Whispers of the gods #1
Two recent posts (Touched by an angel #7 and Karen’s on the case #1) have mentioned George Steiner because the books I was discussing referred to him. But I had no real background, so I read Real Presences1 first and then Language and silence2.
Those familiar with Steiner’s work will know he wrote them the other way round. Which is the order I will deal with them here.
Those who do not have the book can find a sizeable extract from the Introduction (including the Steiner quotes in context) here.
I think my main gripe with The case for God is not the factual content – I bow to Armstrong’s superior scholarship – but pair of linked assumptions she seems to think need no argument. One is (i) that if you do manage to avoid all the deist and/or fundamentalist traps she identifies, and your approach to religion is as über-‘skillful’ as the gospel according to St Karen requires, then you really will get to a real something – another mode of seeing which is beyond everyday perceptions, to a transcendent dimension of life … identical with the deepest level of [your] being. The other assumption is (ii) that this transcendence is necessarily a good thing.
Let me clarify what I am saying and what I am not saying. I do not doubt that religious and spiritual practices have effects. That is an empirical issue. My qualm is with the assumption that these effects have anything to do with the divine, with something transcendent, with the deepest level of one’s being.
There is then another pair of assertions related to how describable or indescribable those effects are:
People… discovered a transcendent dimension of life that was … identical with the deepest level of their being. This reality, which they have called God, Dao, Brahman, or Nirvana, has been a fact of human life. But it was impossible to explain what it was in terms of logos. This imprecision was not frustrating, as a modern Western person might imagine, but brought with it an ekstasis that lifted practitioners beyond the constricting confines of self.
… One of the peculiar characteristics of the human mind is its ability to have ideas and experiences that exceed our conceptual grasp. We constantly push our thoughts to an extreme, so that our minds seem to elide naturally into an apprehension of transcendence.
… Language has borders that we cannot cross. When we listen critically to our stuttering attempts to express ourselves, we become aware of an inexpressible otherness.4
There are two distinct assertions here. One is (iii) that the transcendent dimension resulting from religious practice is indescribable. The other is (iv) that the very struggle against the borders of language is itself a path to, or window on, that transcendent dimension.
I am not claiming (iii) and (iv) are unargued assumptions like (i) and (ii). The problems come when they are combined. So for example in the absence of (i), assertion (iii) reverts to something like: ‘the psychological and/or phenomenological effects of religious practice are indescribable’. This may or may not be true – possibly true for some people but not for others. Not something to get worked up about either way.
It gets significant when those effects are seen in terms of transcendence and deepest levels of being – because this can lead to the thought that the transcendence and depth are responsible for the ineffability. This can then lead to the thought that ineffability is a sign that you are in the region of the transcendent and the divine – effectively assertion (iv).
It is in this domain of ‘inexpressible otherness’ that Armstrong enlists the authority of George Steiner:
[I]t is decisively the fact that language does have its frontiers, that it borders on three other modes of statement – light, music, and silence – that gives proof of a transcendent presence in the fabric of the world. It is just because we can go no further, because speech so precisely fails us, that we experience the certitude of a divine meaning surpassing and enfolding ours. What lies beyond man’s world is eloquent of God. [My emphases]5
These are big assertions. But are they sound? A question for next time.
© Chris Lawrence 2009.