Monday, October 08, 2007

Saint Miguel Unamuno, Marred?

Agonizing over God's existence?
(Image from Wikipedia)

This week, I'm scheduled to respond to five papers on two occasions -- Wednesday, October 10, and Friday, October 12 -- at a Conference on Death, Dying, and Spirituality being held from Wednesday to Saturday on the campus of Sogang University, a Jesuit school located here in Seoul and one of Korea's top academic institutions.

Although I do have some background in religious studies, I've only previously just waded about the shallows in this particular sea of knowledge, but I've now been taken out in a boat, dropped into deep waters, and ordered to swim.

Couldn't I at least have a life preserver?

Thankfully, I can cling to some of the flotsam and jetsam of my long-shipwrecked career to float myself and a few ideas on the surface of the sea billows' roll.

For instance, I once, long ago, had an interest in the Spanish (more precisely, Basque) philosopher and writer Miguel de Unamuno after reading his great, long short story "Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr," which tells the tale of a priest who suffers existential doubts about the existence of God but nevertheless dedicates himself to serving his parish -- perhaps in a way similar to Mother Theresa, if her dark night of the soul were more than just profound depression but plumbed the depths of disbelief.

Christopher Hitchens, take note!

Anyway, I briefly considered studying Unamuno's concept of the "agonist" in his literary works, but lacking any knowledge of Spanish, I soon jettisoned that idea, along with further reading in Unamuno's oeuvre.

Just yesterday, however, that particular piece of jetsam has floated nearby, and I've grabbed hold and held myself up long enough to voice an objection to a point made about death and religion in a paper by one of the scholars whom I'm responding to (but will leave unnamed here). I'll quote my remarks, which occur near the end of my response to the scholar as I'm wrapping things up:
I could go on with further observations and questions, for your presentation was rich with material to inspire these. For instance, I note your citation of a quote attributed to the Spanish poet and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who apparently stated:
We require God to exist because we must die. Death is not only unacceptable, it is insulting. It makes life absurd. Because death exists God must also exist in order to eliminate the absurdity of life. Of course, if things were different among men – if men ceased to die – then the ontological existence of God would no longer be necessary. (quoted from Harvey Wheeler, "The Phenomenon of God," The Center Magazine, Volume 5, Number 2, March-April 1971, page 11))
I suggest that Unamuno is allowing his existentialist emphasis upon the absurdity of human existence to overwhelm his philosophical acuity. If God is the necessary ontological ground of existence, then this would be so even "if men ceased to die," for God would, in that case, be the ontological guarantor of human immortality, unless one wishes to affirm, with Milton's great antihero Satan, that we are "self-begot, self-rais'd / By our own quick'ning power" (John Milton, Paradise Lost 5.860-1). You cite Unamuno as support for your view that "Death and religion are so much intertwined that if it were not for death, religion would cease to exist." I wonder if this is the case. Can religion be reduced to the desire to make meaning of death? Wouldn't there still be the need to re-connect with God, the ground of one's existence, as the Latin word re-ligio etymologically implies?
My point here was not to affirm any putative proof of God's existence but to argue that if God's existence is ontologically necessary as the ground of our own being, then this would remain the case whether all 'men' are mortal or not.

I should add that I've not seen the original quote, so I can't be certain that Unamuno wrote this. Perhaps the words come from the pen of Harvey Wheeler? But even if they stem from Unamuno, one should keep in mind that he wrote in Spanish, so we're dealing with a translation at best.

If anybody has access to Wheeler's article, and the time for such frivolous academic pursuits, let us know for sure...

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At 6:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know the Wheeler quote but it sounds feasible. I think Unamuno is better known for speculation that God himself is atheist (sonnet LXII, in response to accusations of unbelief on his part) and created himself and man in order to dispel doubt (sorry, no source).

At 8:30 PM, Blogger Alex said...

A bit less philosophical, but the most impressive ideas about the existence of a god I've read are from Einstein.

At 9:59 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Trevor. Yes, the quote does sound like Unamuno, doesn't it? I'm just wondering if Wheeler was quoting or paraphrasing.

Interesting point, too, about the poem in which God is an atheist...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:01 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Alex, Einstein was probably more 'logical' than Unamuno, but the Spanish philosopher was into existential absurdities and cared not a whit for logic ... well, maybe a whit.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:58 AM, Blogger Brandon said...

I don't know precisely where the quotation is from, but I take it that if these are Unamuno's words (they seem consistent with what Unamuno says elsewhere, but I can find no one quoting it who isn't quoting Wheeler) that you have his general meaning about right. His point, I think, would be that the ontological necessity of God would no longer be necessary in the sense that we would no longer require it to oppose the unacceptable option of a life that simply ends with death. Unamuno doesn't think we can actually prove that God is the necessary ontological ground of anything; rather, we hope there is a God who is the necessary ontological ground of everything so that our desire for immortality can be fulfilled and we can regard the universe as intelligible rather than absurd. So if we lived forever we'd have nothing to draw us to the belief that there is a God. Elsewhere Unamuno occasionally uses the metaphor of creating God; by believing in God we in a sense create God. Not in the sense that we create Him in Himself but that we 'create Him in us' or, which he takes to be the same thing, that He creates Himsself in us, so that when we talk about God we are no longer talking about an idea of God, but about God.

At 6:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Brandon, thanks for that. I suspected that Unamuno was making an elliptical argument of the sort that you've unfolded more fully. He's got an existential point, perhaps -- perhaps related to the topic of the blog entry after this one.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:29 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

I love San Manuel Bueno, Martyr, too, Jeffery. And, like you, I was reminded of it when I read about Mother Theresa's own "dark night of the soul."

I'm out of my depth and thus reluctant to wade into the existential/theological thicket here, but I do have a question. It may be just a rephrasing of Jeffery's original question, though. Why/how would immortality render our lives necessarily meaningful/not absurd?

At 6:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

KM, good to see you here again.

The existentialist emphasis on absurdity stemmed from the view that with our death, all of what we value, for ourselves, comes to an end and thus has no value. For that reason, humanity has a transcendent need that can only be met by a God who would guarantee our continued existence. Since God does not exist -- at least for atheistic existentialism -- then this real, basic need for meaning cannot be met, and therefore, human existence is absurd.

Or something like that...

Jeffery Hodges

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