reasonable religion :: Charles Taylor on history and faith

In a chapter of Sources of the Self devoted to articulating the Deist’s vision of human identity and moral sources, Charles Taylor offers the following on the relation between faith, reason, and history. To read the passage in context it is necessary to understand that Taylor doesn’t advocate the position he articulates in the second half of the paragraph.

“So the paramountcy of order [in creation, from the Deist’s perspective] excludes miraculous interventions. But it also marginalizes history. The ‘historical’ nature of Judaism, Christianity, Islam—that is, the fact that allegiance and piety are focused on key historical events: Sinai, the Incarnation, the giving of the Quran—is intrinsically connected with their recognition of the extra dimension. These events are the eruptions of God’s affirming power in human life, and its continued force in our lives requires that we maintain unbroken continuity with these moments through tradition. Once the notion of order becomes paramount, it makes no more sense to give them a crucial status in religious life. It becomes an embarrassment to religion that it should be bound to belief in particular events which divide one group from another and are in any case open to cavil. The great truths of religion are all universal. Reason extracts these from the general course of things. A gap separates these realities of universal import from the particulate facts of history. These latter cannot support the former. ‘Contingent historical truths can never serve as proof for necessary truths of reason,’ as Lessing put it.” [1]

The very concept of “religion,” in its contemporary construal, contributes to the embarrassment about historicity. Religion is taken to be a general category, of which Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Christianity, and Hinduism are all concrete examples. Similarities between these faiths justify classifying them together under one general concept. They all share things like: belief in what remains invisible, an account of the meaning of human existence, and concern for symbols, rites, and liturgies. Accustomed to ordering and classifying other particulars, sloths (both two-toed, and three-toed) or salamanders for instance, human reason turns its attention toward religious behaviors and beliefs, extracts their similarities and sets forth a category, “religion,” that holds them all.

Thinking about “religion” in this general way influences the way in which common sense approaches religious questions. The temptation offered by the concept of “religion” per se, lies in the attempt to skim all the “good bits” off the top of world’s religions by collecting what they hold in common without having to get one’s boots mucky by stepping into the historical events and subsequent authoritative traditions. The value of the general category, in other words, is that it allows us to understand and conceptually manipulate all the particulars—it allows for the broad view.

This perspective doesn’t merely hold sway with those who stand outside all the religions and looks down upon them. It is part and parcel of the way that believers themselves see their own faith, and shapes their thought and practice. We tend to emphasize that which we know will gain acceptance from listeners, and so we apologetically couch our particular faith as a particularly well-adjusted historically grounded expression of the universal truths that “religion” is supposed to possess. “Look at how impartially benevolent Christianity makes us,” we say. The difference between our perception of a “moderate” believer and a fundamentalist often lies in whether he expresses his beliefs in language subordinated to “universal truths” or whether he insists on grounding everything in historical revelation. Hence the embarrassment.

The trouble is that the general concept is dependent upon the particulars. There really is no such thing as “religion.” No general definition properly encompases the exemplars. If you want to point to what religion actually is, you need to point to a specific group of people with a particular set of beliefs and practices. This is no different than noting that there really is no such thing as “human suffering.” We all know what human suffering is (firsthand), but human suffering cannot be experienced generally; it happens in this arm broken by police brutality, this child’s hunger, this mother’s grief. The general concept is useful, but only as a summation. Similarly the “universal truths” that are skimmed off the top of “religion” are really dependent on their original context, the practices and beliefs that give those truths depth and meaning. Stripped of that context, what seems to reason like “universal truth” one day looks more flexible the next. Both Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre speak of modernity as inculcating patterns of thought that strip human beings out of the context of a larger story (an account of the origin and goal of being-human) in which to make sense of their actions. Instead we are left with “universal truths” and naked experience to interpret as best we can by our own lights. The context makes all the difference.

One problem with Lessing’s “ugly ditch” between the necessary truths of reason and contingent events of history is that it is terribly hard to find necessary truths expressed anywhere but by contingent and historical people. Reason itself is a historical event. And one does not escape “tradition” by allying oneself to the broadest and least committed perspective possible—it is only within the particular tradition of Enlightenment thought that this disengaged and instrumental stance toward reality is taken as authoritative. It is from this perspective that talk of interaction between God and human beings appears “embarrassingly” historical (and by implication, irrational).

All this to say that there is no way out of history and into the universal—at least not without making some very “religious” sounding claims about the capabilities of human reason. Likewise, any notion of the steady progress of humankind under the tutelage of Reason (now unshackled from superstition) is telling a story about the origin, goal, and meaning of human life, and as such is making religious claims. Finally, secular ethics is, at its best parasitic on the values inculcated by religious traditions. At its worst, it is unaccountable to religious traditions altogether and falls prey to the temptation to objectify and instumentalize human beings and the rest of creation for the sake of whatever appears “rational” at the time. The “universal truths” of secular ethics are a harvest planted by someone else.

These things have been pointed out elsewhere (and more articulately), but I find this pattern of thinking so deeply ingrained within my own mind (repent, repent!) and in the culture around me that another attempt to point them out cannot hurt. So I say, hold strong to the historical tradition of Christian faith, don’t bother too much with the embarrassment over historicity, and don’t be bullied out of faith by a rationality whose ethics feeds on faith anyway.
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[1] Taylor, Sources of the Self, 273.

a conversation with Ralph Waldo Emerson :: on self-reliance

Someone I greatly love and respect recently sent me a copy of Emerson’s essay on “Self Reliance” as an expression of his basic instincts with regard to religion, power, and the study thereof. He asked for my thoughts on the matter—which is a rare enough event these days that I jumped at the opportunity. I thought I would share the comments more broadly. They come in two forms: 1.) Below is a summary of my basic feelings on the piece. 2.) By clicking here (On Self-Reliance), you can access a Word document that has my comments written in the margins of Emerson’s text. I would love to hear what others think of Emerson, or my take on his thought.
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The creed that Emerson is preaching seems to me to be the perfect religious expression of the Romantic wing of the Enlightenment. He is attempting to be very counter-cultural, and I have no doubt that in his day he was perceived by many people to be quite radical. But what he is offering, I will suggest, is not counter-cultural but is only the expression of the liberal half of the culture. His adamant non-conformity only represents conformity to a broader tradition than the traditions he saw at hand. To do that claim justice would require elaborating further on the history that I only briefly mentioned in one of the notes, but maybe I can offer a few points.

What is radical about what Emerson has to say?: That we should all decide for ourselves and guide ourselves? That authority cannot be trusted? That anything outside our own experience is liable to be the expression of someone else’s attempt to control us? Again, that is only the expression of an attempt to get “back to the sources” back to the very beginning, the very root of human existence, to see the very beginning and so to see human life in its pure form. With such a vision (we imagine) we could live rightly. The Enlightenment has been the sustained attempt to think or to experience ourselves back to our own beginnings. It is a fundamentally religious endeavor. And that is why persons within the Enlightenment tradition find themselves perpetually at odds with religion—and perpetually drawn to explain it. On that note, Kant tried to keep religion, but he had to divorce it from philosophy. Hegel tried to keep religion and philosophy together (because he knew they couldn’t be separated) and he ended up declaring himself to be God! Marx was wise enough to know that religion had to be one of the first things to go in his utopia because it offered a competing meaning for human life. To go even further back, Plato wanted to banish poets from the Republic—stories are not good for ideal citizens. The best theologians have always recognized Western philosophy as another religion. Modernity itself is a religion of sorts, or a whole host of little sects if you’d rather. Romanticists think that they’ll plumb the depths of truth by living with their hearts wide open to the world, because they understand human beings as primarily an experiencing creature. Many of them ended up in very, very dark frames of mind, wearing a lot of scars. Idealist and rationalists sought to establish human beginnings by putting themselves in contact with (supposedly) universal Reason.

Here’s a bit of Bonhoeffer: “Thinking pounds itself to pieces on the beginning. Because thinking wants to reach back to the beginning and yet never can want it, all thinking pounds itself to pieces, shatters against itself, breaks up into fragments, dissolves, in view of the beginning that it wants and cannot want…. Critical philosophy may proudly renounce what it lacks the power to attain or else lapse into a resignation that leads to its complete destruction; either alternative stems from the same human hatred of the unknown beginning.”

The other side of this dynamic, and to my mind an equally unhelpful one, is an insistence on traditions and institutions for their own sake. Emerson and folks like him often have people to argue with who are little more than their mirror image on the other side of the same cultural movement. One side pulls while the other pushes. I may sound like I’m taking that other position (honestly, if I had to choose I might lean to that side at the moment). I hope that I am not being blind in the importance I place on tradition. There is no point in space “out there” where we can stand and objectively evaluate traditions from outside them. But after all that I’ve said, I am grateful to the Enlightenment for the notion that we should think as objectively as we can about different traditions. A big part of my decision to stay in the Christian tradition has been the help I’ve gotten from others in recognizing modernity as a tradition unto itself—and one that equally deserves evaluation.

All that to say, when Emerson urges “self-reliance” as the key to living well as a human being, I can’t help but hear him echoing a lot of other figures, and I’m not yet convinced that the religious option modernity has on offer is the best one available.

That’s not to say that I don’t love philosophy, nor that I don’t see value in studying it. But it often comes with its own account of history, reason, and what it means to be human—and when those presumptions are examined, what is taken to be “foundational” is no less “superstitious” than what is rejected out of hand. That realization is driving a lot of post-modern philosophy, or hyper-modern if you’d rather, and philosophy is literally consuming itself. I’m getting off track.

My main gripe with Emerson, besides what lies above [in the marginal comments], is not that he isn’t looking hard for truth. I just wonder if he is looking in the right places. He argues that truth can best be found within one’s self – apart from tradition, apart from history, apart from authority, apart from the advice (imitation) of others. But what is left of the “self” that Emerson describes? I’m not sure that the self can be understood outside of all the relationships that Emerson wants to strip away. And derivative of that, I’m not sure that he’ll find truth there. I don’t necessarily expect Emerson to come to a final agreement with me, but I’m not sure about the wisdom of searching for the meaning of history outside history. Looking for spiritual truth in lofty heights of personal experience and inward navel-gazing means that one will always miss Jesus, born in a rough and simple manger, died on a rough and simple cross, who lives still in the rough and simple realities of the world, and even communicates through the rough and simple realities of human habits, customs, and traditions.

Achan’s stones [part three] :: the unity of revelation

It has been a while, but I am slowly thinking about revelation, divine speech in Scripture, and holy violence by attempting to read Joshua 7, the story of the execution of Achan and his family with a theological lens. Part One and Part Two lie a few weeks back in the queue.

The problem that a text like Joshua 7 presents can be expressed as the tension between three generally heartfelt convictions—a solution wrought by denying any of these beliefs raises bigger problems than are solved. Yet avoiding the conclusion that God commands murder seems to necessitate fudging one of these somewhere:

1. The unity of canonical revelation: “Isn’t the Bible God’s Word? Then why does this passage say that God wants sinners dead, while this other passage says that he loves the whole world?”

2. The unity and faithfulness of the God revealed. “God doesn’t do violence…does he? Does God change drastically in history? Why does he seem bloodthirsty here?”

3. The unity of our own reason and ethics. “Murder is categorically wrong, no matter what…right? Can God simply change the rules on us?”

I’ll try them on one at a time…
Continue reading “Achan’s stones [part three] :: the unity of revelation”

achan’s stones :: [part two]

The last post on this theme circuitously raised a thorny question about Scripture and God’s speech. Achan and his kin are put to death, seemingly at God’s command, and the execution seems to placate God’s anger. The blood of the offending man and his family satisfies God’s demand for retribution after his command was broken. This post and the next set out most of the escape routes that I can think of—and offer reasons why they create more problems than they avoid.

Anyone who wants to take the text seriously is faced with the problem: God speaks to Joshua to command the execution of Achan and his family. The last post questioned whether Achan was the sole culprit in all Israel (and thus the justice of his execution); but even if he was, the execution of his family seems barbaric. Does God command murder?

Modus operandi for most of us is to simply ignore these jarring and violent texts and focus on more straightforwardly edifying passages. On the whole, I am not sure that this is a bad thing; it is less than wise to quote Joshua 7 in an attempt to build up the church’s faith. But the existence of these texts subverts my desire to speak of the whole bible as the word of God—it makes me uncomfortable. Whether we ignore these texts or not, the picture of God that they present lurks in the dark cellar of faith—and we worry that he may come up into the light. For many, the problem remains whether or not it is faced explicitly.
Continue reading “achan’s stones :: [part two]”

did god really say? :: from adam’s apple to achan’s stones [part one]

Forbidden Fruit The serpent’s first question to Eve is an attempt to get under her skin, fomenting second thoughts about God’s gift and command. “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The serpent calls the content of God’s speech into question by twisting the command and putting a harsher edict in its place. Eve is sharp enough to set that twisted serpent straight–for the most part. “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say…”

The story is centered on controversy among God’s creatures as to what God actually said, and what was meant when he said it. The snake and the human bring different versions of God’s command–and different gods. The god of the serpent is a restrictive fellow who hoards all the garden’s fruit to himself (even though there is plenty to go around) and threatens transgressors with death (even though he doesn’t really mean it). Adam and Eve have another God’s breath in their veins; they know his generosity and his character, but in their naivete they act on the serpent’s sermon and fall into the serpent’s world. Adam and Eve claim the fruit for themselves, and awake to find themselves shamefully bent. This story is our story.

This post, however, is not about Adam and Eve per se. I want to look at a few other Old Testament representations of God’s speech, and eventually raise a few questions about the nature of revelation, inspiration, and our relationship to scripture.
Continue reading “did god really say? :: from adam’s apple to achan’s stones [part one]”

The wrong tree? :: Barth, Bonhoeffer, and knowledge of good and evil

Ben Myers at Faith and Theology, was kind enough to post a piece on Barth and Bonhoeffer in a venue where it would attract a few more comments than it would here (and therefore hold a bit more value in my ongoing research). He even found pretty pictures! At the moment I find myself impersonating that loathesome creature, the solitary theologian, stranded on the East coast and far from my theologically-minded cohorts in Vancouver. The dialogue is much-appreciated. The text appears below. Continue reading “The wrong tree? :: Barth, Bonhoeffer, and knowledge of good and evil”