A Brief Interpretation of the Theology of J.G. Fichte

“True atheism”, J. G. Fichte writes in Divine Government of the Universe, “unbelief and godlessness in the real sense, consists in calculation of consequences” (1).  In other words, Fichte seems to be saying that it is not so much one’s abstract beliefs, but instead how one lives (which is, of course, the truest way to learn what one believes – how do they live?), and if one lives as a utilitarian–calculating consequences–Fichte would call her an atheist.   Why exactly this is the case will be considered shortly. Fichte also rejects the notion of an infinite, personal God who exists separately from our world.  His argument may be summarized thusly: When God is understood as a being that has a personality, self-consciousness, will, etc. He/She/It is no longer something completely transcendent, for such characteristics “can be employed only if what they refer to is limited and finite” (2).  After all, it seems that a necessary condition of my having a personality is that there are characteristics which differentiate me from every other individual: there are certain traits and combination of traits which no one else has and vice versa.  Furthermore, my having a specific personality, with such-and-such a trait and without such-and-such other trait obviously necessitates that in virtue of this I am not (qualitatively) infinite.  So, Fichte would say, for me to say that God also has a personality just as I do, is to create God in my own image, which, according to Xenophanes, is precisely what we humans tend to do, and precisely why our “gods” tend to not be godly at all, but merely human creations. (3)

It is also worth commenting on the above qualification of Fichte’s understanding of the name “God” necessitating qualitative infinity.  Spinoza would agree; Leibniz would not.  For this reason, Fichte’s arguments must not be initially applied to all religious conceptions of God as such.  Perhaps this is the best way to understand the concept of God, but it must be allowed that it is an open question.  Some (such as Leibniz) would reject outright the notion of God’s qualitative infinity and instead affirm His/Her/Its quantitative infinity.  But such a discussion is beyond the scope of the present paper.

In the hope that the above sketch of what Fichte rejects about the notion of God has been deep enough to do so, we will move on to what it is that Fichte affirms concerning God.  Fichte writes, “This is the true faith: this moral order is the Divine which we accept.  It is constituted by acting rightly.  This is the only possible confession of faith: to do what duty prescribes” (4).  Very clearly we once again find Fichte affirming faith in God as a way of acting as opposed to an abstract belief concerning metaphysics.  He goes on to state that the “moral world order is identical with God” (5).  The moral world order is, according to Fichte, acting according to one’s conscience out of a pure, Kantian sense of duty, with no consideration for the consequences–consideration which is not moral in any meaningful sense, but simply utilitarian. Thus, the utilitarian denies the moral world order–God–and is therefore an atheist.

So, God is morality and morality is God.  Sound familiar?  According to the New Testament, “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (6).  Similarly, John D. Caputo seems to apply a Fichtean concept of God to this verse: “…love is a how, not a what” (7), which means, furthermore, that “God”, too, “is a how, not a what” (8).  For Caputo, this how is unconditional love, and for Fichte, it is acting out of a Kantian sense of moral duty.  So, in this sense, God is more accurately understood as a verb as opposed to a noun.  This is what Caputo refers to as a “theology of event.”

In a way, to the mind of the present writer, this understanding of God makes beautiful sense, and, in another way, is still quite elusive and mysterious.  But perhaps this mystery too is part of the beauty – after all, according to Caputo, “Religion is for lovers” (9).  The question of whether or not this particular notion of God is plausible is admittedly sticky, for, before it can be addressed, certain preliminary questions regarding the probability of the existence of a God, and the question of which religious texts (if any) are held to contain the true writings concerning the nature and actions of this God must be answered.  Does it jive, for example, with the aforementioned passage from 1 John?  In a way, yes, but such a passage must not be extracted from its context; for, according to the tradition in which the author was writing, God does exist as a personal being, and became as personal as possible when He/She/It appeared in the form of a man (i.e. Jesus of Nazareth).  Nevertheless, John is saying quite simply that God is love, which might suggest that he saw Jesus as pure love manifested in human form.  All of this seems to suggest that God is not reducible to a personal being, in the way that, say, I am – for I am and always will be only a noun; I cannot become a verb.  But, according to this interpretation, God can.

However, this also calls into question Fichte’s notion that God must be understood as a qualitatively infinite being.  If God is love, as John says, He/She/It cannot, by nature, also be hatred.  Indeed, to allow our metaphysical abstractions to devolve into something like “Pure Being”, thinking this will defend us from the danger of a less-than-infinite God, will actually, in leading to the purest abstraction of being as such, simultaneously result in nothing.  Pure being is presumably so irreducible, so beyond the pale of particularity, that it is at the same time nothing.  Quite often, it seems, folks who think themselves incredibly pious feel the need to affirm the qualitative infinity of God in order to avoid any sentence beginning with “God cannot…” despite the contradiction.  But the contradiction is not necessary, according to 1 John.  There are such things as intrinsic impossibilities, which do not necessitate that one deny God’s omnipotence or infinitude, if this is in fact what one is hoping to defend. As C.S. Lewis explains:

His [God’s] omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. If you choose to say ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it’, you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can’. It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk about God. (10)

And this applies equally to Fichte’s God: if God is morality, God is necessarily not immorality, rendering Him/Her/It less than qualitatively infinite. It seems that Spinozistic pantheism is the only option for one who wants to affirm the qualitative infinity of God, but Fichte is clearly not arguing for Spinozism here.

One final point: I think Fichte offers an interesting insight into the common usage of the name, God (albeit, given an almost ironic reading). There seems to be a tendency to tack God onto our moral statements in order to give them legitimacy. Think about it: “My opinion is (X)” carries considerably less weight than “God said (X)”. Consequently, when we have strong moral beliefs on a certain issue, we find a way to spin it as the word of God, rather than our own, fallible opinions. And in this way, we do seem to conflate the idea of God with our own conscience and almost end up (unintentionally) agreeing with Fichte. And in so doing, “God” becomes nothing more than what the ideal being who perfectly embodies our personal moral views would look like. Thus, the soldier sees a warrior God, the pacifist a God of nonviolent love, the traditional soul (so to speak) a God of conserving tradition and maintaining proper authority, and the progressive soul a God of liberation and freedom from oppression.

It is not my intention to offer the above thoughts in a cynical tone. I sincerely hope that “God” is not simply a result of a Nietzschean will to power, as it were–or, more specifically, ressentiment–driving the weak to find a “metaphysical higher ground”, so to speak, over the strong by saying that it is actually an absolute authority over and above all of us which is the source of my personal moral beliefs. Such a god would be a reactionary concept and nothing more. Perhaps that is the case, but I’d like to think it is not. But then again, perhaps I am simply a naive romantic. If it is not the case, however–if we can speak of God in a meaningful sense as removed from our own ideals–how do we do so? How can we look at the concept of God outside of our cultural context? I think it was Gadamer who said something to the effect of, we cannot escape our cultural context and all of the biases that come along with it; the best we can do is recognize our biases as such and do our best to move beyond them. I think the same applies here. I may never know for sure if my concept of God is authentic or received, but I think that simply recognizing that and striving for the authentic is the best place to begin.

Notes

1. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, On the Foundation of Our Belief in A Divine Government of the Universe. Translated by Paul Edwards, reprinted in Nineteenth Century Philosophy, eds. Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kaufmann. (Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, 1997), 21.

2. Ibid., 22.

3. Xenophanes writes, “But mortals think that gods are born, and have clothes and speech and shape like their own . . . But if cows and horses or lions had hands and drew with their hands and made the things men make, then horses would draw the forms of gods like horses, cows like cows, and each would make their bodies similar in shape to their own.” (Early Greek Philosophy, Trans. and Ed. Jonathan Barnes, (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 43.)

4. Fichte, 21.

5. Ibid., 21.

6. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, 1 John 4:16b

7. John D. Caputo, On Religion.  (New York: Routledge,  2001), 134.

8. Ibid., 135.

9. Ibid., 2.

10. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain. (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 18.

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Is Anarchy Actually Possible, or Merely A Utopian Pipe-dream?

A practical scheme, says Oscar Wilde, is either one already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under the existing conditions; but it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to, and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish. The true criterion of the practical, therefore, is not whether the latter can keep intact the wrong or foolish; rather is it whether the scheme has vitality enough to leave the stagnant waters of the old, and build, as well as sustain, new life. In the light of this conception, Anarchism is indeed practical. (1)

Is anarchy really possible? A general response to common objections

Some valid points have been brought to my attention regarding potential problems with the viability of the anarchist vision, and these concerns deserve consideration.

I think there are a few relevant points to be made. First, in order for anarchy to work, it must a) be small (there would no “United States of Anarchy” or “Anarchist Russia” or the like, but perhaps a “federation” of many small anarchist communities); and b) everyone involved must be an anarchist. And this has happened before (I am thinking specifically of the Spanish Civil War–Murrary Bookchin has an informative little book on this called To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936–but there are other examples as well, and it seems that most have been crushed by external rather than internal forces). Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that the first common objection of the “free rider” problem wouldn’t exactly be a the greatest threat if everyone involved is invested in the community. And those who did not want to be involved would be under no obligation. As it is, a defining factor of states is that they must force everyone to “participate” whether they want to or not–and the state has the monopoly of force to do so. (2) Anarchists would seek to eliminate such coercion.

Furthermore, if it really became a problem, there is no reason why the community could not through consensus agree to exclude the free rider. How exactly would this look? It would probably vary. But I think that Emma Goldman was right to argue in Anarchism: What It Really Stands For that we should not devote all of our time to thinking through every imaginable hypothetical situation. (3) Obviously, when people are involved, there will be variables that we just can’t plan for. However, anarchists are not the first to advocate such an “experiment”: capitalism is an experiment, and so is democracy. In Debt: The First 5,000 Years, for example, David Graeber argues that thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, and Smith were “idealists” whose “utopian” vision has yet to actually be realized (partly because, it appears, many of their ideas were based on fabricated economic history). (4)

And this leads to another point: economic anthropology (and again, I’m thinking specifically of Graeber’s work) tells us that all kinds of different economies have existed in human history, including the kinds of gift and mutual aid economies that so many anarchists advocate. Graeber goes on to argue that capitalism has essentially trained us to think that there is no alternative to capitalism (5). But the very fact that (state) capitalism exists betrays the fact that we are historical actors and can achieve seemingly impossible goals. (6) And, as far as alternative economies go, it must be remembered that most anarchist economic visions (gift economy, mutual aid, communism, participatory economics) would eliminate money and therefore ideas such as “revenue”, “wealth”, and the like must be, at the very least, radically rethought.

I have run into a lot of folks who essentially seem to think that “socialism” means a capitalist state in which money is stolen from the wealthier members of society and given to the poorer. But this is a misunderstanding. In a libertarian socialist (i.e., anarchist) society wherein all of its members were anarchist, there wouldn’t be “wealthy” or “poor” in the economic sense. Everyone’s basic needs would be met, operating under the assumption that no particular line of work (or even lack thereof) makes one more or less deserving of a home, food, healthcare, education, or any of the other basic necessities. I hope that doesn’t sound like a cynical caricature of capitalism (I hate the “bomb-throwing anarchist” caricature, so I try to not level the same against those with whom I disagree), but it seems to me that these are the implications of capitalist thought. If the only goal of capitalism is the maximization of profits for shareholders, as Milton Friedman suggests, then any moral beliefs beyond that are not specifically capitalist and it’s easy to see what moral beliefs would be incompatible with this goal. Similarly, speaking on the development of classical economics, Noam Chomsky explains that

[D]uring the early stages of the industrial revolution, as England was coming out of a feudal-type society and into what’s basically a state-capitalist system, the rising bourgeoisie there had a problem. In a traditional society like the feudal system, people had a certain place, and they had certain rights–in fact, they had what was called at the time a “right to live.” I mean, under feudalism it may have been a lousy right, but nevertheless people were assumed to have some natural entitlement to survival. But with the rise of what we call capitalism, that right had to be destroyed: people had to have it knocked out of their heads that they had any automatic “right to live” beyond what they could win for themselves on the labor market. And that was the main point of classical economics. (7)

It’s easy to see how this goes hand-in-hand with the principle of profit maximization.

And of course, part of the above analysis is based on the assumption that the competition and division that capitalism seems to engender is not necessary for human society (again, the anthropology seems to suggest that many–though of course not all–early human societies were based on egalitarian principles), and can be replaced by solidarity and mutual aid. At the end of the day, however, what’s most important for me about anarchism is the pursuit rather than [the hashing out of every last specific detail of] the end–the pursuit of justice and equality and freedom from domination, coercion, oppression, violence, etc. and opposing such structures wherever they arise. And, in my opinion, the state and capitalism are among the worst (but certainly not the only!) perpetuators of such structures. That’s why I’m an anarchist. (8)

Notes

1. Emma Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays. Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition, 36.

2. The CEO of Nestle, for example, finds the idea of viewing water as a human right to be an “extreme solution“. If those like him who seek the privatization of water were to succeed, common citizens would be met with the choice of state capitalism or death. Somehow that seems more “extreme” to me. And I take this to be quite a contradiction in the more radical laissez-faire capitalist thinking, whose primary exponents say they want “maximum freedom” for everyone on the one hand, but apparently want to force everyone to submit to capitalism on the other. Fortunately, it seems that such ideas are a minority in capitalist circles.

3. Goldman writes, “The methods of Anarchism therefore do not comprise an iron-clad program to be carried out under all circumstances. Methods must grow out of the economic needs of each place and clime, and of the intellectual and temperamental requirements of the individual.” (Ibid., 44-45.)

4. Graeber writes, “Men like Smith and Bentham were idealists, even utopians. To understand the history of capitalism, however, we have to begin by realizing that the picture we have in our heads–of workers who dutifully punch the clock at 8:00 a.m. and receive regular remuneration every Friday on the basis of a temporary contract that either party is free to break off at any time–began as a utopian vision, was only gradually put into effect even in England and North America, and has never, at any point, been the main way of organizing production for the market, ever, anywhere.” David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2011), 353.

5. “[I]t could well be said that the last thirty years have seen the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a giant machine designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures.” (Ibid., 382)

6. As Graeber notes, “To begin to free ourselves, the first thing we need to do is to see ourselves again as historical actors, as people who can make a difference in the course of world events. This is exactly what the militarization of history is trying to take away.” (Ibid., 383)

7. Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky. (New York: The New Press, 2002), 252.

8. And, consequently, from a Christian perspective, such a pursuit seems to me to be about as consistent with the biblical narrative as anything.

Walter Wink: Jesus and Nonviolence

Seeing as I have already written a good bit on nonviolence below, I will not rehash those thoughts here. I merely wanted to share a couple of my favorite quotations from Walter Wink’s Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, which I recently read and highly recommend to anarchists, Christians, Christian anarchists, pacifists, and human beings in general.

Speaking to the problem of efficacy, Wink writes:

We need to be very clear that it is in the interest of the Powers to make people believe that nonviolence doesn’t work. To that end they create a double standard. If a single case can be shown where nonviolence doesn’t work, nonviolence as a whole can then be discredited. No such rigorous standard is applied to violence, however, which regularly fails to achieve its goals. Close to two-thirds of all governments that assume power by means of coups d’etat are ousted by the same means; only 1 in 20 post-coup governments give way to civil government.

The issue, however, is not just which works better, but which fails better. While a nonviolent strategy also does not always “work” in terms of preset goals–though in another sense it always “works”–at least the casualties and destruction are far less severe. (53-54)

And again:

Violent struggles are necessarily hierarchical; all warfare inevitably is. This pattern of centralized power-holding is not easily renounced after victory is won. After assuming power, ideological differences are dealt with by the same methods used to gain power: exterminations, purges, torture, and mass arrests. Revolutions must, in the nature of things, depend on men and women who have exercised their critical faculties. But insofar as the revolution’s ideal is to create a society unanimous in its beliefs and wholly free from internal conflict, it must, if successful, destroy the very critical tendencies that made its success possible. (69-70)

I could go on and quote the entire book, but I suppose that would defeat the purpose of recommending it.

Citation:

Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

Determinism and the Destruction of Truth

My basic problem with determinism is really quite simple: if, by some cosmic, cultural, or historical forces, I am externally determined to do and believe all that I do, it follows necessarily that my belief in determinism derives from the same. And in that case, I cannot assume any greater truth value in my belief in determinism than in another’s belief in libertarianism or compatiblism, as these beliefs are the result of forces outside of our control, rather than our ability to seek the truth (which seems to be impossible given determinism). For this reason, while I think that an interesting philosophical case can be made in favor of determinism (see, for example, Spinoza or Schopenhauer–not to mention cultural relativism, psychological egoism, and much of post-structuralism and postmodernism, which appear to appropriate Nietzsche’s idea that “a “thing” is a sum of its effects” (I), meaning that I do not exist in any meaningful sense, but instead that my sense of self is constructed by external factors), in the end I find it to be self-referntially inconsistent.

And, as it happens, the same applies to theological determinism. If it’s true that God has predetermined me to be a determinist,  then, again, I can posit no truth value in that belief. After all, the Armenians and open theists and process theologians would presumably be similarly determined by God and so we could not possibly say who was right and who was wrong–again, the entire enterprise of seeking truth is undermined. Nor could the truth be found in the Bible, for, presumably, if I were to interpret the Bible as teaching that God predetermined everything, I must concede that my interpretation of the Bible was predetermined. Hence, my beliefs being the result of God’s predetermined will rather than my own ability to seek truth, I have no reason to assume that my beliefs about God or my biblical interpretations are true (I). Again, God must also have predetermined the Armenians and open theists and process theologians to hold their respective beliefs, which means that God necessarily predetermines at least some people to hold wrong beliefs! Who’s to say who was predetermined to find the truth and who was not? (This similarly has profoundly problematic moral implications–i.e, God causes us to “sin” (a word that no longer has meaning apart from what God says–think Euthyphro Dilemma) and to not believe in God and then punishes us for doing what we could never choose to do or not do!)

One final point: if it is true that all of our actions, decisions, beliefs, etc. are determined by causal forces not our own, whence comes the concept of freedom? At the very least it seems strange that, should determinism be true, we should possess such concepts as determinism and freedom at all.

I certainly do not deny that there are many complex factors that contribute to our holding the beliefs that we do, but it seems to me to be the case that if determinism is true, it is at the same time necessarily not true, for there is no “truth” of which we can meaningfully speak–there is only what is determined.

Notes

(I) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power. Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale.  New York: Random House, Inc., 1968.  Print.

(II) The common objection that critiques of theological determinism focus too much on the philosophical debate and not enough on the biblical debate (which, as it happens, is not true–see Greg Boyd) is severely undermined by this point. Surely we must establish–philosophically–whether or not it is possible to arrive at a true interpretation of the Bible at all before we can begin the discussion of the content of the interpretations themselves.