George Pattison interviewed by Richard Marshall.
[Photo: Kåre Gade]
George Pattison is a philosophical theologian who thinks about contemporary religion, about how God cannot be separated from the quest for the Kingdom of God and cannot be an object of detached scientific contemplation. He thinks all the time on God and Being, on Heidegger on death, on the singularity, on the need for theology to engage with technology, on the new atheism, on links between Christianity and Japanese Buddhism, on Meister Eckhart, on Kierkegaard and avoiding sloppy scholarship, on keeping contact with unbelief, on the death of God and on resisting the idea of religion as heritage and instead orientating it towards hope. Soulful…
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
George Pattison: I’m not sure that I ‘am’ a philosopher – but I do engage with questions that are generally recognized as philosophical questions, such as the character of human existence and what makes for a good human life. In a sense these are questions that most people ask themselves to some extent. They become philosophical when asked with a persistence and rigour that pushes past conventional or evasive answers. It’s nothing to do with acquiring a technical facility in an academic discipline.
3:AM: Tillich and Barth are theologians of the beginning and mid last century very much tuned in to the humanist world laid waste and existentialist meaninglessness. You quote Beckett’s Estragon to capture the position theology talked to: ‘there’s no lack of void.’ Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Hegel too have been post boys for this position for some. Is this still a possible stance or is Cupitt right to say that the mourning is over and must stop?
GP: Perhaps this is an area where every generation starts from scratch. Although the crisis of the First World War inaugurated an especially strong period of disillusion with regard to the optimism of the previous age, the pattern has repeated itself in many ways in more recent times, e.g., the loss of faith in politics as a means of advancing human well-being. And perhaps this also has to do with basic elements in growing up. I still read a lot about teenage angst! Of course, any kind of mourning CAN become pathological and then it ‘has to stop’, but to move through life untouched by the loss of hopes, beliefs and aspirations once cherished is also questionable.
3:AM: What are the practices and claims of Derridean post-structuralist theology and why is it helpful in this post-theism context? Does Heidegger’s notion of ontotheology fit in with this?
GP: These are big questions. I’m not sure how far Derrida’s later ‘theological’ interests are really rooted in post-structuralism or whether they don’t rather reflect a kind of Kantian-Marxist trajectory—with a French twist on the centrality of liberty, equality and fraternity (cf. Politics of Friendship). Not to mention the role of Levinas and, behind Levinas, Judaism’s twinning of eschatology and the call for justice. What it does remind us is that ‘God’ is not to be separated from the quest for the Kingdom of God and is not and cannot be the object of any detached ‘scientific’ contemplation. Heidegger’s critique of onto-theology is also driving a wedge between speaking of God and the aims of science—not so as to get rid of God but rather to free God from a false objectification.
3:AM: Doesn’t the Heideggarian move from God as Supreme Being to God as ‘beyond Being’ or ‘without being’ radically change the theological subject and that whatever it offers in compensation there are difficulties for people who want to be involved in practices of prayer, for instance? Should God and Being have been tangled up to start with? Do you think Heidegger’s critique mistaken?
GP: More big questions. I could just say: Read my book God and Being! However, in brief, I think the connecting of ‘God’ and ‘Being’ is one of these things for which there seems to be a natural impulse in human thinking but it can also lead to confusions. Religious believers mostly want to see God as the epitome of what is most really real and in some non-theistic contexts, people talk simply of ‘Isness’. It seems that just Being, the sheer fact of existence, that there is something rather than nothing, already inspires a wonder akin to religion. But – as in my comment about the Kingdom of God in the last answer – Jewish and Christian traditions are also prepared to challenge what ‘is’ for the sake of what could be. Religious life is about something real in human experience that is not constrained by what Wittgenstein called ‘all that is the case’. In this sense Heidegger is not simply ‘mistaken’—he just asks us, as philosophers mostly do, to think more carefully about what we’re saying.
3:AM: Heidegger’s thinking on death in ‘Being and Time’ are important to you aren’t they? How can his approach help theological responses to fundamental questions of humanity?
GP: Again, I could refer to one of my books, this time Heidegger on Death! The fact that I wrote it indicates its importance. But why should a religious person be interested in a work like Heidegger’s that many regard as the epitome of nihilism? For a start, because Heidegger forces us in a way that few philosophers do to really think through the seriousness and all-encompassing nature of our mortality. Positively, he shows that the prospect of death doesn’t of itself destroy all possibilities of meaning but calls instead for these to be relocated from fantasies about a future post-mortem life. However, I don’t think he does enough in this work to show that this relocation has—I believe—a primarily ethical character (in Levinas’s sense of ‘ethical’).
In brief, I regard love as a more decisive focus of meaning than death. In terms of Heidegger’s argument, this is because I think he misdescribes the importance of the deaths of others and focuses exclusively on my relation to my own death. But, in reality, the deaths of others have a more urgent and immediate impact on our lives than the purely notional knowledge that I too will one day die. Ethics arises in the recognition of our obligation to care for others as beings, like us, exposed to mortality—that is, beings who need our help. Buddhism, not wrongly, extends this to ‘all sentient beings’.
3:AM: Darwin, Freud, Marx and post-modernity are all seemingly hostile to theology and so theology might be expected to engage with them. But you say it also needs to engage with technology don’t you. Is it dystopian fears of the ‘Matrix’ or Teilhard de Chardin’s ‘noosphere’ fantasy, which sounds like a version of the technological singularity, that prompt this by raising issues about the nature and future of human beings themselves in relation to machines?
GP: That’s right. Of course, it’s always difficult to disentangle fact from fiction in relation to, e.g., the singularity project. Many scientists I know are dismissive of transhumanist claims, BUT the last 100 years has surely taught us never to underestimate the pace and scope of scientific progress. However, even if much of this turns out to be science-fiction, it also reveals a way of thinking about human life that I find deeply troubling. When I’m on the operating table, I’m happy for the surgeon to treat me as a machine, but the moment I return to consciousness I have other needs and aspirations that should be recognized. We’re not here only to survive or extend our individual or species life but to do something seemingly more difficult, for which I’ve used words and phrases like ‘love’ and the ‘Kingdom of God’.
3:AM: And do you find Heidegger’s approach to technology one that helpfully feeds into a theological response?
GP: I think he sets the question up in a useful way and, despite appearances, he’s not ‘against’ technology. He just wants us to have a questioning and thoughtful relation to it. This must be relevant to any approach.
3:AM: Contemporary atheism mobilises via claims about science making belief in God unsustainable. Is your view that much of the new atheism is irrelevant to concerns of theology as you conceive it, or is the naturalistic challenge something that can’t be or shouldn’t be thought of as one that can co-exist with theology?
GP: Essentially I see the new atheism as largely part of the crisis of the left. Having failed to carry through its agenda in relation to political and economic life it’s rounding on religion, ignoring the fact that, in some key respects, many believers are likely to share leftist aspirations. One of the most violent attacks on the Church in the Soviet Union was under Kruschev when, during a period of economic and political liberalization, he attacked the Church to demonstrate to old Party members that he hadn’t lost it. At a theoretical level, I think a naturalist approach to religion is just asking questions I’m not interested in. They’re perfectly legitimate in their own terms, but they don’t address the actual experience of how one or other aspect of religion becomes existentially meaningful to us in our actual lives. The fact that we ourselves are the subject of investigation makes all the difference.
3:AM: Don Cupitt calls himself a ‘Christian Buddhist’ and you’re interested in the Kyoto school of Japanese Buddhism. How does that contribute to answering the question about theology confronting the void?
GP: I’m not sure if Cupitt himself still uses this term, but it’s useful in suggesting that, actually, there are more choices than the choice between nihilism and faith. In fact, the issue may not be faith as such but the fact that for millennia, Christianity has buttressed itself with a particular kind of metaphysics that has now seemingly reached the end of its life-span. But perhaps Buddhist metaphysics could provide an alternative here—or, at least, offer a direction of travel.
3:AM: Do you see historical theological figures, such as Meister Eckhart, as fitting in to this approach to nothingness and how important is this to contemporatry debates about atheism? It seems that if theology has a track record of working in the context of the void then many current arguments about why we should be atheists ignore the actual history of religious thought. Religion seems to have survived voids throughout its history. Is this your position and where the idea of agnosis rests?
GP: Now, as at the beginning of the 19th century, there is a certain discovery of Eckhart and related figures. There are questions as to how far our Eckhart accords with the real medieval teacher of that name, but there are certainly images in his work that help us work our way past several of the aporia with which we’re confronted in our attempts to think about God. Perhaps—and this goes for the Kyoto School too—one of these insights is that nothingness and unknowing don’t have to be equated with a destructive nihilism but with the experience of unity and participation—whilst resisting the tendency of objectifying metaphysics to claim that we can in some way ‘know’ that this experienced unity is really the truth of how things are, i.e., reveals being itself. And one thing the void certainly can teach us is how to wait, how to become truly patient, and how to let go of superfluous intellectual baggage—all of which is a good lesson for hyper-agitated multi-tasking goal-focussed contemporary human beings.
3:AM: Kierkegaard is a key figure for you isn’t he? You say he is someone who can be read philosophically and humanistically and not religiously. Given the amount of religious writing he seems to do, why is my scepticism about this misplaced?
GP: Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s a paradox here! Kierkegaard’s own indirect communication proposes that we start with the experience of those who don’t believe and meet them on their own ground. His success in doing this is evidenced by the fact that, at least for some periods of the 20th century, aspects of his work became a major focus for radical thinkers of various kinds, including the non-religious and, interestingly, a significant number of Jewish thinkers (Buber, Rosenzweig, Taubes, and others). But, inevitably, as he approaches what we might call his Christocentric climax many readers drop off. Many scholars just leave that part of his authorship alone.
Of course, if one’s reading Kierkegaard for personal interest that’s fine—but it’s sloppy scholarship just to cherry pick what suits one from a particular author, whether it’s Kierkegaard, Heidegger, or whoever. Nevertheless, it does seem to me that even the more religious parts of the authorship can offer significant insights into the meaning of the human condition to those who can’t then say that, e.g., they believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God and their personal Saviour. Sartre is one example of someone who does just this. Every text is, after all, a human document and whatever Kierkegaard thought about God was clearly a matter of human thought that can, in principle, be retrieved and interpreted by other human beings. A phenomenological approach to religion must, it seems to me, adopt the old adage: nothing human is alien to me.
3:AM: You find a unity in Kierkegaard’s work – even in the ‘upbuilding discourses’ which seem like sermons. So what is Kierkegaard’s thinking unified around, and why would it be wrong to call your reading ‘blunt’ as Roger Poole would accuse you of being?
GP: There are kinds of unity other than those of the explicit and systematic unity that Poole is attacking. There are kinds of movement—in music or athletics, for example—that present themselves as having a certain unity about them. In some sphere we might talk about ‘style’. Every stroke a tennis player plays is different, yet we perceive them as playing in a distinctive and unique way. It’s what Heidegger called a certain ‘how’ of existing. It’s ultimately always singular, and the double task of (a) getting it in view and (b) communicating it to others will inevitably be marked more often by failure than success! Interpretation is a task that we repeatedly have to take up and start again from the beginning, Sisyphus-like. But, as Camus said, we must always imagine Sisyphus happy, and this is not so difficult when it’s a matter of texts that reveal important truths about being human. To come back to the first part of your question, then, the unity of Kierkegaard’s thinking is not a certain ‘content’ but what he himself would call the passion of thinking.
3:AM: There’s a contrast you make which helps us understand Kierkegaard’s theological position: you contrast Schleiermacher’s ‘feeling of absolute dependence’ with Barth’s denial of ‘any point of contact.’ Can you explain the contrast and why you think Kierkegaard is best thought of as Schleiermacherian and are there still points of relevance in this?
GP: Barth’s approach tears up any possibility of dialogue between faith and unfaith or between theology and other human sciences. Theology just says what it says on the basis of scripture, and that’s that. Schleiermacher, however, starts by attempting to find what he takes to be a basic element of the human condition as such, namely, that we did not invent ourselves but find ourselves born into a life and a world that precedes us in manifold ways.
Where did it all come from? We don’t know. Ultimately, we live in the face of an irresolvable mystery about our origin and, for that matter, about our end. And what Schleiermacher would have us do is (a) acknowledge that this is the case and (b) accept it as something positive, a point of departure for a life of trusting joy. And this is also what he takes Christian doctrine, in all its complexity, to be centrally about, that is, teaching an attitude rather than a set of propositions. Call it joyous openness to life. What’s not relevant about that?
3:AM: So much of your philosophical concern seems to ask whether theology can operate in the void of post-theism. The push back against all this is that no theology is justified once God is dead is announced. So how do you respond?
GP: It’s strange that in an age when we pride ourselves on our independence of thought we meekly submit without further question to the declaration of a clearly unbalanced nineteenth century philosopher that God is dead! That’s cheeky, of course—and one rarely comes away from reading Nietzsche without learning something new and significant. He’s certainly FAR more unsettling for faith than any contemporary atheist I know of. But my point is that ‘the death of God’ is not something like the Battle of Waterloo or Magna Charta. It’s not a historic event of that kind. For many people it hasn’t happened yet. Others—to recur to an earlier question—are still in the phase of intense shock. For others the mourning is over. Others would say that whilst one God has died—the God of ontotheology perhaps?—this allows for the good news of a God who is to come, a God who will be better able to gather up and give justice to all the manifold aspirations of human life towards goodness and meaning (and not just to those who are able to fit into a narrow ‘religious’ framework). And perhaps this has to do with what I sense is a turning away from the idea of religion as being about conserving a certain heritage from the past towards religion as having to do with how we orientate ourselves to the future, to all we truly long for, to hope.
3:AM: And for those of us at 3:AM wanting to know more, are there five books other than your own that you can recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?
GP: I suppose the Bible is cheating and it contains far more than 5! At 3 a.m. I’d be wanting to read poetry or fiction rather than scholarly work. From the Bible I might look to the Psalms, to Job, and to the Sermon on the Mount. From amongst the poets, R. S. Thomas is good on doubt, but Edwin Muir has ultimately a more generous vision. Is that 5 already? If I didn’t wake anyone, I might try listening to the Goldberg variations or Beethoven’s Quartet Opus 132.
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 18th, 2014.