Friday, June 30, 2006

Religion and Theology as Mutual Exteriority

Why yes, I'll be writing essays with titles like that this fall! I have to start warming up my lingo spewer.

Over the past year, on and off, lurking in the background of my mind, has been a line of thought that I only now feel ready to properly express. It seems to me that my problems in these threads on Jamie's and Joel's blogs can be be used to point to a fairly startling idea: religion and theology are not united, at least not in the way people think they are. There is a body of human activity - from magic spells to mass - that is geared to answering particular human needs. This body of human activity ("religion") exists independently of (and possibly prior to) the intellectual study of God ("theology").

I am not arguing that religion and theology never meet, or that religion does not make rational statements about the world. I am arguing that the one does not require the other. When they meet, it is because the individual in which they meet finds it useful for them to do so.

As I said, this has been developing in my head for about a year now, so some history on my thought and reading is in order. For the sake of comparison, it should be noted that I wrote a post on this topic almost a year ago. I hadn't thought of the religion/theology split past a single line in the final paragraph.

I've dabbled a bit in what might be called "academic" theology over the past year; Paul Tillich, Augustine, NT Wright, Meister Eckhart. The most striking thing I have noticed: while these men have left their fingerprints are on much of modern Christian belief, that's all there is - fingerprints. The men - and women! - who have written the theological masterpieces are but vaguely recognized names for the vast majority of Christians. Augustine's towering books are ignored in favor of "Jesus loves me, this I know." I don't juxtapose the two to disparage either, but to point out that the simple creed has no need of Augustine's serious study.

Theology, as an intellectual study, requires human intellectual capacity. All theologians have to engage in literary and philological analysis, historical research, anthropology and philosophy. These are not pursuits that everyone is capable of. The best works of theology are simply beyond the reach of many people; it's tough shit. Pick up Thomas Aquinas, if you don't believe me.

Religious activities, on the other hand, require no intellectual capacity. I don't mean that to sound condescending; religious activities just don't require one to reflect on the symbolic or ontological significance of Euchrist. Religious activities are effective (for reaching whatever goal you think they are reaching for; the specifics do not matter for this discussion) whether or not you have a sophisticated intellectual understanding of them.

This is not to claim that lay people are totally thoughtless. That would be embarrassingly arrogant and obviously wrong. Everyone engages in thought that organizes the world according to their imago. Religious people form and express statements that justify and clarify the religious aspects of their imago. Professional theologians do the same, of course.

It is for this reason that religion and theology are seen as a unity; all religious believes are theologians after a fashion. However, the sophistication of the theology one uses to clarify or justify their religious activities is secondary to the activity itself. This thought comes from my dabbling in philosophical anthropology, namely Ernst Cassirer and George Bataille. Both place religious activities in the realm of human activities. For Cassirer, religion is a "symbolic form" that humans use to organize the world in particular ways. For Bataille, religion is part and parcel of the human desire for ecstasy - a longing to stand outside one's self, a kind of mystical experience. Both Cassirer and Bataille consider "religion" as something distinct from particular belief systems or theologies. I did, by the way, write the post "A Theory of Religion" almost immediately after reading Bataille and Cassirer.

So, one can speak in tongues without an encyclopedic knowledge of the issues surrounding the tongues "debate." One can engage in the three religious activities I outlined here: ecstasy (called "subsumation of the individual" in that post, but I've changed it because of the wordiness), totemism and the concept of symbolic cause and effect with any theological backing, or sometimes no backing at all. Religious activities all have a unity that no exclusivist, sophisticated theology can overcome. For example, most religious promise that one can affect physical reality through symbolic acts. A shaman cuts a chicken's throat, and expects a good hunt. A group of Christians hold hands and prays for traveling mercies. The two activities come from the same place in human nature - conflicting theologies notwithstanding.

But does it stop there? Are theologians simply engaging in an activity that is functionally identitical to a much more casual line of thought? I would say no.

Theological thought views God as an object of study, not veneration. This is not to claim an impersonal disinterest, or that a theologian cannot attempt to honor God with his actions. However, just as religious activities do not require theological thought in order to function, theological thought does not require religious significance in order to be engaged in. Theological thought can be approached as an academic subject, the same as literature and philosophy. If a particular theologian insists that their theological work is an act of religious veneration, they are not making a theological claim; their insistence rests in their philosophy.

To cap this post off, here's an metaphor. Think of religion and theology as two travelers. They both begin in the same place - human nature - but they are most definitely two separate people. They leave the city by two different gates, out of sight of each other. Then suddenly, one sneaks up on the other so carefully and gradually and they walk parallel lines for so long that they think they have been together since the beginning. Religion never notices that theology is a bit arrogant and aloof, while theology never notices that religion is simply ignoring him except when he needs help.

And now for my patented blink-and-you'll-miss-it conclusion. My professors hated this.

"I'll draw out implications of this idea in future posts."


Sunday, June 25, 2006


Before I continue with morality, theology and religion, there's one more issue that needs to be hashed out. What, exactly, is the point of thinking about all this? How does it contribute to anyone's life? Why not just get on with the business of living? Be more practical, man! More grounded! It's against statements like these - and the seeming omniscience of science - that philosophers have been scrambling to justify their own existence for a century or two now, and this is my two cents.

It's a pretty common theme to hear that philosophy is the search for truth. Truth with a big, dignified looking "T." I tend to think this just isn't true. Ultimately, “true” statements are not necessary to achieve the self-reflecting world we want most. Philosophy is fundamentally about creation, not exploration. For the most primaeval human purposes, all that matters is that you believe what you believe. And for the sake of the reading impaired, yet another qualification: this does not mean that all statements are equally true.

This, incidentally, is what I consider philosophy to be: sustained reflective thought. The two terms are synonymous. Everyone does it from time to time. Philosophy is not science; science is calculative thought. Reflective thought is abstract, interested and passionate; calculative thought is concrete, disinterested and cold. This being said, the two are not opposites; reflective thought is both chronologically and existentially prior to calculative thought. Every scientific formula is preceded by the (however unarticulated) reflective idea that forming the formula is somehow important. Calculative thought always rests inside a context of reflective thought.

Why say "sustained"? Reflective thought is common in human life, very common; everyone on some level or another engages in some kind of philosophy. Not everyone is interested enough to make it a hobby or a career, however. It's just a matter of quantity. For thought to be philosophical, it has to be a practice.

So, what place does philosophy hold in human life? For one, it gives philosophers something to do. But of course, it shares this in common with every other human occupation. Being a plumber and being a philosopher have the same basic grounding in human life.

Philosophy as creation - e.g. creating previously unseen links between ideas, or creating new ideas, or creating works that influence others - is one of its vital functions. It shares this with art and literature, however.

Philosophy - which is at least partly reflection upon one's self - can open up a dialogue with one's imago. It shares this with psychology, though. Still not a uniquely philosophical activity.

Actually, as a human activity, I don't think philosophy is fundamentally unique. It shares all of its traits with the rest of the humanities.

(On a side note, this is basically why I flippantly choose History over English for my major, and it is why I feel comfortable switching focuses for my MA.)

None of this still doesn't really answer the question; between the apparent non-importance of "Truth" and the epistemological juggernaut of science, why bother with sustained reflective thought?

It's important to remember that philosophy mixes these traits in a way that the other humanities do not. The building blocks of the discipline are the same, but the structure is different. Philosophy is the conscious attempt to create and reveal new ideas about life; it brings together the aims of psychology and art in a powerful and useful way.

To speak practically - and so maybe a little bit calculatively - sustained reflective thought ferrets out new avenues of behavior and interpretation. It helps us cast our lives and environments in different lights. Even deeply conservative philosophies do this, by the way, though perhaps not very effectively.

When one thinks reflectively, one is trying to arrange the facts, conclusions and judgements they have formed in new ways, ways that uncover new ways of seeing the world. It is psychology, it is literature, it is art.

The limits of philosophy should be discussed too. I don’t believe that particular propositions hold any intrinsic motivation power. Changing or forming one’s belief about proposition X does not mean their behavior will change. Human behavior is not guided by propositions: this must be clear. We do not live by our moralities or our philosophies; we wear them like clothes. Our behavior is not subordinate to what we believe; what we believe is subordinate to our behavior.

Behavioral or psychological change does not come with epiphanies; it does not come when we accept certain intellectual propositions. Our behavior and psychology change as part of a circle; our environment changes us, and we seek to change our environment. Accepting propositions is only a piece of the circle; our relationship to our environment must change in ways we do not have full control over before our behavior and psychology change.

The most practical thing that can be said about philosophy is that it helps us ferret out those aspects of our relationship to our environment that we can change. Philosophy helps us consciously change the clothes we wear; our environment interacts with us differently upon that basis, thus bringing about a more holistic change. Philosophy is creation - of both ourselves and the world. Other pursuits - art, religion, etc - also “change our clothes”, but they do so in an unreflective manner.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Words as Pockets

There's something I've been trying to say about words and language these past few years. It has popped up in discussions with friends and in my comments on blogs. I've never been satisfied with how I've said it. Finally, Nietzsche has come to my rescue.

The word "revenge" is said so quickly, it almost seems as if it could not contain more than one root concept and feeling. And so people are still trying to find this root - just as our economists still have not got tired of smelling such a unity in the word "value" and of looking for the original root concept of value. As if all words were not pockets into which now this and now that has been put, and now many things at once! Thus "revenge," too, is now this and now that, and now something very composite.
- "The Wanderer and His Shadow," Basic Writings of Nietzsche.

Nietzsche's specific example is revenge, but it's the same with other words. Whenever we're talking with one another, we need to recognize that even though we are using the same words, we may very well be placing different things into these "pockets."

Here are two good examples, one from my own blog and one from Into The Depths. My post Suicide Is Painless provoked a discussion over exactly how we should be using the word suicide. I was enlisting the word "suicide" to describe an action that Stash felt required a more "dignified" term.

In the comments for Joel's 2 Kicks Dan and I tussled over both the words "evangelical" and "morality." Same words, same pockets. Different filling.

These disputes weren't trivial to Dan, Stash, or myself; we all had something at stake. We all find some sort of valuable or powerful conotation in these words, so each of us wanted to wield these words in support of our positions. It is somewhat futile to argue over who is right in these cases, though. Just like the value of money, the meaning of words is social. In our mutual attempts to alter the language each other uses, we were attempting to alter each other. If Stash began using the word "suicide" to describe what is more commonly and simply referred to as a martyrdom, it would have reflected (or caused? perhaps, yes) a change in how he viewed the world.

Despite these inevitable conflicts, it is possible to reach a practical and useful mutual understanding. Despite the reality of conflicting metanarratives or even the mythical Calvinist antithesis, we can see what another person fills a particular word with and so effectively communicate. And how can we do this? Empthy. Whenever someone is being weird, we can only communicate with them on the basis of empathy; temporarily taking on their perspective.

All this is important for... well, pretty much everything I thoughtfully speak and write about. It's specifically going to be important for the next couple of posts; I'm finally going to get around to the twin topics of religion and theology. And yes, part two of the morality thing is coming too.

I can't stress how valuable and insightful Frederich Nietzsche is, by the way. By all means, pick up Beyond Good and Evil or Genealogy of Morals. Better yet, get the collection I linked to above. Every single person that wishes to be thoughtful should write more like Nietzsche, myself included. I only wish the folks I'll be studying in the fall were influenced in a literary sense by Nietzsche and not only in a philosophical way.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Revaluation of All Values

So I'm going to start another series. This one is about morality - how do we think about it? How do we account for it? How does it affect our behavior?. My provisional to the first question: thinking about morality is about finding common ground and respecting difference.

And boy, there's a long of difference to be had. What is morality? There's a long list of standard answers. Some say it's an ontological issue - morality is woven into the fabric of existence. That would be natural law. Others say it is a question of responsibility to an Other, either a natural (people, animals, etc) or a supernatural (God) Other. Others relegate morality to a subsection of practical reason; Ayn Rand objectivists think morality helps us attain material goals. Still others - well, Nietzsche, basically - say morality is a power struggle between the strong and the weak.

How do we choose between moral paths? How do we judge what is "right" and what is "wrong"? Some will say it is an intellectual exercise. You have to figure out what is right. Others will say it is inborn - somewhere within us all, we know what is "right." Others will mix morality with aesthetics, saying that the good is also the beautiful. And then Nietzsche comes along and says it's whatever increases your power.

I think there is one common denominator among every last statement concerning morality - they are all valuations. Everytime someone makes a statement about morality, they are making a value judgment. X is more important/valuable than Y. For example, a certain brand of Christian will argue that every human being has a responsibility to God for their actions. This necessarily includes a valuation - it decides that fulfilling this responsibility is somehow important. The Nietzschean view also involves a valuation - increasing power is important. The other views all have their own versions.

Here's the thing about valuations: they are all personal. Individuals can find value in just about any ridiculous thing, and nearly anything can be insignificant. For example, I could never value the authority of an army officer for its own sake; another person would literally die before violating that authority.

No matter what statements one can make about ontology, their significance to any given individual is governed by how they interact with that person's imago (the "me" I am trying to be). If moral statement X is somehow woven into reality, that is a moot point to a person if this statement does not assist the person pursue or justify their imago.

This in itself is a refutation of the pathetically common apologist claim that there is no "meaning or value" in life without Christianity. The simple and easily observable fact that non-Christians do find satisfaction in life is enough to refute this claim to exclusivity. As I've said before, the only humans that haven't found something to truly value are the ones that commit suicide. To the extent that you aren't considering suicide is the extent that you've found value and significance in life. Even if you can't articulate exactly what it is that you've found, you've still found something.

You can, of course, argue that the things that non-Christians value aren't really valuable. You're welcome to try, but this is just as futile and stupid as telling a comics collector that Action Comics #1 is a rag that should be tossed out. That comic can be sold for ridiculous amounts because someone values it. The fact that others do not value it has no bearing on its value for the collector. It's the same with everything else: just because something is significant to you doesn't mean that it isn't beneath notice for something else.

Even people who claim to discard all morality are still making a valuation; they are valuing their own individuality.

So that's the common denominator of all moral statements. That's just to crack open this issue. More later.