“We need to get away from the popular caricature of God as an old man in the sky seated upon a throne.”—Diana Lobel
The following is an interview with Diana Lobel, author of The Quest for God and the Good: World Philosophy as a Living Experience
Question: The word “God” is controversial and off-putting for some. Is this a book about the traditional God of monotheistic religions or a broader philosophical concept?
Diana Lobel: We need to get away from the popular caricature of God as an old man in the sky seated upon a throne. If we look at the broad history of philosophy and religious thought, we can see that the word God is used in a more general way to describe an ultimate principle of the universe––the source of all existence, knowledge, and value in our world. Thus Hindu thinkers describe the divine principle, brahman, as existence (sat), consciousness or knowledge (cit, pronounced chit) and joy or bliss (ananda).
The divine or absolute is that at the heart of reality that assures our existence, and gives life meaning, purpose, beauty, and value. It is the mystery of life or existence itself.
Plato’s notion of the Good reflects similar conceptions. It is clear that Plato’s Good is not a personal divinity. The Good has no will; the Good does not create the world and does not exercise any intentional effect on the world’s existents. And yet as the supreme source of being, knowledge, and value, the Good is in many ways parallel to our notions of the divine. If we judge anything in the world to possess value, it is because there exists an ultimate source or principle of worth. This is not a nihilistic world in which there is nothing that gives our lives meaning; we look out at the universe and see significance. We are in awe at the beauty of existence.
Question: Are you suggesting that a rigorous philosopher such as Aristotle, al-Farabi, or Maimonides actually has something in common with the Hindu Bhagavad Gita or Zen Buddhism? Does your book suggest that such diverse philosophical and religious traditions share a common language?
DL: I do not mean to suggest that all traditions are saying the same thing, because they are not. Thinkers in what we term the Hindu tradition argue that at the heart of reality there is a Self, an eternal conscious witness. In contrast, Buddhists insist on the selfless nature of ultimate reality, that at the heart of life we find not an unchanging, permanent identity, but the constant flow of change itself. The Tao Te Ching is an allusive, poetic text—far different from the systematic, discursive style of Aristotle or al-Farabi. Nevertheless, these diverse philosophical and religious traditions address––through very different methods and genres––such fundamental mysteries as the origin of the universe, the most harmonious way to live, the complex interplay between self and other, unity and diversity. I am always delighted to find that philosophy majors steeped in the complex dialectics of Aristotle, Kant, and Heidegger are nevertheless fascinated by the poetic imagery of Lao Tzu and the Upanishads. Texts of philosophy and religion address fundamental existential concerns through diverse styles and genres.
Question: What about the term “good”? Today it is common to presume that all values are relative, that there are no moral absolutes.
DL: When we look at Plato’s concept of the Good, we see that Plato is most concerned with the aesthetic order and symmetry of the world—the fact that the whole works together in a beautiful, ordered harmony. Plato is intrigued by both mathematics and music, by the symmetry and proportion that is not just imposed upon reality, but discovered. Like the Pythagoreans, he infers from these mathematical dimensions of the world that reality as a whole is intelligible and meaningful––that moral order is just as fundamental to the world as physical order. Values of justice, balance, and friendship are inscribed in the fabric of the universe. These are the foundations of human morality. Plato is concerned with virtue, with the fabric of our human character, but he is most concerned with the way human beings reflect the harmony and rightness of the world order (kosmos). There are moral absolutes, but they are grounded in values that are aesthetic. The world is good because it is harmonious and beautiful. We are good when we live in right relationship with the cosmos. This is a very different notion of morality than what we find in popular discourse.
Question: How can studying these texts and traditions bring us happiness?
DL: Philosophers such as Aristotle had a much richer conception of fulfillment than our word happiness suggests. The Greek term eudaimonia connotes the best way of life, or human flourishing. Aristotle was a biologist. He thought of human beings as living organisms that can wither if our being is not properly nourished or live well and thus blossom and flourish. Just as health is an objective state of the body when it is thriving, so flourishing is an objective state of the human person––the psycho-physical organism––when we are fulfilling our unique potential.
For Aristotle, happiness or flourishing is not a feeling or a state but an activity of living. It is the way of living that expresses all we are meant to be. Pleasure or joy is the subjective dimension of this experience. When we live well, we feel pleasure or joy.
These texts and traditions can inspire us to search for the values we find genuinely worthy of realization. The psychologist Viktor Frankl suggests that the most fundamental striving for a person is to find that which makes his or her life worthwhile. Texts and traditions give us a cognitive and experiential map, a framework and context to which we can continually return for encouragement.
Question: The title of the book speaks of philosophy as a living experience. What do you mean by this phrase?
DL: Historian of philosophy Pierre Hadot has pointed out that for the ancients, philosophy was not a theoretical exercise, but a way of life. Philosophical arguments constituted a spiritual discipline whose goal was to transform the self. In a broader sense, when we read a text of philosophy we touch the experience to which the text refers. When we are completely engaged in a text about eudaimonia, we have an experiential taste of eudaimonia. Why else do we read? When we read Harry Potter, we enter the world of Hogwarts; when we read Aristotle’s Ethics, we enter the world of human flourishing.
It is true that spiritual traditions often stress the gap between discourse about wine and tasting the wine. Mystically inclined thinkers see philosophy as a kind of road map, whereas disciplines of meditation enable us to walk the path itself. However, there is also a countertradition which asserts that study itself can be a form of meditation––what the Bhagavad Gita terms the discipline of knowledge (jnana yoga). When a Buddhist teacher gives a talk on Buddha nature or Buddha mind, she and her audience touch––however briefly––that state; to enter fully a discourse on eudaimonia is to appreciate the flavor of eudaimonia. Study can be a form of practice; to study Torah is to taste Torah––understood by the rabbinic tradition as life teaching and wisdom in the broadest sense.
Maimonides and Spinoza speak of the intellectual love of God. One might think that “intellectual love” is an oxymoron. What this conception of Maimonides and Spinoza suggests is that human beings are able to think not only with the mind but also with the heart, and to feel not only with the heart but also with the mind.
The key tension in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and many of these texts is that between study and practice, between solitude and community. Perhaps these tensions are resolved when we express the fruits of communion in action. We can also discover the joy of learning in community with fellow students of these ideas through the centuries, to our present moment.
Diana Lobel is Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University and the author of Between Mysticism and Philosophy: Sufi Language of Religious Experience in Judah Halevi’s Kuzari and A Sufi-Jewish Dialogue: Philosophy and Mysticism in Bahya Ibn Paquda’s Duties of the Heart.