Modern philosophical thoughts on religion.
Modern philosophical thoughts on religion.
The branch of philosophy called philosophy of religion is engaged in designating the essence of religion and investigating its general aspects. It takes up promoting, supporting and discrediting specific theories that are propagated by different religions. It deals also with analysing intellectual questions and traditional topics that fall under the rubric of religious theory: the theistic proofs, the rationality of belief in Lord, the problem of evil and the nature of religious language, and the like. This discipline of philosophy points and defines the function of religion in human life and the reason of its existence. It takes theism for granted and then works on philosophical questions from that perspective. Philosophy of religion also includes criticism of contemporary philosophical culture and self-conscious attempt to debate the general philosophical topics and problems. It aims at achieving deeper understanding of the main contours and features of faith. As a distinct discipline, philosophy of religion came into existence in the 18th century and since that time a lot of philosophers have been interested in religion, as it has always been treated as the greatest realisation of the human existence.
Emanuel Swedenborg, one of the most outstanding Swedish philosophers, devoted the last 27 years of his life to writing books about religion. He reported having had visions of God, who introduced him to the spiritual world where he could observe Heaven and Hell and witness the Last Judgement. Having had a major spiritual awakening he did very detailed research into the Bible and published some books clarifying and correcting Christian doctrines. In this inner world, false doctrines were overthrown and good spirits, which had been trapped under the influence of bad spirits, were restored to freedom. Swedenborg’s theological works created the fundament of the Swedenborgian Church or, as it is sometimes called, the Church of the New Jerusalem. The Church has been teaching about life, life after death, love, faith and merciful God who joins us to Himself and whose laws are to promote our happiness. Swedenborg revealed the hidden meaning to the stories of Old and New Testament, the nature of the Lord and our spiritual growth.
In his theological writings Swedenborg presented a view of God as the Divine Man, infinitely loving and at the centre of our being. He stressed the relationship between the spiritual and material worlds. Our thoughts and our feelings originate in the spiritual world, the final environment where our internal states can be fully expressed. He regarded himself to have been chosen by God as His servant, by whom the religious doctrines were to be given to the world. Having experienced several visions, he felt that he was a messenger of the Lord:
I saw also a vision that beautiful loaves of bread were presented to me on plate. This was a premonition that the Lord Himself will instruct me, since I have now first come into such a state that I know nothing and that all preconceived opinions have been taken away from me, which is the beginning of leaving, that one must first become a child and then be nursed into knowledge, as is now taking place with me. (qtd in Van Dusen, 49)
Swedenborg perceived everything in relationship to the Divine. Someone who created existence came to the first place and everything else became less important. All the orders of existence depend on the One, which is the All in our world. The whole world in which we now live is created by the outer- natural and inner- spiritual worlds. Swedenborg called this relationship “correspondence” because all natural forms are symbols and images of our spiritual life:
The whole natural world corresponds to the spiritual world, not only the natural world in general, but also in particular. Whatever, therefore, in natural world exists from the spiritual, is said to be its correspondent. By the natural world is meant whatever is under the sun.... But the spiritual world is heaven, and the things belonging to the world.... Since man is a heaven, and also a world, in least form after the image of the greatest, therefore in him there is a spiritual world and a natural world. The interiors, which belong to his mind, and relate to the understanding and will, make his spiritual world; but the interiors, which belong to his body, and relate to its senses and actions, make his natural world. Whatsoever, therefore, in this natural world, that is, in his body, its senses and actions, exists from its spiritual world, is called a correspondent. (ibid., 162)
As there is an unbroken relationship between heaven and earth, the Divine penetrates the universe making Itself known and revealing Its nature. The Divine seeks to manifest Itself in a number of different ways. It is never the same but constantly diverse. This is the pattern of kingdom of Heaven called by Swedenborg the Grand Man, that is “all the aspects of the humanness of God combined” (ibid., 176). The Lord is man like us but is Very Man thanks to whom we exist.
Leszek Kołakowski in his book entitled Świadomość religijna i więź kościelna has formulated an original concept of interpretation of the religious phenomena. He reveals the basic antynomy of religious way of thinking maintaining that religious consciousness and affiliation to the church compose two completely different poles of religion. This phenomenon is a paradox characterised by two inevitable contradictions, which can not exist without each other. It is, therefore, said to be both the way of contact of human being with authentic values and real community built on the basis of these values (Kołakowski, 40-41). In other words, religion is supposed to be both the profession of faith, the subjective consciousness of an individual, and the institutional connection to the church as well. Social and historical requirements of human religious activity stand in opposition to authentic character of values. Kołakowski draws the conclusion that it is not conjunction but disjunction of faith and its profession that defines the phenomenon of religion in a human world. Religion can be carried into effect in an organised institution only when it rejects real values and the subjective process of authentic religiosity does not lose its authenticity when it is kept away from objective religiosity of established churches. God and the church preclude each other (ibid., 89-98). Antipathy to the church organisation is characteristic for the representatives of the European mysticism whose faith is not based on any established rules, ceremonies or censorship. People with such concept of religion have a personal, direct contact with God, which is the best way to unite with him. Most of the philosophers who deal with the problem of religiosity claim that in order to reach the final aim we should leave behind our individuality because only then we can think about salvation.
Soren Kierkegaard, one of the greatest figures of Danish philosophy, stood in opposition to the ideas about human “disindividualisation”, that is, rejection of individuality in the name of generality. He attacked this kind of rational humanism claiming that free will of an individual is the most significant thing in human life. Constantly looking for his own, intimate truth, the philosopher described himself as “a lonely pine-tree which is egoistically isolated and directed towards heaven” (Collison, 206). He was recognised as a rebel and spiritual inspirer, and regarded as one of the main representatives of existentialism. Having a great wish to penetrate his own solitude, look deeply into his soul and search for common values, Kirkegaard consciously resisted intellectual tradition of Europe of that time, and left behind modern philosophy, which tended to go towards the knowledge and study of general principles. He claimed that this generality was too anonymous for us, because people are almost identical within the sphere of universal moral and rational principles. An individual loses his individuality when he is regarded as an element of humanity limited by rational rules. Kierkegaard’s existentialism was based on the theory of “unlimited choices”. The point is that making choices should not be restricted by some already existing canons even though it is connected with making mistakes and being insecure. Recognition of the separateness of an individual is the only way to reach “ethical reality, which should mean more than heaven, earth and everything that exists, more than six thousands years of human history” (qtd in Collison, 209). Kierkegaard stepped back from “ the ethical generality” in other to look for absolute truth, which in his estimation could be found in faith. A human being could express oneself only in the presence of God. The main point for him was to find the real truth and an idea, for which he could live and die. We can not be elements of already prepared system or formula of authentic life. Industrialized religion and its doctrines suppress human consciousness and a thinker that forgets to be an individual will never explain what real life is.
Kierkegaard’s faith is not a reasonable state but passion, a personal contact with God. This very peculiar kind of faith, faith as desire that often goes together with pain, absurd, paradox, apprehension, is far from consolation of other mystics. Kierkegaard’s god is not a god of infinite love because he often stands beyond morality and that makes him be immoral. Constant presence of an awe-inspiring god and thoughts about giving oneself up to absurd become a kind of stupefaction, everlasting apprehension and intensive action of a soul. In the philosopher’s point of view “a man is a synthesis of infinity and limitations, temporality and eternity, freedom and necessity, briefly speaking he is synthesis” (Kierkegaard, 32). Fear that exists between two components of this synthesis is very nice or even fascinating. The book entitled Fear and Trembling, which was written in 1843, is completely devoted to irrational God’s order directed to Abraham, an absurd command to sacrifice his own son Isaac. Abraham is an absolute individual who stands face to face with God whose faith is beyond any intellectual and moral categories. His impassive readiness to sacrificing his own son, in order to fulfil God’s command is incomprehensible and very often regarded as an act of terrible crime. From the point of view of human generality Abraham is a criminal but from the point of view of faith he is the most authentic example of a human being. He has got strength and enormous faith to deal with the duty which seems to be absurd and paradoxical. In Abraham’s faith, which is a paradoxical combination of fear and joy, courage and cowardice, an individual can be fulfilled as absolute and unique existence. Abraham seems to be self-confident but at the same we can feel his inner trembling. He identifies God with subjective voice of consciousness to which he can not stand in opposition. Even though he suffers because his mind is constantly penetrated by thoughts about giving up, Abraham implements the duty imposed on him by God.
Kierkegaard is extremely fascinated with this incredibly bizarre relationship between Abraham and God, relationship that exists between an individual and the “Absolute”. He is eager to analyse the mysterious Abraham’s soul but every trial to do that is connected with using words and that deforms and falsifies everything that is individual. Abraham does not say anything, he is silent because if he put his experience into words it would lose its authentic value. God makes him silent because his word “reduces us to silence, is delivered and received in silence, cannot be understood, and cannot be repeated to anyone else” (Caputo, 199). God demands the most cruel thing, and he does it in silence. His greatness is reinforced by the ability to keep the deep secret that can not be revealed. Abraham does not understand why he has to do it and he does not wait for explanation. He knows that God does not give reasons or any explanations, he “holds us in the palm of his hand and we do not know what God wants, what is God’s pleasure which is the secret that is shrouded in silence” (Caputo, 198). God is described as the “Wholly Other” whose word has enormous power to manipulate people. Everything he desires must be fulfilled even if it is often connected with sacrifice of ethics:
In a word, ethics must be sacrificed in the name of duty. It is a duty not to respect, out of duty, ethical duty. One must behave not only in an ethical or responsible manner, but in a non ethical, nonresponsible manner, and one must do that in the name of duty, of an infinite duty, in the name of absolute duty. And this name which must always be singular is here none other than the name of God as completely other, the nameless name of God the unpronounceable name of God as other to which I am bound by an absolute, unconditional obligation, by an incomparable, nonnegotiable duty. (Caputo, 202)
In relation to God, Abraham is responsible but he is completely irresponsible in relation to his family. He has to surrender one thing, which in this case is ethics, in order to fulfil the other, which is the God’s command. From the point of view of ethics Abraham is a loser but from the point of view of the Wholly Other he is an authentic winner. The story of Abraham is a paradox of obligation, which stands beyond ethical order:
From the moment that I am in relation with the other, with the look, the request, the love, the order, the call of the other, I know that I am able to respond to it only by sacrificing ethics, that is to say, by sacrificing that which obliges me to respond also in the same way, in the same instant, to all others. I offer the give of death, I betray, I do not need to raise the dagger over my son on the top of Mount Moriah to do this. Day and night, in each instant, on all the Mount Moriahs of the world, I am doing this, raising the dagger over what I love and ought to love, over the other, such or such an other to whom I owe absolute fidelity incommensurably. (Caputo, 204)
On the basis of the interpretation of the biblical story of Abraham, Kierkegaard gives an explanation of the basic statements of existentialism. He presents the essence of human existence having examined it as outspread between the world and God. By doing this, Kierkegaard creates new perspective for interpretation of the traditional substance of religion. Conflict, fear and uncertainty are the main features that characterise Kierkegaard’s vision of faith. Abraham becomes anxious because he does not speak God’s language. He has to interpret God’s words himself. According to Kierkegaard there is a big precipice between a human being and God, and that causes a lot of problems, paradoxes and contradictions. Faith can only consist of such components that very difficult to understand. It does not go together with spiritual peace. One can not find any consolation in faith because it brings fear and trembling mast of all. According to the Danish philosopher faith can only concern an individual human being: “ There is no abstract faith at all, there is no authentic religion- there is only a particular man” (Toeplitz, 83). It means that everybody has to make their own decisions and every activity must be the result of their own will. Faith is a kind of challenge for each of us. When we stand face to face with God we have to make a choice between faith and reason. If one wants to be faithful he has to give up reason and if one puts ethics upon his faith, he has to forget about God.
Kierkegaard sets a high value on faith, which is connected with paradox. On the basis of the fact that God is for Kierkegaard a paradox, the author of Fear and Trembling states that “there is one outlook upon life that puts paradox over any other system” (Toeplitz, 117). Kierkegaard has been called a philosopher of paradox because for him faith would never exist without any contradictions. Introducing the negative criteria of authentic faith, the philosopher maintains that we can not simply say what faith is, we can only say what it should be like. Taking a risk is the essence of faith. The certainty of faith arises from uncertainty. We have to reject knowledge and a system in the name of faith and pain.
Some of Kierkegaard’s ideas and thoughts have been analysed by Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher who made himself famous for introducing the idea of deconstruction to philosophy. He has used this method to interpret philosophical texts and to find their deepest essence. In his famous work, The Gift of Death, Derrida analyses the religious paradox of sacrificing ethics in the name of responsibility. He is focused on searching for the essence of faith, which goes together with the tragic aspect of uncertainty, fear and despair. He concentrates on the secret that Abraham strictly keeps for himself, trying to overcome his anxiety. This secret which is given by the Wholly Other can not be shared with others because even if Abraham wanted to say something, it would be impossible to say it and keep its original essence at the same time. Derrida explains that “we are always already caught up in exceptionality, caught up in a singular secret that we can not communicate to others” (Caputo, 208). As we know, Abraham does not speak but in a sense he says a lot of things. He keeps this one thing out of everybody’s knowledge to show that he has not said a word. Abraham speaks but he is silent at the same time, he reacts without reacting, he says a lot so as not to reveal the secret, because “speaking in order not to say anything is always the best technique for keeping the secret” (Derrida, The Gift, 59). Deconstruction explains that a secret exists when it is hidden but in order to hide it one has to speak. Derrida defines his deconstruction as a desire for everything that is not possible, as “a certain faith in the possibility of this impossible and unbelievable” (Caputo, 148).
This method or the way of thinking has been used by Derrida to explain or analyse the phenomenon of religiosity. He has attempted to explain how one should talk about religion, especially about one religion, at the time when the professions of faith grew in numbers at a great rate. The concept of religion is usually created through setting aside from differentiation and multiplicity. According to Derrida, faith that is centred around God and the critical reason based on general principles is complementary and inseparable supporting each other in order to exist. Both faith and reason have one origin. They are rooted in “brightness”, the power which creates light and reveals the logical order of recurrence of existence as constant, secure, presence of the Wholly Other. Critical reason which changed into “techno knowledge” connected with capitalism does not stand in opposition to religion. It supports it because they both have one origin that is reflected in technical, productive, useful character of faith and religious character of “techno knowledge” (Perkowska, 404).
In order to understand religion in a proper way, one should start his consideration with suspension of such things as dogma, authority or orthodoxness. That is the only way to reveal religion as a “structure of inner tensions and references towards the outside, outside which appears to be a bend of signs or senses without any distinguished beginning or ending” (ibid., 405). In Derrida’s account such understanding of religion is included in Immanuel Kant’s understanding of meditative religion. According to Kant religion has two sources and also two genealogies. Religion as worship itself teaches us how to pray and is itself passive, because a man does not have to try hard to be a better person. Moral religion demands proper behaviour and tells us what to do in order to be better. Kantian meditative religion, which gives priority to good will over knowledge, is based on the following rule: “It is not essential and not everybody has to know what God does or has done for his holiness; It is important what a human being is to do himself in order to be worthy of God’s help” (Derrida Religia, 18). Kant puts his meditative faith in opposition to dogmatic faith, because the latter does not take into consideration the difference between faith and knowledge. Meditative faith constitutes the base for Christianity because it is Christianity that gives priority to good deeds over worship and rituals. The idea of morality, which was introduced by Christianity as the most important right in human life, indirectly leads to happiness. It does not exactly teach us how to be happy but how to become worthy of happiness. A human being deserves possessing a thing only when such possession corresponds with the highest right. The main requirement to become happy is to act and behave according to moral principles. It means that ethics should not be treated as the way, which shows the direction to happiness but as “the rational condition of happiness.”
Derrida thinks that the Kantian nation of meditative faith is related to the ideas of “God’s dead” instructed by Friedrich Nietzsche. It does not signify the theory of atheism, which tells us that God does not exist at all. It means that the place that is taken by God, the highest moral authority is empty. Kant says that in order to behave in a proper, moral way, one has to act in such a way as if “God did not exist and did not take human salvation in hand” (Perkowska, 406). A Christian can not turn towards God because He has left us. In Derrida’s point of view Christianity should be based both on believing in absent God and on believing in good will of particular human individual.
Derrida sees the correct understanding of the phenomenon of religion as the understanding of men’s being in the world based on “separating human subjects from each other so as to constitute the bonds of asking and answering” (ibid., 412). He perceives the obligation of answering as the essence of responsibility. Responsibility goes together with promise because there is no responsibility “without giving a word, without guarantee, oath, without some sacramentum” (Derrida, Religia, 41). If one promises, one must have an omnipresent witness, so he must turn towards God who is in Derrida’s concept not present. The concept of responsibility constitutes the essence of Derrida’s thinking about religion. Every faith is supported by the promise and every promise that ”promises something particular, promises to fulfil the promise as such” (Pekowska, 414). Promising is an expression of responsibility. According to Derrida, religion is a combination of such elements as commitment, the obligation of fulfilment and reciprocation. The notion of responsibility exists only together with its paradoxicality and mystery.
Religion and God were at the very centre of public and literary debates in British society of the period of Romanticism. Romantic poets could be understood as rewriting prophecy in terms of clearly secular concerns as if religious experience was regarded as an unfashionable form of knowledge. Their central mission was to combat the corruption of Christianity and offer a more authentic, radically reformed version of religion. In the following paper work I will focus on the most remarkable writer of the Romantic time, William Blake. In his dialectic view of life, influenced by idealistic philosophy, God is presented both in a state of innocence and experience. The second chapter of the thesis will deal mostly with The Songs of Innocence and Experience wherein Blake explores the idea of self-imposed social, religious and intellectual limitation that deprive humans of imagination and experiencing the true spirit. First Blake explores the world of innocence where the inhabitants are child-like totally accepting knowledge without any concern for true meaning. He then progresses to the world of experience where the nature is left behind and evil prevails instead. This chapter will also concern the negative value of institutionalised religion, the one of the “mind-forged manacles” oppressing human beings. The third chapter, that will regard Blake’s most spiritually significant work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, will continue his fullscale attack on religious, social and literary orthodoxy and a self-confidently announcement of his personal principles and the Bible of Hell. The last chapter will deal with The [First] Book of Urizen and Blake’s ironic version of the biblical creation story written from the gloomy perspective of the Bible of Hell.