What’s My Relation to God as of Now?

Abbie at 6

What’s My Relation to God as of Now?

From my earliest memories, the question, Is there a God, wasn’t a question I asked.  This though, once I grew up, I got to be a philosopher by profession, temperament and conviction.  The God question I did have concerned the kind of relation I had to the God who IS.

From time to time, in childhood, I would ask my father whether some Bible tale really happened.  But that kind of a “cold call” (out of context) question was not encouraged.  It was not suppressed.  Instead, rather oddly perhaps, it was treated as beside the point.

“Would Daddy sacrifice me if God told him to [as He’d asked Abraham to do with his son]?”  As I recall, that was the only question I asked my mother, where I took a literal approach to the Bible.

“No!  She responded decisively.

“Would grandpa?”

“Yes.  Grandpa would.”

That satisfied me.  It secured two valued contingencies: first, my safety, since grandpa had no direct authority in my case; next, proper piety.

In college, I was a philosophy major, so in due course I read Anselm’s ontological argument to the effect that the very concept of God implies the existence of God.  And I read Aquinas’s five ways to prove the existence of God.  To me, these texts were interesting, and set nice discussions in motion.  Skeptical arguments, like David Hume’s, were less interesting to me, but of course we studied those too.  But they didn’t seem to touch my orientation toward the divine, which wasn’t based on an argument or counter-argument yielding a conclusion, but rather a relationship.

Relationships don’t depend on arguments.

Later on, in my twenties, when youthful hopes and expectations were shattered, I took the relationship off the table.  Perhaps, initially, I did so to save it.  I did not know who had failed whom, Him or me.  I couldn’t change God.  Maybe best just to deal with me, solo and unadorned.  It seemed more a matter of focus than unbelief.

There was one thing I hadn’t factored in.  The space previously reserved for divinity wouldn’t stay vacant.  If you take God out of it, other gods can climb up on the altar and take it over.

As I emerged from the combat zone of my twenties, the work of reinstating the relationship took the shape of writing about the loss of it.  As retrospection and recuperation became sentences on the page, my memories grouped themselves into the three chronological divisions of a typescript: Parts I, II, and III.

The trouble was, the three parts fell apart.  And yet, I knew they were intimately connected and followed some inner logic of their own.  What was the connection that tied one life phase to the next?  My own life became, for me, a detective story.  Who dunnit?  What was the most consistent and complete explanation?  What tied all the clues together?

I’m an educated person.  Educated people took Sigmund Freud very seriously.  Could Freud explain me to me?  Not really.  For Freud, underneath the smooth surface of our public lives are the jagged, broken pieces of our thwarted, repressed desires.  So the broken stuff is the real stuff, for Freud.  Be middle aged!  Be sad sack!  Be disillusioned!  Settle for Plan B!

Well, that was his idea, but it wasn’t mine.  Not only would it fail to put the three Parts of my manuscript together.  It wouldn’t even try!  It would prejudge the outcome of my efforts.  That’s not philosophical.  You need at least to keep an open mind.

Next I tried Hegel, a philosopher of history who sought to discover the significance of human life in linear time, real space, and real cultural settings.  Could he provide the Ariadne’s thread that would take me understandingly through the labyrinth of my youth?

I wouldn’t have written on Hegel, as I have, if I didn’t think he provided some understandings that other thinkers lacked.  But my own experience showed me that there is more to a life than the dialectical clash of concepts.

What else is there?  Who am I, really?  What did I — do I – will I, desire, really?  What is the truth about my life-long voyage of discovery?  It seemed to me that these questions were important to take seriously, persistently and wholeheartedly.

One could of course regard such questions ironically and self-mockingly.  That can look smart, but it’s the attitude one puts on for show, for effect.  It’s a pose.  It’s not sincere.  When the sad clown gets home, she wipes off the smiling make-up.

These questions are the intimate ones.  They can only be asked in the presence of a Witness who sees in full what is going on and takes one even more seriously – even more to heart – than one quite dares to take oneself.  By situating my story in its sincere relation to such a Witness, I could find the Ariadne’s thread through the labyrinth.  The three chronologically sequential phases found their inner logic and fell into place.

What emerged was the story of me in that ongoing, silently passionate, two-sided, covenantal relationship!  Hence the name “confession” – signaling pilgrimage of the spirit – in my present title for the forthcoming Confessions of a Young Philosopher.   

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to What’s My Relation to God as of Now?

  1. Judy Dornstreich says:

    This is brilliant. And indeed I love that little girl in the foto❣️

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