One of the benefits of blogging for me has been the chance to dialogue with people who hold different beliefs than I do. In these exchanges with people who embrace atheism or who reject religion that I often wonder “what God or religion are they talking about?” It is a question Stanley Fish asked in his response to his critics, God Talk Part 2 (which I commented on in my blog The Truth about What we Believe).
I have often felt in my correspondence with non-believers that I do not believe in the God they reject either. If I thought what some of them think about God, I too would be an atheist.
I found Philosophy Professor Simon Critchley’s Happy Like God 25 May 2009 New York Times opinion piece to be interesting exactly because of the idea of God which he put forth. Critchley is opining about happiness and he quotes Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s third autobiography, “Reveries of a Solitary Walker”. Critchley says, “This is as close to a description of happiness as I can imagine”:
If there is a state where the soul can find a resting-place secure enough to establish itself and concentrate its entire being there, with no need to remember the past or reach into the future, where time is nothing to it, where the present runs on indefinitely but this duration goes unnoticed, with no sign of the passing of time, and no other feeling of deprivation or enjoyment, pleasure or pain, desire or fear than the simple feeling of existence, a feeling that fills our soul entirely, as long as this state lasts, we can call ourselves happy, not with a poor, incomplete and relative happiness such as we find in the pleasures of life, but with a sufficient, complete and perfect happiness which leaves no emptiness to be filled in the soul. (emphases Critchley’s)
St. Augustine said the soul can only find such a resting place in God, but then he lived long before the 18th Century redefined the relational human being as an isolated individual. Rousseau as a true man of the Enlightenment and a deist could imagine the soul finding such rest within the individual. Critchley writes:
Rousseau asks, “What is the source of our happiness in such a state?” He answers that it is nothing external to us and nothing apart from our own existence. However frenetic our environment, such a feeling of existence can be achieved. He then goes on, amazingly, to conclude, “as long as this state lasts we are self-sufficient like God.”
God-like, then. To which one might reply: Who? Me? Us? Like God? Dare we? But think about it: If anyone is happy, then one imagines that God is pretty happy, and to be happy is to be like God. But consider what this means, for it might not be as ludicrous, hybristic or heretical as one might imagine. To be like God is to be without time, or rather in time with no concern for time, free of the passions and troubles of the soul, experiencing something like calm in the face of things and of oneself.
To be like God in Crichley’s sense reminds me of Genesis 3 wherein the clever serpent tempts Eve by telling her that she will not die if she eats the forbidden fruit:
“For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.
No happiness resulted from that tempting attempt to be like God!
Critchley through Rousseau imagines happiness being in the individual separated from all other beings. This certainly would not be God like at all. Rousseau portrays happiness as being in a state in which no one else is part of the picture and there is no past and no future. He imagines this as bliss. It also so contrasts with the idea of God I’ve encountered in Christianity.
First, because Christians understand God to be a Trinity of Persons who are freely and perfectly united together in love. God is no Enlightenment individualist but always a being of love, relational love, self emptying and self sacrificing love. God as Trinity is never isolated, separated or alienated for the Trinity always exists in relationship and always loves (if there were no Persons in God, and God were completely mono and alone, the notion that God is love would mean God in eternity is self loving which is no true love at all).
Second, God is not a being for whom time is nothing. God brought time into existence when He created the world. We believe this was an act of love on His part. Time in some strange way is an expression of God’s love and a revelation of God. Additionally, in the incarnation of the Word, God enters time and sanctifies it. The happiness of God is not a timeless state. God has in love been willing to submit Himself to time and to work with and in time. God’s willingness to act in time and His willing that these historical actions be recorded in Scripture, tells me for God time is connected to happiness: we learn of God’s past saving actions and hope in His promised future salvation.
Third, Rousseau imagines that perfect happiness comes where there is no fear, desire, pain or pleasure. Yet the perfect love of God and the perfect joy of God is found in Christ, the incarnate God who as a human experienced all of these things. God’s perfect happiness in loving His creation is not prevented by the experience of suffering, pain, desire or pleasure. In fact, since God enters into the human condition and experiences all of these things and does not prevent the creatures He is saving from experiencing them, one has to think that neither pain nor sorrow nor suffering nor desire nor please can ever really separate us from God’s love and happiness.
Critchley apparently accepting the idea of the Enlightenment’s extreme individualism, sees with Rousseau that the individual separated from all human influence (past experience or future expectation) and isolated from all relationships will find supreme happiness. Yet that is exactly a world in which there can be no love since there is no one else to love. How can a world without love be happy? It sounds to me more like hell than heaven. It is an idea of happiness and of God that for me is vacuous and would lead to the emptiness of atheism.
As complex as it might be, the idea of the Trinity, of the incarnation and of the death and resurrection of the Second Person of the Trinity, is a much more vibrant notion of God and of happiness.