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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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.