02/13/13

Even the Bravest…

1888 was Friedrich Nietzsche’s last year as a writer, and was his most productive. He suffered a mental breakdown on January 3, 1889, while attempting to stop a man who was beating his horse. He is said to have collapsed with his arms around the horse’s neck and he never returned to his former self, though he lived on for another decade.

If I had to choose one source that precipitated my departure from religion more than any other, it would be the writings of Nietzsche. I am not alone; many throughout the last century have found Nietzsche as the catalyst for their departure from traditional forms of religion. (It is also important to note that many, past and present, have used Nietzsche to attempt to reform Christianity from within. Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen recently published an intriguing book that documents the history of Nietzsche reception in America.) He is a writer I have returned to repeatedly for the simplicity with which he expresses the contingency of modern belief, specifically the problems of Christianity’s role in European culture. If before I thought of Christianity as a largely exclusive sphere within Western culture, it was Nietzsche’s writing that exposed the proliferation of Christian ideology and morality far beyond its bounds into political and cultural spheres where Christians and secularists misrecognize it.

Nietzsche-munchNietzsche wrote Twilight of the Idols in this last year, just before the more well-known Antichrist. The former, relatively short work is written in the short aphoristic style for which he is famous. The second aphorism in the text has become a motto of sorts for me: “Even the most courageous among us only rarely has the courage to face what he already knows.” The short statement expresses how reluctant we are to challenge the “truths” that we hold closely, even when part of us “knows” that they are contingent, based only on our own particular context and not on any universal truth. As Nietzsche expressed elsewhere, there is only a perspective “knowing,” so the “already know[ing]” he talks about is not another universal, but instead recognizing the limitations of ourcontingent knowledge

I’ve had this quote listed as the subtitle of this blog, but the reason I’m bringing it up now is that I am retitling my blog “Even the Bravest…,” and wanted to (briefly) explain why. The decision is largely a political one, the ramifications of which I will be able to explain in much greater detail in the coming months. In short, though, although I thoroughly enjoy the title “Exiting Christianity,” and although it expresses the continuing nature of my own experience studying the tradition that I grew up in, it may give the wrong impression to casual readers. My goal is not to deride all that is associated with the Christian tradition; as I’ve mentioned before, I remain intrigued by the history of Christianity and the extent of its effect on present culture

There exists a certain amount of duplicity in the non-sectarian study of religion. The constitution of Religious Studies as a field is dependent on an unbiased approach. Religious Studies is not theology, in other words, because it does not assume the truth of any religious practice or belief. In its purest forms, it is supposed merely to document and compare religious traditions. People do not usually study religion, however, as one studies the objects in a museum. In my experience many people involved in the study of religion hold particular stancesregarding the traditions they study, whether for or against them, yet they separate those from their scholarship. While this increases the potential reach of their work, it is what we might call withholding information relevant to the case. The “objectivity” inherent to scholarship is uniquely problematic to the field of religion because religion assumes complete adherence, whereas fields such as history or psychology do not. For me, the discord between personal and professional approaches to Christianity was untenable, forcing an eventual reckoning.

All that is to say that I want to be as forthright as possible in my approach to religion, but I also want people to interrogate religion more deeply than they have, particularly those who have grown up in the Christian tradition. To prevent people from making a hasty dismissal of my assessments and critiques from the title of my blog alone, I’ll make it slightly more difficult to nail me down (but not too much).

In short, nothing much has changed. However, I’ll have more to say about Nietzsche in the future.

01/20/13

And We Created God in Our Image…

What if humanity was not made in the image of God, as Genesis tells the reader, but God was made in the image of man? I was confronted with this question by the first thinker I read who directly challenged the “truth” of Christianity. Now it is commonplace in evangelical Christianity to highlight the difference between man-made and God-made elements of religion. There are postmodern theologians who do this so well I can’t even tell what it is they are still hanging on to, or why they continue to use Christianity as a life narrative (I’m thinking of some aspects of the Emerging Church movement here, and this is the camp I identified with for a couple years). Even within broader evangelical circles, though, it has become easy for the postmodern Christian to dismiss long-standing ritual aspects of Christianity or traditional stances on political hot-button issues, declaring them to be concerns of man and not God. This has more to do with contemporary cultural trends than actual study of Christian history or the Bible.

Discerning between authentic religion and historical accretions is not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the core, God himself. If it were the case that theology was anthropology, that the study of God was actually the study of man, how would this have happened? (You’ll notice the gendered language here that passes unnoticed more often than not in religious circles. It seems much more important to me to draw attention to the strongly patriarchal orientation of Judaism and Christianity by maintaining the use of masculine pronouns for God and humanity than softening the blow with gender-inclusive terms.) In this paradigm, man exists and becomes aware of his existence. With the knowledge of that existence, he also becomes aware of its finite nature; in other words, he was born, and he will die, without exception. He sees the limitations and possibilities within himself compared to others. Some are stronger, some weaker. Some are more intelligent, some…not so much. Within that social environment, man sees the potential for what he can be. He envisions the ideal, the potential of the maximization of all these variable qualities that make him up. This ideal provides both a goal and an image for self-reflection, because the ideal is a perfected image of himself. It negates or minimizes the limitations of finiteness.

In the founding of any great institution, however, the arbitrary nature of its foundation, the fact that its principles are unjustifiable in any universal sense, is erased. So the anthropological connection between God and society is lost, and when the individual contemplates the ideal, he thinks himself to be contemplating something wholly other. Rather than thinking of God as the perfection of all the qualities of humanity, he thinks of God as the opposite of himself. He is all-knowing, my knowledge is finite. He is perfect, I am imperfect. He benches infinity, I can only bench 225. In contemplation on God, then, the individual can feel reinvigorated, imbued with a sense of value or self-worth, or ashamed of the discrepancies between himself and God.

Ludwig Feuerbach wrote the Essence of Christianity in 1841 at the age of 37, where he expounded these ideas, explaining Christianity (the only significant religion on his radar at the time) as a mirror of the ideals of mankind. Man, he claims, needs an object, and those we revere in history devoted their lives to the realization of that object, which in all cases was an objectification of their own natures. For most, however, to know God and know him as other is a source of disunity, causing unhappiness. Feuerbach’s aim was thus that we should uncover the mask under which we separate the idealization of man and pursue it directly, not as theology, but as anthropology.

There is much more to Feuerbach’s work, as he engages many of the major theoretical and ritual aspects of Christianity to test his general theory. I will return to some of these later. However, it is worth noting that even if one refuses the idea that God could be created in the image of man and concludes that God must exist, the practical result is much the same. We engage in a continual project of reconstruction, driven by the influences of our social and cultural environment, to maintain an image of what this wholly other divinity is like. The emotional significance, the emotional “proof” of divinity, is far more influential than its lack of verification. In other religious traditions, different deities exist for different functions. Consult Mars for war, and Venus for love. In Christianity, God must take all those qualities on himself. You will notice how the god of a particular denomination strongly reflects the group who worships him. The god of Pat Robertson or Fred Phelps keeps score and kicks ass. The god of others is more flowers and puppy dogs. Are they the same god, different gods…or creations of God in our own image?