Over the next few weeks I plan to comment on several points in my recent debate with Justin Schieber. So you can consider this the first installment in a series. (I suggest you watch or listen to the debate before partaking of this critical review.)
In this installment I am going to comment on the specific claim Justin made that a non-cognitive relationship is “trivial”. The background is Justin’s divine hiddenness argument: if there is a God who wants relationship with people then why does he seem to be hidden from at least some of them? More specifically, why does he seem to be hidden from some who want relationship with him?
The background of Justin’s challenge is the fact of non-resistant non-believers, i.e. people who really want to know God and to be in relationship with him if he does exist. It seems that such people do exist, but if there is a loving God who wants relationship with all his creatures, then surely he wouldn’t deprive these creatures of this relationship they so desire. In other words, if non-resistant non-believers do exist, then God (probably) doesn’t.
One of the points I made in response is to note that Justin assumes that relationship must be cognitive to be meaningful. But this is a dubious proposition. In the debate I provided the example of an infant child in relationship with her mother.
Justin conceded that relationship can be non-cognitive in this way. However, he insisted that this kind of relationship (e.g that of infant to mother) is “trivial”. Presumably, God wouldn’t leave his creatures with merely a “trivial” relationship with him.
This is a strikingly bald claim. That is, it is strikingly bald to claim that a meaningful relationship between two individuals requires each individual to have a propositional awareness of the other. To take the most salient example, the maternal bond with with her infant is as far from “trivial” as one can imagine: this is surely one of the most profound and meaningful relationships there is.
Justin challenged me in the debate to explain how a non-cognitive relationship could possibly be meaningful. More specifically, he was asking for an example of a non-reciprocal cognitive relationship, that is, a relationship where only one of the participants is cognitive.
In the debate I provided one answer. Here I’m going to provide another simple response: A relationship like this can be meaningful because it is a great good to those who are a part of it. For example, the mother/child relationship is profoundly meaningful because it is a great good to both the mother and child who are in that relationship. This should be obvious, certainly to those who have nurtured infants and small children. However, Justin seems to think that this relationship is “trivial” because the child lacks cognitive propositional knowledge of the mother. On the contrary, I would submit the only trivialization here is Justin’s assumption that meaningful relationship must be mediated by a reciprocal grasp of particular propositions.
Let me give you another example. This one is drawn from the great Catholic writer Henry Nouwen. For a time Nouwen worked at L’Arche community with the severely handicapped. In particular, he developed a profound relationship with a non-cognitive man named Adam. This is how Nouwen describes his relationship:
“Here is the man who more than anyone connected me with my inner self, my community, and my God. Here is the man I was asked to care for, but who took me into his life and into his heart in such an incredibly deep way. Yes, I had cared for him during my first year at Daybreak and had come to love him so much, but he has been such an invaluable gift to me. Here is my counselor, my teacher, and my guide, who could never say a word to me but taught me more than any book, professor, or spiritual director. Here is Adam, my friend, my beloved friend, the most vulnerable person I have ever known and at the same time the most powerful.” (Henri Nouwen, Adam: God’s Beloved (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), 101.)
According to Justin’s position, Nouwen’s relationship with Adam is trivial because it is not mediated by the reciprocal grasp of propositions. But as with the infant, this is a grossly reductionistic assessment of the relationship. I believe Nouwen’s perception of his relationship with Adam was spot-on: it was profound, even though Adam didn’t grasp propositions about Nouwen.
Now you might agree with me: cognitive people can have meaningful relationships with non-cognitive people like infants and the severely mentally handicapped. In that sense, I might have scored a point against Justin. But isn’t it a pyrrhic victory? After all, when it comes to divine hiddenness we’re not talking merely about those who cannot grasp propositions, but about those who can grasp propositions but fail to grasp the right ones.
True enough. That’s why this topic has a part 2. Suffice it to say for now that relationships between two individuals which lack a reciprocal recognition of the existence of the other member of the relationship can still be meaningful.