living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

“If I didn’t believe the resurrection, I’d be at a strip club right now.”

with 9 comments

“If the Bible’s not true, living a life of self-sacrificial service is pointless.” “If God does not exist, life is meaningless.” I’ve heard a lot of this sort of talk over the years, and I’ve personally been guilty of the last of these three sentiments. I now see them as the result of a dangerous distortion of faith, one that keeps people clinging to religious beliefs by way of fear rather than honesty, and forces those who can’t stand the tension to give up their beliefs, often in a state of utter despair (or, at least in a state of hanging out at the local strip club).

This issue was raised for me again recently while viewing a video a friend sent me on why he places unconditional trust in the Bible (The relevant action begins @ 22:30). Here we have John Piper (essentially the patriarch of the neo-refomed, or new Calvinist movement) lay out a version of our offending statements:

Building our lives on sacrificial service”, he says, “when it’s all a mistake would be very pitiable. In other words, if you construct your life around what you see in the Bible and discover in the end that it’s not true, that would be tragic. And that’s exactly what Paul says, isn’t it. 1 Cor 15:19 ‘If we have hoped in Christ in this life only we are of all men the most to be pitied.’ In other words, if the gospel proves false—Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, he’s not the Lord of the universe, he’s not coming again, he’s not taking us into his fellowship forever and ever—we really blew it, and are first class fools for the way we spent our lives.

Really? We blew it? So one who gives of themselves under the inspiration of the sacrifice of Jesus (or under whatever inspiration) and in so doing mediates healing life to those around them, freeing them from from the negativities of life (be they physical, psychological, or whatever), such a person would be a fool if the mythic story[1] Piper relates is not fact? Such a person would have “blown it?” I hope your intuitions are sensing a problem here.

The common thread in all these assertions is the assumption that goodness needs a sort of guarantee. In other words, it is assumed that for goodness to be good, something else must ultimately hold true other than itself.[2] A highest existing being with an ultimate opinion must be “out there,” a book must give us this opinion, a miraculous story from our past must be fact. This, I think, is highly problematic and leads to both dishonesty and great anxiety of conscience.

Why? Because the theology advocated above separates value from being and then demands that to secure the former, one must submit to a particular theory of what remains in the latter, namely, facts.[3] This is the famous fact value split and the theology we are examining makes the validity of our values absolutely dependent upon a particular set of facts. It makes God one more fact in the world of facts, and thus requires a theory of revelation in which moral, historical (and in some cases) scientific facts are communicated to humanity through Scripture.

A religious person who is operating under this scheme could look at the life of anyone who does not accept their interpretation of the facts (e.g., a Muslim, an atheist, etc.), but who exemplifies an excellence of life that surpasses their own and yet be compelled to feel that such excellence counts for nothing, and that what is truly needed is to convince them of their own view of reality, their own particular interpretation of the facts. They could look at a gay couple whose fidelity and love surpasses that of any heterosexual couple they have known, yet still feel that since that mode of sexuality doesn’t mesh with their interpretation of the facts, it must be condemned. In effect, the self-sacrificial love of Jesus could be lived out before their very eyes, but if it was embodied in one who did not accept their own version of the facts, they would be compelled to call it a lie. Why? Because for them, values don’t tell us anything about what is ultimately real, facts do. The exemplification of goodness is not what is important, a good argument about the facts is.

But it is not only the actions of others that get condemned by those work from within this view, it is their own honestly as well. Under the influence of a specific unconditional interpretation of the facts, one has great motivation to not ask too many questions, for the worry is that if the interpretation of the facts were to fail, our own values would as well. This is perhaps the deepest anxiety such a view creates. The judgements on others are often just the external manifestations of this deep worry. The vehemence with which such a person attacks those who love well in spite of their divergent factual world-view is evidence of the threat they pose to the stability of the anxious soul I’ve been describing (see 3:59 of Piper’s talk. It’s not self-critical honesty that leads people to question the Bible, it’s: the Devil). Calling good evil is hard work and creates a conflicted, angry conscience.

The solution to this situation is the reunion of being and value. Being and value ought not be thought of as separate concepts; rather, value is a form of being. If this move is made, one can seek to develop an understanding of being-itself holistically. Our senses, emotions, intellect, the whole of our very being, because it participates in being-itself, have the potential to tell us something about being-itself, about God. Certainly, one must remember that we are finite and that all our judgements are fragmentary and fallible (even intuitions about value), but as Robert Adams put it so well, “…if we are not prepared to let our vision of value control in some ways our vision of reality, then we had better not be theists.”[4] By which he means that those who silence their value intuitions to some authoritative view of the world, are easily lead into heartless fanaticism.

Theologically this all cashes out in a way that may seem foreign to most moderns. It is a way that has ancient roots, one that, though having Greek antecedents, was once within the Christian tradition, yet has been largely lost. This way suggests that we mean by “God” is not an external being who guarantees goodness, either by will or intellect; rather, by “God” it understands that we mean “that which is ultimate.”[5] In the vocabulary I have developed above, this affirmation would be conceptualized in the proposition “God is Being-itself.” God is the ultimate fact and value, and the truth of all contingent facts and values subsists in God. On this view, to participate in the fulfillment of being (which we call goodness and truth) is to participate in God. For Christians, Christ displays for us the paradoxical fulfillment of being in suffering self-sacrifice—in radical, unconditional love. We needn’t believe anything, or “submit” to what the preachers of the world tell us Jesus means for us; rather, all that is needed is to be open to the fulfillment of being displayed in the story of the man broken on the cross, for us. If we hold value and reality together in the one concept of being, then the truth of the cross is not relegated to the revelation of a theory of the facts of reality; the truth of the cross is the revelation of the truth of being, and truth of being is inclusive of value—it is inclusive of our very selves.

To “believe in the resurrection” for such a person is to believe in a very different sense than the one tempted to run off to the strip joint. To believe in Christ and in Christ’s resurrection is not an unconditional affirmation of a conditioned theory of history. One may doubt optimistic appraisals of the historical value of the gospels, and yet believe—that is, to place one’s faith—in the revelation of God, of being-itself, in the story of Jesus as the Christ.

Sadly, for many in our age, this insight is not on the radar. As such, we are a people whose center of meaning and value is not informed by a principle of fulfillment through self-sacrificial love. It is my hope that as Luther was liberated from the work of loving God with his whole heart by his own volition, those who doubt might be liberated from the “work” of believing in-spite of their honesty through the unification of fact and value in being-itself, God who is.

_____________________________

Back 1 “myth” here is used in a technical sense. It does not mean, as in popular parlance, simply “untrue story;” rather, a narrative is a myth if it seeks to express deep truths of the ultimate origins, ends and meanings of existence. In this sense, all religious stories are myths. It matters little if one takes them also to be historically factual.

Back 2 If perhaps someone of Piper’s persuasion would grant that goodness may indeed be good without its guarantee, but then argue that in their view it simply wouldn’t matter ultimately. I would respond that this would be the same as goodness itself not being true and therefore, not good.

Back 3 I am defining “facts” here as “actual states of finite affairs.” I agree that for Christianity to be true in the sense I believe, it must “reveal” what is ultimately real. It must reveal a sort of “ultimate fact,” but now we are speaking about ultimacy, and therefore, symbolically.

Back 4 Robert M. Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, 366.

Back 5 If by God one does not mean that which is ultimate, then we are not dealing God but an idol in the deepest and most proper sense: the elevation of something conditioned to the level of unconditionality.

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Written by Alex

October 29, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Posted in Theology

Tagged with , , ,

9 Responses

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  1. Great piece, Alex. “Calling good evil is hard work and creates a conflicted, angry conscience”—wow.

    In the paragraph after your first diagram you discuss possible Christian views of a Muslim, a Buddhist, and a gay couple. Sadly I have to agree with you that this is the way many Christians do end up viewing these folks. But I don’t think it is a necessary result of any part of their theology. It is entirely possible to believe—as I did—that without God there is no ultimate goodness, and that the Bible is God’s true revelation; and to also believe that folks such as Muslims, Buddhists, and gay couples can exemplify goodness better than most Christians do. In fact, such Christian beliefs allow the Christian to affirm an ultimate goodness in those non-Christians (or gay Christians) that could not be affirmed otherwise, e.g. which I cannot now affirm of anyone.

    Conceptualizing God as being-itself seems to run seriously afoul of the Bible. I’ve heard Tillich accused of pantheism, and if your thought is consonant with his on this point, now I can understand why. To pick but one illustration, the Bible speaks of God creating the heavens and the earth. But on the view you describe wouldn’t this need to be reformulated as God “growing” the heavens and the earth, or something along those lines?

    I think a few issues may be a little clearer in light of an explicit distinction between value and ultimate or transcendent value. You well know from our discussions how giving up belief in God forced me to give up belief in any ultimate or transcendent values. But human valuing is still alive and well. We obviously can and do ascribe value to our lives, and to the things that make them up—even if that valuing doesn’t correspond to anything beyond itself.

    But then this seems to cut against your effort to unite being and value. In one sense, values are obviously part of being or reality. In reality, people value things. But with our two types of value clearly distinguished, we can ask the more interesting question of whether ultimate or transcendent values are part of reality. In other words, we can ask whether human valuing corresponds to something beyond itself.

    Would you argue for an affirmative answer?

    Ivan

    October 29, 2011 at 11:14 pm

  2. Very interesting read, will be thinking upon this blog post for quite awhile. Thank you.

    Heather

    November 2, 2011 at 3:28 am

  3. Hi Ivan,
    Thanks for the kind words.

    You say: “Christian beliefs allow the Christian to affirm an ultimate goodness in those non-Christians (or gay Christians) that could not be affirmed otherwise”

    True enough, yet I think the point I made stands. Though they may be able to affirm what is good as good, they are prevented from thinking that goodness matters ultimately for them. The ultimate destination of heaven or hell, on their account, hangs on the facts they affirm or deny, not the good they are gripped by and live into. (and as a case in point, I’m quite sure most of the believers I have in mind would never affirm verbiage such as “gay Christian,” just as they cannot affirm “doubting Christian”).

    “Conceptualizing God as being-itself seems to run seriously afoul of the Bible.”

    Though my theology here undoubtedly runs afoul of a particular reading of the Bible, I stand in a long tradition of creative users of the Scriptures, beginning with the authors of Scripture itself. (i.e., The Chronicler’s creative reinterpretation of Kings, Jesus’ creative reinterpretation of the Psalms [John 10:34-36], Paul’s creative reinterpretation of Genesis [Galatians 4.21-31], the entire allegorical tradition beginning with Philo and running through Augustine, the analogical tradition beginning with the Cappadocians and running through the end of the middle ages, etc. etc. etc.) Once one has their eyes opened to the fact that people have been reading and interpreting the Bible for well over 2,000 years and in all sorts of different ways, one becomes much less worried about being declared to run afoul of the Bible. Besides, if we want to play that game, I can simply de-emphasize a literal understanding of “creation” (which I do. Creation is a symbol), and stress the revelation of God’s name to Moses: “I AM.” I realize many will chafe at this, but remember, I don’t see the Bible as a divinely unveiled fact book. The Scriptures are a history of faith, of ultimate concern. It is the tradition that we stand in. Like it or not, we are formed by it even if we react against it.

    “But human valuing is still alive and well.”

    I think what you need to ask yourself here is not whether or not human values correspond to some external divine value. I reject talk of transcendent value as largely unhelpful. What you need to ask is whether or not human value is true. Not true in the sense of the correspondence between judgement and fact, but true in the sense of leading us to the really real in self and world. It can’t be framed as the correspondence between a judgement and a fact, because in our case (or in my case anyway) the judgement is the fact in question. Do we manifest the truth of being in our values, or not? If we answer “not,” I’m afraid “mere human values” do not survive either. All is utterly and completely absurd.

    Alex

    November 2, 2011 at 7:43 am

  4. Thanks for saying so, Heather.

    Alex

    November 2, 2011 at 7:43 am

  5. Again I have to agree with you. Many Christians are prevented from thinking that goodness matters ultimately for people who don’t believe rightly. This may be partly because of the Bible—but it is also partly in spite of it. First, the Bible talks about finer gradations of reward and punishment within the binary of heaven and hell. There is that overarching dichotomy, yes, but in my opinion it would be quite unbiblical to expect all occupants of heaven to enjoy exactly the same experience and all occupants of hell to suffer exactly the same experience. Second, the Bible ties action very closely with belief. I could go on and on about this (as I often did as a Christian) but in short, I assert that identifying faith or salvation with affirming the correct facts is extremely unbiblical. Third, one thing that might be build upon this last point is the suggestion that someone can have saving faith in Christ without having explicit belief in Jesus. However, while I don’t think this suggestion is ruled out by scripture, I don’t think that it is positively taught, either. So this point is definitely more tentative than the other two.

    As for how we go about interpreting the Bible in the first place, I have definitely considered the New Testament’s creative interpretations of the Old. That was a bit of a source of tension for me, and I ultimately had to accept a sort of double standard that hey, the New Testament writers’ creativity was ratified by canonization (as a providential judge of inspiration), but to engage in such creativity today would be suspect, and to do so in contradiction of a plain reading of applicable scripture would be wrong. Now as an unbeliever, I guess I’m more open to seeing this issue as genuinely problematic.

    I find your last paragraph a bit confusing, but I’ll try to unravel it. You seem to be saying that the relevant question is not whether human valuing corresponds to something beyond itself, but whether human valuing leads us to “the really real in self and world”? What exactly do you mean by that? If you consider whatever humans value most deeply to be “the really real,” then it would be a tautology that human valuing leads us to it. If on the other hand you have some criteria for “the really real” other than simply that which humans value, then aren’t you in fact asking whether human valuing corresponds to something beyond itself?

    Ivan

    November 2, 2011 at 2:06 pm

  6. Hi Alex,

    Some really great thoughts here. Clearly you’re right in making faith a seeing of a particular value or set of values as rooted in Reality (I prefer “Reality” to Being). And clearly the values portrayed in the gospels can be the values that form one’s faith, without believing simultaneously that that portrayal is factual. The truth a Christian claims for her faith, in that case, would be “a true representation of the very best of human values.” I wouldn’t have come to that clear understanding without your post, so thank you for your work.

    I think you will want more than that, though. The promise of the direction you have taken here is that it offers a much more relevant option for the truth of faith than the traditional one, and one that is sophisticated enough to interest a 21st Century intellectual. Where it falls down is in making Christian belief depend on agreement on ultimate values, now, instead of purported historical and theological facts. The challenges include (1) to uncover the connection between the values portrayed in the gospels and human nature in order to show that the gospel portrays the “right” values–in some important sense–and (2) to show that the right human values, in turn, are rooted in Reality.

    I think that Tillich does a pretty good job with the first of those challenges. Perhaps an example will make the second clearer for you. Would you plant a tree in your yard today, if you knew that a wildfire would take your home and yard tonight? Probably not, despite the fact that you might value trees very much. The problem is that you would know that a reality you would be facing was about to cancel out the value expressed by planting the tree.

    I think that traditional faith needs to see facts about reality married to values that it approves of. If you remove those facts on the front (historical) end, you need to put them back in on the other side of your theory (i.e., by following the values represented by the gospels–and note that I do not say “Christian,” since that word has become so polluted, in my opinion–they are building into Reality with their lives).

    That a larger reality to tie into need not be God–that is, an atheist could coherently say, “You know, the gospels really get it right, except for the God part.” And yet it would presumably be because the atheist believed the gospels give a good account of the highest form of human nature that she would have that imagined opinion. That, in turn, leaves this gaping hole:

    If a person who is an Arborist as an expression of their Ultimate Concern can be excused for not planting trees when it’s not realistic to think that the trees will survive, an atheist for whom the gospels express the highest of human virtues can be excused for not serving an ideal that is not, ultimately, rooted in reality–in their view.

    In other words, the traditional insistence on the factuality of faith makes its way in the back door, I think, with your outlook. In fact, I very much think that the resurrection, in some sense, is needed to give focus to the fact value connection as being rooted in something larger than the contingencies of history.

    The strength of your view, then, is that it set you to that task straight on, without the need to establish the truth of a particular, contingent, historical account as a preamble to a truth larger than any particular historical situation–when rooting the highest of human values in a Reality beyond the particular historical contingencies of one’s life is the very point of faith.

    So I think you have some work to do, but it’s important work, and you’re off to a good start!

    Tracy Witham

    November 6, 2011 at 5:32 am

    • Tracy, I think you’re right about (1) I begin to do a bit more of that in my comments to my friend Tyler here. Really, I’m just following Tillich.

      As for (2), Tillich basically slides his notion of “courage” into this gap. I’m not sure how one could demonstrate that Christian values have relevance in some “ultimate Reality” beyond the contingencies of our particular lives. Such an encounter occurs only in the encounter of faith, the experience of ultimacy. And this, as received by us in our finitude, is always uncertain. Yet here is the courage to hope that all is not eternally forgotten, but it does not amount to a possession, or a demonstration. Still, we wouldn’t have faith, i.e., ultimate concern, if our doubts on this point lead to pragmatic curtailments of the life of faith.

      Alex

      December 9, 2011 at 9:19 am

  7. […] “If I didn’t believe the resurrection, I’d be at a strip club right now.” […]

  8. Friends, I’ll be back to this when I can manage it… even it it’s only to say “good points, I’ll need to think on them further.” At the moment, however, the horsepower is required elsewhere. Thanks to both of you for your input thus far.

    Alex

    December 2, 2011 at 3:09 pm


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