Why Be Religious?

I tried to think of some parable or analogy that would best express the situation of religion in modern society. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) in Either/Or and Harvey Cox (b. 1929) in The Secular City both point to the parable of a clown being mocked off stage after a failed attempt to warn the audience of a fire which erupted backstage. They dismiss the warning and proceed to laugh at the clown and his “misfortune.” And so, modernity, “the world will come to an end amid general applause from all the wits, who believe that it is a joke” (Oden 1978, 3).

The idea behind the parable suggests that the clown represents the contemporary theologian; strutting about in his makeup and clothes, no real danger or urgency behind what he is saying. Amidst the theologian’s “seriousness” and “urgency,” the public still knows better that he is all that he is – just a clown (Ratzinger 2000, 39-42). What makes this parable (and others like it) so significant is that it prompts us to ask ourselves not merely “Am I apart of the applauding audience?” but rather “What is the condition of man?”

What does it mean to be a man? What does man’s world consist of? What is man’s relation to other things (the universe, other people, etc.)? While these questions do not immediately prompt an irreligious person to spew a “religious answer” for them, they by all means demand an answer. In my experience, these are the sort of questions which the general public (Christians included!) disregard as needless exercises in abstract thought. However, at the same time, there are some who recognize the legitimacy of these questions, but only in the realm of “individual human lives, human creativity, human interactions, and human institutions” (Nagel 2010, 7).

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Philosophy, Sex and the American Decline

I suspect you’ll see the title as hinting that I’m going to talk about the subject of philosophy, perhaps a little bit about the act of sex, and then talk a little more on how these things might contribute to the “strange” idea that America is in a decline. Is it a moral decline? An educational or financial one? Perhaps he’s going to go on about how a bad philosophy of sex has contributed to the decline of traditional American values over recent times.

To be honest with you, I have no interest in talking about how traditional American values have declined because of an unlawful use of sex. This doesn’t mean that I lack civic interest in the subject (indeed, I’ve argued about this many times before), but really that at the heart of whatever our moral decline may be, there lies a bad philosophy of many a things – of life, of sex, of person(s), of society and structure, and uniquely (though not new), a bad philosophy of self.

Consider the differences between two ethical philosophies that touch on the subject of human nature: Natural Law and Naturalism. Natural Law acknowledges nature has a supernatural intelligence backed behind it, while Naturalism fundamentally rejects this point. God holds a chair of ontological significance in Natural Law to which Naturalism places Nature (with a capital “N”) on the chair in His place. For philosophers, Naturalism is the view that only the material is the real.

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Hearts for Heaven

There are typically four ways a theologian may speak of “God’s revelation.” The first two pertain to some kind of special revelation: (a) A revelation or manifestation of God through the person Jesus Christ or (b) God’s revelation through written scripture. The latter two pertain to some kind of general revelation: (c) God’s general revelation through nature in created things or (d) God’s imprint on the human mind/heart to recognize they were created in His image. I think for (d) the great female philosopher Ariel from The Little Mermaid said it best:

Look at this stuff
Isn’t it neat?
Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete?
Wouldn’t you think I’m the girl
The girl who has everything?

Look at this trove
Treasures untold
How many wonders can one cavern hold?
Looking around here you think
Sure, she’s got everything

I’ve got gadgets and gizmos a-plenty
I’ve got whozits and whatzits galore
You want thingamabobs?
I’ve got twenty!

But who cares?
No big deal
I want more

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The Agnostic

Agnosticism: it has been described to me as not really a position at all. As a matter of fact, it is really an outlook upon matters of immanence (a pesky word that refers to God’s presence in the material world) and transcendence that chooses to withhold judgement. What then does it really claim? It makes no claims, just an attitude one expresses towards religious truths.

Agnosticism on this view is blind, if not deaf. A “non-position” that makes a judgement to withhold judgements from religious claims misses the parrot of self-referential incoherence over its shoulder. Put simply, it shoots itself in the foot (e.g., parrot still intact). As someone with a basic college education could understand, Allan Bloom in his brilliant Closing of the American Mind gives us the observation that if something is to be a position it must as well be exclusive. In other words, it must exclude other positions if it itself is to be a position. Agnosticism clearly does exclude some positions (religious truth, etc.), and hence is itself a position taken against another. Is agnosticism then purely polemic (an attack against something else)?

No, and few fail to recognize this (including the agnostics). Though agnostics are not all similar to say, Pascal’s skeptic interlocutor in the Pensées (who wishes “not to gamble” on the quest for Happiness and Truth), there are some even more far-fetching in that they claim that religious truths can’t be known at all by anyone. Well then! What a claim all of sudden! This kind of person has been called many names (no, not “bad” names): hard agnostic, strict agnostic, religious skeptic, etc. It not only amounts to a mere positive claim, but it amounts so much as to almost God-like knowledge of the human condition: humans nowhere can whatsoever obtain a knowledge of God (please see my note below*).

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A Plea to “Those College Students”

This is something strange to write because I don’t think that this can apply to all people, anywhere, at all times (it’s not intended to). To be honest, this issue is actually quite local for me. By “college students,” I don’t mean univocally a body of people in the U.S. I kind of shortened the title, but more specifically I mean “those group of believers who are just ahead of me in their college years.”

I also don’t have any names or examples in mind, so I suspect that if a “college student” were to read this, feels as if this is about him as a direct attack, I would encourage him to think that I am saying something more “umbrella-like,” and not that when I wrote the article at such and such certain point, I had him or her specifically in mind when I wrote it.

I’d also like to have this viewed not as a critique of some “Christian subculture” (that whole fustrating debate, but also, see my note* below) or as a blog with some angry intention behind it. Rather, I’d like to have it viewed more like a letter. I’m writing the rough draft and letting you read it, so to speak. Even though all this is through a computer, I’d like to think there is at least some personality behind it.

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Comments on Ronald Nash’s View of Kierkegaard

Though this evaluation will be based more on his lectures rather than his written works, I do wish to also look quickly into a footnote Nash included in his Word of God and Mind of Man (P&R Publishing, 1982) on attempting to distinguish Kierkegaard (S.K. hereafter) from his admirers (or opponents) in contemporary theology among the liberal tradition.

To my knowledge, Ronald Nash only has five major iTunes U lectures which attempt to expound S.K.’s thought in in the context of modern philosophy. The two most significant lectures which seem to express Nash’s own views of S.K. are probably “Kierkegaard and Authentic Religious Belief” (2010) and “Kierkegaard’s Theory of Humans” (2010). He, like some evangelicals who think S.K shows promise, says that although he wishes to rescue S.K. from the (incorrect) charge of subjectivism and anti-rationalism, he can’t seem to get past S.K.’s distinction between the object (“the what”) and the act (“the how”) of faith as seen in the Postscript.

It is the parable of the pious pagan and the idolatrous Christian praying in their respective spiritual communities. The former prays in a true spirit to a false god, whereas the latter prays in a false spirit to the true God. With which one lies the most truth (as S.K. phrases it)? Nash says that S.K. runs into a problem here with respect to the grand “Either/Or” being in his artillery against the Hegelian thesis-antithesis dialectic. Nash interprets this passage to suggest that S.K. is showing the significance of one over the other, and not rather the necessary synthesis of both the object and act of faith. In other words, S.K. is saying either the how of faith or the what of faith is important – we can’t have both.

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The Beauty of God

Lascaux

The cave paintings of Lascaux in southwestern France, dating between 18,000 and 15,000 B.C.

What a strange thing: beauty has a name. In fact, beauty is a divine name. If this is true, then we are not so awkward as to fittingly apply this name in the prologue of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was beauty, and the beauty was with God, and the beauty was God” (Sammon 2013). Hence, we may not only say that God is beauty but also that God is beauty itself.

However, in making such simplistic utterances, as Brendan T. Sammon (2013) recognizes, we are standing in “stark contrast to the complexity of its intelligible content.” However, I must make a demarcation from attempting to expound on what it means to say that beauty is a divine name. While such a task may seem rigorous in philosophical/theological content, my primary concern is to proceed in a rather “poem-like” fashion and not in a philosophical or theological one.

And yet, I acknowledge (perhaps superficially) that I can be consistent in my “poem-likeness” and say that beauty has a religious (or theologically significant) dimension (*see my note below). Alejandro R. Garcia-Rivera (1999) cites the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira as such an example of the relationship between beauty and religion. Specifically, anthropologists have recognized that the placement of these paintings in the caves are almost inconveniently placed, in the sense they are placed at a distance away from the cave’s entrance. Hence, the paintings are perhaps religious in nature (**see my note below).

More than this, beauty having a religious dimension shows that there is a dynamic relationship between God’s beauty and the inner human spirit. That is, apart from beauty being a divine name, Beauty originates in God’s own Self. But, here I believe a rightful question is to be asked: “What is Beauty if it is not received?” (Garcia-Rivera 1999) There is then a dynamism between the Infinite and the finite, and hence, discussing anything about the subject of beauty among these two polarities provoke a relevant but parallel conversation: the Incarnation. After all, is this not where the Eternal stepped into time? Yes, and by all means. The transcendental nature of Beauty reflects this parallel. That is to say, there is a relationship between where beauty originates and where it may come upon an impression of the human heart.

This contact of the divine upon the human heart is where I think Beauty is a significant and more impressive evangelical tool in persuading unbelievers to the faith, rather than appeal to the Good or to the True. However, Fr. Robert Barron has made the suggestion that most of the errors of modern evangelism rest in the primacy of starting with the Good (which will lead to arguments about legalism) and the True (which will lead to arguments about relativism) than with the Beautiful. I believe Barron is correct on his conclusion but not so much in his distinctions.

Fr. Barron suggests that a starting point of the Good will lead the unbeliever to press charges of legalism against the evangelist: “Who are you to tell me what is Good and what is Bad?” Starting with the Good may be advantageous on the grounds that one may be able to see the possible benefits, or indeed, eternal rewards of willing the Good (perhaps, even to the point of suffering for the sake of it). It is as that old Danish philosopher said in his Purity of Heart (Kierkegaard, 2008): “When the sufferer. . . willingly takes up his appointed sufferings, he is willing to suffer all for the Good, that is, in order that the Good may be victorious in him” (ibid., 148).

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Works Cited

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, trans. Douglas Steere. 2008. HarperOne.

Sammon, Brendan Thomas. The God Who is Beauty. 2013. Wipf & Stock Publishers.

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Notes

* – I am indebted to Alejandro R. Garcia-Rivera’s The Community of the Beautiful: A Theological Aesthetics (Michael Glazer, 1999) for the methodological approach I’ve decided to follow here throughout.

** – Here is an article by an independent scholar from the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History touching more on this claim.

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