Editors’ note: Below is an exclusive excerpt from Albert Norton, Jr.’s new book Dangerous God: A Defense of Transcendent Truth — released today (May 24) by New English Review Press.
by Albert Norton, Jr.
It might seem harsh to embrace the fact of fundamental oppositions in our existence. The idea of it, even in the abstract, might suggest antagonism and conflict. It is not surprising that one might consider the tension between oppositions as a root of conflict more generally.
These oppositions are inescapable, however, and moreover necessary in our effort to make sense of anything, not to mention, find ultimate purpose and meaning for our lives. If this grasp of oppositions is to be construed as conflict, then so be it—it is conflict, then, which gives rise to meaning. We should approach the tensions generated by these oppositions as opportunities to better understand reality, rather than try to wish them away. Binary oppositions in reality cannot be simply collapsed, so as to pretend they’re not operative at all. The oppositions remain, and the tensions they create, as well. Naturally, we want to resolve tension. We can choose between oppositions, or accept them as is and transcend them. What we can’t do is simply collapse them.
We would extinguish the opposition between us and God, for example, by denying God’s very existence, thus attempting to crash the opposition. That amounts to an attempted erasure of God. We might alternatively attempt to erase the self, the other end of the opposition, and the most common way to do this is to step outside the individualist self-perception and into the collective. We can mentally step away from the sense of self that bears personal responsibility, and into the sense of self that is merely part of a collective, diluting that feeling of subjective weightiness. God is not so terrifying if he holds society responsible instead of me. Difficult choices are not so difficult if they are made by the collective. My failures sting less if they are said to be the result of my identity or place in the society around me.
The myriad attempts we make at collapsing fundamental oppositions in our life will fail. We don’t do away with evil, for example, by pretending it doesn’t exist, or by refusing to call it what it is, or by making it indistinguishable from good. We can’t collapse this dualism by declining to discern between good and evil. We can’t deny this dualism by pretending that one opposition or the other isn’t real. Our way to address this opposition should be to accept the reality of it, and then attempt to transcend it. We do so by choosing good and avoiding evil. We will still do evil, however, sometimes. This is a difficult truth. The way to deal with that reality is not to deny our guilt, or call that which is evil good. The way to deal with it is to figure out where good comes from, and where evil comes from, and align ourselves with the source of good. This takes us to God. We find that God is just: he holds us responsible for moral failure. But God then transcends the dualism of justice and mercy on our behalf, by his forgiveness of our evil through the means he provides. We can’t entirely eradicate evil on our own, even within our individual selves, but we can strive toward the One who is wholly good, in gratitude that he redeems us from the consequences of the evil we do.
We may feel that resisting binary oppositions will result in having their fretful extremes levelled out, so we can all just get along. Perhaps it would be more pleasant to live hidden from the all-seeing eye of a just God. But this urge, if it could be realized, would also have the effect of eliminating the highs and lows of human experience. If we imagine God out of existence, we bring about this levelling whether he’s real or not. If we persist in subjectively imagining away the boogeyman of difference and divide, we end up diminishing ourselves and the society in which we live.
It’s natural, unfortunately, for us to want to reject God because we’d like to be gods ourselves. We are not like the God who is, but we continually overstep, thinking we are. Some deep humility is called for, to remember who we are in relation to him. But that’s not as instinctive as we might think, because we also have this instinct of our own significance. And it’s valid. Our yearning is valid. Our capacity for imagination and mystery and love are meaningful. They constitute evidence of this all-important question of God’s existence. Who are we in relation to God? Why do we always see ourselves as gods? Why aren’t we gods? We are significant, and we are not destined to oblivion. Why this raging “I am!” at the clouds?
We’re complicated. The questioning shouldn’t end like a cartoon character with one of those thought balloons that looks like a bunch of tangled wire followed by an exclamation mark. Is there a God? If there is, it is certainly true that we cannot in this life properly apprehend him. But on the other hand—well there is no other hand, if we are to preserve what it means to be made in the image of God, even metaphorically. What becomes of us otherwise? Are we just smart animals? Clothed apes? Instinctual but perfumed creatures, only?
If we’re only animals, it’s high time we stopped putting some of our fellow human-animals in prison. Or bothering with an upwards call to the sublime in art, literature, philosophy, political principle, or moral reasoning. On this view, all of that is just flotsam left over from the outmoded God hypothesis and crammed down our throats by humanist philosophers holding on to their livelihoods. In reality there is only all against all, and power rules because that’s what power does in this bleak and pointless landscape. Sex, wealth, prestige, and power are the objects of all striving. And if you think otherwise, so goes the message, you are a pitiful naif, captive to the wishful thinking of your fellow losers who look to the sky for return of an invisible mitigator of these treacheries, One who is expected to re-reveal himself, when he gets around to it, as the ultimate victor on our behalf, despite his previous appearance as ultimate victim and scapegoat, no better than a slave, a non-person, acquainted by perverted choice with sorrow and despair, visible in history only because he was heralded loud and long by witnesses among a band of Jews preaching not just to other Jews but to the rest of the world.
God communicates a hierarchical physical reality. Not in the sense of worldly powers like princes and popes and the dictatorship of the proletariat, but by something more fundamental. He created a cosmos discernible by means of binary oppositions, and us with the ability to know and be known through them. Some of those oppositions are more significant than others, in that they involve abstract principles which underlie everything else: existence and non-existence; something and nothing; rational and irrational. There are unquestionably higher and lower orders of principle involved, which also stand in opposition: higher and lower orders of good and evil; truth and falsity; beauty and ugliness.
Ask not for a levelling of these. If we could re-orient the world according to our own security- and fear-driven desires, we might try to eliminate what is evil and false and repulsive, but we don’t have the option to truncate those from our experience and leave their oppositional higher orders in place. Evil is understood only in relation to good. Falsity in relation to truth. Ugliness in relation to beauty. We can pursue the higher order principle, certainly, but the lower is not thereby eliminated. It serves, in fact, to point the way. If you would be morally better, you make good choices, and each choice is between the morally higher over the morally lower. There is a hierarchy of moral choices, made such by oppositions. If you seek truth rather than falsehood, you discern truth from the many shades of falsehood that present themselves. Beauty is not merely in the eye of the beholder. It resides in the object or language or principle or theorem or person, and we identify it because we can also identify its opposite.
God is in opposition to we who are not-God. We understand what we do of him on the basis of the disclosed characteristics he has that we do not share. He is eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. He has no limits, therefore, which is another way of saying that he alone is beyond any opposition which serves to define him, other than not-God—all that is finite in time and space, and weak and ignorant and foolish and sinful, and most of all, unfinished. In Aristotelean terms, God is the Prime Mover, the purely actualized Being upon which all other things, including living things, are contingent. In Platonic terms, all that exists is an imperfect instance of a perfect ideal of those things, and those ideals are specifics of the ideal of perfection, and the ideal of the ideals is God.
Imagine a flat sheet of paper. Now cut a spiral into this imagined paper. Then grasp the mid-point of the spiral. You can pull the spiral up and a little ziggurat appears. If you hold the sheet flat and release, the spiral will sag down in a negative of the upward-formed ziggurat. This provides a visual of the oppositions in play, with regard to virtues we regard as being of a higher order than their negative oppositions. Courage is up; fear down. Compassion up; indifference down. Sexual rectitude up; promiscuity down. We can easily choose the downward end of the same oppositions. It happens if we barely even try. God creates the higher, aspirational oppositions. God pulls the spiral up; we don’t push it up. If we try, we get a man-made ziggurat, like the Tower of Babel, and it will be abandoned and unfinished and pitiful, eroding in the sun and wind and occasional rain of the timeless Valley of Shinar.
Would you give up the glorious sunset to stay indoors where it’s not too hot or cold? Would you forego love because your heart might be broken? Do you not climb the mountain because you might fall and get hurt? Do you not play the game because you might lose? Do you isolate yourself because friends might disappoint? We act on fear instead of courage far too often, and we do it because the swing in these oppositions frightens us. How many times does God admonish us not to fear? To be strong and courageous? Why does he do it? Yes, he has plans for us, and wants us to actualize them, but also his project is to pull us upward. He doesn’t want us to descend to self-destructive negatives, but he is also not satisfied that we stay safely in an intermediate zone of quiescence. We’ll find no rest there. When we stop there, we find desperation instead of shalom.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau wrote. We recognize in this the resignation in living a conventional, middle-brow existence, something we all experience in some degree or another, and so this quote resonates. The sentiment exists in any society, including Thoreau’s early-1800s New England that was conventionally and nominally Christian. Around the same time, writing in a similarly nominally Christian Copenhagen, Soren Kierkegaard acknowledged the same despair as “the sickness unto death.” Thoreau wasn’t seeking an explicitly Christian answer, but Kierkegaard certainly was. Why were the good, polite, middle-class burghers of conventionally religious Copenhagen in “despair?” Because it is a common condition. One kind of despair, consciousness of our sin, makes us regular church-goers and otherwise followers of the herd in our religious “duties,” but there is another kind of despair that ought to drive us further, to see that the dance with God isn’t about following a set of social rules that keep us out of danger. The despair exists because we’re actually fighting God, when we stay in control by ordering our priorities to a safe inoffensive middle zone, not overly vigorous in either direction, with a hat-tip “yay God” once in a while, just in case the lion gets loose. There’s despair instead of the freedom God promises because we don’t trust him, and we think we’ve done enough by merely acknowledging the virtues rather than soaring with them. This is an internal thing, it’s not about adding one more social responsibility to a list already too long. The internal thing is to recognize the outrageousness of God’s call on our lives. The despair that Thoreau and Kierkegaard recognized, and that we all know, is a symptom of having collapsed to a muddy middle instead of facing the oppositions as they are and seeking to transcend them.
Kierkegaard was right in decrying an “established Christendom” in place of Christ. For just one example of his thought, he lamented the growing enthusiasm for Christmas celebration, as part of the watering-down of genuine Christian faith. Imagine him in contrast to his contemporary Charles Dickens, who wrote A Christmas Carol, celebrating the soft sentiment of Christmas celebration. Dickens was nominally Christian, with a strong aversion to what he considered its extreme expression among evangelicals. Kierkegaard had a different view. He remarked about Christmas that “the Savior of the world was now a child,” thus mitigating the demands of moral and spiritual challenge that faith in a suffering, selfless Christ entails. In this way, the dangerous God is thought to be pacified and folded into the manageable fabric of society. Kierkegaard desired earnestness in seeking Christ, silence in awe of Creation which in turn leads to a fear of the Lord. As we read in the Old Testament: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Kierkegaard desired earnestness in seeking God, because its lack among Christians was quite apparent to him when he wrote in the first half of the nineteenth century. A process of taming Christ was far along, at that time, though not so far as today. It is important that we have some sense of God’s movements in history. Christians tend to think that time ended at the Ascension, that we’ve been holding our collective breath since that day, waiting for Christ’s imminent return. Of course we don’t know when that return will be, but it’s a mistake to be ignorant of all that has transpired since the last day he was among us as a man. All of history is in the providence of God, and it all has meaning.
We may say we want God, but what we really want is a paper cut-out of God. We want the lion, but we want him caged. We want to collapse the dualism of God and self, to close the gap between us and him. We want to be elevated, so we imagine him reduced. We want God less dangerous, so we diminish the gulf between ourselves and him. We don’t want the helplessness that goes with our estate in contrast to God’s, so we mentally collapse the contrast. By denying this ultimate dualism we think we can manage him as one of our projects, so we can put him back on the shelf while we’re occupied with other things. We want a God who will recede into the background when we’re not directly engaging him. This has a flattening effect because God constructs the world, we don’t. The best we can do—we unfortunately think—is try to pull ourselves up to the flat level of a society uninformed by God, by complying with the norms society dictates for us. But in this way of thinking, we won’t build higher in any sustained way. The landscape of our lives will be dotted with pathetic unfinished towers of Babel.
That’s one way we attempt to cage the lion. Another is to simply imagine him out of existence. This does not entirely relieve the tension, however. For one thing, there likely remains a nagging doubt. Suppose there actually is a God? Because if there is, he might expect something of us. We might entertain flashes of insight that if God does not pull us up, our trajectory is down.
But for another thing, where would that leave us? One would have to keep the mental shield up, so to speak, to go with the daily flow and not think about the implications. What would be the point of living, in a God-less reality? Why do good, instead of evil? On what basis do we ascribe authoritativeness to what we call “good?” How would we sustain a workable polity, if the only tools at hand for social cohesion were cultural opprobrium and ever more engulfing legal regulation? On what basis would there be any consensus of values? Are we to dispense with any attempt to explain the sense of our own significance? Do we try to live without meaning? Do we resign ourselves to the resulting all-against-all struggle for power?
It might seem that these questions are overblown. We’re not living in a real-life dystopian anarchy, after all, nor under the thumb of oppressive fascist dictatorship. At the moment. So what’s the problem? The problem is that we can’t assume a static environment in which current ideals carry forward. They haven’t in history, and they won’t in the future. We’re living now (in the West) on the fumes of liberal bourgeois nominal Christianity; what was normative in the time of Thoreau and Kierkegaard. Those values seem stable enough that they will remain if we tweak them in “progressive” ways to something better. They seem permanent enough that we can take them for granted.
But we can’t. Ideals like charity, compassion, trustworthiness, and self-reliance are indeed written on the heart by God, but they can certainly be corrupted if we disregard their source and imagine them to be only emergent artifacts of biology which continue to evolve. The problem is that individually, we have no reason to strive, morally, beyond the boundaries we imagine society sets for us. I might consider my behavior adequate if the society around me says it is, and what I do or say or think in private is out of society’s reach anyway. I am what I think you think I am. If you don’t know about my secret vices, they don’t count as vices. So now imagine everyone as the me just described. There is no meaning to my existence, in a God-less vision of reality, and no reason for us to sustain, individually or collectively, the values that inhere in the meaning-full God-filled understanding of reality. Disaffection, disappointment, and despair result. We are ever more conscious of the meaninglessness of our existence, as we are ever more successful in unimagining God. As the reality of God recedes from us, that meaninglessness looms larger. And with it, despair.
Nor is this avoidable by going down our own road, setting up our own little moral kingdom within the one we actually live. Just as the moral and ethical structures of an advanced civilization are not self-sustaining, our individual, internal systems of value are not self-sustaining, either. If they are not upheld by our recognition that God authors them, then we look to society around us to sustain them. This necessarily means that our values are society’s values; there is no real distinction. This is why many people actually believe—whether they are able to acknowledge or articulate it or not—that an action or attitude is good or bad only as society determines it to be. Moral values do not originate with the individual, and certainly not with a putative God, on this view. A collective approach to everything results. This only accelerates the despair, upon the imagined removal of God.
ALBERT NORTON, JR. is a writer and attorney working in the American South. He is author of Dangerous God: A Defense of Transcendent Truth (2021) concerning formation of truth and values in a postmodern age; and Intuition of Significance, a 2020 work weighing the merits of theism against materialism. He is also the author of several award-winning short stories, and two novels: Another Like Me (2015) and Rough Water Baptism (2017), on themes of navigating reality in a post-Christian world.
 As Kierkegaard put it, “either God – or, well, then the rest is a matter of indifference; whatever else a human chooses, he misses either/or.” (Kierkegaard, Soren, The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air) translated and with an introduction by Bruce H. Kirmmse, Princeton University Press 2016, p. 40). By “either/or” he meant the aesthetic (or sensible or sentimental or carnal or earthy) choice rather than the austere ethical choice that God presents. If we dismiss God, then we don’t even get to Kierkegaard’s “either/or.” Instead we live in animal stasis, not worthy of God’s calling, to be sure, but also not worthy of considering our humanity as anything other than another kind of animal.
 You’d be right to recall Nietzsche’s “will to power” in this context. E.g., Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morals, translated by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale, 1989, p. 87, second essay, section 18 (first published 1887). Nietzsche and a host of philosophers subsequent to him point out that power struggle is the inevitable result of the overthrow of any god-like extra-human authority. As Yuval Noah Harari puts it, modernity offers us a deal: “Give up meaning in exchange for power.” (See Scruton, Roger, The Turing Machine Speaks, about Silicon Valley guru Yuval Noah Harari’s chilling post-humanism, as reported in City Journal, Summer 2019.) Scruton quoted Harari: “There is no purpose in the world, only the unending chain of cause and effect. . . . modern life consists of a constant pursuit of power within a universe devoid of meaning.”
 Expanded upon by the author in Norton, Albert, Intuition of Significance/Evidence Against Materialism and for God, 2020, pp. 14-16. See also, Feser, Edward, Five Proofs for the Existence of God, 2017.
 Norton, Albert, Intuition of Significance/Evidence Against Materialism and for God, 2020, Resource Publications, 2020, pp. 28-31.
 Thoreau, Henry David, Walden, 1854.
 Kierkegaard, Soren, The Sickness Unto Death, 1849.
 Kirmmse, Bruce H., introduction to Kierkegaard’s The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air, reprinted by Princeton University Press 2016, p. xiii. Kirmmse’s comments were based on Kierkegaard’s journals and notebooks.
 Proverbs 9:10.