Sunday, October 03, 2004

Show me your glory

In Exodus 33:18, Moses, the man of God, implored the Lord to show him his glory. Many believers have had a similar yearning, and some have led a contemplative life to fulfill their yearning in a mystical encounter.

Conversely, many unbelievers are unbelievers because they say that the existence of God is inevident in the world.

Each of these attitudes is expressive of a certain dissatisfaction with supreme object of faith. And their dissatisfaction assumes, in turn, a certain expectation of how it ought to be possible to know God, if there is even a God to be known.

One thing we need to ask ourselves is whether the knowledge of God presents a special problem. Is God hard to know in a way that other things are easy to know? Is the existence of God inevident?

Plantinga has held that the knowledge of God is like the knowledge of other minds in general. Reid has held that the knowledge of God is like our knowledge of other persons as mediated by their body. Berkeley has held that the world is a form of divine sign-language. It is worth reflecting for a moment on these suggestions.

How do I know another person--any person, whether human, angelic, or divine? Well, let us begin with what we think we know best: our fellow man.

We, of course, take this for granted, so we don’t give it a second thought. And, indeed, we may even set the knowledge of our fellow man in invidious contrast to our knowledge of God.

For our fellow man is a sensible object, like ourselves--whereas God is supersensible, and that’s the problem.

Or is it? In fact, our knowledge of other persons is indirect rather than immediate. I know my fellow man by knowing his body. His personality is hidden to me. In traditional language, and the metaphysics that goes along with it, we’d say that a man is a composite entity, a psychosomatic entity. That his soul is the seat of personhood. That the body is the vehicle of the soul.

I myself affirm this traditional--indeed, Biblical--conception. But for present purposes it is unnecessary to stake out such a strong thesis. It is enough to say that my consciousness, my thoughts and feelings, are inaccessible to you, and vice versa. You are not a mind-reader.

Even if there is such a thing as telepathy, it is non-propositional. We may sense something about another person, but that’s all.

So what’s really the difference between a man and a corpse? We know another man by what he does with his body to communicate his heart, mind, and will. This takes both a propositional and non-propositional form.

The primary function of language is to convey an idea from one mind to another mind. Language is symbolic. All language is code language. The relation between word and object is conventional--a social convention. We assign certain words to certain objects. We agree to certain rules of communication.

The words are significant even though their relation to the object is arbitrary. The words do not resemble the object. But the process of abstraction, of naming, is essential to society. After Adam is made (Gen 2), he begins to name the furniture of his world. After Eve is made, Adam names her and speaks to her.

There is a second form of communication, and that is body-language. At an emotional level, nonverbal communication is more important, more revealing than verbal propositions. You cannot hug a feeling, but you can hug a body--a body which is a medium of feeling, given or received.

A touch, a tear, a smile, a frown, a gesture, a look in the eye, the tone of voice, and so much more, convey of wealth of information. Words can be used to either reveal or conceal, but body-language is generally unconscious and involuntary. And so it is often more telling of our true feelings than our choice of words. Our body may give the lie to our lips.

Yet body-language is even closer to verbal communication in another respect. For, once again, the relation between these tactile or visual cues and what they convey is arbitrary.

Why do we invest such enormous emotional weight in a hug, a kiss, a caress?
Why is a slap, an arched eyebrow, a certain tone of voice, a body that recoils at our touch, freighted with such devastating force?

Again, why do we find one face appealing, and another not? What is beauty? Just a subtle play of light and shade. Why do we like certain colors?

Why do we frequently find a certain vocal timbre, or a certain piece of chamber music, or a sunset, or landscape, or seascape, so deeply meaningful?

Why is "good" sex so important to so many, and "bad" sex so depressing? It’s more than sheer sensation. A delicious meal is a great sensation, but no one commits suicide over a bad meal, whereas many men and women are suicidal over a love affair gone bad. The sex may last after the passion is past.

So the whole sensible world as a language-like quality to it--a form of cosmic sign-language. Like children who come into the world, learning to master their mother-tongue, we did not invent this language. It is innate, irrepressible, and inescapable.

Artists of every stripe exploit this language to manipulate our feelings. And, what is more, we pay them to push our buttons.

Even are words are an extension of the body. We form and project our words by our lips and lungs.

Just as we know another person by his body, we know God by his world. When we hug the world, we put our arms around God--or rather, God embraces us. The soul employs the body as an expressive vehicle, while the Lord employs the world as an expressive vehicle.

This is not, of course, the only way that God may be known, or make himself known. God also speaks to us in words--in the words of Scripture. And Scripture speaks as well of a Beatific Vision (1 Cor 13:12; 1 Jn 3:2).

Thus we experience a divine person in much the same way as we experience a human person. The person proper is impalpable and inaccessible. He can only be known--ordinarily, at least--by some tangible medium. We know our fellow man through his words and body-language; we know our God through his words and sign-language.

In both cases we infer the personhood of the other by analogy with our outward behavior and inner states of consciousness. Thus the knowledge of God does not present some paranormal or preternatural condition. Rather, the knowledge of God flows through the same channels as does the knowledge of our fellow man.

1 comment:

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