Just when the brouhaha over the New Atheism cooled down a touch, along comes The God Question, which would have been a useful tool during the cultural wars that broke out during that protracted spat. No matter. The book still makes for good reading, especially for those who get their kicks from intellectual pursuits. It also provides lots of material to arm readers -- on either side of the battle -- for when the next skirmish occurs.
This new work serves as a guided tour through "what famous thinkers -- from Plato to Dawkins -- have said about the divine," as the subtitle puts it. (The publisher is Oneworld, out of Oxford, England.) Author Andrew Pessin has not just chosen samples from major thinkers and slapped them on the page; rather, he's done something a little more daring. He's read these works and distilled them into chewable-sized essays, which seems the perfect working method for someone who is chair of philosophy at Connecticut College, has written The 60-Second Philosopher: Expand Your Mind on a Minute or so a Day! and has appeared several times as "The Genius" on "The Late Show With David Letterman."
I've never seen his TV appearances, but I can get a sense of his "delivery" from his reworkings of these great thinkers' ideas. Each chapter, no matter the depths it plumbs, is briskly presented without ever skipping over any major points; and though the prose has a lightness to it and works to be entertaining rather than strenuous, there is no sense of anything having been "dumbed down" for consumption by a general audience.
As might be expected in such a survey, the Jews on display are few, but they are also some of the powerhouses in Jewish thought. Maimonides and Spinoza are here (though some may say that, because of his heretical stance, the latter should not be included in any list of Jews; but the case is still open -- and still vigorously disputed in philosophical circles).
If you're in a generous frame of mind about counting Jews, Karl Marx is on hand, as is Sigmund Freud, who, no matter his thoughts on religion, was never allowed to evade his heritage in his lifetime.
Martin Buber and Ludwig Wittgenstein round out the sextet (though again, some might rate the latter as a questionable Jew; his influence on modern philosophy, however, is beyond dispute).
Though the Jews may have been few, they never lacked for things to say. Take Maimonides. He's given three separate entries here, though his first appearance doesn't arrive until Page 58.
What is most noteworthy about his appearances is that they address some of the most crucial religious matters. (Pessin has two regrettable ticks, which he resorts to throughout the text: First, God is always "He," feminist thinking having made little impression upon him; and he refers to the Bible as "scripture," a decidedly non-Jewish term, when, in fact, in the "Jewish" sections at least, he's talking about the Torah, the first five books of Moses.)
The God Question begins, as such texts usually do, in the fifth century BCE with Plato and, though the author admits that there is some connection between Jerusalem and Athens, we don't get to a real Jewish religious concept until 1,100 years after the Greeks. (Pessin states that Western religion "symbolically" may have arisen out of Jerusalem, but Western philosophy came from Athens, and that's what he's most interested; no further discussion on the matter is provided).
Pessin states that by Maimonides' time, theist philosophers were trying to determine how best to describe God. Though God may have made man in his image, He is not by any means a physical being like us. So it was necessary to decide what can and cannot be said about God.
According to Pessin, Maimonides insists "that God is so unique and superior that he literally can have nothing in common with any other being; whatever we can say of another cannot literally be said of Him." Further, as the philosopher Saadia argued some 200 years before Maimonides, "God is also a perfect simple unity, not composed of any smaller parts or aspects. Putting these two points together generates the problem. When scripture says that God is good (for example), we know by the first point that 'good' cannot mean exactly the same applied to God as it does applied to ordinary things; and when it says that God is also powerful, or eternal, or angry, we know by the second point that these words do not refer to distinct qualities in God -- since He is a unity -- even though they are distinct in us."
Not Just Verbal Tricks
The most important concept that arises here is that it's far easier to say what God is notthan to say what He is.
Continues Pessin: "Now these moves may seem like little verbal tricks, but they really aren't. To say what God is not is not to say what He is. But God so completely transcends our powers of comprehension that we simply cannot say what He is. The only legitimate alternative to this interpretation is to hold that when scripture says that God is powerful it is simply speaking falsely.
"And that is something, Maimonides insists, that scripture never does."
In the last of the three Maimonides sections, the question of evil is broached.
As Maimonides explains it, the natural evils of the world "are like darkness and blindness, with no real existence of their own. Terrible things like poverty, illness and death are really nothing but the absence of wealth, health and life. Once we recognize this then we see that God does not create evils after all, for these evils are not 'actively produced.' Everything God creates is in itself good. But goodness is a matter of degree, and when He produces things with less goodness than we might like, we call it an 'evil.' But in itself it is just a lesser degree of that healthy goodness we desire."
Maimonides further argues that humans often show ignorance in judging evil. "We naturally think of our own illnesses and death as great evils and wish they could be avoided. But that doesn't really make much sense. We are physical beings made of matter and it's the nature of matter to decay; to wish that we didn't become ill or die would be like wishing we material beings were not material beings. But that is not to wish that we were healthier; it's to wish that we didn't exist at all, since a non-material being wouldn't be us. And nobody wishes that."
The philosopher also posits that we human beings can be remarkably self-centered when it comes to evil. "If something happens against our personal desires or interests we immediately condemn it as evil, as if our own life were the only thing that mattered. But individual people, and even all humanity, are but the tiniest components in this immensely vast world -- a world that is not made worse because some beings enjoy less goodness than others but rather more beautiful by the tremendous variety of beings it contains. We may not like it but the world just might be better off overall, as a whole, if we personally happen to be enjoying less goodness than we might. Who are we to declare that the world as a whole is only good if things go well for us in particular?"
Which means that "everything God does is good, to various degrees, then and now -- and we shouldn't be so quick to judge as an evil our own rank in the relative distribution of goods."
There are more such intricate and challenging ideas here, and your level of interest in the subject may be the deciding factor in whether or not you stick with this offbeat compilation to its stimulating end.