Saturday, September 17, 2005

Niebuhr and Desire

I think the main problem I have with H. Richard Niebuhr’s essay, Faith in Gods and in God, is his perspective regarding the individual. I hate to use this word, but I think it’s going to help me express what I’m trying to say. I think his perspective is too consumerist. So, I know I’m being reductionist here, but I’ll do it anyway. I think in essence he views the individual as a rational consumer, moving from product to product, never finding ultimate satisfaction. Each product works fine for a time but always seem to let us down. None of these finite products can “save us from the ultimate frustration of meaningless existence.” Then we meet with this idea of void, the destroyer of all our penultimate products/idols, but I don’t want to go into that here.

I’m going to have some trouble putting my thoughts together here, but I’m going to try anyway. Niebuhr, I think, has the understanding that this consumerist desire originates within the individual. I think we need to look at the idea that desire originates outside of the self, that it comes from an Other. I’m not talking of desire for food or water, etc., but desire on a more existential level. We form our desires in imitation of others. It’s not a coincidence that marketers use celebrities, cultural idols and very attractive people in their advertising. They understand that desire does not originate in the individual. Desire must be created from outside the individual. For the most part people want to be like celebrities, or whatever other role-model happens to be in his/her proximity.

I think if we understand desire as not originating within the individual, but coming from the culture / the group / another individual it’s going to open this essay up quite a bit. It’s going to bring us into a whole new territory that I think will be quite fruitful.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Faith and Becoming

I'm still focusing on the H. Richard Niebuhr essay I've discussed in previous posts.

It seems to me faith is more appropriately defined as allowing yourself to become something. I don't think the idea of faith as reliance and dependence is particularly helpful. We don't rely and depend on gods/models for our being as much as we allow them to create us in their image and to give us whatever being they have. If we make the titanic social-darwinian gods of market capitalism our models we will be created in their image. We will assume their values and their understanding of the nature of reality. We will become a reflection of those gods. Same thing happens when we select one of the permutations of the American Dream to become our model or guiding principal. We begin to look, act and think like our gods and models. Don Quixote and Madame Bovary are excellent examples of this.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Faith and Idolatry

As I mentioned in my previous post I love H. Richard Niebuhr’s essay Faith in Gods and in God, which is a chapter in his book Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, but I think his definition of faith needs some adjustment. We’re not only dealing with the nature of faith here, but the nature of idolatry also. Niebuhr’s definition of faith is “a personal, practical trusting in, reliance on, counting upon something”. He’s getting close to saying something really groundbreaking but can’t quite formulate it, but there are quite a few hints. I don’t think understanding faith as reliance is going to get us very far.

I think before I try to explain the adjustments I would like to make to Niebuhr’s essay we should look at a couple of classics of western literature. Specifically, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I think it is fair to say that both Madame Bovary and Don Quixote are idolaters. What is the nature of their idolatry and thus what constitutes their faith? In these novels faith is not defined as reliance, but I think as becoming, as in they want to become what they idolize.

Don Quixote uses Amadis of Gaul as his model / mediator. (I’m making an obvious use of Girardian terms here). Don Quixote’s actions and understanding of reality are modeled and mediated by the books he has read on chivalry and knight-errantry. Don Quixote sees and understands the world through the eyes of Amadis of Gaul. His relationship with people and things are determined by Amadis of Gaul. Don Quixote’s desires and understanding of reality are dictated by someone else.

Emma Bovary desires through the romantic heroines she reads about in her books. Madame Bovary imitates the exterior appearance and interior thoughts of her models. She has freely chosen a model, but the model chooses her desires. Her desires are given to her by the heroines in the books she reads.

I’ll write more on this idea of faith as choosing and imitating a model / mediator later.

Friday, September 09, 2005

H. Richard Niebuhr

For me H. Richard Niebuhr’s “Faith In Gods and In God” (Google Cache) is a foundational text. Let me first say that I don’t exactly agree with equating faith with reliance. He says, faith is “a personal practical trusting in, reliance on, counting on something” This will not be my definition of faith, it will be similar, but we’ll deal with that later. The idea of faith as reliance on something leads him to some important conclusions. We cannot live without relying or having faith in such things as the safety of roads, food supply, traffic signals, democracy, family, self or any other numerous things and ideas. Everyone, including atheists, live by faith.

He says “reliance on certain centers of value as able to bestow significance and worth on our existence…we cannot live without a cause”. As you will see later I will not use the word “cause”.

“We never merely believe that life is worth living, but always think of it as made worth living by something on which we rely. And this being, whatever it be, is properly termed our god.”

“Our natural religion is polytheistic”. We have many centers of value. Each of these centers of value demand our full devotion. This is a very important point.

This is an incredible essay, I remember my theology professor in college overcome with tears and leaving the room for a few minutes, while reading it aloud. This part is very good:

Yet this is true -- and this constitutes the tragedy of our religious life -- that none of these values or centers of value exists universally, or can be object of a universal faith. None of them can guarantee meaning to our life in the world save for a time. They are all finite in time as in space and make finite claims upon us. Hence we become aware of two characteristics of our faith and its gods: that we are divided within ourselves and socially by our religion, and that our gods are unable to save us from the ultimate frustration of meaningless existence.

“The gods”, Niebuhr says, and this is a very important point, “are divisive socially and as well within the person”. He is hinting at something here, but doesn’t disclose the full meaning of “divisive”.

This is the most beautiful theological essay I’ve ever read.

The tragedy of our religious life is not only that it divides us within ourselves and from each other. There is a greater tragedy -- the twilight of the gods. None of these beings on which we rely to give content and meaning to our lives is able to supply continuous meaning and value. The causes for which we live all die. The great social movements pass and are supplanted by others. The ideals we fashion are revealed by time to be relative. The empires and cities to which we are devoted all decay. At the end nothing is left to defend us against the void of meaninglessness. We try to evade this knowledge, but it is ever in the background of our minds. The apocalyptic vision of the end of all things assails us, whether we see that end as the prophets of the pre-Christian era did or as the pessimists of our time do. We know that "on us and all our race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark." All our causes, all our ideas, all the beings on which we relied to save us from worthlessness are doomed to pass.

Part 3 is powerful stuff, make sure to read it. God is the destroyer of our idols, he is the “undefeatable cause”. I’m not in complete agreement with the language of his conversion narrative at the end of the essay, I would definitely shift the focus, but he is headed in the right direction.

I want to use this essay as a starting point or template to go into my discussions and definitions of sin, faith, idolatry, etc.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Sin and Language

In the conservative evangelical world sin is divergence from the standards / tastes / lifestyles of that community. This is why the so-called “literal” interpretation of the Bible is so important to that subgroup. I think it is axiomatic that language / meaning and the interpretation of symbolism is determined by groups of people. Language comes about by the common agreement / understanding of a community. The conservative evangelical community, through their participation in American culture, are a group of people who have come into agreement regarding language and meaning. Divergence from this language and meaning is sin. The community has determined the language, meaning and the interpretation of reality. Thus, to the people involved in that community, the Bible reflects the language, assumptions and expectations of that community. In this scenario the community is the ultimate arbiter of truth, thus the Bible is viewed through the eyes of the community. Absolute truth lies in the community.

Here is some discussion of the literal interpretive method that I think illustrates what I mean. What I've linked to is, of course, defending the literal method, but I think it pretty much admits my analysis and criticism. Here are some relevant portions:

"The customary, socially-acknowledged designation of a word is the literal meaning of the word."

"The 'literal' meaning of a word is the basic, customary, social designation of that word. The spiritual, or mystical meaning of a word or expression is one that arises after the literal designation and is dependent upon it for its existence. "

"To interpret literally means nothing more or less than to interpret in terms of normal, usual, designation. When the manuscript alters its designation the interpreter immediately shifts his method of interpreting."

The words "customary", "socially-acknowledged", "normal", "social designation" and "usual" are pretty much code words for what I've explained.

With literalism, meaning changes as the community's assumptions and expectations change. So under this method truth resides with the community.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Power of Group Reality

In my continuing progression to some sort of definition of sin I present a quote from Simone Weil. Here she discusses the power of the group:

The power of the social element. Agreement between several men brings with it a feeling of reality. It brings with it also a sense of duty. Divergence, where this agreement is concerned, appears as a sin…The state of conformity is an imitation of Grace

Here’s Admiral James B. Stockdale discussing how agreement and comradeship between people can even get you through the most difficult trials. You can survive by making strong attachments to a group and an ideology or view of reality.

In the end, the prisoner learns he can’t be hurt and he can’t be had as long as he tells the truth and clings to that forgiving hand of brothers who are becoming his country and family. This is the power of comradeship.