Commentary Magazine


On the Eclipse of God

In one of his writings Martin Heidegger quotes with approval, as applying to the present, these words of the early 19th-century German poet Hoelderlin: “Alas, our generation walks in night, dwells as in Hades, without the Divine.” When Hoelderlin wrote those words, there cannot have been many people who agreed with him, for it was an age which thought of itself as about to reach the very summit of religious enlightenment. In our own age, by contrast—an age which is acquainted with catastrophe and stands in fear of even greater catastrophes to come—hardly anyone can think of himself as walking in anything but night. And while it is not immediately clear whether this means that we must dwell “without the Divine”—indeed, that is the question to which these reflections are addressed—it is at any rate perfectly clear that we are undergoing an unprecedented crisis of religious faith.

According to a widespread view, it is the very catastrophes of the 20th century which have brought the crisis about. The ancient belief that the Divine is with us—that God lives and cares—cannot, it is said, be sustained in the face of these catastrophes, for to sustain it requires smugness and blindness to tragedy. Yet the fact is that this view reflects a complete lack of understanding of the nature of religious faith in general and Biblical faith in particular. Biblical faith—and I mean both Jewish and Christian—is never destroyed by tragedy but only tested by it; and in the test it both clarifies its own meaning and conquers tragedy. Here, precisely, lies the secret of its strength.

Consider a few representative examples. The prophet Jeremiah lives to see the destruction of the Temple, of Jerusalem, of the whole national existence of Judah. He does not deny the tragedy or seek to explain it away. But neither does it occur to him that God's existence has now been refuted, or that He can no longer be conceived as just, or as loving His people, Israel. To Jeremiah the destruction of the Temple is a manifestation of divine justice. And it does not mark the end of divine love: “There is hope for the future.”

The case of Job is still more extreme because Job is struck by tragedies which are explicitly said to be beyond the bounds of any conceivable divine justice. Yet Job never denies the existence of God; nor does he follow his wife's suggestion that he curse God and die. His faith is reduced to utter unintelligibility, yet he persists in it.

Let me give a final example which, at least in one respect, is still more extreme—the example of the Psalmist. Even in the midst of unintelligible tragedy, Job never wholly loses his sense of the presence of God. The Psalmist in extremis, however, does, when He complains that God has “hidden His face.” God is not—at least not now—present. Unlike Job, the Psalmist does not ask that God's ways be made intelligible to him. He does not ask that the valley of the shadows or the netherworld be made to vanish; he asks only that God be present while he walks through them, as God was present to him before. Yet even in this most extreme of all crisis situations—God having “hidden His face”—the Psalmist never loses his faith. He never says that God does not, after all, exist; nor that, though existing, He has finally ceased to care. (In practice the two assertions would amount to the same thing.) What he does say is that, unaccountably, God has hidden His face; that He has hidden it for only a while; and that He will turn His face back to man again.

Put radically, this means that there is no experience, either without or within, that can possibly destroy religious faith. Good fortune without reveals the hand of God; bad fortune, if it is not a matter of just punishment, teaches that God's ways are unintelligible, not that there are no ways of God. A full heart within indicates the Divine Presence; an empty heart bespeaks not the non-existence or unconcern of God, but merely His temporary absence. Religious faith can be, and is, empirically verifiable; but nothing empirical can possibly refute it.

Philosophers of science rightly assert that such an attitude toward the empirical is in principle illegitimate in the sciences. It is, however, hardly surprising that it should be of the essence of religious faith. Science is forever hypothetical. But what could one make of a religious faith which was forever hypothetical, wavering between belief in good times and unbelief in bad? Since, as we have seen, the characteristic of genuine faith is not only to survive in tragic times but to survive in them most triumphant, it is no accident that adherents of Biblical faith should always have regarded times of external or internal darkness not as evidence against God, but rather—to use Martin Buber's expression—as evidence of an “eclipse of God.” To follow Buber's metaphor, an eclipse of the sun is something that occurs, not to or in the sun, but between the sun and the eye; moreover, this occurrence is temporary. Hence the catastrophes of our time, however great, cannot by themselves account for the contemporary crisis of religious belief; or rather, they can be regarded as having produced this crisis only on the assumption that religious belief was already undermined. What, then, undermined it?

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Most people would say: modern science. The story begins with Copernicus, who shows that the earth is but one of many stars; it is carried forward by Darwin, who shows that man is but a higher animal; and it culminates with Freud, who shows that the one indubitably distinctive human characteristic—rationality—is neither very significant nor even very distinctive. Once at the center of the universe, man has been moved to the periphery. Once the crown of creation, man has become a fleck of dust.

Another and related aspect is perhaps still more important. The pre-modern universe was shot through with value: there was a hierarchy of purposes into which man with his human purposes could fit and feel at home. By contrast, the universe of modern science is a universe of fact without purpose; and because man cannot live without purpose, there arises a dichotomy between “fact” and “value.” Values are now human only: man finds that he and his values have no counterpart in the world of sheer fact around him—he is radically alone. When Aristotle gazed at the stars, he could regard them as manifesting purposes somehow akin to human purposes. When the Stranger of Albert Camus's novel gazes at the stars, he must regard them as neutral. Thus it seems that man is not only a marginal being within the universe of modern science, but also that his purposes and values, inextricably bound up with any conceivable religion, lack the kind of “objective” warrant which could be given them by some Archimedean point outside himself. How, then, can he still look upon himself as being under the special care of a cosmic God?

But this whole argument, however plausible on the surface, is utterly invalid. Since Biblical belief is empirically irrefutable, scientific evidence can no more affect it than the evidence of historical tragedy or the evidence of an empty heart. The Biblical God, to be sure, has always revealed Himself. But He has always concealed Himself as well. At most, therefore, modern science should have had no greater effect on Biblical belief than to show that its God was even more inscrutable than had hitherto been thought, and His revelations even more ambiguous and intermittent.

Perhaps, however, it would be rash to dismiss the threat of modern science to Biblical faith on such general grounds alone. Conceivably there is a special affinity between that faith and the Weltanschauung of the pre-modern world, and conceivably the very different Weltanschauung that goes with modern science is radically in conflict with Biblical faith. Science may be unable to refute faith, yet it may be that one cannot really live by both.

But is it true that pre-modern science and Biblical faith are temperamentally compatible, while modern science and Biblical faith are mutually hostile? A. N. Whitehead argues, and argues plausibly, that the opposite is the case. According to Whitehead, pre-modern and modern science differ not only in their conclusions about nature but also in their approach to nature. Pre-modern science did not experiment with—“torture”—nature: who would wish to torture something divine, or shot through with divinity? It was because they regarded nature as divine that the Greeks thought only of contemplating it and not of putting it to human use. Thus, though they developed so much else, they never systematically developed experimentation. To the Protestant mind, schooled in the Bible, nature is not divine, but the work of God; and God created it for human use. It was this belief—still according to Whitehead—that made modern experimental science possible. Hence one might well conclude that in some ways modern science is closer in spirit to Biblical faith than its pre-modern predecessor. Is there not rivalry between a science which finds gods in nature and a faith whose God is beyond nature? And is not a science for which nature is at any rate un-divine free from conflict with a faith which, however different in all other respects, agrees at least on this one point?

Nevertheless, it might still remain true that this un-divine nature of modern science threatens, if it does not rule out, any religious recourse to a Divinity beyone nature. If man is a mere fleck of dust in a blind universe, can he plausibly resort to such a God—a God, furthermore, essentially concerned with him? But closer inspection reveals that this is, and has been since the rise of modern science, only half the story. As the object of scientific investigation, man may be infinitely small. As the subject undertaking the investigation, however, he is infinitely large, if only because he knows that he is infinitely small. Man, growing ever smaller in stature as modern science progressed, at the same time grew ever larger as well; for whereas all else in the universe was only part of a whole, it was man who knew the whole and his own position within it. And so far as we can tell even today, man is unique in this respect. What makes him unique, moreover, is not a mere capacity for abstract theory which is relevant to a few thinkers alone; it is the power this capacity gives him to transform nature, as well as to transform the whole human condition. Because of technology man can be more fully controlled than ever before; he becomes the object of physical and social engineering. But the engineer is himself human.

I hope it is clear that my purpose is not to exalt human greatness in an attempt—like those of earlier times—to struggle by means of faith in man toward faith in God. Rather what I want to stress is man's dialectical condition: that he is at once small and large, part of the universe and yet not reducible to a mere part—in short, and for better or worse, a terror, wonder, and mystery to himself. Now in this regard, modern man is not really so far from the Psalmist who writes: “What is man that Thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that Thou shouldst think of him? Yet hast Thou made him but little lower than the angels, and crowned him with honor and glory.” It is, to be sure, a decisive difference that the Psalmist feels at once small and large before God. His feeling and ours, however, have much in common.

If, then, the historical catastrophes of our time cannot explain the crisis of contemporary religious belief, neither can modern science and all its works. Indeed, one might go so far as to say that the whole battle between science and religion rests on nothing but gigantic misunderstandings on both sides. It was because faith had already been undermined by the time this battle was joined in the 19th century, that religion had to resort either to a fundamentalism hostile to all science, or else to a modernism seeking props for its own weakness in a science which would not and could not provide them.

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Our question concerning the cause of the modern crisis of faith thus remains unanswered. In seeking the answer, we do well to keep a firm grasp on the essence of Biblical faith, which is the believer's certainty of standing in relation to an unprovable and irrefutable God. What could have undermined such a certainty? The process was extremely complex, but let us for the sake of better understanding try to describe it as though it took place in three clearly distinct stages.

First came what may be called the discovery of the circle of authority and faith. A pre-modern man, if asked about the grounds of his religious certainty, would presumably have pointed to an authority—a prophet, a sacred scripture, a church, even the voice of his own heart. This, however, involves a circle. If Moses beheld the Presence of God in the burning bush, it was because he was already open to that Presence; a modern agnostic, beholding the same bush, would perceive only a chemical phenomenon. No conceivable datum—neither a natural fact, nor an inner experience, nor an existing scripture—can serve as an authority authenticating a religious truth except for those already prepared to accept that truth on faith. Faith may base itself on authority; but the authority is an authority only where faith can be presupposed.

The discovery of this circle is not by itself fatal to faith, as can be seen from the fact that pre-modern thinkers were by no means wholly unaware of it. (Saint Thomas Aquinas knew, for example, that he could not argue with a non-believer on the basis of the revealed Scriptures, since the issue between them was precisely whether the Scriptures were revealed.) Nevertheless, the discovery, by focusing attention on faith instead of on authority, leads the modern critic to a second and more decisive step. To the believer, faith is the immediate relation between himself and God. To the critic, faith is merely the feeling of standing in such a relation, plus an inference from that feeling to an actual God.

The step just described may seem a matter of mere philosophical subtlety; yet everything centers around it. For once this second step is taken, the third—and it is the coup de grâce—quickly follows; the elimination, with the help of Ockham's razor, of the inferred God. Ockham asserted the rational necessity of eliminating unnecessary assumptions, as one shaves off an unwanted beard. And it is all too clear that God, as an assumption made to account for the feeling of His Presence, is indeed both unwanted and unnecessary.

In the first place, a God inferred to explain religious feelings would at most be a probable inference, capable of refutation and never really certain. And in the second place, anyone in agreement with Kant (and with a good many other philosophers as well) would regard such an inference—moving from a natural effect to a supernatural cause—as in principle illegitimate.

Thus modern criticism, operating through three stages, explains faith as an inference from religious feeling, and eliminates the inference as a redundancy. To complete the destruction of faith, it remains only to explain how the inference should ever have been mistaken for an immediate relationship. That is achieved by defining God as in fact an unconscious projection, and faith as in fact a solitary disport with religious feelings (however these, in turn, are to be explained).

The reason we can consider this whole process—which may be termed subjectivist reductionism—as the cause of the modern religious crisis, is that it is not a mere intellectual argument carried on by abstract thinkers. Subjectivist reductionism has become a modern—perhaps the modern—way of life. Which came first—the argument or the way of life—we need not here inquire.

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Much that passes for an independent assault on religion is actually a version, or an application, of the three-stage argument just presented. Consider, first, Biblical criticism, which, it is sometimes supposed, constitutes a refutation of the claim that the Scriptures are the revealed word of God. But in fact Biblical criticism either presupposes what it imagines itself to be proving, or else it leaves the issue open. For if the critic declares that what the Bible itself regards as the reflection of human dialogues with God is nothing more than an expression of the evolution of religious feelings and ideas, it is he who has brought such categories to the Bible, not the Bible which has yielded them to him. His criticism, in other words, already assumes a position of subjectivist reductionism.

Consider, next, humanism. Feuerbach, possibly the greatest of modern humanists, speaks for all: “What man is not, but wills to be or wishes to be, just that and only that, nothing else, is God.” But to the religious believer, God is not what he wills to be; He is the other-than-human with Whom the believer stands in relation. How, then, does the humanist refute the believer? Only by a form of subjectivist reductionism. And what is true of Feuerbach is true of Marx and Freud as well. To unmask some gods as pseudo-gods, they can rely on specific empirical evidence in specific spheres. But to unmask all gods as pseudo-gods is in the end to rest one's case not on specific empirical evidence but on an a priori philosophical argument; and the argument is a form of subjectivist reductionism.

So pervasive is subjectivist reductionism in the modern world that it has enlisted friends of religion as well as foes in its ranks—although it must be said that this friendship is of the most dubious kind. Its nature may be illustrated by two examples, the one widespread and popular, the other more or less confined to academics. Pragmatism—and a good deal of popular psychology as well—is apt to assert that while religious beliefs are mere wish- or need-projections, they are useful, or even necessary, for comfortable survival in an uncomfortable world. The question thus arises as to how they can be preserved, and the answer would appear to be: by keeping their illusory character concealed. For who can live by a belief which he knows to be illusory? Yet such concealment is not only practically impossible in the modern world; the particular friends of religion presently under consideration do not even seem to desire it. Hence in many circles religion has become a collective make-believe: something which is good for most, accepted as true by others, rejected as false by oneself. Religion of this sort is not a bulwark against religious crisis; it is one of its gravest manifestations.

Much the same can be said of the other, more academic forms of friendship for religion displayed by some of the linguistic philosophers who have now taken over from (the logical positivists. Logical positivism was a clear foe of religious faith. It declared religious language to be emotive only, referring to no objective reality. Thus “God” really meant “three cheers for the world”; and a revivalist preacher, urging his congregation to give three cheers for God, was really saying “Let's give three cheers for three cheers for the world.” Here was subjectivist reductionism accompanied by forthright hostility. The heirs of logical positivism, the linguistic philosophers, on the whole feel no such hostility. Science tells us about the world, they say, while religion reflects attitudes toward the world—and why should we not have attitudes? Indeed, how can we live without them? But if religion is acknowledged to be an attitude only, and the God toward whom religion is an attitude is excluded, then subjectivist reductionism has won the day. Defending the attitude as attitude does not protect religious faith: it helps bring about its doom.

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Has subjectivist reductionism, then, won the day? It has not. For the Biblical faith has been restated in our time, both by Jews and Christians, with a purity perhaps unmatched in centuries; and this restatement has fully risen to the challenge posed by subjectivist reductionism.

Here are two quotations, one taken from Bertrand Russell's My Philosophical Development, the other from Buber's Eclipse of God. Russell writes:

If A loves B the relation . . . consists in certain states of mind of A. Even an atheist must admit that a man can love God. It follows that love of God is a state of the man who feels it, and not properly a relational fact.

Contrast this with Buber:

Great images of God fashioned by mankind are born, not of imagination, but of real encounters with Divine power and glory.

Russell here admirably states the subjectivist-reductionist view. Although he expressly speaks only of the love of God, what he says would apply equally well to faith. Just as an atheist can “admit that a man can love God,” he can admit faith in another man. Faith would be a subjective state and God would become an inference made by the believer which the atheist would declare invalid.

Buber's statement, once contrasted with Russell's, is seen in its full significance and polemical power. Man does not have private feelings from which he infers the Divine. If related to God at all, he is primordially open to Him; and his subjective feelings and the images of God he fashions are mere by-products of this primordial openness. No doubt man can be imprisoned by images and feelings, and no doubt he can seek to escape from the prison of these images and feelings by inferring from them to a God beyond them. But such imprisonment is pseudo-religion, and the attempt to escape from it is futile. Or rather, the true escape is not to infer God from images and feelings, but to turn away from these to God Himself.

On Buber's thesis, an atheist can certainly “admit that a man can love God.” But it is questionable whether an atheist can do something far more important—understand what the love of God means. For how can he distinguish between the pseudo-love which, being feeling only, is a disguised love of self, and the real love which obtains between God and man? And what holds of the distinction between love and pseudo-love also holds of the distinction between “great” images of God and trivial or superficial ones. Perhaps the atheist does not wholly lack the power to make these distinctions; but then, not everyone protesting atheism is a simple and unequivocal atheist.

Here we have, then, two assertions. How are we to judge between them? I will approach this decisive question through a perennial problem, though it can carry us only to the threshold of an answer. Philosophers often ask how one can know other minds. I can immediately know my own feelings; and I can immediately observe other people's behavior. But how can I know the feelings of others? Well, I can infer them from their behavior. But this inference would seem to presuppose that their behavior is like mine—that, for example, they behave when they feel pain as I do when I feel pain. This assumption may be perfectly plausible. But it is an assumption. Hence I can never know, and certainly never know immediately, that I am not radically alone.

I am persuaded that, while this line of reasoning has some value in bringing to light certain specific philosophical issues, it is altogether misguided. A self is primordially open to other selves; and unless it were thus open it would never become a self at all. A child becomes an “I” in a relation of openness to a “Thou”; indeed, he knows the meaning of “Thou” before he knows the meaning of “I.” There is, to be sure, a problem involved in knowing other selves. But the problem is not whether they exist; it is who they are. And it arises, not because the self is to begin with in a subjectivist prison from which it must subsequently try to escape; it arises because, born free of prisons of this kind, the self is subsequently cast into them by the breakdown of communication. And when the breakdown is complete there is mental disease.

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This much, at least, would seem arguable or even demonstrable: genuine love between humans does not consist of subjectivist solitudes externally related; it is one relation, although always impaired in its unity, often threatened by temporary eclipse and sometimes by total destruction. A demonstration of this proposition, however, would—as has already been said—take us only to the threshold of the question we have been struggling with. For it might well be the case that, whereas genuine love between humans consists of an immediate relation, the love of God consists of feeling only. Indeed, this is bound to be true if the faith which knows this God is itself nothing more than subjective feeling. What, in the light of the foregoing, are we to make of this possibility?

The first thing to say is that if it is true, there can be no genuine love of God at all, since there can be no openness to the other which even love between humans requires. The second thing is that pseudo-love of God is the legitimate object of destructive criticism, and that from a perspective like Buber's, one cheerfully supports the criticism. And the third and most important thing to say is that genuine love of God—if there be such love—escapes the grasp of the subjectivist critic. For genuine love of God, which is openness to the Divine, can be known only in actual openness, and this is precisely what the critic cannot or will not have. Hence he is left only with the images and feelings which are its byproduct. How then can he judge them as byproducts? How, indeed, can he safely distinguish between the pseudo-faith and pseudo-love which are merely feelings projected onto a pseudo-god, and the genuine faith and love which constitute a relation to God? It would seem, therefore, that the critic's reduction even of pseudo-faith must always remain ambiguous, and can never be final.

This does not prevent him, however, from deciding that religious images and feelings are never “born of real encounters,” that they are always mere “imagination.” Only in making this decision, he does not give a demonstration. Buber's response to the challenge of subjectivist reductionism has disclosed that it does not refute Biblical faith, but rather that it opposes one faith to another. Biblical faith stakes all on man's primordial openness to the Divine—an openness, to be sure, which is interrupted by eclipses of God. The reductionist “faith” stakes all on the thesis that man is primordially shut off from God, and that all supposed openness is mere self-delusion. But in the perspective of Buber's modern reaffirmation of the Biblical faith, reductionism itself appears as a self-delusion: it mistakes withdrawal from God for the natural and inevitable human condition.

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In such manner does faith refute the refutation proposed by subjectivist reductionism. But this is not to say that faith can prove its own case against subjectivist reductionism. It cannot refute but only reject it; and it can testify against it. For the argument cuts both ways. The reductionist cannot use observable data—religious images and feelings—to demonstrate the subjectivity of faith. But neither can the believer use these same data to demonstrate the objectivity of faith. For not only is it the case that the reductionist critic cannot or will not enter into the actual relation of openness to God; it is also the case that for the believer himself the “knowledge” obtained is shot through with the gravest of risks. After all, does not disguised self-love, being disguised, mistake itself for love of God? Are not god-projections, being unconscious, mistaken for real gods by those who are prey to them?

Some part of this risk has always been understood by believers in the Biblical tradition, who realized that false prophets, no less than true, can be sincere. The full extent of the risk, however, has become obvious only to the modern believer. His ancestor rarely doubted that man was in principle open to the Divine; hence the risk of which he was aware extended for the most part only to deciding when and how such openness was truly manifest. The modern believer, by contrast, has glimpsed the possibility that all openness to the Divine may be pseudo-openness only—that man may be radically alone. He does not stand in immediate openness to the Divine. He seeks, in Kierkegaard's expression, an immediacy after reflection. The Psalmist in extremis experienced an eclipse of God. The extremity of faith in the modern age is uncertainty as to whether what is experienced is an eclipse of God, or the final exposure of an illusion.

Hence if the modern believer works and waits for an end to this eclipse, he must carry in his working and waiting a uniquely modern burden. The Psalmist in extremis could rest in the irrefutability of faith. The modern believer in extremis must endure the full impact of its being undemonstrable as well; he must suffer the knowledge that to the world around him the absent God is a non-existent God, and that he himself can do no more than testify to the contrary.

Under these circumstances, it is natural that there should be those who wish to be told whether the present crisis of religious faith will lead to a renewal. But anyone who asks for a prediction does not understand what has been said. Pronouncements upon the future that is at stake here could not take the form of scientific or historical prediction, but only of indulgence in prophecy. And a rabbinic sage wisely observed that when Biblical times came to an end, prophecy was taken away from prophets and given over to fools and children.

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