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]
[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.