Excerpt #2 — Larry Shiner on Friedrich Gogarten on Secularism

Here is the beginning of Larry Shiner’s book on Friedrich Gogarten, a German Lutheran friedrich gogartenwho wrote during the beginning of the 20th century. I found Gogarten through a footnote in a book by another German Lutheran, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and looking at this, it is difficult to hear that Gogarten differs from Pannenberg on this topic, whether due to the historical record or to the influence Gogarten had on Pannenberg (whose take on secularity and secularization shall eventually appear here).

Gogarten’s general thesis strongly resembles elements of the disenchantment of the modern world that Charles Taylor describes. Although disenchantment is not quite the same thing as the de-divinized world that the early Christians or their successors lived in, the two are related, and the latter certainly offered part of the foundation for the former. Also similar to the above-linked post on disenchantment is the model of meaning found in Gogarten, who argues, according to Shiner, that man

universally experiences responsibility for his own destiny as the task set by his relation to the world. However feebly we may live up to it, Gogarten sees in this responsibility the Law before which we must justify ourselves today, the ultimate “ought” written into the fabric of existence.

Although the pre-Christian world can fairly be described as presenting “a mythically understood cosmos determining and securing human life by its spiritual powers”, I am uncertain as to whether the pre-Christian engagement with the world neglected to think of the world as over-against humanity. Certainly the divinity of each and all things in The Iliad militates against this? –but then this could be taken to signal that the world is not other than the subject.

If the reader discerns me to have serious reservations about this excerpt, in whole and in part, he or she would be correct. It has value insofar as it presents one take –one take– on secularization as the actualization of Christian principles. (There are other interpretations that see modernity as such an actualization, and still other takes that see the secular modern period as something autonomous, and legitimate in itself.) Enough: here is Shiner on Gogarten. Continue reading

On Might and Right

Most people plot all things with reference to wherever they are, interpret all things from the little realm they occupy. We craft entire false narratives for the meaning of the artifacts we come across through the lens of the history that is familiar to us; thus, we misinterpret the word “good” when we read it in our earliest sources, plastering over it senses that are more familiar to us, and forget that we occupy a history, a world that began, and that will (at some point) end.

Historical consciousness may be one of the characteristic features of the Secular Modern, but we are quite adept at parochial amnesia. This is a threat to what we have achieved, and obscures the principles that emerge in the reasons for the transition from the early aristocratic ideas about  “the good” to the more social and cooperative ideas about “the good”.

Without understanding the role of power in the aristocratic ideals of the earliest rulers, we cannot understand the problems that Plato addressed when he narrates Socrates’ interactions with Meno or Thrasymachus, nor can we understand Augustine of Hippo’s presentation of what lies at the heart of the civitas terrena, the earthly (rather than divine) city.

–but what is this model of power and authority, and more specifically, what was this earliest sense of “goodness”? Continue reading

Stars Down to Earth

I

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2, Cassius says to Brutus concerning Caesar:

Why, man, he [Caesar] doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
 .

“The fault […] is not in our stars”, which stars are here connected to the “fates” of “men”. James Dunn notes, commenting on this passage, that

[…] the fear that the stars may indeed be involved has been a recurring suspicion or nightmare in all ages. And if not the stars, then supra-mundane forces of some sort or kind.
[James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 102]
.

These “supra-mundane forces” are typically the gods, or some sort of divine/angelic (or demonic) powers. The notion of fate that accompanies the above passage from Shakespeare is, arguably, even more intense, and sounds rather Homeric, as though:

[…] No one alive has ever escaped it,
neither brave man nor coward, I tell you —
it’s born with us the day that we are born.
[Iliad, VI.488-489 (lines 582-584 of Fagles’ transl., p.212)]
.

This fate is inescapable; yet it is not always, as is often thought, inflexible. It can be steered, and even in some cases escaped temporarily, though this fate will always catch up with the individual in the end. The Greek word for “fate” (“moira”, “moros” or even “aisa”) means portion or allotment: it is the lot that is assigned to one, as C3PO whines in Star Wars: A New Hope: “We seem to be made to suffer; it’s our lot in life.” This lot is what is simply “laid on us“, and includes what are the very ambiguous “gifts” (δωρα) of the gods —e.g., the loveliness of Helen of Troy; double edged gifts, if ever there were– that would not and cannot be chosen (“no one can have them by choosing” Iliad III.66); this lot includes, at its climax, death.

I suggested that the cup of this portion is, to some degree, flexible: Achilles in the Iliad has two fates he might fill up his allotment with [IX.410 ff., Fagles, 265], though some things are not flexible, because they are beyond one’s lot or portion, and pursuing them would bring about calamity for all. The fates are, it seems, above the Olympian gods such as Zeus, though he is the one who seems to distribute the portions, the limits of men — and as we see in the Iliad VIII.70 ff., where Zeus apportions different fates to the two different armies of the war in his “golden scale”, and in the Iliad XVI.400-550. [Fagles, 427], he can override the fates or portions of men, though the cost could be great, and would bring great turmoil and chaos even among the gods.

The historical-natural-cosmic and the theological are here one and the same. Here, there are no elemental powers that are not in some sense divine, and the difference between magic and religion, or between divination and naturalistic predictions, is unrecognized, moot. Continue reading