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God and the Philosophers
God & Humility
Benedict O’Connell argues we must recognise our limitations about knowing God.
As philosophers, we often like to think about what can be known. It is also important, however, to consider the reverse: what cannot be known – whether there may be certain truths that are simply beyond our understanding as human beings. I’m talking about ‘known unknowns’: things that we know that we don’t know, or that we simply cannot know. The philosophical candidates are varied: knowledge of the nature of objects as they are or ‘things-in-themselves’ rather than mere appearances of them; the nature of the mind and its relationship to the body; or the nature and existence of God.
I want to consider the theological question here, and how attitudes to God may be seen through the prism of the humility of recognising one’s limits. Does it show greater humility to accept that we cannot know of God’s existence and nature? Or can greater humility be found in recognising that there is more to existence than our human-created meaning, and there may well exist a far greater being beyond our terrestrial lives?
We should first remember that, as a value, humility is not unconditionally good. We ought to be cautious of how humility is packaged and sold to us, and mindful of how it can be weaponised for pernicious ends by those in power. For instance, promoting the values of humility and self-sacrifice can create deference and obedience in the face of tyrannical leadership. But concerning knowledge claims, humility has great utility, in that it can help us meaningfully reflect on precisely which ideas can be considered secure, and as a result give us a better sense of what we know, who we are, and our place in the world.
The Possibility of Theological Humility
The Medieval theologian Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1093-1109) emphasised the ineffability of God: the idea that the nature of God cannot be adequately communicated. But this leads us to a problem. Surely if God is literally inconceivable, does it make sense to talk of God at all? Historically, theologians have claimed all kinds of things about God: that he is immanent, transcendent, omnipotent, eternal, everlasting, etc. But surely if God is ineffable – too great to be described in words – then this must entail that the thing being described cannot be understood by the words describing it? Perhaps if God is ineffable, then this means that if we are to speak about God, we at least cannot speak of such a being literally. This may mean that God can only be talked about metaphorically or through the medium of analogy. Nevertheless, this presents a potential limitation in how our language may grasp the essence of deity in itself.
The contemporary Christian theologian Simon Cuff argues that where talk of God gets muddled and contradictory is in its not recognising God’s key attribute of ‘simplicity’. God is supposedly unlike the things we encounter in creation, which have parts: God is simply one. Rather than exploring each divine attribute individually, or trying to work out how they can coexist in one being, Cuff argues in Only God Will Save Us (2020) that we must remember God’s wholeness, and that when we talk of attributes of God these are analogical. The mercy, jealousy, anger, suffering, and benevolence of God, for example, cohere in him without contradiction, even though they may be mutually exclusive in us. This view is not without support from theologians such as St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who argued that if we assume that a named attribute of God is the same as its corresponding attribute in humans, this is an idolatrous concept of God. So maybe one way to exercise epistemological humility is to understand that God cannot be spoken of on the same linguistic plain as earthly matters, or even conceived of completely. In doing so we recognise our human limitations.
Another theological dimension to humility would be to assert that if God exists then humans are demonstrably not the greatest beings. This ‘metaphysical humility’, or the humility of an individual before God, consists in recognising that in comparison to the Creator of the universe we are mere dust, ashes; practically dirt. This kind of humility is reflected in one of the dictums that many Christians utter as they have a cross of ashes marked on their foreheads for Ash Wednesday: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”. To practice theological humility is to exercise meekness before the mysterious power of God. This is reflected in common rituals around prayer – clasping hands, bowing, or kneeling, for instance – presenting an act of deference in the presence of God.
One limitation on the claim that belief in God may entail humility is the theist claim that humans are made in God’s image. Why are we the chosen ones? Why is it that God created humans in his likeness rather than any other creature? The ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes, reflecting on this last idea, quipped: “If cows and horses or lions had hands and could draw, then horses would draw the forms of gods like horses, cows like cows, making their bodies similar in shape to their own.” To challenge the believers’ position we could ask, was it really humanity that was created in God’s image rather than the other way around?
The Humility of Agnosticism
Whilst there do seem to be elements of the believer’s position that could warrant a kind of humility, particularly in a metaphysical sense, there also appears to be some conflict between the theists’ commitment to God and the value of humility. Humility firstly involves recognising one’s limits – accepting that I may be, for example, quick-tempered, not great at public speaking, or have poor taste in daytime TV. Or as Thomas Aquinas understood it, humility is about acknowledging the gifts of God that have been placed in others but not one’s self, based on a just appreciation of one’s own defects. However, the theist’s position is a claim to know – at least for the strong or moderate theist, who claim that there is almost certainly a God. There is the epistemological issue here in demonstrating how one can know there is a God, and moreover, that he has revealed certain doctrines to his believers. To my mind, agnosticism is the more suitable, and humble, response to this: accepting that one does not know. The theist believes, whereas the agnostic is more tentative and takes the side of caution and doubt. From the point of view of humility, the agnostic is in the safer position: the theist claims possession of knowledge, the agnostic only acknowledges their own ignorance. It is harder to defend a claim to know than it is a claim not to know, and so the theist’s assertion seems to be incompatible with humility.
Of course, the atheist might not necessarily get off so lightly here, in particular the strong or moderate atheist, who proclaims with certainty or near certainty that God does not exist. After all, like the theist’s, their claim is a claim to know. This claim can at times reflect, almost paradoxically, a profound and unassailable faith in human reason.
The profound and unquestioned faith in human reason has been extensively explored by John Gray (1942-), who argues against the arrogance of some forms of humanist optimism. Gray spotlights the strongly-held belief found in many religions but also in humanism that humankind is able, or will be able, to take control of its destiny. It seems that to an extent humanity will inevitably alter itself scientifically, and so remodel its own destiny. However, this will not be by way of following a meticulous, pre-meditated, thought-through rational plan, but by sporadic change as different forces battle for dominance, including political, economic, or cultural factors. Many prominent religious thinkers, as much as humanists, place humanity on a pedestal above other animals, as a species that can control its own destiny. But in the end, as a species, we may be cast aside by the turning of natural processes just like any other species.
Mary Midgley (1919-2018) reflects on the use of reason and its potential limitations when she stresses that it matters who is asking the questions. She emphasises that philosophy is done by socially-developed beings with an evolutionary history, wedded to this planet of ours, and not by abstract intellects or machines. This means that reason is not the immutable absolute that it’s often espoused to be: rather, it is woven into and filtered by our human perspective and emotions. Thus, according to Midgley, the rational person is not someone who is simply clever: it is someone who has organised their ideas into something like a coherent whole in our rarely neat and straightforward world.
The Tower of Babel by Carla Anna 2022
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Don’t Try To Be God
The Tower of Babel story in Genesis provides an early meditation on the need for humility (it’s found in Genesis 11). A united human race ends up in the land of Shinar in the years following the Great Flood. Together they decide to build a city with a tower tall enough to reach the heavens. God disrupted this project by confusing the language of the workers so they could no longer understand one another, and the people of the city were scattered around the world. The city received the name ‘Babel’, from the Hebrew verb בָּלַ֥ל (balal), meaning to jumble or to confuse.
The orchestrators of the Tower of Babel are punished for trying to reach a status they don’t have – of being equal with God. The story impels us to remember our place, to not go beyond our ontological status. A parallel could be drawn between the over-ambition on display in the Babel story and the professed indubitability of our own claims to knowledge – about God’s existence or non-existence, for example.
In attempting to espouse truths about God’s nature and what God wants or desires, we may be making claims about something that, paradoxically, only a being like God could know. We could call this ‘the knowledge of God paradox’. To put it in Kantian terms, we can know God as the idea or concept appears to us, but we cannot know the essence of God in Itself.
The Babel story demonstrates attempts by humans to transcend their ontological status. We make a similar overstep in claiming knowledge of God’s existence or non-existence. We try to transcend our epistemological limits on a metaphysical question of epic proportions, which, indeed, is unanswerable. This may be our own Tower of Babel – though with more of an epistemic tinge to it! And this elevation of our status can be found in both theism and atheism.
The good response to this is to accept cognitive closure with regards to claims about God: accept that our human minds may be constitutionally incapable of solving the problem. This doesn’t entail that talk of God is meaningless; but that theology may have to resign itself to begetting a religious form of life rather than proclaiming a bold correspondence form of truth on the issue.
This also has implications for the ideas of God that believers form. Idolatry connotes the worship of something other than God as if it were God. Protestants in the sixteenth century were increasingly wary of idols; they were a distraction from the real star of the show. But if God does indeed exist, then every believer’s idea of God is idolatrous because it is limited. What I mean by this is that every idea of God is just an idea. To obtain the essence of God, you would have to be God. So to practice the virtue of theological humility, we must accept that we can only form an idolatrous concept of God. Christians and other theists cannot have it both ways – they can dispose of the virtue of humility and claim that their concept of God is not idolatrous; or they can retain epistemic humility and accept that their ideas of God are just imperfect representations.
When you try to make cats aware of something by pointing at it with your finger, they’re often more interested in the finger indicating the object than the object the finger indicates. In relation to God, humans are like cats: they fixate on the ‘finger’ (the idea of God), not realising that by it they cannot grasp the true object of fascination, God itself. We are infatuated with the representations of God we construct, yet we fail to recognise that they’re merely facades that contain no absolutely justified content in the way many theists claim them to. We simply don’t possess the capacities to grasp the thing in itself. To make positive, literal claims about God is therefore to try to be God.
When claiming definitively that ‘God exists’, we aim to boldly go where no human could go: we try to transcend our epistemic limits. In stating that God exists we are professing something that only a being like God, who is omniscient, could know. So if God exists, then only God can know that God exists. As the Tower of Babel story tells us, we should refrain from placing ourselves on a pedestal beyond our status; in this case not for fear of what God might do, but to retain epistemic humility and not go beyond what can be known.
So, does God exist? God only knows.
© Benedict O’Connell 2022
Benedict O’Connell teaches Philosophy and Religious Studies at BHASVIC, Brighton. Besides philosophy, he also enjoys ultramarathon running and karaoke. @benedict.oconnell on Instagram.