October 28, 2004

Faith, Reason, and Morality

I have a couple of things to say about this. It's going to be long, which hopefully will make up for the past few days' silence.

First, you should read it for the perspective it gives -- at this point completely unsurprising -- of Bush and the sort of religious beliefs he holds:

But the basic idea is that, once you surrender to God, divine guidance is palpable. "If you obey God in the first thing he shows you, then he instantly opens up the next truth to you," Chambers [an early 20th century Scottish theologian, whose homilies Bush reads every morning] writes.

And you shouldn't let your powers of reflection get in the way. Chambers lauds Abraham for preparing to slay his son at God's command without, as the Bible put it, conferring "with flesh and blood." Chambers warns: "Beware when you want to 'confer with flesh and blood' or even your own thoughts, insights, or understandings - anything that is not based on your personal relationship with God. These are all things that compete with and hinder obedience to God."

Once you're on the right path, setbacks that might give others pause needn't faze you. As Chambers noted in last Sunday's reading, "Paul said, in essence, 'I am in the procession of a conqueror, and it doesn't matter what the difficulties are, for I am always led in triumph.' " Indeed, setbacks may have a purpose, Chambers will tell Mr. Bush this Sunday: "God frequently has to knock the bottom out of your experience as his saint to get you in direct contact with himself." Faith "by its very nature must be tested and tried."

Now that I've got your attention, let's talk about Abraham.

Specifically, what Soren Kierkegaard , one of the first philosophers universally regarded as an Existentialist, had to say about Abraham. Kierkegaard radically opposed himself to the moral-political-religious system of Georg Hegel (those of you who've studied some Marx will have heard Hegel's name before). In Hegel's system, the world was supremely rational, governed by reason and logic slowly but inevitably triumphing over absurdity, coming together into one rational community. Western, meaning Christian, moral, religious, and political systems could be reached using reason. Kiekegaard, on the other hand, embraced individualism and the absurd. In Fear and Trembling, he considered the biblical story of Abraham, a man ordered by God to sacrifice his only son. Kierkegaard pointed out that Abraham's behavior -- preparing, albeit with great reluctance, to sacrifice his son, until at the last moment God rewards his faith and devotion with a substitute sacrifice -- is simultaneously completely irrational, completely amoral, and completely Christian. How would Abraham explain his actions to the fellow members of his community? Or to his wife? "God talks to me! And he told me I had to kill my son! It's not my fault! God told me to!" He'd sound crazy. Clearly not the type of person Hegel has in mind.

And yet this man is held in such esteem that three of the world's major religions are named for him (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are called the Abrahamic religions). Kierkegaard concludes that Hegel's characterization of Christianity is completely backwards: faith isn't something you arrive at objectively, using reason; it is a passionate, subjective, and ultimately absurd individual commitment, one that must be constantly renewed. Furthermore, a Kierkegaardian, Existentialist Christian could not view morality as public: one comes to know what to do through one's faith, not through the standards of reason or the community. This doesn't mean that the Kierkegaardian Christian believes she hears voices telling her what's right or what's wrong; that's incorrect both because the Kierkegaardian Christian doesn't think she's hearing voices of God or angels telling her what to do, at least not unless she's been profoundly blessed, and because she wouldn't apply the words `right' or `wrong', with their connotations of a public system of morals, to a transient, personal understanding of how she should behave.

That is to say, for this sort of pietistic, individualistic sort of religion, there can be no moral system. Everything, even one's desire for a secure sense of right and wrong, must be sacrificed and placed, faithfully, in the hands of God.

Let that sink in for a moment. I'll wait here while you take five minutes.

Kierkegaard did add that this was such a demanding task -- to live one's life devoted to the absurd, in the face of all reason and pressure from the community -- that only a very few people could ever manage it (Nietzsche made a similar point, about how most people could not bear the personal responsibility to accept the transvaluation of all values, and hence public morality was necessary for the public). What about all those devoted evangelicals who live in our country today, then? What about Bush and his rock solid faith? You can read the piece in the New York Times, or I think you can imagine what I think of him, even with my own Existentialist tendencies.

Climacus [one of the psuedonyms under which Kierkegaard wrote] hopes to deceive readers into the truth of Christianity by virtue of an absurd representation of Christianity's ineffability; the Christian God is represented as absolutely transcendent of human categories yet is absurdly presented as a personal God with the human capacities to love, judge, forgive, teach, etc.

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