo’s own embeddedness in this tradition provokes him to take up his heritage. This interesting (and on some levels disingenuous) rhetorical move, motivated me to think about chapter five without explicitly referencing religion. What does it look like when we remove religion from the discussion?
Perhaps we can have this conversation using an example from my childhood. Back then, I found myself in a context that encouraged competition and sport. This context both enabled and limited me. It limited me in the sense that it determined the perspective through which I saw the world, one full of winners and losers. As unhealthy as this perspective can be, it was a large influence on my choice to self-identify as an athlete. In addition to limiting self-understanding, my competitive social context afforded me the opportunity to learn how to play with others, to lead, and even on the rare occasion, to lose gracefully.
The finite nature of my historical perspective hid from me the “event” taking place in the name athlete. At the age of eighteen, I unexpectedly blew out my knee, an injury that forced me to see the world from a new perspective. The injury made me skeptical (or atheistic) of my own confessed identity. Although I had matured as an athlete, this identity did not fully contain the truth of who I was—past, present, and future. Dogmatically holding on to the name “athlete” would have been detrimental to my own development and a poor expression of self-love. Continue reading