Friday, February 25, 2005

If we don't feel it, is it true?

Reading Feuerbach this morning (The Essence of Christianity), and came across this:

If, for example, feeling is the essential organ of religion, the nature of God is nothing else than an expression of the nature of feeling….How couldst thou perceive the divine by feeling, if feeling were not itself divine in its nature? The divine is assuredly known only by means of the divine—God is known only by himself….

…But the object of religious feeling is become a matter of indifference, only because when once feeling is pronounced to be the subjective essence of religion, it in fact is also the objective essence of religion, though it may not be declared, at least directly, to be such….Thus feeling is pronounced to be religious, simply because it is feeling; the ground of its religiousness is its own nature—lies in itself. But is not feeling thereby declared to be itself the absolute, the divine? If feeling in itself is good, religious, i.e., holy, divine, has not feeling its God in itself? Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, tr. George Eliot (Amherst: Prometheus Book, 1989), pp. 10-11)
Now, Feuerbach is pursuing interests which are not mine, and reaches conclusions I don’t agree with. And some of his epistemology and metaphysics I would especially question. But the insight here (which he says is “adduced only as an example”) is what intrigues. It brings out the question of pietism and Romanticism, and links them directly to questions of American fundamentalism.

Pietism arose in the German Protestant churches in the 17th century as a reaction to the rather arid climate of the Reformation; it’s aim was to restore a measure of devotion to religious observance, and, not coincidentally, to involve the individual more in spiritual practices. By the 19th century Pietism was bolstered by the emphasis on the individual that arose under Romanticism. Feuerbach even reflects this turn, when he takes religion into the purely individual, personal, sphere: “I cannot know whether God is something else in himself or for himself than he is for me; what he is to me is to me all that he is.” (p. 16) Obviously, this presages Existentialism. Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun.

But the point of inquiry here, is into fundamentalism. It rests heavily on the emotional experience of the believer: conversion is an overwhelming experience of impulse, not a considered position achieved through reason; glossalalia and interpretation are “gifts of the Spirit” bestowed in an emotionally charged worship service, not the result of quiet meditation in a meeting-room; worship services emphasize spontaneity and emotionalism, not the pre-determined corporate responses of liturgical practice.

This is not limited to fundamentalist churches, of course. Most Protestants, who do not employ liturgical worship, expect the Sunday service to fulfill some emotional need, void, hunger, want; when it fails to, they consider their time that morning unsuccessful, perhaps failed. They are guilty, as are their fundamentalist brethren, of the error their non-believing friends accuse them of: of replacing reason with emotion.

Emotion is not the essential element of religious faith or practice; nor is it the obstacle to faith or religious practice. But fundamentalism and conservative Christian practice certainly places it at the center, and does so condemning “rational” faith as relying too much on the intellect, not enough on the heart (and rightly so). But fundamentalism is guilty of the same sin; it is the log in its own eye that lets it see the splinter in the other’s eye. As Feuerbach maintains, when he says only the Divine can know the Divine: like knows like.

There are other places to go with this, but while I’m reacting to it just now, I thought I’d share a bit of it.

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