‘All Will Be Well’ – Polyanna Platitude or Responsible Mystical Theodicy?

I tend not to blog about large-scale disasters. It isn’t that I don’t care, but rather that there’s usually an excess of ‘care’ in the blogosphere around such times (in the form of words, words, words), and really, what else is there to say? I had nothing to say about the earthquake in Haiti besides this…until now.
Shaun King is an intriguing cat. He started this multi-ethnic Courageous Church in Atlanta about a year ago; is a student at Candler Divinity School at Emory…right after the Haiti earthquake he blasted to his social network, essentially “Let’s go to Haiti! Right now! Don’t wait for someone else…go!”

I had mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, this seems like sage advice:

How Not To Help With Haiti: Don’t go to Haiti. It’s close to the US, it’s a disaster area, and we all want to help. However, it’s dangerous right now and they don’t need “extra hands”. The people who are currently useful are people with training in medicine and emergency response. If all you can contribute is unskilled labor, stay home. There is no shortage of unskilled labor in Haiti, and Haitians will be a lot more committed than you are to the rebuilding process. If you are a nurse or physician, especially with experience in trauma, and you want to volunteer, email Partners in Health – volunteer@pih.org – and offer your services. Or submit your details to International Medical Corps. They’ll take you if they can use you. Do not go to Haiti on your own, even if you are doctor. You’ll just add to the confusion, and you’ll be a burden to whoever ends up taking responsibility for your safety.

On the other hand, someone whom Shaun encouraged to go did, and he Tweeted this:

Setting out my SoapBox. About to step on it for a few tweets. 1st my opinions then quotes from leaders on the ground in Haiti –

ALL OF THE EXPERTS ARE DEAD WRONG…When the earthquake 1st hit, thousands of you immediately wanted to go and help BE the solution, be the hands & feet of God… But you were told by the experts NOT TO COME. You were told to wait until some magical time when things were much better…
The experts were wrong. Some probably meant well because they didn’t want you to get hurt or be in the way, but let me tell you what is missing in Haiti -passionate, hard-working, unskilled, loving, non-experts. They are in SHORT SUPPLY. I mean RARE.

Consequently, the MAJORITY of supplies are sitting unused & the teams of unskilled non-experts I am advising are regularly…9 days later, regularly the first people to have ever visited orphanages and disaster sites. They ALL tell me that we should have IGNORED the experts.

Let me tell you a story that will kill you: The caretaker of the Notre Dame orphanage told @SpenceNix She heard dozens of dying babies trapped in the rubble scream & cry for 5 whole days before they all died. 55 babies died. Nobody ever came….

One more tweet from me then I want to type you a quote from our team on the ground…It is NOT TOO LATE. If you feel CALLED to go to Haiti GO. GO! GOOOO! It is tough work, but GO! I will help you. Next tweets are direct from our teams on the ground:

“The growing feeling here in Haiti is that the BIG ORGS & government don’t really care. It’s like they are here b/c the world is focused here. If they care, little passion is ever displayed. Seems like a job or obligation. Even my sponsoring organization [name of large Christian org] pretty much just set up a tent, gave us a vest and stickers and said go. No support. No passion. No questions. Large amounts of supplies are just sitting in boxes everywhere. I have seen them there for days while hurting people & doctors need them. This has opened my eyes wider to the wastefulness of large charities and benefit of small, nimble, passionate groups..”

“I have been in Haiti for 6 days and I still have not seen one large Red Cross presence. I honestly think social media has saved more lives since the earthquake than all but 3-4 great organizations here now. Passion. Relationships. Technology has changed the game. We saved so many lives today and it was just us doing it bro.” <<<End of quote.

Shaun King: Thanks for listening.

No doubt the debate can still go on – properly-trained specialists vs. American can-do. But if you’re like me, the debate ended, was wholly sidetracked, by the story of those dying babies. The horror – the insanity. The sense of helplessness. I imagine – no, I know – that those who work in ‘care’ vocations (nurses, prison reform advocates, friends to the homeless) know this far more than me.

One such friend of mine mused, wisely yet perhaps despairingly,

Fragility and morality huh? Isn’t that part of our daily experience?

Indeed. And sometimes, we give and give and give – like poured-out drink offerings – and the gaping maw of humanity displays its thirst anew, unquenchable in every moment. When will the suffering end? Am I deluded to think that there’s meaning here?

Lately I’ve been meditating on the words of Julian of Norwich, a 30-year-old woman who lived during a time of unparalleled plague and persecution. She is famous for her ‘Showings of Divine Love‘ and her mystical encounters with Jesus. This excerpt summarizes her central insight well:


For Julian, Christ is both the symbol of human suffering and the sign of divine triumph over suffering. The meaning Julian derives from her first visitation is not that humans are destined to suffer (though we are), but more important that we have been given a sign through the Passion of Christ that we will ultimately triumph over the frailties of the flesh:

For [God] does not despise what he has made, nor does he disdain to serve us in the simplest natural functions of our body, for love of the soul which he created in his own likeness. For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the trunk, so are we, soul and body, clad and enclosed in the goodness of God. Yes, and more closely, for all these vanish and waste away; the goodness of God is always complete, and closer to us, beyond any comparison. (186)

But the philosophical problem still remains. If, as Julian insists, God resides in us and is “present in all things” (197), how can this goodness share divine space with the presence of evil? Julian states the difficulty of the case with characteristic directness:

Our Lord God . . . is at the center of everything, and he does everything. And I was certain that he does no sin; and here I was certain that sin is no deed, for in all this sin was not shown to me . . . . For a man regards some deeds as well done and some as evil, and our Lord does not regard them so, for everything which exists in nature is of God’s creation, so that everything which is done has the property of being God’s doing. (197-198).

Julian seems to imply here the heterodox view that sin has no reality whatsoever, the acts we label “evil” being merely products of our faulty perception. But a still, small voice within Julian is troubled by this explanation, this act of abolishing sin by linguistic fiat. Inspired both by humility and by curiosity, she presents an argument for the reality of sin from the human perspective:

It seemed to me that if there had been no sin, we should all have been pure and as like our Lord as he created us. And so in my folly before this time I often wondered why, through the great prescient wisdom of God, the beginning of sin was not prevented. For then it seemed to me that all would have been well. (224)

The answer she receives to this childlike query is enigmatic but reassuring: “Sin is necessary, but all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well” (225).

Julian, however, is not quite ready to let go her persistent questioning. After contemplating this reassurance, she again asks “with very great fear: Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?” (227) Again she receives a measure of condolence: “You will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well . . . . Accept it now in faith and trust, and in the very end you will see truly, in fullness of joy” (232).

There’s more in this analysis, but here’s what this means to me.  In the past few years I’ve  either been involved with or been close to those involved with human trafficking eradication, ‘people who live outside’ (as my friend Hugh more humanely refers to ‘the homeless’) and the global ‘persecuted church.’ Even more recently, I’ve focused my professional energies and graduate studies to the gargantuan hydra that is our contemporary system of growing, preparing, delivering and eating food. All the greed, systemic evil, seemingly random and senseless acts of barbarism and tragedy can be tough to deal with, to say the least. Stories like the 55 babies dying in Haiti within earshot of people just too busy to do anything about it can be enough to knock the winds out of the sails of Mother Teresa, never mind the rest of us. For those of us who engage this kind of stuff on a regular basis, it can be despairing. We’re supposed to be the healers, the encouragers; where do we go when we need healing or encouraging? To our peer networks – the NGOs or churches or intentional communities that we serve and live with? As most readers of my blog likely know first-hand, they can be some of the most messed-up people in existence…they’re as bad off as you, if not worse! To God? The same God who, it is rumored, stands idly by and allows all these things to happen? Sometimes its easier to be an atheist in aid and social work – that’s one less unsolvable dilemma on your plate (“Why does a good God allow so much misery and suffering?”).

But yet…in the midst of the composted messiness of God, our communities, and ourselves, I’m discovering a deeper equilibrium in the universe, a deep sanity and ‘okay-ness’ that dances on the edge of communicability and wordlessness. It’s not unlike Julian’s divine communication –

All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well. You will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well…Accept it now in faith and trust, and in the very end you will see truly, in fullness of joy.

It’s as though energy is neither created nor destroyed; nothing is ever truly lost – not a tear, not a laugh or bullet wound or orgasm…it’s all saved and cherished. It’s not that good and evil are illusions, but rather that they’re not the final word on what living is about – there is a deeper life that transcends and includes them both – tapping into this Life here and now (and not merely relegating it to the sweet by and by) is the key to our being healers today, what Burke and Taylor call ‘mystical responsibility.’ But – and this is crucial – the superstructure of the kosmos is Grace; heaven and earth to not rest squarely on our own backs and sweat equity. It all depends on us, yet none of it does. Everything is both at the doorposts of our hearts, and beyond our grasp like gripping a fistful of sand. We can relax – we have infinite momentum behind us. It is accomplished. All will be well.

Originally posted on February 2, 2010.

31 Responses to ‘All Will Be Well’ – Polyanna Platitude or Responsible Mystical Theodicy?

  1. John Sobert Sylvest February 2, 2010 at 6:03 am #

    Epistemic warrant, alone, may not provide reasons for such an unconditional assent to Dame Julian’s propositions, but we have normative justification in spades providing us reason to believe that God is good (yes, analogously, and yes, infinitely weak analogously, but those who cannot abide with God’s enigmatic, paradoxical nature are the ones doing the Feuerbachian anthropomorphic projections, not us).

  2. Laryn Kragt Bakker February 2, 2010 at 3:34 pm #

    Thanks for this — I’ll read it again later. St. Julian’s phrase has also been meaningful to my wife and I lately, and these other questions are on our minds as well.

  3. Bill Samuel February 2, 2010 at 3:50 pm #

    I believe that Julian received true revelation. It is an important message for us.

    It is a critical issue of faith. I think of Jesus saying to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

    We can not see the way God sees. We can not see (here, in our mortal lifetimes) all of God’s promises made true. But we MUST believe.

    If we believe, we have the hope which allows us to respond to what seem like hopeless situations and engage in “hopeless” causes, and yet not be truly discouraged. We recognize that our own human efforts are puny, but putting them in God’s hands allows God to use them in powerful ways. It really is a matter of being humble – of not insisting that OUR efforts show visible results, but allowing ourselves to be clay in the Potter’s hands.

    I believe Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom is not just a dream, but a picture of the truth. And I believe the truth will prevail – that, in fact, Jesus was right when he said he had overcome the world and when he shouted “It is finished” in words that in fact are a victory cry there upon the cross.

    Julian’s Shewings have survived and continued to be read these several centuries because we see in them the Truth that we need to hold onto despite what those around us say. And we see that God does speak to us ordinary mortals in very powerful ways if we will be truly open.

  4. Sarah Smith February 2, 2010 at 4:05 pm #

    Right now Shaun is trying to send 10000 tents to Haiti in the next 24 hours – all hands on deck, we need all the help we can get to make this a reality! http://tinyurl.com/haitiTents

  5. Ira February 2, 2010 at 4:23 pm #

    Feuerbachian anthropological projection, my ass. Analogy is not the problem, Sylvest. It’s like you haven’t even been paying attention. But this is not the place to take up an argument you abandoned somewhere else.


    I want to be affirming. I want to think that it wasn’t your inner Ira you were pushing back against in rejecting the “Pollyanna” epithet. I want to applaud a theology that plunges you into the rough-and-tumble of quotidian life and the messiness of it all, declaring that not only is our struggle for a better world vital, but it is also not in vain. I want you to know that I get that, if nothing else.

    But isn’t there also a very real sense in which you, like the rest of us, are constructing a theology that makes sense of where you already are, or helps you to get where you want to go — a desire that precedes the theological machinations by which you seek to get there? Doesn’t Dame Julian’s confidence presume some kind of theoretical apokalypsis in which this “wellness” is made known, if not necessarily realized? Doesn’t it presume an always-arriving-but-never-arrived eschaton in which the future holds a promise of making the present a little less inexplicable?

    I’m not saying those things are bad; I’m just suggesting that they need to be acknowledged — or wrestled with and refuted in some way. More to the point, doesn’t this, like any theodicy, project the inscrutability of the universe itself onto God in the hopes that asserting God’s ultimate goodness can somehow mask the senselessness of it all? [Whether such a projection is Feuerbachian, or why that would matter, is beyond my ken.]

    Does a world in which God, no matter how good or knowing or just, refuses to intervene except in isolated narratives of personal experience, and allows chaos a considerable leeway in conducting the affairs of the cosmos, really look any different on the ground than the world of the atheist? Granted, it might be more aesthetically appealing, and I’ll give you props for intuitively recognizing our need for a bulwark against despair.

    Is there no merit to admitting that maybe things won’t all be well, no matter how earnestly we believe (or want to believe) otherwise?

  6. John Sobert Sylvest February 2, 2010 at 5:12 pm #

    Ira, re: Is there no merit to admitting that maybe things won’t all be well, no matter how earnestly we believe (or want to believe) otherwise?

    Of course there can be merit in thinking maybe things won’t be well. That has a lot to do with why faith and hope are theological virtues. And insofar as faith & doubt, hope & a lack of expectation, are single polar realities, there is no nonvirtue in play when, in the pursuit of truth and beauty, one fails to take such additional risks as faith and hope. I have friends, for example, who self-describe as religious naturalists. See
    National Public Radio: Are You a Religious Naturalist?. They pursue truth, beauty and goodness in a nontheistic way that is undeniably sufficient to live a life of love and to realize life’s abundance, neither unaware of nor indifferent to life’s tragic aspects.

  7. John Sobert Sylvest February 2, 2010 at 6:11 pm #

    Ira, are there unresolved questions on Thom Stark’s theodicy thread? I had sent Thom a private e-mail and am awaiting a response but perhaps it didn’t make it past spam filters.

    At any rate, it does seem like we were able to locate our impasse between theological realism and nonrealism. And that’s cool. There were certain arguments that I put forward that Thom considered moot. And I took that, from the context of his other counters, that he meant that in the sense of being not worthy of consideration (2nd dict. def.) rather than open to debate (1st dict. def.). I was offering criteria for adjudicating between competing worldviews and acknowledging that they were problematical, which is not the same thing as being moot. I will be blogging tomorrow at
    http://christiannonduality.com/blog/ on what might be involved in busting those moves called faith, hope and love in the 21st Century or postmodern world.

  8. Ira February 3, 2010 at 11:47 am #

    “I was offering criteria for adjudicating between competing worldviews and acknowledging that they were problematical, which is not the same thing as being moot.”

    Then you missed the point. Adjudicating between competing worldviews is problematical but necessary, and I have no quarrel with that, or with the simple fact that others make different choices than I do. Successful adjudication produces a verdict; it does not lay bare the foundations of the earth.

    Of course people have very good reasons for believing in God, or for choosing a particular worldview or religious expression over others. I make the same kinds of choices. But those reasons for belief could (and very well may) cohere in a universe in which a very different God exists, or no God at all, which means that no such reason constitutes an actual realist argument for God’s existence. (FTR, I say the same of atheism.)

    Or, to put it slightly differently, you could offer me any number of good reasons to abandon non-realism, and I could agree with you that they are good reasons, and even choose them — but they would be, at bottom, pragmatic reasons that cannot get past the event horizon of my ironist black hole; it would have to either come to me as an epiphany akin to a conversion experience, and thus open to the charge that it is an artifact of my psychology or what I ate for breakfast, or I would have to consciously and deliberately make the choice, in which case I’m just as much of a ironist as a I ever was.

  9. John Sobert Sylvest February 3, 2010 at 5:12 pm #

    A worldview, in my view, is an axiology, or an axis of interpretation, around which our cosmology spins. This distinction between an axiology and cosmology is explicated in an article I’ve often cited: Drees, Willem B. “A Case Against Temporal Critical Realism? Consequences of Quantum Cosmology for Theology.”

    Such interpretive stances lend themselves to three verdicts: proved, disproved and unproven. Some worldviews can be disproved, but only to the extent they’ve committed category errors that place them at cross-purposes with other autonomous methods, like science and philosophy (e.g. epistemology). For example, an anti-evolution creationism is untenable. Equally untenable would be an epistemic nihilism, solipsism and stances that abandoned common sense understandings of causation.

    Of course, we can not prove such principles as noncontradiction, common sense notions of causation or even a critical realist stance, itself, or disprove such stances as nihilism and solipsism through formal argumentation or syllogistic reasoning. We proceed, instead, with an informal reductio ad absurdum or the essentially pragmatic criterion that going there just doesn’t work, while going here does. The foundation remains bare and we are immersed in irony long before we start busting a/theological moves, which, if they cohere with our cosmology, are rendered, at best, the Scottish verdict unproven. My point is that a metaphysical realism and natural theology are necessary to at least get us to this Scottish verdict while avoiding the disproved verdict. This is what Peirce would distinguish as an argument, a coherent framing of the question, as distinct from argumentation, which, when it pertained to the putative reality of God, he considered a fetish.

    When it comes to coherence, some adopt it as a theory of truth. As a semiotic realist, I still hold the correspondence theory of truth but employ coherence, along with a host of other truth-indicative criteria, as a test of truth. Now, for my part, I do not vacillate between solipsism, nihilism and critical realism based on whether I had Cheerios or bacon & eggs for breakfast, even if the irony of my situation is ineradicable. Others might, but I see no sense in arguing with them. While I appreciate that, in a theological move, one will have to further amplify the risk that one’s already taken (already taken to get past a more fundamental absurdity), my point is that any irony arrived on the scene long before one busts that move.

    As to whether or not one is open to such charges as have been leveled by Marx, Feuerbach, Freud or even the sociobiologists, those are impoverished anthropologies, which fall prey to what many semiotic scientists, nontheists included, call the adaptationist fallacy. It engages but a caricature of the life of faith. But that’s not a controversy I feel called to settle or even further address.

  10. Ira February 3, 2010 at 5:31 pm #

    “My point is that a metaphysical realism and natural theology are necessary to at least get us to this Scottish verdict while avoiding the disproved verdict.”

    That’s cool. Now explain to me — and please try to keep the discourse at a level a PhD student in cultural studies can understand, ’cause you’re killing me here — how that manages to not be a pragmatic move that merely confirms my ironist assumptions.

    And please please please tell me you’re not confusing theological (or metaphysical) non-realism and/or ironism (Rorty, btw, if we’re going to play the name-dropping game) with a thoroughgoing rejection of realism in general or the denial of common-sense causality, and then arguing against that rejection simply because that’s more fun than actually addressing my observations.

  11. John Sobert Sylvest February 3, 2010 at 5:46 pm #

    My point is, Ira, that ALL of our moves are essentially pragmatic and that your ironist assumptions apply to ALL of our encounters of reality. (But I am not employing pragmatism as a theory of truth. There is a difference between what Peirce was doing versus Dewey, James and others in that lineage, much less Rorty.)

    As to your second question, no. I am simply suggesting that our essentially pragmatic moves, whether applying to common sense, or metaphysics, or theology, differ in degrees and not in kind. The same might be said of irony?

  12. John Sobert Sylvest February 3, 2010 at 6:50 pm #

    Ira, let me say this. I have enjoyed exploring where it is that folks like you and Thom and I resonate and also where it is that we diverge. I am not that anxious to precisely locate any philosophical or theological impasse just to eliminate dissonance between our views for the sake of eliminating it. (And I’m not suggesting you do either. This is an aside.)

    I very much like hanging out with folks who care very deeply about the same things I do, who share a certain passion. This has always been infinitely more gratifying to me than hanging around in hermeneutical echo-chambers where everybody in a forum is reinforcing and parroting my ideas back to me. That thwarts growth and polarizes society. Dissonance, done right, can be something we carefully nurture and exploit creatively, engaging others’ views as a foil that helps us to not only deepen our understanding of others but to deepen even our own self-understanding.

    One thing I do challenge my religious naturalist friends to do is to not miss the opportunity to articulate their vision on strictly their own terms and not in an over against fashion vs other approaches. This can better serve as a credo of sorts to be celebrated with other like-minded, like-hearted people. (This is not to suggest that they will not also want to return to the marketplace of ideas and engage in an over against way.)

    Now, there are some dissonant approaches out there that simply must be discredited, even demolished, because they are dangers to humankind and the planet. In my view, yours is not one of them.

    At any rate, my original resonance w/your view is likely rooted in our shared American pragmatist heritage and even shared linguistic/analytical trajectories. RE: the points at which we diverge, philosophically and theologically, well … make for rich reflection.

    Reality is pregnant with irony, not a little bit pregnant, not a lot. We can admit this even on the level of common sense. Also, metaphysically. Beyond that, theologically. That reality is pregnant we agree. Is she having twins or even triplets? There is no ultrasound available but there are some equiplausible takes in attempts to answer this question. And we do want to be circumspect.

  13. Ira February 3, 2010 at 7:14 pm #

    “I am simply suggesting that our essentially pragmatic moves, whether applying to common sense, or metaphysics, or theology, differ in degrees and not in kind. The same might be said of irony?”

    Absolutely. (Oh, wait…)

    As to this: “My point is, Ira, that ALL of our moves are essentially pragmatic and that your ironist assumptions apply to ALL of our encounters of reality.”

    Funny, but that was my point too, and I would even add: including mine.

    Was that so hard?

  14. John Sobert Sylvest February 3, 2010 at 8:44 pm #

    In conversations with my nontheistic religious naturalist friends over the years, a fondness for Rorty surfaces from time to time. In exploring their minimalist religiosity, I found that we shared a cosmology (e.g. science, epistemology & values) and I’ve actively explored and have been trying to tease out the differences between our interpretive stances or axiologies (Catholic vs nontheist, for example). And I have resisted attempts to categorically dismiss Rorty for reasons I mentioned previously, feeling there was something there to be exploited.

    The phenomenon of faith is a reality that, in my view, needs to be more broadly conceived. If we too narrowly conceive it, we do violence to the depth dimension (or immense complexity) of human beings. If we get too vague, it means nothing. But I still feel like, for example, that there is more than the conventional understandings and more than even my nuanced Peircean understanding that can count for what we call faith. For some, it is not a Kierkegaardian leap but more like a single Petrine step out of the boat. In other words, a Rortian Ironism could be appropriated as a type of faith and might well describe, in fact, the type of faith that untold numbers practice and have practiced. I’m not the only Catholic who has mused about this; others have engaged it: The Theological Uses of Rortian Ironism.

    This is all to recognize that in science we advance hypotheses that are inherently falsifiable and call them “working hypotheses.” In philosophy we adopt what we call “provisional” closures. In metaphysics our speculation is inescapably fallible. In theology our faith can proceed moment by moment with a response that is “right enough.”

    Faith, by definition, has never proceeded with the premise that we have captured God as She “really” is but, still, even our apophatic (via negativa) predications are clear attempts to increase our descriptive accuracy and differ from our kataphatic (via positiva) predications only insofar as they can be both literal and analogical. In other words, our positive affirmations are metaphors and have always only been metaphors.

    None of this, necessarily, entails a nonrealist approach. It might get the ironist out of the predicament of imagining she’s not getting closer to reality or feeling that he’s not able to take himself seriously? At any rate, I see a Rortian Ironism as eminently reasonable as either a secular or religious response to reality, all of these positions, again, describing various degrees of pragmatism and irony. I appreciate that Rorty might’ve found such an appropriation repugnant. But I wonder if we have discovered the position where someone like Thom, stands, for example, in between you and me? My own Peircean pragmatism is vague enough to include a quasi-Rortian, religious ironism within a minimalist realism. If this needs more unpacking to be accessible, I’ll certainly try to do that when I get the chance.

  15. John Sobert Sylvest February 3, 2010 at 9:21 pm #

    So, we have established an accord that irony and pragmatism (albeit pragmatism variously conceived, perhaps) are in play all the way up and all the way down, influencing common sense, epistemology, science, metaphysics and theology. Further, we have agreed that realism is in play in common sense, epistemology, science and metaphysics (minimalistically in the last instance). Cool. We can save further explorations for a rainy day.

  16. John Sobert Sylvest February 4, 2010 at 4:04 am #

    Morissette’s Corollary – In theological discussions, it’s only a matter of time before Ira posits irony.

    • Ira February 4, 2010 at 10:52 am #

      Actually, that’s only triggered after you’ve used the word “axiological” at least four times.

  17. Ira February 4, 2010 at 11:48 am #

    “Further, we have agreed that realism is in play in common sense, epistemology, science and metaphysics (minimalistically in the last instance). Cool.”

    Almost cool. I’m stubborn, and I’m not going to budge on the metaphysical realism bit. Now, maybe it turns out that I’m not really using “realism” and “non-realism” in a way that comports with standard philosophical jargon. Cuppitt’s theological non-realism, for instance, is much more assertively atheistic than I care for, though on the ground we’re not much different.

    So in rejecting metaphysical realism I’m not saying that nothing beyond the empirical can possibly exist, I’m simply denying our ability to apprehend it in a any kind of reliable, agreed-upon way. There is no metaphysical analog to scientific method that produces the same kind of results. Wilber would like to think so, but I’m not buying it.

    There is, to me, and epistemological threshold on one side of which I’m probably a critical realist: I believe there’s stuff. I don’t think I’m a brain in a vat, and don’t care if I can prove that or not. The theoretical possibility that the chair I’m sitting in is merely an illusion becomes a lot less interesting once I stop toking.

    On the other side of this threshold, though, it seems to me that we make stuff up. Granted, we have sophisticated means of doing so. But the bottom line is we make stuff up and we’ve always made stuff up. Are there many gods, or just one? Does God even exist? Does this God like me, or do I just get lucky a lot? What would such a God want from us, or is that even a valid question?

    That threshold, of course, keeps shifting, and the distinction itself can be deconstructed. The threshold has a lot to do with the extensional bargains we’re willing to grant and the methodologies we’re willing to hold up as valid. And I’m certainly enough of a pragmatist, for example, that I’m not bothered when my naturopathic doctor blathers on about made-up stuff as long as I feel better when he’s done with me.

    I suppose I should clarify that it’s not our experience that I think we make up, though our experiences are framed by our expectations. Lots of people have ghosts stories, accounts of encounters with the paranormal. I’m willing to grant that, in at least some of those cases, the experience itself is valid. They really did have some kind of experience for which there’s no immediately available explanation. So they filter it through a grid and come out of that experience with a ghost story. I have no idea what it “really was” and neither do they, but I’m very, very, skeptical that what they experienced was the disembodied spirit of a dead person possessing some kind of human-like agency. As uncharitable as it may sound, there are lots of cases where “I know what I saw” simply isn’t true.

    And really, all I’m calling for, especially among people whom I think should know better, is greater candor about the fact that we’re making stuff up. I have no inherent quarrel with the enterprise itself.

  18. paul81255 February 6, 2010 at 9:29 pm #

    Since 10 so called American missionaries have been detained the difference between those wanting to do something; and those who operate out of close relationship with God is becoming more apparent.
    New Orleans marked the moment when people woke up and realised that all the worlds disaster problems could not be addressed. If the book of revelation says such and such will happen and people will not repent; then we are beginning to see that happening. But then again in a local failed state- Samoa I have listened closely to fellow workers who have been back to see or given generously or are currently working there with Habitat and I do see signs of a remittance money community similar to Haiti; is now moving to be more realistic about the daily vulnerability they face;
    As indeed is a reality of my own community where once it hits the South Auckland earthquake will damage at least 90% of our lightweight housing stock.
    Taking a fresh view of Haiti is a timely thing to do. paul81255

  19. John Sobert Sylvest February 7, 2010 at 5:20 pm #

    Well, Ira, I am deeply sympathetic to the idea that some stuff is socially constructed. And I affirm metaphysics as an enterprise that helps us clarify helpful categories, disambiguate vague concepts (not specific terms), frame-up coherent arguments and validate meaningful questions. To that extent, we can at least adjudicate between those provisional interpretations of reality that are totally out to lunch and those that are at least asking meaningful questions. The approaches that are most coherent, in my view, will acknowledge irony, abide with paradox and will not proceed to advance their arguments through some type of syllogistic argumentation, as if life’s deepest questions can be thus answered.

    But you describe a threshold (and acknowledged it could be deconstructed, so here it comes) and all things epistemological just ain’t that tidy. It’s too neat, too facile, too arbitrary, to say now I’m a realist and now I ain’t. Our grasps of reality, instead, admit of degrees and these differing degrees require increasing amounts of risk. And faith, hope and love are risk maneuvers and these risks are not just epistemic but existential. That’s the type of candor one might reasonably expect of believers.

    But one goes too far with one’s iconoclasm, in my view, to suggest that believers are just making stuff up. Thom Stark’s framing of the issue invites parsing? What does he mean by “reason” or even “sufficient”, when he writes:”I’m not denying that believers are able to trust that their God is benevolent and has some sort of plan that will redeem a long, senseless history of random human suffering. I’m just saying that there isn’t sufficient reason to believe in such a God.”

    It is one thing to say that the case for God cannot be conclusively adjudicated through evidence. It would be quite another to suggest there is no evidence.

    It is one thing to say that the rational arguments for God cannot coerce belief. It would be quite another to suggest that belief in God is wholly nonrational much less irrational.

    It is one thing to say that there are no empirical and scientific reasons to believe in God. It would be quite another to suggest that there are no coherent philosophic and pragmatic reasons for belief in God.

    It is one thing to say that our approach to God and reality does not proceed from indubitable foundations. It would be quite another to suggest that post-foundational epistemology and theology must be necessarily, then, nonrealist.

    It is one thing to recognize life’s irony and paradox and to affirm, even, an essential pragmatism. It would be quite another to suggest that Rorty’s vulgar pragmatism is definitive.

    It is one thing to suggest that our belief in God takes us BEYOND the evidential, rational and presuppositional. It would be quite another to suggest that we make such an existential move WITHOUT them.

    It is one thing to lament that there are many who remain stuck in a naive realism with an unnerving certitude and dangerous fundamentalism. It would be quite another to suggest that there can be no coherent cumulative case approach to the reality of God, mitigating against the distance one must leap, or, in some cases, perhaps, step (as a Rortian ironist), with a rather confident assurance in what one might “reasonably” hope for, with no small conviction regarding certain things unseen.

    Alas, Rorty’s neo-pragmatism resembles Peirce only superficially. Susan Haack, a neoclassical pragmatist, wrote an enjoyable play that demonstrates their otherwise profound disagreements. “We Pragmatists” Peirce and Rorty in Conversation. She explains: The point of my “conversation” between Peirce and Rorty was, of course, to bring out how utterly different Rorty’s literary-political, anti-metaphysical “pragmatism,” with its disdain for logic and repudiation of epistemology, is from Peirce’s pragmaticist philosophy. And Rorty’s neo-“pragmatism” is not only very different from Peirce’s; it is also quite distant from James’s, and even from Dewey’s. The old pragmatist whom Rorty most resembles is F.C.S. Schiller — the British philosopher whose radically relativist position James once described as “the butt-end foremost” version of pragmatism.

  20. Ira February 7, 2010 at 7:08 pm #


    I know I asked for this by invoking Rorty, and by defending Thom, but you might take care to differentiate your quarrels (or Peirce’s, for that matter) with these gentleman from your quarrel with me.

    I mentioned Rorty because I find his description of ironism useful. I don’t fully agree with them on some issues, nor am I familiar enough with his oeuvre to know each and every point on which he and I might agree or disagree, and on which of those Peirce has done a demo job that I’m supposed to find devastating.

    I must also confess that I’m not nearly as taken with the notion of risk-taking, which seems to be your latest obsession, as you are. Yes, we must take risks. I get that. Speculating on the divine is a set of risks about which I’m bored silly. Sorry.

    “…as if life’s deepest questions can be thus answered.”

    Or, because some questions really can’t be answered. That’s where I am. If I’m naive, then I’m naive. Maybe we all deserve some aspect of life and thought in which we’re hopelessly naive. This is mine. Actually, it’s the closest thing I have to real belief anymore, and I’m rather fond of it. The charge of hopeless speculation is not one from which I claim an exemption.

    Your riposte, by the way, is marvelously well-written. I like the construction. And I appreciate the benefit of the doubt in assuming I can keep up with your barrage of philosophical jargon and invocations of age-old guild-specific arguments that I seem to be unwittingly recapitulating. The truth is, however, that both my expertise and my interest on that front have long since been exhausted.

  21. John Sobert Sylvest February 8, 2010 at 12:51 am #

    re: I know I asked for this by invoking Rorty, and by defending Thom, but you might take care to differentiate your quarrels (or Peirce’s, for that matter) with these gentleman from your quarrel with me.

    In this regard, you’ve got a bigger job than than me. As one familiar w/ said oeuvre, based on what I’ve observed, you’ve got your work cut out for you in differentiating both your tenor and your tone from these folks, assuming that’s anything to which you’d aspire. Your penchant for personal references has long since exhausted me; it doesn’t make the world better, Ira. I’ll be giving us both a rest.

  22. Ira February 8, 2010 at 10:52 am #


    You’re right. I’m being an ass, and I apologize. At this point, I’m not even sure I remember the name of the lobster that crawled up my butt. I share neither your metaphysical confidence nor your faith (I assume they’re connected, of course), but it’s not my place to cast aspersions on that. To do so is seeming more and more an empty vocation. I can’t sign off on your theological project, but I can recognize and respect the affirmation of life that it constitutes.



  23. John Sobert Sylvest November 13, 2010 at 3:22 am #

    I was Googling some schtuff recently and this post from almost yesteryear popped up. And I must say that the exchanges here and at http://thomstark.net/?p=834#comment-2275 were excellent. In the process of checking out what appeared to be some hanging chads on that thread, I discovered that Thom Stark’s blog was no longer active and comments were closed. But, not to worry, for he’s migrated to http://religionatthemargins.com/ and it is thought-provoking and heart-evoking. I commend it to all, so get ye hither.

    I will clarify here — what I could not at Thom’s old blog — a couple of items.

    Thom wrote: “That coupled with the fact of the evolution of God concepts throughout history provides good reason to think that “God” is only ever the best thing humans can conceive of in a given context. That is not sufficient reason to assent to the latest ontology.”

    I responded: “It’s a reason to consider our ‘closures’ provisional and our conceptions fallible. It’s not a reason to get radically apophatic, radically deconstructive or nonrealist. Your argument dissolves in parody if you substitute Science in the place of God.”

    I was making the point that concepts evolve and are negotiated TRANS-categorically and so the fact that they thus change thru time is no reason, in and of itself, to adopt a nonrealist stance in ANY of our autonomous methodologies (whether descriptive sciences, evaluative cultures, normative philosophies or interpretive meta-critiques). So, I reject the charge of a category error in drawing that analogy.

    The more salient point, though, is that those categories do employ different methodologies and the pragmatic justifications of our interpretive stances will not enjoy the same level of normative impetus as the beliefs supported by our descriptive sciences, which will typically enjoy a much stronger epistemic warrant.

    Bottom line is that I am totally in league with Thom & Ira in rejecting the naive realisms of radical fundamentalists of all flavors. And we were only picking nits, really, over one issue – whether or not pragmatism concedes nonrealism. And it indeed does for Richard Rorty and John Milbank, for example. And it manifestly doesn’t for Charles Sanders Peirce and Susan Haack, for another example. And it may be that Charles Taylor accomplishes somewhat of a straddle as a metaphysical realist AND a linguistic constructivist, rejecting “truth as correspondence” as used in an epistemological sense by naive realists but otherwise using it in an ontological sense (Taylor’s “way of being in the world”). So, consider the baby split 🙂 I may be overly strident, but at least I’m very tedious.

    Don’t forget: http://religionatthemargins.com/ The contributions there are not just theoretically stimulating but very personally engaging as the authors very generously share matters of and from their hearts.

  24. zoecarnate February 10, 2011 at 2:05 am #

    John, as always I appreciate your contribution to these conversations! Even a year later. 🙂

    • Thom March 16, 2011 at 8:19 pm #

      Amen! 🙂

  25. Renee November 27, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

    One of my matras has been: All will be well, all will be well, all is well already.

  26. Laurence Lilley December 10, 2013 at 12:13 am #

    Hi Mike.

    What you are quoting and saying in that blog is spot-on. Experts in about every emergency situation I am aware of are the most inept and useless crapheads you can imagine, and a lot of people die as the result of their crapheadedness. I could tell you some stories so unbelievable, you wouldn’t believe them. Not only that, but in situations such as Haiti, or the Indonesian tsunami in our area, the Darwin cyclone more than 40 years ago – hundreds of millions of dollars are given by the people to help the people affected. In almost every situation I am aware of – people got nothing. The money was eaten up by officialdom. I no longer give to charities.

    Your article commenting on what Julian had written is fascinating. I am still unlearning the official doctrine I had absorbed in a former life, but which has been sliding off, slivers by sliver over a lot of decades as I am still searching for what God is really up to. I have some serious questions booked in at Headquarters. Some are being answered and some are still niggles deep in my gizzards, and the niggles are getting deeper. What Julian is quoted as saying is touching the edges, but is not getting into the heart of things.

    We live in a fascinating time in history.

    Thanks for this.


  1. christiannonduality.com Blog » Blog Archive » Science, Philosophy, Culture & Religion - February 2, 2010

    […] John Sobert Sylvest February 2, 2010 at 6:11 pm […]

  2. christiannonduality.com Blog » Blog Archive » I’ve already got truth, beauty & goodness! Why bother with faith, hope & love? - February 3, 2010

    […] Thus we amplify our risk in our pursuit of truth into a faith, often articulated in creed; in our pursuit of beauty into a hope, often celebrated in the cultivation of liturgy and ritual; in our pursuit of goodness in love, often preserved in our codes and laws; in our pursuit of community, often enjoyed in our fellowship and unity of believers. Thus humankind augments truth, beauty, goodness and unity in creed, cult, code and community. Thus we participate in the grand cosmic adventure, amplifying risks and thereby augmenting values, courageously running the risk of disintegration as God’s fragile, but beautiful creatures. Footnote: A Relevant Ping-Back from Mike Morrell’s Zoecarnate: ‘All Will Be Well’ – Polyanna Platitude or Responsible Mystical Theodicy? […]

  3. Ian Cron on Francis: Mystics and Prophets, Institutional and Emerging Church « zoecarnate - August 4, 2010

    […] the deep impatience of the prophetic tradition, but then there’s the sense of “all will be well” in the mystical tradition; I think you need both to fuel the […]

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