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December 31, 2012



At the risk of being trivial, the Pixies lyric in context makes a bit more sense: "if man is five [. . .] and the devil is six, then God is seven." Chain of being, etc, though I assume that you're correct about the numerology of "seven."

Eric Walla

Thank you for your heartfelt, deeply-engaging confession. I am sure you will get plenty of responses suggesting you have mirrored the feelings the reader holds inside (and, likewise, many that will suggest it is all smoke and mirrors). I happily fall in the former group.

One question: why the quick dismissal of Buddhism, and by extension all the remaining religions of the world? I believe you would clarify your text by saying you're not in fact dismissing the religion nor its adherents (OK, maybe the Western ones), but that your "core" is Western European and thus you resonate internally with, perhaps, the symbolism and history of thought developed over the centuries within the Christian tradition. Would this be correct? And by extension, would you posit that a philosopher arising out of a Buddhist tradition should equally feel a sense of God within Buddhism and not seek it in Christianity? I thought this the weakest argument in your fine piece, as if you wished to avoid the conversation.

It would be most interesting to hear your thoughts on this in future entries.

Tyler Journeaux

That was a fascinating confession. Part of me isn't very surprised, though I could never have guessed it. It simply seems 'right', seems to fit. I would love to tease you for some more of your views, but I expect that I may get that chance in time (heh, see what I did there?). Happy New years, and, in the spirit of your post, God bless.


I think to desire for god is less of an acceptance as a it is a will to fight. Fight against the sad fact that reality is far from our ideals. Violence in man is not evil, it is simply against our hopes and dreams of how things ought to be. This imperfection has many names, "sin" being a well known one. What to do against the reality of lies, violence and ugliness? Exalt the feeling of love and claim it as a super-truth against the universe. It can be a stubborn fight, you can find yourself on the wrong side at times, but it can also be a very good fight.

I'm an atheist (what is it to feel god in one's soul when you can't feel a soul?) but I don't feel much kindship with atheist fads. They confront religious belief with reason and science, but seldomly impose such rigor in most aspects of their lives (how is it in anyway rational to drink soda or eat cake?).

I used to be much less leniant towards theism. But after seeing certain kinds of hardships in different parts of the world, what else are you to hang unto to fight against an uncaring and unjust universe?

Well I guess there are other ways. (As you can guess, yes i tried buddhism and no it didn't last very long ;) ).


This is lovely. I'm especially glad to see Rilke make an appearance. As someone who feels a similar pinch between belief and disbelief (and is obligated to stew over this, as my field is theology), I've found much comfort in Rilke and have never been entirely sure why. In spite of the anthropic nature of the god who appears in his poetry, I would agree with you that this is mostly just a poet's truth telling. He speaks, often, of God's hands. But God can also become, for him, a thimble. One of the things that has always struck me about Rilke's god, however, is what we see especially in "The Book of Hours". He is not, as I read it, the orthodox Christian divine who is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent. Here, the monk who speaks to God seems also to be protecting him. He cradles him, or he worries (rather than suffers rejection) when his God doesn't respond to his solicitations. He exposes a certain divine vulnerability. If you do write more on this, I'd be interested to hear more of your thoughts on these orthodox tenets on the nature of God... especially since you confess to be someone who doesn't mind picking and choosing. And especially with regard to the problems of theodicy that they've always tended to generate. As a Leibniz scholar, how far do you follow him into the problematics of evil?

Jay chetram

Pure junk!!

Jay chetram

A vague argument for "love". Why do you assume that most Western Buddhists are pretentious? And, not serious to their commitments to Buddhist presuppositions? Your faith is simply a reflection of your Western symbolism, nothing more. I thought you were a rigourous philosopher and, couldn't wait to read your forthcoming books, but deeply disappointed.

Jay chetram

Totally agree with Eric Walla's comment to your piece. Why not engage with Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta philosophically? Your quick dismissal, is not productive for a philosopher.

Jay chetram

Your version of Christianity for the most part has been rejected by your Western Civilization. You will find a more sympathetic ear to your version in the East than your "Christian Heritage". Perhaps, the modern West would have been better had they accepted a Spinozistic view of Christianity. Buddhism and Vedanta provided richer conceptual resources for your version.

Jay chetram

"And by extension, would you posit that a philosopher arising out of a Buddhist tradition should equally feel a sense of God within Buddhism and not seek it in Christianity? I thought this the weakest argument in your fine piece, as if you wished to avoid the conversation."

Justin, can we please get your response to the above question posted by Eric Walla's comment to your piece?
I am concerned about your partiality with your forthcoming book on the History of Global Philosophy. I initiality thought you were the right philosopher to undertake the project on Global Philosophy, but doubts have now taken sway.


Jay, this is not my philosophy blog (see here: http://www.jehsmith.com/1/2012/12/this-is-not-a-philosophy-blog.html ). It is my personal blog, and what I say here has no bearing on my scholarship. As I explicitly said above, this is not an argument for a position, but a profession of faith. That's all I'm going to say on this subject for now, but I do intend to write something in the future, when I get around to it, about the way life histories and social backgrounds (including my own, which I will spell out) shape and constrain our choices in matters of faith.



A wise man once said: "It seems to me that God is nothing other than the inflation to infinity of our experience of paternal authority... talk of God, as Durkheim rightly discerned, is really just talk of society. Society is God... In certain times and places, such as second-century Alexandria or nineteenth-century Denmark, philosophers have taken an interest in the concept of God, and attempted to defend it by stripping away the naive anthropomorphisms that the vulgar habitually attach to it. God, they argue, cannot be a man, let alone a man with a long white beard; God cannot really have a face, let alone a backside, even if the masses were pleased to hear that on Mt. Sinai Moses caught a glimpse of the latter; God cannot really have any human traits at all. Indeed, God cannot even be described in human language.

The problem, though, is that when these rigorous demands are pushed as far as they can go, and one by one all the features projected from human experience are stripped away, we find that not all that much is left, and the apophatic path leads us to something that looks troublingly like atheism. God is an old man on a throne or he is, quite literally, nothing."


I agreed with that man.

This is a beautiful post, and I don't mean to criticize or disagree with with what you say here, but perhaps you could let us know what happened to your understanding of what the word "God" means to take you from that 2006 position to your current stance: "God is not male... God is not a being, and so also neither a monarch nor a father nor a ruler of any sort."

Your own writings seem to provide a pretty solid reason for discarding "God" as a literally meaningless word in English, if a single writer can state in 2006 that it means X and in 2012 that it means not-X.


Why the Bifurcation? The analysis hinges on a bivalent mode of thinking. Perhaps, the Jain epistemogy/logic may give us a more reasonable answer to the question. However, the metaphysical realism of the Jains favour a more robust atheism.

Elatia Harris

A beautiful essay, Justin. Thank you!


What you've done is what many "believers" do: They define the word 'god' in the way they see fit, then claim to 'believe' in it. This is not very impressive.

I'd rather look at the evidence than listen to testimonials.


I liked this essay very much.
There is a detail in the part about sin that i find strange. I am not german myself, but i think the word Abgötterei simply means idolatry.


"I am a Christian because I affirm the core message of the Gospels, which, I take it, is that God is love, and that therefore a life that aspires to love of all of creation is a life lived in accordance with God's law."

I like this formulation, and I'm with you on the proposition that Christian faith just is the mission to love all of creation. I guess my reason for not being Christian is that I'm not sold on this ideal of indiscriminate love. The love that matters is selective in its objects. It's about celebrating the things that speak to your soul. I don't love the insurance forms or the Mel Gibson movies, and you shouldn't either.


out of sheer curiosity, and therefore, no harm intended: your assertion that you 'affirm the core message of the Gospels, which... is that God is love, and that therefore a life that aspires to love of all of creation' is discordant with augustine's doctrines of war. would you then argue that his was a misinterpretation of the gospels?

oliver broudy

There are those among us who feel as you do, and yet do not feel the need to formalize and organize these feelings by placing them under God's rubric. So the question is: why do that? Simply to believe what one already believes more forcefully? To enhance and organize one's priorities in life? To assert something warm and glowing against the darkness? Or is it more the exercise in self-diminishment that comes with acknowledging membership in a group?

I've been wrestling with such questions for a while, now. Mostly unsuccessfully. Thanks, anyway, for a very fine essay.


Crucifixion & resurrection as a devine anarchism?

I too don't fully understand the crucifixion. But the other day I "heard" a strange sound from the Gospels: Jesus promotes the authority of the Sanhedrin in Mt 5:22, but then later is sentenced by the Sanhedrin, who gets Pilate to crucify him. But then this sentence is reversed by God when God resurrects him.

There seems to me to be some kind of really anarchistic process going on here. What kind of process I don't know.

I also "hear" Jesus saying that a kingdom fighting itself cannot stand. Is God revolting against his own world of judgement? I have to think about this …

(I referenced to your wonderful confession on my blog.)


"The heresies we should fear are those which can be confused with orthodoxy"


"Quit joking around. I can't be a Buddhist. (I could pretend, I suppose, like many Westerners have, though they usually get tired of doing so before long.) "

I've met hundreds of western Buddhists, many of whom have been practicing for decades. You'd think that by this point they'd have woken up and stopped pretending.

Sarcasm aside, (it won't do to mince words) it would seem to be an astounding hypocrisy to write so much about universal love, attack puffed up atheists who deride faith they do not understand, and then summarily dismiss the different faith of hundreds of thousands of people.

Of course I am taking your statement at face value. If this is a joke then it's an ugly one, and can be entertained all too seriously.


Well, I'm a radical atheist, largely because I've read enough hunter gatherer ethnography and paleoanthropology to know the persistence of a neuro-cultural survival tool when I see one.

But I enjoyed reading this post very, very much indeed, and I've been quoting it on facebook.

Thomas 'Mash Herbert

The thread and definition of love that runs through the entire Bible is the condescending of the monarch to an anarchist creation.

You can see this narrative right from the point of clothing Adam and Eve right after their rebellion, the particular continuous love for Israel despite their continuous rebellion, and the line of Israel (Jesus) being the very means by which the untainted love (holiness) of God can be entered into without tainting it.

The love that envelopes creation is God himself. God creates everything not out of his need, but out of his want for creation to experience God himself "love". But this love is defined, it is the love of the relationship between the members of the trinity (which is necessary for relational love to exist at all) and love directed towards his creation, and commanded to be mirrored from creation towards creation and ultimately towards God.

As you are aware the Biblical narrative portrays that this creation though created good rebelled, and thus had to be separated from God. But the very point of Christianity is to echo (1 Peter 3:18) that God despite rebellion makes the means by which this rebel creation can be brought back under the kingship of God, this is love because it is infinite condescension, service, grace.

Jesus, who the whole of creation was made through, became part of his creation, stripped of his glory, was killed by his creation for his creation to be brought back under the kingship of God.

So God is love as you say, but the point is not to strive for the love itself, but for the very source. And the model and framework of life in creation is the very same, admitting being part of creation, and demonstrating the very same condescension, service and grace towards creation: others and animals.

Love then is God himself; but within the Biblical framework can only be truly be entered into if one comes under the monarchist rule of God by admitting being a rebel and needing the condescension of Jesus, and God's work at the cross.

Anything else usurps love itself.


Justin, please elaborate on your dismissal of Buddhism as it's the most problematic part of an otherwise great essay. We're not joking around here.


Amen to this! You have largely reflected my own beliefs. And the thing about picking and choosing? Delve into historical biblical scholarship and I think you'll find that the part that you have chosen is the authentic message of Jesus (and liberal-minded Judaism), while the cult of death is a later creation.

Michael B.

I really enjoyed and related to a lot of this, even when I had philosophical or theological nitpicks (but what fun would it be if I didn't?).

Since Justin doesn't seem inclined to responding to the questions about Buddhism, I'll respond with why I'm not Buddhist.

First of all, as I think Justin was alluding to, there's a lot more to traditional Buddhism than the Budd Lite that seems so popular in the West these days, which seems to be the easy and therapeutic parts of the tradition with all of the anachronistic, challenging, and difficult parts trimmed out like so much fat.

In that form, it seems to be sort of a generic spiritual Band-Aid slapped to cover the spiritual deficiencies of secular humanist atheism. That's really funny, because atheist humanism and Buddhism are pretty incompatible at a fundamental level. Humanism centers around the lives and interactions of human selves, the very selves that Buddhism rejects the existence of!

I ended up going back to identifying as Christian after lots of flirtation with various American Indian myths and neopaganism and UU and whatnot largely because in all of that I realized that faith isn't a shiny thing that you decide to either wear or not wear. It's something that seeps into you from your surroundings from a very early age and continues apace throughout your life. I was raised by two doubting but usually churchgoing parents, and my entire extended family falls basically into the same category. My entire vocabulary of faith is, while informed by as much multicultural exploration as I could cram into my head, largely that of Christianity. In my attempts to explore other traditions, it became apparent that I was bringing that latent framework with me wherever I went. So instead of running from it, I tried to figure out if there was a place within Christianity to be carved out where I could honestly and faithfully confess all my doubts and disagreements and quibbles and problems with it. I found one, and so here I stay.


You speak of "love of God", but I think you really mean "love of love" and are almost arbitrarily certain philosophies within Christianity as the framework to express it. Why do you need a framework to justify love? Why not just speak of love, and avoid all the misconceptions that come from attributing it to a god?

As Carl Sagan suggested, "..my proposal is that we call .. love "love" and not call [it] God, which has, while an enormous number of other meanings, not exactly [that] meaning."

Jay chetram

Michael B. Your response to Justin's hasty and unphilosophical dismissive attitude towards Western Buddhist is hardly a substitute. Moreover, Justin's theological view of love hardly formed the normative basis in Western Civilization. Perhaps, the East has a more sympathetic ear for Justin's view of Christianity. I am not sure traditional Christianity has the conceptual basis to support Justin's view of Christianity.

Jay chetram

In the name of Christianity, King Leopold of Belgium has massacred 10 million Congolese. Where is the Christian love of creation? Perhaps, the King's action is the practical result of the basic theological presuppositions of his Christian Love? The "nihilism" you have suggested in one of your response hasn't thus far demonstrated in Buddhism. Buddhism never had a King Leopold, thank Goodness.

Michael B.

Jay, this is no basis for a longer discussion as it's based in narrow understandings of both Buddhism and Christianity, but I'll address your immediate questions. King Leopold did not exploit the Congo in the name of Christianity, he did it in the name of personal wealth and exploitation. It is only very recent Christian sects such as the American Evangelical movement that promotes such ideas as that Christians who are truly "born again" stop sinning. The entire Reformation centered around the nature of Christians who commit evil. Naming a litany of evils done by Christians, even by the Church itself, does not present anything terribly new into non-Evangelical Christianity, as the subject has been long and intensely discussed even in the most orthodox realms.

As to Buddhism not having a King Leopold, this is true in so far as no Buddhist regent has invaded the Congo and induced a slavery state, but at anything beyond the strictest reading of that statement it is false. There are more examples, but the easiest one that comes to mind is the 19th century kingdom of Siam, which was thoroughly Buddhist and also imminently repressive of the ethnic groups it subjugated. (The forced migration of the Lao is but one example.)

As to this: "Moreover, Justin's theological view of love hardly formed the normative basis in Western Civilization." I can only call this an unbelievably lazy and stupid reading of Justin's post. Justin is not defending "Western Civilization." Justin is making a confession of faith. The complex development of the tenants of the church, the schisms within that church, the mystics and aescetics who withdrew from the stately life in the West, the clerics who used the church for political domination, the regents who used Christian faith to justify acts of material exploitation, and the feuding twins of the Enlightenment and the Reformation are not at all the subject of Justin's post. The question of how one interprets questions of inner faith and how one expresses that in conversation are not predicated on the Spanish Inquisition or the Crusades, for Pete's sake.

Finally, "I am not sure traditional Christianity has the conceptual basis to support Justin's view of Christianity." This is more of a sign of your limited understanding of the broad traditions that Christianity holds, not of a failure of that tradition or Justin's estrangement. Unlike my previous paragraph, this is no criticism of you -- I don't demand that everyone understands the obscure theological debates that fussed over minutia for 2000 years -- but just because your understanding is limited doesn't mean such bases don't exist.

Jay Chetram

Michael B. Thank you for the response and clarification, although, you could have done so without the Ad-Hominem fallacies. You also seem to have assumed that you have the privilage voice concerning both Buddhism and Christianity--maybe? first let me be clear, I highly appreciate and sympathetic Justin's "inner faith and confession". I find it admirable. My compliments also goes to your interpretation of Christianity, I only wish both yours and Justin's would have formed the standard interpretation of the tradition. My observation (which could very well be erroneous,)tells me otherwise. The religion as practiced most of its History has made "Imperialistic Demands." The great Contempletives, Mystics and Ascetics of Christianity have always remained on the fringe and perhaps, never formed the orthodxy.

In terms of Buddhism, I do not think Justin was dismissive of the Buddhist Religious and Philosophical tradition. In fact, Justin has made a subtle and vague complitment in his reference to Buddhism. However, I think Justin has made a hasty dismissal to Western Buddhist. He seems to have suggested according to his beautiful piece that Western Buddhist do not have full commitment to the tradition, and, somehow disingenuous, this is a hasty generalization on his part. I know a number of Neuro-Phenomenologist who are fully and critically committed to Buddhist presuppositions.

Moreover, your very first reference to Buddhist notion of Self/No-self is not reflective. I suggest you read Mark Siderits's "Buddhism as Philosophy" to acquire a more reflective understanding of the debate.

Finally, I highly commend Justin for his inititive to Engage with Classical Indian Philosophy (Hindu, Buddhist and Jain forms.)I think Justin has a good insight into the modes of argumentation in Classical Indian Epistemology, Logic and Philosophy of Grammar.

Jay Chetram

Sorry for some of the Typos I have made in the above posting. I have used my iPhone, not ideal for typing.

Kate Donohue


This is the first piece of yours I have read but I'll be seeking out more. For a long time I did not know what to do with the image of the crucifixion. So I just put it off to the side. A few years ago, I heard a homily that I found really helpful. A priest recounted a conversation where a student asked him why is it important that Jesus be human and divine. The priest answered because if Jesus is divine then we can look at Jesus on the cross and be reminded that we are more than the world tells us we are. I'm not interested in the weird quid pro quo of Jesus had to die so we could go on to eternal life. But I do believe fervently that the world labels so much that is sacred as disposable. And I believe that we should look at the faces of the persecuted and disenfranchised and see God.

Thanks for a beautiful essay.


Jonathan Blanchard

My understanding of the crucifixion has been deepened more recently by the realization that perhaps Jesus wasn't covering our sins before God, who has always been loving and forgiving, but turning the tables on a hierarchy of evil beings that subsist on wrongdoing. He defeated the fallen angels by accepting their full punishment and still rising again, forgiven.

Jay chetram

Jonathan, another set of theological mumbo jumbo. I rather not belief in such dogmas.

Hans van Niekerk

Thank you for this confession, Justin.

To the animal-loving saints like Francis of Assisi, Seraphim of Sarov, Theodora of Sihla, you can ad another one: St. Isaac the Syrian. Listen to these beautiful words:

"What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God ".

Adapted from Met. Hilarion Alfeyev’s The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian


A beautiful and courageous essay. I spent a number of years out of the church, studying Buddhism. I came back to Christianity too, for the same reasons: the truth of the Gospel message contained in the passages you cite, and my own adult understanding that the parts of Christianity that I couldn't accept were not of God, but of human beings wanting power. I continue to be enormously grateful to Buddhism, both for my ongoing contemplative practice and for what it teaches about how to live one's life with integrity and compassion. I'm also Christian because that's my culture, and the liturgy, music, and Eucharist matter to me. The basic truth is contained not only in the Gospels but within the mystical teachings of many religions but is (often) twisted or suppressed by their institutional structures, and political needs and goals.

The fact that God is Love is both the point and the reform to Judaism that Christ was making, and yet we continually try to obscure it. The whole doctrine of atonement is ridiculous, and an unacceptable add-on. If Jesus taught anything related to that, it was that God loves us anyway and unconditionally, in spite of our sins. Thanks for this post.

Sam Torode

Terrific-- this is the best thing I've read on faith in a long time.


Justin, I was struck by your seeing the full scope of possible meaning in the death and resurrection as expressed in the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, which I find totally unpalatable for many reasons. But there are other ways of interpreting this, most interestingly in the multidisciplinary work of Rene Girard, which deals with the root of violence in human nature, as well as scapegoating. If you're not familiar with him, I strongly suggest making his acquaintance, perhaps starting with "I See Satan Fall Like Lightning," which is a good introduction/summation of his ideas.

living fear free

Thanks for sharing your confession with us. A lot of people might feel and think about God and their faith as you are. We are all different and we don't see things the way others do.


Well, this finally explains your homophobic rants over the last few years - only a theist would invest so much work in some bizarre pseudo-anthropological against gay marriage and then the pen some broadside against Martha Nussbaum about the value of disgust of gay sex (Leon Kass was much better). I guess God is your exemption from the naturalistic fallacy - how convenient.

I just assumed you were some leftist concern troll with the digs about rich white elitist western gays mocking the third world polygamous families and our class bias against poor cousin marriages, etc. I first read you in Counterpunch years ago sneering about Canadian liberals "gloating" about gay marriage but I just chalked it up to Cockburn's weird prolife/ anti-gay phase. You should write for spiked online - you'd fit right in with those former RCP trots turned right wing libertarians.

Enjoy your pomo mysticism


The mystery of salvation — the part you say you don't get — could be regarded as the last (or first) part of what Les Murray calls "the best and only reliable Big Poem." Here's a suggestion: ask this love you know so well, so intimately, to show you the mystery of the Cross and ask that God's desires become yours.


While contemplating a paradox (which just happened to be vis-a-vis religions but just as easily have been What Is The Sound of One Hand Clapping), I came to realize that God is Love. Not 'God is loving', but that God and Love are one and the same. It wasn't so much an understanding of the nature of God as a greatly expanded understanding of Love.
Our culture and language are quite limited in concepts and terminology to communicate such realizations, leaving us with poetry and art. And love.

Ivan I

Much better than the thing you posted yesterday, which led me to this post! I do hope you will rework and republish yesterday's post as well.

Don't worry too much about the later heresies. You seem to be restating early Christian theology -- Theophilus and Clement for sure. Justin, Tertullian, and Origen too -- the idea that love demonstrated was all that mattered was once the sum of the Christian witness. No yokels with signs at sporting events.

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