On Renunciation, Liberation, Sin and Death

This follows on from my previous post, which was a simple expression of desire and yearning for liberation in the song Fisherman’s Blues by the Waterboys. But liberation from what? What are the chains which hold you fast? It is the big question – and different religions answer in different ways. Religions such as Buddhism usually characterise those chains as ones of ignorance and desire and suffering. In Hinduism the word Moksha expresses the idea of freedom from these marks of reincarnation. In Christianity the emphasis is more moral – the chains are ones of sin and thus death. As often happens, the reading I was doing today was saying a lot about this yearning for liberation, and the entrapment of the human being. For A2 students perhaps wondering what this has got to do with the exam – stay with me to the end!

As usual I have been doing one of my favourite things – reading about Tolkien! In particular the excellent ‘Tolkien’s Sacramental Vision’ by Craig Bernthal. I have based much of what I say here on his chapter ‘Penance, Reconciliation and Their Refusal’ in that book.

For Tolkien evil is something by which we are caught. There is a strong element of addiction in all those who are caught by evil in The Lord of the Rings – not just those who are caught by the Ring, but for instance Pippin with the Palantir etc. This is something especially fresh to me at this moment because in preparation for Lent – and hopefully beyond it – I have decided to try and break my dependence on mobile devices and social media by selling both my smartphone and my tablet.

This may seem extreme – ‘haven’t I got any self-discipline?’, people have said to me; ‘just stop checking them so much, there’s no need to go that far.’ My answer to that is – would you say to an alcoholic ‘just have a little glass of whisky – have you no self-control?’ Of course they haven’t, that’s the point, and whilst I don’t think my compulsion to check my phone and go on social media is quite that bad yet, I have become aware over the last few months of a rather negative impact of all these things on my life. Quite apart from the fact that I have not really read any actual books for years, when I used to a lot, (no time to – I have twitter to check!) my sleep was cut down because I would be on my phone until the early hours, I found myself forced by Facebook into a projecting a distorted version of myself and recognised rather a lot of ego investment and pride in what I was doing, which sometimes made my interactions with others negative. These are probably just some of the negative effects of having constant access to social media on mobile devices. I’m sure there are limited positive effects, but for me they have been massively outweighed by the downside mentioned above.

I mention all this not to further mire myself in pride – look how abstemious I am! – but to give a practical example of the results of effectively chosen renunciations. I have been more productive, at peace, calmer and happier this week than I have for a long time, all by giving stuff up. It will become more difficult as I realise that I cannot rely on things like Google Maps or Kindle on journeys! But as renunciation goes this has been fairly easy! I’m not quite ready for the hair shirt and bread and water yet!

My point is it is very easy to become caught in the technological age. You find whole hours have gone by just staring at your phone. For many people this is fine. They are happy playing candy crush saga or whatever. But I have too much that I want to do. I don’t want to obliterate myself, to numb my awareness. I want to stay awake. I need to stay awake – to be vigilant in a moral sense, but also to create – you cannot create without life making some kind of sharp and shocking splash against your skin every now and again. Those who create, be it art or poetry or whatever, I would guess have found working ways of allowing life to sabotage their carefully planned and controlled creative environments, but not sabotage too much. It’s a tightrope walk, creativity.

But once you remove the external traps that are there to catch you, it is not all plain sailing. A subtler form of trap lies in wait within, a tendency which the external technological traps were just there to exploit once it manifested. This is the inner disposition of restlessness. This is a much more difficult trap to renounce. [see Josef Pieper – Leisure; the Basis of Culture]

Returning to the Biblical basis of this, the Old Testament Covenant was a life or death choice. The choice of evil meant you were ensnared by death, and as Bernthal points out St. John says much the same thing: “He that loveth not, abideth in death” (1 John 3:14)

“Death is a condition you enter while alive, and you abide in it – you accept it, you don’t struggle, and your conscience grows numb” – The way Bernthal puts it echoes my fear that midway on my life’s journey I begin to blunder off the path, being full of sleep:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard–so tangled and rough

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
And yet, to treat the good I found there as well

I’ll tell what I saw, though how I came to enter
I cannot well say, being so full of sleep
Whatever moment it was I began to blunder

Off the true path.

Dante, Inferno, Canto I

The entrapment, the capture, is a slow process; you don’t presumably realise where you have started to go wrong until it’s too late. Persistence in sin makes you go spiritually blind, as Feser puts it here (Sex Part II – Aquinas on the daughters of lust), which explains a lot.

That abiding can be turned around – he that loveth, abideth in life, clearly, and this is the ‘life to the full’ that Jesus speaks of, which comes from drinking of the waters of eternal life that He gives us. Graham Ward says:

“The goal of contemplation is a mutual discerning – to know even as I am known. The knowing is a condition of being, a condition in the Johannine texts that is often described as abiding (‘meno’ – to stay, to stand, but transitively, to await, to expect.)”

The paradigmatic case in all Tolkien’s work of this abiding in death is Smaug. This dragon is possessed by what he possesses: his hoard of gold. He abides with death – a reign of pure quantity as Guenon put it – every last gold piece counted, and unable to rise from the hoard in case something goes missing. He is therefore bound to the tomb of his cave. This grasping or appropriation Tolkien uses as an analog of our epistemological appropriation, our inability to let the known be known without somehow attempting to make the known into an image of ourself, is a reverse case of that ‘knowing as we are known’ which is abiding in love. We must constantly practise renunciation in order to allow things to be as they are, not what we want them to be.

Heidegger takes the moment of death, cutting as it does across all our plans and intentions, as a spiritual opportunity, as it presents us with the possibility of absurdity and therefore invites us to live life authentically. At least, this is what I take him to be saying! Heideggerians correct me if I’m wrong! When life is lived ‘as rite not as flight’ then we are learning how to die well, which is surely the aim of a good life.

In the Silmarillion, men, when rejecting death, enter into a deeper spiritual death. They lose vibrancy and joy. The mark of being captured by evil is joylessness, lack of merriment or gaiety. How do we avoid this? Interior battle is Tolkien’s answer – look at how many battles there are in the Lord of the Rings – but most of them go on in the inner forum of conscience of the characters. We need all the spiritual weapons we can muster for these battles – waybread, the phial of galadriel, the elven rope – all of these gifts which save Frodo and Sam are sacramental or prayer related. We have been given help in the battle.

To go back to Dante, in the Inferno, the negative gravity of sin pulls him into hell – he cannot ascend the hills he has come down, and must go through hell to escape. ‘Sin creates a proclivity to sin’. In the Catholic tradition, this is why confession is so important. Herbert McCabe:

“The fire of hell is God. God is terrible and no man can look upon him and live, he is a consuming fire. To be safe in the presence of God you must yourself be sacred, you must share in God’s power and life. To have come into the presence of God without this protection is damnation. That is one picture of hell, the fundamental biblical one…

But hell is also the inability to accept death. The damned man is he who does not die in Christ, for whom death is therefore not a means of resurrection to new life. He is not able to make the act of self-sacrifice required of him. He is unable to see why he should. I picture the damned as spending their time continually justifying themselves to themselves, constantly showing how right they were and why they have no need to repent…

All the souls in hell, I think, are quite convinced that they have been damned unjustly. The analogy I find most useful is that of the child who has lost his temper and is sulking. He wants of course, to return to the affection of his friends, but he is blowed if he is going to apologize, his pride keeps him out even though he wants very much to return. Everybody is fully prepared to have him back if he will only make the gesture of returning, but this he finds himself unable to do. He cannot perform the self-abandonment required. He is unable to die.

Anyone in hell who was sorry for his sin would of course instantly be in heaven; the point of hell is that this does not happen.”

The Little Onion

In a previous post I discussed the philosophical problems with belief in an afterlife, and ended with a parable from Dostoevsky about an old woman and an onion. I was asked what I thought would have happened if she hadn’t kicked out, shaking off the hangers-on, and whether it would conflict with traditional notions of afterlife reward and punishment.

I think the first thing to say is that in the Christian tradition we can never talk about simply ‘my’ salvation – it is always our salvation – so the old woman was wrong to think that she could be justified in kicking the others off – she is not the one to decide how God might work with that one good action of hers – or rather if she does set herself up as the arbiter of that she will be sinning – and equally our bad actions have consequences that we cannot foresee. I think this can be seen in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘forgive us our sins and deliver us from evil’, and I think this is a key part of what Father Zosima means when he says of man:

“But when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved. […] Only then will our hearts be moved to a love that is infinite, universal, and knows no satiety.” (The Brothers Karamazov 4.1.2)

Certainly this was also Von Balthasar’s view. It is our salvation not my salvation – it is also our sin, not other’s sin – which is a temptation we all know well, to point the finger of blame – in fact Zosima goes further even than this:

“make yourself responsible for all the sins of men […] by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God.” (6.3.g)

If we do not take seriously Christ’s injunction to “judge not, lest ye be judged, for as ye mete out, in the same measure it will be meted to you” and keep constant vigil on our thoughts, we will end up cooperating with evil. It is not enough just to follow the laws. This interconnectedness of all humans on the moral level is taught by all the great saints and mystics, as well as by Christ himself.

What does this mean then for the old woman? She could have brought people out of hell with her one little onion. The fact that she did not remain still and started selfishly kicking indicates that if you spend a lifetime nourishing mean-spirited habits, those habits will eat into any spark of goodness and grace that you have offered in your life, such that, whilst that single act of generosity would be enough to save not just one but many, it would be overcome by the darkness of habitual sin – such is the gravity of accumulated vice – or karma as it is known in the East.

Looking in more depth at the kicking out at the hangers on – I think this act of violence was as Rowan Williams says “the determination to distinguish dimensions in the other that exceed what is chosen and granted”.

Because the giving of the one small onion, even in its finitude and apparent paltriness as a moral action, nonetheless reflected the absolute gratuity of the universe as gift, it was strong enough to pull out many when received back as gift from the angel.

But the old habitual ‘instrumental mentality’ takes over, and as soon as the old woman makes the decision about what can or cannot be granted to the other, the fragility of that same gift in relation to freedom is revealed.

To end with some more from Rowan Williams:

“Because all of them [the issues that arise in Dostoevsky’s fiction] are in one way or another grounded in the question of what we owe to each other, they are all of them connected to the problem of lack of depth [what Charles Taylor calls the ‘buffered self’] and the instrumental mentality which flows from this. Owing something to another is a recognition that what my relation with that other properly involves cannot be reduced to what I decide, to what I choose to “grant” to the other. And the inexpressible or inexhaustible hinterland of the other is precisely what exceeds my choice and has no need of my license.

For Dostoevsky one of the characteristic motives in planned violence, individual or political, is the determination to extinguish dimensions in the other that exceed what is chosen and granted. And the contemporary cultural scene is one which strongly suggests that there is more than one style of violence directed against these rebel dimensions in humanity: to take the most obvious example, the global economy works on the assumption that local solidarities and patterns of shared meaning are all accidental to the fundamental practice of human beings in the world, which is the unrestricted exchange of commodity and currency. All particulars are levelled or assimilated to each other on the principle that everything has an exchange value that can be clearly determined. And the principle is applied equally to objects and to practices and skills: hence it becomes possible to quantify quite strictly the value of activities that were formerly regarded as given meaning by their intrinsic human worthwhileness, and surrounded accordingly by informal cultures and disciplines. The point at which the activity of nursing the sick can be expressed in terms of a producer supplying a customer is the point at which the culture of nursing the sick begins to disappear. It is replaced by contractual negotiations of power between the two interests represented, producer or supplier and consumer: whose will is going to be secured and protected? What do I need to concede in negotiation so as to secure the maximum amount of liberty for my future choices? And when such contracts cease to be satisfactory, there is no relation left; the other has ceased to be properly instrumental to my will and can be safely discarded.”

As Frys to Wanton Boys

“As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods; they kill us for their sport” Gloucester – King Lear (IV. i. 36-37)

A lot of attention is being paid to a clip of Stephen Fry talking about what he would say to God if he died and found himself at the Pearly Gates.

There’s a few things I want to say. Firstly, the problem of evil is generally recognised as a very difficult, even intractable, challenge to theism – perhaps the one challenge which is capable of shaking even the strongest believer’s faith. That doesn’t mean attempts haven’t been made to solve it – they are called theodicies (‘God-justification’), but there is a great deal of debate about whether they succeed. One problem with trying to answer the problem of evil and suffering is that believers often fall into the trap of platitudes which underestimate the experiential force of evil and suffering – platitudes such as “God moves in mysterious ways”, or “everything happens for a reason”. Clearly such responses are not sufficient and deservedly provoke the mockery of atheists. Most theists however, don’t do this – Byrne, whilst speechless, at least didn’t try, and neither have recent Popes when asked.

Probably because of the way he was asked the question, the particular form that Fry frames it in here is as a protest against a cruel and capricious God. This kind of standpoint is usually called ‘protest atheism’. According to this position, God is taken as existing, but then evidence such as Fry presents is brought to show that no-one could justifiably worship such a God – supposedly all-loving, all-powerful and all-knowing – who could allow such things to take place in His creation. I would guess that most protest atheists who use this argument now do not actually believe in God – they just use the argument as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the believer’s view. And of course we know Fry doesn’t believe in the God with whom he gets so angry in this interview, so I guess we have to take that as a piece of acting on Fry’s part (to me this seems rather insincere and hollow, I suspect Bertrand Russell’s similar response to the same question was not delivered with quite the same sense of fake outrage, but then again, Russell was a philosopher who had thought deeply about these things, not a media luvvy and actor with a large vocabulary…I know; ad hominem….).

It is my view that the case for what is called protest atheism has not actually been put very forcefully here by Fry. It has been much more strongly argued by the character of Ivan Karamazov to his brother Alyosha in the Dostoevsky novel The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky, a man of faith, could hardly be called a polemicist or apologist for theism, but he has crafted his novel as an exploration of themes of freedom, suffering and faith. After  detailed historic accounts of horrific torture of innocent children Ivan says:

“… if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”

Fry, in focusing only on ‘natural evil’ – bone cancer and worms that burrow into eyes – in his argument, probably wants to avoid the classic move of theists when asked about human evil – that it is the result of free will. But in doing so he is presenting a weaker argument. There are two points to make here. Firstly, in a universe where random material processes have combined to create the conditions for organisms to compete with each other in a struggle for survival, there can be no such thing as evil or good, or if there are such realities they are simply the result of human subjectivity projected onto the world – what is evil for the blind child is good for the worm. Some might simply turn the challenge on the atheist here for them to explain what in their world view leads them to believe in evil as a reality ( and it is worth noting that some theodicies would simply point to the fact that natural evil is largely the result of the fact that there are general laws of nature which we can sometimes fall foul of – but that is bound to be the case in a universe which has a ‘way things go’) . However, it is worth remembering that the argument is focused against the believer – and it is their account of God and their account of evil which are claimed to be at odds with each other.

But secondly, even if we grant Fry the point – natural evil undermines belief in a good God – we would have to say that the examples of intentional cruelty by rational human beings against innocent children given by Ivan Karamazov are far more compelling as a challenge, simply because here we confront the reality of human evil in all its horrific strength. We are precluded even from arguing that it is justifiable on the basis of God needing to grant humans free will, or God building a future utopia on it – as Ivan says “too high a price is paid for harmony” if that harmony will somehow come out of the undeserved suffering of innocents. Surely intentional cruelty by free beings (beings who could have chosen not to inflict that suffering, and who must have known it was wrong even whilst doing it, unlike unconscious worms)  is a much more difficult problem to solve than ‘nature red in tooth and claw’? After all, a flawed natural order is only one side of the coin – there is also the existence of beauty and harmonious cooperation in nature, and simply to emphasise one over the other is misleading. The evidence is ambiguous in ways that Fry won’t admit – he would be the first to talk of marvel at the intricacies of the natural order, but he certainly wouldn’t use that to point to God. He is however happy to use disharmony in the natural order to point away from God, or at least to accuse God.

A flawed natural order has been recognised as one of the signs of the workings of an evil force in a world destabilised from its original perfection by the Fall, which begins in the heavenly hierarchies of the Angels. What I’m saying here is not that people within Christianity have tried to give an answer to this problem, but that the whole Christian vision of the cosmos is based upon the reality of suffering, evil and death and the sure and certain hope that they will not have the last word, that in God, all things will be made new.

So okay, meh to Fry. He thinks he gave God a bit of a kicking. I don’t think he did particularly, when I consider how Dostoevsky answers the more serious challenges which he sets up through Ivan. I’ll explain in a bit.

His mention of the Greek gods was interesting, which is a belief he says is far more honest because they can be seen clearly for what they are – projections of human inclinations and obsessions.  He knows that he would have nothing to say about bone cancer and so on if he died and went to Hades and met Pluto; the Greek gods would inflict cruelty on mortals for sport or curiosity. The take-away from this is clearly meant to be – basically all gods are projections because we can clearly see our own needs and desires written in them – but that evidence points to a pantheon of gods like the Greek ones, limited, flawed superhumans – not to the Christian God, who is as Fry notes meant to be wholly beyond our limitations as humans. Indeed, it is this very transcendence which sets him apart from all pagan gods. However, what Fry doesn’t mention is that the Christian God also became human, vulnerable, poor, broken and took on all suffering and pain. Christ crucified – this fact St. Paul famously describes as a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Greeks – their wisdom paradoxically kept them from seeing to the real meaning of the cross; God wants to deliver us from all suffering, but he can only do this through love, which is an abiding-with, even amongst the shadows of evil and suffering.

There is no straightforward answer to the protest atheist’s challenge. There are narratives within which we can perhaps make some sense of the challenge though. I mentioned the Brothers Karamazov above. In a future post I will attempt to show how Dostoevsky frames the challenge as a conflict between rationality and love.


The philosophical problems with belief in an afterlife

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, Robin Williams, 1998, (c)PolyGram Filmed Entertainment/courtesy Everett Collec

My somewhat odd blog post here describes a dream I had recently about hell. The concept of hell (and indeed of heaven) raises a number of philosophical questions, perhaps the principle one of which is: Would an all-loving, perfectly good God condemn someone to unending suffering in hell as punishment for a specific sin or sins? On the face of it, it seems too unbalanced – for even the most heinous of crimes, surely there will come a point where the punishment must end?

There are significant disagreements among theologians upon this point. Some modern theologians, notably Hans Urs Von Balthasar have taken the position that universal salvation is possible, in other words that God will condemn no-one to hell for eternity. Others think this a betrayal of scripture and the Church Fathers – indeed, Christ spoke of the hellfire and eternal punishment in various places in the Gospels (eg. Matt 5:22, 10:28, 23:33)


click here for an excellent discussion of this book

The question needs to be placed in the light of the considerable problem which the existence of evil raises for believers. In order to make sense of the evil actions of certain people, some of whom escape earthly punishment for their crimes, believers usually turn to the explanation that justice will be done in the afterlife, that God will set right the wrongs done in this life.

It therefore makes sense that some afterlife punishment and reward would be needed in order to maintain belief in a just Creator. The problem is the separation of God’s mercy and God’s justice. A God who forgives all no matter what they have done would be just as unjust as a God who punishes all. There is another problem with arguing that God forgives all. Johannes Bokmann puts it like this: “If one were certain of attaining the ultimate goal no matter what, a quite essential motivation to conversion and absolute Christian resolve would be lost.”

The OCR exam board has focused on this area in the past with questions such as: “To what extent is belief in an afterlife necessary in resolving problems raised by the existence of evil?”. The suggestions for answering this are that candidates can focus on the theodicies, or discuss whether reincarnation is less problematic than belief in heaven and hell. The key thing to do though, in the A02, is to evaluate what kind of God is implied by punishment/reward models of the afterlife, and whether, given some of the inconsistencies which arise in God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence on these models, whether such models are necessary to solve the problem of evil.

I will end this post with some quotations from Balthasar’s book:

“Christ allocates ruin to no one; he himself is pure salvation, and whoever stands by him stands in the sphere of salvation and grace. The calamity is not imposed by him, but exists wherever man has remained distant from him; it arises through continuing to abide with oneself. The word of Christ, as the offering of salvation, will then make evident that the lost man has drawn the boundaries himself and cut himself off from salvation.” (Cardinal Ratzinger)

“Every shutting up of the creature within his own mind, is – in the end – hell” (C.S. Lewis)

“Therefore we must read the New Testament, and read it ever anew, in the light of divine love. Certainly there is talk of fire, worm and the second death that excludes one from the kingdom. Christ does not recognize the evildoers, distances them from him. But hell, as refusal of divine love, always exists on one side only: on the side of him who persists in creating it for himself. It is, however, impossible that God himself could cooperate in the slightest way in this aberration.”

I want to end with a parable from Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov, which Von Balthasar quotes. It seems to me to completely capture the intricate connections between free will, sin, evil and God’s divine omnibenevolence better than pages of philosophical and theological analysis:

“Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.”


Three essays on the concept of disembodied existence.

These are all A grade essays with the mark out of 35 given at the end.


Essay 1.

The concept of disembodied existence can often be taken by advocates of dualism, the belief that humans consist of a body and soul which are separate and can be separated at death, as a coherent explanation for the question of life after death. For a dualist the soul holds the relevant qualities of personhood so that we can say a ‘person’ ‘survives’ death.

However, this theory would be greatly opposed by those who believe in materialism, or monism, the belief that we as humans exist as a single unit of body and soul (or mind) which cannot be separated. It would therefore not be coherent for a monist to believe in disembodied existence as the soul does not have intrinsic value outside of the body. It is perhaps first necessary to look at the nature of personhood and different beliefs on what constitutes a person.

One of the major problems with life after death theories is the problem of continuity and identity and in what way we are said to ‘exist’ after death. It is necessary to look at different opinions on what constitutes a person. Some believe that the only real continuity is bodily continuity and therefore it is our bodies by which we identify who ‘we’ really are. The concept of disembodied existence would therefore be incoherent as there is no bodily continuity and therefore no real existence of a person. Other philosophers such as John Locke argue that it is the memories of man that make up his identity and therefore if memories remain it is coherent to say that that person ‘exists’ even if they do not have a body. This view however does have many problems. Locke insists that as soon as memory is lost identification and personhood is lost but this has inconsistencies, if 1 person, for example, lost their memory due to amnesia or an accident would we not call them the same person they were before?

So the question remains that in what way would disembodied existence seem a coherent possibility after death? Disembodied existence seems to sit comfortable with the classical views of Platonic dualism. Plato believed that the soul was imprisoned within the body and that the ultimate goal of the soul was to be released (at death) back to the world of the Forms where it could be reunited with the Form of the Good (God). Thus the body which is purely material dies for Plato and the soul returns to the world of the Forms and is immortal. However, the concept of disembodied existence does not seem so cohesive with other dualistic models. Descarte’s dualistic model, as interactionism, maintains that bodily states can causally affect mental states and mental states can causally affect bodily events. Thus although the soul or mind has a higher fundamental value, and the body is still matter capable of decay, they do exist within interaction of one another. Therefore, it would be conceivable to conclude that one could not survive without the other? Either they both perish at death or they both survive death. It could also be questioned whether the dualistic model of epiphenomenalism coincides with the concept of disembodied existence. Since bodily states can causally affect mind states, even though mind states are of a higher reality than bodily ones, how would a mind or soul survive without the body? It seems to have little or no control over the body, so how can we suggest that it has an objective existence of its own after death?

Of course the main opposition to the belief in the concept of disembodied existence after death will come from the view of the materialists or monists who hold that body and soul are one and are inseparable. Gilbert Ryle holds this view and criticised Descarte’s thinking calling it ‘the ghost in the machine’. Ryle held that there was no such thing as body and mind as different entities and that the confusion had come about through a ‘category mistake’. Thus when we refer to our ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ we are referring like a collective noun as the way in which our body acts or behaves. Thus there is no such thing as an immortal soul and so the concept of disembodied existence is incoherent and incomprehensible. Since for monists continuity after death must involve bodily continuity, an alternative theory for monists on existence after death is that of resurrection or reincarnation.

However, there do seem to be fundamental flaws in both of these monists views as well. Resurrection implies bodily continuity or similarity argued for in Hicks ‘replica theory’ however Greach argues that bodily similarity is not enough, it has to be exact continuity and therefore a replica theory is rejected. Penelbaum also rejects this theory on the grounds that it does not maintain mental continuity and it also has implications for the theories of ethics and moral judgements. How could a replica be divinely judged for something they did not do? Reincarnation also fails as a plausible theory on existence after death as the reincarnated being bears no resemblance either physically or mental (memories) of its past lives and therefore in what way can we say that it is the same person who previously existed?

Perhaps a coherent view of resurrection can be seen in the teachings of St Paul regarding Jesus’s resurrection. St Paul maintains that after resurrection we change by a spiritual process but are still the same person. Like a plant comes from a seed but does not bear any physical resemblance to that seed so we are at resurrection. Perhaps another good example is of a caterpillar into a butterfly, physical resemblance is not there but it is still the same being. It must be remembered for Christian believers that after his resurrection Jesus was unrecognisable to his friends but was still the same person.

So, it can be seen that disembodied existence can be taken as coherent or incoherent depending on ones views of personhood and what constitutes a person (whether we are a psycho-physical unit that is indissoluble, as Hick believes, or made up of both a body and soul which can separated as dualists believe). Disembodied existence is coherent with Platonic thought however it raises questions in other dualistic models on the nature of the interaction between body and soul. However, attempts to prove corporeal existence after death have also failed as continuity of the body is questionable after the death and decay of the body. Perhaps disembodied existence is not objective but means that we exist only in the mind of God or in the minds and memories of others. This too has problems however when regarded to whether this actually constitutes immorality or existence, in what way are we existing or participating in the Mind of God? This would also mean that the mind of God was tainted with our sins. Perhaps the only real evidence of disembodied existence can be brought forward through ESP (extra sensory perception) or the existence of telepathy or clairvoyance. However, these all have dubious grounds and cannot be counted on for reliable evidence for the cohesive concept of disembodied existence. Personally I therefore reject the statement that ‘The concept of disembodied existence is coherent’ as the arguments for any form of after life experience fail unless we presuppose an existence of God which requires faith and cannot be empirically verified. (29/35)


Disembodied existence is an incoherent concept. There is a long standing division in the debate of what the human being consists of – whether it be a composite of body and soul or a indistinguishable unity. This impinges on what kind of existence, if there is any, will occur after death. However, evidence on either side is slim – how can we ever know until we die? Which is a notion put forth as an escatalogical verification/falsification of the after life.

However, before we can begin to tackle the question of what kind of existence there is, we must first establish the identity of self and personhood. Flew notes that personal pronouns such as “I”, “you”, “they” and so on apply on to physical entities so if I was to speak of Miriam, I am identifying her as a physical being. I can see, hear and touch her rather that a substance or spiritual self. However, what Flew does not consider is the difference in the application of the word “I”. When one is in use of the personal pronoun, they are not simply talking of physical characteristics, but are referring to something beyond that. For example, I can refer to my self as if my body is separate to me, in phrases such as “my bottom looks big in this dress” or “my body looks fat” so its almost as if your mind can have an objective view of your physical self. On the other hand, your physical characteristics do affect your personality. For example, Mrs Wilson is a short, firey woman with purple hair. If she was tall and blond her personality would be different because her loudness and firey nature are a product of her height – there is a need to compensate in some way to retain control. In the same way, we can see ourselves in this light.

With this in mind, we must run alongside identity with continuity so that we can ask the question, if we do exist after death, how? And how of “me” is there (how am I identified)? In the case of monism, we face many difficulties. In term of subjective immortality, there is , as the traditional Christian church put forth, a resurrection of the dead with Jesus Christ. This would mean that your physical body on earth would die, then your soul would be placed in a new body so you could enter into heaven. However, we have problems with this in relation to our concept of heaven – is that a physical state, requiring physical bodies, and if so why? And to what extend can my new body be me. John Hicks poses that, as we a psycho-physical entities, when our earthly body dies ( as we know occurs because of observation of decay in science), our soul is placed into another body – a replica of what we looked like in our previous life. However, in terms of judgement, how can God condemn or reward our new selves/body on the basis of the behaviour of our previous bodies. This seems unfair. Moreover, a replica is a replica; if I had a replica of the ‘Mona Lisa’ it still would make it the original painting, despite its similarities. Again, to what extent is this truly “me”?

With dualism we do not face so many difficulties in terms I continuity. Firstly, we have disembodied existence. This can however take a number of forms. We, as humans can have a resurrection of the disembodied self. Whereby your substance/soul or form continued to existence after the death of your physical body. In terms of what structure that existence will take, the is a theory that existence could exist objectively, in the awareness of God since God is infinite and immortal, and human being are not. But what kind of existence is this? Surely an omnipotent, benevolent God would be interested in the individuality of His people. After all, it is not our immortality. Furthermore, where sin is concerned – does God then allow sin to enter with Him? We could suggest that He is a compassionate God but then God would be temporal because He would be changed every time somebody else came into His awareness – this is not the simple God of Aquinas.

On the other hand, it is possible that we could exist as a commune of minds, thoughts and dreams. So our after life would consist of all of our ‘paradise-like’ dream and desires. But what happens when the desires of one person conflicts with another? It seems that although disembodied existence does contribute greatly to the discussion of life after death, it appears to be the most incoherent in all of its forms.

Yet, maybe there is a alley that we have forgotten. Reincarnation is a form of life after death that helps to overcome some of the obstacles monists face and that of disembodied existence. Reincarnation bases its belief on the immortality of the soul. The body ceases to exist in the phenomenological world, as Kant put it – whilst the soul transports or is incarnate into another body. However, like all of the theories we have assessed, we are back where we began, with the idea of personhood. Which of the bodies in reincarnation is your ‘self’? – the first, second, third, fourth or fifth? Though some may say that memory of past lives is evidence for the existence of reincarnation – this is not enough. Maybe it is better to take the view of Duns Scotus …… ………; we can never know whether there is an existence of an after life and what form it takes until we die. (30/35)


The argument for the concept of disembodied existence being coherent is largely followed by dualists, who believe the body and mind are two separate entities and the soul can live on eternally. However, the argument against dualism is monism that sees the body and mind as one. Flew in particular argued that it was incoherent according to language to conceive the concept of disembodied existence as he saw it as a contradiction in terms and likened it to the phrase “Dead survivors”. This essay will now examine in more detail the arguments for and against the concept of disembodied existence being coherent.

Disembodied existence can be considered coherent from the argument of dualism. Plato believed the mind was separate from the body and from the world of Forms. The mind, for Plato, was seen as immortal, and was what continued to live on after death, whilst the body ceases to exist. Another argument was added to dualism by Descartes and became known as ‘cartesian dualism’. Descartes famously said ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ – ‘I think, therefore I am’. For Descartes the mind can continue a disembodied existence. The body and mind interact with each other at all times. There has been evidence to prove that the body produces states on the mind, as well as the mind producing states on the body. But how can something non-spatial effect something spatial? And also if there is so much interaction, would the idea of the mind continuing without the body not be seen as illogical?

Gilbert Ryle saw Descartes model as a ‘ghost in a machine’ with the belief of the mind in the body. The misunderstanding of dualism was seen by Ryle as a category mistake as we are in fact a mind and body unity. To show this he used an example of a foreigner looking at all the colleges and buildings that make up the university and asking where the university was. Ryle swathe university as the mind, and all the colleges and buildings as brain patterns of behaviour. But what about brain states that do not provoke a pattern of behaviour such as lying or pain?

But perhaps disembodied existence is incoherent. Following the beliefs of Richard Dawkins perhaps we are just bytes of digital information and there is in fact no concept of a soul. However, it must be asked then what is our purpose here on earth? The reason put forward by Dawkins that we are here just from successful DNA replication seems to be missing something. Disembodied existence linguistically does seem a contradiction of terms, likened by Flew the same as ‘Dead Survivors’, but the evidence of near death experiences seem to show a pattern in the description of yourself out of your body looking down. Schlick too argues that viewing your own funeral as an after-death experience is imaginable as well as being conceivable.

However, problems with language arise here. Are you really viewing yourself, or just an empty vessel of what is left of your body? Flew believes you cannot even imply the words ‘you’, ‘her’, and ‘I’ to a possible after-life as they are only coherent in this physical world. However, we cannot know for certain that that is the case. A J Ayer believes the words could still be applied to another possible reality. If we are to have disembodied existence, we may still be recognisable. Also, the use of ‘I’ can be seen as distinctly different to other pronouns such as ‘her’ and ‘you’ as it involves a sense of self knowledge, argued also by Badham.
Perhaps what must be argued is if there is continuation after death, what form of life is it? Maybe it is not disembodied existence and we are in fact reincarnated with a new body. In this way the problem disembodied existence is removed, but others still arise. If we are reincarnated how are we continuing as we would be different? The argument against this view is that our soul is still however continuing and able to develop. But one major problem arises if there is to be judgement at the end of time is it morally fair to punish the ‘new’ body because of its soul? So perhaps an after-life consists of another form of existence. We could continue to exist as a product of the mind living from our basic desires, a view held by H Price. But this seems to imply no sense of community, but rather isolation and an after-life created by ourselves could be difficult. People may be driven by selfish desires.

Therefore, the concept that disembodied existence is not coherent (held by monists such as Aristotle and Dawkins) is argued from the view that the mind and body are one, and one cannot continue without the other. But the challenge against this is that there is continuation after death with evidence stemming from the bible. But the term disembodied existence does bring difficulties with language, but just because there is confusion does not mean it could not be conceivable. However, perhaps a solution is brought forward by Hick’s replica theory. Hick saw people as a psyche-physical unity so the mind and body cannot be separated. So maybe an exact replica of ourselves becomes apparent after we die. (29/35)

Consider the view that scripture is divinely inspired (35).

Another good student essay on scriptural revelation.


The notion of scripture being divinely inspired is riddled with philosophical problems. Some of the issues arising from it being divinely inspired are: how the text came to human beings?; Did God give it directly or was it human in origin?; moreover, what can we actually learn about God from this text via its inspiration? In attempting to address this question we shall look at a propositional approach to assess the validity of divinely inspired scripture and then a non-propositional approach.


For scripture to be divinely inspired in the traditional sense, a propositional approach is required. Evangelical fundamentalist believers wish to maintain that the text comes directly from God. That it reveals ‘truths’ or propositions (facts) about the divine. In this sense the ‘words’ are directly from God. Yet this assertion is unclear. We shall work through different understandings and assess whether they can be held philosophically. The most obvious is a literal revelation for example Moses is believed by some to have experienced a theophany (God revealing God’s self to Moses) and literally giving him a physical copy of the five books of the law and the two stone tablets with the ten commandments on. In this sense scripture is divinely inspired as it comes directly from God. It can contain no errors (inerrant). If this view were held then scripture would indeed be divinely inspired. However, the problem of interactionism causes issue here as it is difficult to see how a non-physical being, outside of the spacio-temporal universe, or transcendent in the traditional sense can act within the physical realm. Moreover, how can Moses be expected to maintain any notion of free will? If God reveals Himself then Moses has no choice but to do God’s bidding because of fear of reprisals and sure knowledge of God’s existence. The appearance of choice here is simply ‘Hobson’s Choice’ – no choice at all. Also how do we ‘see’ or ‘hear’ a non-physical being? These problems serve to demonstrate that a view of scripture as being physically ‘given’ by God is too problematic. A believer may suggest that it comes down to faith for them, faith that God can do all these things, which does not seem to solve the issues identified above.


Perhaps then the bible/scripture was dictated by God or the Holy Spirit. One view is that of amanuensis that humans have simply copied the text down through divine dictation. This idea is seen in Jeremiah 20:8 “whenever I speak I cry out” implying that God is speaking through the prophet in front of the king. This would mean that the scripture was inspired as the individual was simply told what to write. Someone like Henry Morris would hold that the Holy Spirit was with the writers (Adam at creation for his argument) to ensure inerrancy. This view holds that God inspired the scriptures. Yet it is difficult to maintain this view for the same reasons outlined above. This issue of interactionism hasn’t been resolved here, God (transcendent) is still interacting in a spacio-temporal way. Also here the writer’s free will is being directly compromised. They have no choice but to write these words, the scribe is simply the body which God takes over to use for his own purposes. William James might suggest that this is an example of mystical experience and hold that the nature of these religious experiences is passivity which has been demonstrated in numerous accounts of these experiences. But an issue with this is that James also states these experiences are ineffable (cannot be put into words). How can the religious experience of amanuensis be ineffable if the aim of it is to write the words of scripture? One way would be to maintain that the person has no knowledge of what they are writing. But we still face the challenge from the violation of free will which questions whether this view can be reasonably held.


Perhaps then the scriptures are divinely inspired because the believer/writer has had an experience of the divine and has been inspired to write because of this. In this view the writer would be like the child who is inspired by an excellent footballer or music artist to follow in their footsteps. God plays a more passive role in the writing of the scriptures in this way and partially overcomes the problems of free will and interactionism in the sense that the individual writes their own interpretation because they are inspired by their experience of God. If this view holds then they are inspired to write freely about God. In order to hold this view we must accept that the individual has had an actual experience of God. Swinburne and James suggest that testimony of individuals should count in some way for evidence of God’s existence in the world (Swinburne’s Principle of Testimony) and that people tend not to lie (Principle of Credulity). Even if we accept this then it can only ever be revelation for the individual as the biblical text will always be second hand truths for others who did not experience and were therefore not inspired by the event. Moreover we still must maintain that God has revealed himself to the believer before the writing of the text. This whole issue of whether religious experience can reasonably held to happen casts a vast shadow over this view of scripture’s nature. This issue is too vast to explore fully here save to say that the notion of the individual’s perception of events and the actual reality of these events do not necessarily tally, for example what is the difference between a dream where I experience the divine and a religious experience in a dream? Can I ever be sure that my experience comes through God rather than a phenomenological or material origin? This view seems to lack coherence for scripture being divinely inspired as the free will, interactionism debate is still unsolved as we need to rely on the philosophical soundness of an individual’s religious experience. Also it opens up new problems. How can we maintain a propositional approach that this scripture reveals ‘facts’ about God if it comes from a human source using human language; a language of past, present and future tenses as Dummett points out, a “tense of timelessness”. This could never be an absolutely literal revelation of God. Not to mention the limitations of a spacio-temporal language describing a timeless and spaceless God.


It appears then, at this point, that no view so far discussed would allow us to maintain that scripture is divinely inspired because of the problems surrounding free will, interactionism, the limits of language and the certainty of what it tells us of the divine. However, perhaps this is the wrong way of looking at the problem, maybe the ‘truth’ of God comes through a non-propositional approach to revelation in the sense that it is action that demonstrates inspiration.


If we accept that God revealing Himself is too problematic for scripture then we are holding that we cannot know whether it is divinely inspired yet the non-propositional approach can avoid the problems discussed above. If propositional revelation is ‘belief that…’ something is the case, ‘God is love’ for instance then non-propositional revelation is ‘belief in…’ scripture. In this view scripture reveals more about ourselves and it is our reaction which ‘reveals’ God. However this view cannot give any ‘knowledge’ about God’s nature directly but is still echoed through Bucky Minster-Fuller’s ideas of God being a verb; that when we are inspired by what we read, regardless of ‘fact’ or propositions our actions in some way echo God’s will. Take the parable of the sheep and the goats’ notion of giving practical help to the needy. If I read this and ‘believe in…’ its message I act in the world. This could be seen as the divine inspiration of the scriptures. However this view cuts both ways. It seems to resolve the problems of interactionism, free will and experience of God but only at the cost of not being able to tell us anything about God as scripture maybe removed from God’s word and left as a purely human document.


In conclusion it seems as though holding a propositional approach is too problematic for us to accept that scripture is divinely inspired in some of the more traditional ways and that the main revelation of God comes through human action and inspiration. But one final point needs addressing. It seems that we cannot accept a non-propositional approach, belief in the truth of the Bible, without holding that the Bible contains some form of propositional truth. Otherwise why would religious believers act on these ideas? Since the Bible is not self-authenticating then we must accept that we have to ‘believe in…’ the words in order for the words to have any meaning. It is here that we reach the impasse, without faith in the scriptures the notion of whether the Bible is divinely inspired becomes irrelevant but it is clear that even with faith the assertion that scripture is divinely inspired in the traditional sense is too philosophically problematic to accept.

“The personal experience of God by any individual is proof enough that ‘He’ exists.” Discuss

This is a student essay from a few years ago on what is really a question about whether religious experiences are self-authenticating. It is very wide-ranging and does throw everything at the question, whereas I would suggest that you narrow down the philosophers you use to be more relevant. However, it is still very useful as a discussion of this question.
The above statement focuses on the notion that it is possible to prove the existence of God through personal religious experience. This raises a number of key philosophical questions that need further investigation if we are to conclude that personal experience by anyone could demonstrate God’s existence: firstly there is the issue of whether the testimony of any individual could count as evidence enough for God’s existence; secondly the issue of the validity of religious experience in general needs to be addressed as simply believing something to be the case does not necessarily ensure its certainty; and finally (although not exhaustively but for reasons of time restraints) the notion of whether perception in general could demonstrate objectively (and potentially conclusively) the existence of a divine being capable of having a personal relationship with ‘His’ creation. We shall begin by addressing the issue of testimony of individuals claiming to have private religious experiences.

Claiming that you ‘know’ God poses serious problems for the issue of testimony. How can we know that an individual has really experienced what they say they have? Both William James (the 20th C. American psychologist) and Richard Swinburne place importance in the notion of testimony as being evidence for private religious experience and by implication the existence of God. James was particularly keen to highlight that we should approach the testimony of individuals claiming to have experienced the divine with an open mind so as not to miss out on a potential truth of the universe. He was a pragmatist in his dealings with religious experience and outlines his methodology clearly, at the beginning of his ‘The varieties of Religious Experience’. This meant that he approached the testimonies that he recorded with an objective and scientific mindset. Moreover for these experiences to be valid for him they need only have real effects for the individual who experienced the event. For example: Imagine a builder who was selfish and frugal having a vision of Jesus. This individual was so moved by the incredible amounts of love and compassion from this experience that they give up their job and move to Africa, volunteering their skills to help build homes, wells and schools in deprived areas. This for James would be evidence enough that the experience was valid. However, even though James stresses the importance of these testimonies it is difficult to see whether what the individual has reported bares any relationship to factual existence of a divine being. This ‘real effect’ as James sees it could have come about without there being any objective experience of God. The subjective nature of personal religious experience leaves us with little concrete evidence that this could be used as evidence for the existence of God. As we shall see later, Freud would argue that these experiences are nothing but illusions manifesting themselves as the neurosis of a faulty mind.

For now though, Richard Swinburne would back up the notion that testimony itself should count as some form of evidence for the existence of God as it is a standard of proof. The belief that: ‘for something to only be considered valid if it can be proven through scientific means’ is flawed according to Swinburne. Swinburne argues through his principle of Testimony that we should consider the reported experiences of others seriously and not simply dismiss these out of hand because they do not conform neatly to the empirical ideals expected for scientific proof. After all if we are to observe the world around us and only claim that those things which can be proven conclusively (or beyond scientific doubt) exist then we could be missing important truths about the world. This belief (which C.S Lewis refers to as ‘Naturalism’) also assumes that the scientific method is the correct one. For Swinburne we should seriously consider the evidence (although not hard scientific data which would be preferable) of testimony seriously.
It seems unlikely that Swinburne, or James for that matter, would suggest that we simply accept the experience of ‘any individual’ as proof enough that God exists, as he is more convinced by the cumulative nature of the experiential argument. Both Swinburne and James see the sheer weight of testimony as important and not, therefore, that we should simply accept that God exists because one individual believes they have experienced this. Yet, as alluded to earlier, Freud would take issue with the notion of this view of the testimony of religious believers as outlined above from Swinburne and James. Freud believed that religion was nothing more than a universal obsessional neurosis that was the product of a faulty mind. This obsession manifests itself in neurosis which was a physical symptom of the sick mind (an example of a neurosis might be returning to the kitchen several times to check that you have turned the gas off on the hob – even though you had done this the first time). The notion of accepting the testimony of the religious believer claiming to have had personal experience of God was, Freud believed, ill advised because these individuals were deluded. Dawkins also agrees with Freud on this point. He suggests that if you had the delusion that you were Napoleon Bonaparte you would be very lonely in this delusion but the fact that as many as one billion (in the Catholics’ case) people share the same beliefs as you would, Dawkins claims, strengthen your resolve that your delusion was correct. The fact remains that in the case of private religious experiences both Freud and Dawkins would claim that the individual is nothing more than deluded. If you knew that an individual were deluded would you accept their opinion on a matter as great as the existence of God? Both Freud and Dawkins would argue ‘No’. If these two thinkers are correct then they certainly would not accept the claim that we should believe that the personal experience of any individual should be proof enough that God exists. However, both Freud and Dawkins have come under criticism for being unduly negative when it comes to their dealings with all things religious. It is hard to see how their heartfelt conviction, (and no doubt subsequent testimony) that the religious believer is mistaken in their deluded belief surrounding their religious experience, is any different from their own in terms of weight of testimony. After all, this assumes that Dawkins and Freud are correct in their assertion that religious believers are deluded. It does not necessarily follow that this is the case. It is here that we arrive at another very important impasse for our debate on the notion of personal experience being evidence for the existence of God, namely: the discussion of how we could ascertain that these experiences were valid.

Freud and Dawkins would have us believe that individuals who claim to have experienced God are deluded. But how could we know if they were or not? The very nature of private experience is just that, that it is private. My knowledge of the world around me is my knowledge. For example: the smell of my Sunday lunch is a subjective experience. You cannot know what it is that I experience. James believed that this was an important quality of mystical experience. He described this as a ‘noetic’ quality. This he believed was common to most mystical experience as many of the people that he interviewed claimed to have gained some deep truth of the universe through their experience that they could not be explained in human language because of the ineffable nature of mystical experiences (another of James’ observations about mystical experience). This ‘revelation’ could not be achieved through either empirical or rational means. James claims that only another individual who has experienced something similar would know what an individual had experienced during their mystical experience. The question must then be asked: how can we be sure that they have experienced this at all. Antony Flew would claim that there is no way of falsifying the believer’s claim to this knowledge and so it must be dismissed as meaningless. In other words there is no way of knowing whether the claimed experience is valid. If we cannot know whether it is valid it would seem a little hasty to claim that it is proof enough that God exists. Consider the following statement: ‘I believe that the golf course will be open next weekend’. Without an accurate weather forecast to back up this claim I may be optimistic in holding this belief (owing to the torrents of rain that have fallen in recent days). This leads us to the conclusion that we must have our own first-hand experience to be really sure that something is the case. Taking another’s experience seems to go against the Socratic notion of never being satisfied with second hand truths. Yet Swinburne would argue that we should accept what people report through his ‘Principle of Credulity’. He believes that people tend not to lie and so should accept what they tell us at face value. There are a number of problems with this view. Both Mackie and Starbuck would question this view on the same point. Starbuck believed that something could be a psychic reality for you but that this belief did not translate into reality. Mackie also claims that people can be mistaken in their beliefs. It seems as though even the most well meaning of religious individuals, excluding those who might (as Hume suggested) purposely miss report their claims out of some misguided notion, reporting their experience and more importantly believing it 100% to be the case could be wrong. We are still left with the serious question as to whether even the individual can ‘know’ that their experience is the case. It is a custom in essays on religious experience to trot out examples of people who have experiences under the influence of drugs and alcohol (which Freud believes adds weight to his faulty mind argument) to attack the very foundations of these experiences, yet these are weak arguments as they do not represent the majority of experiences reported. There is potentially one more final nail in the coffin of the valid religious experience which comes in the guise of the ‘God helmet’. Michael Persinger, a neuro-scientist has devised a helmet that produces a weak magnetic pulse that causes the wearer of said helmet to report feeling the presence of the divine in the room with them while they wear it. In other words the helmet causes the wearer to ‘experience’ God. It would appear that if this is the case the whole notion of the validity of religious experience and the subsequent reporting of this experience to others could be challenged on the basis of it being simply the product of the human brain. This conclusion is perhaps not as sound as initially thought. It assumes that the origins of these ‘experiences’ are found in the mind. Perhaps these induced experiences are no different from other ‘experiences’ that people have reported, the native American Indians have been using hallucinogenic plants to experience mystical experiences for centuries. James dismissed the claim that we should not accept the validity of induced experiences based on the idea that it does not necessarily disprove the validity of such experiences. It is here that we reach our final point – religious experiences will come down to the perception of the individual.

The notion of religious experience being evidence of the existence of God can be explained in two ways. The experience could be subjective but still having ‘real effects’ as James suggests, or it could be an objective experience of the universe around us providing critical insight into the divine being. Critics of the latter, such as Hume, may well argue that the sheer number of different cultures reporting religious experiences would question the validity of this objective experience. Yet this might not be the case if we were to subscribe to a pluralistic understanding of religion: the idea, as put forward by John Hick, that there is only one divine being and that the details of religious faith and practice are nothing more than a cultural expression of this divine being. This view would suggest that seemingly conflicting testimonies of Muslim, Hindu or Christian believers are nothing more than cultural experiences of the same divine being. Thereby giving weight to the notion that we can accept these as valid proofs of the existence of God. A more important issue needs to be raised as an offering for a conclusion to this work. This also comes from the thinking of John Hick. The criticisms raised by the work of neuro-scientists and the ‘God helmet’, as well as drug or alcohol induced experiences, point to an interesting notion that should not be missed. John Hick describes this idea as ‘experiencing as’ which he develops from Wittgenstein’s ‘seeing as’. Hick has suggested that the whole issue of religious experience comes down to perception of the world around us. In some sense Freud and Dawkins will never see religious experiences as valid proof for the existence of God because they are not looking for such answers as their minds are closed off to the whole experience. While others like Otto, James and Swinburne are more likely to experience the world around them in a religious manner because they are open to the possibility of this. People experience the same events in different ways according to Hick – a sunset might be interpreted as a beautiful event with divine significance for one person whilst being the onset of the inconvenience of darkness for another. Ultimately we cannot be sure that the testimony that an individual gives us will be conclusive of the existence of God in any objective way or that these experiences are indeed valid, but what does seem clear is that to dismiss these ideas out of hand would be unwise because we cannot be sure whether we are experiencing the world as it really is.

Nature of God concepts sheets

Michael Lacewing who is involved in the AQA Philosophy A-Level (a very different kettle of fish from the OCR Religious Studies ‘Philosophy and Ethics’ exam!) has provided some excellent quality handouts for his course over at this page .

They are of course for the AQA, but a couple of them are very good summaries on the Nature of God – just scroll to the bottom of the page. There is also a good one on how to do philosophy which could be profitably read by OCR students!


Student Essay: Critically assess propositional and non-propositional revelation as divinely inspired experiences of God

In this student essay there is a discussion of the relative merits of propositional and non-propositional revelation. It is an A grade essay.

Critically assess propositional and non-propositional revelation as divinely inspired experiences of God. (35)

Propositional and non-propositional revelations are forms of divine disclosure involving, in the Christian tradition, truths about God being revealed to (or recognised by) people in the natural world. Propositional revelations are truths revealed by God, whereas non-propositional revelations are a believer’s recognition of God acting in human experience. Various accounts of revelatory acts also exist within other religious traditions, such as those recorded in the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam – Mohammed on the mountain, for example. These ‘holy books’ (the Bible and the Qur’an) supposedly posses a special status linked to God, helping followers to learn about God – despite his transcendence – through revelation in the natural world. These revelations can be concerned with nature, people, miracles or visions, for example God appearing to Saul on the road to Damascus, resulting in Saul’s conversion to Christianity. The word ‘Islam’ actually derives from the notion of ‘submission to God’, highlighting the powerful and important role of Allah in the Islamic faith. It is generally accepted that the revelatory accounts in the Bible (containing what is believed to be the Word of God) are propositional in nature, whereas other revelatory experiences, such as religious experiences, are generally non-propositional in nature.

Belief in propositional revelations as divinely inspired experiences of God has both strengths and weaknesses attached to it. From a positive angle, there is no need for reinterpretation with these revelatory experiences because the truths revealed by God are infallible in nature. In this sense, there is arguably less potential for ‘human error’ as there is less of a focus on the individual or people in question. On the other hand, as these revelations are received ‘passively’ and without a human thought process, reason is removed from the equation, and therefore God’s revelations are not ‘provable’ by human standards. However, the existence of God (an argument put forward by Saint Thomas Aquinas) may be demonstrated using arguments for God’s existence, which do evolve from experience of the natural world. In this way, so long as propositional revelations are in accordance with Church teaching, particularly the Magisterium, Aquinas argues that it is sensible to accept them. Aquinas concluded by stating that Faith is more certain than opinion but less certain than scientific evidence, highlighting the importance of Natural Theology (using the natural world as evidence of God’s existence, such as in the forms of the cosmological and teleological arguments). William Paley, the developer of the teleological argument, was entranced by the complexity of the human eye, which lead him to the conclusion that ‘when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover [analogically] in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose…the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker.”

The fact that human beings do not receive information passively but actively and the fact that the human mind is prone to making mistakes when learning new things are primary weaknesses of the notion of propositional revelation. Aquinas argues that ‘absolute proof’ of divine revelation is impossible because of his notion that propositional revelations are not demonstrable using human reason. However, Aquinas’ ‘faith’ argument in support of propositional revelation is weak in the sense that many so-called revelation experiences may merely be a person’s passive acceptance of an unauthentic revelation. This weakness could however be countered by reference to Paul’s conversion experience; it was a truly unique experience which had a definitive outcome. However, on a greater scale, there are faith claims from different religious traditions that conflict and it could be argued thereby count each other out. For example claims that God is triune and became incarnate in Jesus directly contradict Muslim views of God as one and completely transcendent. A final strong weakness in the authority of Bible scripture (wherein accounts of revelatory experiences can be found) is that several passages conflict with accepted modern ethical views, such as those relating to the role of women. In this way, the authority of the Bible as the true ‘Word of God’ is diminished.

The interpretation on the part of the believer when it comes to non-propositional revelation leads to problems with the potential for misunderstanding and resulting at the ‘wrong message’. Furthermore, as non-propositional revelation is dependent on the perspective of the individual, there is no way of verifying whether the beauty of nature is something only God (or a higher being) can fully understand, or whether our environment is the product of a complex and beautiful process of evolution, of which it is possible and foreseeable for all elements to be explained or accounted for in scientific terms. The Bible from a non-propositional viewpoint is a collection of perceptions of religious believers who have witnessed revelatory acts through history. This is, of course, a very subjective and indirect way of viewing the ‘Word of God’. In this way, non-propositional revelation cannot in any way be considered infallible, unlike propositional revelation, which can appeal to ‘facts revealed by God’ as a basis for theological debate. On the other hand, strengths of the non-propositional perspective include the concept of faith as a way of seeing the world, in other words from a Christian or Muslim perspective, for instance. Finally, it appeals to our human nature to adopt a theory which enables us to interact with information, and thereby apply it to our own lives and the lives of those around us, perhaps providing a more useful result of the revelation.

In conclusion, it is exemplified though the world of the character of Sherlock Holmes that the beauty of nature is awe-inspiring; ‘Our highest assurance of the goodness of providence seems to rest in the flowers. All other things…are really necessary’. In contrast to this opinion, evolutionary atheist Richard Dawkins approaches the universe from a different angle in his book ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’; he states: ‘Isn’t it a noble, enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it’. Although it is evidently possible to wonder at the beauty of nature without experiencing non-propositional revelation, and possible to discard arguably ‘delusionary and unverifiable’ cases of direct religious experience or revelation, it is also true that cases of divine inspiration, such as the giving of the Ten Commandments, as recorded in the Bible, have remained important features of our lives and helped tailor our lives towards the greater good for a great length of time, that perhaps being the reason why such accounts have remained pertinent within the scripture of religious believers for so long.