In a previous post, I addressed the potential undesirable social consequences of putting too much weight on the particularity of narrative and political language for God, at the expense of more philosophical and metaphysical language to clarify it and make it universal. My concern there was that the narrative and political, when left alone, would lead to factionalism or sectarianism, and might breed either misanthropy or else a contempt for a very large out-group.
At the popular level, this can be a greater problem than at the more elite levels, but the elite levels are not at all immune. The importance of this was driven home to me in one of my visits to Facebook. There were two events of note.
First, the Facebook A.I. had a bizarre suggestion for a group I may wish to join: “God’s Friends and God’s Foes”. Apparently, in such a setup, the great narrative of the world includes two groups of people, and they are, somehow, groups of people — even political units.
Second, in a Facebook thread about Evolution, someone wrote:
A person chooses between the secular anti-Christian scientists that would use God’s own creation in a vain attempt to lead people astray or they stand strong with the TRUTH which is Christianity. If science claims that Jesus was not resurrected, then the science is wrong. Of course many many scientist claim the opposite and believe in Christ. We all choose which side we will be on.
He made truth political, and called people to take sides with or against a political group –his ostensibly religious faction– and its opinions.
The commenter above asserted the “truth” (or “TRUTH”) of Christianity. When talking with modern religious people, mostly evangelical Protestants, I regularly hear the phrase “God’s Truth.” It is usually brought out on stage after this-or-that other thing is called “true” or “truth.” Otherwise, it is usually a printed response to such a claim being made earlier in another medium. As in the example above, this seems to happen most often with evolution, but moral claims are also advanced this way.
The phrase “God’s truth” makes it sound as though there are all these perspectives on things, all these “truths,” and that the biggest gorilla on the block wins the truth game. It is as though someone were saying “Say what? Oh, yeah? well, God says…” This kind of discourse seems to talk about God the way that middle school students speak about comic book superheroes. Should we rise above the narrative and figurative mode to a philosophical and theological one, we would say that God does not have a perspective on things, because he does not occupy position. Humans have positions, occupying space and time, and must look in this-or-that direction, and so have perspective, and opinions. God is simple, beyond limit and form, and thus transcends these things.
In the end, those who use this phrase (i.e., “God’s truth”) make truth ultimately all about power, and make God a power-monger. Goodness is arbitrary in that model. As good and evil are here arbitrary, whimsical, this model shows itself as both nihilistic and nightmarish. In the end, the “God’s truth” rhetoric cannot be reasoned with, and so models the very same brute power it implicitly claims lurks behind and forms the basis of God’s authority. There can be no illumination through conversation and discovery in this model; here, there is nothing stable and simple and necessary apart from power; in this model, there can be no real “truth”.
Ultimately, any such religious commitments have the seeds of nihilism in them. It is amazing how many conservative religious people in this country buy into a nihilist mindset while thinking they’re combating it.
The modern condition, our secular condition, does not allow us to simply pretend that we are the same as we were before. One of the ways in which we can acclimate ourselves honestly to the modern age is to examine the political dimensions of those aspects of our lives that we think of as non-political (e.g., the “spiritual” or “religious” aspects). I use the word honestly, though, because ordinary religious folks often politicize things they (mis)apprehend as non-political, and they politicize without realizing it.
An example: over a year ago I was speaking to an ordained individual, and I was talking about the ease with which worldliness –by which I merely meant the fact that we are world-ed, that all of our thinking and acting has some object in the world, real or imaginary– is taken by some to legitimate what is frequently called “scientism” — roughly, the view that science is the only valid form of knowledge, and its models exhaust what is real.
“Everyone has a faith”, this person began in response, “everyone needs to have a faith in something” –and I think he said something about foundations and faith as a foundation, about how the foundations of things are not provable. The important element in his telling, however, was the choice, the affiliation, the alliance that an individual must make with a group that held to a certain foundation.
This politicizes faith. Yes, it is more than political: faith becomes your basic vision of things, in this person’s take. Each foundation is, however, mutually exclusive in this way of thinking, and there is no common ground on which they might talk and evaluate claims and learn about truth. Ergo, if all people have incommensurate basic visions, then we cannot really engage in conversation, but are forced to contend and enter into combat with the visions of others (though most will simply withdraw to a comfortable ghetto) — but this rhetorical way of talking about the “faith” of others is then not about the grounds for their basic assumptions; it is not about reasons, but choices. One’s basic vision is seen then as an act of will.
However, the rationality of such choices, the set of conditions within which good and bad choices are made, and the concerns that animate the evaluation of our choices — these are not examined in such a vision of the world, because the conflict is treated as basic. In this person’s telling, different groups all had basically different ways of evaluating choices, and this person saw these all as proprietary, incommensurate (one might steal a few gems of wisdom from another tradition, but that merely underscored their otherness).
Against this ordinand’s perspective, I propose that what is needed are criteria for good and/or bad decisions, criteria to really deal with the conflicts between incompatible basic visions. Such criteria are not founded on intractably private assumptions — we all argue with others who have different basic visions on the basis of what is public, so that, in debate with other traditions, responsible and articulate Hindus of various stripes would not defend the peculiar elements of their traditions by appealing to their central school teachings or religious texts or saints or miracle stories, as though these were irrationally suspended in mid-air as legitimations. (Traditional and Revivalist Protestants, it must be admitted, do very much do this, which is why all of their apologetics are aimed at getting folks to accept the authority of the Bible; some Catholics and Orthodox unfortunately do this same thing for the institution of the Church or the authority of the Fathers.) Responsible Catholics do not defend their dogmatic tradition by appealing to the pronouncements of the Magisterium (a hopelessly circular tactic). We dispute with others on the basis of what is common, on what is public.
Yet in the rhetoric of the cleric I mentioned above, a person’s basic vision, once treated as a decision, is understood as private, not as public. Some people often liken their opponents to what they fear about themselves. If I am seen by others as a political problem, if I am seen as irrational, and I internalize this, I might just try to protect myself from the force of the accusations of irrationality by irrationalizing my opponent. I would thereby reduce the problem from a rational and discursive one to an irrational and political one. If one fails to find the rational grounds to move beyond a mere faith-as-set-of-basic-commitments, then this will always be a temptation — and a political problem, and so a public concern.