On The Idea of Divine Anger

I’ve been thinking about Daniel Dennett’s observation that much (all?) of theology is based use-mention errors or their second cousins. In fact, I’ve been thinking about this longer than I’ve been aware that Dennett was thinking about it.
Today over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry, John Hobbins was kind enough to provide a rather obvious example from Abraham Heschel. John quotes from Heschel’s The Prophets.

There are two pitfalls in our religious understanding; the humanization of God and the anesthetization of God. Both threaten our understanding of the ethical integrity of God’s will. Humanization leads to the conception of God as the ally of the people; whether they do right or wrong, God would not fail his people. The idea of the divine anger shatters such horrible complacency. [emphasis added]

Here Heschel mentions the idea of divine anger. Now, while I don’t believe in divine anger, I sure believe in the idea of divine anger. Simply put, the idea of divine anger and divine anger are not the same thing. They aren’t even close to being the same thing. And yet, if I am even close to understanding either John or Heschel correctly, it seems that I should learn something about God from the idea of divine anger.
Now John quotes more from Heschel than just the paragraph I cited above but each of those additional quotations appear to me to repeat the same error with differing levels of subtlety and obfuscation.

6 thoughts on “On The Idea of Divine Anger”

  1. Thanks, Duane, for picking up on this.
    I’m pretty sure Heschel wants to distinguish between the reality and the idea, but as you suggest, is it really possible to do so?
    When I studied the philosophy of religion, we examined the notion that religious experiences of various kinds (numinous, monistic, etc.) are self-authenticating. Like the experience of pain, for example. That is, if someone tells you they are in pain, they are (unless they are outright lying, but that’s another matter). I think the reason the comparison is made is because there are types of pain (maybe most, maybe all) that are evidenced only by symptoms and personal assertions each of which could have another explanation, but there is no straightforward way to confirm / disconfirm. In short, if you tell a doctor that you are experiencing pain of a certain intensity in a certain place, the doctor cannot confirm or disconfirm but must simply believe/disbelieve.
    In short, when a prophet in Israel said, “the word of the Lord came to me as follows,” the audience could believe or disbelieve but not verify (except in the limited ways mentioned in Deut, not much help in most circumstance). Likewise, if a prophet spoke about divine anger, you could only believe / disbelieve, no less and no more than you could with respect to the simple existence of the deity in rage.
    In short, I don’t see any way to investigate such claims. Like many things in life, these are the distillate of experiences. Neither the matrix nor the distillate lend themselves to scientific investigation in the sense of examining truth claims, though they can be studies from many other points of view.
    It reminds me of the study of glossolalia. One of the key researchers in the field in Toronto when I was a student there spoke in glossolalia himself. He wanted to understand its characteristics. He was able to show that there was a lot of variation, but no language in a Chomskyian sense.
    But he knew better to stop speaking glossolalia for that reason. It is a perfectly functional phenomenon from other points of views, for example, depth psychology.

  2. John,
    The sophist in me welcomes your analogy between faith and pain. Pain is generally a symptom of some pathology and in addition to curing the underlying pathology there are various other mechanisms that alleviate pain. I assume that you do not see faith as a symptom of an underlying pathology in need of a cure. Pain is not strictly self-authenticating. In this, there is an element of your analogy that is more interesting than my little sophistry. When it comes to faith, is there anything analogous to the alleviation of pain? If so, there would be a test for the validity of faith. If something would make it go away, then at least there would be something to study in the neighborhood of the subject. And of course, there are various things that for some people in some circumstances make faith go away. I take this to be a good thing. You likely differ.
    I’m not sure you exactly addressed my use-mention concern. I suppose that if one makes a faith decision to accept the authority of the prophets, for example, then there is a kind of commingling of mention and use. But I don’t think this mitigates the logical error. It just obscures it. It also raises the question, why should one believe exactly this set of things and not some other set of things? I see no way out of this without pernicious circular reasoning. One has faith in the prophets because believing in the prophets reinforces ones faith. By the way, because of issues of sample size combined with various degrees of stochastisity all reasoning is more or less circular. But not all reasoning is pernicious. I think I can walk through an open door because so far I have been able to. It seems to me that faith traps a person between use-mention errors and pernicious circularity and, except possibly in the case of some forms of Buddhism, it leads to the fallacy of reliance on inappropriate authority.
    Whatever faith is it certainly occurs in nature. A bipedal primate often exhibits the phenomenon. As such it is worth of study as a natural occurrence. If you haven’t listened to Dennett’s lecture in which he discusses unbelieving preachers you should. He sees their lack of at least an orthodox faith as a pathology (but not the kind I was making fun of) that provides a unique opportunity to study both religion and faith.

  3. Hi Duane,
    I was trying to say what you also now note: that all reasoning is circular. But if you have guidelines to offer with respect to distinguishing between pernicious and non-pernicious circular reasoning, I’m listening. I once started a series on the importance on epistemology and the necessity of having a whole web of beliefs to make the slightest progress in knowing. That’s undeniable, I think, which just makes the problem of knowing anything for certain that much more out of reach, except in a relative, probabilistic sense.
    You say:
    “[T]here are various things that for some people in some circumstances make faith go away. I take this to be a good thing. You likely differ.”
    On the contrary, those same various things cause other people in some circumstances to come to faith. I take that to be a good thing.
    And I don’t think you differ. Right? Both ways or none.

  4. John,
    Below the rather calm appearing surface, epistemology is a raging whirlpool of uncertainty. All puns intended. I am neither capable of nor included to attempt to still these dangerous waters. But assuming we agree that knowledge is indefeasible justified true belief, or something very much like that, I do think there are a few general guidelines that can even be listed in a comment. I likely will miss a few important ones. But if we don’t agree on the general definition of knowledge then we should break off discussion and remain friends.
    1) Because of the nature the beast (both knowledge and those who seek to know), knowledge and the processed of acquiring knowledge must be treated somewhat separately. Something I will not do very rigorously here but it is exactly here that the use-mention error comes into play
    2) Knowledge is shareable and at least potentially common property. Otherwise, knowledge would be defensible and likely not even justified.
    3) Knowledge involves relationships, a “web” as you might say. Provided the relationships are themselves knowable, the more complex the web the more likely there is knowledge.
    4) The acquisition of knowledge must lend itself to a Bayesian process by which we approximate knowing by degree.
    5) Due to the nature of the web of relationship in 2), 3) and 4), knowledge will always be parsimonious. I may know that my current emotional state is partially due to the recent death of two dear friends. I cannot know that my current emotional state is due to the recent death of two dear friends and the placement of a particular gorgon on a parapet of the Duomo di Milano.
    6) Due to 1) and 5) all knowledge must resemble in structure common shared everyday experience.
    7) The risk of pernicious circularity is mitigated when 1) – 6) are applied to the acquisition of and claims regarding knowledge. Faith appears to me to be an attempt to shortcut all of them.
    Now each of these is a book topic. Together they are a library but if I were to be crazy enough to try to write that library these seven books and quite a few more would be in it.
    Oh yeah, “relative” “probabilistic” need not go together. Stochastic processes are not relative in any meaningful sense of the word. As far as acquiring knowledge is probabilistic, and I think it is, it is far from relativistic.

  5. I like the reference to the Duomo of Milano. I have fond memories of climbing up there. It would be cool if the Duomo were some kind of map of everything.
    I think that’s the attraction of astrology for instance. I think astrology is an inexcusable epistemological vice for a modern but not for an ancient. That’s because an ancient astrologer had to really know his stars. Look at them and get high on them. That’s got to count for something if there is a God.
    I think epistemology is a hard subject, and not only because I understand only half of what you are saying, and have a sneaking suspicion that you might not understand it all either.
    Here’s why: a practical reason. Let’s leave religious believers alone for a moment. Their susceptibility to ugga bugga is well-known.
    So are scientists! How many brilliant types who through whatever epistemes they prefer are making amazing discoveries or inventing great stuff also buy into utter crap in which their brain is no less involved?
    No, I’m not thinking about who they marry or don’t: reason and love go together in rare souls. I’m talking about scientists who go in for Scientology or Worlds in Chaos (Velikovsky) or mediums or numerology.
    The same brains who do the best work cannot distinguish epistemologically between their best work and their crap. It wasn’t just Isaac Newton after all.

  6. John,
    I’m pleased that you enjoyed the reference to the Duomo of Milano. I too have fond memories of climbing around the Duomo. The company I worked for during most of my professional career had a sales office in Milan (also in London and Munich) and whenever I had to stay more than one week in Europe, I would try to weekend in Milan. While I always enjoyed London, of the three Munich was my second choice. I supposed I averaged a weekend in Milan every year so for twenty years.
    That I lack full or even correct understanding of my seven points is unquestionably true. While not totally aligned with her views, I hold these understandings in part because of untold hours of discussion the underlying question with my daughter who thinks about this stuff professionally. Like you, I’ve also done a good bit of reading and independent worrying about epistemology. I image my daughter would also see some influence of my son is some of this.
    Your point about the ability for people to hold weird and to us seemingly contradictory sets of views is well taken. I have little doubt that both you and I are victims of the same kinds of errors in thinking. We see it more readily in others than in ourselves. My 2) and 4) are intended to mitigate this kind of thing as much as possible. By the way, I just noted that I wrote in 4) “knowing be degree.” It should read,“knowing by degree.” I’ve fixed it.

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