Christmas day, spilling over into Boxing Day… The “delicacies” have been consumed, the basic rituals have been observed, the children have been suitably amused and the choirs have had their chances to sing. Of course the “12 days of Christmas” are really only getting started for those who want to make serious number out of the holiday, and plenty of time off from school still remains for many of us fortunate enough to have routines built around such concerns, but over the weekend already I have been able to start looking at the holiday itself in a reflective sort of way. What does it ultimately symbolize or represent? Which tales associated with it deserve to be taken most seriously? Which rituals really serve the deepest purposes? Is there some “truth about Christmas” most worth sharing?
This week I must credit my dear virtual friend “Sam” with stimulating and challenging my thinking about the way I balance the subjective and objective, as well as the individual and the collective, in the process of defining what faith, God, love, hope and thereby Christmas ultimately mean to me. In order for people starting from different perspectives, or those who have developed different viewpoints than I have, to relate to the sorts of harmony I was talking about last week, I really should better define what I mean in reference to some of these very basic concepts. I’m not sure if I can break these ideas down into genuinely basic understandable terms, but I’ve decided to give it an effort. And right from the start I must say how thankful I am for my virtual friends who keep pushing me to further clarify my thinking in these sorts of ways.
The main point on which Sam has asked for clarification is what God actually means to me. I sort of ducked that to begin with by saying that my views on the matter are rather Kierkegaardian, but she didn’t let me off that easy, pointing me to some rather interesting considerations on the subject by one Avi Sagi (Kierkegaard, Religion and Existence: The Voyage of the Self, Editions Rodopi, Amsterdam 2000), and asking me if I would agree. It doesn’t become the style of my blogging to give a fully annotated scholarly reply, citing all of Professor Sagi’s sources and all, so let me just say that what is to follow here is not entirely my original thoughts on the matter, but the ultimate responsibility for the picture I paint here lies with me alone.
So let’s start with Kierkegaard’s picture of God. One of Kierkegaard’s most famous meditations regards the case of what the book of Genesis presents as God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. This is one of the most mysterious and paradoxical passages in the Torah, so it is no surprise, given his love for paradox, that Kierkegaard tackles it head on. If we assume there is a direct correlation between morality and the will of God, how can we justify claims that God has commanded people to do things that must otherwise be regarded as blatantly immoral? Some scholars dismiss the whole issue by saying that the primary purpose of the passage in question was to provide a legendary precedent for the elimination of the ancient practice of human sacrifice in the Middle East. But even if that is the case, it rather misses the point of the larger moral dilemma being presented, which in many senses remains relevant to this day. Others, Kantians in particular, claim that no God which corresponds to the attributes given to him in the Abrahamic tradition could possibly demand the atrocity of human sacrifice, therefore Abraham must have got his wires crossed and taken some absurd inner conflict he was experiencing at the time to be “the voice of God”. This consideration at least addresses the question at hand, but not in a way that gives Abraham the credit he is believed to deserve as the Patriarch of the majority of the monotheists in the world today.
Kierkegaard’s solution was to say that the real point of faith, illustrated so powerfully in this tale, is to relate to God as something other than the product of our own rational processes. If God is nothing but an abstract personification of our basic moral algorithms, we can hardly consider this character to be worthy of worship. If God is in any way “capturable” by our logical processes She/He/It (or just “He” for traditional shorthand here) could no longer be God. In order to be truly recognizable as divine, God has to be something more than, and different from, what we are able to squeeze into, or out of, our funny little brains.
But then there’s another factor that Kierkegaard points out as even more necessary for God to be worth our bothering with: this God has to have a genuine interest in and available to beings like us, in spite of our being infinitely less than He is. In short, He has to love us in spite of ourselves. In fact this aspect of the relating to our object of worship really needs to come first. It doesn’t make so much difference for us if there is something out there that is fully beyond what we can formulate if that something doesn’t really give a toot about us. For God to be worth the trouble of worshipping, He really needs to be a personal being that not only accepts us for who we are, but enables us to be the most complete versions of ourselves that we can be through contact with Him. The recognition that He is beyond our comprehension and intellectual control really only becomes relevant to us when, like Abraham, we have some experience of his mercy, generosity and good will towards us and we need to know how to relate to that.
How do we get to that point? According to Kierkegaard, by throwing ourselves fully into a search for Him and a commitment to being completely at his mercy. If we try to take charge of our relationship with God and dictate the terms of the relationship to him, or if we try to understand him in a systematic, comprehensive sort of way, we are no longer respecting him as God. We are thus losing the possibility of relating to anything beyond ourselves in our systems of worship. We have to let God be God, and we are thus able to find the value of our personal identity fully in relation to this God, because He is merciful enough to grant that favor to those who seek him with all their hearts.
Setting aside the skeptics’ question of whether such a God exists in the first place, Kierkegaard’s primary question from there is one of how one can know that it is truly God we are interacting with in those moments of surrender to forces beyond ourselves, as opposed to some other spirit entity, or merely shadows within our own warped psyches. There are a number of epistemological methods at our disposal for this particular task, but none of them are entirely foolproof. As the saying goes, every time someone comes up with a foolproof religious system, along comes an even greater religious fool. Ultimately however, Kierkegaard would say, certainty about such things is overrated. The point of the matter is to have a purpose greater than yourself, worth living and even dying for. Being honest with yourself about the risks of self-deception is important. Being honest with yourself about the risk of blindly following patterns of cultural conditioning is even more important. But once those risks have been adequately taken into account, the best we can do is to take the famous “leap of faith” and hope and believe that there is a benevolent force out there ready to catch us.
From there, still according to Kierkegaard’s way of looking at things, the next consideration is how we can best go about the process of getting to know and love this God whom we have discovered in the process of throwing ourselves on his mercy. We must take it as given that we are never going to be in any position to get God down to an manageable pattern and thus tell Him how He should run things; but it is just as bad, if not worse, for us to either naively or cynically assume that whatever desires and/or repulsions come into our mind must have been placed there by God. This is where the practical side of things gets rather complicated. We cannot simply drift along in the bliss of ignorance, but nor can we claim the power of dogmatic certainty about what God would have us do.
Near as I could tell from Professor Sagi’s text that “Sam” sent me, Kierkegaard never really found a workable answer on this one. If Abraham could be sure beyond doubt that his call from God to sacrifice his son was the real deal, what is to stop any religious radical of his own generation, or ours for that matter, from claiming the same certainty regarding their own absurd sounding mystical inclinations? Or on a more theoretical level, if God is necessarily so “totally beyond” that it defies all our attempts at perception––if anything we can understand and explain is necessarily less than God, by virtue of the fact that it fits within our minds––how can anyone really “know” anything about God’s will?
Speaking not for Kierkegaard then, but for myself and other like-minded souls, this necessarily becomes a question of balance. Unlike natural sciences, theology as a field of study does not, and cannot, involve a definitive and exclusive understanding of how its subject works––at least if it is to continue to define its subject as an all-powerful, all-knowing and absolutely benevolent God. God cannot be systematized, rationalized, symbolized and placed in a display case and still be God. But on the other side of the balance, God must be approachable, communicative and relatable to others to be worth bothering to worship. Those who humbly seek for Him with all their hearts have to be able to find him, regardless of their starting points in the process. The combination of these factors leads to a true Kierkegaardian paradox: we are given a sense of purpose, but not complete certainty to go with it; but a sense of being able to trust in the goodness of something beyond ourselves to direct us in the way that ultimately leads to the greatest good.
Part of this paradox is the process of relating to religious rules and authorities. On the one hand there is a long human history of searching for peace, purpose and direction in life. Even if we assume that true seekers––as opposed to religious opportunists––are rare indeed, it would be the height of vanity and presumptuousness to refuse to learn from any of them. As Isaac Newton claimed as his practice in natural sciences, those of us who seek a clearer perspective concerning God must find giants on whose shoulders we can stand in order to gain such a perspective. Yet at the same time we must recognize that these giants are themselves human beings, with their own insecurities, frailties, biases and blind spots. Reading many of the great devotional and canonical writings of the world’s religions we can be struck by a sense of awe at how they can be so insightful and magnificent in some areas, and so narrow-minded and barbaric in others. So we are left with a question of how we can best take advantage of (what we might refer to as) “the light God has given us” through these great men and women of faith, using this received wisdom as something of a benchmark against which to measure our own spiritual intuitions, without getting stuck in the fundamentalist trap of not daring to question or move beyond the teachings and meditations of these heroes of faith. How do we draw the line between humble submission and blind dogmatism? How do we draw the line between diligently searching for truth and absurd intellectual presumptuousness?
One thing we are probably safest not appealing to would be the established authority structures within particular religious traditions. When there is power to be had in telling people what they must do to be accepted by God, no matter how pure and spiritually advanced the foundational beliefs of a group are, and no matter how carefully checks and balances are installed, the comfort and control available at the highest levels will draw in individuals with little concern for anything else than what’s in it for them. For this reason I personally believe that while all religious traditions are to be respected for the elements of wisdom and spirituality they contain, none are to be trusted completely as God’s officially authorized spokespersons.
Those who wish to defend the rights of their particular group to speak exclusively for God would at this point be likely to raise the argument: “By not accepting what God as said by way of our prophets and tradition as a final standard, you are effectively setting up yourself and your own beliefs and intuitions as the final standard of your faith. In doing so you cannot end up worshipping anything other than yourself! How dare you be so presumptuous?”
To such believers I can only respond, as much as I may be able to benefit from the wisdom your tradition has to offer, and as much contact as your forefathers may have had with the one true God, I still cannot accept your right to speak exclusively for God. I cannot believe that the all-powerful and all-loving creator of the universe would need your group to fight to defend His interests on earth, or that He would give your group exclusive distribution rights for his mercy. I seek to be informed by any true wisdom you may have, but I do not believe that the final truth of the nature of God can be found in your teaching, mine or anyone else’s. Beyond that, as Abraham is quoted as saying, may the Lord judge between me and you.
This does indeed leave me without a final absolute standard to appeal to in terms of knowing what God wants for my life, and that leads to all the now standardized critiques of postmodern theory, but somehow I believe that this is how God wants it. God does not want to be a means by which self-appointed leaders or aristocratic heirs can systematically manipulate and control those around them. Thus God does not offer the certainty of a clear method by which to get His support in your pet projects. All he offers is a promise of long-term comfort to those who seek Him (or truth, or justice, or the ultimate purpose of their lives) with all their hearts. If the point is being able to love Him and have His purposes as part of your own, what else do you really need to know? Those who are blessed with a sense of having found this truth are then morally responsible to live in such a way as to spread the resulting kindness, empathy, peace and a sense of reverence in the world around them. That too is a process fraught with uncertainty, but that is just the way God wants it. We’re not in charge; He is, and attentiveness to the various ways in which He wishes to speak to us is part of what that surrender to Him means. The good news is that if we make a sincere effort for our own part and leave the rest in His hands, that’s all He really wants of us, and the rest is up to Him.
When in doubt about whether my desires are in sync with God’s desires or plan for me, I turn in part to an understanding of the Bible, in part to trusted friends whose sincerity and purity of heart I can trust, and in part to a deeper seeking of mystical communication with Him through prayer. Other trusted friends turn to other holy books, to a sense of harmony with nature and to other meditative techniques. I have no doubt that the same God is able to speak to them by those means. Of course we all make mistakes in our spiritual judgments. Of course all claims of spiritual understanding are not to be given even weight. But the question here isn’t how to gain absolute systematic certainty, or how to justifiably condemn the approaches others use; the question is how to determine what the kind, merciful, loving… Godly thing to do is in the particular situations in which each of us find ourselves. Rarely does a sincere search for God’s will leave us hanging in such cases.
Another part of the balance needed here though is not looking for divine guidance in every little detail of life, where common sense will usually do. In deciding what spices to put into a pumpkin pie I was making when I ran out of ginger this week, it wasn’t a matter of prayer and meditation but basic culinary judgment. The spiritual can be part of everything, but not everything requires a spiritual answer.
So that’s about the best I can do for defining my sense of who God is and how I can know about him for this weekend. In some ways, though on a much lower level, I would apply the same principles of inevitable uncertainty balanced with a sincere search for the truth of the matter to consideration of what faith, hope and love are all about.
If any of you have more wisdom to share on these matters I am more than willing to listen, as long as you can accept the possibility that I might not agree and respect my right to differ. If, however, reading this has you dogmatically convinced that my lack of submission to your chosen path––religious or secular––makes me an instrument of evil, all I can say is, may God judge between us.
And in case you don’t hear from me here before it comes, have a wonderful New Year.