Three ways of speaking about God: philosophers, poets, fanatics

Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui. Professor. IE School of Arts & Humanities

11 February 2009

The existence or inexistence of God has been the subject of debate ever since mankind learnt the art of discussion, and has played an active role in furthering logic and culture. Lately, however, the debate has been dragged down by the use of an empty slogan.

Much has been said and argued about the existence of God over the last 3,000 years. Now the moment has finally come for me to reveal the truth, right here, in this blog. Pay attention now... No, only joking, I may be presumptuous, but I am not that bad. I merely aim to describe three ways in which believers and atheists argue about the subject.

The first way is through rational, historical, theological and philosophical arguments. From Aristotle to Kant, there is one line of reasoning, and then another begins, which does not seek to mathematically demonstrate the existence or inexistence, but rather postulate, suppose and delimit. However, the premises are the same: the logical deduction, the experience that can be verified and repeated, the dialectic rejection of opposing arguments, etc. In the last few centuries, this form of discussion has usually taken the form of a thick book written in German. If the book was in another language, it would have lots of quotes in German and another load in Latin and Greek. This type of discussion usually took place in university, although recently it has tended to shift to more public forums, with interesting results.

The second way is the way of the poets: "The madman, the poet and the lover / see more than cold reason", as the main character of A Midsummer Night´s Dream says. The phrase is ambiguous. The poet´s intuition goes where rational argument cannot, but it is uttered by a character, Theseus, who says it to show that he does not believe in "old myths". In the Greek tragedies, in the novels by Dostoevsky and Unamuno, in the poem by the mystics, there are piercing cries that deny the existence of God or proclaim His scorching presence with great strength and depth. These poetic fields include, in their own way, other arts such as painting and music. The arguments are intuition, inspiration, unverifiable and unrepeatable experience, the exemplary value of a personal and non-transferable decision to accept or reject. The means of discussion are the metaphor, the image, the narrative, the myth.

And the third way is that of fanatics: it is not a question of convincing anyone, but rather one of pleasing one´s self and sticking one´s finger in the other person’s eye, finding a slogan that can be brandished to drown out the others’ slogan. A phrase or a verse is often taken from the other two methods and turned into a kind of football banner. Different eras have different trends. In Spain, the witty, rhyming couplet was traditional from when the dogma of the Immaculate Virgin Mary came under discussion. During the second Republic, a solemn vote was held in the Ateneo Forum in Madrid and won by the believers by one vote, to the great relief of the divine spheres. Then slogans started to appear on T-shirts, saying things like "Nietzsche is dead and that’s for certain” (by the way, Nietsche, like Plato, is a very interesting case of a man caught between philosophy and poetry). And now, in Spain, as in other countries, the fanatical discussion has taken the form of an advertisement, in large letters on a bus, a product (atheism or God) to make you feel better.

Let us not confuse the three forms of discussion. The first two raise our awareness, create art and change culture. The third is like that of overexcited fans of a football club: they make an awful lot of noise, they create an atmosphere and add colour, they are annoying and often cause bother in street fights. But, in the end, they are just something that happened and that was that".
P. S. On Sunday, Olegario González de Cardedal published a great article on how to speak about God. Highly recommendable. To read it, click here


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