Is faith above ethics?

Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling is a challenging read, but gripping when you’re in the mood for that sort of thing.  The main thesis has something to do with faith being the greatest passion of human beings, that faith reaches beyond rational ethical doctrines, and that modern society is wrong to think that it can go beyond faith.  The faith exemplar is the biblical Abraham, who is asked by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  Abraham’s faith leads him to comply with God’s command, except that God stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac at the last second.

Kierkegaard tries all sorts of psychological tricks to get us on board with his thesis.  He asserts repeatedly that he cannot understand Abraham, because Abraham is superior to him by virtue of his faith.  The implication is that if we think we understand Abraham, we are wrong, because not even Kierkegaard understands Abraham.  He asserts that if faith is not beyond ethics, then faith is nothing.  And if faith is nothing, then the story of Abraham is pointless.  So if we want to believe that faith is something special and that the story of Abraham is something special, then we must follow and agree with Kierkegaard that faith is above ethics.  Resorting to tricks like these raises red flags.  It suggests that the author knows something about the weakness of his thesis when it is presented straight and sober.

Another challenge is we are dealing with an analysis of stories, stories that explicitly defy the parameters of regular experience.  Why should we care about a world where God commands human beings to do unethical things, when we live in a world where God is silent?  Can faith be understood to be beyond ethics without the Abraham story?  If it can’t, and the Abraham story is pure fantasy, then who cares about Kierkegaard’s argument that faith is above and beyond rational ethics?

Nevertheless, I admit that there seems to be something important in this writing.  Is it possible that God might want mankind to go beyond ethics?  The idea itself creates fear and trembling.  Obviously, any attempt to go beyond ethics could very likely amount to falling below ethics.  But isn’t it an attractive idea that the universal rules of ethics are too clunky and cumbersome for the full color and vibrancy of the human spirit to emerge?  Not that we should be allowed to cheat the ethical rules, but that there are available extraordinary purposes in life that demand we hate ourselves, that we hate those we are expected to love, and concentrate our love in something higher?  For Kierkegaard, this seems to be in part what the Abraham story is suggesting (and echoed in Luke 14).  And this higher purpose is that we love only God and serve Him, setting aside our rational ethical obligations to our nation, our family, and ourselves.

I am aware of the semantical pitfalls in this presentation.  If a thing is contrary to what God wants of us, how could it be called ethical in the first place?  Kierkegaard works around this by distinguishing the universal from the absolute.  It seems just as well to say that one can think of a lower ethics and a higher ethics.  The lower ethics involve calculation, and include those rules that were everyone to live by, the world would be harmonious and just.  The higher ethics call on us not only to be compatible with a world that might be just, but to suspend all worldly calculation in service to God.

But there is a final piece to this, in order to account for the emphatic distinction Kierkegaard makes between Abraham, who is described as a knight of faith, and those others who are praised but would be better described as tragic heroes.  It is not faith, but tragic heroism, to sacrifice in order to save a nation.  It is not faith, but tragic heroism, to calculate and act for the sake of the outcome.  So what is faith, and why is it higher?  Faith is a personal, not a public or civic, virtue.  It is faith to believe that regardless of the immediate consequences, and regardless of public opinion, that God keeps His promises to those that trust, love, and serve Him.  Also, that these promises are kept in this world, not exclusively or primarily in the afterlife.  God promised Abraham Isaac in this world, and though God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in this world, Abraham continues to believe that in obeying God, he will still have Isaac in this world, because this is God’s promise to him for his faith.  Abraham thus lets go of everything as it appears in the world, and in so doing proves his faith.

But does Abraham’s faith put him closer to God by leaving him willing to abandon rational ethics and sacrifice his son?  Are we all called by God to surpass our ethical inclinations?  Is it really not better to be a tragic hero, or even just a regular-old-good-person, than to have (this) faith?

Needing a (Way of) Life

Many of us have a sort of nagging restlessness that we’re frequently in need of escaping.  We need to be fully immersed in something, but nothing seems sufficiently appealing.  There is a deep trepidation that trying to immerse in the wrong thing will only intensify the restlessness, turning it into desperation.

Others of us are lucky enough to already be immersed.  We have a way of getting through the day that fully absorbs our attention and energies to a sufficiently satisfying degree.  We feel invested and are comfortable with the expected returns on that investment.  We don’t understand people that seem to feel so alienated from everything.  Why can’t they just live their life?  How difficult is it?

If we look at the different ways people immerse themselves, some patterns begin to emerge.  Some are very much into some sort of close-knit community, the members of which all have a thick sense of their common identity.  The group is strong, protective, and exclusive — maybe its just family, just friends (as in a fraternity or sorority), or some mixture of the two.  When these communities are big enough, functional, and healthy, they offer so many sources of stimulation and various social sensations that being actively in them can be fully immersing and satisfying.  Desperation only seeps in when too many of the members are too busy to congregate as a group.

An opposite way of experiencing immersion is through competition.  We see this sometimes with people who lose their community and instantly transition from a cooperative and loving posture to a competitive and hateful posture (as in bitter divorcees).  Competition is inherently stimulating, as you have to not only beat your opponents but also do so in a way that is viewed as legitimate.  The hate that is motivating the competition has to be channeled into virtues like focus, determination, perseverance without showing the vices of nastiness, weakness, and foolishness.  Executed correctly, though, hate for a person or group can be as fully immersive as thrivingly fraternal community.

I don’t know why we have this need for immersion, but we can see it everywhere.  Those lacking a community to join or oppose turn to other things.  Religious faith has unique qualities suitable for a deeply immersive experience.  Contemplation of an infinite being, with qualities of perfection exceeding human comprehension, to which we owe gratitude exceeding our capacity, from which we receive endless and unfailing love, can completely overwhelm the mind’s intellect and emotions.  And of course there are the immersive effects of drugs, alcohol, sex, pornography, food, gaming, and all the other addictions we see people all around us completely absorbed in.

Perhaps becoming more aware of the need for immersion can help us understand our attachments and our anxieties.  Less clear is what the best form of immersion is — it certainly can’t be hate and competition.  If the answer is community, then most of us are dependent on others to provide it, and the good fortune that there will be chemistry between ourselves and that community — common tastes, sense of humor, interests, values, etc.  If the answer is faith (which happens to be my answer) and we aren’t faithful already, then the road to be travelled is perhaps just as difficult.  If the answer is addiction, then we have a lot of pain ahead of us, and we have essentially given up on the fullness that life seemed to promise us as children.

On enthusiasm for the Bible, for Trump, and other things

Behold, the power of belief is revealed, and there, thrown aside, is the truth.

The word enthusiasm represents to many people energy and passion.  It has a more extreme sense, indicating a sort of enflaming of the spirit or becoming filled with spirit, or filled with a god.  Enthusiasm in sound and meaning is related to inspiration, to be inspired, to receive something from outside of one’s self of meaning and importance.

Trump rallies during the recent election were overflowing with enthusiasm, or, as Trump and many witnesses and journalists described it, love.  Attendees often experienced a sort of euphoria.

The Bible describes Jesus’ version of campaign rallies as creating similar sensations.  People shed tears of joy in his presence, and fall to his feet.  Their pains washed away, and they felt whole.

In both cases, belief in the power of another to heal one’s self is essential.  Jesus heals no one that does not believe.  To feel the joy, the excitement, the enthusiasm, the inspiration, belief is primary.  And this belief is contagious.  Seeing is believing, and being in the company of others who are visibly transformed, even if but temporarily, can be very compelling.

Is it a good thing or a bad thing to become enthusiastic?  One factor is whether the enthusiasm is sustainable.  An arthritic old woman attending a tent revival might feel healed in the moment but then shortly returned to her original misery.  Was the moment worth it?  It seems not.  More like a nasty tease.

Is enthusiasm ever sustainable?  It would seem so, if it is manifested properly.  The enthusiasm can keep burning if the belief that ignited it avoids counterfactuals.  The arthritic woman cannot keep believing for very long when her hands continue aching.  She may cling to the belief out of desperation and stubbornness, but the enthusiasm will die out.  In contrast, believing in Trump is believing we are on our way to a better place.  This is a belief that is more shielded from counterfactuals.  It is easier to convince one self that things are on the path to getting better, and to dismiss as part of the journey anything that starts going wrong.  It is easier to convince oneself that the leader or prophet is well intentioned and of good character, even in the presence of counterfactual claims, so long as the leader keeps denying those claims in a manner that is plausible and projects confidence.

Is believing in Trump like believing in Jesus?  If we apply the same reasoning, belief in Trump has serious disadvantages to belief in Jesus.  The counterfactuals to Trump’s vision will continue mounting up, because the vision is one of how the physical world–specifically the United States of America– is going to change over the next few years.  He resort to the blame game to possibly get a second term of office, but unless Trump can truly deliver, there will be no second and third generation Trump believers.  Belief in Jesus, on the other hand, seems completely immune from worldly refutation.  The Bible frames Jesus’ teaching as a moral and spiritual guide, not as a political playbook for national restoration.  To the extent that the Bible can make people feel morally empowered and spiritually accommodated, this sort of religious enthusiasm can burn for centuries amidst any worldly condition or series of events.

Belief in Jesus does face serious challenges of its own, however.  Believing in Jesus requires some sort of positive assessment of the accounts of Jesus’ divinity and the miracles he performed in the world.  The challenge is stark in a world where miracles have been debunked and banished from the minds of many people as even remotely possible.  To the extent that belief and enthusiasm are contagious among attendees at a revival or political rally, so too are disbelief and cynicism easily spread throughout a gathering, community, or entire civilization.  Christianity’s threat is more from widespread cynicism regarding its reports of miracles than it is from failing to deliver on its promises, which are otherworldly.  Its thread of connection to this world, the historical factuality of Jesus’s recorded miracles, is the weakness, as are the in-coming facts of Trump’s developing record for turning his promised campaign dream into reality, as are the facts of the tent revivalist’s ability to actually have healed the sick.  The particular facts that undergird any particular form of enthusiasm–be they religious or political in nature– are always vulnerable to assault from counterfactuals.

Returning to the original question of whether enthusiasm is sustainable and therefore possibly good for the individual experiencing it, it would seem the strongest form of enthusiasm is that which is most immune from counterfactuals.  Miracles having occurred long ago seem to fit the bill here much more than present miracles as in any tent revival healing  (which can be immediately debunked) or short-term prophesying, which either comes true or it doesn’t (and usually doesn’t).  Can people absorb–not fully accept, but see, hear, and understand– the counterfactual to Christianity that miracles likely do not exist and continue to believe in the Bible?

To answer this, I think we need to leave the question of sustainability of enthusiasm to the side and address the larger question head on of whether enthusiasm itself is a good thing. Perhaps if we see that it is a good thing, that helps answer whether it is sustainable.  To the extent that enthusiasm is inherently at war with counterfactuals, would it not be better to drop enthusiasm altogether and live in a world fully immersed in the intellectual experience of sorting through all of the facts of the world and rising above our flawed opinions and prejudices to the ever-emerging establishment of human knowledge?

It’s not so easy to reflexively say yes when we bring back into focus all of the good that enthusiasm does for people.  To be made whole, to be healed, to be inspired — is it rational to abandon all these things, only in order to embrace perhaps an existential ideal of the noble struggle of the hyper-rational soul, sick, lame and wounded, refusing crutches, bandages, balms, or potions of any kind?

Is there a good enthusiasm, one that truly helps its host, but avoids the horror of those enthusiasms that cannot be restrained by anything?  A good enthusiasm that avoids turning factual reality into an illusion and running roughshod over everyone and everything that stands in its way?  A good enthusiasm that is self-aware of its loosed relationship with factual reality, while remaining loyal and respectful of that reality?

 

Loosening the Grip of Anxiety

We are thrown across the ground, and some of us land in good spots, others in bad spots.  We are scattered.  Where we find ourselves is not often where we want to be.  We would rather be somewhere else, somewhere much better.  Failing that, we would like to escape from where we are.  Escape away.  Unplug, unhook, and float away.

You could call this frustration, or anxiety.  The feeling itself can be dull and then spike.  Duration has a multiplying, paralyzing effect.  Each added moment contains a loud, screaming assertion of the unbearable now.

You feel caught, and it is easy to lose faith in a way out.  There usually is one.  But when you’re paralyzed, you need a pivot thought.  Something that creates some space to move.  For me, that thought is that this is how things are (temporarily) supposed to be, that the good I want is blinding me to the good that is available.

Your soul needs pleasure, but pleasure is a delicate mystery, always dancing within us and around us.  Your soul will lead you to it, help you unlock it, access it, if you can muscle out some thought on the opportunity of your situation — this strange spot you landed in when you were thrown across the ground.  If you lose faith in the presence of opportunity, you can fall into the trap of desperation.  Then we get forceful in indulgence, destructive of ourselves, welcoming of a quick escape, a joy pulse, and a subsequent numbed recovery.

We need to worry more about the trap than the relative apparent advantages of where we have fallen to and come to rest.  Embrace the freedom of denial and confusion.  It is just a transition, a uniquely human transition, to a uniquely human moment of insight into this mysterious existence.  There is special pleasure there, and it’s waiting for you.

Why Jesus Cast out Demons

The worst, most painful aspect to the gospels is not that Jesus claims to be Christ, but that Jesus casts out demons, heals the sick, raises the dead, and all the rest of the supernatural miracles we are challenged to consider.  These are next to impossible to take seriously as actual historical events, which I think often drives them into a special cupboard in our minds reserved for irrational stuff that we want to hold on to for emotional reasons.  As someone who marvels at the depth and complexity of great literature, however, the value of the gospel narrative is far more than an unconvincing argument that Jesus was Christ because he performed miracles.  The Bible is a text, after all, and the multiple authors that contributed to it are free to use every literary tool available to form a medium of communication between God and man, if that was their genuine intention.

I am focusing on the New Testament for the time being.  The accounts from the Old Testament are also of great symbolic value, but the likelihood that Moses himself never even existed presents a much higher wall for my interpretational powers to climb.  Jesus of Nazareth, in contrast, is widely believed to have existed and to have truly, with the help of John the Baptist, founded Christianity.

I recently wrote about a few of the gospel miracles and how to access their symbolic value.  Getting the symbolism correct is important, but the first step is naturally recognizing that there is indeed symbolism there rather than just a descriptive, historical record.  The impossibility of the miracles should force us to look for symbolic value.  They should force us to ask ourselves, why the hell is this in here?

The gospel authors took on many risks in writing with literary, rather than simply journalistic, tools.  If you, the audience, believe that any of the miracles didn’t actually happen, then it seems fair to assume that probably none of the miracles did.  For many people, this possibility (and extreme likelihood) is going to be a deal-breaker and discussion ender.  The text lies, and cannot be trusted — why read it?

I can’t answer that question for anyone, at least not adequately at the moment.  I have read it, though, and I have some thoughts on how to interpret the more off-putting miracles that have to do with casting out demons.

Often, the people supposedly possessed by demons are out of their minds.  They are tortured, they convulse, they scream, they ache.  Jesus is able to cast out the person’s demons when that person has faith.

The first move we need to take here is to abstract away from the details, and ask what is the structure of what’s going on here?  Someone has pain, and the person’s faith in Jesus takes the pain away.  The pain is a result of something inside that has a mind of its own (the demon), something that is self-destructive.  The demon talks, it recognizes who Jesus is, it begs for mercy.

The second move we need to take is to ask what does this structural pattern correspond to in our own personal experiences?  Have I ever had a “demon?”  Has my faith ever expelled this “demon?”  Well, if one is to recall ever acting possessed, the first place to look is at close personal relationships that have soured.  The pain brought about by love that has been mismanaged, misunderstood, mistreated is terrible.  Some call it emotional pain, I think it is emotional, but goes quite a bit deeper than that.  The pain is spiritual.  Does it have a mind of its own?  It does.  It drives us to think, to feel, and to behave in ways that are against our better judgment.  It compels us to inflict pain on those that hurt us, and to punish ourselves in cases where we view ourselves as responsible for the ruining of the relationship.  Voices inside constantly suggest this or that.  They disagree with each other, they fear, they worry, they hope, they desire.

Is this what the gospel writers have in mind?  Why not?  The ambition of the gospels is clearly aiming at laying out a moral teaching that will improve the lives of those who accept it.  They are clearly worried about the harm that people cause to themselves and to each other.  And they clearly believe that the only way to fix all of this is to flip the whole table over and persuade people to believe in a better way of life.

This probably was the message of Jesus that the gospel writers are packaging and presenting more or less on his behalf (he apparently didn’t write anything down himself).  The change has to be ambitious, it has to be radical, or the demons inside of us are going to stay active in us, and we’re going to continue to suffer.  The argument is that faith in Jesus and his teaching will cast the demons out, it will heal the sick, it will raise the dead.  It will inspire us to love each other, to support each other in such a way that is so different than our current practices that our entire world can change permanently for the better.  People will have less sickness, less poverty, less premature death.

Does it work?  That’s another key question that I can’t adequately answer right now.  What I think is worth noting is that, if you want to truly change the world for the better, and purify the motives and hearts of human beings, getting them to love each other better, then the miracles told of in the gospel might be necessary, and the language of demons might be highly appropriate.  Maybe we need to think about what our own “demons” might be to better understand the nature of human imperfection.  Maybe it helps to view others’ imperfections as alien to their true nature underneath it all, and that any hatred we have should be directed away from the person and towards those specific imperfections that we might consider inhuman.  Is there a better way?

Religion: What’s to Like?

I missed out doing much for Palm Sunday this week.  I miss out on a lot of observances that in principle I consider myself obligated to tend to.  I was not raised in the rituals of any church, nor was I raised with a coherent orientation toward religion.  My dad wavered, and continues to waver, between atheism and agnosticism.  My mom was more faithful, but not by much.  Still, it was enough to get me baptized eventually, which occasioned my receiving of my first Bible.  And, I was invited by the baptizing priest to read some of the Gospel of Mark.  I can still remember the smell of the pages, which isn’t all that impressive given that most Bibles have a similar smell.  Anyway, the cover was red and shiny.

I believed in God right away.  I was always told by my mom about God and Heaven, and saw no reason to argue, but that isn’t the same as reading the Bible and feeling a strong sense that it is real.

As an adult, I realize that I was dyed in the wool as a Christian.  A Catholic, actually.  And I recognize that I was dyed in the wool as a Catholic because my mother’s mother is Irish Catholic (hi Nana!).  And the Irish that are Catholic are so because of St. Patrick, or something to that effect.  Anyway, it’s a faith I inherited.

baghdad dirt devil

So why stay religious now?  Well, I still believe.  Faith is gift, and I have it, for better or for worse.  I don’t believe every second of every day, but I don’t ever not believe for very long. I actually feel terrified during my moments of doubt — and again, to emphasize, this is a near daily occurrence.

What am I terrified about?  Actually the main root of this emotion is a completely self-absorbed concern with my own existence.  I can’t stand the thought of oblivion.  I think about it the way one touches a bruise to still see if it hurts.  And it always does.

This hasn’t made me overly dogmatic in the sense of believing in an old man that lives in the sky or something like that.  No fan of George Carlin is capable of that.  The truth is that I can’t fathom the essence or nature of God.  I can address this spirit in prayer, and I do feel connected to it when I experience remarkable coincidences and deja vu.  I feel connected when I take communion at church, when I hold hands and say the Lord’s Prayer.  When I live my life according to good principles I learned from the Bible, and see myself rewarded by the world over the long haul for living that way, I feel connected to it.

And this is why I like religion — the sense of connection with this spirit that I don’t understand, a spirit that somehow alleviates my terror over the prospect of death.  And this is why when I miss Palm Sunday I find a way to observe my faith, and do something like I’ve done here in writing this post and sharing it with you.  And it makes me feel good having done so, even if it isn’t quite what my faith expects of me.