Pious impiety

26 07 2010

…Or: How some would say that religion is bad for virtue, and the sense in which they are right

Previously posted on my old blog at the beginning of 2008

As I have mentioned in a previous post, I am hacking my way through Matthew Stewart’s book, The Courtier and the Heretic on the philosophical journeys of Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz. My philosophical studies have been very informal, and I have a distaste for meticulous arguments. As always, however, there are certain aspects of philosophy that do interest me, and one of them is the relationship between religion and virtue in the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza. In my opinion, this philosopher helped to found a spiritually deadly anti-pious piety that even contaminates religious people to this day often without their knowing it. I should know, because I too was affected by it once.

As you may know, Spinoza was born in the Netherlands to a devout Jewish family that was exiled from Portugal. His upbringing was devout, and he was expected to become the next great rabbi that that Jewish community was destined to produce. The young Baruch, however, had other plans for himself. Living in the relatively tolerant Netherlands that allowed all sorts of creeds and ways of life to flourish, the young Spinoza felt he had to articulate a philosophical point of view that could define and encompass the new liberal order of things. Breaking out of the shell of the Hebrew schools, he began to study and subsequently discard all of the philosophies of the past. His iconoclasm ultimately resulted in his excommunication from the synagogue and his exile within an exile from the community of his birth.

As you may also know, Spinoza created a system of mystical pantheism that discarded all of the philosophical foundations that had come before it, and can even scandalize the modern ear to this day. In Spinoza’s system, God and Nature are the same, and the “spiritual” and material have a common identity. The mind has no more of an exalted existence than a chair or a blade of grass. Nevertheless, even for Spinoza, the mind is immortal within the philosophical exercise since, according to Stewart, immortality is for Spinoza, “the union of the mind with ideas that are themselves timeless.” This immortality is the contemplation of the order that is Nature/God.

Like the Stoics, then, accepting one’s rather limited space in the cosmos is the true path towards hapiness. Spinoza thus pits contemplation against religion and virtue against tradition. As Spinoza himself so poignantly puts it:

Hence we clearly understand how far astray from true estimation of virtue are those who, failing to understand that virute itself and the worship of God are hapiness itself and utmost freedom, expect God to bestow on them the highest rewards in return for their virtue and meritorious actions as if in return for the basest slavery.

Here we see the emergence of the idea that religion is contrary to reason since religion is self-interested, if not so say selfish. Real happiness does not lie in reward, and virtue, for Spinoza, is a reward unto itself. As Stewart puts it in explaining the apostate Jew’s axiom, He who loves God cannot endeavor that God should love him in return:

Spinoza’s God… will make no exception to its natural laws on your account; it will work no miracles for you; it will tender no affection, show no sign of concern for your well-being; in short, it will owe you nothing that you do not already have.

Anyone who has ever read St. John of the Cross or any other Christian mystic can easily recognize some of the language and the tone that our pantheist uses. Indeed, that is why I have always been weary of reading any mystic and I would endeavor to say that I try to be anti-mystical. (To the popular refrain, “I am a very spiritual person”, I will intentionally say that I am a religious person, with all of the superstition, wrathful Gods, and “mumbo-jumbo” intact.) It is a very pride-building thing to say that one is fundamentally disinterested in what happens to you as long as “God’s will be done”, but that seems more Stoic than Christian. I couldn’t help but think on this passage from Scripture:

For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?

For me, Christianity is an inherently interested religion. And yes, that means that it can look selfish. In the higher realms of mysticism and the soaring heights of charity, things can become a bit ambiguous. But in our day to day lives, we ask God for very childish things. That is the way it is supposed to be. And we shouldn’t be ashamed of it. We should not be ashamed that we offer up our sufferings here on earth in order to be happy in Heaven. If there is any supposed moral inferiority to this sentiment, than so be it.

It is this same impulse, however, that is responsible for the colorfulness of Catholic Christianity, and the Western religious imagination in general. If the Reformation fought against anything, it was “superstition”; the idea that we can “manipulate” God with indulgences, scapulars, dead helpers, etc. It is the very condescenion of God in the Incarnation that makes this self-interested “superstition” possible. It is precisely because the purpose of God’s coming down to earth is to uplift mankind and not to supress it that Catholicism can seem like Voodoo sometimes. A little bit of holy water and some brown cloth go a long way…

There is a deadly asceticism and an pious impiety that is at the heart of any many atheistic ideologies of modernity and postmodernity. It is the idea, as I have expressed it before, that man is alone in the universe, tossed about by its brute laws and deserted by the cosmos. In this world, it is possible to have the stiffist of upper lips: to be brave in the face of a universe that will swallow us up again as it randomly as it spit us out. As my exposure to Marxism in particular dictates, man must fight for justice as much as possible in this split second in the wasteland of cosmic eternity before he perishes like everything else. It sounds rather romantic, doesn’t it? It also sounds much more heroic and rational that the Christian alternative. But it is still wrong, and in the end it still breeds barbarism.

I would argue that many of the crises in modern religiosity result from an unjustified moral inferiority complex that religious people often have. We think that the idea that we behave ourselves in order to go to Heaven is someting childish and almost shameful. We often wish to resort to higher explanations, thinking that virtue is an “end unto itself”, even though to be virtuous as one should be is out of the reach of simple human powers. Virtue is not a human thing, but rather a divine thing. And it has a reward, and it is the only thing that matters. As one Spanish proverb has it, he who save himself knows all things, and he who doesn’t knows absolutely nothing.

There is also an ontological asymmetry present here, one which Iamblichus elaborated on in De Mysteriis when speaking of the divine mania:

This, therefore, is a difference the most manifest of all others, because all the works of divine natures differ [in a transcendent degree] from the works of other beings. For as the more excellent genera are exempt from all others, thus also their energies do not resemble those of any other nature. Hence, when you speak of divine mania, immediately remove from it all human perversions. And if you ascribe a sacred “sobriety and vigilance” to divine natures, you must not consider human sobriety and vigilance as similar to it. But by no means compare the diseases of the body, such as suffusions, and the imaginations excited by diseases, with divine imaginations. For what have the two in common with each other?

Does man know, then, what is truly virtuous, truly sane, and truly selfless? Again, this is the hubris of modernity, and it is the same hubris that is slowly dissolving the spiritual, liturgical, and historical imagination both within and outside the Church. An idea of virtue or an idea of rationality separate from divinity leads only to darkness, destruction, and ignorance. In trying to purify religion and the human mind of self-interested irrationality, Spinoza’s ascetical atheism destroys man himself.


Actions

Information

16 responses

29 07 2010
Elizabeth

St John of the Cross is a Doctor of the Church. His teaching on the nature of mysticism (oh what a very abused word!) is extremely needed. To put it in really basic terms, asceticism is what we do in the spiritual life, and mysticism is what God does. Mysticism in its fundamental Christian theological meaning, does not mean visions and locutions and feelings, it does not mean a certain genre or style of literature, it relates to the union of the soul with God, in love, the essence of sanctity. I love John of the Cross and I’ve heard so many misrepresentations of him as either too severe, or too ethereal. One final point is that our feelings and experiences of God, and our words and ideas about God, are not God Himself, infused contemplation is a touch of God Himself, Person to person, that exceeds all that, and directly communicates virtue.

28 07 2010
vinny

Well the road lies before you, tread carefully. Anger never helps when you are attempting to make a decision. Whatever you do do it without setting up strawmen that need to be knocked down or rebeled against. The decision you make is between you and your God. Don’t cloud it with arguments about the church or this or that. Face yourself and God then at least whatever you do is honest.

28 07 2010
sortacatholic

JD:

Generally speaking, denying us entrance into holy orders or religious communities […]

What, are you kidding? The Church has been a largely Family operated business for centuries! The Church is also one of the biggest and most soul-crushing closets in the world. The privilege of the clergy comes at the expense of integrity. We are more than welcome to join the clergy if we acquiesce to hypocrisy and blackmail. Keep it real, and you’ll be shown the closet door or worse.

Thanks for putting into words what I have been unable to express. Wonderful post.

27 07 2010
JD

I don’t think heterosexuals urged away from fornication, masturbation and the like is really comparable to the situation for the homosexual. This is not merely the case of “desiring something one can not have”—as every man and woman knows the frustration of thwarted desire, but this is a particular kind of desire, where we find the universal human needs of sexuality and especially companionship and emotional intimacy tied together.

Frankly, the Church does a very poor job caring for homosexuals and their emotional and relational needs. Generally speaking, denying us entrance into holy orders or religious communities, it has no qualms really tossing us into the throngs of an excessively individualist society, where romantic relationships stand as perhaps the only seemingly enduring refuge within the ongoing social fragmentation. There are no real communities left here, as far as I can see, as much as we like to talk about the Church being one. It is theologically, but for most it is not experienced as such on any kind of deeply satisfying level.

It’s mostly empty gestures, coffee and doughnuts downstairs and then everyone scrambling off to pursue the fulfillment of their own little lives.

There is very little to uplift or transform the celibate state for those who choose it, it’s only useful to the Church so that such a one can become a mouth piece for Catholic moral doctrine.

But honestly, what in the social state of modernity competes with companionship for the realization of the meaning of our lives? Who doesn’t want someone at home for them with a privliged sphere of intimacy—-to say, “how was your day” or “tomorrow I need you to go buy eggs”.

27 07 2010
sortacatholic

No need to apologize Vinny. I used to think the same, and now I am not sure.

Your anger is not at the church it is at the truth.

“Quid est veritas?” and all that. Pontius Pilate was a bloodthirsty animal. Even he paused to think of his eternal soul. Your prompting is not out of place. Is it better to accept annihilation for (weak, frail, broken) companionship? At this moment I am not sure.

27 07 2010
KarlH

Well, I read it and I’m not offended by it. As much as I’d like to believe I’m not fervently attached to any idea or ideal, I’m a Stoic at heart. Thanks for speaking genuinely. I’m not a Catholic, but I do see the constructive (and romantic) difficulty in that sort of dedication, where a man might emerge a little bit of a stronger and better man than he was before.

26 07 2010
vinny

Sortacatholic

I would like to apologize for the above post. While I was writing I was distracted and left it off for a brief time. When I returned I had lost my train of thought and was thinking about something I had read that was completely unrelated to your comments. So much of what is here is irrelevant to the conversation sorry.

26 07 2010
vinny

Let’s get past this entire gay guy as victim stuff and get to the heart of the matter. You want what you can’t have. Well I got news, so do we all. If a group of strait priests were caught coming out of the local house of prostitution they would have problems just the same as the gay priests . Celibacy is the issue. Last time I checked the catechism it was the same for heterosexuals. To sum it up: no sex unless you are married, no masturbation, no porn, and no cheating, keep your eyes to yourself, don’t linger in fantasy land, no birth control. Not any easy list to follow for anyone. Do your best. Who said it was going to be easy. No one forces you to be Catholic or to be a priest. Every Catholic I know is struggling with something. The question is whether or not you believe that the church’s teaching is the means to your eternal joy. I think we have become to accustomed to the gentle Jesus holding the lamb. My Christ hangs broken on the cross. That is the path for all of us, gay or straight or whatever. I don’t like it one bit either but I don’t see any other way. If not you could go to one of the myriad of churches (some of them rather nice) that say god just wants you to be happy and loves you just as you are. Or you can keep to the narrow path and do the best you can. As for the church and it’s priests sometimes its better to mind your own business and worry about doing what it is you are supposed to be doing. Like I tell my kids know whats right and do it. Don’t worry about everyone else. On a personal note when I get discouraged I read the lives of the saints its there where I see the fruit of the church’s teachings. Including those I find difficult. Your anger is not at the church it is at the truth.

26 07 2010
sortacatholic

For you both, vinny and KarlH:

Okay, the above was written in the “three year old tantrum in the candy aisle of the supermarket” genre. I’m permitted a few in my old(er) age, but probably not in Arturo’s combox.

I meant “ephemeral” in the sense of “rare isotopes in the particle accelerator”, not as in any long term sense. All relationships are messy, explosive, etc. and certainly not idyllic. Still, something’s better than being caught in the emotional vice-grip of a religion that allows/instructs gay people to victimize their own.

vinny:

Go burn yourself out trying to find and maintain ephemeral bliss and when you are done and in rehab your can release your anger and start looking for sanity again.

I’m already burnt. I’ll skip directly to rehab.

26 07 2010
KarlH

I’m young and foolish, but I’d be hesitant to condemn h/er naivety. Even though, yes, you’re right about relationships in the long term—i.e., requiring solid commitment and “ephemeral bliss” turning into subtle, stronger-quieter passion—let’s not pretend that foregoing the thrill of falling in love and acting upon it isn’t self-sacrifice. Speaking as a faggot as well, it is damn hard to stay strong.

26 07 2010
Louis

(ie – I’m Stoic to keep my sanity, and Epicurean to keep my humanity)

26 07 2010
Louis

This is why I, always tempted by that pious impiety as you call it, sometimes refer to myself as half-Stoic and half-Epicurean (in a simplistic, populist sense…).

26 07 2010
vinny

“ denied the ephemeral bliss of loving relationships”
Wow being gay must really be something special because I have never personally experienced the ephemeral bliss you speak of in a heterosexual relationship. Most relationships start out as exciting and turn out to be work. You know, like the two old people who are locked in a constant argument in the grocery store. I will tell my wife of 13 years that somehow we have missed years of ephemeral bliss, which sounds more like a drug addiction than anything one can expect from a relationship. Go burn yourself out trying to find and maintain ephemeral bliss and when you are done and in rehab your can release your anger and start looking for sanity again.

26 07 2010
sortacatholic

All quotations Arturo:

Does man know, then, what is truly virtuous, truly sane, and truly selfless? Again, this is the hubris of modernity, and it is the same hubris that is slowly dissolving the spiritual, liturgical, and historical imagination both within and outside the Church.

How’s this for (po)mo nihilism: human beings are incapable of “truly” because we are programmed to die badly. We’ve tried to shellac over this “natural” fact for millennia, only to fall back onto the same mess. The feathers of our wings are bound with cheap paraffin. We claw our way out of the cave only to develop solar retinopathy and scurry back down. J and P attributed the Fall to ill-gotten “know”ledge: supposedly the flesh of our bodies paled in contrast to prelapsarian glory. Per Spinoza, we are slaves to the absurdity of a personal and rewarding God.

There is a deadly asceticism and an pious impiety that is at the heart of any many atheistic ideologies of modernity and postmodernity. It is the idea, as I have expressed it before, that man is alone in the universe, tossed about by its brute laws and deserted by the cosmos.

Yes, and? Would you prefer a smorgasbord of soteriologies? The atonement of Christ covers our sins. No, God preordained the elect and damned. No, theosis. No, sacramental grace and merits. All of these plaster over our inability to be “truly” anything. Our gross corruption evidences our unequal thrall to the slavery of good works and God’s favor. A recognition of “deadly asceticism” and the isolation of humanity against the universe is merely a turning from the perceived futility of a salvation that benefits no one but those that try to cheat the house.

The recent revelations of Roman gay priestly impropriety have pushed me to the breaking point. Why have I, a faggot,* enthralled myself to a Church whose ministers have hypocritically humiliated and infantilized my sexuality in public and private? I denied the ephemeral bliss of loving relationships only to realize that the corruption and hypocrisy of the ordained will go unchecked (by men at least)? Who then, is this Church in the name of God, that expects hard servitude of some but places a light and feigned burden on others? Why then not dance with Spinoza’s naturalistic God and court annihilation? Servitude is not “a child’s game” as you characterize it. Servitude to institutions and the G/gods they represent is quite an adult wager. The “loss of souls” and the stark realization that humanity equals annihilation represents the true outcome.

* I use this term to refer to myself and no one else. I’m calloused beyond the point of offense. It’s more dignifying than being called a “same sex attracted person” or even worse “a person with deep-seated homosexual tendencies” (try saying that fast).

26 07 2010
KarlH

Meh, formatting.

26 07 2010
KarlH

Damn, this ties together all of my recent reading.

First off, and I’m away from home so I can’t grab a reference, but in Kierkegaard’s Works of Love (or is it Christian Discourses?), he posits quite possibly the true core of his philosophy (second only to the deference of man to place himself in a position of fear and trembling before God [note that this is transitory—or at least, should have been conceived as such; yes, Kierkegaard was perhaps too much of a masochist]): the simplest commandment, which is our duty. “To love your neighbor as yourself.” He then goes on to present certain scenarios (through a Socratic dialogue, and this is part of a separate piece which escapes my mind at the moment) where evil is defined as the imbalance of this duty. It’s easy and “piously” common to show disdain for the obvious imbalance, which is to love the self above one’s neighbor. But what is often overlooked (as he goes to extreme pains to emphasize) is that loving one’s neighbor more than one’s self is just as much a sin. It is by actively involving oneself with both of these categories in man’s given duty to love that man is set free from Despair and free to develop himself and experience the creative beauty of being/becoming by loving God through this intermediary duty which is man’s foremost given lot.

Secondly, I’ve just finished reading a ~250 page article on St. Augustine’s influence on W.H. Auden. In it, the author’s main attempt was to show the influence of Augustine’s idea of the /acte gratuite/ as central to Auden’s own aesthetic criticism:

“St. Augustine was the first real psychologist for he was the first to see the
basic fact about human nature, namely that the Natural Man hates nature,
and that the only act which can really satisfy him is the acte gratuite. His
ego resents every desire of his natural self for food, sex, pleasure, logical
coherence, because desires are given not chosen, and his ego seeks
constantly to assert its autonomy by doing something of which the
requiredness is not given, that is to say, something which is completely
arbitrary, a pure act of choice. The psychoanalyst can doubtless explain
St. Augustine‟s robbing of the pear-tree in terms of natural desire, as, say,
a symbolic copy of some forbidden sexual act, but this explanation,
however true, misses the point which is the drive behind the symbolic
transformation in consequence of which what in its original form was felt
as a given desire now seems to the actor as a matter of free and arbitrary
choice.

Similarly, there are no doubt natural causes, perhaps very simple
ones, behind the wish to write verses, but the chief satisfaction in the
creative act is the feeling that it is quite gratuitous.” (Prose II 341, Auden)

Auden (and here his Protestant influences shine through; well, hell, Augustine is to blame) unfortunately regards this particular act (of creation) as only redeemable through grace. That is, the desire to create refined art (as opposed to spontaneous, “genuine” art as in “The Ballad of Barnaby”) is a misdirected one, and here Auden falls into those erroneous Reformed explanations that sought to deny man as microcosm, to deny Original Man’s impulse as an echo of the divine. And here begins the mumbo-jumbo, best to quit while I’m still ahead.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: