The Holy of Holies: 
On the Constituents of Emptiness 

Mitchell Stephens     Professor of Journalism     New York University

This page contains a running transcript of all conversations taking place inside "The Holy of Holies." Click through the table of comments to view comments for individual sections. For any comment you can click its icon to go back into the paper in the exact place where that comment was made.

mitch says:

Mark, I have very much appreciated your comments here and on the Without Gods blog.

I do believe in the accomplishments of postmodernism (which I have defended on a number of occasions where they have not been much defended: in the press). I will certainly get to these matters when my narrative reaches the 20th century, but it is also true that I am set upon, in this project, honoring various “enlightenments.” I won’t, in the end, leave them unquestioned, but I am not about to leave them unrecognized.

Some of the debate on this paper — to which you have made a significant contribution — aspires to be about the sway of what is probably best called postmodernism. I wrote the paper, delivered it and posted it with that debate very much in mind. I find myself, however clumsily, wanting to suggest that it is possible to drift too far into cultural relativism and what might be called “religious relativism” (in which I include the attack on “scientism”). I, in turn, probably can benefit from some reminders of the limitations of the Enlightenment approach, to which my book project lends itself.

My thoughts, on much of the above, have been very much influenced by Jacques Derrida. The essay by him I quote here has, in fact, been the most interesting and, in my view, the most important text I have read in my research for this book. I don’t believe I have misrepresented his position in this section (not that I pretend to encapsulate it) . I once had occasion to ask Derrida if he was an atheist. I understand that his answer to that question is anything but a simple “yes.”

Mark Shulgasser says:

One final comment, or two. In this experimental paper it strikes me that you have actually strayed outside of atheism and into what is sometimes called atheology.Sophisticated religious thinkers have long discussed the nothingness of God, her encompassing of being and nonbeing, the theology of absence, negative theology, the via negativa, the void, the dark night of the soul, all of these topics are aspects of religion. The god concept is logically unique, unique perhaps to human consciousness, possibly an originary and productive source of mind and thought, deserving of endless examination and analysis, hardly to be simply discarded like a superceded theory or a disproven legend, and I respectt your desire to take it on.

Second, I have to thank you for the opportunity you have given me to think these things out and spout off as I have. Much as I know you will brush off most of my comments and have the last word, still the idea that I have written on the coattails of you book, may it sell a million copies, is pleasant and more stimulating than kibitzing on someone’s merely personal blog. I hope The Future of the Book project flourishes.

Mark Shulgasser says:

Since you have again introduced Derrida into your writing, it might be worthwhile examining his remarks a bit more closely. For one thing, he can be heard to speak with unexpectedly lucidity on our topic on YouTube in about twenty clips. Never forgetting that Derrida warned or pleaded that his spontaneous answers to questions, all too often taped, not be accorded the weight of his judiciously “proofed” writings, I would begin with
where he states “In order to be authentic the belief in God must be tested by absolute doubt.” And “True believers experience atheism all the time.” And that he considers the statements ‘I am an atheist’ and ‘I am a believer’ to be equally ‘ridiculous’. Which I love to hear because in spite of my long history of new-agery I’ve always been taken as a tiresome skeptic (among my fellow meditating yogic tarot readers never a true 100%er, somehow always on the fringe) as I never could entirely say ‘I believe’, yet my hackles are always raised by ‘atheists’ who make cheap shots against Sunday school legends and imagine they’ve finally set the human race straight.

With respect to Derrida’s essay you ought at least to give the full title, which is “Faith and Knowledge: the Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone” (1996 in French, in English 1998 in “Religion”, ed. by Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo). With characteristically impish perversity, Derrida capitalizes on the kneejerk assumption that faith and knowledge are opposites. You fell for it. Rather than finding an opposition between faith and knowledge, Derrida discusses the kinds of religion which seek to know, or experience God directly, versus those which believe that certain behaviors are pleasing to an essentially unknowable God. The distinction is made by Kant Derrida’s text here is Kant’s 1796 essay “Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone” where the distinction originates. Kant’s titular wording has been variously rendered (pure reason, mere reason, reason merely) indicative of his doubt as to whether reason was necessarily an absolute such as could replace the God concept. Derrida doubts whether ‘religion’ in the singular has any meaning at all, or whether we must at least talk of ‘religions’. He questions whether religion is in fact having a resurgence or has or can ever fade.

You also annoyed me by somewhere in your blog recently brushing off the issue of reevaluating the Enlightenment, as though that were some kind of highbrow nonsense which could only distract from the simple truth of atheism whose history you are writing. But really, having dragged in Derrida (not to mention Heidegger) with Kant behind him you can hardly disinvite the evil stepmother postmodernism from the party. And postmodernism is nothing if not the reevaluation of the Enlightenment. Atheism may be cool, but at this point hasn’t postmodernism become necessary? You may want to end-run the issue by showing that disbelief predates the Enlightenment, but so what? As Derrida discusses, disbelief is always in some sense concomitant with belief. It is only with the Enlightenment that disbelief becomes programmatic – and it is the essence of postmodernism (in the terminology of Lyotard) to reject the grand narratives of the Enlightenment, particularly the one that says that humanity, shackled by religion and superstition, will be liberated by rational knowledge and Cartesian science.

Science killed more people in the last century than religion did in the entire history of the planet. For every one that science saves, science kills a hundred. But the ones saved praise science endlessly, while the ones who perish are silent.

Matthew Battles says:

Belief, Faith, Knowledge, Doubt–these are terms that beg to be experimented with in a Wittgensteinian way. They’re just too slippery to be useful as epistemological categories without some heavy qualification.

After all I will often say, in the absence of a clock, “I believe it’s time for lunch.”

I don’t think this observation is merely casuistical. In some times and places–and not primarily in the cases of societies with something like atheism in the mix–only *this* use of the word “belief” is operative. In a society of believers, in fact, the word “Belief” might itself be configured as a kind of emptiness. A shaman after all doesn’t “believe” the animals and plants he sees around him to be the outward expressions of spiritts–rather he *knows* this to be true; it’s the foundation of “knowledge” for him, the basis not only of thought but of cognition, for that matter of perception.

This kind of word-trouble has been posited as one of the chief obstacles to atheism; I think of Owen Barfield in this regard. For atheism seems itself a creature of belief.

Yeah, what he said.

Mark Shulgasser says:

This is so obviously tendentious, even for you. Anything in any religious text that is not elitist and racist is going to be called “unholy”? As if atheism might offer a good working definition of the holy. Holy, sacred, reverent, blessed. These words the atheist ought to give up, but not trash.

Mark Shulgasser says:

You write “faith and knowledge are not mere opposites”. Faith and knowledge are not opposites at all. To oppose them is tendentious. Does Derrida do so? Siblings of opposites are not necessarily opposites. Let’s not confuse logic with kinship relations. Faith is the opposite of despair. Knowledge is the opposite of ignorance.

In fact, belief and doubt are not opposites either. Doubt is not disbelief, it is a questioning and an uncertainty. Doubt is a part of religious experience. The existence of doubt in no way supports atheism. It may lead to atheism but it is not atheism. Atheists don’t doubt the existence of God, they deny it. They may at one time have doubted it, before they were atheists, or they may have never doubted it beccause theey never believed it.

These are very simple terms. You should use them clearly — your observations are foggy. A subject is hardly elucidated when it is mentioned that Derrida, of all people, finds a complex alternation therein. Usually to invoke Derrida is to assert that the issue has been demonstrated to be insoluble.

Mark Shulgasser says:

Doubt/belief is an elementary binary. What’s new? By definition one implies the other. Although it is impossible to generalize about “all religions” it is certainly common among religions to place doubt as a central figuration. Thomas doubts: Christ himself is tempted. Perfecting one’s faith is supposed to be a never ending struggle. To believe one has achieved a perfect faith is to court the sin of pride. Only believers attempt to prove God’s existence, and the attempt itself is proof of the existence of doubt. Atheism as a stance is unobjectionable, but as an argument it futilely swings at straw men, chimeras and smoke. One is at liberty to reject irrationality programatically (or at least to claim or attempt to do so) but since belief IS irrational, (as is doubt, since one may also doubt anything) argument can erode, but not defeat either of them. Believing something because it is impossible will give you bad marks in math class, but in Christianity it makes you a very saint! God is an immaterial abstraction like love, democracy, truth, time, goodness, history, evil, science, honor, structure, values, essence, etc, etc. the “actual existence” of all of which must be variously and individually examined, believed and doubted as long as human thought can be construed as free. If the god-term has any special place among these abstractions it is perhaps its radical and persistent “emptiness” that is as close as we can come to conceiving as a guarantor of that freedom.

Mark Shulgasser says:

How does an emptiness manifest as an obstruction? How does an emptiness create uncleanness?

dan says:

interesting piece. i was thinking about how this idea of the “untenanted” holy of holies makes perfect theological sense from a christian perspective. specifically i’m thinking of Hebrews Chapter 9, Stephen’s speech of Acts 7, and the symbolism of the “Tearing of the Temple’s Veil” in Luke 23.44-46. the point being that Jehovah God is not there anymore because he is somewhere else.

I was just experimenting with the posting mechanism. I wanted to see if I could insert a link. Which i did, just fine, but it’s an irrelevant link, sorry. There isn’t a way to delete it, sorry.

A time for belief and a time for doubting that belief.

James says:

Thanks for posting this. It takes a lot of courage to put an unfinished piece up for public dissection, using experimental technology at that. This article is interesting, but it seems a little weak on sources and too speculative. Was belief really even the key concern of first century BCE Romans and Jews? I’m not so sure. There just seems to be too much projecting our own concerns back onto these people and not enough effort at trying to understand the motivations and world view of the players in this drama.

mcvicker says:

This has a lot of potential as your conclusion and I think it’s rather cool to end on this idea of fluidity (and not mere opposition). Yet, it feels a bit thin too, as if there’s more you’d like to thread back through this idea…. a start might be to talk about how the Ecclesiastical framework puts the ‘carpe diem’ idea into a relation (not juxtaposition) with to the Nothing, that brings what Heidegger calls “the whole of beings” in “W is M?” forward: “In the clear night of the nothing of anxiety the original openness of beings as such arises: that they are beings–and not nothing. But this ‘and not nothing’ we add in our talk is not some kind of appended clarification. Rather it makes possible in advance the revelation of beings in general. The essence of the originally nihilating nothing lies in this, that it brings Da-sein for the first time before beings as such’ (105).