To the philosopher it is an embarrassment for religion if the believer imputes personality or intentionality to the divine, as of a mere being rather than as of being or a necessity of being, on the basis of mythical-miraculous narratives and attestations. The perception of this thought of embarrassment, this position implicitly of disrespect if not disdain, makes the philosopher the eternal enemy of the politico-religious state, even the nominally secular one. From the other direction, however, the problem reveals a corresponding embarrassment to those whose abstract theologies may offer at best diversion, but otherwise give little or no comfort, or the opposite of comfort or of any other attraction, to unequivocal believers, the ones for whom skeptics both within and outside of any church assume the unlikelier passages from sacred literature are first meant.1
The difference between two implicit possibly monotheistic conceptions or two distinct aspects of one monotheistic concept, between “God” as a name for a mystery, for being like no other or ground of being, or for cosmic monist “all” equivalent to or correlational with being, and “God” as proper name for a spiritual lord, parent, lover, or friend (or enemy), as a will embodied or embodiable in an entity or entities, like the presumed or imputed human wish or need to which this second conception refers us, leads us to ask whether there is a moment at which, or a way in which, or a concept by which an infinite abstraction can cross over, become particularized and finitized as a living or lifelike and sentient figure, a being with or of emotions, goals, interests, plans, preferences, expectations; not or not merely a being that can matter as an issue or an idea may matter, but a being who can matter to “real” human beings as, or more than, or much more than, or infinitely more than another human being can matter; a being whom human and perhaps other beings can somehow defy, somehow disappoint, somehow frustrate, or somehow imagine themselves defying, disappointing, frustrating and not be simply falsely imagining themselves doing so.
For Hermann Cohen (1842-1918), the god as conceived in monotheism, in the Jewish religion, traverses or is the traversal of this disjunction between being and becoming, between all and us, between is and ought, between object and subject; is understood as the unity underlying such oppositions, the possibility and necessity of their co-existence and interdependence: Put abstractly and prior to implications, neither being nor becoming is or becomes except as conjoined or mutually conceived in the creativity called divine. We will have at some point to look closely, in connection to other crossings or closings of this ontological gap, at Cohen’s reasoning, according to which the being like no other can also be, differently but not necessarily merely contradictorily, a being somehow like others, as in sacred scripture, religious law, and religious speech and art generally. Cohen observes the traversal of the disjunction between perfect/infinite/unknowable and imperfect/finite/known, but struggles or seems to struggle to affirm and explain it as necessity rather than functional or emotional compromise; to explain or justify attribution of personality to deity except as emerging from within human desire and its frustration, a mirror reflection of human imperfection projected onto the opacity of the divine.
The difference between an inert pantheism and the creative, self-actualizing deity of Judaic belief cannot for Cohen rest on the anthropomorphized attributes of the latter. For Cohen, God is above all “unique,” which is not the same as “one” as in equivalent to the cosmic all, but which may, properly thought, turn out to contain the latter conceptually. Anthropomorphosis of God interferes with and precludes both this conceptual turn as well as the anthropomorphosis of the human being, the becoming fully human of the human being: The humanization or any other mode of embodiment of the divine de-humanizes the human and de-vitalizes the living as it de-divinizes the divine. To put the matter paradoxically, the equation of the divine with the All would be a reduction of the divine. A pantheistic divine finally converts via natural science especially into uncreated “mere being,” the universe of pure materialism. Cohen’s God is not merely universe but creation of universe, or creation of creation and all creatures; or one might say is creature itself, essence of life without which in principle there would be no knowable or no ever known difference between being and a non-being of being or simply nothing: a never actually conceived difference, since actuality, conception, difference and every other determination all presume a being of being and not nothing, at minimum a false or illusory being that becomes the being of all intents and purposes and therefore being for all intents and purposes.2
An absolute syncretic and anismistic concept would confirm or remove or in confirming remove any impression of a struggle in Cohen’s work, and seek if possible or necessary to re-conceive its terms and contain them right alongside or in Kojève’s rendering via Hegel of an absolute atheism, alongside or in Eric Voegelin’s Christian and classical certitudes, alongside or in Ananadamayi Ma’s absolute de-centering, alongside or in Ibn Rushd’s rationalized Islam, and alongside or in all annihilations and would-be exclusionary or partisan literalisms. Yet, as Cohen writes near the outset of Religion of Reason, in one of his few resorts to imagistic metaphor: “Out of the misty sea of myth, questions emerge; chaos arises… Only gradually can all these meanings of the uniqueness of being be developed.” To this end Cohen does not ignore or merely set aside the inconsistencies and contradictions in scripture and its interpretation: Writing in 1917-8 at the end of his career and life, he scrutinizes these most basic problems or problems of the most basic, tracing and re-tracing each contradiction, seeming contradiction, re-affirmation, and re-contradiction, with all of his heart, and all of his might, and all of his soul, a secular Jew seemingly returning to orthodoxy from the pinnacle of German philosophy, from the depths of a world cataclysm, on the historical eve of an apocalypse he did not live to experience but which negatively fulfilled his prophecy of peace in every way.
We cannot hope and perhaps should not hope to repeat or complete his work, or in any sense approach its level, but we can record our re-encounter with its problematic, of the unknowable as it is known. I expect shortly to be taking a closer look than previously at Voegelin, and we will have to look again, in careful re-constructive detail, at Kojève’s self-refutingly irrefutable proof of the necessity of atheism, at Hegel’s idealized unity of philosophy and religion, and at Strauss’s dualistic refusal of that unity. We will need to return to Jesus or Isa again and again, and each return will evoke another blasphemy.Notes:
- The Great Separation of religion and politics is in this sense a historically recent decision, on the level of the nation-state, a satisfactory consensus to look away yet again from something seemingly beyond satisfactory consensus. [↩]
- That a necessity of this self-creating creature can be said to imply its own contradiction, as an indistinction of being and non-being, in a being that is not, is non-refuting refutation: The equivalence of being and non-being becomes the infinitely renewed moment of the origin of the difference to be erased, an indistinction of distinction and indistinction: It is the same moment in reverse. [↩]