Sunday, March 13, 2005

Past the buffet; hang a left at phenomenology

In this post, I laid out the theoretical grounds for my Christian project, which is based largely on John Rawls's theory of reflective equilibrium. Here's the quick version: when we assess given theories, we don't assess them in a vacuum. We have some really, really important pre-existing ideas, and some that aren't as important. For example, I couldn't accept a religion that thinks murder is OK. On the other hand, my belief that, say, permed hair deserves its own circle of hell is a pretty marginal belief; if I found the rest of a belief system compelling, I could ditch my disdain of permed hair, but I couldn't ditch my belief that murder is wrong. When we assess belief systems, we maintain our core pre-existing beliefs but are free to adjust at the margins.

We find the same pattern at work in variants of Christianity. I, for one, couldn't accept a Christianity that thinks homosexuality is morally wrong. As baffling as this to some (most of whom move their lips when they read), this is central to my pre-existing belief system. The standard response to people like me is to disdainfully refer to such a Xianity as a “buffet religion”: 'you just pick and choose what you want.' The obvious rejoinder is: ' what, fucktard?' There's no obvious reason why I shouldn't pick and choose what I want. Still, there's some intuitive force to this response, and as such it warrants a rational reconstruction.

The key idea underlying this objection-from-the-buffet is that religion ought to be, in some meaningful sense, transformative. A religion that just neatly conforms to all of our pre-existing ideas would appear to be sterile and dead. Why adopt a religion if it merely reproduces all of the ideas that one already has? Wouldn't that be just a lifeless religion, or a crutch for one's ideology?

That seems to me to be the truth at the heart of the argument-from-the-buffet: religion is a fundamentally transformative enterprise, and to the extent it simply props up already-existent theories, it is just an alibi or excuse for behavior.

So, then, let's take the case of a socially conservative altruist; she already believes that abortion and homosexuality are wrong, and also goes out of her way to help others. Her ethics perfectly track those of right-wing Christians. Ethically, then, the possibility of transformation is foreclosed: her ethics already perfectly track those of a Christian. Still, we'd expect to see a transformation, wouldn't we?

And there should be. While none of her ethical beliefs should change (what would they change to?), and none of her motivations should change (we shouldn't do good acts just to get to heaven, right?), something changes. All of her acts, all of her experience, is radically reoriented toward Jesus Christ. Suddenly, the world presents itself as that-which-is-to-be-experienced through Christ. That which-is-to-be is pure negativity; that which is as-yet is necessarily not-yet. As in the famous passage from Sartre's Being and Nothingness, the world is presented as a series of gaps and lacunae (nothingness). What is critical, then, is that there is always more we can do; the world is always lacking God. Fuck, Christ himself said so (cf: “Father, why have you forsaken me?”). [ed - see below*]

So there is a transformation; contra the Christian Right (aka “True Christians”), the necessary and sufficient transformation is phenomenological, not ethical. The world qua world is transformed, and us via that.

* A short version of what I was getting at is provided nicely in this passage from Bultmann, reflecting on God as the "Wholly Other":
The statement that the God who determines my existence is nevertheless the "Wholly Other" can only have the meaning that as the "Wholly Other" he confronts me who am a sinner. Furthermore, in so far as I am world, he confronts me as the "Wholly Other." To speak of God as the "Wholly Other" has meaning, then, only if I have understood that the actual situation of man is the situation of the sinner who wants to speak of God and cannot; who wants to speak of his own existence and cannot do that either. He must speak of it as an existence determined by God; but he can only speak of it as sinful, as an existence such that he cannot see God in it....(emphasis mine)

The key here is that our separation from God entails that we see in the world the absence of God. At the pivotal moment of faith, God is missing ("where art thou?")