On religious afflictions of the eye and ear

“Hearing, they do not hear …”

The hearing impairment to which Jesus referred, quoting Isaiah, was the same one which the Hebrew prophet had diagnosed in his own time – and it is no less prevalent in our day.

Diagnosis implies gnosis.  Jesus, like Isaiah, had a new truth (or more truth) to reveal to his listeners, but the words he had available for the purpose failed to penetrate the framework of every mind.  His choicest words were rejected as strange or irreligious in the context of old ‘tried and true’ principles which were in possession of their understandings.

The malady in question is worse than a physical ailment – with which Jesus had some success.  Instead it affects the listener’s inner attitude, the will, taking away the freedom with which they might break down the old shell of religious meanings from within.

“… and seeing, they do not see.”

It is likewise with the vision problem – the afflicted person has full use of his eyes, but lacks the insight required to get past conventional associations of meaning.

In the minds of the people of Galilee and Judea who suffered from these two afflictions  the man Jesus of Nazareth, qua Messiah, could not help but simultaneously evoke, disappoint, and offend their racial and religious hopes as long as he lived and breathed.  His fellowship with sinners was counted as sin, his healing was called Satanism, his forgiveness blasphemy.  His meekness was counted as weakness and, in our present age, his morality has been called the morality of slaves.

This sight and hearing failure especially affected matters of everyday appearances and social antecedents – things which ‘scientific’ historians most crave to know.  His place of origin (Nazareth!), family background (common!), accent (provincial!), formal training (or lack thereof!), apparel (unpretentious)  – all of the ‘facts’ only created, for his accusers (and for some modern historians), another layer of the unacceptable.

Does it seem unfair to suggest that the principle of interpretation used by believers to gain access to the Jesus of ‘history’ – then as now – must be different from that hermeneutic of suspicion used by the elders and others who rejected him (and by the ‘scientific’ historians who counsel rejection of his eternal truth today)?  How does one access the insight required to become receptive to a previously undiscovered truth?  What is the rational ‘order of love’ in a fruitful hermeneutic of faith?

This post is part of the promised continuation of thoughts posted on this blog last May.

All too human!

I see a certain irony in Nietzsche’s reputation as a visionary.  Take, for example, the notorious section of Religious Aphorisms in his 1878 book, Human, all too Human. In this book we have a Nietzsche who admittedly cuts the figure of a kind of modern-day Jeremiah.  He offers great call-outs of Christianity for its outworn creeds and forms, pagan throw-backs, and ritual perversions.  On the other hand, I suspect I could find most of these same kinds of criticisms of ‘religion’ in the Bible itself.

Overall I think Nietzsche’s book fails to confirm his alleged prophetic credentials. When a Voltaire (to whom the book is dedicated) cries out “ecrasez l’infame,” we see that he refers to the superstitious abuses of a certain corrupt institution and walk of life – and rightly so.  But Nietzsche’s alienation from God is complete, and this explains what I see as his fatal flaw.  For he includes in one sweeping condemnation not only the oddities and obvious antiquities of religion’s outward form and teachings – he condemns the religious consciousness itself and the spiritual ground of religion. Dude.

The atheistic perspective on the human quest for God has one critical disadvantage in comparison to the spiritual perspective. Because the spiritually minded prophet enjoys the same insights into the farce of objective creedal and ritual trivia as the atheist – the prophets of Israel condemn these abuses with the same prophetic ardor as a Nietzsche.  The advantage of the spiritual eye is that it is able to see the folly of the sectarian and the secularist – both confuse these trivia of human religion for the substance of the quest for God.

In a new English translation of Nietzsche’s book (by Gary Handwerk, in The Complete Works, Vol. 3, Stanford 1995) I find the title of his infamous aphorism 113 is rendered, Christianity as anachronism.  In my unprofessional opinion I think this is a better rendering of Nietzsche’s meaning than was Walter Kaufmann’s “Christianity as antiquity”  (Viking, 1954, p.52). But herein lies the irony I mentioned at the beginning of my post.

The illusory holy grail for swashbucklers like Nietzsche is the notion that he will find (or has found) an omnipotent psychological explanation of religion, by which the religious consciousness is reduced to elements of illusion and self-consideration. I think Nietzsche himself must have looked for the dawn of a day in which it would simply be unnecessary for philosophers to distinguish between the reality of religious consciousness and the absurdity of some of Christianity’s (or any religion’s) peculiar expressions and outward forms. What he saw was the coming of just such a pseudo-philosopher as Richard Dawkins.

But if it is a category error to confuse the human quest for God with the antique or anachronistic forms of human religion, this quest cannot be explained or replaced by a scientific paradigm or a secular parody of consciousness. We need a return to a philosophy that recognizes that the scientific method by definition can function only on the ‘objective’ outskirts of religion, art, and consciousness (i.e. a return to Kant); the atheist only apes the method of science when he swaggers into the midst of the human quest demanding that it be judged in terms of a strictly physical or scientific humanities and psychology.

It is a false assumption that the student may approach the reality of man independently of an approach to the reality of God. This false start has contributed to the spectacle of our modern faculties of ‘Human Sciences’ – characterized by various irreconcilable schools of thought, each supported by a tissue of footnoted cross-references to great piles of like-minded studies. I suggest that this dreary edifice is the academic version of the ugly, dysfunctional modernist Pruitt-Igoe apartments inspired by Le Corbusier. The demolition of Pruitt-Igoe in 1972 has been characterized by Charles Jencks as “the end of modern architecture.” What is needed is a postmodernist critique that shall render the whole 100-year modernist cul-de-sac in the Humanities to the cool of library storage – where the fallacy of man without God can be studied as a curiosity of history – the supreme anachronism of the ‘modern’ age.

The Kantian philosophy as handmaid of religion and science

In my recent criticism of John Milbank’s frequent dissing of Immanuel Kant I forgot to say that I am completely sympathetic with the professor’s desire to embarrass the sloppy metaphysics of atheism.  I applaud Milbank’s aim to discomfit our current secular dogmatists who presume the model of ‘science’ is on the side of their own uncritical metaphysical materialisms.

But again, Kant has already shown – over 200 years ago – that the authority of the scientific method doesn’t carry over to the solution of the ‘hard problems’ of metaphysics.  True, the critical philosophy rejects apodictic certainty in theology’s intellectual determinations of its object .  But it also demolished the scientific basis of all claims that theology has no meaningful object.

I’m guessing Prof. Milbank has rejected Kant’s help against scientific materialism because he desires to do metaphysics himself in the grand style of Aquinas, which he knows is also disallowed by Kant.

But a part of Kant’s great service to philosophy makes it also a service to truth in science and religion – he never made the mistake of equating the method of philosophy with the method of science.  His ‘charter of autonomy’ for philosophy gave it independence from both science and religion, and this dual independence actually suits the role of ancilla (handmaiden) required by any theology worthy of a living faith – and by any science worthy of its name and methodology.

The impression I got from reading Milbank last year is that his criticism of Kant cites the Religion book much more than the Critiques.  This I think is the source of his negativity – and I will say I have never been satisfied with the grasp of religion shown by Kant in Religion within the Limits of Pure Reason (although I saw more than I had seen before in a recent reading of that book, remarked last month).

I don’t blame Milbank for seeing Kant’s specifically religious writing as too much akin to the old failed Natural Theology.  But Kant’s criticism of religion’s clerical and popular superstitions and fanaticisms is more cogent and cleansing than any that can be raised by the atheist.

I think a philosophy inspired by the three Critiques can certainly offer an ancillary role in the exploration of the relations of the object of faith to the real world – particularly its moral relations.  But again the one condition – perhaps hardest for Milbank to accept – is that the theologian who makes Kant his handmaiden must give up the attempt to construct a final metaphysics.

“Why I believe again”

Today I found a link to a New Statesman article from April 2009 which I had completely missed, by A.N. Wilson, Why I believe again.”   Thanks to Studium et Liturgica for the link, and apologies to any who feel it’s way old news, but please indulge me in some observations about Wilson’s rediscovery of faith after 20 years as a convinced atheist. 

First, I appreciate the way he notices the differences between his conversion from and his conversion back to Christianity.  His conversion to atheism, he admits, had been like a Damascus Road experience, and yet he notes in retrospect that just such a rush of sudden decision had been very unlike him:

“By nature a doubting Thomas, I should have distrusted the symptoms when I underwent a “conversion experience”… Something was happening which was out of character – the inner glow of complete certainty, the heady sense of being at one with the great tide of fellow non-believers.

“For months, I walked on air… For the first time in my 38 years I was at one with my own generation. I had become like one of the Billy Grahamites, only in reverse.  If I bumped into Richard Dawkins (an old colleague from Oxford days) or had dinner in Washington with Christopher Hitchens, I did not have to feel out on a limb.”

Meanwhile, Wilson’s return to faith in God has been accompanied by just the kind of doubting and slow probing which make his reconversion, he thinks, all the more a genuine expression of his true ‘doubting Thomas’ nature – effecting a change which he feels is irreversible.

And isn’t it interesting that Wilson passed over the line into atheism just after publishing a biography of C.S. Lewis?  I love such counter-intuitive anecdotes (I sometimes find Lewis overbearing, even unbearable, but love him for the good I also find).

Wilson describes a public discussion of Lewis’s work in which he hauls the great apologist up for blame – but we get the usual litany of gripes after all:

“I can remember almost yelling that reading C S Lewis’s Mere Christianity made me a non-believer – not just in Lewis’s version of Christianity, but in Christianity itself. On that occasion, I realised that after a lifetime of churchgoing, the whole house of cards had collapsed for me – the sense of God’s presence in life, and the notion that there was any kind of God, let alone a merciful God, in this brutal, nasty world

And I loved this intimate scene with Hitchens from Wilson’s early atheist days:

Hitchens was excited to greet a new convert to his non-creed and put me through a catechism before uncorking some stupendous claret. “So – absolutely no God?” “Nope,” I was able to say with Moonie-zeal. “No future life, nothing ‘out there’?” “No,” I obediently replied. At last! I could join in the creed shared by so many (most?) of my intelligent contemporaries in the western world.”

The whole article is worth a look.

No necessary link between atheism and humanism?

[Revised Sept 18, 2010 – changes in boldface]

I recently found a very stimulating set of posts going back to July over at The Immanent Frame, featuring critiques and discussion of Stefanos Geroulanos’ new book, entitled An Atheism that is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought (Stanford U Press 2010).

In two related posts, Geroulanos outlines the development of an anti-humanist line of thought among high-profile French atheists writing from 1925-55.  What follows is not a review of the book (there’s a link to the book at the site).  This is a simple Sunday afternoon take-off from my view of the book’s historical thesis.

I suggest that these French writers have uncovered a truth about atheism as well as a “new” negative view of humanism.  This discovery was made available to them in the chaos of their unique experience of the apocalyptic failure of civilization between 1914-1939.  Leaving aside the meaning of this collapse for Christian sectarianism (which is certainly implicated and condemned in that catastrophe as well, in my view), I would argue that the atheist’s sudden aversion to humanism represents more than a ‘localized’ historical artifact.  It seems more likely the case that the intensity of the historical crucible in which they lived and thought had attained the specific toxicity required to show the link between the two to be dissolved – proving atheism and humanism to be ultimately unrelated.

I’m tempted to go so far as to suggest that all philosophical atheisms which call themselves “humanist” are simply naive – that atheism has always had the seed of anti-humanism within it.  Admittedly that’s a bit of a stretch.  I doubt Geroulanos would consent to all or any of my conjectures, but I can say he has caused some wheels to turn from my side.

And I’m perfectly cognizant of the fact that there is a brand of theism whose anthropology might be called anti-humanist as well.  This theistic anti- humanism is not new, however, and I believe it is wrong, and that the true Christianity is one which has the seed of a true pro-humanism within it.  But this could be easily misunderstood.

Still interesting, I think, to consider both atheism and humanism as quite independent impulses rather than joined at the hip, as all of our benevolent and self-righteous new atheists imply.

Schleiermacher – To religion’s cultured despisers (1799)

“Your very contempt for the poverty-stricken and powerless venerators of religion, in whom, from lack of nourishment, religion ever dies before it comes to birth, convinces me that you have a talent for religion…

Become conscious, then, of the call of your deepest nature and follow it…  banish the false shame of a century, which should not determine you.  …Return to what lies so near to you, the violent separation from which cannot fail to destroy the most beautiful part of your nature.”

On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, F.D.E. Schleiermacher, 3d German ed. 1831, ET John Oman, 1893, Harper 1958, p.91, 92).

I continue my historical retrospect of what I would call ‘constructive orthodoxy’ with excerpts from Friedrich Schleiermacher’s literary debut, in which the thirty-year-old theologian calls out the Age of Enlightenment for the folly of its indifference and atheism.  The alienation of ‘the modern’ from God was viewed by Schleiermacher as a tragic divorcement of self-consciousness from its right relation to the ground and truth of being.  But I cannot miss the fact that he assigns a central role in this modern tragedy to the eighteenth century church itself.

People think they know Schleiermacher, but it requires more than a simple refunding of our own ideas of religious feeling, absolute dependence, and God-consciousness, to really know him.  Rightly apprehended, his work still represents, I think, the classic historical model for religions of experience, for constructive ‘methods’ of religious living.

“The religious man must, at least, be conscious of his feelings as the immediate product of a universal reality; for less would mean nothing.  He must recognize something individual in them, something that cannot be imitated, something that guarantees the purity of their origin from his own heart.  To be assured of this possession is the true belief.  To the contrary, belief usually so called – which is to accept what another has said or done, or to wish to think and feel as another has thought and felt – is a hard and base service… To wish to have and hold a faith that is an echo, proves that a man is incapable of religion; to demand it of others, shows that there is no understanding of religion” (pp.90-91).

Like him, I would try to make the higher truths of religious living accessible to some of the great minds of our day.  It is the task of the next theology to elaborate a spirit of faith and worship capable of operating in freedom from the burden of humanity’s many unrevealed, anthropological religious forms (including those which weigh heavily upon Judaism and Christianity).

“Hereafter shall each man see with his own eyes and shall produce some contribution to the treasures of religion.  Every sacred writing is in itself a speaking monument from the heroic time of religion, but, through servile reverence, it would become merely a monument that a great spirit once was there, but is now no more… You are right in despising the wretched echoes who derive their religion entirely from another, or depend on a dead writing, swearing by it and proving out of it (p.91).”