Of course, not all the existenz philosophen are atheists. Some, like Søren Kierkegaard, are well at home in the churchyard. Others, like Friedrich Nietzsche, could affirm Jesus’s declaration of the kingdom of God while still calling his book The Anti-Christ:
What is the meaning of “glad tidings”?—True life, eternal life has been found—it is not promised, it is actually here, it is in you; it is life in love, in love free from all selection or exclusion, free from all distance. Everybody is the child of God—Jesus does not by any means claim anything for himself alone,—as the child of God everybody is equal to everybody else.
(Section 29, quoted in The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 290-91, by Stephen Mitchell, who says in the young adult abridgment of his book, Jesus, What He Really Said and Did, that Jesus was one of the most beautiful people who ever lived, and that he himself is an atheist.)
“Nietzsche wasn’t an anti-Christ,” Jim Faulconer told me once. “I don’t believe in the same God Nietzsche didn’t believe in,” meaning he saw Nietzsche’s rejection of God as a rejection of a concept, a definition, not a Being. He added that there was no evidence Nietzsche knew Kierkegaard, but if he had perhaps he could have found a definition of God he could work with.
One thing Nietzsche’s inability to find a definition he could work with means is that he couldn’t separate the concept from the Being, and he couldn’t formulate a new concept of God, couldn’t move beyond the question Cleanthes asked Demea more than a hundred years earlier in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. by that guy who could “out-consume Schopenhauer and Hegel:”
Or how do you mystics, who maintain the absolute incomprehensibility of the Deity, differ from Sceptics or Atheists, who assert, that the first cause of all is unknown and unintelligible?
So if there’s no difference between an incomprehensible God and a no-god, the choice someone has is to reject the concept of God altogether, or to reformulate it. But how do your reformulate it? You could start by looking at the imagery of God in the Tanakh, and noticing how concrete it is, how Palpable, to use Reynolds Price’s term. But Reynolds Price was a twentieth-century writer. To my knowledge no nineteenth century thinker tried to rethink the concept of God as palpable.
Not even Joseph Smith. He didn’t arrive at this item of instruction given at Ramus, Illinois, April 2, 1843,
The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.
— D&C 130:2
through logic or theologic. He arrived at it through his own experience, through conversations with two Beings whose bodies were as tangible as his own. And it’s possible he didn’t understand that teaching during his first conversation. It may have taken him years of thinking about his vision before he could abstract a teaching from it. Indeed, Neal Lambert and Richard Cracroft posit that he first tried to tell the story of his First Vision like a Methodist would tell it, and that when he finally dictated the 1838 version we now have in The Pearl of Great Price that telling was informed by his maturing understanding of the nature of God.
But it wasn’t just a new understanding of God that informed his 1838 account, it was a new understanding of scripture, of revelation, and of truth itself. By the end of his life Joseph Smith had a new understanding of all three–revelation, scripture, and truth–as dynamic and changing, as defined by “knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come” (D&C 93:24).
I hope to talk about how the idea of an open canon redefines truth more next month. One way to approach redefining truth is to think back to that time your Philosophy or English or Humanities teacher introduced you to Plato’s realm of Ideas, and asked, “Why is it that a milking stool, a throne, a dining room chair and a folding chair are all called chairs. How do we recognize them as the same thing. It must be that they all partake of the idea of chair-ness.
But the answer doesn’t have to be an abstraction. We recognize all those examples because they have similar functions in relation to the human body. They all allow us to take the weight of the body off our feet. The class of swords, knives, daggers, and cimeters is also amenable to the same explanation. A taxonomy that included eagles, seagulls, and sparrows could also be explained by the way they function, by the things they have in common.
I’m hardly the first person in 2,500 years. to have made that observation. Any carpenter or weapon maker in Athens could have explained that function is the governing principle of form, that function leads form. So why did Plato and others want to place the governing principles in a realm of Ideas, abstract and intangible? Why did they want truth to be outside of human experience, and therefore beyond our experience, inaccessible to us? The answers I’ve heard, like they believed truth was static and unchanging, raise more questions, such as, why did they believe that?
But perhaps the question to the answer to that question is also why, and why, and why, and why. If truth is in a static realm people living in a constantly changing realm may never have access to truth.
But we do have access to experience. I hope we can discuss what difference seeing truth as experience, as knowledge of experience, makes next month.