Sunday, 11 September 2011

Ever New Creativity of Sin

Recently I read an interesting piece on Christianity and capitalism. The author argued that these two in the current situation of capitalist societies are an unfortunate combination; while socialism should abandon the close link with anti-religious atheism, contemporary Christianity should consider - or, realize - that the radical edge of the Gospel's social message is, in today's situation in the west, most compatible with a novel version of socialism.

It is, of course, naive to talk about socialism and capitalism as these were two monolithic politico-economic systems which exist(ed) in a pure state. There were many socialisms, and many capitalisms, and, in a want for any other epithet, some or other combination of socialist and capitalist ideas seems to me the only sensible way forward. But I will completely ignore here the million dollar question ("How exactly should that combination look like?").
What strikes me as theologically more interesting in relation of Christianity with politics is the insight that most, or all, versions of either socialism or capitalism have obviously failed to build an effective awareness of human nature into itself. The reality of an 'ever-new creativity of sin' can corrupt, and almost always does, any political system. The socialist ideals are fantastic: emphasis on the rights of workers and of the poor, protection of the poor from the rich and their abuse, international brotherhood of all men, anti-nationalism, etc. but corruption and abuse has been widespread in socialism as soon as it was first realized as a political system. Capitalism, of course, the same paradox: freedom of the market, freedom of thought and speech, entrepreneurship,... very nice. But it is clear that the perversion and a ridiculous multiplication of desire, and sanctification of greed into a virtue have led to systematic abuse which doesn't seem to be remediable within the same system. It has shown the inability of capitalism to "correct itself"; it needs to be monitored and, yes, put in check by nothing less than higher values which go beyond making money.

I know this all sounds very 'preachy'', but it has to be said. Capitalism is in need of an infusion of non-capitalist values which are able put the value of getting rich into a much wider perspective on human being, a perspective where human happiness refuses to be defined by economic prosperity but is seen as much more complex phenomenon of our embeddedness in our social and natural environments.

Christian wisdom has it that human sin is always smarter than our (selfish) reasoning about our well-being; for the most part, we can realize that some well-meaning plans or actions have been perverted by sin, only in hindsight. And this hindsight must direct our social and political decisions for measures against the effects of human sin. A credible, social interpretation of the Augustinian focus on human corruption should make us very much alert and ever-wiser to keep our political system in check, be it capitalism or socialism, or whatever else (or combination of those). As I see it, this means that the state should control the market in several ways since the market, as any other social reality or space, is a fertile ground of the ever-new creativity of sin. It demands our ever-new vigilance and countering the developing nature of sin with virtuous creativity, in order to minimize the evil effects of selfishness. What else?

Sunday, 17 July 2011

God as a Father and Other Metaphors

It is the question which I am still somewhat struggling with: Should the picture of God as a person - and more precisely, as a father - have a distinct place and be above all other metaphors for God that we find in the Christian tradition? In other words: God is portrayed variously in Christianity: as a rock, as a wind and/or spirit, as a fire, a vine, a tree, a lion; and then, of course, as a father, a mother, as a groom, a close friend, etc. many social/personal pictures. Is the father picture in any way privileged? Should it be?

Privileging the image of the father in comparison with other pictures of God in Christianity is usually taken for granted. 'Our Father who art in Heaven': this is often understood as a rock-solid fact describing God himself directly. Other pictures of God are then thought to be 'only' metaphors, as if 'father' would be something else than a metaphor.

As Janet Soskice reminds us in her book Kindness of God: Metaphor, Gender and Religious Language - referring to Paul Riceour's point - the title 'father' or 'daddy' for God had a surprise and subversive element in it when Jesus used it. This is at the very heart of what this metaphor is supposed to do. By using it so extensively and involving his followers into this language, Jesus was forcefully bringing home the point about God's intimate closeness to everyone; God is not distant, not anti-human, not available for religious or political establishment to 'use' Him. Instead, he is everybody's God, he is approachable, he is Abba-'daddy'.

When this important, indeed crucial, work of the father-metaphor is lost on us, 'father' becomes a fixed and eternalized part of God's nature in a way that is open to multitude of abuses and misunderstandings. And since the history of the extensive use of the father metaphor in Christianity brings with it a multitude of religious and moral errors, we should remind ourselves today more than ever that 'father' is just one of the metaphors for God. He is also a rock, a wind, a lion. Decentralizing the father image from its too fixed place in our God-talk and thinking about God can only help our real worship today.

It certainly made my faith more real and at the same time much less susceptible to the edge of the Freudian critique of theism - the criticism which has not, as much as I see, lost its power even today, however persistently it is declared to be old hat.

And most importantly, only when we decentralize the father metaphor from our God-talk, can Jesus' talk of God as a father (together with the Our Father prayer) again strike us as surprising. In this way, this fantastic metaphor can again do some of the work for which it was designed to do.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Textual Animism and Christianity

I just noticed that three months have passed since my last post. I am sorry for that, but also happy since I was busy with other exciting things (mostly).

I am reading a book by an eco-philosopher David Abram, The Spell of the Sensous. In it, Abram developed an approach to the questions regarding our relatedness to/with nature and other beings on the planet which builds on the works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger - in other words, it is very much "phenomenological" in terms of his philosophical approach.

There are lots of great topics explored in the book, but I would like to mention one in particular which strikes me as very relevant for Christian spirituality. Abram traces the historical replacement of oral culture which was more embedded in the interrelatedness of humans with our surroundings like plants, animals and seas, by a written (alphabetically) culture which had a tendency of somewhat removing us from our natural surroundings. But, the focus on the written texts done by humans after this technological revolution resembles, in many ways, our former way of relating to natural world, claims Abram. Here is how he puts it:

"In learning to read we must break the spontaneous participation of our eyes and our ears in the surrounding terrain (where they had ceaselessly converged in the synaesthetic encounter with animals, plants, and streams [ for hundreds of thousands of years of hunting and escaping the dangers of natural world]) in order to recouple those senses upon the flat surface of the page. As a [native American] elder focuses her eyes upon cactus and hears the cactus begin to speak, so we focus our eyes upon these printed marks and immediately hear voices. We hear spoken words, witness strange scenes or visions, even experience other lives. As non-human animals, plants, and even 'inanimate' rivers once spoke to our ancestors, so the 'inert' letters on the page now speak to us! This is a form of animism that we take for granted, but it is animism nonetheless - as mysterious as a talking stone." (Abram, Spell of the Sensous, 131)

Abram goes on to claim that "it is only when a culture shifts its participation to these printed letters that the stones fall silent. Only as our senses transfer their animating magic to the written word do the trees become mute, the other animals dumb". (same page).

Many might not agree with such a "magical" view of a very everyday activity as reading. The claim that stones fall silent when a culture focuses to the written word also sounds simplified. But even if Abram is at least partly right here as long as phenomenology of reading is concerned, interesting questions can be asked about Christian spirituality and Bible-reading practices:

If we are doing a form of "textual animism" when reading the Bible, what does this teach us about that aspect of Christian spiritual experience and practice? In other words, if we see the Bible-reading as not merely receiving information about God but as experience, the spirituality of Bible-reading could be related with wider mystical, felt way of experiencing all physical reality which surrounds us, most primary first: other humans, animals, stones, trees and rivers. Can Abram's philosophy shed any light on Christian ages-old doctrine of "the two books of God": The Bible and nature, and of relation between the two?

But more problematically: Has Christianity which has its beginnings in very urban (not rural) cultures, with its strong focus on texts (reading and interpreting the books of the Bible) dampen the voices of nature for Christians, so that Christians have harder time to hear those voices? Throughout Middle Ages, nature was increasingly described either in early scientific/mechanistic ways (less so) or (more) by way of Greeco-Roman mythology, in other words, with pagan religious narratives which were to be taken "only as stories". Did Christianity with its focus on the other world and abstract entities (God, angels) have problems to accommodate the strong presence and experiential force that our co-habitant natural environment continued to have on us, so that nature-mysticism was essentially "given up" to paganism? Did the excessive focus on a group of texts (Bible) and interpretations of those texts (which developed into abstract theology) have something to do with that?

Friday, 15 October 2010

Embodied Mind, Embodied Soul

In Philosophy in the Flesh George Lakoff and Mark Johnson presented an embodied theory of mind which brings together cognitive science and neuroscience, linguistics and embodied philosophies of mind (building also on Maurice Merleau-Ponty and John Dewey). The book is nothing less than an attempt to redefine the mind and by doing this it offers an interesting and controversial criticism of some of the basic presuppositions about the mind, language, reference and meaning, found in the most of the analytic or Anglo-Saxon philosophy.

Basic idea of the book is this: The fact that human mind is inherently and necessarily bodied has great and not-yet-fully-recognized consequences for any philosophy. Think about it: Reason is inherently embodied. The very structure of reason and its categories (logic) are what they are because of our everyday functioning in the world as bodily beings. Structures of reason piggyback on the neurological and sensomotoric ways of our being, and the only "universality" reason actually has stems from aspects of our shared bodily in-the-world experience.

If this is true (and Lakoff and Johnson insist that empirical evidence for such a view is extremely strong), much of our conceptual inference actually is 'sensorimotor inference', even though it may be this "in disguise" - it doesn't seem this way for us when we think in abstract terms. Our concepts arise from our bodily engagement with our surroundings, other humans, etc. Think of the fact that we really can't describe almost anything without bodily concepts. For ex. rational understanding itself is, as a rule, described metaphorically: as "seeing" (as in "Oh, I see!"), or as "following" arguments, or "going through" reasons, or "arriving" at the conclusion, or similar. These are not only "colourful additions" to our descriptions of reasoning; metaphors are constitutive, inherent in our conceptualization of what rational understanding is.

Implications of such a view of the mind and of reason are indeed far-reaching. One of them is that any spirituality or theology that posits disembodied souls which can exist and think "without the body" is simply not credible. Of course, this is not at all obvious. One has to do a lot of examination and honestly see the implications of what we today know about the mind, about our concept formation and language use, etc. in order to see these implications clearly. Only think about the concepts which we use regularly in theology, like "beyond", "super-natural", God as "Highest Being" or as "King", as "Light shinning in the darkness", "Heaven", "spiritual growth", "deliverance from sins", "rising above temptations", "leaving the sinful man behind", "dying to self and sin" etc. All these concepts are of course metaphorical and most come from our very immediate bodily engagement with our environment.

Lakoff and Johnson, although themselves not theologians, do suggest some ideas as to what, in their view, an honest look at neuroscience of our brains, and a careful look at our actual language use etc. means for theology and spirituality:

"Embodied spirituality requires an understanding that nature is not inanimate and less than human, but animated and more than human. It requires pleasure, joy in the bodily connection with earth and air, sea and sky, plants and animals - and the recognition that they are all more than human, more than any human beings could ever achieve. Embodied Spirituality is more than spiritual experience. It is an ethical relationship to the physical world." (Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, 1999. p. 566)

Although I have issues with some positions argued for in the Lakoff and Johnson's book, I couldn't agree more about what they say here about embodied spirituality. People who think in terms of religious traditions that see human soul (or spirit, for that matter) as a disembodied, thinking person which is only attached to the body for the period of our earthly life and then "freed" from the body at the time of death, can not appreciate the embodied view of the mind nor the vast evidence for it. However, by and large, the Bible does not have a problem with embodied spirituality - it should be a common knowledge that a predominant view of "soul" in the Bible ("nephesh" in OT and "psyche" in NT) seems to be NOT of a disembodied entity, but of the very much bodily human being (see a paper reviewing possible shades of meaning of both terms in the Bible, which range from "life" to "corpse").

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Objectification of God

Is God an object? Most Christians would say, of course not. But, putting it more precisely: Can God be an object of thought, of emotion? What about an object of perception? These are puzzling questions.

Whenever I talk or speak about God, or have an intentional emotion directed at God, God is an object as opposed to me a subject, at least in the logical sense of the term. So, in religious language or directed emotion, one can not escape this minimal objectification of God. Jewish theologian/existentialist Martin Buber and Christian theologian/existentialist Paul Tillich pointed out that this very usual, unavoidable and innocent (on the surface) feature of theistic religions involves a nasty problem - more of a religious problem than a philosophical one, although it is both.

Buber's insistence that we can relate to God only in terms of I-Thou (Ich-Du) relationship, that is, directly and personally-experientially, is a protest against a modernistic objectification of God, either in theological talk, worship, or in emotions and in thinking in general. God can never be an "it" for a human being, always a real, honest "You". Otherwise, it simply is not God.

Another much older tradition in Western Theology (Christian, Jewish, and also Muslim), namely the mystical way of via negativa, insisted rigorously that we can say nothing at all determinate or exact about God (human language is inadequate, always approximate and inherently unstable in its referring). God as-he-is-in-himself is beyond all human descriptions. Most radical proponents of via negativa even claimed that we can't say neither that God exists nor that he doesn't exist - the meaning of the word "exists" itself is derived from the "known", from the things, objects and events of our experience and knowledge of in-worldly things, so the word "exists" is not, strictly speaking, adequate when applied to God. That's what the author of The Cloud of Unknowing says, for instance (See the Penguin Classics edition, where there are other works of the same unknown author included; The 5th Chapter of the Mystical Theology of St Denis is a particularly striking example of via negativa).

All this sounds far too radical to most Christians ears today. But even of one does not accept the whole view, there is an important lesson we can learn from via negativa, an important point which a mature Christian should, I firmly believe, take on board and always be aware of it. And this lesson is that God surely is beyond all human descriptions and concepts. Even more than that: God may be seen more like a context of our life experience ("Living in God", or "being brothers in Christ"), a certain reading of our existential feelings and changes in them, than an object of any of our experiences or thoughts. When we objectify God, speak or think about "him" or even sing about, and feel emotional feelings towards God, we are necessarily involved in human constructions. Nothing wrong with that - in any speech, thought or expression which involves language we are embedded in human constructions.

But, however necessary that is for any religious endeavour, isn't the most profound temptation one can think of exactly the one of taking our conceptions and objectifications of God as an ontological reality outside of human world? Our need for a clearly objective measure for humanity makes us push all our human constructions of God, all the worlds created through religious language, outside of humanity as well. But this is of our doing.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

A Protestant Reflection on Pope's Visit

Watching Pope delivering a Mass at Westminster Cathedral I can't help being overwhelmed by the aesthetic/spiritual experience of the liturgy, especially the combination of the Choir's excellent singing together with the sound of the Orchestra, and the incredible architectural features of the largest Catholic Cathedral in England.

The events of Papal visit in Britain make me think of my attitude towards Catholicism. Coming from an atheist family, growing up in the secularized surrounding where the largest faith is Roman Catholic, and thinking as someone who has initially converted to a quite anti-Catholic form of Protestantism and has gradually become a moderate into my theologically adult life, I can only offer a highly coloured set of impressions.

While I am constantly discovering 'new' resources in Catholic tradition for my own thought and religious experience (in terms of music, architecture etc.), I am in a deep disagreement with Catholic version of Christianity. It is not just the RC stance social issues which are constantly flagged up in the media, like the simplistic rejection of women priests, gays, condoms and alike which I find troublesome. More problematic are the very basic beliefs in the authority of Roman Bishop, Roman Catholic Tradition (so clearly led by earthly powers of most oppressive kinds), the theological views on other Churches and Christians who are "extra-ecclesiam", naive metaphysical realism and a reluctance of Roman theology to incorporate the relevant insights of contemporary culture. Medieval essentialist views on human nature, cosmos and God are over and out for centuries. Christ-event, salvation and "living, moving and being in God" as real, experiential dimension of faith life today cries very loudly for different philosophical underpinnings than those offered by official Roman Catholic theology.

Of course, there are Roman Catholic thinkers who do engage with culture, science, with faith experience and God-reality in new and creative ways which rise above the traditional metaphysics to which traditional Roman Catholic Church teaching is enslaved. Charles Taylor, Tomas Halik (whom I 'discovered' quite recently, I am ashamed to say), and indeed, my superviser Mark Wynn, are among such Catholic thinkers which I really admire and learn from. But I see them, similarly as some liberal protestants, as walking on the edges of Catholic faith and expanding the very notion of Roman Catholicism.

I suppose that the main issue is still to what extent one can believe that Roman Catholic tradition contains by and large a correct, or at least a credible interpretation of God, Jesus, the Bible and the continuing manifestation and work of the Holy Spirit in the world and Universe. The British Conservative MP Anne Widdecombe has explained it very well, I think, as she was commenting the preparations for the Pope's mass in the Westminster Cathedral. She said that the crucial decision is whether you believe that the Pope really speaks the Truth when he speaks Ex Cathedra, and whether he therefore offers the proper interpretation of Christianity. Understandably, she said that this step, to accept the authority of the Pope, is the most difficult but crucial step from which everything else follows.

I am utterly unable to accept any kind of authority in theological matters in this way, "across the board", so that the interpretations and teaching will be true BECAUSE the person or organization whom I accept as authoritative teaches so. And there are simply so many reasons why not to believe that Pope has this kind of authority. So, while it is not so so hard to understand why those theologians and philosophers today who have 'always been' Roman Catholic still work inside their tradition (usually not accepting all, or many RC teachings) and in so doing actually enable its possible future development (if they are not virtually 'banned' inside the Church like Hans Kung, for ex.), it is not clear to me that honest thinking and openness for any kind of truth can be sustained, in a longer term, with a conservative, authoritarian interpretation of Christian faith offered by the official Roman Catholic teaching.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Grace Jantzen, "Self" and Philosophy of Religion

Reading the book Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion by the late philosopher and theologian Grace Jantzen was an interesting and challenging experience. Being "forced" to honestly rethink so many features of the anglo-saxon (and, to a notable degree also my own) tradition of thinking about God - especially about knowledge of God - has been useful in many ways. The influence of patriarchal society, misogynist prejudices and characteristically male ways of relating to life, sexuality and the world, which Jantzen explores in her book, appear to shape the very foundations of this philosophical tradition, as she sees it.

For me, especially interesting was her critique of the structures of epistemology as these have been engraved into Western mind especially by the Enlightment philosophy (empiricist and rationalist, and later analytic philosophy). Jantzen has an issue with the assumption of the unproblematized subject, as she calls it: the presupposed rational, thinking self which was a taken-for-granted and stable starting point of any epistemology from Descartes and until 20th century. She emphasizes that feminist thinkers in particular have

“raise(d) the question of the materiality and physicality that subtends consciousness itself: the physical world and Descartes’ own body, without which he could never have developed consciousness and rationality. Descartes seems never to have asked himself how he became a conscious, rational subject, how he was born and brought up and nourished. ... His subjectivity, like everyone else’s, emerged out of his bodily development that had its origins in his mother’s womb...” (Jantzen, Becoming Divine, 33)

The lack of raising this question of development of the human thinking self or subject is symptomatic, she thinks, also for Anglo-Saxon (analytic) philosophy of religion as a whole. She accepts Lacan’s interpretations of Freud and of the empirical evidence of early childhood development which hold that self is “much trickier and more complicated than western philosophy has recognized” (ibid.). She summarizes Lacan’s position thus:

“the subject, far from being an autonomous self, is constituted by a rupture, an internalized otherness. It involves the enactment of the subject/(m)other division. We are long way from Descartes’ confidently rational cogito. ... Instead of fixed identity that subject simply has/is, subjectivity is something that is achieved not once and for all, but in fragile and fluctuating fragments. Moreover it is achieved only by repression and the splitting of the self, which is thus precisely not transparently rational.” (Jantzen, Becoming Divine, 37)

Of course, if this is true even in part, it has important implication for philosophy of religion, including (or especially) for any epistemological account of religious experience. I think Jantzen's critique is consistent with a sociological-constructionist argument that, since the language, concepts and norms significantly co-shape everything one thinks and does, the very notion of self or subject is likewise co-formed (significantly) by the community. The thinking (and perceiving) subject then, is not simply a stable given which could be taken for granted. It is unstable, fragmented, and “exists” as a unitary entity on the expense of repressed desires and feelings.

It seems then, that Anglo-Saxon epistemology of religion (and epistemology of rel. experience in particular) has some deep problems which it fails to address properly. But I think that here in fact lies also a possibility of a different kind of philosophy of religious experience, a more sensible one that the analytic epistemology of rel. experience (Swinburne, Alston, Yandell, and similar): if the subject is in important respects unstable and constructed, we should take seriously the claims of many mystics and some liberal theologians (Schleiermacher, but also the likes of Tillich and even Rahner in 20th cent.) that authentic God-experience in important sense transcends the subject (self) itself, or more precisely, the "subject-object structure". It is here that Jantzen meets Schleiermacher - very intimately in fact - although in her short treatment of Schleiermacher in Becoming Divine she is mostly critical of his experiential subjectivism (pp. 116-119) and of the privatization of religion he supposedly advocated (which is a questionable interpretation).