Faith and False Consciousness

Agellius says I’m splitting hairs when I raise the possibility that a person’s faith, while showing signs of authenticity, may in fact not be faith at all. If we make decisions in accordance with our faith and know we’ve made these decisions, then there’s no need, according to Agellius, to question whether we have faith. At this point, it doesn’t matter if, say, fear rather than faith is at a person’s psychological core. Faith is as faith does.

I differ to beg. False consciousness about one’s faith still matters even if the observable outcomes are much the same as those of authentic faith. Here’s why. As persons, we’re capable of free, conscious decisions. We act most as persons, as who we are, when we act freely and consciously, when we’re not enslaved to our appetites, passions, prejudices, and desires. Knowingly making free, conscious decisions requires rigorous, critical, honest self-reflection. Faith, I submit, is an act proper to us as persons. It’s an act that ought to be done with as much freedom and consciousness as possible. Therefore, it’s worth exploring one’s psychological core for signs of false consciousness.

I also submit that people deluded into believing they have faith are more likely to embrace and espouse perversions of faith such as fundamentalism or superstition. Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche—whom Paul Ricoeur called “the Masters of Suspicion”—were wrong to reduce all faith to some form of false consciousness, but they were not wrong to understand that what people think of as their faith can be and perhaps often is the fruit of false consciousness. I unhesitatingly subject my faith to their analysis because each of their critiques, in its own way, puts me in a better position to separate the wheat from the chaff. By doing this, do I put my faith at risk? Absolutely. But you know what they say: be not afraid. (VN)

The Uncertainty of a Certain Faith

Having conceded to the critique of false consciousness that what I call my faith may be something entirely or partially other than faith—e.g., an illusory happiness, an opiate, an infantile desire, a neurosis, or a stand-in for absolute truth—I now face what for me is a pressing question: what do I make of the traditional idea that faith is certain because it is founded on the word of God who cannot lie? If, in addition to denying epistemological certainty, I were to go the distance and deny the certainty given by “the divine light” or “the word of God,” would I not, if consistent, have to admit that God, if he exists, could be a liar or at least an unreliable source?

The defenders of doctrine may sit down: I make no such denial. Whether my faith is true faith has no bearing necessarily on the honesty or reliability of God. One certainly can speak while another mishears, hears not at all, or is under the delusion that he has heard what is said. My faith can be suspect without implicating the word of God. Faith, conceived as a divine gift, would be certain by definition, but its certainty doesn’t clear away the clouds of unknowing. I can acknowledge this certainty of faith without knowing with certainty that I have this faith.

While I can never say for certain that I have faith, I likewise cannot with certainty deny that I have faith. Both certain affirmation and certain denial are far too presumptuous for me. Instead, I choose to hope that what I call my faith is in fact the real deal. Hope is the road I opt to take between the grand mountains of absolute skepticism and absolute certainty. It’s a winding road, fraught with peril and taken in the dark, but I prefer it to standing atop a peak above the clouds, going nowhere.

Snow Whites

I admit: I'm giggly excited about the upcoming Snow White and the Huntsman staring Charlize Theron and Kristen Stewart.  The teaser trailer (embedded below) focuses on Theron's Queen Ravenna, her voice deep, ruthless, and accentuated, tinged with a trace of suppressed fear.  Theron plays the role with dark, eerie seriousness, and looks like she had a blast doing so. The approach she and director Rupert Sanders are taking could easily devolve into unintended silliness, but Theron, like Jean Marsh who played Queen Bavmorda in Willow, has the acting finesse to pull off a credible fusion of evil and fun. No doubt she'll steal every scene.

I've seen Kristen Stewart in only two films, Twilight and Adventureland.  Nothing in the former movie impressed me, but I enjoyed Adventureland.  Given Stewart's association with dullness-dripping sparkly vampires, it was probably prudent of the filmmaker's to feature the villain over the heroine in the initial preview.  In any case, I imagine Stewart will do just fine. 

Old-fashioned fantasy really doesn't have an exemplar in film of the best of what the genre can offer.  Peter Jackson made a valiant attempt with The Lord of the Rings, but his product artistically failed in too many ways.  Who knows?  Maybe Snow White and the Huntsman will fill the void.  Mirror, mirror...

Speaking of mirrors, there's another film version of Snow White in production, this one staring Julia Roberts and taking a frolicsome and comical approach to the story.  I'm glad the two movies will differ in this way.  The studios are probably glad as well.  I pray Mirror Mirror is actually funny, though.  The trailer left me less than enthused. There's something about a dwarf channeling Tony Montana that's...distracting.

Climate Change, Consensus, and Political Action

In the comments of my previous post, my friend Stephen declared that one should never condone the use of force against human beings merely in deference to consensus.   A skeptic of anthropogenic climate change and a classical liberal distrustful of the state, Stephen opposes state action (force) in response to the dangers and disasters attributed to climate change merely because there’s a consensus among climate scientists that anthropogenic climate change is real.  I too am suspicious of state power and urge caution and prudence wherever such power is used, but here I part ways with my friend, whose prerequisite for state involvement puts us in an irresponsible position.

While consensus is no guarantee of the truth, sometimes consensus is the best indicator of truth that we can have when needing to make a decision.  Climate science, for example, is a field simply too complex, nuanced, and difficult for laypeople like myself, and I suspect most policymakers, to grasp adequately.  I can understand it to an extent, but not to a sufficient degree that I could demonstrate its conclusions or defend an interpretation of relevant data.  Policymakers and others entrusted by the public to promote and defend the common good—yes, through the use of force—have to make decisions, institute policies, and otherwise exercise state power based on the say-so of others on whose expertise and authority they rely.

To say that no one under any circumstance should condone the use of force merely in deference to consensus is to say that the state should never act on situations about which consensus is the closest approximation to truth available to the state.   If I’m right that climate change is such a situation, then this line of thought leaves us woefully irresponsible if, in fact, anthropogenic climate change is real.  Mere consensus may not be a cause for the use of force, but it could be, in which case the right response of the state is not inaction, but prudential judgment and prudent policy. (VN)

(Photo: Rüdiger Nehmzow via Colossal)  

A Question for Climate Change Skeptics

Regular readers will know that I’m a suspicious fellow, highly skeptical by nature perpetual choice, never quite content to sit back at the table, kick my feet up, and proclaim “That’s it. Case closed.”  I long ago forsook the pursuit of certainty.  Establishment ways of thought don’t impress me for being well established.  I raise a distrustful eyebrow at arguments from authority.  And yet, despite my overarching suspicion, I find myself at times disposed to give the benefit of the doubt to ideas or truth-claims that have the backing of tradition and/or consensus, especially in cases where decisive action is called for.

Take anthropogenic climate change, for example.  I’m no climate scientist; I couldn’t construct a serious argument in support or in opposition to idea that human beings have caused significant changes to the climate.  I have to defer to the experts if I’m to have any position on the matter, and as the matter here may be one of urgency and grave importance, I’m inclined to go with what those trained and active in the field of climate science have to say.  From what I hear, the vast majority of actively-publishing climate researchers buy into the tenets of anthropogenic climate change, so I’m willing to take a stand and say, “Yeah, I suspect there’s something to this.”  Perhaps I’m thus inclined because I’m a closet socialist hell-bent on tearing down the bulwarks of democratic capitalism, truth, justice and the American way, but surely this disposition doesn’t explain the reason why others favor individual and social changes to curb the reportedly negative effects of climate change or why the climate researchers themselves conclude that human behavior affects the climate.

Anyhow, here’s my question for you proud skeptics of climate change: if the idea that human behavior drastically affects the climate is a hurricane of hooey, why does it have the solid backing of consensus (or near consensus) among climate scientists? (VN)

What Gives Life Meaning?

As an atheist, Jennifer Fulwiler felt like she was living a lie: “I acknowledged the truth that life was meaningless,” she tell us, “and yet I kept acting as if my own life had meaning, as if all the hope and love and joy I'd experienced was something real, something more than a mirage produced by the chemicals in my brain.”  Her outlook was rather dismal: “if everything that we call heroism and glory, and all the significance of all great human achievements, can be reduced to some neurons firing in the human brain, then it's all destined to be extinguished at death.”  For her, life couldn’t possibly have meaning because life was merely material and temporal.  Nothing special.

At the risk of throwing unholy water on Jennifer Fulwiler’s fervent conversion story, I must object to this idea that life can be meaningful only if it has spiritual and eternal significance.  If life has such everlasting significance, so much the better, but we needn’t get so far as spirits, gods, and the heavens to find meaning in the human condition.  We can, for example, trace the emergence of meaningfulness back to the human capacity for consciousness and narration.  Even if glory, hope, love, heroism, and joy are reducible to reacting chemicals and firing neurons, they become meaningful in the context of our consciousness of them and the stories we tell, retell, and remember.  To quote Richard Kearney: “From the word go, stories were invented to fill the gaping hole within us, to assuage our fear and dread, to try to give answers to the great unanswerable questions of existence: Who are we? Where do we come from? Are we animal, human or divine? Strangers, gods or monsters?”

We discover what it means to be ourselves in this grand endeavor of storytelling, of narrating who and what we are and from where we came.  Some of these stories we remember; others we forget.  Some we consider sacred; others profane.  Some rise to the heights of culture; others are lost in the sands of time.   Regardless of these contingencies, they are all meaningful.  The story no one remembers still had meaning when it was told and heard and remembered.  Similarly, if the human story ultimately comes to nothing, the story will still have been meaningful for those who lived and shared it. 

What gives life meaning?  At the very least, we do.

(VN) H/T: Sullivan


Zeus has led us on to know,
The Helmsman lays it down as law
That we must suffer, suffer into truth.
We cannot sleep, and drop by drop at the heart
the pain of pain remembered comes again,
and we resist, but ripeness comes as well.
From the gods enthroned on the awesome rowing-bench
there comes a violent love.

- From Aeschylus's Agamemnon (trans. Robert Fagles)

The Path around Obstructive Pieties

Here’s a little secret about the spiritual journey.  You might expect pieties and personal rituals to lighten the way of the spiritual wayfarer, and, if faith stories are to be believed, they often do just this.   Let the record show, however, that they can also block the road and obstruct one from experiencing the sacred.

In his book How Big Is Your God?, Paul Coutinho, SJ, a Jesuit priest and native of India, relates a story from his childhood about how the scapular and the recitation of the Hail Mary kept his relationship with God to one filled with guilt and fear, premised on the near-inevitability of eternal punishment: “I was frightened of the God I worshiped. I was terrified of this God because I knew I had no chance with him.  This was a God who was just waiting for me to come up to heaven so he could send me to hell.”  His God was, in a word, a monster.   “The church of my childhood also believed we had no chance with God, so it gave us a scapular of our Lady and assured us that if we died while wearing it, Mary would smuggle us into heaven.  That scapular is one of the reasons I never learned how to swim.  I would go into the sea holding that scapular around my neck and try to swim—the best way to drown.”

While Cautinho eventually rid himself of the fear the scapular gave him, he developed the unhealthy belief that only by reciting the Hail Mary three times every night could he pass through the Judgment.  He was so fixated on the image of a punishing God that he interpreted every misfortune suffered by his family as God’s punishment for his sins.
Coutinho began to transcend this monstrous image after moving from a Catholic ghetto into an Indian environment and the Hindu world.  Hinduism’s festive religious rituals exposed him to an image of the divine bigger and otherwise than his limited and limiting idea of God.    In time he learned to approach God as a celebrator of life and love.

The spiritual lesson here isn’t that the journey to the divine necessitates putting aside the scapular or the rosary or other instruments of devotion: the lesson is that approaching God requires one to always imagine God otherwise.  Words used to speak of God—Father, King, Good, Wise, Servant, Lamb, Truth, Creator, Almighty, Judge, Love—infinitely fall short, whether spoken individually or in totality.  Some call God “Being” itself.  Others, concerned with the metaphysical suggestions of this language, have chosen to call God “Nothing.”  I prefer to speak of God as absolute otherness.  God is—God is otherwise.  I prefer using this terminology of alterity not because this family of categories capture the meaning of God, but because alterity—otherness—refers precisely to what cannot be captured by words, be they logical or mythological, literal or analogous.

Like words, devotions may help one approach God, but as Coutinho learned, they can also prove a hindrance when they reinforce, in the words of Karen Armstrong, a taming and domesticating of God’s "otherness."  (VN)

This Explains Everything

Or, at least, it helps explain me. And definitely some others.

(via) (h/t: Erik Kain)

Limbaugh vs. the Classics

In case you had any lingering doubt that Rush Limbaugh makes a good charlatan’s living espousing half-baked pseudo-ideology slyly disguised as principled conservative philosophy, the winning radio host informs us that he doesn’t know what Classical Studies is, but he’s sure it’s a clever socialist plot.  His faux-ignorant blather about the uselessness and insidiousness of studying Greek, Latin, Cicero, Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Virgil, the Bible—you know, the bulwarks of Western Civilization that any conservative worth his salt should have an interest in conserving—reveals that he has no regard for the origin and history of our ideas, for the development of the intellect, or for conservatism.  Rod Dreher gets it: “If Limbaugh were any kind of serious conservative, he would be trying to figure out how we can make Classics majors employable by fostering an appreciation for the Classics — this, as a way to restore a love for and knowledge of the cultural foundations of Western civilization, as a shoring up of our cultural defenses against what Russell Kirk called ‘chaos and old night.’” (VN)

A Pause to Listen: Belle and Sebastian

If You Find Yourself Caught in Love

Late Friday Film Reflection: Fragile and Fleeting Loves

“Maybe a little, in the beginning,” Cindy’s grandma admits to her in Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine.  “He didn't really have any regard for me as a person. You gotta be careful of that. You gotta be careful that the person you fall in love with is worth you.”

Cindy, played by Michelle Williams, had asked her grandma what it felt like to fall in love, and her grandma confided that she never really found love, not even with her husband.  As we would expect, Cindy is less than comforted by this admission, and she thinks about her parents’ failure and her own future:  “I never want to be like my parents. I know they must've loved each other at one time right? To just get it all out of the way before they had me. How do you trust your feelings when they can just disappear like that?” 

While we witness this exchange, we know that Cindy will soon meet and marry Dean (Ryan Gosling), and that this young couple will face these questions intensely when, for no apparent reason, their marriage begins to unravel.  There’s no infidelity or cataclysmic force that pulls them apart.  They each have their admirable and despicable qualities—revealed often simultaneously with impressive skill by Williams, Gosling, and Cianfrance’s direction—but these don’t suddenly trigger a landslide so much as slowly wear away the ties the bind them.

Dean is still in love with Cindy and tries to recapture the passion they felt at the start of their relationship, but Cindy seems to have given up hope for their shared happiness.  She goes along with Dean’s plan for a steamy date to make things right, but she’s not at all bothered when work calls her away.  She prefers the company of expectant mothers to time with her husband, and we come to see the reasons why.    

Blue Valentine is a romantic drama that’s difficult to watch because it painstakingly marries Dean’s hope to Cindy’s despondency:  I couldn’t decide whether or not I wanted the two to stay together or whether or not it would be good for them to continue on their up and down, but mostly downward path.  Even if Dean and Cindy were to rekindle their love, would it matter in the long run?  I sympathized with Dean’s desire to stay true to his marriage vows, but I also understood Cindy’s depression, disillusionment, and realization that their marriage may have been a mistake.  It’s fair to wonder if she ever really loved him, or if she settled against her better judgment while in a moment of heart-wrenching vulnerability. 

Cianfrance’s film reminded me a little of David Gordon Green’s 2003 movie, All the Real Girls, another quiet and perceptive story about the youthful idealizing of love meeting the cold, harsh realities of…ordinary life.  Paul Schneider plays Paul as a likeable and ever-so-slightly awkward womanizer who, to his surprise, falls in love with his best friend’s 18-year-old sister, Noel (Zooey Deschanel).  She loves him too, and they begin to date secretly so as not to incur the wrath of her brother. 

Paul’s experience with “love” doesn’t include experience with, you know, love, so his attraction to Noel comes to him as something new, special, and exciting on a much deeper level than what he’s used to.  I’m pretty sure Green wants us to see Paul as genuinely in love, as opposed to just manipulative and horny.   In a moment of bravery and candor, Paul tells Noel, “The first time I had sex, I was thirteen years old, and it was in a cinderblock basement with this older girl that I didn't know. When we were finished...I was nervous, and I was trying to be cool, and I told a joke and it was just stupid and...she never spoke to me again. I just wanna make sure that a million years from now, I can still see you up close and we'll still have amazing things to say...I'm gonna go now, okay?” 

Despite their love and his caution and care, their relationship doesn’t progress in accordance with his hopes and dreams, and not just because his best friend discovers he’s dating his virgin sister.  Noel has her own life to live and her own decisions to make, and not every choice she makes fits with Paul’s well-intentioned fantasy.  Nor should they, and that’s something Paul has to learn.

You may remember Wesley in The Princess Bride telling Buttercup that death can’t stop true love.  I always liked that sentiment, and I want to believe it’s true, but is it always?  Must true love last a lifetime?  Because, as these two films take pains to portray, love sure seems a stoppable force, and it doesn’t take death to bring it to a halt: the mundane, the passage of time, the piling up of daily frustrations—these seem sufficient to hit the brakes.  It would be easy to say that the true love we romanticize into an ideal (and in romantic comedies!) doesn’t truly exist, but neither of these films seems to be saying that.  Rather, contra the Beatles, you need more than true love.  (VN)

What Cersei Lannister Can Teach the Catholic Church

In the George R.R. Martin’s grand fantasy, A Song of Ice and Fire, ever-plotting Queen Cersei Lannister schools naïve honor fanboy Eddard Stark on the game of thrones: when you play, you win or you die. In the world of Westeros, losing the game of thrones often literally means death, but the warning speaks analogously to real world political action.  When you play the game of politics, exercising power and influence in the public sphere, the other players in the game will respond not only to your ideas and political actions, but also to your power and influence.  They’ll attack what you do, but they’ll also seek to weaken or eliminate you as a player.  This is a lesson the leaders and the laity of the Catholic Church would do well to understand and appreciate. 

Despite its waning influence over the beliefs of its own members, the Catholic Church has continued to loudly voice support or opposition to various pieces of legislation, policies, executive orders, and court decisions its leadership has deemed important.  Doing so has made it political friends and political enemies.  Sister Mary Ann Walsh, RSM, Director of Media Relations for the USCCB, seems surprised that the Department of Health and Human Services suddenly denied funding to the conference’s Migration and Refugee Services, allegedly on account of its being forbidden by conscience from referring  human trafficking victims for abortion, sterilization or contraceptives.   She should have expected this move or something like it.

The Obama administration clearly wants to expand access to abortion and contraceptives and otherwise advance a reproductive rights-friendly policy. The Catholic Church (along with the GOP, surprisingly) has been not only an obstacle, but also a counter force to this effort. You don’t push in politics without getting pushed back. You can’t, for example, defund Planned Parenthood and not expect retaliation. You can’t condemn the Affordable Care Act without irking its engineers.  You exercise influence to limit reproductive rights, especially rights that have widespread public backing, anticipate that influence to be attacked. As the Catholic Church continues its efforts against the Obama administration’s agenda, it should expect the administration to seek where it can to weaken the Church’s overall political, social, and cultural influence. What else would it do?  A Republican administration would do much the same.

None of this is to say that the Catholic Church or any other religious institution should keep quiet and stay out of politics and the affairs of state.  On the contrary, religious groups and institutions should be involved in the public sphere, albeit in ways that respect religious freedom.  Many of them have centuries of time-tested thought and wisdom to share, not to mention unique perspectives; they can do much to help society realize the common good.    However, they ought to realize and appreciate that being a player in the sphere of politics comes with a price.  They needn’t act like Cersei Lannister (or, say, Machiavelli), but they cannot hope to win lasting victories without, as the Queen from Casterly Rock (or a skilled chess or poker player) suggests , anticipating and planning for all the possible counter moves of the opposition. (VN)

In Defense of an Uncertain Faith

Over the course of my life, and exacerbated by my efforts at blogging, I’ve developed the bad habit of raising subversive questions in forums where I know I’ll get knee-jerk reactions and probably glares of disapproval.  Were I any more sinister, I’d picture these intense frowning faces and grin like Montgomery Burns.   My aim has usually not been subversive inquiry for its own sake—I wouldn’t want to be thrown in with the Sowers of Discord.  No, my agenda—to use a sometimes insidious-sounding word—has almost always been to advance the course of thought, my own if no one else’s.   Yes, occasionally I’ve wanted nothing more than to bang the drums of controversy, but I’ve only given in to this desire when it’s been sunny.   Most of the time, I dabble in a little subversive reasoning because it can serve the pursuit of truth by keeping the mind in motion, open to treading, discovering, and making new routes, and always just a little bit dissatisfied with the established modes of thought and the established canon of accepted truths.

In my previous post, I wrote in opposition to a certainty that treats truth not as an object of pursuit, but rather as a horded possession.  I didn’t think my saying this was particularly subversive, but, according to one commenter, I had run afoul of the truth.  By speaking out against certainty, I had apparently spoken out, in a Pelagian voice, against the virtue of faith, which, according to a few theologies, is by definition certain.  Aquinas wrote that the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives.  The knowledge of faith is more certain than mere human knowledge.  God is the most trustworthy of all possible authorities, and so if God says something is true, we can be certain something is true.  In his book Dogmatic Theology for the Laity, which I hear was once a standard text for teaching the Catholic faith, Rev. Matthias Premm stated that the presuppositions upon which the Catholic faith—my faith—is based can be demonstrated with “scientific certitude.”  Apologetics, “in strict scientific methodology,” proves: “Jesus was the true Son of God; he announced certain truths of revelation which are contained in the Scripture of the New Testament; he redeemed us by his death on the cross; he founded a Church and gave it the gift of infallibility in proclaiming his teaching throughout the centuries.”  In taking a position against certainty, am I not standing against a long tradition of seeing certainty as an essential quality of true faith?  Am I not at odds with my own faith tradition?

Trust me when I say that the answer is uncertain.  Or rather, that some would say “Yes” and others would say “No.”  What do I think?  Kinda sorta, but not really.  I’ll put it this way: the certainty of faith must always be preceded by epistemological uncertainty.  First, I cannot know with certainty or prove beyond a doubt that God has actually revealed what self-defined religious authorities say he has revealed.  How do I know about Jesus, salvation history, or the God-given mission of the church?  A network of religious authorities and their writings.  Their say so.  That’s it.  I either believe them or I don’t.  I may find them credible, or not, but I cannot demonstrate the truth of what they say with anything outside the network of their authoritative texts.   So while God would be the most trustworthy of all authorities, the people who claim to speak in his name are not God and do not share his degree of credibility.  Second, I cannot know with certainty or presume that what I consider to be my faith is in fact true faith; it may be a delusion, perhaps the result of my psyche dealing with the dread of death or the absurdity of the universe.

So where does this uncertainty leave me?  It’s possible, I suppose, that I do not have the gift of faith.  Perhaps I lost it. Perhaps I never really had it.  Perhaps these uncertainties would wash away if I truly lived the faith.  But I doubt these possibilities are the case.  Rather, I’m inclined to believe that faith is something I cannot presume to have.  At most, I hope that I have faith and that my faith disposes me to see the world as it truly is.   As I see it, faith is a journey in the dark, led by those who proclaim but cannot prove they know the way, guided by a light that may be the light of truth or possibly just a trick of the mind.  And so we walk in darkness, hoping we’ve seen a great light. (VN)