Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Into the World--Epilogue

We can now see that divine sacrifice on our behalf affirms the radical question of life that, ultimately, reality is moral. The message of the cross, by depicting that affirmation, becomes the proper object of human faith. The Gospel According to John calls the message of Jesus’ life and death “the light of men.” (John 1:4) We have identified that light with conscience, and connected the light of conscience to faith that God will vindicate the person who seeks to live in its light.

Of course, these last statements are statements of faith. But we now understand that no neutral position is possible with respect to the supreme question, and a person who does not understand that does not understand the first thing about faith, that it begins with a decision. For the supreme question is posed to the naked human psyche, with not even a conceptual fig leaf in place to divert one’s gaze from the naked fact that one must choose.

A man who farms near a university that is famous for the study of agriculture likes to tell this story. He hosts students from the university on tours of his farm, and on those tours students frequently ask questions such as, “What’s growing in that field?” and, “What’s that over there?”

“Beans,” he says, and “Planter.”

As a person can study agriculture without learning the first thing about it from the perspective of a farmer, so a person can study theology without learning the first thing about it from the perspective of a person of faith. Consider a Christian who goes to church on Sunday and is told of her need for faith in God’s gracious sacrifice for her. Somehow that message strikes a chord in her heart. Somehow that message addresses troubling practical dilemmas that arise in her life. Somehow the sacrament of communion cuts to the very core of her being, and she strives to live in accord with the message. Her will has engaged the message, and the message has engaged her will. That is the first and most important thing about her faith. Her faith is not supported by any formal rationale, and she knows that. But her faith is vital, because it moves her feelings and motivates her actions. She believes that she is a better person for having faith.

A student of theology may look to wrap these first things of faith in a rationale, and so provide clothes to cover this naked faith. But by doing so, he makes them last things, conclusions, and he thereby treats faith as though it is a mistake, or at best, a stand-in for understanding. The implication is that the truth about God did not need to come into the world. From the standpoint of faith, however, we should not expect to discover the truth about it by means of science or philosophy, or even theology, any more than we should expect to discover the meaning of an author’s text by placing it in test tubes. For the answer we seek requires a higher order than nature; consequently, anything that we can discover by means of answering lesser questions is necessarily not what seek in asking the supreme question. Christian Scripture tells us that Jesus was God incarnate, the divine Logos of creation given human flesh, who in a supreme irony died for us. That message poses itself to us as creatures, putatively, by divine inspiration. Thus, we must hear it as creatures listening to the voice of God speaking to our core existential question, not as scientists or scholars.

We have considered the spiritual meaning of Jesus’ life on the supposition that he was God incarnate. All that we can know is that the message of the cross answers the deepest question that we face as free, morally sensitive beings. In other words, all that we can know, apart from faith, is that we are considering the right answer to the right question. To call the answer the truth, however, is a choice, not a conclusion: and a naked choice, one that cannot be clothed in conclusions derived from this world’s wisdom. But there is a much better way to say this: “Truly, I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15)

Kierkegaard once wrote that it would be good enough for the purposes of faith “If the contemporary generation [with Jesus] had left nothing behind them but these words: ‘We have believed that…God appeared among us in the humble figure of a servant, that he lived and taught in our community, and finally died… …this nota bene on a page of universal history…would be sufficient to afford an occasion [for faith] for a successor, and the most voluminous account can in all eternity do nothing more.”1 I agree, in that faith is a permanent possibility for all human beings; for it is the resolution of a dilemma at the core of human nature, as I hope has been shown. It must be added to Kierkegaard’s nota bene, however, that divine sacrifice for the sake of humanity is needed. For it is the question of whether to sacrifice one’s self-interest in order to do the right thing for the sake of others, when necessary, that underlies the supreme question, the radical question of life. In biblical language, it is “the message of the cross” that answers that radical question of life by depicting divine sacrifice for the sake of humanity. And so the message of the cross becomes the object of faith for a righteous belief, a belief fit for a humanity that accepts the call to a higher way of life.

Jesus is said to have used parables to describe the impact of having faith that one has “found” this higher way. Here is one.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. (Matthew 13:44)

Returning a last time to the story of Jesus’ trial, it presents an ideal microcosm in which to examine the essential teaching of Christian faith. Jesus prompted Pilate’s famous question—“What is truth?”—by saying, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” The famous question followed, and then Jesus’ silence, a silence made suspect by his statement. And yet the suspicion grows out of a preliminary, a superficial understanding of the passage. Having examined the context surrounding it in some depth—both scripturally and conceptually—we now understand that Jesus could not have answered the question and remained true to his purpose. For to have done so would have removed the pressure from Pilate of deciding the supreme question, thereby contravening Scripture’s main theme in application to his life, and averting Jesus’ mission as the Word of God made flesh in depicting that theme to us through Scripture.

It all comes together in that scene. Consequently, we have now answered the overarching question that constituted the conceptual peak that we have wanted to climb: We now see why Jesus’ silence in the face of Pilate’s famous question depicts his divinity. He had to silently accept his condemnation and crucifixion in order to enact the supreme sacrifice in answer to the supreme question.

In closing we should note that the text converges on the reader also. It does so in that the reader along with Pilate is left to judge the truth of Jesus’ claim. Astoundingly, the reader, like Pilate, is allowed to enact the supreme irony of the trial by making a judgment about Jesus. But then, again, this too is a statement of faith.

Nevertheless, whether or not one chooses faith, the point of view from the literary summit in The Gospel According to John is truly a revelation. For it strips human life of all pretensions, uncovering a choice at the core of our humanity.

“Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man!’”

1. Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, Tr. David F. Swenson (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1936) p. 87.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Looking Ahead

The last post of Into the World is coming up next Wednesday. I thought it would be a good time to let you know what is coming up next.

Earlier this fall I got into an exchange with a couple of other persons commenting on the Templeton Foundation's last big question, "Does science make belief in God obsolete?" I think there are some interesting things to learn by thinking about both the Templeton Foundation's contributors' and the comments about the contributions--including mine.

In thinking about what can be learned, I realized that my thoughts merge pretty well with Paul Tillich's views, especially in Vol. II of of his Systematic Theology. So that's where we're going: a few posts on the Templeton Foundation's big question, "Does science make belief in God obsolete?" followed by some thoughts by Paul Tillich that I think are especially apt.

Last comment. As I did following the first run of Into the World (kindly hosted on Richard Beck's wonderful Experimental Theology blog) I am happy to offer any interested reader a copy of my little work. Just email me at and put "Into the World copy" in the title line.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Into the World--Chapter Fourteen: Kierkegaard's Challenge to Intelligibility

There is a story in Genesis as confounding as anything ever written. It tells of Abraham, “the father of faith,” taking his son, Isaac, to a mountain in Moriah to sacrifice him. And Abraham did this at God’s direction—though at the last possible moment the story tells us that God sent an angel to stop Abraham, and provided a replacement sacrifice. (Genesis 22:1-19) Below we read Soren Kierkegaard’s attitude toward the narrative.

[Lazy people] want to understand the story. [For their sake a speaker might make] it a commonplace: ‘His greatness was that he so loved God that he was willing to offer him the best he had.’ … [The speaker thereby] interchange[s] the words “Isaac” and “best.” Everything goes excellently. Should someone in the audience be suffering from insomnia, however, there is likely to be the most appalling, most profound, tragic-comic misunderstanding. He goes home; he wants to do just like Abraham; for [his] son is certainly the best thing he has. Should that speaker hear word of this, he might go to the man…and shout: ‘Loathsome man, dregs of society, what has so possessed you that you wanted to murder your own son?’”1

Kierkegaard interprets the story as a reductio ad absurdum because of the paradox that the story foists upon religious persons: that they must admire Abraham for his faith while abhoring the terrible deed that demonstrated his faith.2 Since it seems that “the Father of faith” presents us with an unintelligible example, it is reasonable to suspect that it is because faith itself is unintelligible.

I will play a Kierkegaardian fool, and begin trying to remove the paradox at the core of the story by putting it into context (Genesis, Chapters 12-22). It begins with the Lord God visiting Abram in the land of Ur. There God tells Abram to leave his country, and that…

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3)

Following this promise Abram went to Canaan, where God promised the land to him. To escape famine in the Promised Land, however, he went to Egypt. There Pharaoh eventually paid him a king’s ransom to leave with his wife, Sarai. (Pharaoh had taken Sarai from Abram, not knowing that she was Abram’s wife, and God had brought plagues upon Egypt till Pharaoh returned her.) Abram then went back to Canaan, and soon after routed several kings who had banded together to pillage neighboring lands. In the course these odysseys, however, the years had passed, and Abram and Sarai had become too old for procreation. It was then—when Abram viewed his life as too small a vessel to contain a great blessing—that the Lord visited Abram in a vision and had this conversation with him:

“Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:1-6)

There is much one can note here, but note especially the odd last sentence: Abram “…believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Perhaps the oddity itself, if understood, will provide a means to understand the story of Abraham and Isaac (God changed Abram’s name to Abraham—meaning “seed”—after promising him that his descendants would be as the stars of the sky). The oddity stems from this. Beliefs are true or false, and we might “reckon a person to be knowledgeable” for having true beliefs in a subject about which truths are not generally known. Righteousness, however, is not typically identified with having true beliefs. For instance, a child who gets 100% on a difficult test in school is not thereby “reckoned to be” especially virtuous. Simply put, we do not conflate righteousness with perspicuity. Why then the seeming conflation in the Abrahamic covenant?

If we are to understand the story, we need a conceptual context to support the narrative one. Let’s begin by first explicitly removing any connection between being virtuous and having true beliefs. Consider a person who is not convinced that striving for moral ideals of any kind—such as honesty, courage, charity, temperance, loyalty, and so forth—is worthwhile. In her opinion a moral ideal is worth pursuing precisely to the extent that doing so produces results that she wants, and she determines what she wants by what she perceives or defines her self-interest to be in any given circumstance. Whether she is wise or shortsighted, knowledgeable or naïve, successful or unsuccessful in procuring what she wants does not factor in here. What matters is that, for her, every choice can be viewed as a transaction from which she wants to get the best possible deal for herself. That, in Sartre’s scheme, constitutes her “life project.”

Clearly a person who strives for traditional moral ideals can object that this person’s selfish means of deciding what is best leaves out considerations that many—perhaps most—persons think should be considered; but the objection will have no weight from her point of view, since the additional considerations that she leaves out are those taken from a perspective in which she does not believe. In fact, from her point of view, to pursue a moral ideal in which she does not believe would literally be unreasonable: For in that she does not “believe in” moral ideals in the sense of believing that they are worth pursuing per se, she can have no reason to strive to attain them, per se.

Furthermore, it is clearly the idea that there is something worth sacrificing for—something beyond her self-interest, as she understands it—that she rejects. And that is the key to the answer we seek. Since a moral person will judge another person to be righteous or not precisely by whether their actions are motivated by moral ends, we can see that beliefs about whether pursuing moral ideals are worthwhile are, in fact, instances of beliefs which can be described, crucially, as righteous or not. That is, they can be judged righteous or not from a point of view which questions whether it is worthwhile to pursue moral ideals per se. “Righteousness,” in fact, depends on belief in this sense: Again, there can be no point in pursuing righteousness on the supposition that one does not believe that it is worthwhile to do so.

If we go on to apply this finding to the wider view that we have been considering, we see that the amoral calculator described represents the antithesis of the message of the cross: For she responds precisely to the kind of rationale that the Serpent used to tempt Eve and Adam in the Genesis story of the fall, as discussed earlier. But to form the connection to the story of Abraham and Isaac, we need to confirm that belief in God can be tantamount to righteousness, construed as belief that moral ideals are worth striving for, even when personal sacrifice is involved.

Recall that that we found the doctrine of enlightened self-interest to be false for several reasons, the core reason being that if we use self-interest to justify making our moral commitments, we can also use it to justify breaking them. (And of course the reverse is also true for the proponent of self-interest: The core problem with stipulating that moral ideals determine the extent of one’s commitment to self-interest is that if we use moral ideals to justify making our commitments to self-interest, we can also use them to justify breaking them.) Therefore, to set up a reasonable response to whether or not making moral commitments is worthwhile, it is necessary to decide whether or not one believes that it is worth making sacrifices for the sake of moral ideals when they conflict with self-interest as defined by each individual’s foundational hopes and desires.

But we have an added challenge to consider in relation to our theory. For since the supreme question sets self-interest against moral ideals in deciding which is to form one’s primary life commitment, a further challenge looms. We must know to whom the “worth” of one’s actions is to accrue, if not to self. (Abraham was concerned with his life being a vessel capable of holding God’s great blessing. To be true to the story, faith must include the idea that a person who acts on moral faith will be vindicated by God. Thus, the willing self-sacrifice implied here is not the final word. In fact the path of self-sacrifice is chosen with the view in mind that God will later vindicate the person who does what is right.)3 Fortunately, that question is easy to answer: moral ideals (almost always) can be seen to benefit human society on some level. Thus, a person is honest in dealing with others. Likewise, a person is loyal in dealing with others; a person is fair, primarily, in dealing with others, and so forth. It is reasonable to assume, then, that it is to these “others” of human society that the benefits of pursuing moral ideals will accrue, when they conflict with self-interest. By extension it seems to have been correct to see the supreme question as involving a social context, with friendship with God constituting the social context that Adam and Eve sacrificed to self-interest in the fall.

However, we have also seen that it is unreasonable to expect human society to achieve perfection in the sense that everyone in society can always be expected to benefit from pursuing its moral ideals. Additionally, there is the problem of having commitments to moral desiderata being contingent on the acts of free persons who can break their commitments. And for our moral doubter, as we have seen, there is no reason to choose the horn of the supreme question that expresses faith, making faith literally unreasonable. Thus, “belief” in moral ideals—if that means conviction that acting in accord with them will lead to what is best for a person—is naïve from the perspective of self-interest. It is the moral doubter who is well informed. What the advocate of self-interest needs is an object of faith that makes it credible for her to believe it is worth pursuing moral ideals—that the willingness to sacrifice for others now will be rewarded in the long run. The supreme question posits just that option as an object of faith. The message of the cross depicts that, despite appearances to the contrary, God will vindicate the person whose faith is such that it can be reckoned as righteousness. In fact, the irony of the message of the cross stems precisely from the need to overcome the appearance that pursuing righteousness is not worthwhile from the perspective of self-interest.

By means of this conceptual context, we see the gospel accounts of Jesus announcing “the kingdom of God is at hand” at the commencement of his ministry in new light. That was exactly what was needed to set up the supreme question. For in so doing he provided the needed context from which the needed rationale can be supplied: it is the kingdom of God that supplies the social context in which faith in “righteousness” makes sense. But crucially for the question at hand—how can a proponent of self-interest’s cogent doubt be effectively addressed?—we have our answer. One gains membership in the kingdom of God by faith in the message of the cross, and that membership trumps all other appeals to self-interest for a person of faith.

This consideration brings us full circle with the story of Jesus’ trial. For it was as king of the Kingdom of God, that Jesus was brought before Pilate, which explained his statement that “my kingdom is not of this world” in our primary text.

Returning to the story of Abraham and Isaac with this larger conceptual context in hand, we are ready to meet Kierkegaard’s challenge. For we now have a perspective from which beliefs are meaningfully described as “righteous,” and that perspective fits the larger biblical context. All we need is the supposition that Abraham grasped the need to have faith that God could be trusted to vindicate moral choices, despite appearances that often indicate the contrary. Then he would have known that to demonstrate a belief that making sacrifices for “righteousness” sake is his primary commitment that faith in God is essential. With apologies to Kierkegaard, to serve as an exemplar of faith, he needed to sacrifice the “best” that he had to God in faith that God could be trusted to vindicate his trust. Since it is clear that Isaac was Abraham’s “best,” the rest follows: Abraham had to be willing to sacrifice Isaac in order to serve as an exemplar of faith.

Anything less than Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac would have demonstrated an unwillingness to represent a commitment to righteous faith as we now understand it, as the primary commitment in his life. The logic of the supreme question is uncompromising; righteous faith can only be demonstrated by a willingness to sacrifice to do what is right. No willingness to sacrifice means one has no faith. And faith in God as the ground of faith that it is worthwhile to pursue our moral ideals even in the face of all appearances to the contrary is tied to a willingness to sacrifice all for the sake of faith in God. Thus, no willingness to sacrifice all for God means one has no faith in God in the needed sense: that God is the Supreme—the ultimate—Being, and hence the supreme and ultimate good. “The best,” to use Kierkegaard’s phrase.

Clearly, the message of the cross depicts divine reciprocity on this core requirement by which Abraham is credited as the father of faith. The divine reciprocity confirms beyond a reasonable doubt that the theory of the supreme question is correct, for it underscores the message, giving it the ultimate endorsement and commitment. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, God supplied a ram as a substitute for Abraham’s most cherished attachment to this world—his only son. In the message of the cross God supplied his only Son as a substitute for our most cherished attachments to this world—whatever those attachments might be. In both stories God supplies the sacrifice. In both stories the one who believes is “reckoned righteous” by God as a result of belief. Clearly we are to understand that we too would need to be like Abraham, if it were not for God’s grace. Surely we too are to understand that it is not just the provision of the sacrifice for us, but the provision of the sacrifice for us “while we were yet sinners,” that is, while we are unable to sacrifice in the manner that the unyielding logic of the supreme question demands. Thus, according to the full message of the cross—the gospel message, the good news—mercy extends beyond grace. What is required is an acknowledgement of the truth of the designation “sinner,” that we cannot do as Abraham did, and as God did in the context of the message of the cross.

Given this view—the view of Christian theology where mercy extends grace to humanity—Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac would then only be required so that he could serve as the exemplar of faith. And that, of course, is what Abraham is, contra Kierkegaard. Abraham’s example does make sense. He, as the “Father of faith,” is a fitting exemplar. And yet the story still stupefies us in another respect, making Kierkegaard’s following comment about Abraham especially apt: “…in a way all that I can learn from Abraham is to be amazed.”4 Christians must agree. For to fail to be amazed would be to fail to see that faith and grace must go together: for faith requires too much of us.

1. Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Tr. Alastair Hannay (Penguin Books, New York, 1985) pp. 58-59.
2. Ibid, pp. 108, 144. Kierkegaard believed that there is an absolute duty that each person owes to God, a duty that paradoxically trumps even moral obligations, which we usually take to be both universally binding and derived from God (whether directly or ultimately). He interpreted the story of Abraham and Isaac as requiring that paradoxical duty in order to “explain” Abraham’s terrifying willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s direction. Two responses need to be made. First, a paradox really explains nothing. And second, it is therefore correct to state that Kierkegaard believed that faith is—in the final analysis—unintelligible.
3. I believe that Scripture indicates that the reward of moral faith—expressed by a willingness to sacrifice to do what is right, and given ultimate expression by the message of the cross—is fellowship with God. I base this opinion of the fact that through self-seeking sin humanity’s relationship with God was lost. (Genesis 3:22-24) It is fitting, then, that through self-sacrificial righteousness one finds the way back to a relationship with God. The opposite of a temptation would be an obligation: something one does not really want to do, but which is required morally. The message of the cross, in that light, makes the antithesis to temptation—moral obligation—the way back to God. This need not, and does not, require that a person believes that in the end they are acting against self-interest by doing what is clearly self-sacrificial in the short run. This explains the ambiguity in the text, which is left in it to make it more readable.

4. Fear and Trembling, p. 66

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Into the World--Chapter Thirteen: The Challenge from Sartre's Bad Faith

Another perspective by which we can gain a better view of the supreme question comes from Jean-Paul Sartre, who defined existentialism in opposition to theism. Sartre thought of Christian faith as a form of “bad faith.” To understand that view, a short primer is needed.

By “bad faith” Sartre meant thinking in a way that allows us to lie to ourselves, most especially to obscure our responsibility.1 But since a lie is an intentional act, the deception integral to any lie, it seems, is impossible when the liar and the person who is lied to are one and the same.

Sartre resolves this incongruity by tracing bad faith to fundamental ambiguities at the core nature of human nature.2 These ambiguities make it possible for us become our own dupe—when doing so expresses our fundamental wish. As you shall see, the ambiguities create subterfuge, which we enlist to obscure the fact that we are lying to ourselves; a subterfuge that we can ignore because it is so deeply ingrained in human nature.

To make sense of this, we need to understand how Sartre thought that the ambiguities at the core of our being are enlisted to create the needed subterfuge. The primary ambiguity is tied to our very beings as human beings. On one hand, we can be described and explained in much the same way as can any ordinary object. For our pasts are determined, making us fixed objects in that sense.3 But on the other hand we are free with respect to our futures, since as human beings our futures await our determination.4 A simple example will show how this primary ambiguity at the core of human nature can be used to obscure our responsibility as free beings.

Consider a man who beats his wife. If he cites a cruel and depraved upbringing by way of exonerating himself while insisting that we take into account that he loves his wife and intends to be a good husband in the future, he employs both aspects of the ambiguity. For in his appeal this man incorporates both his personal history, which is fixed, and his resolve to be a better person in the future, with respect to which he is free. Both serve as means to deflect his responsibility for his moral failure. Sartre calls this strategy of playing on our core double nature in this way a “nihilating ambiguity” with respect to human responsibility.5 It engenders the most basic form of bad faith.

Sartre describes a second core ambiguity in our natures as a “perpetually disintegrating synthesis.”6 This ambiguity plays off of our dual responsibility for ourselves and for other persons: “The equal dignity of being, possessed by my being-for-others and by my being-for-myself permits…a perpetual game of escape from the for-itself to the for-others and from the for-others to the for-itself.”7 Again, a simple example will help. Say that for health reasons I ought to quit smoking, but I don’t want to face that responsibility to myself. I can escape it by finding a responsibility to others to displace it. I thus make use of the “perpetually disintegrating synthesis” as follows: I reason that I ought to put off quitting in order to socialize over dinner with some friends who smoke—after all, it would be selfish to call attention to myself in a way that could spoil the friendly gathering.

Such cases do not really succeed in fooling us, Sartre would say. On some level we understand that we are lying to ourselves in order to avoid responsibility for making decisions that we ought to make but want to avoid.8 Yet the subterfuge succeeds in taking the focus off our responsibility. In Sartre’s words, “The goal of bad faith…is to put oneself out of reach; it is an escape.”9 And since Sartre sees human reality as defined by the choices that we freely make, it is most centrally responsibility for our free choices that bad faith provides an escape from.

By contrast Sartre advocated living with an awareness of one’s responsibility for one’s own life, beginning with the “projects” that give our lives meaning and so inform our values.10 For us the striking thing will be the analogy Sartre sets up between being an authentic human being and striving to be God. A human being is responsible for creating his life’s meaning as God is responsible for creating the world. In Sartre’s words, “To be man means to reach toward being God.”11 In other words, to be fully authentic means to engage the world as fully as is possible as a free agent. Armed with that view, a fully “authentic” human being would have no need for God. Indeed, in Sartre’s words, “[atheistic existentialism] declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing.”12 For from that perspective, one cannot both be authentically human and relinquish one’s freedom to God.

Certainly Sartre’s contention that “To be man means to reach toward being God” puts the story of the fall into a dramatically different light.13 In that light the Serpent was right to claim that by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that Adam and Eve would become like God: they did become more godlike by expanding the scope of their freedom and responsibility. We must examine that view more closely.

For Sartre, anything placed in the way of our responsibility for our free choices constitutes bad faith. Accordingly, placing one’s faith in God, in the sense of trusting an authority that contracts the legitimate scope of human free will, expresses bad faith. So too relinquishing responsibility for my life choices to any external authority constitutes bad faith, whether one sacrifices one’s authority to one’s State, one’s political party, one’s cultural mores, one’s social clique, etc., the result is bad faith. The meaning of “To be man means to reach toward being God,” then, is that to be authentically human is to be the highest possible authority for constituting the values, meanings, and choices that define my life.14 In that sense, “…even if God did exist, that would change nothing.”15 Given Sartre’s guiding principle of authenticity, his view is correct.

Yet Sartre’s view is correct only as far as it goes, and it is incomplete. When completed his analysis returns us to the supreme question. Recall the ambiguities found at the core of human nature which we considered earlier: (1) our dual descriptions in terms of being free agents and determined objects, and (2) our equal moral responsibility to ourselves and others.

Recall also that it is our life projects that order our lives’ meanings and values. Thus, it is to the extent one chooses a coherent life project that Sartre’s view, in theory, can be implemented coherently in a person’s life. With respect to the first core ambiguity, Sartre’s existentialist philosophy is theoretically coherent: He states, “…we will discover the individual person in the initial project which constitutes him.”16 With reference to this first core ambiguity, Sartre defines humanity by way of freedom. In that fundamental sense Sartre’s philosophy is clearly coherent, albeit entirely abstract.

Relative to the second core ambiguity, however, Sartre offers no clarifying perspective. That is ironic. For resolving the ambiguity following upon one’s dual and equal moral responsibility to oneself and others is essential to forming a coherent life project. That is precisely what the supreme question confronts humanity with—the chance to make the choice which resolves that core ambiguity.

Again, from the perspective of Sartre’s atheistic existentialism, the Serpent was correct: One becomes godlike by rejecting outside restrictions on one’s freedom (even if they purportedly originate with God). But from the perspective of Christian existentialism, one becomes godlike by submitting to the greater good of choosing love for others over self-interest as the “initial project which constitutes” the individual.17 Expressed by means of the Bible’s overarching theme, the choice is between the Serpent’s view from the fall or Jesus’ view from the cross, the exclusive alternatives of the supreme question.

One cannot avoid the supreme question by admonishing each person to be “a being which is compelled to decide the meaning of being…”18 Leaving the meaning of being in the abstract—that “…man is freedom”—fails to confront the fact that we do not live in the abstract.19 In the concrete reality of human life, the supreme question confronts us with a choice that decides one’s defining “initial project,” a necessary act of human freedom, if one is to avoid the conclusion that there is a core expression of bad faith entrenched in human being itself. For apart from making the decision inherent in the supreme question, one cannot establish a coherent core meaning for human life as the first act of human freedom, and Sartre’s atheistic existentialism becomes an exercise in the bad faith that it seeks to exorcise: It supplies a subterfuge in the form of an ambiguity between freedom as conceived in the abstract and freedom as put to use choosing one’s initial life project in the concrete dilemma posed by the supreme question. In Sartre’s words, “The best way to conceive of the fundamental project of human reality is to say that man is the being whose project is to be God.”20 By switching to the abstraction when the concrete is at hand, the same disintegrating synthesis found in application to this second of the core ambiguities that we looked at applies here. In fact, we leave our being in a state of disintegration relative to the second ambiguity precisely because we fail to choose between the two competing alternatives for our primary human project of becoming like God—that is, like God as defined by the Serpent’s view from the fall or by the message of the cross. And that confirms our theory.


1. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Bad Faith,” in Essays in Existentialism, Ed. Wade Baskin (The Citadel Press, Secaucus, 1965) p. 150.

2. Ibid, pp. 160-164.
3. Ibid, p. 164.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid, p. 165.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.8. Ibid, p. 151.
9. Ibid, p. 177.
10. Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Desire to Be God,” in Essays in Existentialism, p. 70.

11. Ibid, pp. 70-71.
12. Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Humanism of Existentialism,” in Essays in Existentialism, p. 62.

13. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Freedom and Responsibility,” in Essays in Existentialism, p. 67.

14. Ibid.
15. “The Humanism of Existentialism,” p. 62.

16. “The Desire to Be God,” p. 70.

17. Ibid.
18. “Freedom and Responsibility,” p. 68.

19. “The Humanism of Existentialism,” p. 41.

20. “The Desire to Be God,” p. 70.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Prayer?

My step-sister has end-stage cancer. She still hopes for a miracle cure, as do I. But that hope has been in the abstract, as an expression of an open minded attitude toward the possibility of a cure. When my mother, this morning, asked me to see to it that family gathering to visit her this weekend surround her in prayer, I faced the prospect of turning hope based on an abstraction into a concrete act and statement of faith. And so I am asking myself, in what sense does the abstraction survive the descent into the hard facts that I know?

Is my faith to be a hope that somehow the doctors got the diagnosis wrong? Clearly that would be a perversion of faith. To me it seems essential to faith that it be an expression, at least of the possibility, of there being more to human existence than we can see or know. My faith does not take the givens of what we can know and contradict them, on this view. It places them in a larger context.

The question then confronts me, if faith expresses a conviction that there is more to life than I can see or know, where does it come from? I think that it comes from the conviction of good people in trying times that it is the good that they can see and know that connects them to what they cannot see and know. The imperative of a good will dictates the content of one’s ontology. Whatever one thinks of Luther and Lutheranism, one sees that view of faith clearly in his—some think apocryphal—“Here I stand, I can do no other.” No matter what the actual words were, clearly the existential “ought” in Luther's life became more real to him than any visible existential “is.” To me that is what faith means, or at least what it ought to mean. And that is why it can and does exist in the midst of great countervailing facts: Quite simply, it transcends them.

The wager of faith, to speak crudely, is that not only is there more to human existence than we can know, but that that “more” can be understood by faith as an expression of what life requires of a good person. If life has a larger meaning than we can understand—at least if it has one worth knowing—that is it. And just so, if we are invited to live as members of the kingdom of heaven, we must be guided by our best motives as we remain open to a reality greater than our understanding.

But why would anyone choose to believe in something beyond their understanding? The question implies a misunderstanding. One does not choose to act on insufficient evidence. Rather, one chooses to interpret insufficient evidence in light of one’s best motives and hopes. What else is one to do? It is when we encounter an existential crisis, then, that faith comes to light. And the reality of the existential crisis speaks louder than any proof or evidence, because it speaks for the human heart. I believe that William James nailed the idea when he wrote, “…to refuse to cultivate a feeling of security would be to do violence to a tendency in one’s emotional life which might well be respected a prophetic.” (Preface to The Meaning of Truth)

I, for one, can do no other tomorrow. I will express my fondest hope to my step-sister that our family’s love for her—with all the hope that that entails—can and should inform our belief. Is that intellectual courage, or cowardice? I say neither, for once again the question implies a misunderstanding. Faith transcends that question, and for those who have it, its possibility entails its necessity.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Into the World--Chapter Twelve: The View from James' Radical Question

“the radical question of life—the question of whether this be at bottom a moral or an unmoral universe…”1

William James

William James never explained why he dubbed the question “whether this be at bottom” a moral universe “the radical question of life.”1 But my suspicion is that he viewed it as obvious to the point of needing none. Nevertheless, leaving it unexamined will not do for our purposes.

My Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary tells me that existentialism is “…a philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centered on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for his acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad.”

The theory of the supreme question clearly conforms to the dictionary definition of existentialism. For it describes a plight that must be confronted individually in that it follows on each individual’s freedom to fundamentally define herself with respect to her moral commitments. And, as such, it describes a responsibility that no one other than each individual person can assume. Also, the absence of any intellectual preamble to faith as conceived through the theory of the supreme question makes it “an act of free will without any certain knowledge.”

William James’ radical question of life also meets that basic definition of existentialism. Some context will help make that plain. James famously analyzed the question of how to proceed when confronted with a genuine dilemma, where “genuine dilemma” presents us with options that must be decided as “an act of free will without any certain knowledge.” The essay that made his analysis famous is “The Will to Believe.” However, it is fraught with opportunities for misunderstanding, if not paired with concepts taken from other writings. Accordingly, a short primer on James’ thought is in order to provide the needed context.

James defined faith as “belief in something concerning which doubt is still possible.”2 In accord with that definition he believed that faith could be philosophy made clear of its options in light of its limitations, writing that some theologies “are the most sustained efforts man’s intellect has ever made to keep living on that subtle edge of things where speech and thought expire.”3 He developed that line of thought mainly in his popular essays, several of which can be called, in his play on words, a “justification of faith.”4 The line of thought points us in the direction of what he called the “radical question of life”—a question that we shall see is clearly connected to the supreme question.5

In “The Will to Believe” James stated the thesis as follows: “Our passional natures not only may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds…”6 But an option may be “live” in the Jamesian lexicon, and thereby help establish its status as “genuine,” by merely meeting broad cultural presumptions about what beliefs are respectable options for a person’s allegiance.7 James endorsed this lax view to adhere to the reality, as he saw it, that “…for us, not insight, but the prestige of opinions is…” the passional interest that matters most often to most persons.8 But not only will a careful thinker scorn soapstone such as that as a basis for understanding faith, it positively will not help us advance to a better understanding of the supreme question.

To serve as a worthy philosophical base, the genuine option in question must first pass muster as one “that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds.”9 It is to accord with that view that an earlier position was stated in this work: “No intellectual preamble can be used to make the supreme question less than an expression of faith.” That includes any calculation of the political value of making one choice over another. In fact, what one means by “value” here depends on the choice one makes regarding the supreme question—assuming the theory proves true—and thus could not apply, even if we wanted to endorse James’ lax view. Call the stricter view needed for our purposes a “philosophically genuine option” to separate it from James’ laxer general view.

With that in mind, James’ view does have much to recommend it for our purposes. To see how it illumines the very question that we are trying to understand, it will help to see that it is on the most fundamental level that James saw his idea play out. For instance, he threw a skid load of clear candidates for what one can call philosophically genuine options into “The Will to Believe.”

The world is rational through and through,--its existence is an ultimate brute fact; there is a personal God,--a personal God in inconceivable; there is an extra-mental physical world immediately known,--the mind can only know its ideas; a moral imperative exists,--obligation is only the resultant of desires, etc.10

We find his best example, however, in The Principles of Psychology. There one reads that he was committed to a free will perspective. But his commitment was made in the face of an unblinking acknowledgment that the deterministic hypothesis is just as compelling from a strictly intellectual standpoint. The following quote illustrates the gist of the option as James framed it.

The most that any argument can do for determinism is to make it a clear and seductive conception, which a man is foolish not to espouse, so long as he stands by the great scientific postulate that the world must be one unbroken fact, and that prediction of all things without exception must be ideally, even if not actually, possible. It is a moral postulate about the Universe, the postulate that what ought to be can be, and that bad acts cannot be fated, but that good ones must be possible in their place, which would lead one to espouse the contrary view. But when scientific and moral postulates war thus with each other and objective proof is not to be had, the only course is voluntary choice, for skepticism itself, if systematic, is also a choice. If, meanwhile, the will be undetermined, it would seem only fitting that the belief in its indeterminism should be voluntarily chosen from amongst other possible beliefs.11

Commenting on this dilemma, James wrote, “Will you or won’t you have it so is the most probing question we are ever asked… We answer by consents or non-consents and not by words. What wonder that these dumb responses should seem our deepest organs of communication with the nature of things!”12 Here, then, is a clear example of philosophy made clear of its options in light of its limitations, and faith is philosophically rigorous in such a case precisely because it is “living on that subtle edge…where speech and though expire.”13 (In passing we can note that if James was correct with this view, we have another sort of explanation for Jesus’ silence: His “dumb response” would constitute the “deepest organ of communication” in representing the Supreme Answer.)

Yet the present example is not the best example of a philosophically genuine option, if best means most profound. James saved his superlative status for “the radical question of life—the question of whether this be at bottom a moral or an immoral universe.”14 For the radical question addresses the moral assumptions attendant to having free will. First, assuming free will, to what extent is the possibility of having a moral perspective relevant to the world? For, if our universe is not fundamentally amenable to moral perspectives, amoral perspectives are the deepest and most crucial ones. In such a world, free will and the moral responsibility that goes with it are ultimately subject to the dictates of a world which does not honor moral striving. The question of free will and the moral perspectives that follow upon it, then, point in the direction of James’ “radical question of life…”

A nexus of questions determine which meaning we ascribe to our humanity. If we are free and morally aware, we are responsible for our choices in light of our moral perspectives. So, are we free and morally aware? If so, we can be held responsible as moral beings to the extent that our moral perspectives are amenable with the deepest and most crucial considerations relevant at any point in time. So, do our moral insights form the deepest and most crucial of considerations? If so, we ought to sacrifice other values to our moral values. So, is it worth sacrificing other values to our moral values?

Here we see the need for the example Jesus set forth at his trial. Jesus as God choosing the paradigmatic example of sacrifice answers all of these questions; the message of the cross as “the truth” means that the answer to James’ “radical question of life” is “Yes!” And it means that we answer all other questions concerning our primary values as human beings from the perspective of that “Yes!” the truth purportedly represented by the message of the cross. For the message of the cross becomes the deepest and most crucial consideration for us as human beings by virtue of the status of Jesus’ example as a divine revelation about the meaning of our humanity and the nature of Supreme Being.

In Pilate’s deliberations we see a man depicting how these questions work their way into our lives. Clearly, he decided that the perspective of conscience in Jesus’ trial was not the deepest and most crucial one. Instead he chose to protect his self-interest as determined by whether or not his allegiance to Rome could be called into question. Simply put, Rome trumped conscience in Pilate’s assessment of the relevant considerations.

By way of contrast, Jesus’ willing sacrifice in depiction of the truth about God serves as a resounding Yes! to the radical question of life. And so we see that, from William James’ perspective, it is right for Christians to claim that Jesus is the truth. For he represents the deepest, most radical truth possible for human beings as human beings, when that truth is approached through the meaning of the message of the cross. And the message of the cross—God’s paradigmatic sacrificing of himself for the sake of humanity—tells us that, at bottom, the moral considerations that anchor our nature as free moral agents are the deepest and most crucial ones. Hence, they are worth the sacrifices that will sometimes go along with choosing them. In that way, then, the message of the cross serves as a “Yes!” both to the supreme question and to James’ “radical question of life.”

1. William James, “The Sentiment of Rationality,” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (Dover, New York, 1956) p. 103.

2. Ibid, p. 90.
3. William James, “Reflex Action and Theism,” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, (Dover, New York, 1956) p. 122.

4. William James, “The Will to Believe,” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (Dover, New York, 1956) p. 3.

5. “The Sentiment of Rationality,” p. 103.

6. “The Will to Believe,” p. 11.

7. Ibid, p. 3.
8. Ibid, p. 11.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid, p. 16.
11. William James, The Principles of Psychology, Volume 2 (Dover, New York, 1950) p. 573.

12. Ibid, p. 579.
13. “Reflex Action and Theism,” p. 122.

14. “The Sentiment of Rationality,” p. 90.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Seeing President Elect Obama through Marcel's Lens

For the second time in the last couple of weeks a current event illustrates the theme of Into the World so well that I cannot resist commenting on it. It will take a couple of paragraphs to set this up.

As noted in an earlier post, Gabriel Marcel's The Mystery of Being employs a method he called "philosophical reconnoitring." (The Mystery of Being, p. 140) Because a mystery explained is a mystery eliminated, a mystery per se--in contrast to a mystery that exists as a condition of continued human ignorance--can only be encountered, not explored or examined. Marcel's reconnoitring, then, is a way of encountering the mystery of being by locating it in questions that inherently escape our grasp.

As was also noted earlier, Marcel's exposition is very difficult, and the difficulty is twofold, as I reflect on it. First, it is disorienting to have a book's exposition introduce you to what must escape your understanding as opposed to introducing you to a subject with which it will make you more familiar. And second, Marcel locates the mystery of being in points of view that we are not used to thinking of as mysterious: what it means to have a self or a life, what it means to be a parent or a child, and so on. The combined impact of these two aspects of Marcel's book is to produce a sense of existential vertigo: assumed familiar truths about ourselves open into chasms of mystery about the nature of human existence. The Mystery of Being is in the least a very odd book, in that to the extent that it succeeds it introduces us to what we can never succeed in knowing. It turns the very idea of exposition on its head. And if you think that he succeeded in placing the mystery of being at the center of our life and understanding, it is also an important book that places mystery at the core of life where to live deeply means to encounter the mystery of being.

I will use a quote from Heidegger's "What is Metaphysics?" to put Marcel's reconitioring of "the mystery of being" in a slightly different context.

"No matter investigates what-is it will never find Being. All it encounters, always, is what-is, because its explanatory purpose makes it insist at the outset on what-is. But Being is not an existing quality of what-is, nor, unlike what-is, can Being be conceived and established objectively." (Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, tr. Walter Kaufmann, p. 259-60.) In Heidegger's thought, literally, "Nothing" must be said of "Being" as a prerequisite to human meaningfulness, for Heidegger assumes that " is of the truth of Being that Being may be without what-is, but never what-is without Being." (p. 260) Paraphrased (with considerable metaphorical license) as God created the world out of formless void in the Genesis mythos, so we create meaning out of Being by imposing limits--and thus negation, imposing "Nothing"--on formless Being. That is how I interpret the meaning of being made in the image of God. From the infinite possibilities of Being we create meaning.

But what then happens when a human being imposes those limits on a fellow human being? In Heidegger's words again, without negation "...there is no self-hood and no freedom." But it is the wielding of the power of negation that yields the human power to create meaning and inner freedom. To wield that power against another human being to to take their humanness away--their being made in the image of God as creators of meaning. That is my view, as a Christian. And it requires me to view my fellow human beings as mysteries--as points of emanation of meanings that I have no right to view as subject to my judgment. In Kant's terms, other persons are always to be seen as ends, not means (to my ends). In Martin Buber's terms, we reduce an I-Thou relationship to an I-it relationship, if we do so. In Marcel's terms, " the condition...of participation..." (The Mystery of Being, p. 113)

That is, we dehumanize and de-sacra-lize as we define and objectivize. As a Christian I can almost view the grand introduction from the US Declaration of Independence as sacred doctrine when it states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." And so it followed when African Americans were made into slaves that they had to be dehumanized and de-sacra-lized. And as the defense of freedom and human rights in the world is the best of what America stands for, it follows that the historic dehumanization and enslavement of its African American citizens is the worse blemish on its history.

Now I can provide a glimpse of what President Elect Obama means for me as a European American. I will do so in a Marcel-like way, by situating the meaning in my ordinary life experience. Since for most of the first 13 years of my life I lived on a ranch on the Great Plains, it was not till attending high school in a town with a Air Force base near-by that I had any opportunity to meet black peers. And the best opportunity I had was on the school track team, where I met several good-natured, intelligent, funny African American team mates whom I should have welcomed as friends. Yet there was an invisible barrier to friendship. I could not have said what it was then, but the social roles my team mates and I had inherited could not be accepted by any self-respecting black or white person. So we remained in our racial cliques--the only decent thing to do for a person who did not have the courage and insight needed to transcend the cultural reality.

For the first time that has changed. In Central Minnesota I still live in racial isolation, with only occasional exceptions. The day after the election I saw a singe black person, a chef at a restaurant that buys pizzas from the company I work for. Entering the door to the kitchen I was greeted with a loud Bob Marley Rastafarian protest anthem, "Most people think that God comes from above..." And for the first time I could look a black man in the eyes without the gulf that emanates from a presumptive barrier of cultural inequality that requires us to either transcend it or remain in separate racial cliques out of self-respect. Having a black person elected into the highest position of authority in our nation transcended the presumptive barrier for us. We exchanged meaningful looks followed by genuine smiles. That was it, and in a sense it was a very small thing. But it was a very big thing too, because a terrible historical legacy has been transcended--not entirely overcome, but transcended symbolically, at least--in this election.

If I were a black man in a white majority community last Wednesday, I think it would have been a great choice to put on some Bob Marley, really loud, and see who gets it and who doesn't. Well done!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Third Marcel Etude: "Homo Fide"

Gabriel Marcel opposed the idea of "all experience as coming a self's experience of its own states." (The Mystery of Being, Vol. I: Reflection and Mystery (St. Augustine's Press, South Bend, 2001) p. 51) Accordingly he states that, "I shall therefore lay it down as a principle, to be accepted in the whole of my subsequent argument, that, before it is anything else, consciousness is above all consciousness of something which is other than itself..." (p. 51-2)

This is a portentous principle, but how might it be justified? Doesn't it contradict the familiar idea of self-consciousness?

Marcel, of course, does not deny that we have a sense of self as the subject of our experience. What he denies is that we can create an object out of that subject in order to study it and specify its nature. This view is basic to his argument, as the quote above implies. For if the vehicle of our awareness of the world cannot be subjected to the kind of scrutiny by which we understand the world, then our awareness of the world will always be experienced as--at root--a mystery. Hence, The Mystery of Being as Marcel's title.

In defense of Marcel's principle, consider the negative conclusion of Richard Rorty's influential Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature: After 400 years of effort no one has been able to cash in the metaphor of human experience "mirroring" the world. Thus we are left with a practical, a pragmatic, orientation toward our ideas, and purported philosophical explanations are only speculations. Marcel makes the point this way:

"...we have to recognize the need to postulate a non-mediatizable immediate, which is the very root of our existence." (p. 109--emphasis in original) If we are to accept this as fact, it seems that we can only return to Marcel's earlier claim that "consciousness is above all else consciousness of something which is other than itself..." (P. 51-2) and acknowledge it as the principle Marcel announces it to be.

If we do so there is indeed a portentous result: all our ideas about the meaning of the life we experience are potential faiths while none are philosophical or scientific in the sense of being backed up by a reasoned understanding.

This is important, I think, in several ways, but I will focus on only one. It might seem that the only safe conclusion about the meaning of life given the mystery at its core would be to deny any framework larger than what can be mediated through one's experience and adjudicated by science or philosophical analysis. But if "...consciousness is above all else consciousness of something which is other than oneself..." and one seeks the meaning of the life one is conscious of--can one seek the meaning of any other life?--then the very thing one's experience can never provide is its own meaning! One must adopt a meaning, choose a meaning, believe in a meaning, if life is to have a meaning. Moreover, to refuse to do so is to refuse to organize one's life in a meaningful way--at least to the extent that a person is self-consistent in their refusal. And the only alternative to this refusal is faith. Not necessarily religious faith, but faith in the sense of belief where epistemic risk is involved. In fact, life on a meaningful human level is inherently risky. We are creatures of faith: Homo Fide.

Would Marcel approve this "etude," this attempt to extrapolate from his careful exposition ? Frankly, I do not know. More importantly, I do not know whether my analysis is adequate to the subject. What I do know is that thinking about this subject is a worthy pursuit.