Saturday, October 26, 2013

Heretical Thoughts Jotted Down

          There is no doubt that I am a wanderer. When it comes to faith I at times think to myself that the only reason I do not call myself an atheist is the fact that when I privately say "You're an atheist" to myself, I can't seem to stomach that. This bothers me because I feel that it is a total injustice to my atheist friends who are some of the most wonderful people in the world, and here I am reluctant to call myself an atheist because it seems bad. That puts me within a stereotype I hate perpetrating: that atheists can't be good people. This is a hot button issue for me because I know that it is completely ridiculous and I know that it is wrong. Other times I love the idea of a/theism. God without God. A realization that it is impossible to conceptualize such a being that is so wholly other than us. If God is wholly other than us, and we exist, doesn't that mean that God does not? This is what I think about. God can't simply exist, God must do something that is indescribable because language just breaks down in an attempt to formulate it. So in light of these thoughts I have had to ask myself if this prevents me from being anything. Does this make me another member of the rise of the religious "nones?" Recently I have begun examining the various tenants of Christianity and asking myself what they mean to me. I fully admit to being a follower of the teachings of Jesus*, but I now have to ask if that is what makes someone a Christian or not.
          So my attention turns to a major tenant of Christianity: the resurrection of Jesus. Even during my days of pious Christian orthodoxy I must admit I had doubts about this and had questions such as "If Jesus was the 'perfect sacrifice' then how was he allowed to come back to life? Doesn't this negate the 'sacrifice' part?" A question like that is wholly theological question, already presupposing that Jesus did indeed rise. The funny part to me (now) is that this question also begs the question, "Did God screw up?" Now the questions I ask are different as I try to rethink God and even what it means to say "God." I ask, "How can I believe this? I doubt God simply because I realize that it is impossible to know one way or another. Who am I to make bold assertions of the supernatural as it potentially is and conceptualize God in any way? So if this the way I think about God, how can I believe in something I know to be absolutely impossible?" It is this question that causes a degree of entropy in my mind. How can I be a Christian and deny this event? Can anyone? 
          My answer? Yes.
          This predicates upon the idea that the Bible should not be read as a history book, but rather read as one reads poetry; finding meaning within the text and finding the truth that you know is probably not within the realm of the physical, but is instead true only in the meaning it provides. The teachings of Jesus no doubt teach that we are to hold others above ourselves, care for the poor, not judge anyone, and value life above all else. What has happened in the history of Christianity has been the lifting up of the mystical teachings of Jesus over the pragmatic teachings that apply to our lives. The mystical, religious teachings that have been so keenly held on to are the ones that come in the later gospels, especially the book of John. Many Christians have so dogmatically clung to verses such as John 14:6 (I am the way, the truth, and the life...) that they fail to emulate the other teachings. What is so tragic is the fact that teachings such as the one in John 14:6 are historically unlikely to have been uttered by Jesus. The book of John was written thirty years or more after the book of Mark and is so highly "theologized" that many biblical historians take it with a grain of salt when it comes to identifying what Jesus actually said. But yet this is the book that people so emphatically cling to. This is the book where Christianity seems to base its theological teachings. It is painfully ironic because this is the book that is radically different than the first three gospels and is the book when Jesus becomes an exclusivist. 
          As a result of preferencing the mystical over the practical, we have privileged the absurd over the practical. We have let the miracles in the bible take total meaning over the actual teachings. The water to wine becomes fact. The raising of Lazarus becomes fact. The resurrection becomes demonstration. If a historical fact, the resurrection becomes something that's only meaning beyond it's literal happening is a skewed teaching that in Christianity there is no death. That in Christianity we overcome the real thing that makes us realize just how finite we are, just how amazing and unbelievable it is that we exist, just how important it is to make every moment count in order to make an impact. In believing the resurrection as demonstration one unknowingly rejects the practical teachings of Jesus because they are not what matter anymore. If purely believing that professing yourself as a believer in Christ is what gets us a ticket into heaven, then what do Jesus' teachings even matter anymore? It is a narcissistic individualism that is bent to help only one person at a time. This is the exact opposite of everything Jesus actually taught. 
          But if we understand the Bible as full of meaning shown through allegory we begin to understand something much more beautiful and Jesus-like than current orthodoxy. In this understanding Jesus is murdered. He is not given a fair trial. His crime is seen as a falsity that has been directed at him by hypocritical, corrupt religious leaders. He is hung on a cross and dies, yet in his last moments forgives those who have committed the atrocity of condemning a man that they know is innocent. We see a moment of pure humility and doubt in his cry of "God, why have you forsaken me?**" Then we see Jesus resurrect himself. He overcomes death and declares the atrocities that have just been committed against him and against all basic understanding of what justice is as impotent. It is in this understanding that we can derive the meaning that there are atrocities in the world, there are injustices, and that it is the common man who pays the penalty of the powerful's inability to forgo their own corruption and wealth for the sake of the many. The resurrection, in this sense, is the human spirit to go on in the face of all this. The resurrection teaches us that there is a good in spite of all the evil that can never be broken. In this understanding we are faced with the truth of the matter: The evil that holds power will abuse its power and in many instances get its way, but the true instance of humanity is its ability to forgive that evil, thus negating it by declaring that its acts don't matter; they are impotent.
          So when did being Christian become equal to having a ticket stub? It is amazing to me that people can think that only Christians can have morals when it appears to me that so many Christians have fundamentally misinterpreted Jesus' message. If what it means to be a Christian is not to follow the teachings of Jesus, but rather to embrace mystical ideas that have lost their place in the modern world then I am afraid that I am a full blown heretic (as if that wasn't obvious enough). In today's world Jesus is seen in many ways. In emulation of the teachings of Jesus, I feel as if we see atheists fighting for human rights, demanding justice, and continually identifying the good that is within people. Across the aisle, we seem to see an abundance of Christians against tolerance, against granting human rights to those who are denied them, and who have chosen to fully believe that no one can be in perpetually unfortunate circumstances, but instead must be people who are not good enough (morally) to rise up and get out of them. If this is truly the case then there will come a point where I do not want to be a Christian. It would be wonderful to redefine the idea for the better, thus why I am a fan of the Emerging Church, but I do believe there comes a point in which something becomes so toxic that it cannot be saved; apparently not even by Jesus.

*By teachings of Jesus I have to clarify that I mean the teachings that I am comfortable with historically ascribing to him. I don't follow the logic of the Jesus Seminar, who attribute only 18% of the gospels to Jesus' actual teaching, but I fully (and heretically) deny that all the red letters in the Bible are actual teachings of Jesus. 

**The only statement of Jesus on the cross that is accounted for in more than one gospel.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

(In)finite as Impotent: Faith in Response to the Immeasurable

           Perhaps St. Augustine’s famous question should be reconsidered and posited again, but this time with a different voicing. Instead of asking what I love when I love my God, maybe I should ask: What do I have faith in, when I have faith in God? But even still, that is a question not ready to be answered. Instead I must ask: What is this thing which I have, only to place in something other? As Johannes de Silentio finishes Fear and Trembling and blatantly tells his reader to either approach the paradox or watch Abraham, as the father of faith, come to an end, I am only certain that in the statement of “either there is a paradox, that the single individual as the particular stands in an absolute relation to the absolute, or Abraham is done for,” that the absolute is God, the absolute relation is faith, and that the single individual is Abraham (120). However, the key to this puzzle is the particular, and the particular can be stated as Abraham fulfilling his absolute duty to God. In this essay I want to say that this relation between individual and God through absolute duty and faith is necessary because it expresses the true relationship between the immeasurable and the finite as the finite recognizing its own impotency in the face of the immeasurable.
            To recall my repositing of Augustine’s question, this “thing” in which I have, only so far as to place in something else, is for de Silentio, faith. This faith that we can have (as it is a potentiality) is only purposeful in that it can be placed in something that is not us. It can be understood as a kernel of the truly infinite, which I call the immeasurable. It is not the ethical, but is instead beyond the ethical and into the religious. For de Silentio, this faith is the most important thing that Abraham can possess, because he must possess it or everything is lost. If Abraham is lost, everything is lost because we need Abraham’s faith for the religious to be understood. Abraham shows the existence of an absolute duty to God out of necessity. If Abraham is just a man that went on a mountain to murder his son, but then changed his mind, then there is no faith and we are all deceived. In standing as “the single individual as the particular” Abraham transcends the idea of ethical duty, as the ethical duty is simply to fulfill the universal. The ethical duty for Abraham would be simply to love his son, as a father must love his son. However, Abraham is not sacrificing Isaac out of love for Isaac; nor is Abraham forgoing the sacrifice of Isaac because he loves Isaac as a father loves his son. He is sacrificing Isaac because that is his impotency in relation to the immeasurable. Abraham is acting through virtue of the absurd. This absurdity- the religious- is beyond ethics. Who is Abraham to say that God is unethical or immoral? This is Abraham’s impotence, and simultaneously the impotence we all must confront in the face of the immeasurable. Our impotency is that our idea of infinite is still of a separate, lesser, quality than God’s infinity.
To say that God is immoral is to place God within the standards of the ethical, but God is not ethical. To say that God is ethical is to bring God down from the religious infinite into the universal infinite, which is applicable only in human reason. This is impossible to do with God or faith because “faith begins precisely where thought stops” (53).  This is not meant to be the common fundamentalist phrase that excuses God from any questioning, i.e. “God’s ways are higher than ours!” It is to say that at any moment in which one takes God and places him within a purely human sphere (albeit a non-physical, infinite one), one has perverted God into something that God cannot be if we hope to imagine him as made up of a substance or quality that is separate from our own. One goes beyond thought, beyond ethics, with a leap of faith, removing he or she from what is known, understood, and formulated, and placing his or her self into something that is unknown, impossible to understand, and impossible to formulate.
            This leap of faith is the beginning of an encounter with the immeasurable. The leap of faith is what enables Abraham to stand as the particular in absolute relation to the absolute. Abraham as the particular is Abraham expressing his absolute duty to God in a form that cannot be expressed to Sarah, Isaac, or Eliezer. The absolute duty to God is based upon the recognition of our own finitude in relation to God. Even within the ethical we fall short of our duty to God because God requires the service of the individual. The individual acts within the spheres of the aesthetic and the ethical; however, to make a movement that is neither sensual to the self as its purpose, nor an appeal to the ethical obligations of being a human, a third sphere, the religious, is required. Because this absolute duty to God brings us an experience of humanity as inhumane, it cannot be formulated in any words without a certain convolution, and with the convolution there is only misunderstanding for those around us. If Abraham’s situation is understood solely in aesthetic and ethical terms, Abraham loses his humanity; for his intentions and actions are too monstrous to be considered human. They are worse than evil dare imagines to be. There is no purpose in Abraham’s potential murder of Isaac other than murder for the sake of murder. Evil is born out of a misplaced ideology. In Abraham’s case, there is no ideology that the aesthetic or the ethical can provide. For Abraham, putting this situation into words that will only be understood by Sarah or Isaac in terms of the aesthetic or the ethical is wholly detrimental to the faiths of those around him.
            Abraham’s final movement separates two distinct forms of infinity: the ethical and the religious. The ethical is infinity that is observed and seen as infinite. It has a beginning, but has no end. It began with the beginning of humanity and unfolded itself through generations until it became what is understood between people as what is truly good or bad. It allows for a form of objectivity among people. If I say it is wrong to kill your child, ethics agrees; and people, informed by ethics, also agree. However, the infinite as immeasurable only takes place within the religious. There is no beginning and there is no end. Essentially, the differentiation of the two types of infinite expressed by the ethical and the religious is exemplified in mathematical terms when the difference between a ray and a line is understood. A ray has a set point in which it begins and then continues onward infinitely in one direction. A line infinitely continues in both directions. In attempting to explain this with the terms that de Silentio lays out, expressing the ethical is like expressing a ray that began and now continues infinitely. In expressing the religious, we express the line, as God is understood to be outside of time, and therefore to have no beginning or no end.
            Indeed it can be found that beyond just the aesthetic and the ethical, a form of religious relation must also exist. If it is said that for something to be understood it needs correct context then faith is no exception to this rule. However, the context is not to be found within the finite, or our own daily interaction with the infinite as the ethical. As Abraham shows us his faith by virtue of the absurd, this is how faith is to be found in all situations. Faith is an expression of helplessness in the sense that it is admittance from an individual that he or she cannot stay within his or her own means to understand everything. Even in this admittance of not understanding, one does not gain understanding, but yet chooses to embrace a paradox that puts the individual above the ethical in relation to the absolute. It is as de Silentio points out, “during all this time [Abraham] had faith that God would not demand Isaac of him, and yet he was willing to sacrifice him if it was demanded… He climbed the mountain, and even in the moment when the knife gleamed he had faith- that God would not require Isaac” (35-36). Abraham does not ever understand why, nor does he question it. Yet somehow he expects both to sacrifice Isaac and to get Isaac back. This is faith; and it is in this faith that we encounter our own helplessness in the face of the immeasurable.