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Archive for January, 2009

I’ve been very busy trying to reorient myself with my way of life as an American undergraduate student – with some success, but also a lot of exhaustion and frustration, and as a result, original posts have not been as flowing as I would like them to. I’m currently engrossed in Miguel de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life but it has regrettably been placed on the back burner. In the meantime I have to apologize for yet another link to a better site than this.

Christ Heller, the co-editor of The Other Journal, has conducted an interview with Vinoth Ramachandra, an Anglican lay theologian from Sri Lanka and author of the recent book Subverting Global Myths. I read this book partially en route from England and then partially at home, and I found it to be a wide-ranging engagement with various predominant global myths, especially among western Christians. The entire book is interesting, but I found the engagement with postcolonialism to be the highlight of the book. I think this is mostly because a critical engagement with postcolonialism is new to me, and a good bit of the rest of the book involves topics that I have spent a lot of reading mileage in. Still, Ramachandra has a lucid was of talking about whatever he is writing on, and for that reason I cannot recommend the book enough.

If you need more of an endorsement, check out the interview on The Other Journal, which is entitled The Subversion Will Not Be Televised: An Interview With Vinoth Ramachandra.

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As I recently purchased a new computer, I’ve been inspired to do some organizing of my first two and a half years of academic words. Besides the shocking difference I noticed between freshman and even sophomore level papers to some recent work, what surprised me was that I have come to hold a much different and stronger opinion about certain things than I originally did in a couple papers. I guess it is somewhat of a writer’s plague to have distaste for past works, but the difference in opinion was shocking. [I guess what I am trying to say about writing is that the more you do it, the more picky you become about doing it, and the more nitpicking you do to improve your work, the more you think you can do, etc etc… and I want to be nitpicky with this first paragraph but I will forget it and move on to the topic of the post that I have unsuccessfully introduced twice already.]

‘Scholarship and fiction’ is probably a poor title for this, but my paper was a history paper and I did not want to limit the discussion to just doing history, whatever that means. I try to think more interdisciplinary… but anyways, I’ll get on with it now, I promise.

The paper was an analysis of the novel Follow The River. The basic argument of my paper (which I interestingly repeated four or five times) was that the medium of fiction is not conducive for conveying ‘history’, again, whatever that means. I pretty much hold the exact opposite opinion to that, and I was under the impression that I kind of always have, at least ever since deliberate reflection on the idea. But here is a deliberate and written reflection which reiterates, and reiterates again, that I didn’t think this way.

While I was in Oxford an argument arose in the house that was very similar to this, although with the added qualitative distinction of ‘subjective’ vs ‘objective.’ I wasn’t there for the initial discussion, but later I was (characteristically) ranting about it to a few people and said something to the effect of ‘How could anyone think history to be objective?’ History is by default a retelling of events by another person(s), and is thus, quite simply, subjective.

This is true with an author of a work of ‘fiction’ no less than it is with an author of ‘scholarly history'(a lovely dichotomy that I insisted on creating in my paper). Whether history is conveyed via narrative or via a monograph based on strict research, it is still a pointed recasting of certain events. Actually, perhaps a scholarly monograph fits this understanding of history more closely than a work of fiction (eg a novel).

With that last point I insinuate something that I want to make perfectly plain. In calling history subjective, that does not mean that ‘anything goes.’ It’s only a way of being honest with the subjective condition of the person behind the retelling (essentially, his/her historical situatedness). So because history is a subjective process, that does not imply that someone can simply assert the ‘facts’ to be a certain way. To be sure, in this account of history, there are still certain and ‘objective’ facts of history (although who gets to know them and how they are known is another argument). 

What do you think? I don’t really think that I am saying much here, other than describing the condition of the historian. I guess I want to bash myself a little bit for basically implying that a historian is only someone who does a certain kind of ‘scholarly work.’ Granted, that is one particular kind of historian, a historian in a stricter, academic sense, and that is a job that is important and necessary. But on another level I think that everyone is a historian. To what extent people tell and retell history, and how good they are at it, is another matter.

And fiction, or in this case more specifically a novel, is certainly one method of telling and retelling history. In fact I think that it is a particularly good way to do just that. It can certainly, in the case of postcolonial writers such as Salman Rushdie, be a subversive way to tell history (and much more) from a point of view that doesn’t get to tell history, eg people that have been stepped on. I think this is a particular danger if history is thought of as an ‘objective’ process. Writers such as Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky have tried to conduct works of the more strictly academic-historian type from the perspective of those who don’t often tell history. I think if history is thought of ‘objectively,’ that can be dangerous because then there is someone deciding that the certain way of telling history is ‘objective’, and I question the motive behind this way of thinking. 

So what do you think? What is the relationship here? I suppose it is pointing at the question of the relationship between history and truth, which is a much larger question (obviously), but have at it any way you like. I am pretty sure I know my original motives in writing the paper that prompted this reflection: I didn’t enjoy the book at all and I was a pompous ass who thought that ‘academic scholarship’ somehow was superior to mere fiction, so I combined this in a hackneyed attempt to rip the book apart. I don’t suspect I would enjoy the book anymore today, but I certainly would enjoy it more than rereading my terrible paper on this topic.

I do think that any attempts at telling history, whether they be those on the far left such as Zinn and Chomsky, or postcolonial writers like Rushdie, or whatever ideological bias prompts Ann Coulter, should be looked at with a critical eye. Well, I guess I can’t say that I think Ann Coulter ‘books’ should be looked at at all, and I should probably apologize to any postcolonial studies friends for including her name in the same stratosphere as Rushdie’s, but I’m trying to make a (somewhat) unbiased point. And like my paper, I’ve probably tried to do that too much already in this post, so I’ll do what I should have done in the paper and shut up.

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Recently, I finished the book Suspicion and Faith: Religious Uses of Modern Atheism by Merold Westphal. The book is a delightfully subversive reading of Nietzsche, Marx and Freud – the three ‘masters of suspicion’ – as potential resources for persons of faith to help ‘cleanse’ their faith. Westphal is a Christian who is writing primarily for a Christian audience, but I recommend this to anyone interested. It is an interesting take on these three notorious modern atheists, or as Westphal likes to call them, the ‘three great modern theologians of original sin.’ 

I wanted to write a short bit on the book both to commend it to anyone who might feel up to the challenge and also as a part of a self-reflective process I am going through (more on this later). Westphal indicates in the preface that he has written the book more for pastors than for philosophers, although, of course, quite a bit of philosophy is included. He comments that the book could also be helpful for ‘literate and reflective laity’, whom I hope will also find this post helpful. I don’t think much philosophical training is presupposed. Westphal handles each character with great command, which helps an uninitiated reader to enter into the conversation. I found this to be helpful especially with Freud, who I am least familiar with among the three.

Freud serves as a helpful starting point because in Freud we find an important dichotomy regarding the kind of atheism held by philosophers. This is the difference between what Westphal calls ‘suspicion’ and ‘skepticism.’ Skepticism is more of an epistemological standpoint which gives rise to evidential skepticism. In other words, skepticism is an approach that says there isn’t enough evidence to believe in God; the focus here is critically on the belief proposition. In Freud, there is a strand of this kind of atheism, but there is also another kind of atheism that he is most well known for, and this is based on suspicion.

The idea of a hermeneutics of suspicion is based on a suspicion towards the function of beliefs. In contrast to evidential atheism, the focus here is on the believer, specifically the believer’s motives, and not the truth or falsity of the belief claim (although all three undoubtedly would hold the belief to be false). As Westphal clearly puts it, ‘Where Hume and Kant challenge the soundness of the arguments for the existence of God, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud seek to show how theistic belief functions both to mask and to fulfill forms of self-interest that cannot be acknowledged (pg 14).’ The attentive reader may already pick up where this reading is headed.

Freud is best known for the notion of religion as illusory. This claim is especially picked up in the idea of religious beliefs as wish-fulfillment. On the face of it, these claims seem daunting and in need of a rebuttal. Yet if we suspend our worry with whether Freud’s claim is true or not, and ask whether it is applicable to what our own beliefs are, then perhaps this can be helpful for reflecting on why we believe what we do. I guess what I am getting at is that we should [at first] not concern ourselves with whether Freud’s claim is the case for religious beliefs as such, but rather if it is the case for anything we believe.

For example, why have faith in God? As a child, I held a “faith” in God (it was really a set of assented propositions) partly with the hope of going to heaven after I died. I mean, hell, who wouldn’t want to go to heaven? (No pun intended, I promise). If the function of my belief in God is so that I can go to heaven when I die, then it actually lines up exactly with Freud’s claim. Perhaps there are more nuanced wish-fulfillments at work for Freud’s argument, but I hope this example serves to illustrate the point. If that is all that there is to my faith, then my faith is little more than an expression of my desire to go to heaven. Granted, going to heaven – whatever is meant by that – is taken to be a good thing, and it seems to be unfair to criticize someone for wanting good things. But if there is nothing deeper to my faith than wanting good things, I should just leave the faith part out of it. [As an aside, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention than N.T. Wright would probably have something to say about the, ehrm, interesting eschatology of going to heaven when you die.]

OK, so maybe we can take Freud’s critique seriously as a form of cleansing our motivations for the beliefs we hold, but Marx? Religion is the opiate of the people? How can this claim help a person of faith self reflect? This very well known idea is the bedrock of Marxian thought on religion, but Westphal points out that it is not a self-evident claim for readers of our time, considering the popularity of recreational drugs (pg 123). Marx’s claim is not so much about religion as a massive pacification tool (in a specific sense), but moreso about religion as a painkiller which, like opium, treats only the symptoms and not the disease. 

Marx’s critique is that religion as an ideology functions in a specific way for the state. Westphal highlights that this critique has a lot in common with liberation theology, and I think that the straightforwardness here may be the most challenging for a Western audience. A good metaphor provided by Westphal throughout the section on Marx is religion as deodorant. If religion is just a mask for what stinks in society (in particular, within the state, as in, well, poor people), then perhaps religion has been hijacked by the state. We should ask ourselves if we are complicit in this hijacking.

One way to look at it is historically, as Marx does, given that he is a historical thinker rather than a metaphysical thinker (and thus his claim is historically situated, which may cause some who like to quote it out of context to worry. That doesn’t mean it can’t be applied to today, however.). Remember that Marx is writing in 19th century Prussia, which wanted to become an overtly theocratic state. Marx revolted against the idea of Prussia as a Christian state, arguing that ‘Christian principles’ have been used to justify all sorts of injustices throughout history. This is not a difficult claim to prove, as even a cursory view of history shows. 

Yet we may rightly protest that Christians throughout history have been champions of justice, such as William Wilberforce and the abolitionist movement in Britain. We may be willing to accept Marx’s critique as a reminder of the unqualified evils of historical tragedies such as the Dutch Reformed churches in South Africa attempting to justify apartheid as theology, but if that is the only level on which we read Marx, he loses his edge for contemporary Christians. There’s more.

Westphal goes on to give detailed examples of the ways in which religion is misused as an opiate for the people. He keenly notes that it is often caught up with the interpretation of a sacred text, and in contemporary America, this is the Bible. It’s usually a pretty humorous affair whenever political leaders offer their exegesis of the Bible in America, but sometimes this exegesis can be put to unfunny ends. You may be rightly thinking of the tragic legacy of the Religious Right, and I think this is a fair target for much critique, but I don’t want to beat on a dead horse. For an excellent deconstruction of the American Religious Right, see Caputo’s What Would Jesus Deconstruct?.

I think it is necessary to develop a sustained critique of what can just as rightly be called the Religious Left in America, and one of the tendencies of exegesis which Westphal highlights here is especially true of the religious left, and is becoming one of my pet peeves. Westphal calls this ‘Vague Generality.’ It’s an exegesis, that, along with the Jesus of the Bible, sides with the poor and the downtrodden, but blurs distinctions in theology and ends up with a soft version of what could be a cutting and informative theology. Westphal notes that Gustavo Guiterrez calls this tendency a ‘Constantinianism of the Left.’ Guiterrez is a prominent liberation theologian and I think it is worth quoting Westphal’s quote of him in Suspicion and Faith:

[Christians’ efforts for liberation must avoid] becoming translated into any kind of Christian ideology of political action or politico-religious messianism. Christian hope opens us, in an attitude of spiritual childhood, to the gift of the future promised by God. It keeps us from any confusion of the Kingdom with one historical stage, from any idolatry towards unavoidably ambiguous human achievement, from absolutizing any revolution. In this way hope makes us radically free to commit ourselves to social praxis, motivated by a liberating utopia … And our hope not only frees us for this commitment; it simultaneously demands and judges it.

Gustavo Guiterrez A Theology of Liberation pg 238, pg 185 S&F

I will comment to say that I’ve grown up on the Religious Right side of the fence, which is probably why it is so easy to beat on that horse, but I have also found myself on the vague generality side of the fence. I think this is particularly a danger in modern American politics, with the Democratic/Republican Conventions which border on worship services. I found this in my own mindset and it is a primary reason why I chose not to vote this past election. To be quite frank, I think there is a danger among many socially conscious young Christians for political messianism with Obama. I am glad that Obama won the election and I hope that he will bring some good changes. In the meantime I hope that I will not find myself caught up in a rhetoric that twists religious imagery for ideological ends.

I have veered far off course (such is the nature of an interdisciplinary work) and it is time to return with Nietzsche, who is my favorite among this ‘unholy trinity.’ Surprisingly, Westphal dedicates the least amount of intellectual landscape to Nietzsche in the book, and I think this is due to a few factors. For one, Nietzsche’s claims are a little more tied up with presupposed history of philosophy. For a similar reason, I will dedicate the least amount of space to him in this post (also because this post is too long as it is). Also, I hope to blog more in depth about Nietzsche at some (undetermined) time in the future.

But to give a taste of Nietzsche, a central claim of his is that Christianity is based on ressentiment. Essentially, it is a claim that says the values of Christianity are rooted in a resentment for the strong. So, the much acclaimed virtues of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 actually have sinister roots. I don’t want to get too much further into it than that, because there is a lot more than I have the space to fill out now, but one interesting contemporary idea that this might come to bear on is retributive justice, in particular capital punishment. Perhaps we should question our motivation for support of capital punishment, if we do indeed support it (I don’t). Do you have zeal to punish murderers, etc? Why?

With this last example, I have betrayed the flux of the argument in Suspicion and Faith. I hope to have kept argumentative language out of the example, in order to simply make a point and tie up loose ends. Yet the point of developing, with the help of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, is not in order to develop a weapon by which to demean others’ faith. I seem to remember something about removing the log from your own eye before examining the speck in another’s. This is an attitude that should be taken towards our atheist mentors and also to our peers, no matter what our own thoughts are on their beliefs. Perhaps we should first question our own motivations for our thoughts about their beliefs?

The gist of Suspicion and Faith is given in the title of the first chapter, ‘Atheism for Lent.’ The masters of suspicion give us good material for self examination and that is how I have tried to approach them. With that in mind, I hope to use this as a launching pad for further (and continued) self examination. Next up is For Self-Examination/Judge for Yourself by Kierkegaard. The second book is what this blog takes its name from.

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