The Apostle Paul, Feuerbach, and Bonhoeffer in Convo: On a Crucified Knowledge of God

“For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” -Galatians 1.11-12

“God did not, as the Bible says, make man in His image; on the contrary man, as I have shown in The Essence of Christianity, made God in his image.” – Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion

The Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit writes the aforementioned; the philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach writes the aforementioned under the inspiration of the Spirit of antiChrist. Nevertheless, both identify important aspects about ultimacy, or as Christians we might say: God! Paul understands that knowledge of God is not based on philosophical speculation; whereas Ludwig reflects a person who takes philosophical reflection to its logical conclusion. Philosophical speculation, as it programmatically starts with the self can only end with the self. Thus, Feuerbach concludes that God is only a human projection; a projection of what the self would like to imagine itself to be. Ironically, the self under Feuerbach’s machinations ends up relying on classically understood divine revelational categories, or philosophical categories, and imagines that this is in fact representative of what humanity actually is in se. This is ironic, to me anyway, because Ludwig helps to illustrate just what a god imagined under the constraints of philosophical reasoning naturally reduces to; viz. it reduces or collapses the classically philosophical categories for divinity into the human being as the ultimate terminus for who and what ‘God’ is. I can agree, as a Christian, with Feuerbach. If our notion of God is based upon philosophical speculation, and the subsequent imagining that this speculation fosters, then this God, indeed ends up being a God who “man … made . . . in his image.”

Contrariwise, as already alluded to, the Apostle Paul doesn’t know the God that Feuerbach, or the philosophers in general have imagined. Paul’s knowledge of God is purely based on God’s confrontation of Him, quite literally, on the road to Damascus. Paul’s theological schooling, post-first-encounter, is given to him directly by the risen Christ. Paul doesn’t claim to imagine or construct his notion of God based on philosophical speculation, but he bases his knowledge of God in the category of revelation. Revelation, for Paul, is based on God’s irruption into the world, in and through the risen Christ, and in an ongoing way, as the risen Christ actively and event-ually continues to confront him, and all Christians (and all would-be Christians) through personal encounter; and thus, the disruption of Grace for the world. Paul’s God, clearly, is grounded in a Hebraic understanding, such that God just is the One who freely has chosen, and continues to choose, to confront us with His life of new-creation for the world in Jesus Christ. This notion of God cannot be reduced to a mode of human projection, precisely because it definitionally begins in a question proposed to us from without rather than from within us. Ben Quash gets at it this way as he develops the way Dietrich Bonhoeffer comes to think God:

[T]he opening up of a ‘third term’ in the confrontation between the recipient(s) and the medium of revelation is something that all good theologies of revelation in the modern period have had to attempt in different ways. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has left us with what is arguably one of the most suggestive and fruitful, with his affirmation of the penultimate (the rational, empirical, social domain) in its intimate closeness-in-distinction to the ultimate. The ultimate opens up within the penultimate in the form of a question, as we confront and examine the phenomena of our earthly existence. It is not our own question—it is given to us. And although it is given to us phenomenally (in the penultimate), its answer is not. The question is “Who Is Jesus Christ for us today?’ (Bonhoeffer 1966: 30: 1971: 279). This question draws us along the way of the cross into dispossessive relationship with one who is the non-circumscribable ultimate of existence. We find him incognito, ‘hidden in empirical history as empirical reality, “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3)’ (Janz 2004: 220). He is the definitive revelation of God by allowing himself to be pushed out of the world onto the cross, in this way showing us the God who is not an agent in competitive relation to other agents in the world—not just one who makes particular differences—but one who makes all the difference, in but not in addition to all the differences that there already are. [Ben Quash, 342.]

This, in my view, represents the genuinely Christian way for thinking God. It isn’t something that we construct, but something we are proposed with, actively, as our very capacity for thinking God is put in its rightful place. The Christian way for knowing God is, we might say: staurological (that is, it is a crucified knowledge). The Incarnation and cross of Christ itself shows us that the human animal, left to its own abstract self, can only arrive at the reality that God is us. This is what we see finally in Feuerbach, and the sort of theological modernity he represents. An uncrucified knowledge of God can only be one that starts and ends in the circle of the self; this, ironically, is the pronouncement of the cross of Christ. The cross of Christ, the ‘wisdom of God’, takes Feuerbach, and the spirit he thinks from, to its ultimate conclusion; it shows how the humanly conceived notion of God finally has an end. It is out of the ashes of this projected god that the living God rises victoriously, and in and through recreation of humanity, in Christ’s resurrected vicarious humanity, human beings have come to have the capacity to think and know God as God genuinely is in Himself for us.

One cash out of the aforementioned, from my perspective, is that what is implied is that any notion of God that is based on our own inner-desires, rather than being based on the One who confronts us from outside of ourselves, even from within ourselves in the humanity of Christ, is as Barth says: the No-God (Isaiah says this too). And so, many unbelieving Christians end up counting on a God who indeed represents a projection of the God that they want God to be. This God allows them to live in any variety of sin that we could imagine; this God, this Jesus Christ, smiles on and affirms them in their sinful lifestyles. This God does not contradict or confront them, or tell them to repent. I would suggest that this is the God who largely funds the American religion known as evangelicalism, progressivism, and mainlinism.

The Corporatists: Nietzsche’s Nihilators

Charles Taylor has just been describing various, deleterious, stances that secular people take in the so-called immanent frame; you’ll see those referred to in the quote I am going to provide from him below. What I want to focus on is the third way that people in the secular frame, according to Taylor, engage with the world. It is resonant with a way that I have observed and reflected with on my own; based on my own experiences in the world, and an attempt to exegete them thusly. Indeed, what Taylor will be describing for us is the way of the Corporatist; the way that is “nihilating,” seemingly, the whole world right now (I am feeling that nihilation myself currently, as I may well lose my job because of this sort of secular stance in the world). The corporatist stance, ultimately, in my view, and in Taylor’s, respectively, is the Übermenschen way; the way associated with Nietzsche’s nihilism. Taylor writes: 

Moving along a spectrum from the Bolshevik, we can come to a stance which has abandoned universal benevolence and the moral order of mutual benefit. This is a Nietzschean stance, which rejects equality and benevolence because it sees them as levelling, and catering to the lowest in us, to comfort and security. It seeks heroism. A form of this can connect to the titanic, as in Jünger’s Der Arbeiter phase. Or it can take a milder form of élite rule by Übermenschen, where everything subserves their heroism and dedication to excellence. 

Here the first positive part of the answer is no longer benevolence, but the idea that the human type demands realization of its excellence, and only the few can do this; so they must go ahead. The rest can perhaps get some satisfaction in knowing that they subserve this, but if not, they have to be sacrificed. The enemy here is not suffering, but a sinking into sloth, mediocrity, meaninglessness. The second process, marking one’s distance, comes from the élitism of this outlook. Only the excellent truly count. 

The animus here against liberalism/socialism is the Nietzschean one, that they make their major end succouring the weak, ending suffering, bringing about equality. They stifle the need of the highest spirits for excellence, self-overcoming, risk, heroism. You are ready to put your life on the line: Hegel’s “Daransetzen”; you are ever ready to “have at them”: Jünger’s “Draufgängertum”. These superior beings are eager to affront suffering in their drive to a higher life; and they are ready to face death. They reverse the field of fear. They hold to a warrior ethic. Precisely for this reason, they have to fight off the temptation of pity. They have to steel themselves against engulfment, and take the cold distance of disengagement. So their answer to the power of evil, at least for part of it, the drive to violence, is to internalize it, and baptise it, as it were, consecrate it to the striving for excellence; marrying the Übermensch, the primitive, and the highest. This is a modern variant of that internalization/concentration of the numinous in violence that I spoke of in the previous section. Again Jünger of the ‘20s seems to be tempted onto this path. This is the dark side of his Nietzscheanism, which was vulgarized in Nazi racism.1 

Corporatist oligarchs seem to fit this bill most these days. Operating as the saviors of the world through their fiscal overachieving, at all costs. As if the only thing that matters is the Almighty Dollar, as a witness to their achievements as conquerors of the world. Indeed, currently we are seeing these ‘masters of the universe’ place themselves into a position wherein they believe that their reality, as the Supermen/women of the world is more important than the lives and livelihoods of the people they use to elevate their star into the heavens. Nothing else matters, but their commitment to overcome all odds; and their badge of honor is how much money, and thus power, their respective companies produce. They are Nietzche’s nihilators. They only live in the face of the absurd by living from it. The people they trample on to achieve their statuses are simply the fodder they require to overcome; the dead and wrangled bodies of their serf-class, are simply the ladders to their self-possessed development as the Übermensch that they seek out as the very esse of their existence.  

 

1 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap of Harvard University Press, 2007), 682-83. 

Hebrews 2:14-18 and Agamben on Fear, Death, and The Truth: Applied to the “Pandemic”

There is lots of fear in the air; indeed, there is so much fear in the air that masses of people are afraid to breathe the unmasked air. But this isn’t the Christian’s mode of existence. We are people of the Truth, as such we of all people ought to be reflecting lives that are characterized by at least two things: 1) fearlessness and 2) truthfulness—not to mention loveliness, which the former two are adjuncts of. I just read a short book by Italian social commentator and philosopher: Giorgio Agamben. The book is entitled: Where Are We Now? The Epidemic As Politics. Surprisingly to me he is in line with the way I see things ongoing in the world currently (even as far as seeing the tyranny underway as parallel with the sort that we saw in Nazi Germany, except the current attempts at tyranny being magnitudes greater given its scope). But I digress; let’s return. Agamben offers an insightful perspective on the role that fear of death is playing in allowing the current climate to fester; he gains his insight through interaction with of all people: Heidegger. Agamben writes:

How is one to deal with this fundamental attunement, in which man seems always and constitutively to be in the act of collapsing? Since fear precedes and forestalls knowledge and reflection, it is quite useless to try and convince the frightened with rational arguments and evidence; more than anything, fear denies them access to a reasoning process that would preclude fear itself. Heidegger writes, fear “bewilders us and makes us ‘lose our heads’”. So much so that, in the face of the epidemic, it was evident that the publication of irrefutable data and opinions from trustworthy sources was being systematically ignored and discarded in favour of others that, by the way, did not even feign scientific credibility.

Given the originary character of fear, the only way we can ever untangle it is by accessing an equally originary dimension. Such a dimension does exist . . . .1

Agamben hits upon various threads of interest, but let us focus on two: 1) the way fear functions in regard to mitigating people’s capacity to think rationally/critically; 2) what is the way out of this fear? On the latter point Agamben moves in a strictly humanistic direction devoid of the Spirit, and in abstraction from the Christian answer, Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, he identifies an ongoing peril that the world faces, and the Christian, again, of all people ought to have the capacity to witness to the world that Jesus is Lord and all subsequent “truths” are His.

The author to the Hebrews hits upon the very esse of what is driving the current climate of fear (Agamben writes elsewhere in his little book on how the “leaders” capitalize on this fear). Ultimately, people are afraid of their own mortality. They don’t like being reminded of it, even if the “reminder” is couched in an intentional deception. What isn’t a deception, as Christians of all people ought to know best, is that we are dying and going to eternally die without being subjectively in union with Jesus Christ. But this is the blessed answer that the Christian has to offer the world; indeed, it is a two-pronged (at least) answer wherein: it addresses the very foundation of ultimate fear, and in the process, as it reveals that answer to that fear, it does so by exposing other attending truths that dispels the mythology the fearmongers (and thus children of satan) are deploying in an effort to magnify their own wanton and perverse desires. The author to the Hebrews:

14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 16 For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. –Hebrews 2:14-18

In nuce, the answer is the Incarnation (the consubstantiality of the person of Christ who is both fully God and fully human in his singular personalis). In other words, the answer to the fear of death, the fear that casts humanity en masse into a morass of putrid irrationality that has the capacity to lead them into subjecting to tyrants, is to become united to Jesus’ resurrected humanity for them; wherein they are now united to the indestructible and eternally durable life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the way out of not only living a life of inaffective irrationality vis-à-vis God, but ultimately, and most significantly this is the way to experience a life charged with the very LIFE of God. When the world sees Christians living lives of utter resistance to the Father of Lies, they might glimpse into an ‘otherworld’ that they never knew, but might have hoped existed. This is the basis and the purpose for which the Christian has been built. We are here to bear witness to the Truth, and all attending truths as those correspond to real reality, that Jesus is LORD, and that there is literally nothing to fear; especially death itself.

Instead, what the world is primarily being subjected to, is a Christian Church so ensnared by the trappings of the culture, that they are being led to believe that there really is no other answer, but to be subject to ‘thisworldly’ system of behaviors and irrationalities. In other words, it is far from “loving” to wear a mask, take vaccines (that aren’t vaccines), participate in lockdowns, and other irrationalities (in proportion to what the actual virus is), because none of these things are grounded in the truth. Instead, as Agamben underscores, elsewhere in his book, falsity is now masquerading as the truth; so much so, that anyone who stands against the falsity, even actual scientists in the critical world of such studies (V the ones paraded for the world on mainstream news), are considered to be conspiracy theorists. Unfortunately, in order to reiterate, Christians en masse are submitting to whatever they are told by the so-called news sources. They aren’t even doing due diligence to see if what “they are being told” actually corresponds to concrete scientific data—they are simply satisfied with being told that it is (and this without any further consideration on their part). But this is and never has been the Christian way. Maranatha

1 Giorgio Agamben, Where Are We Now?: The Epidemic As Politics (Lanham: Rowman&Littlefield, 2021), 94.

 

Samuel and the Serpent: The Origin Story of the Modern Divinity

I’ve been working my way ever so slowly through Charles Taylor’s big book A Secular Age. There are parts that I fully agree with, and other parts that I don’t. The primary thing I agree with him on is his take on secularity, and how that has developed in the history of ideas (which of course he has masterfully, and even originally been developing). I want to highlight a theme from him that is also a theme in other related studies, in regard to the development of modernity (such as Michael Gillespie’s book The Theological Origins of Modernity), that has to do with what Taylor identifies as the ‘immanent frame.’ What he is describing, from a canonical background, finds corollary with what Moses penned in Genesis 3:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

This divinely breathed narrative account of things remains the case today; indeed, modernity reflects this attitude of self-divinity in living color. Charles Taylor writes:

There is another facet of this narrative of secularity which it is worth mentioning here, because of its ubiquity and importance in the “closed” spin on immanence. The story line here is this: once human beings took their norms, their goods, their standards of ultimate value from an authority outside of themselves; from God, or the gods, or the nature of Being or the cosmos. But then they came to see that these higher authorities were their own fictions, and they realized that they had to establish their norms and values for themselves, on their own authority. This is a radicalization of the coming to adulthood story as it figures in the science-driven argument for materialism. It is not just that freed from illusion, humans come to establish true facts about the world. It is also that they come to dictate the ultimate values by which they live.1

We read of a similar ‘come of age’ story in Samuel:

When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba. Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice. Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” —I Samuel 8:1-9

Modern humanity believes it has evolved past the primitive humanity, in their come of age story, as that shapes modernity (and thus a form of secularity). And yet, instead, it fits into the narrative frame we have described for us in Genesis 3, and played out, in this instance, in the Samuel narrative. The human heart has never changed. The human heart is just as primitive as it was the moment Eve and Adam believed the Serpent’s word over God’s Word. Enlightened humanity is just as darkened as the day that Jesus took it to the cross with Him.

I think the thing that stands out to me most starkly, with reference to Taylor, is how modern humanity is shaped by the idea that they in fact were God all along. That being enlightened in the immanent frame entails the idea that being enlightened is the simple recognition that humanity had really been worshipping a prop of their own projection; and that to recognize this, and then collapse that prop (or the classical divine attributes) into their own composition as human beings, is the true way forward for humanity. But this move is simply mimicking something like what the Israelites did under Samuel’s leadership. It is a move to displace God, and replace Him with the ‘kingship’ of humanity’s own lights. But this only gets us back to the original proto-aevangelium of the Serpent’s “good news” about the inner divinity of humanity. The ‘teacher’ has said ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ The teacher is right!

 

1 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age580 kindle. 

 

 

The Material Girl as Physicalism: And the Foolish Way of the Gospel

We are saturated with materialism (some call it physicalism). The Christian reality is a bodily/physical religion; we aren’t Gnostics. Nevertheless, Christians maintain that there is a spiritual realm; indeed, God is spirit. But He has freely chosen to be physical with us, which is how we come to know God, in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. This represents some level of mystery. The Incarnation is the mystery of the eternal God, who is spirit, become human in the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ. Christians, thus, live in a dialectic. We live in a physically affirming creation, our bodies included, and at the same time maintain that we are composed of spirit (some want to call this ‘consciousness’).

The secular, by-and-large, has reduced all of reality to a materialistic frame. It has immanentized the spirit realm of the eternal God into the physicalist realm of observable reality. In so doing it has come to imagine that God has really been humanity after all. As such the secular, or modern world has reduced all possible explanatory power, in regard to all phenomena to the physical; it allows for no appeal to a transcendent God who is spirit. Van der Kooi and van den Brink describe this sort of physicalism, particularly as it pertains to anthropology, this way:

This physicalism, is in fact, the anthropological side of the worldview that used to be known as materialism and is now often referred to as naturalism (or more specifically, metaphysical naturalism, as distinguished from the merely methodological naturalism that is the common basis for scientific research). The controlling premise in these views is reductionistic in nature: there is only matter. That is, there are only natural processes by which everything that needs explanation can be explained. Thus there is no God, and neither is there a human self or an “I.” This metaphysical naturalism plays relatively well in the media, but it is generally recognized to be plagued by some major problems. The question remains whether it can do full justice to such phenomena as human consciousness and the human longing for transcendence . . . and even to the human ability to know. On this latter front it has often been argued that our ability acquire knowledge can hardly be trustworthy it if has evolved in a purely naturalistic manner (see Beilby 2002 and Plantiga 2011, 307-50).1

This sort of mentality is not uncommon to come across out there in the public market of ideas; indeed, many of our fellow Christian believers operate with this sort of worldpicture at functional levels. That might sound counterintuitive to assert, but in my experience most Christians operate with a level of physicalism in their daily lives; alongside their pagan compatriots in the world at large.

To put a finer point on this here is how Charles Taylor describes the same phenomenon:

Science alone can explain why belief is no longer possible in the above sense. This is a view held by people on all levels; from the most sophisticated: “We exist as material beings in a material world, all of whose phenomena are the consequences of physical relations among material entities,” to the most direct and simple: Madonna’s “material girl, living in a material world.”

Religion or spirituality involves substituting wrong and mythical explanations, explaining by “demons.” At bottom it’s just a matter of facing the obvious truth.

This doesn’t mean that moral issues don’t come into it. But they enter as accounts of why people frun away from reality, why they want to go on believing illusion. They do so because it’s comforting. The real world is utterly indifferent to us, and even to a certain degree dangerous, threatening. As children, we have to see ourselves as surrounded by love and concern, or we shrivel up. But in growing up, we have to learn to face the fact that this environment of concern can’t extend beyond the human sphere, and mostly doesn’t extend very far within it.

But this transition is hard. So we project a world which is providential, created by a benign God. Or at least, we see the world as meaningful in terms of the ultimate human good. The providential world is not only soothing, but it also takes the burden of evaluating things off our shoulders. The meanings of things are already given. As a well-known contemporary theorist put it:

I think that the notion that we are all in the bosom of Abraham or are in God’s embracing love is—look, it’s a tough life and if you can delude yourself into thinking that there’s all some warm fuzzy meaning to it all, it’s enormously comforting. But I do think it’s just a story we tell ourselves. [Stephen Jay Gould]

So religion emanates from a childish lack of courage. We need to stand up like men, and face reality.2

It is the above materialism that shapes the current nihilism our world labors under. It is ironic that the further advanced we become, technologically, the more oppressive and tyrannical the world becomes; not to mention immoral and hedonistic.

Indeed, the sort of physicalism we have been thinking about, at our post-secular time has been losing teeth among people in the know. Nevertheless, the brute god of materialism continues to reign unabated in the broader world out there. As such, Christians who uncritically inhabit this sort of world similarly labor under conditions of thought that cause them to doubt, or least soften some of the more embarrassing mythos we might encounter in Holy Scripture. At an even lesser or more innocent level, many Christians, the masses living unexamined lives, simply accommodate the materialistic culture they inhabit in ways that denude the Gospel of its power by remaking it into a material image. You see, and this is to the point, metaphysical or philosophical materialism works under the premise that humanity has the potential to rise above the material world and master it in such a way wherein the übermensch (‘supermen’) can overcome and manipulate the created order to meet whatever their singular or collective desires might be. This is the world we inhabit, and we can see it in full and living color through the current technocratic medical tyranny COVID has afforded the current ‘supermen’ of this world order.

And yet Christians function under the pressures provided for by this sort of artificial understanding of the created order. Christians, some anyway, become squeamish when talking about demons and the devil as if real spiritual entities. Many Christians believe that the demon-possession referred to in the New Testament was simply childish humanity attempting to explain a physical phenomenon they had no intellectual vocabulary to grasp at this impish stage in natural human development. Or, many Christians today have bowed the knee in to ‘science,’ which of course means to the metaphysical materialism we have been considering in this post. These sorts of Christians have neatly divided physicalism from the message of the Gospel in a dualistic way, such that they believe they can maintain a personal world order wherein they can have the hard sciences “over here,” and keep their Christianity and metaphysics “over there.” And yet the analogy of the incarnation itself defeats this sort of dualistic (or Nestorian) attempt at keeping the physical disentangled from the spiritual; the incarnation, in all of its sui generis glory, doesn’t allow this sort of nice and tidy to thinking the world; it doesn’t allow the Christian to hat-tip the physicalist world order from the safety of their Christin perch.

More to be said, but these are some thoughts toward considering physicalism and its implications for Christians. We need to do better at engaging this world with the power of God, the Gospel, without selling out to material world of Madonna and/or the likes of a Stephen Jay Gould. There is a better way; but it is considered both foolish and weak to this world order. Be a fool.

1 Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introductiontranslated by Reinder Bruinsma with James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 270.  

2 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 561 kindle edition.

Escaping ‘Malign Priestcraft’: The Post-Secular’s Ironic Dependence on the Christian Grammar and Past

Maybe you have noticed this among your coworkers, certain family members, and even in yourself; there is a constant drip of ‘doubt’ when it comes to the things of God, or even His reality. What people don’t understand, I think, is that we don’t doubt in a vacuum; in other words, the way we doubt has an informing history in the ‘history of ideas.’ At a theological and ultimate level, as Christians, we know that people who engage in skeptical doubt, to the point of remaining in a state of unbelief, do so for a moral reason; because they ‘love the darkness rather than the Light’ (cf. Jn. 3:17ff). It is this moral ‘foundation’ that has led to a history of ideas that is constantly attempting to erect something like a tower of Babel wherein humanity reaches up to the heavens by projecting outwards their own sense of self-possessed godness. This is the modern project: to collapse the classically Christian attributes of God into humanity at large, and then assert oneself, as an instance within the greater humanity, as a god who has the power to move mountains and create a world where their way is the way. This way, while telling itself, definitionally, that it has matured beyond the superstitions and prognostications of the religious past, has ironically imbibed said religious past into their own sense of being as ‘enlightened’ individuals in the secular and now post-secular age.

In order to illustrate how this skeptical mode of doubt and self-assertion took shape in the history of ideas let’s read along with Tom Holland’s sketch of such developments as they were birthed in the heartland of the Enlightenment:

Such blasphemies—while profoundly shocking to Christians—were to some a summons to battle. The letter in which Voltaire was hailed as the Antichrist had been written not by an opponent, but by an admirer: a philosopher and notorious free-thinker by the name of Denis Diderot. It was tribute that that the great man received as his due. There could be no place for any modesty or self-abasement in the war against fanaticism. Fame was a weapon and self-promotion an obligation. Influence such as Voltaire had come to wield in the courts and salons of Europe would only be wasted if not exploited to the full. This was why, fusing conviction with invincible self-regard, he insisted on his status as the patriarch of an entire ‘new philosophy’. Voltaire was far from alone in his contempt for Christianity. Diderot’s was, in anything, even more inveterate. Ranged alongside them were a whole host of philosophes—metaphysicians and encyclopaedists, historians and geologists—whose scorn for l’ infâme was often no less than Voltaire’s. Whether in Edinburgh or in Naples, in Philadelphia or in Berlin, the men most celebrated for their genius were increasingly those who equated churches with bigotry. To be a philosophe was to thrill to the possibility that a new age of freedom was advancing. The demons of superstition and unwarranted privilege were being cast out. People who had been walking in darkness had seen a great light. The world was being born again. Voltaire himself, in his more sombre moments, worried that the malign hold of priestcraft might never be loosened; but in general he was inclined to a cheerier take. His age was a siècle des lumières: ‘an age of enlightenment’. For the first time since the reign of Constantine, the commanding heights of European culture had been wrested from Christian intellectuals. The shock of Calas’ conviction was precisely that it had happened when la philosophie had been making such advances. ‘It seems, then, that fanaticism, outraged by the progress of reason, is thrashing about in a spasm of outrage.’[1]

We have ostensibly moved beyond the ‘age of Volataire’ in our age of PostModernity (PoMo) or the so called Post-Secular. Supposedly, and at some level, this seems to be the case; the sort of bodacious self-assertion of humanity’s ability to transcend the revelational religions and gain access to ‘universal truths’ on its own has gone to seed. In other words, this sort of machismo arrogance about humanity’s capacity to divine the essence of reality in totalizing ways has been abandoned for the more humble attitude that humanity doesn’t really have this capacity after-all; at least not in the universalizing ways it once thought. In our age the spirit of Voltaire remains, but with the caveat that our access to reality is limited to ‘our own particular truth’ and sense of the world; this is enough for the PoMo sensibility. Ironically, and this is why I used the word ‘ostensible’ to start this unit of thought out, the PoMo, or normative relativist spirit that is operative today, is really nothing other than the Enlightenment spirit redivivus; it is just that today people are less confident about the idea that they have tapped into totalizing conceptions of reality at all—except for the fact that their belief itself ends up being totalizing about humanity’s inability to not have a totalizing access to reality.

At the end of the day what remains is the fact that no matter what people think about the world and themselves, they continue to imbibe the Christian confessional reality and its grammar as its way to negotiate their self-constructed secular universes. In other words, the doubting-skeptical people of the 21st century, those who believe, along with Voltaire et al., that they have moved beyond the superstitions of the religious past, have in fact internalized that past into their own world-identities. The moral: the post-secular person’s identity, and the way they doubt at both a grammatical and conceptual level, is contingent upon the confessional religious past that they say is full of superstition and self-delusion. The conclusion: they haven’t moved beyond the Christian past, they have simply collapsed that into themselves and attempted to construct the Christian reality into their own images (see Ludwig Feuerbach’s critique of religion, it is apropos to both the post-secular as well as the Christian among us); as if the universe, at least their sense of the universe, is contingent upon what they say rather than what God says.

If the aforementioned sounds eerily similar to another story you might have heard, look no further than the Serpent’s forked-tongue:

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden. But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. –Genesis 3.1-6

[1] Tom Holland, Dominion: How The Christian Revolution Remade the World (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 390-91.

A Response to Thomas Reid’s Speculative-man from Karl Barth’s non-Speculative man in Jesus Christ

A friend of mine on Facebook, who is a Thomist, theologian, and recently PhDd in such areas, shared this quote from philosopher, Thomas Reid, on his wall a couple of days ago.

The vulgar are satisfied with knowing the fact, and give themselves no trouble about the cause of it: but a philosopher is impatient to know how this event is produced, to account for it, or assign its cause. The avidity to know the causes of things is the parent of all philosophy true and false. Men of speculation place a great part of their happiness in such knowledge.[1]

There is some gusto to this, but for me, in the end, it misses the mark in regard to what a Christian theologian (or disciple) is about. I think what Reid is getting at is akin to something (as far as anecdotes go) like what Socrates noted, “ὁ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ” (‘the unexamined life is not worth living’). As far as that goes, it’s okay; it’s a call for sentient human beings to live reflective lives that press down into the deeper realities of life. For a philosopher this dictum might be a beautiful life giving way, but it only gets so far; it only provides a horizontal vector towards examining what indeed is called life. And its primary mechanism, as the Reid quote illustrates, is speculation. It lives a life of empirical chutzpah, seeking to discover new things that might help us as humans understand what it means to in fact be human being; the emphasis being on being. It attempts to discursively reach to the stars, and far beyond the stars under the constraints of its own self-asserted and possessed powers, through which an examined life might find meaning; it might even find a Pure Being beyond itself that helps its immanently located human being to begin to find a source for transcendent being, vertical being.

This speculative way has characterized much of the history of Christian ideas and theology in its development; most notably what we find in scholastic theology, of the sort we see typified and indeed maybe even climaxed in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (the Angelic doctor). So on the one hand we have the philosophers, like Socrates and Aristotle, seeking to live the examined life by self-discovery and discursive reasoning about life and its source of meaning; and on the other hand we have Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas et al. attempting to synthesize this kind of philosophical speculative way of examined living with Christian Trinitarian theology.

The better way is to elide such approaches, in my view, and instead ground the work of theology in the work of theology done in and through the theological life of God Self-revealed and exegeted in Jesus Christ. This way doesn’t apophatically speculate about God from some sort of via negativa or negation of who God is relative to who we aren’t; as human beings. Revealed theology is, by definition, vertical and horizontal; objective and subjective all at once in the singular personalis of Jesus Christ; the Divine and the human, the vertical and the horizontal all hypostatically united incognito in the God who freely chose to be mistaken as purely man for the sake of the world. Revealed theology does not attempt to discover God by discursive reasoning and reflection, but instead its willing to simply rely on the God who apocalyptically revealed himself in the grist and grim of this world coming to it in the wood of the manger and the cross; the blood of life and death in order to bring eternal life to all who will.

Here is a way (and I’ve shared this quote elsewhere before) that someone like Karl Barth could recognize the relative value of philosophy while at the same time putting it in its place in regard to revealed theology. He writes:

The man in this world knows only of the sighs of the creature and of his own sighs, (8:22–23), he can at least know (1:19–20) insofar as he does not evade the ‘emptiness’ of his existence (8:20), the dialectic of opposition, the relativity, and the homesickness of everything given, intuitable, and objective. Suffering sees to the salutary opening of our eyes, and, directly tied to the given boundaries of suffering, in its essence as the interpretation of this fact stands the philosophy worthy of its name. Thus in its not-knowing of God and his Kingdom, in its knowing the sighs of all created things, we agree with every truly profane, but not with any half-theological, consideration of nature and history. For precisely this not-knowing and this knowing are the blade and the flint from which, insofar as they together in spirit and truth, as the new and third thing, bursts forth the fire of the not-knowing knowing of God and of the knowing not-knowing of the emptiness of our existence, the fire of the love for God because he is God (5:5), while the theological, apparent knowledge of God and the apparent not-knowing of the emptiness of our existence neither meets in spirit and in truth, even less in fire, nor is able to ignite the fire of love for God.[2]

For Barth there is a place for Reid’s type of philosophy, but it is only horizontal; it is inimically profane. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but left to itself it doesn’t go far enough; and more importantly shouldn’t be seen as a preamble to Christian theological reflection—which is non-speculative in regard to the God it encounters in Jesus Christ. All the frailties and contingencies that human reason is able to discover on its own, through the brokenness of this polluted world and reason, can really only stay there; ‘under the sun.’ The examined life in this sense only leads to despair and fear. What humanity really needs is an “examined life” that is life itself; the Triune life given freely to all humanity in the graciously elected human of Godself in Jesus Christ. There is no need to speculate in this relationship, because, indeed, it is a relationship grounded in trust and eternal and indestructible self-giving love.

 

[1] Thomas Reid, source unknown. By the way, ironically, Reid is known for his prominent role in Scottish Common Sense Realism, so it’s a bit of a riff, contextually, for me to use him as a springboard into discussing ‘being philosophers’; but what is a shared proclivity, one way or the other, is their intellectualist and discursive approach to epistemology and ontology. For me, more personally, it’s interesting to think about the role that Reid’s theology of reality has had upon my own evangelical background and upbringing. As the post develops you will see that I have expanded beyond Reid’s own approach, and tied him into a stream of classical philosophers who indeed get into ‘being’ and more metaphysically based philosophical reflection. Nonetheless, I see them all as either intellectualist or rationalist based in approach. I see them all, even Reid, even if he objects and his whole life and work militates against this, as grounding human reflection in the “I” rather than the “Thou.”

[2] Karl Barth cited in Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 82-4.

Emil Brunner and Thomas Torrance on the Difference Between Christian Dogmatics and Apologetics

I just picked up Emil Brunner’s The Christian Doctrine of God, which is his volume one in a series of Christian Dogmatics he has written. While he and I won’t see eye to eye on everything, he’s somebody I can learn from; so expect to hear more from him if you read my blog.

As Brunner starts his Christian Dogmatics out, he of course gives explanation of what Dogmatics actually are. In his giving he offers some profound explication; profound, at least from my emilbrunnerperspective, because he explains what in fact Christian Dogmatics represent. His explanation resonates deeply with me, and should help you all to understand where I am coming from as well; i.e. when you read my blog you should know that I am really never attempting to engage in apologetics, but instead always in the work of Christian Dogmatics. Here is what Brunner writes in this regard:

The intellectual enterprise which bears the traditional title of “dogmatics” takes place within the Christian Church. It is this that distinguishes it from similar intellectual undertakings, especially within the sphere of philosophy, as that is usually understood. Our immediate concern is not to ask whether this particular undertaking is legitimate, useful, or necessary. The first thing we have to say about it is that it is closely connected with the existence of the Christian Church, and that it arises only in this sphere. We study dogmatics as members of the Church, with the consciousness that we have a commission from the Church, and a service to render to the Church, due to a compulsion which can only arise within the Church. Historically and actually, the Church exists before dogmatics. The fact that the Christian Faith and the Christian Church exist, precedes the existence, the possibility, and the necessity for dogmatics. Thus if dogmatics is anything at all, it is a function of the Church.

It cannot, however, be taken for granted that there is, or should be, a science of dogmatics within the Christian Church; but if we reverse the question, from the standpoint of dogmatics it is obvious that we would never dream of asking whether there ought to be a Church, or a Christian Faith, or whether the Christian Faith and the Christian Church have any right to exist at all, or whether they are either true or necessary? Where this question does arise—and in days like ours it must be raised—it is not the duty of dogmatics to given the answer. This is a question for apologetics or “eristics”. But dogmatics presupposes the Christian Faith and the Christian Church not only as a fact bu as the possibility of its own existence. From the standpoint of the Church, however, it is right to put the question of the possibility of, and the necessity for, dogmatics.[1]

Thomas F. Torrance briefly describes Christian Dogmatics this way:

Christian Dogmatics – the church’s orderly understanding of scripture and articulation of doctrine in the light of Christ and their coherence in him.[2]

What should be clear from Brunner’s longer explanation, and T.F. Torrance’s shorter one is that Christian Dogmatics is the work of Christians done within the community of the witness of the church of Jesus Christ; as it is pressed up against the reality of its Subject, the living God who is Triune—the ‘God who has spoken’ (Deus dixit).

I am afraid all too many have confused the work of apologetics or “eristics” with the work of Christian Dogmatics; and if they haven’t then they have unfortunately carried over the tools and methods used by apologists, and imported those into the work of Christian Dogmatics. The work of an apologist is largely the work of a philosopher; the work of a Christian Dogmatician is the work of a Christian thinker who self-consciously is working under the pressures of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. The Christian Dogmatician is not trying to “prove” God’s existence, so he/she can then talk about God; no. The Christian Dogmatician, by definition has already repented and come under the reality of the Christian God in Christ in and through the witness of the church. This is the work I am doing here at the blog; I engage in Christian dogmatic thinking.

One more point of clarification: I do not think a Christian apologist, in the work they do, actually “proves” the existence of the living God; what they do, if anything, is “prove” a god-concept. What the apologist or Christian philosopher should avoid is the conflation of their work with that of the Christian dogmatician; they are definitionally different. What has happened though, unfortunately, is that often this is exactly what happens; over-zealous Christian philosophers and apologists import the concept of god they have “proven” into Christian Dogmatics, and think they are the same God, they aren’t!

In regard to Brunner, one thing that you will notice in his definition of Christian Dogmatics is an emphasis on the Church; he offers a very ecclesiocentric approach to things. I fully appreciate his description of Christian Dogmatics, but I want to be more radical and less neo-orthodox than that; I think the reality that ought to ‘control’ Christian Dogmatics is not the church, but Jesus Christ as the rule. Barth and Brunner have a famous disagreement where Barth gives Brunner a loud Nein when it comes to the possibility of natural theology. Brunner affirms a qualified understanding of natural theology, while as we know Barth famously rejects it. I think we are already getting a bit of a whiff of this difference even early on in Brunner; his emphasis on the church, I think, is a corollary of his commitment to a qualified notion of a natural theology.

[1] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 3.

[2] T. F. Torrance, ed. Robert T. Walker, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, Glossary.

I. Open Theism and Cancer. J. Todd Billings and John Sanders

I was going to try and do this in one post, but it will be too long; so I am breaking these postings up into two installments (this one and creationthe next one forthcoming). In this first post I will try to give a brief and summative introduction to the Open Theism of theologian John Sanders, and then in the next installment we will engage with J. Todd Billings’ brief treatment and critique of John Sanders’ Open Theism and how we can or should think about human suffering and God without going to the extreme of positing an Open Theism.

I do not want to trivialize the book I am currently reading; it is a sober, reflective, and Christian theological engagement dealing with, in particular, an incurable cancer (like one that I had, but of a different species, although not genus). The book I am referring to is my friend’s (we have never met personally, but we have corresponded via Facebook and email), J. Todd Billings’ newly released book entitled Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ (Brazos Press, 2015). I start out mentioning the fact that I don’t want to trivialize this important book because often academic debates (like this one can become) reduce to an abstract exercise that has no contact with real life realities, and further I wanted to broach something that Todd touches upon as he is writing about (and even arguing for) the place of ‘lament’ before God in the Christian’s life, especially, in Todd’s case (and mine) when involving an incurable or ‘terminal’ cancer for which there is no real lasting treatment. The issue that Todd touches upon, on one side of a discussion he is developing in regard to God’s providence and the so called problem of evil, is the theological paradigm which has come to be known as Open Theism. So for the rest of this post I will engage with what Billings has written on this, and engage with it in a way that hopefully illustrates the real life impact that academic theology (which often stays abstract in people’s minds) has when it interfaces with life and death in the lives of real life people.

As with any identified and intentional framework of belief or theological trajectory there is a variety of nuance among those who self-identify with said framework; this is the case with what has come to be known as ‘Open Theism.’ But since Todd Billings focuses on one prominent advocate of Open Theism, I will use this advocate’s understanding of what Open Theism is in general; I will quote from him voluminously throughout the beginning stages of this post. This advocate of Open Theism that Billings refers to is John Sanders. Sanders is an able and ardent defender of this position, and so I think we will gain a good and general understanding simply hearing from him on what he thinks constitutes Open Theism. Sanders writes this in regard to his personal explanation of what Open Theism actually entails (and in a general way):

Openness Theology (commonly referred to as Open Theism and Free Will Theism) connects with the spirituality of many Christians throughout the history of the church especially when it comes to prayer. Many Christians feel that our prayers or lack of them can make a difference as to what God does in history. The Openness of God is an attempt to think out more consistently what it means that God enters into personal relationships with humanity. We want to develop an understanding of the triune God and God’s relationship to the world that is Biblically faithful, finds consonance with the tradition, is theologically coherent and which enhances the way we live our Christian lives. On the core tenets of the Christian faith, we agree, but we believe that some aspects of the tradition need reforming, particularly when it comes to what is called “Classical Theism.” We believe that some aspects of this model of God have led Christians to misread certain Scriptures and develop some serious problems in our understanding of God which affect the way we live, pray and answer the problem of evil. (source)

As Sanders understands Open Theism it is a theological trajectory that sees itself within the ambit of historical Christian orthodoxy, but it at the same time wants to critique what it thinks has become a cumbersome understanding of an overly-deterministic God in relation to human agency and contingency in the world. In other words, Open Theists want to make room for what they believe is representative of a world where human beings can make ‘genuine’ human decisions that not only affect themselves and their own personal trajectories, but indeed affect God and his relation to creation. Sanders believes that God chose to create a world like this–where God’s knowledge of future events is not exhaustive, but instead is responsive to our choices–because he believes this ensures a real dynamism in who God is in a God-world relation such that human freedom and the contingencies of this world cannot or should not be attributed to God, per se, but instead to the real contingencies built into the fabric of this world. Sanders writes further:

Third, the only wise God has chosen to exercise general rather than meticulous providence, allowing space for us to operate and for God to be creative and resourceful in working with us. It was solely God’s decision not to control every detail that happens in our lives. Moreover, God has flexible strategies. Though the divine nature does not change, God reacts to contingencies, even adjusting his plans, if necessary, to take into account the decisions of his free creatures. God is endlessly resourceful and wise in working towards the fulfillment of his ultimate goals. Sometimes God alone decides how to accomplish these goals. Usually, however, God elicits human cooperation such that it is both God and humanity who decide what the future shall be. God’s plan is not a detailed script or blueprint, but a broad intention that allows for a variety of options regarding precisely how these goals may be reached. What God and people do in history matters. If the Hebrew midwives had feared Pharaoh rather than God and killed the baby boys, then God would have responded accordingly and a different story would have emerged. What people do and whether they come to trust God makes a difference concerning what God does-God does not fake the story of human history. (source)

Sanders mentions ‘meticulous providence’ (what Sanders would see as the ‘Classical Theist’ position on Divine providence) versus a ‘general providence’ (which would be Sanders’ Open Theist view of God’s providential relation to history, and ‘dynamic’ relation); it is this type of meticulous providence or monocausality that Open Theists deplore with much vehemence. Open Theists, like Sanders, believe that the ostensible ‘classical’ view of providence reduces all of reality to God’s hyper-deterministic supervening over human and natural history such that there remains no space for genuine human story making, and even more negatively, Open Theists believe that this kind of ‘static’ supervening of God over history in deterministic ways ultimately can only lead us to conclude that God is the author of evil and human suffering (along with everything else in the world). We can see how the Open Theist is genuinely trying to, among other loci, engage with the purported philosophical problem of ‘God and evil’ (theodicy).

It is these issues and others (how to avoid the kind of meticulous providence, without falling into an Open Theist ‘solution’) that Todd Billings touches upon in his discussion on cancer, human suffering, and more broadly on God and evil in the world. We will get into Todd’s critique of Open Theism, and John Sanders in the next installment of this little mini-series on Open Theism and cancer.

Until then I hope this brief introduction to Open Theism has served somewhat informative. To get a the full meal deal, and John Sanders full (summative) articulation of what Open Theism entails (it is relatively short), click here.

What do Victoria Osteen and Aristotle have in common?: Eudaimonia

“I just want to encourage every one of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God—I mean, that’s one way to look at it—we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy ….”[1]

aristotleThis is the quote, and gist of what Joel Osteen’s wife, Victoria Osteen has come under scrutiny for, at large, by many within the Christian community, especially from the evangelical Christian community (and especially via social media). Here is a transcript of what she said more fully, done by my friend, Steven Nemes:

When we obey God, we’re not doing it for God. I mean, that’s one way to look at it. We’re doing it for ourselves. Because God takes pleasure when we’re happy; that’s the thing that gets him the greatest joy this morning. So I want you to know this morning: just do good for your own self, do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship him, you’re not doing it for God really; you’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.[2]

It is no secret that for the Osteen’s ‘happiness’ and living “Your Best Life Now” (the title of one of Joel’s more bestselling books) is of a premium; in fact I would like to suggest, especially in light of Victoria’s recent comments that happiness, personal happiness and self actualization as a person (even if she claims that this is what God wants for us, and what makes him happy) represents her personal philosophy of life.

In light of this, if the pursuit of happiness (a very American virtue isn’t it?) can be someone’s philosophy of life, then I would like to further suggest that this theory of life flows from a certain philosophy of what the highest good is for a human being; apparently it is, for Victoria Osteen, to be self-fulfilled (which comes for the Osteen’s through wealth, health, and a variety of other ‘goods’). In light of all this, I would like to further suggest that what Victoria Osteen is proposing as the philosophy of life fits very well, no, not with Christianity, but with classical philosopher, Aristotle’s idea of life which he too believed was ‘happiness,’ or in the Greek eudaimonia. Read what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has to communicate about Aristotle’s philosophy of life as eudaimonia (at length):

Aristotle thinks everyone will agree that the terms “eudaimonia” (“happiness”) and “eu zên” (“living well”) designate such an end. The Greek term “eudaimon” is composed of two parts: “eu” means “well” and “daimon” means “divinity” or “spirit.” To be eudaimon is therefore to be living in a way that is well-favored by a god. But Aristotle never calls attention to this etymology in his ethical writings, and it seems to have little influence on his thinking. He regards “eudaimon” as a mere substitute for eu zên (“living well”). These terms play an evaluative role, and are not simply descriptions of someone’s state of mind.

No one tries to live well for the sake of some further goal; rather, being eudaimon is the highest end, and all subordinate goals—health, wealth, and other such resources—are sought because they promote well-being, not because they are what well-being consists in. But unless we can determine which good or goods happiness consists in, it is of little use to acknowledge that it is the highest end. To resolve this issue, Aristotle asks what the ergon (“function,” “task,” “work”) of a human being is, and argues that it consists in activity of the rational part of the soul in accordance with virtue (1097b22–1098a20). One important component of this argument is expressed in terms of distinctions he makes in his psychological and biological works. The soul is analyzed into a connected series of capacities: the nutritive soul is responsible for growth and reproduction, the locomotive soul for motion, the perceptive soul for perception, and so on. The biological fact Aristotle makes use of is that human beings are the only species that has not only these lower capacities but a rational soul as well. The good of a human being must have something to do with being human; and what sets humanity off from other species, giving us the potential to live a better life, is our capacity to guide ourselves by using reason. If we use reason well, we live well as human beings; or, to be more precise, using reason well over the course of a full life is what happiness consists in. Doing anything well requires virtue or excellence, and therefore living well consists in activities caused by the rational soul in accordance with virtue or excellence.

Aristotle’s conclusion about the nature of happiness is in a sense uniquely his own. No other writer or thinker had said precisely what he says about what it is to live well. But at the same time his view is not too distant from a common idea. As he himself points out, one traditional conception of happiness identifies it with virtue (1098b30–1). Aristotle’s theory should be construed as a refinement of this position. He says, not that happiness is virtue, but that it is virtuous activity. Living well consists in doing something, not just being in a certain state or condition. It consists in those lifelong activities that actualize the virtues of the rational part of the soul.

At the same time, Aristotle makes it clear that in order to be happy one must possess others goods as well—such goods as friends, wealth, and power. And one’s happiness is endangered if one is severely lacking in certain advantages—if, for example, one is extremely ugly, or has lost children or good friends through death (1099a31-b6). But why so? If one’s ultimate end should simply be virtuous activity, then why should it make any difference to one’s happiness whether one has or lacks these other types of good? Aristotle’s reply is that one’s virtuous activity will be to some extent diminished or defective, if one lacks an adequate supply of other goods (1153b17–19). Someone who is friendless, childless, powerless, weak, and ugly will simply not be able to find many opportunities for virtuous activity over a long period of time, and what little he can accomplish will not be of great merit. To some extent, then, living well requires good fortune; happenstance can rob even the most excellent human beings of happiness. Nonetheless, Aristotle insists, the highest good, virtuous activity, is not something that comes to us by chance. Although we must be fortunate enough to have parents and fellow citizens who help us become virtuous, we ourselves share much of the responsibility for acquiring and exercising the virtues.[3]

For Aristotle, if the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy can be trusted as a trustworthy resource, eudaimonia or happiness was the highest good, of which other subordinate goods helped to provide (like health, wealth, friends, etc.) the grounds for living in this highest virtue of what it truly means to live.

Based upon this brief comparison, I would submit that what Victoria Osteen is offering as the end and highest good of life fits better with Aristotle’s philosophy of life of eudaimonia versus the Christian end and highest good of life which is to participate in the cruciform (i.e. cross-shaped) life of God.

 

[1] Taken from this online article, http://christiannews.net/2014/08/28/do-good-for-your-own-self-osteen-says-obedience-worship-not-for-god-video/ , accessed 09-01-2014.

[2] Taken from this blog post by Steven Nemes,  http://thecrucifiedgod.blogspot.com/2014/09/victoria-olsteen-and-heresy-hunters.html , accessed 09-01-2014.

[3] Taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/ , accessed 09-01-2014.