Infinte Rebinding: Preliminary Thoughts On Religion

Having explained the foundations of my political thinking, it seems worthwhile to pivot now to a discussion of religion.  I am not interested in apologetics, per se, or in making a case for why my religious views may be objectively shown to be the correct ones.  In the spirit of existentialism, I agree with the following words of Karl Jaspers: “The non-existence of God can be proved no more than his existence.  The proofs and their confutations show us only that a proved God would be no God but merely a thing in the world.”[i]  That is not to say that I discount evidentialism wholesale, but merely that I am skeptical of it as a totalizing enterprise capable of resulting in faith.  Just as Kierkegaard critiqued Hegel’s attempt at a systematic philosophy, I would critique apologists who attempt to offer a system which purports, on the grounds of objectively verifiable evidence, to prove the truth of Christianity.  As with Hegel, such a system would require that its proponents remove themselves from existence in order to systematize existence.  Once a purportedly objective system is proposed by a subjective individual (i.e., a person), however, the entire endeavor is undermined and destroyed.

What I hope to offer instead, is what might be referred to as a theopoetic understanding of the narrative of the relationship between the infinite (i.e., God) and man, and why I think this narrative, religion, deserves serious consideration, even if it is ultimately rejected.  This will require arguments of a kind, but they are arguments in favor of an interpretation rather than a system.  To those who are familiar with my views or have read other papers I have written on the subject, some of this will be old hat.  I am rehashing arguments I have made in the past, in an attempt to synthesize my basic views on the subject.

Humankind has shown itself to possess quite a propensity for religion – for the rebinding of itself to the infinite.  Why exactly this is the case is anyone’s guess.  Perhaps we are inclined toward the infinite because a piece of the infinite is within us – we are created in imagio dei, as it were.  Or perhaps this infinite – the “not finite” – is simply a negation of all we know to be real and therefore actually nothing at all.  It must at least be admitted that, either way, the conceptualizing of the infinite is a peculiar thing.

As William Blake says in There is no Natural Religion, “[m]an cannot naturally perceive but through his natural or bodily organs”, and, “[f]rom a perception of only 3 senses or 3 elements none could deduce a fourth or fifth.”[ii]   Whence, then, enters the infinite, which is presumably “a fourth or fifth”?  Or, to consider an analogy, how can we understand blue if there is no other color against which to contrast it?  There is no blue if there is no non-blue.  Similarly, it would seem, there is no concept of finite if there is no infinite, and vice versa.  Again, perhaps it is simply a negation and nothing more.  Or perhaps C.S. Lewis was right in saying that, “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.”[iii]  Such an argument would suggest that, not only do we have a concept of the not-finite, or not-this-world, but there is also some idea of what this world is not: namely, meaningful.  And yet, again, if physical existence as such is all that there is, and it is inherently meaningless, where could such a concept of meaning and its absence originate?

This way of thinking is consistent, to my mind, with the inter-subjective theory of consciousness.  Various formulations of the theory could be, there can be no I without a thou, or, there is no I without a not-I, or, a thou without a not-thou.  This perspective is also found in structuralism[iv], as when Saussure writes in Course in General Linguistics that, “[s]igns function, then, not through their intrinsic value but through their relative position” and “[t]heir most precise characteristic is in being what the others are not.”[v]  Again, if a thing is understood in terms of difference – what it is not – there must be positive examples of what it is not (e.g., in order for there to be blue, there must be positive examples of non-blue, and vice versa).  As Sartre would say, we must introduce “pools of nothingness” in order to understand our experience of particular things.  Obviously, this is a particular interpretation which could be challenged, but it is the interpretation to which I have tended to gravitate.

Either way, it seems that we have spent a considerable amount of our history groping in the dark to figure this out.  Some will reasonably ask: if this so-called infinite did exist, why has it left us in the dark?  But perhaps it is we who leave ourselves in the dark.  After all, we are an incredibly arrogant race.  Perhaps in the face of the infinite, which is wholly other, wholly mysterious, we realize our incapacity to understand completely, and so, rather than accepting the mystery, we shield our eyes and construct reality in such a way that we can understand and which allows us to claim Truth.  We find followers, (and, by extension, enemies), and create the infinite in our own image – in the image of the finite.  Thus does institutional religion arise, and thus theology, heresy, and philosophy[vi].  On the one hand, intelligent people will point to all of this religious nonsense and say that it is, well, nonsense, and therefore such mumbo-jumbo cannot be believed by any self-respecting intellectual.  Perhaps they are right.  But I wonder if, even though we humans have perverted this desire for rebinding-to-the-infinite (perversion of anything good being among our greatest of talents), it did not begin from a good and natural place.

And maybe, again, it is not that the infinite has hidden itself from us, but we from it.  Maybe, as the two angels of whom we are told in Acts 1[vii] advise the followers of Jesus, our mistake is that, in pursuing the infinite, we avert to an escapist mentality, in which we stare into the clouds awaiting the return of our Savior who will vindicate us in our proper theology and make fools of all of our enemies (especially the Baptists or the Catholics or the Seventh-Day Adventists, to say nothing of the atheists, communists, and Unitarians) at the expense of being-for-others in the present.  Perhaps the infinite is here among us, but so long as we fix our eyes on how, according to our particular eschatology, s/he will act at some unknown time in the future, we preclude his/her ability to act through us in the world.  Somewhere along the way we became convinced that our lives are constituted by an either/or choice between this world and the infinite and, we suppose, to pursue the infinite means to, at best, ignore this world, and at worst, to actively despise it.

But, it must be asked, if this world is so irreversibly wretched, what is the infinite’s game in abandoning us to it?  And why does religion still purport to offer some infinite-instituted morality for our daily lives?  It seems absurd that our being-with-others should matter at all if the only true purpose of life is gaining a proper understanding of the infinite so that we may be rewarded in the life to come.  Such an attitude seems to fly in the face of someone like Jesus coming and teaching an explicitly social ethic – a social ethic which has sadly been ignored in favor of the aforementioned escapism in much of Christianity.  The common obsession with the comforting thought of an afterlife has come at the expense of living the radical, terrifying, and perhaps even counter-intuitive way of Jesus in this life[viii].  But if the afterlife is all that following Jesus is really about, one must wonder why he spent so much time teaching his followers how to live in this life.

I am not here to offer a prescription or one-size-fits-all solution to the problems laid out above.  But I am bold enough to submit my suggestion.  First of all, I would propose humility.  Without a humble recognition that we, as finite beings, can never attain a perfect understanding of the infinite and a willingness to acknowledge that our particular religious methods might simply be wrong, if not all of the time, at least some of the time, we will never be able to fully actuate what I would offer as my second suggestion: being-with- and -for-others.  (Here I must speak from my own theological beliefs, but I do not mean it in a necessarily exclusive manner.)  If we take Jesus to be God-incarnate, but do not take his social-ethical teachings seriously, or we do not take the author of 1 John seriously (that God is love, and that God abides in the one who abides in love)[ix], I think our pursuit of the infinite would be little more than a waste of time.  We are social creatures and therefore must assume that, if we are made in imagio dei, our infinite creator specifically instituted the community as a necessary part of our living out this infinite image in which we are made.  And with humility and community in mind, perhaps we can follow Rilke’s advice in Letters to a Young Poet:

[H]ave patience toward all that is unsolved in your heart.  Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers.  They cannot be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything.  At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.[x]

Notes


[i] Karl Jaspers, “Way To Wisdom”, A Concise Dictionary of Existentialism, Ed. Ralph B. Winn (New York: Philosophical Library, 1960),  41.

[ii] William Blake, From There is No Natural Religion in The Norton Anthology of English Literature (New York: Norton, 2006), 80.

[iii] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HaperCollins, 2001), 39.

[iv] I don’t necessarily consider myself a structuralist any more than a post-structuralist, etc.  My preferred method in such matters is that of cherry picking.

[v] Ferdinand de Saussure, From Course in General Linguistics in Literary Theory: an Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 68-69.

[vi] As Walter Kaufmann says in The Faith of a Heretic, “One may view the history of philosophy as a history of heresy.”

[vii] Acts 1:10-11

[viii] A literal reading of the Sermon on the Mount shows a social ethic which runs contrary to the overwhelming majority of western thought (including much of western Christianity).

[ix] 1 John 4: 16

[x] Rainier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (New York: MJF Books, 2000), 35.

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What’s Wrong With Capitalism?

In the previous post I argued from the standpoint of the inter-subjective theory of consciousness that relationships predicated on domination are — if I may be so bold as to use the term — immoral (there are different methods which one may employ to arrive at immorality, but the basic idea is that, where domination is present, I can neither recognize myself as self nor the other as self, and, insofar as recognition of self-as-self and other-as-self is inherent to our nature, this is a problem.)  Assuming this evaluation is correct, the next reasonable question is, what about capitalism?  In the realm of political theories which would seek to eradicate the domination of the state, there are those who would argue that capitalism must also be eradicated (left-libertarians, libertarian socialists, social anarchists,etc.) and those who maintain that capitalism should be preserved (right-libertarians, minarchists, so-called anarcho-capitalists, etc).

Classical anarchism is rooted in socialism, which, by the end of the 19th century had split between anarchists of various stripes and Marxists (i.e., socialists who do not advocate the immediate elimination of the state).  What the two still held in common, however, was the conviction that capitalism must be abolished.  Marx understood capitalism as boiling down to two essential things: the accumulation of profit and private property.  Based upon this definition, an ethical critique of capitalism follows quite naturally.  While I do not consider myself a Marxist, the following is an excerpt from a paper I wrote over Marx’s critique of capitalism which I feel succinctly encapsulates my argument against capitalism.  The underlying assumption, as will become clear, is that individual human persons are inherently valuable, which immediately problematizes the ethical egoist foundation of capitalism, which reduces the value of individual persons to monetary gain and therefore, in principle, renders such concepts as human rights and social justice tertiary at best, and immoral at worst, should they conflict with the only absolute value which is profit maximization.

The goal of the accumulation of profit may be very briefly shown to naturally result in exploitation and alienation.  Quite simply, when the goal of opening a certain factory and hiring workers to work in that factory is to accumulate profit for the owner/employer, it is obvious that the worth of these workers will be valued insofar as they bring in profit.  Should a particular worker bring in (what is perceived as) too little profit, she will be swiftly let go and replaced by another who can ensure greater profit for the corporate elites, no matter what the negative consequences may be upon the worker who has been dismissed.  Had she brought in more profit, her employment would have been maintained and, essentially, she would have deserved the wages which will afford her food, housing, etc.  What this essentially boils down to is this: if the worker is not monetarily valuable to the employer, she does not deserve to eat, have a home, or any other of the basic necessities.  And not only this, but insofar as labor laws require corporations to spend more money to ensure the safety of its workers, in the absence of such laws these safety precautions will likely not be taken and thus the workers will be subjected to unsafe working conditions.  But because their labor is forced (as a result of the nature of the system), they must continue working under these conditions regardless (assuming they want to eat, of course).  [Note: many will argue that labor is not forced because the worker voluntary gives her labor to the capitalist in exchange for pay, and she could just as soon “take her work elsewhere”, as the saying goes.  This line of argument has problems, however.  First of all, because corporations are in competition with one another, they must produce the greatest amount of product, for the least possible cost, to gain the maximum amount of profit.  As a result, we have no reason to assume, should the laborer look elsewhere for employment, that the next employer would be any better than the first.  Secondly, what often happens is that one giant corporation monopolizes the market and destroys the competition.  When this happens, the laborer essentially has two options: work for this corporation, regardless of the conditions or pay, or don’t work at all, which means, in effect, give up the possibility of food, shelter, and livelihood.  It is a lose-lose situation.  Hence, labor is forced because it is performed out of necessity rather than desire.]

Now, to be fair, all of this assumes a rather libertarian-esque, laissez-faire economy, and one may reasonably argue that we now have laws in place which are meant to protect workers from these very dangers which result from the capitalist system.  However, to the mind of the present author, this is an absurd justification.  To say that the system should be maintained because, though the system naturally results in overwhelming amounts of exploitation and dehumanization, laws have been implemented to, in varying degrees, defend against this exploitation and dehumanization is hardly justification.  When the foundation of a home is causing problems we do not simply patch the roof and repaint the siding and call it good.  So too, following Marxian argumentation, capitalism should be abolished and an entirely new system adopted.

But this is not the only aspect of capitalism which results in alienation.  Private property, according to Marx, “is on the one hand the product of alienated labour, and on the other hand the means by which labour is alienated, the realization of this alienation” (308).  Specifically, a possession becomes private property when it brings profit to the owner, who does not himself work, but rather hires workers to work and earn profit for him.  And once this happens, the worker finds herself in the situation described above.

Obviously, what has been offered is only a brief argument against capitalism, but I think it is sufficient in demonstrating why it is, at best, not readily apparent that capitalism is a desirable system and, at worst, that it most certainly is not a desirable system.  There is much more which could still be said for the violence, oppression, coercion, racism, sexism, classism, etc. which is arguably also inherent to the capitalist system.  However, based upon the above argument, it is not difficult to see how such implications would naturally follow from capitalism.

Coupled with the previous post on inter-subjectivity, then, what has been offered is an argument in favor of a social structure predicated on anti-authoritarianism, anti-capitalism, and egalitarianism — that is to say, anarchism.

Behind the Global Rape Epidemic

Al Jazeera: The Global Rape Epidemic

From the interview with professor Farid Essack:

“When I am in a relationship of control over somebody – if I have my feet on your neck, or my hands around your throat, I cannot be free. I can’t be free to enjoy life, I can’t be free to be who I am, or to enjoy the sunshine, I can’t enjoy anything, because I am in a relationship of control. When I remove my feet from your neck, or my hands from your throat, I become liberated.”

In relationships of domination, neither the one who is dominated nor the one who dominates is free.

Anti-Authoritarianism and Inter-Subjectivity

“No mistake or crime is more horrible to God than those committed by power.  Why?  Because what is official is impersonal, and being impersonal is the greatest insult that can be paid a person.” — Kierkegaard (quoted in Jacques Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity)

In Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Mikhail Bakhtin writes of Dostoevsky’s novels that “the heroes suffer destruction because they cannot wholeheartedly affirm the other, “thou art.” (5) The tragedy, in other words, occurs when the “I” of the hero fails to recognize the “I” of the other.

The theory of inter-subjectivity has its roots in the German Idealist philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte.  However, it was fully developed by G.W.F. Hegel.  The basic idea of an inter-subjective theory of consciousness is that one must first recognize an “other” before it can recognize itself.  There is no I without a thou.  How this happens, according to Hegel, will be explained in the following excerpt from a paper I wrote over the subject.  (Quotations are taken from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by J.L.H. Thomas, reprinted in part in Philosophic Classics Volume IV: Nineteenth-Century Philosophy, ed. Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kaufmann).

In the Hegel’s master-servant dialectic, the thesis and antithesis which must be synthesized are “self-as-self” and “other-as-other”, respectively.  The synthesis, Hegel declares, is “other-as-self”.  How this comes about is not quite as complicated as Hegel’s jargon would suggest.  Essentially, the single existing self-consciousness initially inhabits a world comprised of self and other, i.e. the world of objects.  Inevitably, this self-consciousness will meet another self-consciousness, whereupon an interesting process of recognition ensues.  When the self-consciousness first comes into contact with another self-consciousness, the first immediately recognizes that the second is not simply an other (i.e. a rock, tree, etc.); not only is it not simply an other, but it is, in fact, a self, and in so being, is so similar to the first self-consciousness that the first, upon recognizing that the second can clearly not be categorized as “other”, can see only one other option: the second self is self, meaning that the first self’s self is projected onto the second, whereby the first self is no longer self, but other.  And while this is taking place in the consciousness of the first, the second is having exactly the same experience.  In the midst of this, each consciousness is essentially having an existential crisis: as Hegel says, “self-consciousness has lost itself, for it finds itself as another being” (36).

What is to be done?  The two must fight to the death: “it must set out to do away with the other independent being in order thereby to become certain of itself as the essential being” (36).  From the standpoint of the first self, the second must be destroyed so that selfhood can be re-appropriated upon the first self.  Almost immediately, then, one self (we’ll say the first) achieves victory over the other (the second), and the second has already accepted that it must be defeated.  However, “[t]his proving through death does away… with the truth that was to result from it” (38), for, while the first has the second in a death-grip, it realizes that, per the inter-subjective theory of self-consciousness, if the second is destroyed, the first can no longer recognize itself as self, and will experience alienation without an other to recognize it as a self.  In lieu of destruction, then, the first simply dominates the second and forces the second to become a servant.  In this way, the first – now, the master – can exist for itself, but also has the second, which only exists for the other, to recognize the first as such.

However, this master-servant relationship does not last forever.  While the master does nothing for itself, but demands absolute servitude of the servant, it grows dependent upon the servant.  And the servant, in the meantime, works and masters the earth, and, “attains as a consequence a view of independent being as itself” (40).  Eventually, this results in an over-turning of the master-servant relationship.  In order for the master to regain mastery, it must also become a worker, living alongside the servant, who has also attained mastery.  And when this happens, the relationship is no longer one of master-servant, but rather, we might say, one of worker-worker.  Domination is no longer possible and the new relationship is predicated upon mutual exchange and equality.

In other words, any relationship predicated on the domination of one self over another will necessarily result in Dostoevskian tragedy for the dominating party.  According to the inter-subjective theory of consciousness, a proper I and Thou relationship is not possible so long as one I dominates the other.  Thou cannot be truly recognized as an I in such a relationship, and, by extension, I cannot be truly recognized in the absence of the recognition of Thou.  The two must be equal in order for this to happen.

Ergo, the inter-subjective theory of consciousness precludes the possibility of human beings existing in any real relationship to one another so long as hierarchical structures predicated on domination exist.   As Kierkegaard says, the relationship of the powerful to those over whom power is exercised is necessarily an impersonal one, and, therefore, in his own view, such relationships are actually sins against God, who created us as social creatures.  Hence, in destroying the possibility for proper social relations, we are sinning against God in that we are destroying the image of the one in whom we are made — namely, an image predicated on communality.

Consequently, Marx took many of Hegel’s ideas and ran with them, throwing out the metaphysical aspects and postulating a strictly atheist-materialist understanding of the historical dialectic.  Nevertheless, it seems that he, as a social holist, would agree with Kierkegaard insofar as he saw the domination and exploitation of capitalist society as unnatural and, quite simply, bad.

Human beings are naturally social creatures, who are meant (whether because of God or historical materialism, or both) to live in community with one another, rather than in dominating relationships which destroy the I and Thou.

Why the greys?

First of all, I chose grey over gray, because grey just looks and feels more grey to me.  I think about an old TLC special I watched called The World of Dogs or something like that, and remember the segment on greyhounds being augmented by a background of fog and an overcast sky.  Just one more way the media is infiltrating my life and conditioning my thinking, and years down the road at that.

The greys are also what I see much more of in life than blacks and whites.  In fact, I think the greys permeate and even constitute our thinking on the most important things: theology, philosophy, politics, art, etc.  If this were not the case, it seems to me, there would a lot less arguing in the academies and churches and polities.

But it’s a fine line.  I find the greys both liberating and exciting and a bit terrifying.  After all, they simultaneously provide the freedom to explore and question and live a philosophical life, but they also demand humility and a recognition of the fact that I might just be dead wrong.  In fact, I am dead wrong.  On a lot of things.  Which ones?  I couldn’t tell you.  I am a very opinionated person and neither accept nor abandon commitments easily, but I must be willing to allow that, as a fallible, finite human being, some of my most deeply held beliefs are probably wrong.  But I, just like everyone else, am doing the best that I can with what I have, and I am convinced that that is enough.

As Derek Webb laments in “The Truth”: “Maybe there’s no grey and I was wrong to tell ’em so.”  A frightening thought, but I think there is some grey.  And there is grace and redemption in the face of our misplaced trust and unjustifiable opinions and failure to recognize the greys for what they are, and maybe even a black and white or two.  After all, as Mr. Webb concludes, “The truth’s not contingent on me.”

I take great comfort in that.