Asking “God?”

question“God” is not an answer, but a question.

To wonder about God, to think about God, to pray, to worship, is to ask the question: where is this coming from? “This” being all that we experience: whatever we think, whatever we sense, whatever we imagine, whatever is extended in space and time before us. Now, this question may not occur to everyone. Many people seem to assume that what-is is; it just is. It’s there. But under careful reflection, this credulity starts to look rather strange.

Our lives, the whole ebb and flow of existence, of experience, of living, is marked by contingency. Contingency, in this broad cosmological sense, simply means that whatever-is did not have to be. Whatever is happening, we know something else could be happening. It’s important to note that this is true even if one is a strict determinist. Even if you believe that every event that has happened since the Big Bang has been caused without any possible variation by the preceding set of events, that whole collection of events (that is, the universe) is still utterly contingent: first, because the rules that govern those events seem to be contingent themselves. The fundamental forces of physics, for example, do not seem to be necessary. As far as I know, no physicist argues that these forces or rules are absolute or necessary in the strict and final sense. And when these forces or laws are expressed mathematically, there are a range of constants and operators which we know could be otherwise, at least in theory. The fundamental forces of physics are actual but not necessary. They are, thus, contingent.

But contingency runs even deeper. It’s not just that what-is could be other than it is, it also seems that what-is could simply not be at all. This is often expressed in the question, “why is there something rather than nothing?” It’s important to understand that when philosophers and theologians pronounced “nothing” here, they are not talking about empty space and time, but rather no-space and no-time, no-actuality and no-possibility, even no-necessity. Nothing means no-thing, nothing at all. Often, when people talk about nothing, they mean not-this-thing. But not-this-thing is not nothing, it’s just something else. Empty space and empty time–an endless black expanse with no matter or energy for eternity–would still be something. Extension of space and time is not no-thing, it is something, even if it’s a something that appears as almost nothing to human thought.

So why is there something rather than nothing? The idea of “God” is not the answer to this question! When we use “God” as an easy answer to such profound and unanswerable questions, we both disrespect the intelligence of atheists and belittle the power and mystery of God. God is not an answer, God is not an idea, God is not a topic of discussion. The idea of God is simply the mental response of taking the question seriously. “God” is the horizon of all being and knowing.

To say that one has faith in God must mean that one simply says that the contingent universe, the actual but not necessary flow of whatever simply is at each moment, and indeed the very ground of that existence–extended space and time–that all of this, all of this, proceeds from something other than itself. God, then, conceptually, is the Whence of existence. I use this archaic English word “whence” here because I think it captures something that is harder to communicate in contemporary English.

Centuries ago, in addition to the question word “where”, we also had two other location words in English: whence and whither (not to be confused with “wither”!). To ask “whence” was to ask “from where”, and to ask “whither” was to ask “to where”. So, if I asked “whence cometh thou?” I would be asking “Where did you come from?” And if I asked “whither goest thou?” I was asking “Where are you going to?” Where told someone my current location; whence and whither told them where I had come from and where I was going.

To say that God is the Whence of existence is to say that God is that from which existence flows. Once we have seen that existence is utterly contingent–that it is actual but in no way necessary–asking after this Whence makes sense. But if we see existence as both actual and necessary, if we think that what-is just is and needs no further comment, then we won’t ask after this Whence. This is what it means to say that “God” is a question. When we say “God” we are asking ourselves and each other, “whence comes all that is?”

It is crucial to see one important consequence of understanding “God” in this way. If it’s true that all that exists flows from God, then it is not true to say that God exists. Now, this is not to say that we would agree with what people mean when they say “God doesn’t exist”. Rather, it is to say that the category of existence is simply not able to capture the reality of God. In other words, to believe in God is to believe that existence–the events of extended space and time, and even the rules that govern this extension–does not include everything that is real. “Real” here covers the fullness of all that is in the broadest and deepest possible sense, where “existence” refers only to reality as it appears to humans, that limited degree of reality that we can sense and cognize (for more on this, see Kant’s distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal).

This is why it is truer to say that “God” is a question and not an answer. Prayer and worship are not confident acts of certainty, but the opening of humanity to the mystery at their very center, an attempt to gaze back at the very fount of existence, to ask the great Whence. For Christians, to admit that “God” is a question should not challenge our faith, it should deepen it! For Jesus made this point himself when he instructed us to ask, to seek, and to knock (Matthew 7:7-12). Once we have understood that our actuality depends on something other than itself to be, we have taken the first step towards God.

The Flat Self and the Deep Other

Julian-of-Norwich-&-hazelnut-798183Early in our lives, our sensory and mental life is all we can imagine; it fills not only our immediacy but also the boundaries of what we think possible. However things appear, whatever thoughts come to us, that’s reality, as far as we can know or imagine. It doesn’t seem like there could be anything else. As we get older, things start to change a bit. We have new experiences, new ideas, new conceptual relations. We begin to realize that there is more to reality than what appears to our consciousness at any given moment. We come to realize that other people’s experiences could be different–perhaps radically different–from our own, and yet also reflect reality just as truly as our own.

Once we begin to admit and accept that not all is as it seems, that there is more than meets the eye, and indeed more than meets our conceptual models, a funny thing happens to us. Our sensory experience, our mental life, which before seemed so full and so rich, starts to flatten. We recognize that what occurs to us is superficial. It’s almost as if our world goes low-definition; we thought we had three or indeed four dimensions available to us, but we begin to see that our world, the world as it appears to us, is more like two-dimensional. Something is missing. Maybe a lot is missing! We begin to fill a bit hemmed-in by the horizons of our immediate consciousness.

This can be deeply unsettling, because our grip on certainty loosens here, and we have to give up control. Especially for people raised primarily as English-speakers, this can be even more troubling, for the culture of English-language philosophy is primarily a culture of empiricism: a confidence that, if we analyze our sensory experience closely enough, we can uncover all truth. To begin to see that this may not be quite true is to relinquish not only a view of the world that is important to us, but a view of ourselves too. The real world is somewhat veiled to us; not all mysteries will yield to our probing.

Yet this realization is, ultimately, liberating. To relinquish this world of our creating is to relinquish a small, sad, dead world. So long as the world is only what we see and think it to be, so long as we are the measure of reality, we know that we can never go beyond ourselves, we cannot transcend our limitations; we know we are trapped. To realize that the world we know is flat and superficial, ironically, allows us to see the world’s true value. Its flatness points to a depth somewhere else; the world we make doesn’t speak the whole truth, but it is spoken by a deeper truth. If there is more to reality than what we see and think, that more is real and is worth turning towards, even if its beyond our sensing and thinking. To see the world as flat is actually to begin to appreciate its real depth.

To see our world–and ourselves–in this way, however, is not easy. It means relinquishing not only that control and certainty, but also easy and convenient answers. It means accepting that life is, at its very core, infinitely mysterious, that we are given to ourselves from a place beyond our understanding. So it is not only that our world is stranger than we imagined, but we are stranger to ourselves than we imagined or want to accept. It’s not always a totally pleasant realization. But in the face of this troubling mystery lies our truth and the only possibility of real freedom.

Most of all, this realization, of the otherness of reality from our immediate experience, is the true foundation for faith in God.

Reasoning About Faith: New Skins for New Wine

new-wineskinsCritics of Christianity and Christian apologists alike tend to approach Christian truth-claims as a set of content which either are, or are not, to be accepted, according to some previously determined–though generally unspoken–set of criteria. Public discourse occurs within various language communities, with sets of rules for determining whether a given argument is received as successful or not. Though individuals, and smaller sub-communities and sub-cultures frequently have their own sets of rules for making some judgments, there are nonetheless cultural logics which are effectively hegemonic, which provide a basic set of axioms and logics that most people, most of the time, employ when making or evaluating public arguments.

The actual set of such meta-rubrics, as we might provisionally call them, change over time. For a long period of late antiquity and the early medieval period in western Europe, neo-Platonism provided the basic structure for public reasoning, as witnessed in the works of writers like Augustine or John Scotus Eriugena. In the middle period of the medieval age, Aristotelian logic and metaphysics became ascendent in the west, especially through the work of Thomas Aquinas, who had the benefit of Arabic translations of works lost to Latin. (And it is of course worth noting how much overlap there is between Platoni and Aristotelean modes of reasoning.) At the end of the medieval period, both of these threads–the Platonic, still represented by the work of many Franciscans, like Bonaventure, and the Aristotelean, generally employed by Aquinas’s fellow Dominicans–both faced a crisis of confidence which led to new attempts at “first philosophy”, most notably in the work of Rene Descartes and John Locke. These and other figures of the 17th century ushered in “modern” thought, which has itself both evolved and been challenged by the panoply of critiques covered under the umbrella label of “post-modernism”. Nonetheless, some version of modernism itself still provides, in modified form, the basic set of criteria which most people employ in public discourse.

What exactly qualifies as the basic set of modernism’s truth-criteria is, of course, up for debate, but some basic assumptions like the following are generally seen as uncontroversial: the homogeneity of space and time, the limitation of the real to the perceivable or conceivable, the sufficiency of human reasoning to draw all valid inferences, and the individual thinker as the final arbiter of truth-claims. Each of these has come under some fire from both traditionalists (e.g. Thomists) as well as postmodernism (e.g. Foucault or Baudrillard), but by and large modernism’s basic structure of reasoning remains in force throughout most public discourse today–not only in the West (wherever exactly that is) but, increasingly, throughout the whole world.

Thus, not only the critics of Christian truth-claims but most apologists engage in their rhetorical struggles on this ground. Christian claims are understand as particular content–a set of pronouncements, each of which must be evaluated according to this over-arching meta-logic. While, in one sense, this is unavoidable and is ultimately necessary, I think there is reason to see such an approach to arguing about Christian truth-claims as highly problematic. This is because I think it is a mistake to see Christianity–or indeed any serious political or religious system of thought–as simply a collection of claims to be evaluated by whatever set of logics a given thinker happens to value and employ. Instead, such systems are, well, systematic. Christianity is not just a collection of claims (“there is only one God”, “Jesus is God incarnate”, “Jesus was raised from the dead”, etc.) but rather a complete system of thought–a set of axioms and logics that underpins those truth claims. That is to say: the claims, the content, arrive after one engages in reasoning according to the axioms and logics of the system. If one attempts to make sense of Christian claims apart from Christian axioms and logics, then it is unlikely one will find any of them convincing; indeed, one may not be even able to make sense of some of them in such a context.

Now, this is not to say that making judgments about Christian truth-claims outside of Christian axioms and logics is “wrong”; indeed, this is the whole point: to say that a given argument is wrong, or its conclusion false, or its method invalid, is to make a judgment–and as suggested above, whenever a judgment is made, one should ask: according to what criteria have you made this judgment? Judging, for example, Christian truth-claims according to certain modern logics–especially according to the assumptions of positivism–will yield one set of conclusions, while judging it according to other structures of thought will yield quite different ones. Likewise, judging the act-of-judging Christian truth claims according to, say, certain set of traditional Christian axioms and logics will yield one set of conclusions, while judging this act-of-judging according to modern logics will likely yield another. That’s a huge part of the difficulty in even discussing this issue. When we reason about the criteria we employ to make judgments, we are employing criteria to make judgments–we are making judgments about how to make judgments. The chicken and the egg both arrive on the horizon, but we never reach either.

However, the difficulty in seeing the complexity of this situation only gets worse when we recognize that, actually, few humans only employ one set of totally consistent systems of criteria. Most people employ at least two, and frequently they blend them in unpredictable ways. Thus, many Christians employ one set of axioms and logics when thinking about “religious” issues, but then, at their jobs, employ very different sets. Likewise, many non-religious people employ different sets of reasonings when thinking about scientific questions than they do when thinking about ethical or moral ones. Frequently, the systems of thought are incompatible, to the point of being mutually exclusive (this is actually not the case, I think, between science and religiosity broadly conceived, but consider the gap between evolutionary logic and the political ethics that most people hold dear, and a more glaring inconsistency makes itself clear. But this is a topic for a separate post.)

ouroborosSo each of us individually, and groups of us as communities, find ourselves attempting to adjudicate various truth-claims, many of which rest on differing assumptions, according to a blended set of axioms and logics, which are often actually rather obscure–that is to say, we often reason without being conscious of the rules according to which we reason. If and when we attempt to reflect on our own processes of reasoning, we find an intellectual mine-field, in which we have to employ the very criteria we wish to observe and study in our studies and observations. Reasoning about reasoning ends up resembling the unfortunate Ouroboros.

Of course, to some extent, this is just repeating some of the critiques leveled at modern logic over the past two centuries by thinkers often grouped together as post-modern (despite that term being largely indeterminate–though again, the difficulty of making sense of this term can’t be dwelled on here). But one should not allow any association with post-modernity–often a term of abuse employed by lazy thought that doesn’t want to truly engage critique–to obscure the real difficulty here. What I hope I have shown above is that the serious, self-conscious evaluation of any truth-claim always comes with an immense amount of baggage. Truth-claims do not sit, pristine and discrete, to be evaluated by some kind of Archimedean Reason. They always exist within a context and system of reasoning and axioms which themselves must be explored if we are to truly understand the original claims. But this is extremely difficult, the work of a lifetime.

Above, we’ve run through an extremely truncated summary of the formal dimension of the difficulty I want to discuss here: we have talked about reasoning in the abstract, outlining how any act of judgment is always an act of applying some particular set of criteria to a given question, and observed that this leaves questions about which criteria to employ wide open. I also claimed that most of us today, most of the time, employ some version of what I loosely called “modern” modes of reasoning to questions, after having suggested that such criteria may not always be appropriate to every question. Now I’d like to apply this formal argument to a particular claim.

The collision of Christian truth-claims and modern criteria of judgment is evident in some of the most basic claims of the faith. The idea that Jesus died but was somehow risen from death and then appeared to his disciples is an excellent example. Modern reasoning, in evaluating this claim, employs some of the basic assumptions listed above. Space and time are assumed to be homogeneous; therefore, any claim about what happened to Jesus must comply with the laws of physics as we now understand them. Likewise, the mechanics of this purported act of resurrection should be understandable to human reasoning. Any appeal to “mystery” is seen as only an attempt to dodge accountability, for all of reality is assumed to be either perceivable or conceivable by human thought. Finally, each thinker him- or herself assumes final authority and autonomy in reaching his or her own conclusion about the matter. Appeals to authority are likely to fall on deaf ears.

What kind of response can a Christian offer? One could attempt to argue each of the above assumptions philosophically, point-by-point. For the sake of keeping this post somewhat briefer, I will employ Scripture itself to model some of the logic that I think informs the Christian claim, to highlight the fact that in the claim about Christ’s resurrection we do not simply have a particular content, a truth-claim, which should be evaluated by whatever reason any given thinker brings to the table, but rather a truth-claim that sits within a broader context, a system not only of other truth claims, but of axioms and logics which anchor those claims. To assert the resurrection of Jesus is to assert a specific way of thinking about reality. Christianity is a way of thinking, not just a collection of content.

genesisilluminatedPerhaps the clearest way of pointing to this general system of thought is to appeal to the very opening of the Hebrew Bible. In Genesis chapter one, the cosmos in general and humanity in particular are pronounced “good”; indeed, we humans are said to be made “in the image of God”, the imago Dei. This is not a reference to our bodily form, but rather to our intellectual, moral, and/or spiritual nature and capacities. The upshot of the first creation story, the very opening of Jewish and Christian Scripture, is that reality has not only a descriptive content, but a moral or valuative one as well: it is good.

Yet the second chapter introduces a wrinkle in this optimistic opening. Something goes wrong, terribly wrong, with the good cosmos. The Accuser, metaphorically imaged by the snake, tempts humanity into transgressing the boundaries that support our very being, and by so doing, the good cosmos is cast into chaos. (The philosophical question here of the problem of evil more generally is one worth exploring, but which I can’t pursue here.) So we have a tension in the text, only a few pages in: in its essence, the cosmos is good, yet in its existence here and now, it is far from good. It is “fallen” from its true state.

These two stories appear themselves as collections of truth-claims about the way in which our world came into being, but they must be seen as providing a philosophical architecture to Jewish–and therefore–reasoning. To claim that the world as it is now is not how it is in truth is to announce an axiom of Jewish and Christian reasoning: Truth cannot be judged only according to how things appear to be for us now. Truth, Truth with a capital “T”, is, to some extent, other than how things currently appear to be. Current existence is a fallen version of Truth.

Once these stories are understood as presenting, through allegory and metaphor, a philosophical system, it should not be hard to see how this touches on our previous discussion of formal systems of reasoning and of the particular question we tackled above: the Christian claim of the resurrection of Jesus. For the axiom just outlined in Jewish and Christian reasoning is in direct conflict with some of the axioms of modern reasoning. Whereas we said that modernism (again, assuming a simple and homogeneous meaning to this thorny term) assumes the homogeneity of space and time, Genesis argues that how things are now is markedly different from how things are essentially. Likewise, by arguing that humanity is itself fallen, Genesis argues that human epistemic capacities–our abilities to perceive, to conceive, and to reason–may themselves be limited, may fall short of being able to fully grasp the Real.

Apart from providing these formal challenges to some of the axioms of modern reasoning, these Scriptural axioms also provide a grounding for understanding claims about Jesus’s resurrection. If in the resurrection, this one part of the fallen cosmos, Jesus’s body, is restored to its essential character as good, as unfallen, then we might expect that it would not “play by the rules”, as it were. Indeed, the fact that Jesus’s resurrection does not play by the rules of being in its mode of existence now is essential to the message. For if one understands the world in its current existence as less than it should be, then only an event that transcends the limits of being as it currently is constituted, the limits that confine being to suffering and dissolution, could possibly be seen as truly manifesting the restoration of being in its essential Truth.

This application of Scripture as a source of axioms and logics shows, I hope, that Christianity–and again, other religious, political, and philosophical systems as well–cannot be understood as simply a set of truth-claims, a disparate content. Instead, the faith must be seen as a system of axioms and logics, as well as the conclusions which are then seen as particular truth claims.

Now, this is not to say that any of what I have said above “proves” Christian claims. Indeed, my whole point here has been to assert that thinking of proof as some kind of absolute and unquestionable conclusion is inherently invalid. Once we recognize that all judgments are made according to sets of accepted criteria, then we can see that any act of “proving” an argument will only prove that argument according to the criteria applied. Proving a point is simply the concluding of an argument according to the axioms and logics accepted at the outset; so long as we ignore that different thinkers can accept different sets of axioms and logics, we will miss the fact that there is no automatic set of criteria that any reasoner must accept. (Here my “postmodern” proclivities are on full display, though this term is even less useful than “modernism”–again, there is much to be said on this score which I cannot pursue here.)

Thus, it is crucial to see that what has been laid out above does not “disprove” modern modes of reasoning. It simply offers an example of an act of reasoning according to different criteria. Now, if one wanted to ask whether there was a process for determining which criteria to accept, that’s a wholly different–and far thornier–question: we would be seeking a criteria for determining criteria, a meta-criteria. For the time being, I would only like to point that even if one accepts the Scriptural criteria of reasoning outlined above–that the existential is not necessarily the finally True–this does not in any way require one to reject modern criteria of reasoning for other questions. That is to say, there is no necessary conflict here between “religion” and “science”. To the extent that one is seeking to understand being as it exists here and now, then modern modes of reasoning seem to be the best tool for the job, considering how much of natural phenomena they have explained and how effectively they allow us to develop new technology. However, if one has questions that move beyond simply how things are, and instead inquire into why things should be that way, or why things should be at all, or as to the value of being as such, then one may find that such modes of reasoning are less useful.

That is to say: it seems clear to me that there are properly scientific questions, which we ought to pursue with scientific (i.e. one specific set of “modern”) modes of reasoning. There may be other questions, however, for which scientific reasoning is not applicable. It is only the assumption, common in the modern period, that all judgments must be adjudicated by scientific modes of reasoning that is being critiqued here. Refuting this position, however, does not necessitate holding that scientific reasoning is never proper for any question. Instead, the refutation of scientific modes of reasoning as hegemonic should lead us to conclude that this mode of modern reasoning is appropriate for some (indeed, many) questions.

It is worth pointing out that this conclusion is relevant to all human thinkers, whether one considers oneself “religious” or not. As suggested above, moral and ethical judgments also fall into the range of questions for which scientific reasoning is not appropriate–though, considering the length of this post already, I will not tackle that claim here.

The upshot of all of this, for an understanding of Christian thought, is this: Christianity is not just content, it is form. Accepting Christianity does not just mean accepting a jumble of truth-claims, but rather a whole system of reasoning. It is not just new wine, but also a new wineskin appropriate for holding that wine. This has far-ranging implications, I think, for Christians struggling to be both “in the world, yet not of the world” (John 17:14-19). We should neither accept that all of our truth-claims can be meaningfully adjudicated by accepted modes of public reasoning nor insist that all questions must be adjudicated by specifically Christian modes of reasoning. Indeed, there may be many questions for which Christian modes of reasoning–which focus on the essential, the eternal, and the moral–are not appropriate.

We can only walk this fine line, balancing differing systems of reasoning for different kinds of questions, however, if we are aware of the often-unspoken assumptions which guide human thought. I hope that in the above, I have contributed to our efforts to not only think well, but also to think self-consciously.

Plumbing Eternity, Getting Caught in the Depths

chrysalisApart from healing and feeding people as he traveled through Galilee and Judea, Jesus also spent a lot of time teaching people. Sometimes this meant interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures–explaining or reinterpreting the Law, for example, or quoting and applying passages from Prophetic literature. But frequently, when people ask him a direct question, they ask him about one specific thing: eternal life. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” is a frequent refrain (Luke 18, compare John 3, etc.). Jesus spends a good deal of time, then, explaining what humans should do to attain this state of eternal life. But eternal life itself remains more or less un-explained. When Jesus does reference it, he almost always refers not to the state of one human being existing eternally, but to what he calls the “Kindom of Heaven” or the “Kingdom of God”. And when he does start to explain and define this, he invariably speaks not directly, but in parables: “the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…”

Considering how important both Jesus’s followers, and Jesus himself, seemed to regard eternal life, it’s a bit curious that the term remains so nebulous, so undefined. His followers are exhorted to seek eternal life, to live lives of love that can lead to it, but what it is exactly is never really offered. This has left a gap in Christian thought in which a wide range of ideas has entered. A whole range of concepts and definitions have been put forward to explain what eternal life will be like. Some are sophisticated and deeply grounded in philosophy, as per the ideas around the beatific vision, explored especially in Roman Catholic Thomist thought. Others are more folklorish and popular, such as the trope about playing ping-pong with grandma in heaven. The trouble is that none of these ideas seem to have a firm foundation in Scripture, all seem to owe more to secular and even pagan ideas, cultures, and values than anything identifiably Christian (the beatific vision easily brings to mind neo-Platonism, while many lay Christians’ conception of heaven looks more like the pleasures of the Elysian fields of Greek polytheism than anything in Scripture).

That Jesus is himself quiet on the details of eternal life is itself something worth considering. As mentioned above, when he does say anything about it, it’s always indirect, constructing analogies through parables. Here, in this space, I’d like to offer one way of making sense of this unwillingness of Christ to say more, when, on other topics, he seemed quite happy to be explicit, as, for example, in his ethical instructions around wealth or caring for those in need (see e.g. Matthew 25).

What reason might there be for Jesus, if he came to reveal the Truth to humankind, to be so silent on what seems to interest us humans most of all? If achieving eternal life is so important, shouldn’t we be told more about it? It has been common for Christian authors in the past to respond to such questions by an appeal to the importance of faith: if we knew the truth fully and directly, such an argument goes, we would not choose it for the “right” reason: what use would faith be, if we simply knew what was at stake? But surely this is a churlish argument at best, and morally outrageous at worst. If God, manifest in Jesus, wished to convey to humanity the importance of living righteously, wouldn’t God be willing to use any tool, any information, to convince us to mend our ways? Isn’t faith, ultimately, to be commended only because it is necessary here and now, only because of our incomplete knowledge and deficient faculties? As Paul says: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12).

Faith is necessary now, Paul seems to be saying, not because living in faith is somehow better than living in knowledge or wisdom, but rather because there is something about the way we human beings are now that makes knowledge impossible. In other words, Paul is making a point that is–to employ a perhaps over-used and often-abused term–rather postmodern. He is making it clear that knowing everything about the world–in this case, what it would mean to inherit eternal life–is not just a matter of cataloging sensory experience and then organizing it rationally. Such an attitude towards knowing assumes that human beings can basically know everything there is to know, can come to have knowledge about any and all modes of being, if only we pay close enough attention and organize our conclusions rationally and systematically.

Paul is pointing to the possibility that there may be limits to what kind of information, generally, and what modes of being, more specifically, a given kind of knowing being might be able to access, process, or make sense of. The human way of sensing and knowing, that is, may have limits. This is a point that will more formally be made by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason and  will go on to be a central plank of his critical philosophy, itself providing the spring-board to what comes to be known as post-modern thought: that is, philosophy that questions the assumptions of modernism, the mode of thought launched (to oversimplify intellectual history drastically) by Descartes and Locke.

Well, I’ve clearly gotten well ahead of myself, and have meandered far beyond the boundaries of Scripture. But I think it’s necessary to make these connections, so that we can see what Paul is really up to. What can, at first, look like a somewhat sloppy, semi-mystical phrase turns out to be, upon closer inspection, a serious epistemic point. And Paul is not alone. Scripture frequently points to the possibility, indeed the likelihood, of formal limits on human ways of knowing–that is, it frequently offers a critical epistemology, or indeed a critique of overly confident epistemologies.

So: what if one of the states of being that human knowledge is unable to make sense of is the state of being called “eternal life”? That would make sense in at least two ways. Exegetically, all of the sudden, the fact that Jesus refrains from any kind of clear-cut discussion of eternal life looks to make a lot of sense. Secondly, it also may, somewhat paradoxically, tell us something about eternal life, even in the moment we announce our necessary ignorance of it.

This latter point is actually contained within the quote from 1 Corinthians above. Paul says that we see darkly now, that we have limited knowledge now–but he also says that, “then”, that is, once eternal life is present or has been achieved, we will see “as face to face”. He seems to be suggesting that the epistemic limits he points to in the first clause will themselves be transcended in the second. So how does this tell us something about what it might mean to attain eternal life? It seems that Paul is telling us there will be a transformation, from the kind of knowing being we are now–one with serious limits to our knowing–to a kind of being who will know differently, and indeed, better, perhaps even perfectly.

This idea of transformation is not limited to this one passage. Paul will himself say, later in 1 Corinthians: “we will not all die, but we all will be changed” (1 Cor 15:51). Likewise, too, Jesus in the third chapter of the Gospel of John says that we must be “born again” or “born from above” in order to enter the Kingdom. Whatever this may mean, it certainly suggests a serious transformation of our way of being.

Now, some may see such a move as a way of shutting down the question: by saying that eternal life will involve a transformation of some kind from the kind of knower that we are now to a different kind of knowing–that is, that an ontic change in our mode of being will effect an epistemic change in our mode of knowing–it may seem like we are just kicking the can down the road, avoiding hard questions. I’d like to conclude by providing two examples which may show, formally, the logic of this move. Pointing to analogies does not provide a shatterproof argument, but it may allow us to understand a previously-made argument with greater clarity and sophistication.

First off, we can quote Paul again, who speaks about the change between being a child and being an adult, in the sentence which precedes our original quote from 1 Corinthians 13: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” Imagine trying to explain certain adult experiences to a young child: sexual attraction, or the stresses of the workplace, or the responsibility of paying bills. We can, of course, use language to present these experiences. But there is no way to really understand what it’s like to feel sexual attraction, occupational stress, or the burden of bills, until one actually undergoes those experiences. One has to be the sort of being who goes through those experiences to really understand any linguistic expression about them.

Another, more radical example is that of the caterpillar and the butterfly. We talk about the process through which the former becomes the latter as one of transition or growth, but in many ways, the process actually involves the death of the caterpillar and the birth of something totally different. Yes, they have the same DNA, but the two beings are constituted completely differently. The body shape, the legs, the mouth, the digestive systems, even the eyes and other sensory equipment of each are completely different. The caterpillar builds a cocoon which becomes a chrysalis–and within this, the caterpillar is effectively dissolved, and its matter reorganized into a totally new mode of life: the butterfly.

Now, presumably, neither the caterpillar nor the butterfly has what we humans would call self-consciousness. But imagine that they did. For the caterpillar, the chrysalis is really a death. Its consciousness would end as its brain and sensory organs are dissolved. However, it could be the case that the butterfly, upon its birth from the chrysalis weeks later, might look back upon the caterpillar’s existence as an earlier stage of its own life–just as I do, in fact, look upon my life as a 5-year old as an earlier stage of my own identity, even though the life I live and the consciousness I now have would be totally unrecognizable to that 5-year old version of myself–who has, in a real if figurative sense, died.

We Christians may be eager to imagine eternal life as our current identities, or at least some best-version of them, living on for eternity. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus was referring to. He was calling for us all to endeavor to be changed–to be re-created into the true of image of God, that which we were meant to be but which we fail to attain in this fallen life. Imagine that a prophet-caterpillar came to a colony of caterpillars and promised them renewed life in the chrysalis. Imagine that they all rejoiced in the thought that they would enter the chrysalis and then live as caterpillars for eternity. Of course, that’s not what the chrysalis is, what the chrysalis does. It will transform them. Looking back from their butterfly-future, they may identify with their past selves, their caterpillar-selves. But first, they must be transformed into something radically different.

Displaced Critique: Ehrenreich’s Fumbled History of the Spirit

barbara-ehrenreich2I am a huge fan of the Baffler; it’s one of the few magazines I actually subscribe to, because I think its content is almost always worth materially supporting. It occupies a particular space in left-leaning journalism, critique, and opinion-writing, critical of capitalism but also frequently self-reflecting and doubting, it’s a magazine that encourages critical thought all around–certainly something to be celebrated and supported. I’m also a big fan of Barbara Ehrenreich’s work, especially her journalism on income inequality.

So I am slightly pained to find myself here preparing to heavily criticize Ehrenreich’s “Displaced Deities” in the most recent issue. It’s a piece so full of confused generalizations and self-confident nonsense that I’m not wholly sure where to begin. I suppose I might start by pointing out that it is a response of sorts to another piece in the same issue, Jackson Lear’s “Material Issue” (which itself is full of problems which I plan to address in this space at a future point). This issue of the Baffler is quickly shaping up to be my least favorite ever–and I haven’t yet finished it.

Ehrenreich hopes in this rather short article to propose an explanation as to how and why western thought has trended to what some have called the dis-enchantment of the universe. She proposes a timeline, beginning in our prehistoric past, when humans populated our world with innumerable spirits, a spiritual-religious position generally referred to as “animism”. Under animism, each individual material entity is seen as having a unique spirit, or at least the potential for one. Each rock, each tree, each stream might have a unique spiritual identity. From this perspective, Ehrenreich argues, the world was seen as rich with agency, vitality, and meaning.

Next, she says, many human societies gravitated towards polytheism, in which only a few dozen deities were recognized as real. Here, individual material entities were largely, if not completely, drained of their spiritual particularity. For the polytheist, if rocks possessed any sort of vital essence, it was under the aegis of a deity of rocks and stones–all rocks would be unified under a single spirit. Thus the spiritual world was delimited, constrained, constricted. From the polytheistic perspective, humans were a bit more lonely in the universe, Ehrenreich argues, and we were no longer able to feel ourselves in direct communion with our immediate surroundings.

Finally, Ehrenreich laments, the sterile age of monotheism descended upon humanity like a stultifying cloak. Now there was only one deity, abstract and distant. Agency and vitality were utterly drained from material reality, all of it being concentrated on a transcendent Being beyond the limits of materiality. For Ehrenreich, this sets the stage for the modern scientific (or scientistic) view of the world as as lifeless machine, utterly determined by the laws of science. She concludes that this view of life is inimical to political and environment justice, and yearns for a limited re-enchantment of the world, even as she admits that such a thing is not possible.

Now, in its simplest version, her conclusion, at least in its broadest outlines, seems to me quite valid and worth consideration. The idea that modern (and at least some varieties of post-modern) thought has generated for itself a perspective in which the world is vacated of any agency or subjectivity is well-founded, and I think Ehrenreich is absolutely correct to wonder about the ethical ramifications of such a view. But her attempt to lay the blame for this state of affairs on monotheism is historically, philosophically, and theologically incoherent.

It’s worth pointing out that, right at the outset of the article, Ehrenreich establishes her argument on a dubious premise: “One measure of the “vitality” of creation might be the number of gods or spirits thought to exist at a given time.” Now, she admits that any given criterion here would be difficult to justify, but she nonetheless carries on the remainder of her argument without even attempting to make such a justification. And this is crucial, and unfortunate, because this criterion largely amounts to equal parts question-begging and meaningless generalization.

The first concern we might have here is that Ehrenreich seems to be making her argument about quantity and not quality of life–or vitality, or subjectivity, or value. Indeed, she says as much: “It is the numbers, though, that concern us here.” But this surely results in an absurd conclusion, for if we are to judge the degree to which a spiritual or religious system recognizes vitality in the universe, then, according to Ehrenreich’s above criterion, we should prefer a system that multiplies spiritual entities endlessly. One spirit per object would rapidly be seen to be far too limiting. Why not ten, or a hundred? Why not claim that each material being has an infinitude of spiritual essences contained within it? (It’s worth pointing out that, accepting Ehrenreich’s criterion, Scientology is the best spiritual system on offer today, considering its claim that each human has many thousands of thetans associated with it–nevermind that it sees this diversity as the main problem to be solved).

But the other problem with her criterion is that the systems of thought she wants to criticize according to this criterion actually don’t violate it: polytheistic and montheistic religions simply don’t deny the existence of a multitude of spiritual beings in the world. The big change that occurs between animism and polytheism and then especially from polytheism to monotheism is not whether the world is populated by legions of spirits–animisms, polytheisms like (certain versions of) Hinduism, and monotheisms like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and (other versions of) Hinduism all agree on this claim. The point of contention is just what the status or identity of these beings is.

That is to say–and here I will focus on monotheisms–monotheistic systems recognize a multitude of spiritual beings, but only one creator. All spiritual beings apart from capital-G God derive their existence from the will of God. But this doesn’t mean they don’t exist; in fact, understanding them as creatures necessarily assumes their existence. But Ehrenreich seems to confuse these two extremely different claims, arguing that monotheism functions as a basic denial of the existence of any spiritual vitality apart from a God who was little more than a distant abstraction. Of course, even a cursory glance at Jewish and Christian Scripture, or early Christian theology–replete as both are with discussions of angels and demons and even lowercase-g gods–will reveal this claim to be simply false.

And this brings us to a more obvious problem with Ehrenreich’s piece, apart from the basic conceptual confusion which seems to motivate it at it core. Ehrenreich frequently makes historical claims that are simply false, suggesting that she didn’t both to research any of her claims at all. For example, she claims that the Christian belief in the Trinity is an example of a “steady drift back towards polytheism”–a claim that would incense, of course, every major Christian theologian ever. Consider as well her claim that “the Reformation…downplayed the Trinity.” First off, it should be pointed out that the term “Reformation” covers a wide array of institutions and movements that were culturally and theologically diverse. Even the most generalized account would recognize four differing reforming movements in 16th century Western Christianity: Lutheranism, (the Calvinist) Reformers, the Anabaptists, and the English Reformation. So, right off the bat, one has to wonder which of these specific movements Ehrenreich means to refer.

But even if we overlook this woeful over-generalization, it should be plainly said that none of these four movements “downplayed the Trinity.” Now, there have been movements that arose within Christianity that did downplay, or even remove, Trinitarian thought from their doctrine–the Unitarians, of course, but also the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Latter Day Saints (Mormons)–but none of these is “the Reformation”.

yhwhFor another, and perhaps the most serious, example, let’s shift back a bit chronologically: Ehrenreich repeats the claim, often found on internet message boards but much less often in any scholarly work on religious history, that there was a deity named “Yahweh” among the Canaanite pantheon whose adherents, at one point, insisted on worshiping to the exclusion of any other deity. The fact is that there is no evidence of any such deity among the pantheon, and indeed, “Yahweh” is not a name at all, but a specific transliteration into Latin characters of the tetragrammaton: YHWH, which is probably best translated as “He Who Is” or “He Who Will Be” or various other statements focused on Being in a more or less absolute sense. This “name” then is actually a sort of non-name, a proposition meant to point to God’s ineffability. The idea that there was a god named “Yahweh” (who was perhaps a storm- or war-god) among the Canaanite pantheon has no firm textual or archaeological basis.

Finally, it must be said that at precisely the point where I think Ehrenreich’s point begins to strike true–in critiquing the hyper-individualism of modern thought–she misses an opportunity to un- and re-cover a wealth of ethical and philosophical insights. This is because, and this is course not news to anyone who has read the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, both texts, especially the prophetic books of the former (e.g. Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah) are incredibly incisive works of ethical reasoning. If one is looking for a sound ethical basis for critiquing the borderline-solipsism of western philosophy since Descartes, one should see in Abrahamic montheism an ally. Instead, Ehrenreich engages in a lazy conflation.

All of this generalization and historical falsehood points to a basic conclusion: Barbara Ehrenreich just doesn’t know much about the history of religions, the philosophy of religion, or theology. And, of course, that’s totally fine. She’s not a scholar of religion, or a philosopher, or a theologian. She is not required to be an expert in any of this, or even vaguely educated on these topics, if she’d rather not be. Her contributions to journalism around class and income inequality are invaluable; pointing out that she probably has nothing really useful to say about religious history is sort of like saying that the Pope shouldn’t be performing open-heart surgery: it’s not necessarily a critique.

Unless, of course, the Pope decided to have a try at being a surgeon, without bothering to receive any training. Likewise, I would never take Ehrenreich to task for not knowing much about religious history, philosophy, or theology, except that she decided to submit an article on these topics for publication in a magazine. Most people are ignorant about most topics. So long as we don’t present ourselves having something intelligent to say about those topics, that’s perfectly fine–there’s far more knowledge in the world than there is lifespan to gain it. But having read this train-wreck of an article, I am left simply wishing that Ehrenreich–or the editors at the Baffler–had realized that she probably wasn’t the best author for this kind of piece. Again, that’s not to say I don’t want to read anything by her–in fact, just the opposite is true! I’d love to read more of her work on topics she has researched tirelessly and thought about for decades. Nickle and Dimed is a contemporary classic for good reason. Ehrenreich is an intelligent writer who has often focused on topics that need more focusing-on. But she’s just not qualified to write about the history of religion, and her article here will, I fear, do more to either confuse readers with no previous interest in the topic, or convince people to hold on to long-held un-analyzed and simplistic perspectives on religion, rather than encourage well-informed critical reflection on the issues at hand. Considering my respect for both Ehrenreich and the Baffler, this saddens me–and I hope in the future both endeavor to do better. (It should be pointed out that this hope may be misplaced in Ehrenreich’s case; much of the confused psuedo-theology on offer here is present in her most recent book, Living with a Wild God).

Epistemology and the Dialectic of Hope

EpistemologySo, in my last post, I promised that with the end of schoolwork, I’d be posting more here. That was 3 months ago, and I’ve been revealed as a liar. I spent this summer, for the most part, preparing for the dreaded GREs, and spent the rest of the time enjoying the green and quiet of Richmond, which, after the urine-soaked madness of Manhattan, I clung to with a nearly religious vigor. School will be starting again in about a week, and I will try to learn from my previous hubris and make no promises to post more often. Part of the problem is that, whereas in the past, theological musings would often lead to a post on here, now I immediately wonder if such musings should be turned into an academic paper. So being a (wannabe) academic ends up nipping my blogging impulse in the bud.

However, after coming across Paul Burkhart’s blog, I’ve been blog-invigorated, and want to “enter the conversation” (to use a trite but useful expression). Although my guess is that Paul and I may not see eye to eye on everything, I’ve found his posts extraordinarily thoughtful and thought-provoking, and am glad to see another Christian who is simultaneously concerned with orthodoxy and systematic thought. It was some comments on a joint post he did with an atheist writer that have prompted me to write here and now. A somewhat trollish commenter dismissed Paul’s faith and defense of it, rather summarily. The comments (by the user “meat”, whose gender is unclear, so I will refer to them with “they” and “them”) can be seen at the bottom of this post (I should note that I don’t particularly agree with much of what Paul had to say in the post itself, but that’s immaterial to what I want to talk about here).

Essentially, meat argued that Christianity was a priori indefensible. He seems to think that, if one simply analyzes Christianity according to a given set of historical, metaphysical, and existential methodologies, one should conclude without controversy that the faith is false. Fair enough, there’s nothing irrational about this. Perhaps Christianity is false. But  meat went a step further, and suggested that such an approach is akin to “set[ting one’s presuppositions] aside and then make [one’s] determination from naught”. In other words, meat seems to think that his preferred methodology rests on no biases or presuppositions, that s/he is operating from pure reason alone, like some 21st century Kant. So, according to meat Christians assume a host of problematic presuppositions, but meat does not; their approach is Reason Manifest.

Of course, the reality is that such a hermeneutic of pure reason is impossible; human beings always process data according to some pre-arrived-at set of assumptions. And this isn’t a bad thing, because otherwise, we could never draw any conclusions from given data or experiences. Each new moment would be completely unique, a new instance of pure becoming, which we could not link to any previous data or experience. In order to make sense of existence, we have to draw connections between past and present, and that means emphasizing some data over others, and making assumptions about how the world functions. I don’t doubt that if I am holding a brick in my hand, and then release it, that it will fall. I assume gravity will function–and such an assumption seems well-validated! But it’s an assumption, nonetheless. There is always a chance, however slim, that gravity might not function in this new moment. Yet few (if any) of us actually live our lives open to the practical possibility of such unpredictable world-states.

Such an assumption about gravity probably seems rather innocuous, but we engage in a similar sort of assuming in all of our critical reflection. Whenever we evaluate a historical claim, for example, we try to fit that claim into an already-existing body of historical knowledge and assumptions. Critiques of Christianity are keen on pointing out that Christians certainly do this–and they are quite right, we certainly do. However, they are often not so willing to admit this about themselves. So, meat is adamant that Paul should be aware of his having been brainwashed as a child: “I’m being serious when I discuss childhood brainwashing, it takes a lot to overcome and yet you seem fully aware of your being affected and simultaneously unable to set it, which is the reason for your presuppositions, aside.” Paul has assumptions that he should question, but meat doesn’t seem to think that they have assumptions they might need to put aside.

A great example of how this functions is the Historical Jesus Movement, which indeed Paul mentions by way of a Russ Douthat column (I’m generally not a fan of Douthat, but I think he hits the nail squarely on the head on this). The Historical Jesus crowd assumes a boatload of foundational ideas about how history works, what is possible, and what Jesus’ life could or should mean, and then crafts a version of Jesus’ history that fits these pre-arrived-at (and ideologically-entangled) views. Of course, this in and of itself is fine, but what’s problematic is that they seem to think that their image of Jesus is just the correct, historical one, not an ideologically and methodologically-tinged one. My opponents have biases, but not me! I’m honest and open-minded!

Now, I want to be clear: I am not arguing that while meat, Reza Aslan, and DF Strauss are chock-full of bias, I am some bias-free machine of logic. We all have biases and worldviews, and, as I suggested above, this is good! Worldviews are our attempts to make sense of the world; without them, our experience would be a disorganized jumble of sensations. Seeking truth means taking the risk of ordering, and often times being wrong. We have to order, even while admitting that our ordering will likely be wrong, and therefore be prepared to correct our ordering, to try again. This entails constant risk-taking, constant vulnerability to past positions being revealed as erroneous. We are always ready, indeed gleefully so, to point out when our opponents fall into error. We seem less prepared for our own eventual failures on this score.

In other words, everyone in any debate has entered with presuppositions, assumptions, biases, ideologies, and worldviews. Someone who tries to argue that they are working from no presuppositions but just reason and logic is lying either to themselves or to you, quite possibly both. Human knowledge always implies some system of ordering information, a complex set of rules for how knowledge can be received and validated. Theologians can’t deny this about themselves, but neither can their critics. We are all biased. Indeed, even the reliance on reason itself reveals a bias: that the world is indeed an orderly place governed by a strict causality, laws that are fully laws (not just rules) that are wholly consistent and homogeneous through space and time, and that humans possess the capacity to discern all necessary truths about the world to understand it. This is actually an incredibly credulous package of assumptions, which not only theologians but indeed the whole of continental philosophy (and Hume, and classical skeptics and the Cynics…) has called into question. So even reasonability itself implies a very specific worldview, a set of assumptions and commitments which should be open to question, not relied on as a prima facie foundation for all thought.

Indeed, humans are not just logical agents, but beings-in-the-world who are constantly affected by their emotional and physical needs and urges as well as by their capacity for reason. Indeed, this capacity is often overwhelmed by the two former sets of motivations. Even people who value reason highly still have to navigate their own existential, emotional reality. And so, now having discussed the ridiculousness of any debater ignoring their own biases and worldviews while pointing out their opponents’, I’d like to discuss one of the most fundamental worldview-determinants. The post that spawned meat‘s comments was a sort of back-and-forth between Paul and an atheist friend, Dan. Dan seemed interested in plumbing Paul’s reasons for maintaining his Christian faith, and Paul presented a number of scenarios which would cause him to question that faith.

For me, the whole premise of this debate/discussion, though, is deeply problematic. I don’t think it gets at the fundamental set of assumptions that I think really fuels people’s belief or non-belief. Ultimately, physical or historical evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection, or metaphysical reason applied to the Event in the abstract, are not the foundational causes for belief or non-belief. We enter this debate, as we do in all debates, as stressed above, already with a set of presumptions, assumptions, biases, ideologies, and worldviews. The critical issue when it comes to our existential e/valuation of a claim like the Resurrection is extremely fundamental to us as persons. It is, in an important sense, pre-rational (on the personal level).

Developing into a person–not just a human being, but a full person–is, above all else, the process of developing self-consciousness. We have been thinking, feeling beings for years before we begin to have any awareness of the fact that we think. I can feel hungry without being aware that there is a process of feeling hungry. There comes a point when a thinking being recognizes that it is not just a detached subject taking in sensory data about an alien world, but actually also an object-body in that world. My thinking is something that my brain/body complex does. I am an object in the world. And this means I am vulnerable. I can die. I can be harmed. I can experience pain. These possibilities, I come to realize, are not just events that might occur in the process of my thoughts and feelings–they will or will not occur depending on what happens to my mind/body complex. I don’t have control over my own future, at least not in a final sense. I am contingent.

Such a realization is the beginning of existential reflection. It is the occasion of a sense of self. I have to navigate my own existence in the world; I am not just a sovereign consciousness sensing things. My future is tied up with the future of the world: my world. An awareness of my vulnerability introduces a new dialectic to human thought. Though it may have existed in embryonic form before, the rise of self-conscious realization forces it fully into our awareness. I have taken to calling this the Dialectic of Hope. Once we recognize ourselves as beings-in-the-world, we recognize that we have a future, that we will (or at least might) experience new thoughts and feelings in the future, and that what we will experience is largely going to be determined by forces out of our control. We, at this point, cannot help but feel hope: we hope that our future will be pleasant, pleasurable, peaceful, fulfilling. And we fear that it will not be, that we will die, that we will suffer, that we will be unfulfilled, that we will experience ugliness. This is the Dialectic of Hope. And our expectations along this dialectic–whether we are more likely to trust in hope or not–will greatly influence our credulity vis-a-vis claims like the Resurrection.

An essentially hopeful person will find the story of the Resurrection, at least some tiny kernel of it, reasonable, possible, and meaningful. The Resurrection is the vindication of self over other, of life over death, of subject over a deterministic object-order. Conversely, someone who is predisposed towards non-hope or fear will likely find the event unreasonable, impossible, and meaningless or even deceitful. What’s important here is that such a stance of hopefulness or non-hopefulness is brought to the event prima facie. In other words, no one simply evaluates the historical data about the Resurrection in a cool, detached fashion. Everyone has an axe to grind, a dog in the fight, because everyone is already committed, I believe, to a stance of hopefulness or non-hopefulness (I don’t think this is a binary, but rather a spectrum strung upon the dialectic; two people could both be hopeful in general, with one more, and the other somewhat less, hopeful).

Being or not being hopeful is, in and of itself, not some totally independent position. Obviously, our previous life experiences, our understanding of our family’s, ethnicity’s, nation’s, and species’ history will help to form our sense of hopefulness or non-hopefulness. But, that said, in each moment of evaluation of a given event, our stance of non/hopefulness is a prima facie stance that will color our evaluation. So, in an important sense, faith in Christianity is, even before faith in the Resurrection, a willingness to hope, in general.

Of course, this neither proves or disproves the Resurrection; I am not making any objective claim about the truthfulness or lack thereof of the Resurrection claim. I am pointing to the hermeneutical and epistemological bases from which all of us–believers and non-believers alike–make our evaluations. There is no neutral ground, there is no pure reason. There are only living, self-aware beings with complex histories struggling to understand, to live, and to thrive. Too often, modernism’s static, lifeless, narrow epistemology is asserted as some sort of necessary starting-ground for serious thought. But such a starting-ground already rests on a mountain of assumptions. It may turn out that such assumptions are correct–but serious philosophical, historical, and metaphysical reflection demands a willingness to analyze, critique, and deconstruct them. The idea that only those thoughts consonant with a given framework of modern thought are even worth considering is itself intellectually naive and embarrassingly credulous.

On the Importance of Being Spiritual AND Religious

[UPDATE: This post has been re-published in slightly-modified form at the Tikkun Daily Blog.] At the beginning of this past semester, I was invited to read Diana Butler Bass’s Christianity After Religion. I attend a small seminary, and it seems that this book was suggested as a way to encourage the vast majority of students who are clergy-in-training to confront the reality that religious institutions have lost both influence and respectability over the last 5 decades, to say nothing of the 2 centuries before that. The world has changed; and as they say: change or die. Bass–and by extension, my seminary, or at least whoever is in charge of suggesting preliminary reading material [UPDATE: a faculty member has informed me that the person who selected this book actually did not agree with much of what it contains. The discussion we had during orientation did not touch on any such disagreement, however, which led to my confusion on this. Of course it’s great to read things one disagrees with, but it’s also good to point out problems and errors in assigned reading!]–seems to have a very clear idea of what the Church must do to remain relevant to modern people, and she lays down the challenge, as she sees it, and her proposals for meeting that challenge. Simply put, I was unimpressed. To be both more honest and less generous, I was amazed and appalled by the shallowness of her analysis and the obvious pandering of her proposed solutions. Let me get to some details.

Bass is, essentially, a supporter of the “Spiritual but not Religious” line of thought. In short, proponents of this attitude want to pursue a personal spiritual “quest” but are uninterested in religious institutions, rules, or communities. This is a simplistic description, but this is part of the problem: the spiritual-but-not-religious attitude is itself a gross oversimplification, as if spirituality and religiosity were two distinct modes of action or being that one could pursue independently of each other and a whole host of other cultural, social, and political practices. It seems to be a reaction against a traditionalist, conservative, rule-obsessed 19th century Protestantism. But is a rejection of this specific type of religiosity a rejection of “religion” altogether? It seems to me that only someone who had barely reflected on the issues at hand could actually answer yes to this question. Bass spends considerable time in her book exploring what these words “spiritual” and “religious” mean to various people (pp. 68-71), and ultimately ends up admitting that the two words have such varied and diverse connotations that distinguishing between them is hard. In fact, in chapter three, she admits that post people want to be both spiritual and religious (p. 93). Nonetheless, throughout the rest of the book, she continues to operate with a hyper-simplistic and uncritical attitude that the two are diametrically opposed.

Part of the problem with Bass’s approach is the confusion between description and prescription. Is she simply telling us truths about the reality of the world? Or is she exhorting us to change our ways? Of course, the one could very well lead to the other, but the relationship between them shouldn’t be taken for granted. Take, for example, pollution. One might describe the reality that our world is increasingly polluted, and thereby recommend or prescribe moving to an unsullied mountain range, buying a hazmat suit, or investing in pharmaceutical companies making anti-cancer drugs. This is all perfectly logical, but there is a wholly different sort of response: maybe we should try to stop polluting the place we live in. So when Bass basically describes a modern world filled with people only interested in convenient, overly-optimistic, individualistic ersatz “spirituality”, is she simply telling church leaders how things are? Or is she recommending that we join the bandwagon? Personally, I would agree that this process is occurring, but I don’t think it’s a good thing, and I would call on the Church not to simply concede that people are no longer interested in what we do and therefore that we should completely change our mission. I would call on the church to be critical of something if it seems bad.

Of course, I’m not suggesting an inflexible traditionalism. We absolutely must be willing and able to respond to modernism. But that doesn’t mean giving in completely to it; modernism has both good and bad aspects. Let’s humbly accept the former while calling the latter what they are and resisting them. I support women’s ordination, the ordination of homosexuals, Christian engagement with environmentalism, theological engagement with modern philosophy, dialogue with our atheist and secular fellow citizens, and a full recognition of the separation of the church and state. These are all certainly modern developments, and I’m glad that the Church has been forced–and it was forced–to accept these critiques.

But modernism has also brought all sorts of bad things, and I want to be able to point those out, and hope that the Church will resist them. Science has brought all sorts of realy great things, but it’s also brought pollution, atomic weapons, and global warming. Modern society is much more tolerant than societies past, but it is also often extremely lonely and alienating. Capitalism has brought lots of choice at the cash register, but it’s also brought incredible exploitation and suffering for working-people. So let’s, by all means, accept the modern developments that seem good to us–and let’s fight the good fight against all the evils modernism has also brought. There’s no inconsistency here; plenty of things have good and bad aspects. And building a better world means discerning between the two.

So, when it comes to the spiritual-but-not-religious (this is getting arduous to write, from now on I’ll acronym-ize this SBNR), what does this mean? Well, Bass herself links the increasing desire for ‘spirituality’ with the development of consumer capitalism (eg. 41-43). It seems clear to me that the SBNR is the religio-spiritual manifestation of late consumer capitalism. It’s totally individualistic, and sees the Church/religious institutions as essentially businesses. Bass seems to be pointing out that these businesses are providing a ‘product’ that fewer and fewer consumers want–so why not change the product offered? That’s certainly the logic of the market. If Kellogg’s noticed that a cereal wasn’t selling well, it would be discontinued or changed, because that’s how the company can make more money and keep its shareholders happy.

But isn’t this sort of mercenary decision-making precisely the sort of thing that SBNR people would find offensive? The irony is that late consumer capitalism has so impoverished our sense of real community and the presence of Spirit that we are searching for individualized, customized, comfortable, convenient “spirituality”, even though it’s the very pursuit of this sort of thing that has impoverished us in the first place! Spiritual transformation is not a matter of finding an easy fit, a fun new practice, or following a trend. “Take up your cross and follow me” is not the sort of tagline you can put on a new yoga exercise or some new meditation technique (I am by no means dismissing yoga or mediation, which are ancient spiritual practices, but rather the insipid versions of these peddled by all-too-many Western entrepreneurs). It is a radical call to abandon every false sense of security, every false confidence we have, and trust radically in the mystery of God. Christianity, taken seriously, is intensely radical. I find SBNR so frustrating and aggravating precisely because it is hopelessly boring, so incredibly mainstream: it’s precisely what capitalism does to religion and spirituality. Lenin supposedly once said that capitalists would sell him the rope he’d use to hang them. Modern westerners will try to buy the very spirituality they so desperately search for because they have become totally consumer-ized. It’d be funny if it weren’t so damned sad.

Now, none of this means that Bass is wrong descriptively: she’s absolutely right to point out that this trend is happening and she is absolutely right that the Church must respond to it. But I would argue that we need to do exactly the opposite of what she proposes. I think that these various trends and fads–this hyper-individualistic, consumable ersatz spirituality–will flash and burn out like many trends before it. What people are really looking for (and I say this as someone who spent years looking myself!) is an authentic, enriching, challenging spiritual community. I’ve chosen each of those adjectives quite intentionally. The problem with SBNR is that it is none of them. It’s not the least bit authentic; SBNR practices tend to smack of a cobbled-together New Ageism. It’s not enriching, because it seeks to give a sort of shortcut for spiritual fulfillment, which is a complete contradiction in terms. And it’s not challenging because it simply reinforces our own narcissistic and self-congratulatory reflexes. It’s true that we often need to be kinder to others and even ourselves. But it’s also sometimes true that we need to be called out, be held accountable. The road to Hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. SBNR is full of good intentions–but little else.

Finally, SBNR is in no way a community–it explicitly rejects community when it rejects religion. In seeking a spirituality that is personalized, individualized, and reassuring, we necessarily exclude a community. Of course, one of the problems with any community is that people–most of all other people, as Oscar Wilde pointed out–are so often boring, arrogant, needy, and upsetting. The trick, of course, is to realize that you are Other People to other people, and those same traits doubtlessly describe you. A religious community can keep us accountable, and it can keep us humble, and it can save us from the Great Adversary–our own high opinion of ourselves.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we should accept the discipline of a community uncritically–and of course, many religious communities have been unduly, even unjustly harsh, intolerant, and oppressive to lots of people in the past. But SBNR is no magic bullet; it simply trades one danger for another–and it’s all the worse because it reflects all that is worst about late consumer capitalism. I am not suggesting that we be Religious but not Spiritual–I’m asserting what past generations, I think, took for granted: if one wants to be spiritual, one must be religious–and vice versa. They don’t work apart from each other. Spirituality without religion is a convenient, comfortable, self-congratulatory illusion; religion without spirituality is stale, dogmatic, and dead. Bass and other SBNR proponents have, I think, been so fully immersed in the logic of capitalism and modern individualism that they cannot understand any other way of looking at the world–even though this modern viewpoint is diametrically opposed to the very spiritual enrichment they so desperately seek.

The main takeaway of all of this, for me, is that much of what Protestantism discarded with in the 16th century–the sacramental, sacred, engaged, community-focused rites of medieval Catholicism–is precisely what modern Christians are yearning for without knowing it. Again, let’s not oversimplify: the Reformation was right to challenge the ecclesial abuses and warped theology of indulgences of the time. But I think in many ways, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. Protestant Christianity became a wholly intellectual, private affair, a sort of legal transaction between God and an individual human being–instead of the loving, mysterious embrace of creation by Creator. But the solution is not some sentimental, anti-intellectual New Age nonsense. It’s a restoration of a balance between reason and emotion, devotion and theology, sacrament and study. For Christians, I think this begins by endeavoring to explore deeply what the Real Presence of the Eucharist means. This does not have to translate into acceptance of the doctrine of transubstantiation (it certainly doesn’t for me) but it means rediscovering the spiritual riches of our religious practice. The alternatives are a dead religiosity or a superficial ersatz spirituality. May the Holy Spirit guard us from both.