Wednesday, April 7, 2010

On Christian Pessimism

As an atheist, one quickly has to get used to the idea being frequently charged with pessimism and nihilism by believers. If one does not accept the idea of a deity, so the logic goes, one's life becomes inherently meaningless, one's outlook necessarily lacking optimism. Many ministers have recently elected to use the occasion of the resurrection of the Lord of the universe to re-emphasise their feelings about what certain people just don't happen to believe in (I mean, what else could they possibly have to talk about at this time of the year?). Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen, for instance, attacked the "the secularist philosophy" for "invit[ing] us to invent our own lives and... undervalue commitment to other human beings" (link). From my own perspective though, I would argue the opposite is true.

I was reminded of this through a post recently made by Fred Clark on his slacktivist blog. Normally Clark is especially adept at avoiding the more egregious excesses of Christian thought (indeed, he's normally an extremely articulate denouncer of them) but the idea of the hopeless futility of the Godless life is apparently so ingrained in the Christian ethos that even its most reasonable and egalitarian adherents cannot help but reproduce it.

Clark begins with a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr:

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.

Now to most I'm sure that this triadic formula (to use the language of Biblical Scholarship) represents nothing more than a rather beautiful explication of the hopefulness of the Christian philosophy. For Niebuhr, the fragile obscurity of man is countenanced by the infinite and glorious power of the divine. In the face of our mortal limitations, we can rest assured that all that is worth acheiving can and will be acheived through the will of the immortal Lord. Surely no grander statement of optimism could be conceived?

Well, not really. My qualm rests in the almost reflexive dismissal of human potential inherent in Niebuhr's world-view. "Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime" - what a horrible sentiment! Where does that leave us, then? Are we all to simply lapse into fatalistic despair? Perhaps Mandela might just as well have stayed in prison, or Rosa Parks might just as well have moved seats, or Neil Armstrong might just as well have stayed in the space capsule if "nothing worth doing" can be completed during the course of a human life? What does that say about the Christian philosophy's "commitment to other human beings", given our apparent incapacity to ever acheive anything worthwhile in our lives?

But the fatalistic despair grows: "Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history". While it is true that sometimes the grandeur of human acheivement can take time to be duly appreciated, that in no way means that it is impossible to immediately discern the "true", "beautiful" and "good" when and where it happens. Even if a philosophical case could be mounted for the impossibility of objectively discerning what is "true", "beautiful" and "good" (which I don't think Niebuhr was going for) to proceed as though such objective discernment were possible is probably a necessary basis for meaningful human action. I shudder to think what human action might look like if we dispose with any pretense of concern for that which is "true", "beautiful" or "good".

And finally: "Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone". In actual fact I have some sympathy for this passage: no man is an island, as that old cliche goes, so man necessarily requires the formation of community with other human beings to acheive anything at all. We are biologically social animals for whom, I suspect, all higher functions (consciousness, emotion, logic etc.) are entirely predicated on our capacity for interaction with others. However, I'm inclined to think that this impression of biologically determined sociality was not quite what Niebuhr was aiming for, and his intention was probably rather to simply engage in a crude assault on human individualism. His claim that "nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone" belies that fact that individuals throughout history have indeed acheieved great things as a consequence of their own, individual volition. Some such as Gallileo acheived what they did in spite of the interjection of the community around them, certainly not because of it.

Now while we mustn't overstate the representativeness of a single passage from a single author, it seems quite apparent to me that this almost general, almost casual disdain for humanity is indeed endemic to to Christian thought more generally. Neitzsche writes that "Christianity finds man sick so that it may offer him the cure"1, continuing:

"It was Christianity which first painted the devil on the worlds wall; It was Christianity which first brought sin into the world. Belief in the cure which it offered has now been shaken to it's deepest roots; but belief in the sickness which it taught and propagated continues to exist'."2

In other words, it was once necessary for Christians to emphasise the "sickness" of man - how small, and fragile, and unworthy he is - in order to convince him of the need to accept the cure: namely, salvation through Jesus Christ3. While the proclamation of soteriological exclusivism has diminished in public Christian thought in recent times (all religions are, afterall, just different means to the same end - whether you believe in Jesus or Buddha, you'll still get to heaven) that fundamental belief in the sickness of man remains. This is the malaise that undergirds all in Christian philosophy that can be found to be abhorrent.

Now, though, it finds itself confronted with a newer philosophy: a philosophy which asserts the ethical trascendence of humankind over and above the cold, dead universe into which we are all born. To the Christians, of course, such a proclamation represents "a form of idolatry in which we worship ourselves", borne of our "resentment that we do not in fact rule the world" (link). But the humanists think nothing of the kind. The general, overarching philosophy of humanism can be expressed in a single line: all that is that is good in the universe both begins and ends with a human being. Simple, powerful and completely impervious to misinterpretation or corruption.

Perhaps, though, the Christians recognise the weakness of their own position and the strength of our own. Perhaps, as Sartre put it, they resent the humanists "not [for] our pessimism, but the sternness of our optimism"4. A person optimistic about the human capacity for goodness and self-determination, of course, has less need for the salvational myths sold to them by those who hold a far dimmer view of humanity.

So I say leave the Christians alone with their delusions of a sick, deficient human species completely enslaved by the inexorable fate into which they were born. I, however, can only assert my belief in the potential in every human being for overwhelming acts of good, and the power of each of us to alter for the better the course of human history. If that makes me a pessimist, so be it.


1 - I'm struggling to find a source for this, but I'm almost certain I didn't make it up. Perhaps my memory has twisted the words in my mind enough - while retaining the general sentiment of the passage - that it no longer resembles the original passage enough to be able to find it through Google. Perhaps, as an aside, this is a good analogy for how the sayings of Jesus were remembered and transmitted during the 40 years period prior to the penning of the gospels.

2 - From Human, All Too Human in Volume Two: The Wanderer and His Shadow, p. 329.

3 - As Jesus himself is reported to have said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick." - Matthew 9:12.

4 - From Existentialism as a Humanism.

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