Friday, 30 June 2017

Intentionality, Conjecture, and what is Holy

This is a suppressed chapter (to use the jargon) from The Sacred History of Being (2015). I removed it, together with some other chapters along the way, in order to focus the argument of the book more tightly. It looks at the role of intentionality in establishing commerce with the Divine, and the essentially phenomenological nature of how the Divine is both made and known by us. It draws parallels between the creation of gods in antiquity, and the setting up of saints in Heaven. Both represent instantiations of what is Holy.


It is unclear that the realm of the divine has reality. It is real, and at the same time it is not.  The only argument for the world of existence is that it is a poor copy of the divine world. And the divine world is uncertain. So how ‘real’ is the world of existence? What is the way out of this dilemma?

The answer is intentionality. The objective world is subject to change, as is the understanding of men. We cannot know the full properties of God, because, among other things, God is transcendent of human understanding. How can mortal man then understand the properties and nature of the divine, and how can the gods have a genuine involvement in the world? The answer arrived at, it would seem, is that the human understanding does not need to encompass the actual nature of the divine in order to have commerce with it. 

This is an exceptionally important point, since, beyond legitimizing commerce with the divine despite the definition of God as beyond human understanding, it also provides the intellectual basis for the creation of multiple gods. Essentially therefore the idea of isolating the properties of God, insofar as they can be understood, was understood to be a way of accessing the nature of these properties, and therefore to allow operations to take place, establishing a commerce between the divine and the world of change.

Intentionality explains why the ancients created a multiplicity of gods. If the divine itself cannot by definition be completely defined and understood, at least certain properties and attributes can be understood. These can therefore be defined and named as ways of accessing the divine. This does not at all conflict with the idea that the reality of the divine is in question. Instead this view argues that there is in fact a subjective component in the reality of the divine, at least insofar as it is possible for us to have commerce with it. That is to say, some aspects of the divine are accessible to the human mind. We cannot prove that it is real or that it exists in any sense, but despite this uncertainty, there are certain properties of the divine which are indisputable. Proof of the whole nature of the divine is unimportant, since this cannot, by the definition of the divine, be demonstrated.. We might then say that all connection with the divine therefore is an act of faith rather than certainty. The nature and power of the divine can be understood, defined, invoked and accessed by man.

Viewed in this way, we can see that each of the gods we encounter in ancient accounts represents a slice through the nature of divinity, so that one god has a special interest in one thing as opposed to another, a special set of characteristics or attributes, which more directly can be understood than an abstract and indefinable numinous concept of divinity. However the underlying numinous concept, in fact the objective numinous reality itself, requires to be real and present as the ground of being behind the multiplicity of gods. 

This explains the phenomenon of henotheism, found in ancient polytheism. Pharaoh, for example, as the incarnation of the the divine on earth, could ‘appear’ as himself, or could appear in any appropriate form of the divine. When smiting his enemies for example, he might appear as ‘Montu, in his great form.’ He might be depicted on a temple wall as Montu, rather than in the form of the king. It might also be the case that a divine pronouncement might involve the speaker moving successively from the voice and vocabulary associated with one god, to the mode of speech associated with another god, as appropriate. This has been found in Assyrian records, where someone recorded in a state of divine possession, speaks successively as the voice of different gods.

Considered in this way, the divine world is filled with a variety of gods. Some of these have been defined, and subsequently invoked. Other aspects of the underlying divine reality have not been defined or invoked, and remain as possibilities. In the world of existence, the divinities which have been defined were given representation in the form of images and statuary.

None of this should be taken to imply that polytheism initially arose from such a complex and philosophically subtle theory as this. We have much information about the growth of local pantheons in the near east, and the way in which local gods were absorbed into state pantheons, given increased importance over time, or diminished in importance, according to requirements. They would be given family relationships which they did not possess when they first arrived, and gain attributes and characteristics which they did not have when they were first born in the smaller urban centres. 

We cannot easily know to what extent there was an intellectual model behind the creation of polytheistic belief and worship from its first appearance in the archaeological and textual record. It is likely that much of what has been written about ancient polytheism from an anthropological perspective is probably correct, and valuable to our understanding. It is just that the account is incomplete from this limited perspective, and anthropologists have hardly ever seriously considered the possibility that some intellectual ideas might underpin the phenomenon as well.  

Those notionally equipped to explore this territory, the specialists in ancient philosophy and perhaps theologians, have had many reasons to stay out of this territory. For them, the possibility of the ancient presence of a sophisticated intellectual model, based on logical argument, is not something which can be easily entertained. This is something which belongs to the Greeks. Though the Greeks were polytheists, their polytheism antedates the beginnings of philosophy in the historical record, and therefore polytheism has no bearing on philosophy, or vice versa. Many writers on both Greek religion and philosophy have found this arrangement to be conveniently tidy and a boon to scholarship. But it is not the case.

Shortly before I began this work, Pope Benedict visited the UK in connection with the Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman. When I read the details of the process of Beatification (essentially of making saints), I was struck by the resemblance between the idea of this in the Catholic Church, and the idea of setting up gods in antiquity (which will be explored in more detail later on).  The idea is that someone has to request (in ancient parlance this would be to ‘invoke’) the assistance of a person, now deceased, who showed especial virtues in life, and has to receive a response to this request which amounts to a miracle.

This is worth unpicking in detail, in order to understand the logic which is involved. It is not clear why someone would invoke someone less than the divine itself, if the divine is on offer, unless the virtues of a lesser being seem more appropriate. In other words, the prospective saint offers what looks like a channel which is more likely to be successful than the supplicant making a direct appeal to a God who is both difficult to define, and to know. 

The Catholic Church itself promotes the idea of sainthood, and unambiguously points at likely candidates. Newman has been one of those for quite sometime. Two miracles are required for the final elevation to sainthood. Why miracles? Because miracles are defined as things which cannot be accounted for in terms of earthly understanding. These may (in the extreme) be things which defy our understanding of physics, but ordinarily are occurrences such as unexpected remission from terminal illness, which ‘defies’ orthodox medical science. This was indeed the case for the supplicant who invoked the assistance of John Henry Newman.

The argument therefore runs as follows: Newman has special status in Heaven because an appeal for his assistance was answered. Because the assistance defied earthly understanding and expectation, the result was a miracle which otherwise could not have occurred. Therefore his status in Heaven is proved*[1]. Thus it is that the Catholic Church sets up saints on earth, and also in Heaven.

The Catholic Church is not based on polytheistic belief.  So it is rather surprising to find that it supports the idea that divine intervention can occur via the saints, rather than directly through the divine father, or his incarnation on earth.

The only significant difference between the Vatican’s idea of saints and the ancients idea of gods is that all of the saints are supposed to have lived human lives before being elevated to a divine status in Heaven. The ancients did not subject themselves to such an unreasonable constraint, and created gods who had never lived, and who could never have endured existence in the world. They could do this because they understood a formal and technical mechanics underpinning connection between the earthly world of existence, and divinity. The mechanics are still available to us in the records.   

It might be in order here to recap a little on the nature of the intellectual model of reality which underpins polytheistic belief, as we find it reflected in Greek texts, particularly those by Plato.

The most perfect entity it is possible for man to conceive is God. God is reality itself. The world of existence as understood by man is imperfect, and consists of imperfect representations of reality. The world of appearance as understood by man is subject to change and corruption, whereas the world of divine reality as conceived by man is eternal.

God is real. Existence is full of representations, more or less false, more or less true. Reality and existence are opposed. Man can apprehend that this is the case.

Since existence is suspended from reality, as a poor image of it, it is subject to change. Since man is an existent creature, man’s perception of reality is also subject to change. Both the nature of things which are existent, and man’s perception of these changeable things, are perpetually in flux.

Man cannot have full understanding of the nature of the divine, since, by definition, the divine transcends the world of sensible reality, and existence. It is in essence transcendental, and to the fullest extent.

However there are a number of ways in which the world of existence can access the divine reality. Several characteristic features of the divine remain in the sensible world, and retain their divine natures.  The connection does depend absolutely on the idea that the divine is complete, is total in its nature, is the ultimate limit of reality, and is the final end.  These things have analogues in the world of existence, and so there is a route of commerce open between the world of the divine and the world of existence.

Man has connection with the world of the divine through things and properties which are present in the world of existence which participate in the nature of the divine. These things include: completion, totality, the limit, the end, the perfection of a thing, a nature, a property, or an act, and so on. It also includes infinitive and superlative action, and also its extreme opposite, inaction. Greatness too, which we found to be an insufficient concept in the medieval version of an ontological argument concerning the divine, is also something which may open the way to the divine. The ancients also included ‘fame’ as one of the properties which connect man with the divine. We can explore the wide range of concepts and properties which can connect us with the divine along the way.  We shall find that justice, beauty, magnanimity, ethical and moral perfection, and honour, are also included in this list.

It is not necessary for us to have a complete understanding of the divine in order to access aspects of that higher reality. In fact a focus on particular characteristics, a ‘bracketing’ of the most relevant aspects of the divine, increases the efficacy of the commerce with the divine. Thus the intentionality of the supplicant is a factor in the opening of contact with the divine. There are other ideas associated with the strengthening of the connection with the divine which we shall explore. These include reduplication, the striking together of images and concepts, the collection or heaping up of things, especially where these result in reduplication of properties; the act of drawing near to the divine, or to the image of the divine, and so on. The deliberate opposition of ideas and images is also relevant to the business of establishing a commerce with the divine. For connection with the divine represents an alteration of state.

And to reiterate a key point, none of this proves the reality of God. It merely establishes a range of correspondences between a concept of God and a hypothetical Being who might or might not have reality. Instead, the entire intellectual system underpinning polytheism, at least in its later stages, was rooted in the paradoxical and transcendent notion of the divine, which necessarily defied human comprehension. So, there was no proof available, but within this world view, ‘proof’ conclusive to the human understanding would have demolished the entire edifice.

[1] It is proved by the fact that it could not ordinarily have happened. This is a tacit admission that what is real, what is possible, at the level of divine reality, may be entirely contrary to what we understand as possible in the world of existence. 

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