Friday, February 10, 2012

Faith, History, and Eschatology

Just finished reading The Myth of the Eternal Return by Mircea Eliade, thought I would share some sections of the book here.  This is not meant to be a summary of the book’s main argument, I’m intentionally focusing in on a few things that I found particularly interesting.
The book is dealing with ancient/ “primitive”/ “archaic” understandings of humanity’s relationship with metaphysical concepts like “reality” or “being” or “time.”  To give you a little background:
The metaphysical concepts of the archaic world were not always formulated in theoretical language; but the symbol, the myth, the rite, express, on different planes and through the means proper to them, a complex system of coherent affirmations about the ultimate reality of things, a system that can be regarded as constituting a metaphysics.  - 3
In other words, religious myths and religious actions were a major locus of how such concepts were understood in the ancient world.  
[On the] “primitive” ontological conception: an object or an act becomes real only insofar as it imitates or repeats an archetype.  Thus, reality is acquired solely through repetition or participation; everything which lacks an exemplary model is “meaningless,” i.e., it lacks reality...  Hence it could be said that this “primitive” ontology has a Platonic structure. - 34
Insofar as an act (or an object) acquires a certain reality through the repetition of certain paradigmatic gestures, and acquires it through that alone, there is an implicit abolition of profane time, of duration, of “history”; and he who reproduces the exemplary gesture thus finds himself transported into the mythical epoch in which its revelation took place. - 35
Essentially, Eliade argues that for the ancient world a kind of dualism pervaded their philosophy in which that which was truly real was that which could escape the changing flow of time.  This was enacted through the retelling of religious myths, which were timeless, and the participation in religious rituals, through which Eliade writes “[ancient man] repeats the gestures of another and, through this repetition, lives always in an atemporal present.” - 86
For contrast, take a modern view of time and history as exemplified by Hegel:
For Hegel, history is “free” and always “new,” it does not repeat itself; nevertheless, it conforms to the plans of providence; hence it has a model (ideal, but none the less a model) in the dialectic of spirit itself.  To this history which does not repeat itself, Hegel opposes nature, in which things are reproduced ad infinitum. - 90
And now for the really interesting bit, contrast both these models with Eliade’s interpretation of the relationship with time and reality in ancient Hebrew thought:
For the first time, we find affirmed, and increasingly accepted, the idea that historical events have a value in themselves, insofar as they are determined by the will of God.  This God of the Jewish people is no longer an Oriental divinity, creator of archetypal gestures, but a personality who ceaselessly intervenes in history, who reveals his will through events (invasions, sieges, battles, and so on)... It may, then, be said with truth that the Hebrews were the first to discover the meaning of history as the epiphany of God, and this conception, as we should expect, was taken up and amplified by Christianity.  We may even ask ourselves if monotheism, based upon the direct and personal revelation of the divinity, does not necessarily entail the “salvation” of time, its value within the frame of history. - 104
What makes this even more interesting is the way in which this conception of history takes on an eschatological dimension:
Under the “pressure of history” and supported by the prophetic and Messianic experience, a new interpretation of historical events dawns among the children of Israel.  Without finally renouncing the traditional concept of archetypes and repetitions, Israel attempts to “save” historical events by regarding them as active presences of Yahweh.  Whereas, for example, among Mesopotamian peoples individual or collective sufferings were tolerated insofar as they were caused by the conflict between divine and demonic forces, that is, formed a part of the cosmic drama, in the Israel of the Messianic prophets, historical events could be tolerated because, on the one hand, they were willed by Yahweh, and, on the other hand, because they were necessary to the final salvation of the chosen people.  - 106-07
Out of this eschatological dimension develops a new perception of God which makes possible faith (interesting to note that Eliade’s understanding of faith here is being influenced by Kierkegaard):
Abraham’s religious act [the sacrifice of Isaac] inaugurates a new religious dimension: God reveals himself as personal, as a “totally distinct” existence that ordains, bestows, demands, without any rational (i.e., general and foreseeable) justification, and for which all is possible.  This new religious dimension renders “faith” possible in the Judaeo-Christian sense.  - 110
In another gesture to Kierkegaard, Eliade then describes how this kind of faith, made possible in Judaism and Christianity, has struggled to catch on:
Neither in Christianity nor in Judaism does the discovery of this new dimension in religious experience, faith, produce a basic modification of traditional conceptions.  Faith is merely made possible for each individual Christian.  The great majority of so-called Christian populations continue, down to our day, to preserve themselves from history by ignoring it and by tolerating it rather than by giving it the meaning of a negative or positive theophany.  - 111
In other words, Eliade seems to be suggesting, for the majority of the Christian tradition the locus of religion is still found in ritual (which recalls the idea of participating in an eternal present) and not in “faith.”  I find this whole comparison very interesting for a few reasons.  First, it definitely seems to be a jab at Catholicism in the name of promoting a kind of Kierkegaardian, perhaps even evangelical, conception of “faith.”  It is also interesting because of the way in which “faith” in this sense is intertwined very closely with eschatology.  Any thoughts?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Critique of Universalism

This thought occurred to me one day last summer when I was working at camp, strolling through the woods carrying my guitar.  I jotted it down then but never came back to finish writing it.  Finally setting about that task...
The logic of this post is assuming a traditional “heaven-hell” schema of an afterlife (in which I would also include, for my Catholic brethren, a schema which included “purgatory”).  I take it as part of most such theologies that the afterlife is (at least theologically) considered more significant than this life because of its eternal nature (as opposed to the changing, temporal nature of this life).  Such assumptions may not hold in every version of universalism, so this critique is not meant to be definitive by any means.
The critique can be phrased in a question playing on an old saying:  If all roads lead to Rome, then what does it matter which road you take?  Now, to some extent this is exactly the point of universalism- it doesn’t matter which road we take!  But I want to press the logic of that a bit farther.  If it truly doesn’t matter which road we take, then we can attach no objective value to any particular road.  Which then leads to some particularly startling conclusions:  it is no better to be a child abuser than a devout monk, for instance, given this understanding of universalism.  At the end of the day, both will end up in the same place, sharing the same heavenly experience despite having lived radically different lives.
In one sense, this implies significant equality.  Death, which we must all experience, becomes the great equalizer, after which all of our experiences will become the same.  On the other hand, such great equality in effect negates the value of this life.  It turns into a weirdly fatalistic and potentially hedonistic kind of gnosticism which holds the “eternal” life as the most significant and this life as a mere stopping point whose meaning and significance is little to none (so we might as well get as much enjoyment out of it as we can in whatever way we see fit).
The resource to defend against this critique is to limit the scope of universalism, saying something like “all those who make an effort at moral living” or, slightly more narrowly, “all those who make an effort at religious faith” will end up in heaven.  This quasi-universalism (not truly universalism anymore, but something that might be considered an “inclusivism”) is no longer subject to the critique that I have raised, but it might be subject to other critiques.  In particular, it might be plagued by the problem of defining a “threshold”- what qualifies as a worthwhile effort at moral living?  What qualifies as an effort at religious faith?  Once we begin asking those questions we begin very quickly to end up back in the same kinds of arguments which motivated the movement to universalism to begin with- the desire to avoid seemingly arbitrary excluding boundaries.
All this to say, the issue of determining the bounds of salvation is a sticky one no matter what approach you take or position you hold.  

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Nietzsche, God, and the Cross

Of all the challenges posed to Christianity in the modern age, I think the ones raised by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche are among the most serious.  While many debates center around the notion of the existence of God or of the historical Jesus, Nietzsche cuts to the very core of Christianity, to the very logic of the story itself, and attempts to show why the logic not only doesn’t work but is in fact, on his view, evil.  Now Nietzsche is a double-edged sword.  He makes very similar attacks on the philosophy and science of his day, and probably for that reason he has been relegated to the sidelines of philosophy, someone you talk about in the context of the existentialist movement but not someone you take seriously if you are doing philosophy or theology (especially not in an “analytic” context).
Yet, for all of this, I think Nietzsche deserves to have a more active place in our theological discussions.  Nietzsche’s attacks on both religion and philosophy are motivated in part by his concerns about objectivity, which is a popular theme in my own thinking.  Nietzsche is also concerned with what he sees as a hostile taking over of ethics by those who wish to confine humanity to live within certain docile “norms.”  Nietzsche in some respects might be said to want to “unleash the beast within,” and this is partly what happened with his thought when it was co-opted by Nazi Germany as philosophical justification for the atrocities of the holocaust.  While we must be careful to avoid such errors ourselves, perhaps a more favorable interpretation of Nietzsche might be this: Nietzsche believes that we are most human when we are most free to express ourselves in our unique, individuality.  Nietzsche wants us to be pure individuals not constrained by any other.  In this sense he actually has great respect for Jesus, it is more Jesus’ followers Nietzsche is upset with because he feels they have hoisted constraints onto humanity which have prevented true individuals from coming into existence.
Now with this overarching interpretation in mind, we can consider Nietzsche’s distinction between the Nobles and the Plebes in society.  The Nobles are those who are strong, successful, powerful and therefore free from constraints which might make them incapable of being a true individual.  They can shape their identity in whatever way they would like, they are not dominated by someone else.  The Plebes, on the other hand, are forced to see themselves in relation to the Nobles.  They can only exist at the pleasure of those higher up the food chain than they are.  They depend on them for their support, and they therefore resent them.  This distinction gives rise to two types of morality, in Nietzsche’s estimation.  The first type, associated with the Nobles, celebrates all that is strong and inherently good in itself.  It finds virtuous those who are able to enact their will without relying on others.  The second type, associated with the Plebes, is rooted in the notion of “revenge.”  Dominated as they are by others, the Plebes dream up an eschatological system of morality, one based on a “final judgment” which will bring down the “evil” Nobles (from the Plebes’ point of view) and exalt the humble Plebes.  It is easy to see from this description how Nietzsche goes about critiquing Christian morality and theology.
One other detail of Nietzsche’s thought will be useful to note here before launching into my own response to Nietzsche.  That is Nietzsche’s conception of how the two systems of morality he has sketched would make sense of an “enemy.”  On the common, Plebian notion of morality the enemy is one to be detested and hated and most importantly viewed as “evil.”  Not so with the Nobles.  When two Nobles view one another as enemies, they have a core of deep respect for the other’s individuality and strength.  Whatever rivalry they feel towards one other, whatever opposition, they still acknowledge one another as equals (at least in worth and dignity).  To use Nietzsche’s own words, “He tolerates no other enemy than one in whom nothing is to be despised and a great deal is worthy of respect!”  (First Essay, On the Genealogy of Morals).
There are several different ways of responding to Nietzsche, many of which I think miss the point of his arguments.  My own response to Nietzsche is not an attempt to rebuff his critiques of Christian ethics or theology (even if I do not agree with all of his characterizations of either) but instead to note a problem with his notion of individuality as it might exist in the real world.  Something later existentialist writers (such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir) will emphasize which Nietzsche does not is that we are always existing in relation with other people.  As such, we are always subject to the influence of others, always defining ourselves at least to a certain extent in respect to others, etc.  Given the expansiveness of human relationships it seems as though it is impossible for “true individuals” in the sense meant by Nietzsche to exist in this world.  It is important to note that this move does not negate the force of Nietzsche’s arguments, but it may have the effect of saying that in some respect all of us are Plebes and there are no true Nobles.
This analysis opens up a very interesting possibility to me.  The truly unique individual is one who is entirely free of the constraints of other people, not in any way dependent on them for its own life and self-understanding.  We have suggested that such an individual cannot exist in this world because of the expansive and inter-connected nature of human relationships.  I want to go a step farther and suggest that such a description of “Nobility” could be applied to the notion of God.  Now I recognize that Nietzsche just turned over in his grave at my writing this, but I also think that such a notion of God would be radically different from the traditional conceptions of God that Nietzsche was reacting against.  God as the wholly unique, self-defining individual is not the eschatological God of much traditional Christian rhetoric. This is not the God who can be coaxed by human ritual and action into bringing about the kingdom of bliss for the underdogs.  This is not the God who can be made in our image to justify our own endeavors.  This is a fiercely unpredictable God, the God of Job who brings calamity on the faithful without explanation, the God of Noah who can destroy humanity if it is so pleases him.
As frightening as this image of God is, I think Nietzsche also provides a very intriguing way of conceptualizing what happens at the cross.  Remember that in Nietzsche’s conception of the Noble morality, an “enemy” is one who must command complete respect.  A true Noble will not look on the Plebes as his enemy because they are unworthy of the same respect as he has for himself or another Noble.  Seemingly this means that Nietzsche cannot conceive of the Christian notion of redemption because it implies a higher being condescending to care about lower beings.  Yet I think that endowed with the notion of “incarnation” the cross can take on a new and profound meaning in Nietzsche’s system.  The cross can be seen as a moment exemplifying the concept of an “enemy” in the Noble system of morality.  At the cross God the Father is put in opposition with God the Son, who because of his own divine nature can embody a being whom the Father must fully respect and see as a worthy equal, something which could never be accomplished by a human “plebe.”  In other words, at the heart of the Christian story is a moment in which God has become God’s own enemy on behalf of humanity.
Now I fully recognize that Nietzsche would be intensely dissatisfied with this interpretation of his own philosophy.  I’m also going to openly admit that I’m not certain I believe the theological interpretation I have just given (though I think this “Nietzschean theology” is a perspective that could be valuable to theological discussions).  I do think, however, that this is a very interesting way of thinking about both God and the cross drawn from within Nietzsche’s thought (even as he attempted to derail both the notion of God and the cross).  It is food for thought if nothing else, a way of conceptualizing Christian theology which also wrestles with some of the greatest challenges to Christian theology.

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