- Response to Professor Peter Lawler
I'm honored by and grateful for the thoughtfulness and the sharply stimulating character of Prof. Lawler's critical reflections prompted by my book.
Lawler states felicitously what divides us, in the following words: "Maybe we only disagree (only!) on what sort of God is the image of perfection beyond all human experience to which the deepest human longings point."
My focus in this book is twofold, guided by what I have learned from Maimonides are the two fulcra of the debate between the exponents of biblical revelation and the exponents of Socratic rationalism.
In the earlier chapters, I explore what I term the ontological questions. I orchestrate a philosophic interrogation of what, according to the Bible, it means to exist, for this whole that we humans experience and for the beings that constitute it in their interrelatedness. Above all, I try to make as intelligible as possible the full meaning of divine omnipotence.
In doing so, I try first and foremost to bring out what is at stake, and above all precisely why and how it is that divine omnipotence renders philosophy in any strict, classical sense impossible. At the same time, I show how, in the actual historical dialogue between the upholders of biblical faith and the questioning of that faith that arose especially out of Platonic philosophy, the upholders of faith learned from the philosophic questions or challenges, and substantially revised or even reinterpreted the revelation they received through tradition, so as to meet what the philosophically instructed critics taught them were the true criteria of intelligibility and possibility. What is more, I try to show the precise extent to which omnipotence, as creation ex nihilo, can be made intelligible. But, by the same token, I show the degree to which even or precisely its believers wrestle with, and find themselves troubled by, its limited intelligibility. In other words, I try to show what is the extraordinary difficulty—not merely or most importantly for the rationalist, but for the thoughtful adherents of biblical faith—in even conceiving of creation or a creator in the strict sense (as ungoverned by eternal necessities in the existent). The full gravity of this extraordinary difficulty is indicated by a pregnant pronouncement of Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed, Bk. 1, chap. 50): "belief is not the notion that is uttered, but . . . the affirmation that what has been represented exists outside the mind just as it has been represented in the mind." To what extent can the mind truly believe in what it cannot conceive? Here I note that Prof. Lawler follows Leon Kass in "waffling" (as he puts it) on the fundamental, and, I would contend, crucial point of God's being the Creator; and Prof. Lawler ascribes such "waffling" to the Bible itself, as well as to "key church fathers"; this "waffling" he finds inevitable because, as he puts it, "the two competing possibilities both present insuperable problems to the human mind": he seems to admit, then, that the meaning of "creation" and "the creator" is not and cannot take clear shape in his mind or in anyone else's.
Still, none of this is sufficient to refute the possibility that we are nevertheless, or all the more, commanded by God to believe in him as the Creator. The philosophers can on grounds such as the preceding demonstrate only the gulf that separates our thinking minds and all our experience from such belief. There remains what Leo Strauss sometimes called the "brute fact" of what purports to be the experience of revelation. For there are surely some among us who undeniably experience the soul-electrifying and soul-transforming presence and call of what declares itself or is interpreted to be the providential God—who commands us to believe in him while also commanding us to do what is just, and who backs up these commands with the threat and promise of eternal sanctions. I try to bring out why it is that omnipotence is so important a dimension of the most profound belief in such providential divinity. And this points to the second and more important focus of my book: a critical...