Tuesday, October 18, 2005

(But how is the kingdom of God like that?) Part 3

So, I'm teaching "The Death of Ivan Ilych" to my Freshman English class, and, as is my wont, puzzling them with questions from Derrida: "My death; is it possible?" and statements by Wittgenstein: "Death is the only experience of life that is not lived through;" and even Tolstoy himself: "How should we then live?" And I'm re-reading this article by George Monbiot forwarded to me by Prior Aelred, and finding a link there to this article, which made me think of Kierkegaard's pseudonyms.

Let's see if this makes sense.

Robert Winston starts off with what looks like "the big question:" Why do we believe in God? And the answer, not surprisingly, starts by considering the practical applications:

It is possible that strong levels of belief in God, gods, spirits or the supernatural might have given our ancestors considerable comforts and advantages. Many anthropologists and social theorists do indeed take the view that religion emerged out of a sense of uncertainty and bewilderment - explaining misfortune or illness, for example, as the consequences of an angry God, or reassuring us that we live on after death. Rituals would have given us a comforting, albeit illusory, sense that we can control what is in fact ultimately beyond our control - the weather, illness, attacks by predators or other human groups.
This, of course, is subject to criticism ("Why would it be necessary, in the daily scramble to stay alive, to make time for such an indulgent pursuit as religion?"), and Winston proceeds to examine that issue in detail. (The illusion of control, for one, is a dubious and dangerously reductionist claim, especially given the history of Israel presented in the Hebrew Scriptures). I leave it to you to read his article and consider his arguments, but for Winston it bends around to a genetic predilection toward an "intrinsic religion." The validity of that conclusion is, to my mind, both dubious and of marginal value. But the concept of "intrinsic religion" is an interesting one:

Extrinsic religiosity he defined as religious self-centredness. Such a person goes to church or synagogue as a means to an end - for what they can get out of it. They might go to church to be seen, because it is the social norm in their society, conferring respectability or social advancement. Going to church (or synagogue) becomes a social convention.

Allport thought that intrinsic religiosity was different. He identified a group of people who were intrinsically religious, seeing their religion as an end in itself. They tended to be more deeply committed; religion became the organising principle of their lives, a central and personal experience. In support of his research, Allport found that prejudice was more common in those individuals who scored highly for extrinsic religion.

The evidence generally is that intrinsic religiosity seems to be associated with lower levels of anxiety and stress, freedom from guilt, better adjustment in society and less depression. On the other hand, extrinsic religious feelings - where religion is used as a way to belong to and prosper within a group - seem to be associated with increased tendencies to guilt, worry and anxiety.
Which brings us back to Ivan Ilych.

Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.
For Ilych, religion is certainly "extrinsic." He is "Christian" in the sense Kierkegaard blasted in The Attack upon 'Christendom: a Christian only because he was born into a "Christian" culture. To Kierkegaard, that meant one was not a Christian at all; and Ilych certainly betrays no attitude or action that can be even vaguely referred to as "Christian," until he is nearly dead. And even then, it is only the extremis of death that forces him to consider how he should act in life:

At that very moment Ivan Ilych fell through and caught sight of the light, and it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified. He asked himself, "What *is* the right thing?" and grew still, listening. Then he felt that someone was kissing his hand. He opened his eyes, looked at his son, and felt sorry for him. His wife camp up to him and he glanced at her. She was gazing at him open-mouthed, with undried tears on her nose and cheek and a despairing look on her face. He felt sorry for her too.

"Yes, I am making them wretched," he thought. "They are sorry, but it will be better for them when I die." He wished to say this but had not the strength to utter it. "Besides, why speak? I must act," he thought. with a look at his wife he indicated his son and said: "Take him away...sorry for him...sorry for you too...." He tried to add, "Forgive me," but said "Forego" and waved his hand, knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand.
For three days, Ilych writhes in pain, screaming in spiritual and physical agony. His only relief is when, for the first time in his life, he thinks of others first.

And suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave his was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides. He was sorry for them, he must act so as not to hurt them: release them and free himself from these sufferings. "How good and how simple!" he thought. "And the pain?" he asked himself. "What has become of it? Where are you, pain?"
While his death agony continues, internally he dies quite peacefully, even embracing death:

"It is finished!" said someone near him.

He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.

"Death is finished," he said to himself. "It is no more!"

He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.
Not exactly a scientific response to the question of "Why do we believe?," but then my point is to indicate that, as Hamlet says to his friend: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Is religion really about what's in it for me? Or is it about how I care for another? These are, as I've said before, some of the fundamental questions of Continental philosophy. Jacquess Derrida was a Professor of Philosophy of Religion in California. Emmanuel Levinas said he was struck by the altruism of a man who dashed forward one day to pluck a child out of the path of a speeding car, a child to whom the man had no relationship. It set him thinking about matters of Totality and Infinity, or same and Other. Much of phenomenology, from Kierkegaard through Husserl to Sartre and Levinas and Heidegger and Derrida, is concerned with this very question: how do we understand life as a self among so many others? In terms of Western philosophy, "intrinsic religion" is intrinsically a phenomenological pursuit.

Which is to say, it is not a scientific one. Indeed, science posits a "selfish gene" (if not as a fundamental theory, at least as a presumption) which religion must, in some way, fit into. But if evolution is a sound materialist explanation for life, that does not mean it is also a sound spiritual explanation. Which brings me around to Monbiot.

Are religious societies better than secular ones?
Not, we should not, a question limited to Christianity (though Monbiot's examples, and indeed the study he cites, seem to be so limited, he notes that the study is limited as well, and questions its conclusions on that basis). A very modern and even Western question, too. For much of human history, the word "religion" would have had no meaning, or certainly not the meaning it has today. To speak of "religion" would be equivalent to speak of drawing breath, or needing sleep, or hungering for food: religion was not an "option" on a list of "lifestyle choices." It was as central as one's identity in the community; often (and this is still true today for much of the world) it was one's identity. Indeed, it's an interesting question whether the "Western" idea of religion isn't peculiar to culture that spawned it. In stories like "Beowulf" there is ample mention of the God of Abraham, but absolutely no mention of the worship of that God; as contrasted with Homer's Iliad, where certain points of the plot actually turn on worship and sacrifice made to the Greek gods (especially Apollo). Perhaps these is something intrinsically "non-religious" about Western, or especially Northern, European culture. Certainly the standards of anthropology, sociology, and science in general, are peculiarly Western in origin and orientation. Perhaps that is a clue as to how valid our questions about "humanity" are: they certainly begin in one culture, and yet are universalized to all human cultures.

But I digress. Monbiot points to invididuals made bold by their religious beliefs; he touches on the same issue Tolstoy did: what makes us decide others are more important than we are? And isn't that discovery the true secret to happiness, or at least to the "right life"? It frees Ilych from the fear of death; and seems to have done the same for Frei Adolfo.

But what of the kingdom of God? Surely if there is such a thing, it would be obvious in a "religious" society. Yet the opposite seems to be true:

The US is the only rich nation with teenage pregnancy levels comparable to those of developing nations: it has a worse record than India, the Philippines and Rwanda. Because they're poorly educated about sex and in denial about what they're doing (and so less likely to use contraceptives), boys who participate in abstinence programmes are more likely to get their partners pregnant than those who don't.

Is it fair to blame all this on religion? While the rankings cannot reflect national poverty - the US has the world's fourth highest GDP per head, Ireland the eighth - the nations that do well in Paul's study also have higher levels of social spending and distribution than those which do badly. Is this a cause or an association? In other words, are religious societies less likely to distribute wealth than secular ones? In the US, where governments are still guided by the Puritan notions that money is a sign that you've been chosen by God and poverty is a mark of moral weakness, Christian belief seems to be at odds with the dispersal of wealth. But the UK - one of the most secular societies in the study - is also one of the least inclusive, and does rather worse in his charts than countries with similar levels of religion. The broad trend, however, looks clear: "The more secular, pro-evolution democracies have ... come closest to achieving practical 'cultures of life'."
Monbiot's conclusion is rather silly, actually, although consideration of the isse from that position would prompt some valuable soul-searching among committed Christians and other religious believers. As I imply here, I think the issues are more deeply cultural than theological (the U.S., in particular, is a "frozen" culture of immigrants, trying still to remain "true" to the culture of a world they simultaneously abandoned, and tried to re-create in the "New World." Many of the Puritans, after all, were radically conservative in matters of religion and society; not radically progressive.). But the issue of the necessity of God is still a thorny one:

It is hard to dismiss Dostoyevsky's suspicion that "if God does not exist, then everything is permissible". Nor can we wholly disagree with the new Pope when he warns that "we are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which ... has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires".
Although I'm not sure the absence of God makes everything possible, since the presence of God has never been a brake on the actions of Christians, and relativism has always itself been, well, a relative thing. Still, one does need a position upon which to stand, even if that position is itself mystery and uncertainty. I'm not sure, for example, that the kingdom of God is necessary; but it's a much better idea than any of the alternatives. And that brings me back around to Kierkegaard's pseudonyms.

One theory about the pseudonyms is that they were intended to express "indirectly" what the Edifying Discources (actually sermons) were meant to express "directly." The problem with this theory, as some modern commentators have pointed out, is that it bifurcates Kierkegaard's works into "allegories" and "explicitly religious" works. In other words, the pseudonymous works, despite Kierkegaard's plain statements on the matter, were just S.K. "expressing himself" in another way. In fact, the pseudonymous works are the explicitly philosophical ones, the attempts by "non-believers" to explain faith in Western "philosophically rational" terms. Hence the notion of "Absolute Paradox" and the "Knight of Faith" (and, erroneously, the "leap of faith.") In Wittgensteinian terms, Kierkegaard is attempting to use the "language games" of Western philosophy to explore the faith confessions of Western Christianity. And the results are not unlike scientific (anthropological; sociological) attempts to understand religion: helpful in some regards (seminaries rely heavily on the insights of sociology in examining practical issues of ecclesiology), but not, finally, dispositive of the issues.

Is God necessary? Is the basiliea tou theou necessary? Well, for that matter, is a theory of electricity, or nuclear physics, or quantum mechanics "necessary"? Kurt Godel's speculations on physics and logic led him to conclude time did not exist. No one questions the necessity of his conclusion, especially if his reasoning is shown to be sound. These things all have their uses, but are they "necessary"? A Christian could confirm that God creates weal and woe (indeed, trying to deny it creates all kinds of epistemological tangles), but that doesn't make any of those things "necessary." What, really, does necessity have to do with it, except as another way of trying to limit "religion" to a sphere that is places it within our grasp?

The questions bring us back to Kierkegaard, and the notion of the individual. "Intrinsic" religion seems to be a description of the ideal of religious faith. It is that religious belief Kierkegaard championed in both his pseudonymous and acknowledged writings. It is that sense of religion Tolstoy presents in his re-telling of the morality play "Everyman" (which itself presaged many of the issues of modern existentialism: death is, for each of us, an entirely individual matter). Ilych dies in peace only when he "acts" by turning his thoughts from himself to others; but even that change is entirely hidden from his family. His widow knows only that he died after three days of screaming in pain. The final sentences of the story make it plain that his agony only ceased when his life ceased. And yet, beyond our observation, yet wholly in keeping with Tolstoy's "realism," we know Ilych accepted death, and passed away (but not necessarily "over") in peace.

Extrinsic religion was not a "necessity" to him; but "intrinsic" religion clearly was. Is it, then, really a question of what we are defining?

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