Tuesday, October 07, 2014

All too....something

Combing my hair.  Why do you ask?

I decided I should read some Nietzsche again, just to test myself against a "real" atheist (v. the ones I keep obsessively reading at Salon; not in the articles, in the comments.  Is there a "Comments Anonymous" group I could join?  I don't have a problem, I can quit whenever I want to.....).  The results were not what I expected.

What I found was the same material I see at Salon, only with a 19th century European/Romantic edge to them.  I mean, this stuff was flat out laughable  Here's just one, from Human, All Too Human (it's worth pausing here to note Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are the two great writers of psychological insight in the 19th century, a direct outgrowth of Wordsworth's insistence on his own childhood as template for humanity.  Freud and the Vienna school would make us all think we are psychologists and taught us the vocabulary of psychotherapy came by the end of the century.  It was something in the air....  I mention this because Walter Kaufmann points out the title of this text refers to Nietzsche's "concern[...] with human psychology."):

Christianity as antiquity.  When we hear the ancient bells growling on a Sunday morning, we ask ourselves:  Is it really possible!  this, for a Jew, crucified two thousand years ago, who said he was God's son.  the proof of such a thing is lacking.  Certainly the Christian religion is an antiquity projected into our times from remote prehistory; and the fact that  claim is believed--whereas one is otherwise so strict in examining positions--is perhaps the most ancient piece of this heritage.  A god who begets children with a mortal woman; a sage who bids men work no more, have no more courts, but look for the signs of the impending end of the world; a justice that accepts the innocent as a vicarious sacrifice; someone who orders his disciples to drink his blood; prayers for miraculous interventions, sins perpetrated against a god, atoned for by a god; fear of a beyond in which death is the portal; the form of the cross as a symbol in a time that no longer knows the function and ignominy of the cross--how ghoulishly all this touches us, as if from the tomb of a primeval past!  Can one believe that such things are still believed?

Friedrich Nietzsche, from Human, All Too Human, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and tr. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin 1976, pp. 52-53.

100 years later, what seems revealed there is more about the writer's psyche than the human psyche in general.  A more poetic version of it comes from Wallace Stevens early in the 20th century.  I admire Stevens' poetry, but his argument is no sounder than Nietzsche's.

I'm not going to spend time debating the points of that argument.  I would rather, in response, simply quote Wittgenstein:

Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For 'consciousness of sin' is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.
 Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Ethics, Life and Faith," The Wittgenstein Reader, ed. Anthony Kenny (Oxford, Blackwell Press 1994).

Nietzsche is experiencing Christianity from the outside, and describing only what he sees.  Christianity from the inside is very different issue, and the difference is not a failure of reason (especially since reason failed Nietzsche at length, though I don't think, with Chesterton, that Nietzsche's thought and his ultimate madness were causally related); it is a difference of experience.  To get at that difference I would turn to Dom Crossan's book, The Greatest Prayer.

Crossan explains, chapter by chapter, the words of the Our Father.  In chapter 3 he discusses the Genesis story, linking it to Leviticus 19 (and "Hallowed by thy name."  Read the book if you want to see how he goes from Halloween to the Jubilee.  It's pretty interesting.)

He points out that Genesis 1 and Leviticus 19 belong to the Priestly layer of the Torah (J, E, D, P, are the four schools discerned in the torah.  Jehovah, Elohim, Deuteronomist, and Priestly, if you were wondering.  Further affiant sayeth not.).  Crossan makes the fascinating observation that the Priestly school was writing a parable about creation in Genesis 1, not an eyewitness account. "The authors know exactly what they are doing.  They know they do not know how God created the world, but they are equally sure the know its purpose and meaning."(emphasis in original).  Crossan points out there are 8 actions of creation squeezed into six days, so all the actions needed will fit the schema of a seven day week.  It is the schema that is important here.

It is that compression of eight chunks into six days that clarifies the authors' intention and purpose.  Put negatively, we humans are no the crown of creation.  (We are the work of a late Friday afternoon. And maybe not even God's best work is done on a late Friday afternoon.)  Put positively, the crown of creation is the Sabbath day itself.

Creation is not the world of six days, as is often mistakenly said--and whether is said literally or metaphorically, historically or parabolically, it is still mistaken.  Creation is the work of seven days, and, as its climax, the Sabbath day is built into the very fabric of our world, the very creation of our earth.

John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer (New York:  HarperOne, 2010, p. 64.

Crossan goes on to argue that this rest, established for one day a week, and every seven years (Exod. 23: 10-11 and Leviticus 25:2-7), and then the jubilee every 50 years (Leviticus 25:8-10), is a rest from work as worship.  It is a ritual; an ordering of life that reminds the people of Israel whose people they are, and how their lives are to be lived in order to enjoy "life into the ages" (the biblical formula often translated as "eternal life").  And that is where my interest lies:  in the importance of ritual.

Christianity is condemned from the outside as a community where individuals are told what to think, herded through meaningless actions from medieval Europe, and taught mythologies of the Bronze and Iron Age.  Religion is disparaged as the redoubt of the frightened:  afraid of death, of mental independence, of the world they live in.  What religion brings to humanity, according to this broad school of criticism, is not only of no value, but is in fact a detriment.  And one of the worst things religion can bring to human existence is ritual.

Which is funny, really, since our secular calendar in America is based upon holidays, which once meant "holy days," days set apart for special activities.  The rituals are thoroughly secular, but their observance is as ingrained into our lives as sunrise and sunset.  No longer mindful of the seasons except as how we change our wardrobe to respond to the weather, we will follow the year based on a calendar that actually starts in August (not January or December, as the Christian calendar does).  That beginning is the First Day of School.

It gets mentioned on the news every year.  Texas has a "Tax Free Day" when sales tax is suspended on certain purchase meant to return children to school in new clothes and shoes (mostly).  Columbus Day pops up in October, but the real holiday is Halloween, an excuse for everyone, child to adult, to dress in costume and be seen in it in public.  Thanksgiving follows hard thereafter, gateway to the shopping season that is Christmas, a season that ends with New Year's Day.  The next holiday is Easter, whether celebrated at a church or with an easter egg hunt and another excuse for a feast (the last of the three feasts which began with Thanksgiving almost six months earlier).  Then, as with the Christian calendar, comes the long season until August, punctuated only with the 4th of July (Memorial Day is a day for shopping and expecting school to end).  Take away too many of these days and the rituals that surround them (shopping; handing out candy; eating turkey and watching football; exchanging gifts and eating again; drinking and eating on New Year's Eve; eating again at Easter, and the last time on the 4th), and the year becomes flat and listless.  It is our rituals that give the year it's shape as well as its order.

So ritual is not something priests do while an audience sits silent and has incomprehensible words muttered over it.  Crossan points out the sabbath day, year, and jubilee, all put into daily life the lesson that the world was God's and we just live in it:

The Priestly tradition was not interested in crop rotation, agricultural management, or responsible farming [all modern explanations of the Sabbath year concept].  It was intended as shock treatment, to make the hearers realize that God's land was a living thing and to make them ponder its right to have a rest like everything else in God's creation.

It is...not about agricultural wisdom, but about distributive justice--for the land itself, the inhabitants, the domestic animals, and the wild animals.  It applies, furthermore, across the great Mediterranean triad of grains, olives, and vines.
Crossan, pp. 68-69.

And what is the point of this?

The logic of all these Sabbath injunctions it an attempt to return once more to that beginning moment of Sabbath creation, when all the world as distributed fairly and equitably by God and was declared good and blessed in its inaugural glory.

Crossan, p. 69.

What is the purpose of Christmas?  To merchants, it is to balance the books before the calendar year ends.  What is the purpose of the first day of school?  To begin another year of education for students, teachers, and parents.  What is the purpose of Halloween?  To give us a holiday that, at least in the northern states, can still be observed out of doors before winter shuts us in.  What is the purpose of Thanksgiving except to reunite us with family, and Easter except to mark the beginning of spring, and the 4th of July except to break the monotony of summer with an occasion to rest from our labors?

None of those, mind, are the "official" purposes of those holidays, and most carry multiple purposes (candy sellers love Halloween in particular; turkey farmers count on Thanksgiving; etc.).  But there is great purpose to ritual, and great need for it.  Religion provides the ritual (except for July 4th all of those rituals are church related; even school for all began in England as "Sunday school," Sunday being the only day of the week the children of laborers could attend any educational opportunity, rather than be expected at work).   Ritual gives meaning, purpose, and order to life, even daily life:

Woke up, fell out of bed,
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup,
And looking up I noticed I was late.

Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke,
Somebody spoke and I went into a dream. 

Lennon and McCartney aren't describing a ritual there as much as a routine, but it is a routine familiar enough to make most of us recognize it, or at least the truth of it, and it seems familiar enough it anchors our sense of place in the world and in our time; which is what ritual does.  Ritual's root purpose is to provide order imbued with meaning.  Does that mean ritual cannot become rote, become:

Shape without form, shade without color,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion

Well, yes, it can be.  Everything loses meaning if we allow it to be lost; but the meaning can also be recovered.  Crossan's close reading of scripture (you have to read his work to see what I mean) is an attempt to recover from the text what time has buried.  Reading his analysis can be like watching a painting be restored step by step, as layers of varnish and dirt and the accumulations of age are stripped away, and the glory of the original is revealed.  Ritual itself can have that effect, if it restores us rather than becomes gesture without motion and shape without form.

Ritual that connects us to ideas like redistributive justice can be a powerful source for morality, and certainly a more effective expression of morality than a philosophical treatise.  To understand's Kantan ethics I must persevere in my understanding of the Categorical Imperative; but there is no ritual to refresh my appreciation for Kant's ethical imperatives.  Jean-Paul Sartre understood that an ethics without god puts the responsibility solely on the individual:  you choose what humankind is by what you think is right or wrong; so choose wisely.  It is such a terrible burden no one wants to undertake it, and what ritual would renew our sense of responsibility and purpose, so that we would carry on as Sartre advises us?  Re-reading his essay on existentialism as a humanism?  Beating ourselves with cords (and isn't that choosing what humankind is, too?  Yes; and heart, every ethic does that.  Now go forth and expand that ethic into a social norm.)?

Ritual gives meaning to life, but does not place meaning in life.  Our secular rituals remind us to buy turkeys in November, ham at Easter, hot dogs in July, and start shopping in September for the annual event in December.  Whether those actions give life any meaning, is another matter.  Ritual can imbue life with meaning, but ritual that only reminds us what foods to buy when, is certainly "shape without force, shade without color/Paralysed force, gesture without motion."  And what system of pure rationality, what philosophy, can imbue it with any other meaning?

Religion is not simply a set of ideas or doctrines.  It is not simply a set of practices and ordinations.  It is not merely a set of rules and regulations.  No more than worship is about adoration and heaping up praise.  Worship is about acknowledgment, and adjustment of the worshipper to right relationship with all of creation.  It is in line with what Kierkegaard said about prayer:  "The function of prayer is not to influence God, but to change the nature of the one who prays."

Just as is the function of religion, an end it achieves through ritual, and remembrance, and connection to others, inside and outside the community.

Gotta go drag a comb across my head....


  1. Increasingly when I think about religion I come back to the motto that heads Lawrence Sterne's very strange novel, "Tristram Shandy":

    Ταρασσει τοὐϚ Ἀνϑρώπους οὐ τὰ Πράγματα,
    αλλα τὰ περι τῶν Πραγμάτων, Δογματα.

    We are not vexed by things themselves, but by our opinions of them.

    As I follow the furious contemporary argumentation about religion on the internet, I realize that it's less a matter of things than interpretation. We all see the same world, but see it very differently--as meaningless or meaningful, as purposeful or purposeless, as beneficent or malicious or indifferent. All of these things are vitally important to us, but none are given by the "pragmata" that we all commonly see.

    That, I hope, is not reductionism, but the point from which vast differences begin.

    On your penultimate paragraph:

    "Religion is not simply a set of ideas or doctrines. It is not simply a set of practices and ordinations. It is not merely a set of rules and regulations."

    Religion is certainly not "simply" any of those things, but, as a concrete reality, it almost invariable includes ideas, assertions, and complex norms of behavior that add up to a way of life supported by an understanding of the whole.

    "No more than worship is about adoration and heaping up praise. Worship is about acknowledgment, and adjustment of the worshipper to right relationship with all of creation."

    But what is our right relationship with all of creation if it excludes adoration of the creator? St. Francis' Canticle, as an example, is not praise of creation, but praise of God through creation. "Laudato se me signore per sor acqua...."

    "It is in line with what Kierkegaard said about prayer: "The function of prayer is not to influence God, but to change the nature of the one who prays.""

    Certainly prayer does not seek to influence God as a magical incantation calls the spiritual or demonic powers to be obedient to one's command. But if prayer is anything it is a relationship to another, and though the assertion of that real relationship raises the vexed question of the exact meaning of the unchangeableness of God, I am not sure I am prepared to accept Kierkegaard's lonely assertion that prayer is my affair alone. He is right to emphasize how prayer changes the pray-er, something much downplayed, but surely the relationship we seek to enter into with God cannot be confined to my isolated self.

  2. I would not isolate prayer to the self, but for me S.K. serves as a corrective to prayer as activating the cosmic slot machine.

    There are too many comments on prayer that all presume it involves getting what you ask for, or not getting it because you don't need it, or don't need it just now, or countless variations on that theme.

    Interestingly, although Crossan hasn't addressed it yet (I'm reading slowly), I always took the "Our Father" as a model of prayer because, among other important things, it doesn't ask for anything beyond "this day our daily bread," and forgiveness inasmuch as we are willing to forgive others. That prayer keeps us tied to God ("Hallowed be thy name") and yet resolutely returns us to each other. The general perception of prayer is that it's all about me, but that's loneliness of another sort: it's all about what's in it for me, what God will give me that nothing else will.

    So prayer, and God, become a last resort. I would not say S.K.'s is the last word on prayer; but it's a starting point on turning the subject in the right direction.

    And I don't disagree about worship as adoration of the creator; but I wasn't trying (apologies if I did so) to limit worship in some way; again, I meant it as apologia. From the "outside" perspective, prayer is about request; worship is about adulation which equals placation of the god. Certainly that is Nietzsche's take on it, insofar as he acknowledges a deity in the circuit he describes.

    I think religion is a matter of things as well as interpretation, which is why I posited the "insider/outsider" position here. I actually had fuller thoughts on what religion is, but once again they got trammeled in my writing about what it isn't.

    Which is to say I'm not arguing with your comment; I'm trying to clarify my position, such as it is. I think what I originally wrote is a stab at apologetics; but maybe I missed the mark.

  3. I'm probably being too nit-picky. With all the awful things going on in the world I wonder why I should care much about the "new atheism." It's pretty much its own reward.

  4. No, I appreciate the comments, I really do.

    And yeah, "New Atheism" is it's own reward. When I re-read Nietzsche, I realized where it is (mostly) coming from, and I also realized how groundless it is.

    Hence the "inside/outside" posture. Which I now realize is apologetics, which is funny somehow.