RIP Norman Geras

Norman Geras, prolific blogger and professor emeritus of politics at the University of Manchester has passed away at the age of 70. He had been suffering from prostate cancer. Norm was best known as a political theorist whose oeuvre included books on Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and Richard Rorty. (He also served on the editorial boards of the New Left Review and the Socialist Register.)

I chanced upon Norm’s blog after he and I had a short online exchange in response to a minor quasi-theological debate triggered by Yoram HazonyI had written a post responding to  a piece by Hazony in the New York Times; so did Norm. Corey Robin sent me  Norman’s post, and I emailed or tweeted him, pointing him to mine.

On Norm’s blog, I found out that besides writing on politics, he also wrote on cricket. (As I blog on cricket too, and consider myself a pretty serious fan, I was immediately hooked.) In particular, Norm maintained a section titled ‘Memories of Cricket: a series of recollections of incidents, notable and not so notable, in the history of cricket, with each personal recounting supplemented by descriptions of the same event from books in Norm’s voluminous collection. Shortly thereafter, Norm asked me if I would contribute a memory of my own to the collection. I agreed, and contributed one of an event I had heard and read about for years before I ever saw it on video: David Hookes’ five fours off Tony Grieg in the Centenary Test. As a token of his appreciation, Norm offered to send me signed copies of his two books on the 1997 and 2001 Ashes. I thoroughly enjoyed reading them and am glad they sit on my shelves.

I never met Norm and so, did not know him personally, but did have some email contact with him, and felt like I had established a rapport of sorts. I knew there were some political differences between us. (For instance, our opinions on the 2003 invasion of Iraq and perhaps some of the claims of the Euston Manifesto.) But he always seemed to me to be infected with a deep concern for many of the same political ends that I was sympathetic to. He just had a different conception of the actions required to achieve them. Where I found myself disagreeing with him, I still found his arguments carefully constructed and often quite persuasive.

Because I found his writings thoughtful and provocative it was inevitable that I would respond to him on this blog. I did so a little while ago, with a post on the differences he had with Glenn Greenwald and Terry Eagleton on the question of whether the ‘explanation’ of a heinous act constitutes a ‘justification’ or an apologia of sorts for it. Writing it helped clarify my thoughts on an often  vexing topic.

In his last days, Norm, perhaps sensing the end was near, was on a tear on his blog. If you’ve never looked through its archives, you really should.

RIP Norm. I hardly knew you, but I’m glad we made contact, even if only for a little while.

If Not a Perfect God, Then a Imperfect God Maybe? Contd.

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post responding to Yoram Hazony’s article at the Stone. In response, Corey Robin sent me the following comments by email:

I was thinking about yours and Norman Geras’s post about Yoram Hazony.  I don’t think there’s any question that you’re both right about what the implications of Hazony’s argument are for a structure of moral obligation. (Or for the atheist, for that matter, who wants some proof of God’s existence.) I wonder though if that question doesn’t matter for Jewish people because Jewish ethics are not really predicated upon there being a God so much as there being a set of rituals and practices that, a la Aristotle, inculcate in you a sense of ethical goodness. (Not quite virtue, but something like that.)  Hazony’s God — and I think it’s quite descriptive of how a great many Jews think about God — is not meant to structure obligation or duty. Our God is meant to do something else: to provide an opportunity for wonder (at the awesomeness of God’s inscrutability), gratitude (that we exist), and hope in transformation (I will be what I will be). Not just hope in transformation, but hope in God’s existence, that something so inscrutable and impossible — and all that it heralds in the Messianic — might in fact be. It’s a frame, a lodestone, more than anything else. Now of course you and Geras could reply that anything could do that — a mathematical proof, a Beethoven string quartet, the Rocky Mountains — and that’s probably true (though I don’t know if one thing can do all of those things at the same time.) But I’m not sure that anything could do that for a collective, which is the other part of Judaism: we’re a collective, not an individualist, religion. Getting everyone together once a week (and if you’re more observant, every day), setting time aside for Shabbat, etc. — all that might not be possible without that particular lodestone of God to attract the fillings.

This is an interesting set of observations. I have some disparate responses to make.

First, as Corey himself concedes, this role could be played by many entities. The mountains do that for many people, and the experience is rich and varied enough to induce talk of ‘spiritual transformation’ by them. (My time in the mountains is certainly the closest I’ve come to a spiritual experience.) It seems to me too, that one thing could induce all the experiences referred to above: mountains amaze, awe and frighten me, they make me grateful that I was born so I could have experienced them, and they have always promised me the hope for transformation. (As I note in this post on this blog some time back.) Indeed, I think the universe itself, with its mysterious expanse and temporal duration does this for many people. And again, it isn’t clear to me why this might only work for individuals and not for collectives. There are many examples of mass group followings of non-divine, non-spiritual entities (cults of all kinds for instance; dunno, Gaia?); individuals can communicate their experiences and shared feelings and come together under their banner to form collectives. If Corey is suggesting that the effect on collectives comes about only because of the peculiarly inaccessible or ineffable attributes of this entity, then it seems to me that somehow the standard theist notion of a God is being invoked, one whose expanse is unlimited, whose powers lie beyond our imagination or comprehension, his goodness unlimited. That is, while the suggestion is being made that the ‘God’ in question needn’t serve as a source of moral obligation, to have the particular relationships to it that Corey specifies, while also stressing its mysterious or inaccessible nature, is, I think, to draw upon the theist conception again.

More importantly though, I wonder why the term ‘God’ is being or should be used here. To ask this question is to engage in a losing battle, of course, because the term has often become hopelessly overloaded in debates about the existence of ‘God’. Hazony’s ‘God’ is a powerful, mysterious entity, one we only dimly understand, but whose rough contours are enough to induce in us the feelings Corey describes above. But why use the term ‘God’ to refer to this entity? In terms of antecedent theological usage, ‘God’ is generally used to refer to something far more expansive, more immanent. If it’s an imperfect entity we have in mind, why not come up with a new term?

I’m musing aloud here, so no permanent position taken. But it’s something I’ve wondered about myself a lot, and Hazony’s account of God tracks my own often inarticulate thoughts on this all. Of course, he and I are coming from a different position from the atheist: we’re trying to make sense of what we do (he much more than I).  It might be that the way he articulates what we do is the best we can come up with to make sense of the rituals, the holidays, etc. It’s not a knock-down argument against the atheist who says why? Or even the child who asks why too. It’s a way of making sense of the person who operates under the assumption, Why not?

I agree with this, but again, I wonder why we should not just retire the term ‘God’, one that is weighed down with so much baggage: creator, guarantor of the moral order, and so on. The qualities of the entity that Corey has in mind could be found in much else. Indeed, as I suggest above, knowledge of the seemingly infinite expanses of space, our being ‘made of stars’, the mysteries of time could do all of this, and we don’t need to use an overloaded term to describe them.

I’ve never felt like a child of the universe more than the time when my father explained to me just how far away the stars were from me and from each other, and how when I looked at them, I was seeing the past. That was magic. When I see the sun, it awes me to think it has borne witness to all of human history and much more before. These experiences are as close as I can get to spiritual ones. It doesn’t seem to me that I need to borrow the term ‘God’ to describe these objects of my reverence.

Why Would An ‘Imperfect’ God Be of Interest?

I find Yoram Hazony’s post at the Stone today genuinely perplexing (and a little pointless). Hazony suggests the notion of a ‘perfect God’ is problematic, that indeed, it is the insistence on such a conception of God, apparently nowhere to be found in the Bible, that is the source of much philosophical head-scratching, disputation between theists and atheists, and perhaps even the source of existential angst. But Hazony’s brief appears misplaced. Yes, theism is an incoherent doctrine, and yes, the theist God is nowhere to be found in the Bible. But how does the conception of a limited God help any of our philosophical perplexities? And, why, more importantly, is a limited God even remotely interesting? Why is the kind of limited God that Hazony attempts to describe in his piece a source of moral obligation or guidance? What qualities does this limited God have that make them morally relevant?

Hazony says:

So if it’s not a bundle of “perfections” that the prophets and scholars who wrote the Hebrew Bible referred to in speaking of God, what was it they were talking about? As Donald Harman Akenson writes, the God of Hebrew Scripture is meant to be an “embodiment of what is, of reality” as we experience it. God’s abrupt shifts from action to seeming indifference and back, his changing demands from the human beings standing before him, his at-times devastating responses to mankind’s deeds and misdeeds — all these reflect the hardship so often present in the lives of most human beings.

Even if Akenson were to taken at face value, what is, again, morally relevant about such an embodiment? The question that Hazony should have taken on, but doesn’t seem to want to is: If the theist God is incoherent, then why bother looking for a substitute? The insistence that the term ‘God’ continue to refer seems to need some explanation. That Hazony does not want to consider. If the God of the Bible is limited, if his perfection is to be understood in metaphorical terms, then it seems the entire arsenal of persuasion that has been built upon a false conception of the central theses of theism needs to be discarded. But if all that is done, then what is left of ‘God’?

As anyone who has spent any time arguing with a theist well knows, arguments about the existence of God are only interesting if the standard theist conceptions of God are taken seriously and refutations attempted on metaphysical and epistemological grounds. Without those conceptions there is no ‘there’ there; if one were to go by the conceptions available in the Bible, as read by Hazony, we are confronted with some indeterminate entity with indeterminate attributes for as noted, ‘the biblical accounts of our encounters with God emphasize that all human views of God are partial and fragmentary’. But then, why base so much moral and spiritual instruction on something so poorly known? And why is Hazony so confident that these partial glimpses are partial to begin with? That presumes a totality beyond. What evidence does Hazony have for that?

Hazony concludes:

The ancient Israelites, in other words, discovered a more realisticGod than that descended from the tradition of Greek thought. But philosophers have tended to steer clear of such a view, no doubt out of fear that an imperfect God would not attract mankind’s allegiance. Instead, they have preferred to speak to us of a God consisting of a series of sweeping idealizations — idealizations whose relation to the world in which we actually live is scarcely imaginable. Today, with theism rapidly losing ground across Europe and among Americans as well, we could stand to reconsider this point. Surely a more plausible conception of God couldn’t hurt.

Right. But to what end? Why is the notion of a Being More Powerful Than Man, But Not All-Powerful useful or interesting?