"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

"We", Me & Thee

(Author's Note: With the assistance of some ancient writers, what was intended as a comment beneath Hunter Baker's fine citation of Richard Niebuhr [below] reached epic length, and so must needs be promoted to this main page, for its bulk alone.)

On the subject of Christ and Christianity in our polity, our beloved correspondent James Elliott writes:

...someone might take that last sentence as a dig at Christ, which really wasn't the intent.


I for one appreciate that clarification, James, but before taking offense at such things, intended or not, the careful Bible reader should keep in mind
"And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven."
- Luke 12:10

Unlike the major figures of some religions, Jesus was pretty mellow about Himself. And so let's move ahead to the proposition in question, on its own terms:

No one likes a martyr.


Well, true enough, but not for the reasons one might think. We all tend to wallow in that which we despise. Time to invoke a little Nietzsche:

On such a ground of contempt for oneself, a truly swampy ground, grows every weed, every poisonous growth—all of them so small, so hidden, so dishonest, so sweet. Here the worms of angry and resentful feelings swarm; here the air stinks of secrets and duplicity; here are constantly spun the nets of the most malicious conspiracies—those who are suffering and plotting against successful and victorious people; here the appearance of the victor is despised. And what dishonesty not to acknowledge this hatred as hatred! What an extravagance of large words and attitudes, what an art of "decent" slander! These failures—what noble eloquence flows from their lips! How much sugary, slimy, humble resignation swims in their eyes! What do they really want? At least to make a show of justice, love, wisdom, superiority—that's the ambition of these "lowest" people, these invalids!

And how clever such an ambition makes people! For let's admire the skilful counterfeiting with which people here imitate the trademarks of virtue, even its resounding tinkle, the golden sound of virtue. They've now taken a lease on virtue entirely for themselves, these weak and hopeless invalids—there's no doubt about that. "We alone are the good men, the just men"—that's how they speak: "We alone are the homines bonae voluntatis [men of good will]." They wander around among us like personifications of reproach, like warnings to us, as if health, success, strength, pride, and a feeling of power were inherently depraved things, for which people must atone some day, atone bitterly. How they thirst to be hangmen! Among them there are plenty of people disguised as judges seeking revenge. They always have the word "Justice" in their mouths, like poisonous saliva, with their mouths always pursed, constantly ready to spit at anything which does not look discontented and goes on its way in good spirits.

Among them there is no lack of that most disgusting species of vain people, the lying monsters who aim to present themselves as "beautiful souls," and carry off to market their ruined sensuality, wrapped up in verse and other swaddling clothes, as "purity of heart"—the species of self-gratifying moral masturbators. The desire of sick people to present some form or other of superiority, their instinct for secret paths leading to a tyranny over the healthy—where can we not find it, this very will to power of the weakest people!


I think our aforementioned friend from the left has the makings of a Nietzschean. Nietzsche designed that condemnation not in the smallest part for the religious; however, consider that it fits hand in glove with today's modernist left (perhaps a third of this country and a large majority in Europe), and almost everybody everywhere else, left or right, who cannot discuss any issue without putting it into their own handwringing moral terms.

Even the weak use their weakness as a will to power: no one is immune. They hate America not even for what it is, but for what they themselves are not. That Nietzsche fellow was a smart guy. No wonder he went nuts.

Is it all moral narcissism, or an abrogation of the duties of moral conscience in simply deferring to a (claimed) higher moral authority, or a combination of both?

Is that all it is?

As far as American Christians go, sure there are some cementheads. But The Reform Club, for instance, a delightful (yes, no, mebbe so?) polyglot of Judeo-Christianism, seeks not to whine or pontificate, only to convince. I have noticed that to a man (and a woman), we use the secular vocabulary of the Other. (As does a fellow named Beckwith...)

We happen to believe the Bible leads us to and confirms what is true about man and the human condition. But we need not use the Bible as an authority, and endeavor mightily not to: the truth can and must stand on its own.

My use (or anyone's) of "we" is admittedly creepy, cultish and excluding, so let me apologize. I don't like reading it, and I shiver at writing it. I just couldn't find a way around it. What I want to convey,though, is that "we" disagree on many things, and are a "we" only for that one thing, the most important thing, that we have in common.

"We" believe that most important thing is that there exists a higher moral order for which man's brute will and reason are insufficient. We cannot put that light under a bushel basket in the public square.

But "we" shall play by the public square's rules. That's only fair. We religionists, and I hope that will someday include Muslims after they pick up the lingo, will (and must) continue to speak to the minds, hearts, and spirits of our fellow men because we believe that in the beginning was The Word, and that minds, hearts and spirits were created for the simple purpose of hearing It.

An estimable thinker once noted that not only must theology be open to the challenges of philosophy, but vice-versa too. In our pluralistic age, we must all be bilingual. I do believe that's why we, me, & thee are all still here, regardless of what baggage we arrived with at the doors. Yes?

19 comments:

mjwatson said...

Yes. But like cutting the first piece of cake, I feel somewhat amiss in commenting on this post. It's a tour de force. The kind of post I hope to write someday, perhaps it's even close to the Platonic form of what a post.

But of course I have quibbles, though I'll just offer one. If philosophy is open to theology, or better if reason is to be open to revelation, than I'm not sure one can say the Bible can't be held as an authority. Christians don't just happen to believe Bible leads to truth about the human condition, but that in some way God speaks to us through the Bible (though not just the Bible). Reason may support this conclusion, or, perhaps more modestly, support as a belief that is not inherently irrational.

Granted, as a wise man once said philosophy cannot begin so long as the divine is taken to have supplied all the answers, but there's nothing to say that the two can't be reconciled, or perhaps transcended. Word, logos, yes.

Matt Huisman said...

We all tend to wallow in that which we despise.

Ain’t that the truth. We all need to cope with our limited understanding somehow, and if you’re not going to allow God to help here there’s nothing like dislike to take your mind off your troubles. No doubt believers are just as guilty of this as anyone else – truly one of Satan’s masterpieces. Thankfully “we” have some help in recognizing these evasions of self and meaning. You may not respect the result, but you have to respect the fact that Christianity requires that one examine (and revisit) these issues. I’m not sure that I see how the rest of the world does the same.

That’s not to say that they aren't good natured folks – the appearance by some in this space is evidence of that (as TVD notes). Hopefully that good naturedness (along with some humility on "our" part) will continue to allow us to encourage each other towards truth.

(BTW, Kudos to Nietzsche for making an honest run at it, though I suspect it ultimately compromised his health. Unable, it seems, to follow his own prescription and simply forget.)

James Elliott said...

I was going to make a clever little dig about faith as the fetishism of authority and thus proving Neitzche, but then I realized we're talking Niebhur and not Neuhaus. I'll be back when I've learned more. One thing to say about this place: You've always got me exploring the intellectual landscape.

S. T. Karnick said...

Brilliant post, Tom. Niebuhr and his insights are a highly fruitful matter for discussion.

James Elliott said...

"I think our aforementioned friend from the left has the makings of a Nietzschean."

Probably, but I prefer Eric Hoffer: He's equally profound and far less wordy. I aspire to be worthy of Hoffer's idea that any thought worth expressing can be summed up in 200 words or less. Still not there.

"Nietzsche designed that condemnation not in the smallest part for the religious; however, consider that it fits hand in glove with today's modernist left (perhaps a third of this country and a large majority in Europe), and almost everybody everywhere else, left or right, who cannot discuss any issue without putting it into their own handwringing moral terms."

I would definitely agree with that. It's my own biggest criticism of many of my fellow liberals. They bug the crap out of me with their moralism and fanatacism. The more I learn, the more I realize that moderates exist for a damn good reason.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The props are deeply felt, Mr. Watson, and thank you. And you're encouraged to quibble away, altho in this case, I think we're actually in agreement, and at the mercy of my writing skills and the insufficiency of language. (Which is why the higher things might take more than 200 words to get out, Mr. Elliott---not that they aren't simple, but that speaking of the transcendent is like throwing darts: not every attempt is a bullseye.)

I chose "leads us to" as an attempt to straddle theological and philosophical vocabulary. Surely when one first responds to The Word, it's because it triggers something inherent to man's nature, and only later one may decide to go deeper, towards faith.

But it's important that The Word stand on its own, at least at first, without faith; we are not being sold a supernatural bill of goods that requires the suspension of reason. That "offer the other cheek as well" works is because it is in accord with the Other's (God-given, "we" would say) nature, that he is invested with the capacity to feel shame at abusing you.

I have always thought the Bible's greatest virtue, and the need for it, is that it leads us to certain truths that we might not have come up with through mere reason or will, but that even upon strict rational test, remain true, and do not require Divine authority to make them true. (This is the thesis behind "natural law," which when properly argued, straddles both vocabularies.)

When theology opens itself to the challenges of philosophy, we merely invoke that completion-backwards principle, using the vocabulary of the latter to lead to the former.

But keep them quibbles comin'. I'm sure we'll find something to disagree about.

Matt Huisman said...

Surely when one first responds to The Word, it's because it triggers something inherent to man's nature, and only later one may decide to go deeper, towards faith.

That’s good stuff right there Mr. Van Dyke. When you put it that way, the path to faith sounds obvious, but I think that many people – seekers and would-be evangelists alike – are not familiar with it. I really love your use of the word ‘triggers’ (though I’m going to turn it slightly). If all things were made through The Word, then we should not be surprised to find that these ‘triggers’ are literally everywhere. And as you say, there is a leading going on here – a process of attraction (as opposed to Nietzsche’s perceived coercion), grounded in truth, that is directed towards each of us.

The challenge then for each of us is to examine whether we have limited or interrupted this attraction. Have we applied skepticism properly, calibrated fairly in all directions?

James Elliott said...

Any thought and analysis of a religion cannot be divorced from the historical, social, and cultural forces that surround and permeate it. Once those are removed, it ceases to become religion and becomes theology, which is merely philosophy with a theist core.

I am quite attracted, to use Matt's term, to deism as opposed to agnosticism (which is really just spiritual fence-sitting) and atheism (which is hardly the opposite of fanatical religion). I prefer to think of myself more as Eric Hoffer's "gentle cynic who does not care if there is a God or not." True, I tend to be more caustic than gentle, but I'm working on it.

Call it a provisional deism: All my instincts, my searches into nature, science, and psychology, every one of these tells me that there is more to human consciousness and the beauty and horror of this world than mere materialism. I can easily get on board with the idea that there is Something Else Out There, and I believe that this doesn't arise from some survival benefit or as a side-effect to increasing neural complexity.

Where I cannot hop on the train is the belief that this Something Else boils down to a Truth, however unknowable, to a designer, an actor of some unknowable yet knowable nature. Everything I am tells me that such a perception is the imposition of a human structure upon that instinctual feeling of Something Else.

Hunter Baker said...

James, here's the thing you are missing. Christianity and Judaism are religions based on the purported happenings of real events. Jews think Sinai really occurred. Christians believe the events of the Gospel narratives are essentially correct in their portrayal of WHAT REALLY HAPPENED. This is not mere philosophy. Now, you can believe something happened or it didn't, but now we're talking about history rather than abstract thought.

Matt Huisman said...

Everything I am tells me that such a perception is the imposition of a human structure…

This is the part where deists (even the provisional ones) lose me. They’ll go to great lengths to convince themselves they’re not crazy for ‘getting on board with the idea that there is Something Else Out There’, and rightfully so. But when it comes to investigating what that Something Else might be – the ramifications of which potentially transcend understanding – their interest (and rigor) seem to fade. Why is that?

It seems relevant here to assess what one might have at stake, and then consider the methods employed to address those considerations. The formulation of Christianity is so bizarre, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would have developed this model in the service of any other purpose. (Where is the mass appeal of turning the other cheek?) That doesn’t make it true, but it does seem to lean toward inspiration rather than concoction. I would suggest that the deist, gentle cynic that he is, take a second look at whether his position is as likely an imposition of perception as anything else out there. Certainly the motive is there.

But enough of the argumentation, I would rather get back to the discussion of attraction. Hunter picks up on an important point here when he mentions that Christianity (and Judaism) are based on real events (as opposed to only abstract thought). There really was a Jesus, and there is a story available to us to reference. That is to say, the attraction of Christianity is a personal one. The person of Jesus and the personhood within the Trinity are attractive (or not!) due to the nature and character of a relational being. The attraction of deism seems more like clever positioning after acknowledging a difficult truth, but it hardly satisfies. There’s so much it can’t account for – keep searching.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Indeed, Matt, which is why I liked Jay's new aphorism so much:

“Realism should be as much of a check against pessimism as it is against optimism.”

I mean, won't it be a good thing if it turns out there's a God after all?

Tom Van Dyke said...

On second thought, perhaps not. Some folks seem to prefer the idea of marching to oblivion with their sins rather than to eternal life and forgiveness.

They're actually hoping there isn't a God. Man, that makes me so sad.

Matt Huisman said...

That’s the thing, isn’t it. From a distance, belief in God is viewed as comfort on the cheap, something that would be desirable if weren’t for the fact that it was utter rubbish. No serious person wants to play the fool.

But once the barriers to plausibility begin to fall (through honest inquiry), something odd happens. Where you might expect to find a growing sense of excitement and humility, you find the exact opposite. The closer we (believers included) get to comprehending what’s really involved, the more we notice a different kind of resistance – something closer to a rebellion – where our hope is that somehow God can be avoided.

It is sad to think that there are people who would actually choose to hope there isn’t a God. But I can live with that when it’s been reasonably considered. The real tragedy is when people reach that decision by default, never giving themselves the chance to fully appreciate what they’ve done. I have a hard time with that.

Hunter Baker said...

The whole belief in God as psychological crutch thing falls apart here. I've always thought it would be easier to live and think as though there were no God. I'm not thrilled by the thought that I could come up against the very creator of justice. I sometimes think it would be fun to live without moral constraints. I believe because that's where my reason and experience have taken me, not because I'm looking for a celestial dad or boyfriend.

James Elliott said...

"James, here's the thing you are missing. Christianity and Judaism are religions based on the purported happenings of real events."

Hunter, almost ALL religions believe they are based on true events. Muslims believe that the Archangel Gabriel actually trotted down from Heaven to deliver the Koran. Jesus existed. So did Buddha. So did Mohammed. So did Moses. Your point is what? We've had this discussion before. A phenomenological explanation for an actual event - for example, the Exodus from Egypt (for which no actual historical evidence exists) - based on human understanding of nature at the time can imply an outside actor with no such agency existing. There's fascinating work coming out of places like Princeton on the human brain's biological capacity to perceive agency (in flocking alogorithms, for example) from random events.

Matt, as the emergence of the "Gospels of Judas" show us, the internal inconsistencies of Christianity (for example), are easily explainable, and are intuitive to anyone who's studied varying impressions of historical events: Certain people interpret identical events differently. The psychology of religion is chock-full of inconsistencies; that's its nature. Again, I'll refer you to the work of the likes of Jaynes, or invite you to have a chat with a Scientologist. Internal consistency isn't a huge requirement for mythology.

You've all discussed about how you feel deism (or anything else) is an internally-motivated avoidance. I wonder if you're willing to go back, and look at the personal impositions and assumptions you're statements indicate just as clearly.

Tom Van Dyke said...

For me, James, yes, every day.

Mr. Huisman, et al. wonders if that's true of those who are content with a blind watchmaker. (Or less.)

The crisis of non-faith?

Kierkegaard looked at faith simply because life without it is so friggin' depressing.

Matt Huisman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Matt Huisman said...

The crisis of non-faith?

LOL. And you said brevity was too much of an imposition.

Beyond this constant challenge from our nature though James, I would only add that our side is called to engage (evangelize) the world. Good folks like you do a nice job of keeping us current.

That said, I have to commend you for your willingness to search out the other side - despite your natural motivational deficit (though I suspect that half the time you’re only interested in the thrill of picking a fight). At any rate, I hope all this is received well - good news should never be a drag. (Though if it is, take it up with Baker and Van Dyke; they're the ones responsible for being interesting, not me =)

Tlaloc said...

"We happen to believe the Bible leads us to and confirms what is true about man and the human condition. But we need not use the Bible as an authority, and endeavor mightily not to: the truth can and must stand on its own."

That is precisely what the religion should be in America.

But isn't.

Of course it is in some places and in some hearts, but the movement is not that which you describe. At all.

If truth rather than slavish obedience to literal readings of the bible were key there would be no fight over gay marriage. Or Intelligent Design. Just to take a couple examples. Those are places where people take their literal readings of mistranslated and misunderstood parables to be divine truth. Without the Bible those arguments collapse instantly.

I hope for a day when Christianity acts in the way you claim.