The Feuerbach Exchange, Part Three: On Method

“Don’t we all agree now that Truth is dead?”

I refer back to my conversation with my friend the philosophy professor regarding 19th Century theologian Ludwig Feuerbach.

Truth-with-capital-T may very well have been gassed and burned at Auschwitz or starved to death on the Russian steppes, and continues to suffer millions of smaller deaths at the hands of the machete-wielding tribes of ethnic hatred or the car-bombing explosions of sectarian strife. Every one these murders thinks they possess the Truth, and a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” requires that I reject such claims. I am therefore duly chastened by my friend and skeptical about whether Feuerbach exposed the world historical “truth” about Christianity in his exploration of what seemed to him to be the material causes of the religion. But I was never in it for the Truth, as such, but rather more concerned with method.

There are several methodological advantages to thinking of God as humanity rather than the traditional anthropomorphic ghost with super-powers.

The first and most important is that it eliminates logical absurdities and opens up theology as a rational inquiry. By absurdities I mean the sort of contradictions that arise when you claim super-powers: can God create a weight He cannot lift? What was God doing before he created the Universe? With God no longer the unconditioned end-point of infinite series of causal conditions, whole families of logical problems simply disappear.

Even more liberating, the “Problem of Evil” is resolved into a morally coherent, rational dualism. That is, if God is not the Creator of the universe, but rather just another product of the Creation, of “what is”, we no longer have to ask dumb teleological questions about the natural world. Why would God create mosquitoes and malaria? Why are there diseases and accidents and natural disasters… as if an entity who could create such things had human intentions and purposes. I say “dualism” because what we are left with is an acknowledgement of the struggle we have always faced: Man v. Nature. This obviates all the morally repugnant statements about human suffering being a part of God’s “plan” or God’s “will”. This is incoherent to the point of reprehensible: we can no longer justify spouting nonsense like “this child’s suffering from terminal cancer is God’s will.”

If you want to think of it as Good v. Evil you will not be far off, provided you remember it is no longer an “absolute” Good v. Evil but one which is relevant and relational: “Good” (for us) v. “Evil” (to us). Moreover, you have to always keep in mind we are talking about what is good for the human species as a whole and not you personally. You may wish to have your local sports team prevail in the championship, but the rest of humanity may be indifferent.

Now, I am not unaware of or insensitive to the liberating power (for some individuals) in the absurdity of the traditional theology. By making God transcend human reason, and mystifying the causes and purposes of the natural world, they created a free space for themselves to pursue their own individual spiritual quests. One can see how this worked in the lives and works of some of the more mystical saints: St. Teresa of Avila, for example, and her contemporary St. John of the Cross. In the case of Teresa, in particular, here we have an individual who was at a distinct disadvantage in the society in which she lived: being female and spiritual in patriarchal post-Reformation Spain under the Inquisition. Teresa worked tirelessly to reform the convents of Spain into places where women could pursue a spiritual and religious life with dignity and independence, rather than a sort of sexual slavery: convent as holding-pen for future wives or whorehouse for the clergy. She was constantly threatened with either death, imprisonment, or worst of all for her, censorship and political repression. She used the mysticism of the Catholic Church and its insatiable thirst for miraculous proof of the love of God to create a space in which she could work to give women an independent, alternative lifestyle devoted to good works in the world and spiritual exploration s individuals.

I have to say I admire the courage and perseverance of Teresa, and I have been astounded by reading about her internal mental explorations in books on prayer and “the Castle” of the mind. She raises Catholic understanding of the life of the mind to levels previously attempted only by Sufis, Hindus and Buddhists. In the end, though, I can’t help but compare her model for the reform of the convent with the expedient of simply abolishing it. Who, under the circumstances, had a more independent and liberated life: Teresa of Avila, or Kathryn the ex-nun wife of Martin Luther? Which was the better path toward equality and freedom for women: the convent… or the beginning of the evolution of the civil, secular marriage, first in Protestant Christendom and now in all of the civilized world? Mysticism may have been a good incubator for Teresa’s spirituality, but it was a historical dead end.

Let that serve as my reply to anticipated objections that superstition and mysticism are liberating for some individuals. Mysticism may have spared Teresa from the Inquisition. In the long run, however, it would be better to, in the words of Voltaire, “écrasez l’infame” (crush the infamy). However difficult it may be and however long it may take, it is better to fight oppression, hypocrisy and cruelty than retreat and hide in superstition. Of course, if your choice is between being burned at the stake and beating the Inquisitors at their own game, the latter is both preferable for your own sake and more edifying for posterity.

This is hardly our situation in the 21st Century. Our situation is not without its burdens and difficulties. Having liberated ourselves from the mind-traps of the past, it becomes our duty, responsibility and sign of our maturity to test our moral assertions against a rational measure (the good for all rather than the good for me, the good for the long run rather than short-term personal gain). It may have been somewhat of an improvement when we (meaning by “we” us intellectuals) stopped asking what “God” wants and instead asked what the “proletariat” needs or wants (Communism) or the “nation” or “Volk” (people) wants (Fascism). This was, at least, somewhat more practical and concrete than inquiring about the motives and standards of an inscrutable Deity based on the few scraps of text deemed authoritative. As the horrors of the early Twentieth Century are there to remind us, however (those of us with some grasp of history at least) that what we gain in practical attention we also stand to lose in monstrous crimes on a new, industrial scale. Authoritarian utopian idealism showed us how political ideologies which focus on a particular class, nation or group result in previously inconceivable cruelty to those outside that group (genocidal Nazi anti-semitism, mass-murder in the partition of India, the Rwandan genocide) or catastrophic stupidity which dwarfs even warfare as a reproof to human rationality (the failed attempts to collectivize agriculture in Russia and China which resulted in the death of millions from famine). The traditional “God” at least transcended class and nation, which served medieval Christendom well, at least until it ran into religious borders (the clash with Islam) or fractured in sectarian schism (the Wars of the Reformation).

On the other hand, the popularity of ethics of selfishness suggests to me that Western intellectuals as a group are rather immature and not quite ready to take on the burden of globalization. There is a new kind of “mysticism” in which the undeniable power and motive force of self-interest (in the words of La Rochefoucauld, “l’amour-propre“: love of one’s own) is magically transformed into the Good as Such. While only dunderheads and blow-hards like Ayn Rand and her followers dare to explicitly articulate this hand-waving on the philosophical and intellectual plane, it is the political philosophy of nearly half of the Western world, as represented in conservative political parties everywhere: Republicans in the United States, Tories in the United Kingdom, and so on.

In the words of a liberal slogan from the late Twentieth Century, we need to “think globally and act locally”. It is so easy to say, it conceals the difficulty of actually doing it. In all of my training in law, in the resolution of concrete disputes between real people in action, I almost never reach the “global” level of policy consideration, not because I wouldn’t want to if I could, but because the institution itself considers as its highest authority the Supreme Court of the United States, or at it most lofty transports of idealism, the People of the United States. While I have no doubt that we are the most powerful and perhaps the most interesting people ever assembled into some degree of political unity, we are not humanity as a whole.

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About Hazen Hammel

Lawyer, husband, father, and explorer of ancient intellectual ruins.
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