Can We Have Post-Modern Faith?

A new study out of the University of Chicago shows, in its words, a “modest” decline of belief in God globally, with dramatic variations among individual countries.  I don’t want to argue about the value or non-value of surveys attempting to pinpoint whether God has a constituency problem—but I do want to make a point about the terminology it, and we, use when talking about belief and non-belief.

The survey notes that 60.6% of Americans agree with the statement, “I know God really exists and have no doubts about it” while 3.0 agree with the simpler, “I don’t believe in God.”  Writing at The Nation, Paul Waldman refers to the remaining 35% as the “believing-ish category,” noting that it’s even higher in other Western and/or highly developed nations (90% in Japan).  Even in the countries with “high” levels of atheism and “low” levels of belief, the changes in belief don’t correlate exactly.  More people are expressing atheism, yes—but more people are also expressing doubts within faith, while asserting that they continue to believe.  How else do you explain America’s 80.8% who agree with, “I believe in God now and I always have”?  At least a fifth of the population, that is, has “always” believed in God—but retains doubts.  This is not the “believing-ish,” but a faith that reserves the right, in the moment, to doubt.

Deep in the comments of my last post, CK MacLeod points out that raising the question of post-Holocaust Jewish faith is, in fact, raising the question of post-modern faith more generally:

The impossibility of this justification [of a post-Holocaust theodicy – JLW] corresponds to the non-existence of God and the instability of the human being within post-war/post-modern thinking. The god concept that survives and operates within this new context remains unthought, because to think it would be to think that which it could never justify, but must.

This, if I understand it correctly, is a stronger version of Buber’s eclipse of God: if any form of the divine exists, it exists entirely hidden.  Any God that exists can be neither known nor seen, except, perhaps, in the negative space.  And if we continue to believe, it would follow, then we cannot ever truly (or perhaps even partially) know what it is in which we continue to have faith.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg put the matter in a more personal, experiential frame in his essay “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire”:

After Auschwitz, faith means there are times when faith is overcome.  Buber has spoken of “moment gods”: God is known only at the moment when Presence and awareness are fused in vital life.  This knowledge is interspersed with moments when only natural, self-contained, routine existence is present.  We now have to speak of “moment faiths,” moments when Redeemer and vision of redemption are present, interspersed with times when the flames and smoke of the burning children blot out faith—though it flickers again.  […]

This ends the easy dichotomy of atheist/theist, the confusion of faith with doctrine or demonstration.  It makes clear that faith is a life response of the whole person to the Presence in life and history.  Like life, this response ebbs and flows.  The difference between the skeptic and the believer is frequency of faith, not certitude of position.  The rejection of the unbeliever by the believer is literally the denial or attempted suppression of what is within oneself.  The ability to live with moment faith is the ability to live with pluralism and without the self-flattering, ethnocentric solutions which warp religion, or make it a source of hatred for the other.”

If you need evidence that one doesn’t have to spend afternoons considering the Holocaust to reach these conclusions, look no further than Kyle Cupp:

The hermeneutics of suspicion reveals the possibility, if not always the reality, of false consciousness; and the possibility of false consciousness means that what I call my religious faith may be something other than authentic religious faith, either in part or in total. It is possible that what I call my faith experiences are in truth the result of digestion, bodily chemistry, neurosis, the fear of death, or the desire for meaning in the face of meaninglessness. I cannot know my faith with certainty. I cannot say for sure what it is, and so cannot be certain of any of its claims. I may merely be participating in the historical creation of “God” as an onto-theological tool for making sense of the universe and giving to the appearance of order the illusion of substantial foundation.

I’m in the dark about my own faith, but I welcome that darkness, because faith itself, even if it is what I hope it is, must remain a journey in the dark, a walk in the clouds of unknowing.

None of these statement would fit into any of the categorizations of belief or non-belief offered by the study.  But this does not indicate a deterioration of faith, a watering-down into that of the “believing-ish.”  Nor is it the clear-cut and well-defined faith of pre-modernity, or even the self-conscious giving-over of oneself to faith of Franz Rosenzweig’s Modernism.  (Post)Modernity is like sampling the fruits of Hades’ gardens: it is impossible to fully return once one has done so; the very act becomes a chosen, acted act and therefore of the very place it seeks to escape.  Believing in post-modernity, whatever the starting point or cataclysm at its core, will look different than prior modes of belief.  When and if it doubts, it does so not because it is ill, but because of the rigor of its self-examination and self-questioning.  It tries to prove and to disprove itself—this latter, perhaps, sometimes even more strenuously than the former.  Doubting, in such a belief, is no longer the temptation against faith, but a necessary aspect of it.

I find myself incapable of saying, “God exists”—only that I believe God exists.

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19 thoughts on “Can We Have Post-Modern Faith?

  1. Very well said.  I’ll be surely quoting your description of believing in post-modernity. 

    I’m not sure I can get as far as saying I believe that God exists, as I’m uncertain of my own belief. Rather, I hope that I believe and that what I (may) believe is true.  I wouldn’t call this “believing-ish,” but rather a critical belief or a suspicious faith. 

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  2. Believing in some numinous God is all very well and good, as far as it goes.   But what do we believe about God?

    The word “postmodern” is really more trouble than it’s worth as a description of anything.  Frankly I hate the word.   What could possibly be implied by postmodern?   A rejection of the objective viewpoint?   Some mechanism to put things through the meat grinder of the social calculus?   If so, religion has been exhibiting postmodern tendencies for many centuries.

    The Christian faith has always been the province of the doubter.    Every time some character from the Bible emerges, there he goes, doubting God.   Try to find one character who doesn’t.   Faith recognises the difference between reason and itself but even reason contains the seeds of doubt.   I’d extend this doubting business to every intelligent line of thought.  The scientific method is utterly dependent on doubt.   Credulity is stupidity defined. Religion is hardly objective.   It’s a social thing, whole and entire.   It’s formed the framework for every culture, with the sole exception of Communism and we see how far that experiment went:  Russia is more religious than ever and the Russian State makes much of this tendency.

    Buber makes the point, over and over:  there is no distinguishing ourselves from the world, philosophy has been trying to saw them apart since Plato and has never succeeded.   Religion is a way of life.  Eliot says

    …Not the intense moment
    Isolated, with no before and after,
    But a lifetime burning in every moment
    And not the lifetime of one man only
    But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.

    Mankind must believe in something, if only in himself and his fellow man.   Belief is not subscription to mere ideology or mysterious doctrines, it is the driving force behind our every action.

    To modify Descartes a bit, credo ergo sum, I believe therefore I am.   Cogito does not mean “I think” as we’d use it in common parlance today.   Cogitare implies the mechanics of abstract thought, pondering, containing the root forms co-agitare, to rub together.   Agere, the force of motion.   Credo is belief, the acceptance that something is true.   Sure, Descartes can point to his existence on the basis of abstract thought, it’s still a true statement.   But at some point, abstractions are not enough.   We act on our beliefs, not our abstract thoughts.

    Buber’s Eclipse of God was foreshadowed by Islam’s construction of a God who could only be defined on the basis of what he wasn’t.   Religion is the flower which grows on the bush of culture.   Faith in God, well, that’s a matter of definition.   The Latin word for faith is Fides.   Fides Publica Populi Romani, == the Public Trust of the People of Rome, was a Roman goddess and her temple was where treaties were signed. The Greeks had the same sort of goddess, Pistis, the goddess of trust. When Paul writes in Corinthians, now abide these three, Faith, Hope and Charity, but the greatest of these is Charity, they were already concepts personified in Greek and Roman deities. The Charities we know today as the Three Graces, so prevalent in ancient art.

    If mankind is retreating from the personification of virtues, so be it.   It was never a particularly good idea and ever since the monotheistic religions got started, personification has been a problem in the form of idols and suchlike.   No matter how much the monotheists tried to tell us God wasn’t reducible to some idol, mankind kept going back to the Golden Calf.

    Hinduism has a wonderful notion of the avatar, a facet of a god given temporal form.  Christianity says the same of Jesus Christ.  That’s one approach.   Or we go the route of Islam and Judaism and cast out the idols entirely, rather more orderly and direct, though this leads to its own problems and excesses.    In either case, if mankind has stopped believing in the Bearded Guy Sitting on the Cloud, Hurling Thunderbolts at the Wicked, that’s no impediment to religion at all.

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  3. Buber’s “moment gods” provide an illuminating contrast to the concept of the “momentary god” that was floating around about the same time that Buber was writing. Here’s how Cassirer describes the experience of the momentary god in Language and Myth:

    Every impression that man receives, every wish that stirs in him, every hope that lures him, every danger that threatens him can affect him thus religiously. Just let spontaneous feeling invest the object before him, or his own personal condition, or some display of power that surprises him, with an air of holiness, and the momentary god has been experienced and created.

    In this world, which is pre-religious, maybe even pre-theistic in any contemporary sense of the word, everything is divine, or has the potential to be. There is no need for faith, because the divine is something with which you have an immediate connection in the here and now (it is not a god acting through a tree that gives you shade, but the tree itself is the god).

    In a sense, post-modern faith is the photographic negative of this faith: we’re still luck with moments of faith, now Buber’s instead of Cassirer’s “moment god,” but not because the world is always and at every moment infused with the divine, but instead because it lacks it so entirely for us. Where pre-historical mystery gave us a constant, heightened sense of agency around us, our post-modern world of boredom, angst, and doubt (plus our complete reliance on technology) gives us only glimpses of that agency, out of the corners of our eyes so to speak. What’s more, it allows us to wonder whether those glimpses are just our minds playing tricks on us, trying to fill in the information we get only pieces of at the edges of our visual fields.

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  4. I’m struggling a bit to follow this. You all seem to have belief with doubt but what is the focus of all this, what is it that you are doubting and believing?

    I can get doubt in the sense of saying, I’m only three quarters sure this claim is correct but this seems to be something else a doubt that doesn’t just reduce certainty but changes the thing you are uncertain about and I’m bewildered what it changes into.

    It seems all the old ideas of God go out the window, not just the literal man on a cloud but the disembodied universal mind I grew up believing in so what is left? What is it that you call God, why do you call it a name steeped in connotations of literalism you seem to reject and what is the difference between a world with this eclipsed God and one without?



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    • Shrinking God to fit in alongside the grand doubts of our large and great minds seems a mean strategy.  I see nothing wrong with the memory of the “God of Moments” sustaining one through the dark moments.  As I recall, that was rather Mother Teresa’s story.

      Why should God be bled white into some vague concept with no personality, spirit[edness]—and by the time post-modernism gets done with Him—no meaning or effect on our lives?  That God is a reality is enough of a proposition [quid sit deus: if there is a God, what would God be?]  to entertain the mind and spirit.

      [“Spirit” being conspicuous in its absence here.  By the time pomo dispenses with teleology and metaphysics, wrestling with G-d hardly seems worth the trouble.]

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  5. I”m not sure it’s worth spending time discussing the answers to unverifiable/unfalsifiable questions. The idea of measuring levels of some poorly-defined parameter seems even more ridiculous.

    I’m always reading these surveys that call Japan the most atheist/rational nation in the world and wondering if the people writing them have ever set foot in Japan. Or if they’ve ever had a Japanese person explain to them what happens to the vending machine’s soul after it dies.

    My point is this: religion is implicit. Belief in higher order is implicit. Attempts to explicitly measure and quantify belief will always and necessarily fail.

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  6. I have to admit I can’t make any sense out of this post JL.

    I think my problem is this:

    I find myself incapable of saying, “God exists”—only that I believe God exists.

    What do you mean by “believe” here?  Because to my way of thinking “I believe God exists” is an identical proposition to “God exists”.  Is this a probabilistic point your making?  Have you moved from a 2 to a 3 on the Spectrum of Theistic Probability?  Or do you mean something else entirely?

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        • James, what about it seems a contradiction? That one can believe and not believe at different times? That one is less than certain (sometimes, maybe not all the time)? That one recognizes one fallibility and psychological… vulnerability?

          I do not mean this as an offense (seriously, I mean that), but I don’t think this sort of post is for you. You think like a positivist, in the more recent sense of the term (the sort of thing you get after, not before, Quine), and in terms of quantities. I’m not sure these are the sorts of thing that it makes sense to quantify, and as a result, I’m not sure it’s going to make sense to you. You may be able to grasp it, because you’re definitely no dummy, but I don’t think it’s going to make sense to you.

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          • James, what about it seems a contradiction?

            I’ll run through these one by one:

            That one can believe and not believe at different times?

            If someone were struggling with an idea so their perception of it’s likeliness were constantly changing as they examined various pieces of evidence – well sure that makes sense.  It’s not what I got from the article, but I can get that.

            That one is less than certain (sometimes, maybe not all the time)?

            I can totally get being less than certain.  In fact, everyone should be less than certain all the time; certainty requires complete knowledge and an infallible tool for reasoning and that’s clearly not feasible.  That’s why I brought up the Spectrum of Possibility, it’s a simple tool for capturing degrees of uncertainty about theism.  And then you said that wasn’t the right way of looking at it.

            That one recognizes one fallibility and psychological… vulnerability?

            Oh I can appreciate that, I’ve had existential dilemmas in the past.

            I understand this is a topic I have trouble getting, but that’s why I’m asking questions, I’m trying to understand.  Any of the possibilities you offered make sense as explanations, I’m just trying to work out which is which.

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            • I’m not sure it needs to be just one of those things.

              It can also be that one is conflicted by what happens in the world, both wanting there to be something more to it, and wonering what higher power would let these things happen.

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  7. My atheism evolves around me like I’ve heard that the theism of others evolves around them. Well… “evolves” might be the wrong word. That sort of implies “progress” and I don’t know that my atheism of today is better than my atheism 5 or 10 or 15 years ago.

    There have been a handful of attitudes towards morality that I’ve had:

    Moral Nihilism

    The attitude that I should live in such a way that I’d be able to Judge God, if there were a god.

    The attitude that religion was an active hinderance for spiritual advancement.

    Laplacian monism. (Similar to moral nihilism but without the bitterness.)

    Now I think I’m closer to forgiving god’s sins, chief among which is his nonexistence (which used to be the most unforgivable one).

    We’ll see what my atheism is like tomorrow.

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  8. OK I’ve thought of an analogy that might explain my confusion.

    Will Iran have a nuclear weapon within five years?

    I am uncertain about this, very uncertain, you could say that doubt is central to any views I have on the issue. But I still have a mental picture of the concepts of Iran, nuclear weapon and five years. When it comes to post modern views of God it seems like you have gone from asking “Will they have a nuclear weapon?” to “What do we mean by nuclear anyway?”


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    • I’m not exactly sure what’s going here either, but let me take a stab at it.

      Most topics that get started around here will revolve around issues that we can at least attempt to approach objectively. Iran is a good example. For the most part we’ll all agree on the concepts of Iran, Ahmadinejad, uranium, and so on and the discussion will proceed. Now suppose that someone made a claim about the Iranian situation and you considered it factually wrong. Suppose you said so in a comment and the response was, “you don’t understand, I was speaking of Iran as metaphor.” Where would you go from there?

      Needless to say, we don’t generally tolerate that sort of thing when discussing virtually any topic other than the Deity. If you’re talking to someone about President Obama’s policies and that person first makes an objective claim about a policy, then in the next sentence says that he means Obama as metaphor, then in the next sentence says that Obama is a metaphysical concept, then in the next sentence says that Obama really is an expression of human longing, then recites a poem about Obama, you’d probably just get frustrated and walk away.

      The Deity proposition is incredibly privileged in our culture. You’re basically allowed to speak about it in any way you like. People like me don’t privilege it and so I generally try to avoid discussions that shift from mode to mode to mode with hardly a breath in between. I don’t always succeed.

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  9. Woke up before dawn muttering about “God,” started scrawling nonsense in the dark, couldn’t get back to sleep. I hold all of y’all responsible, but especially Mr. Wall.  Now, some might say I’ve got no one to blame but myself… Mebbe so.

    This comment is not my first attempt to make a contribution to this thread.  Maybe some day I’ll figure out something to do with the prior attempts, all dutifully saved, just like the pre-dawn scrawlings.

    I just want to note that I’m rarely confident at all that, when we refer in discussions like these to “God,” or for that matter to “existence,” we’re talking about the same things, even to whatever extent any of us has some firm and defensible idea about what either signifier in the sentence “God exists” means or would or could mean, either taken separately or, not the same thing, put together.

    Maybe it’s not (usually?, ever?) whether “‘God’ ‘exists,'” or whether anyone “believes” “‘God’ ‘exists,'” but what, on the basis of our suppositions regarding each term and each term together, we believe the affirmation or negation of the sentence would imply, not least as a statement about statements, the meaning of meanings, and so on.

    Is it possible to believe God could exist, but doesn’t?  If so, how?

    I’ll stop here before I start babbling (even more), though I’ll also ask, since some of you all seem well-read in theology, whether anyone can recommend a philosophical examination of the transition point between god concept (concept of concepts, unnameable, mysterious, infinite, unreachable, etc.) and anthropomorphized deity.  I’ve noted Hermann Cohen, Hegel, and Levinas (in TOTALITY AND INFINITY, haven’t gotten to any of his other works yet) make useful observations on the question that go beyond simply putting an idea next to a myth and implying the latter is for unsophisticated people. I mentioned Robert Wright’s description of the “evolution” of God, and I’m aware of but haven’t yet gotten to Jack Miles’ “biography” of the Hebrew God, but I’m wondering about attempts to tell or explain the opposite story or process, derive the being from Being, begin with the deus absconditus then develop the anthropomorphic God as some kind of logical necessity.

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