Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Religion and Responsibility

Were I a wiser person, perhaps I'd take Robert M. Jeffers' response to this post as definitive (if not as a good-natured rebuke). But if George W. Bush taught me nothing else, he taught me that compounding one's errors is a surefire path to glory.

Despite the fact that it doesn't actually appear in my earlier post on apocalyptic thinking, I'm going to offer this as my basic stance:

[T]he real problem with apocalyptic thinking - right and left, secular and religious - is that it's an abdication of responsibility...people would rather give up the world than accept responsibility for it.
RMJ quotes Derrida to more or less the same effect:
Religion is responsibility or it is nothing at all. Its history derives its sense entirely from the idea of a passage to responsibility. Such a passage involves traversing or enduring the test by means of which the ethical conscience will be delivered of the demonic, the mystagogic and the enthusiastic, of the initiatory and the esoteric. In the authentic sense of the word, religion comes into being the moment that the experience of responsibility extracts itself from that form of secrecy called demonic mystery.
Which sounds, to my tin ear, as though it involves a Kierkegaardian moment of seeing responsibility as incompatible with wallowing in the aesthetic pleasures of "the mystagogic and enthusiastic."

If so, that's OK by me. And I see no reason to restrict it to the religious imagination. I'd classify the fatalistic faux-detachment typical of a certain secular approach to world catastrophe as "mystagogic and enthusiastic." The same goes for the aesthetic response to what, elsewhere, I've pompously called the Dystopian Sublime. I feel like there's a self-aggrandizing stance here of superior discernment - of connoisseurship of ruin, and competitive consumption of disaster - that treats the result of bad planning decisions (or greed, or evil) as a sort of Duchampian readymade that can be signed by anyone, and offered as a commodity. That's one secular form of "the initiatory and the esoteric," to my mind. There are others.

As for the fundamentalist forms of "demonic mystery," they're obvious enough, I'm sure, not to require discussion.

So far, so good. But Derrida (in discussing Jan Patocka), says religion, properly so called, comes into being when "the ethical conscience" is "delivered of the demonic, the mystagogic and the enthusiastic, of the initiatory and the esoteric." Which perhaps says a great deal, and perhaps not quite enough. At this point, one wants to understand the difference between religion and "the ethical conscience." Or, failing that, the similarity between them.

I'm willing to see notions of right and wrong as metaphysical - how could I not be? - but I feel like I also have to make some sort of distinction between religion - even in Derrida's "authentic" sense - and ethical conscience...partly because this sort of discussion is incoherent to most people without it, and partly because Derrida and Jeffers both recognize (e.g., in the story of Abraham) that faith can "require" a betrayal of worldly ethics (with all the historical trouble that entails). It's reasonable - in a rather bland sort of way - to argue that we're all religious, inasmuch as we heed our consciences even in cases where it's inconvenient or unpleasant to do so. What it's not, necessarily, is illuminating.

Religions in general, and Judeo-Christian religions in particular, are systems that involve a belief in one or more higher powers. To atheists, this belief partakes, if anything does, of "the mystagogic and the enthusiastic, of the initiatory and the esoteric." In rejecting these "demonic" beliefs, while achieving and maintaining a certain level of responsibility towards the Other, could an atheist inadvertantly reach some sort of apotheosis? In other words, religion may be responsibility, but does this mean that responsibility is religion?

I doubt that in asking this question, I've done much more than reveal my own shallowness. But as someone who deeply resents the "greedy reductionist" attempt to co-opt every form of human experience (and to legitimate itself with forms of argument and evidence that it sneers at in other contexts), I don't want to turn around and do something similar to atheists, by treating their ethical convictions as evidence of God's tender mercies.

And yet...what other language than the religious do we have to express the idea of responsibility, in its fullest sense? Beats me.


Rmj said...

Hmmmm...well, I don't disagree with anything you've said. Problem is, from this comment page, I can't see anything you've said, either.

Bother, bother, bother....

I'm gonna have to ponder this more carefully. Let's see: is religion a requisite of the ethical? Aristotle certainly didn't think so, and it was Aristotle who got us all thinking of "ethics" (custom) as something apart from culture (though it wasn't for Aristotle; his ethic was grounded entirely in the Athens of his day).

Ethics certainly creates a sense of responsibility, at least in modern terms. Sartre made much of this in his existential ethics, where the individual chooses not just for him or herself, but for all humankind. As Sartre recognized, that was a dreadful responsibility, but an inescapable one that we had to recognize in order to be truly ethical in our behavior (otherwise we were simply being selfish).

So I see Derrida's reading in that vein, at least insofar as it concerns ethics. Utilitarianism, for example, is promoted as an ethic, and even taken up by some was a religious ethic (which it clearly isn't meant to be). But seeking the greatest good for the greatest number leaves you free of responsibility for those not served by such a system; as LeGuin pointed out, with Omelas (I won't blogwhore in your comments).

And the aesthetic (as defined by Kierkegaard, who was responding to Romanticism, although the items you point out are also the descendants of Romantic thinking) leads us back to the individual, but on a short loop around the center, not even a meandering path that, surprise! leads us back to the wonder of us! That is a very modern path (modern in the sense it arises largely from the 19th century). The older path was to put the community, not the individual, first (thus the murder of the widow in Zorba, which I mentioned in my post). Ethics is a way of subordinating the individual to the community (see, again, Aristotle) for the good of both. Religion served the same purpose, until it became wholly divorced from daily life. The Scots and Irish recited daily prayers so commonly Alexander Carmichael filled seven volumes with them. But by the 19th century, that was dying, and today we consider even daily devotions at home a sign of excessive piety, or deep spirituality.

Religion, then, and responsibility, are about community. But where once the community was what you were born into, now it is a voluntary organization. And if you have no responsibility for choosing to be a member, what is the point of it? If it is only about what the community owes you, then what is your relationship to the community, except an economic one, of consumer?

We can certainly be ethical without being religious. But can we be religious, without being ethical? And can we be ethical, without being responsible?

Phila said...


You can click on "show original post." I guess I need to switch to pop-up windows...you're not the only person to complain.

This'll have to be a quick, shoddy response, as I'm supposed to be working, but...

I think we already agree that one can be ethical without being religious. To me, the question Patocka raises - and I wish I knew his work apart from Derrida's gloss - is whether one can be religious without being religious. Between rejecting mystery, initiation, and the esoteric per Patocka, and rejecting the economic calculations of what contract law calls "consideration" per Derrida, "authentic" religion seems to have very little content.

Except for responsibility. But responsibility doesn't come out of nowhere; one can have responsibility under the law, or under conscience. The type that Derrida is talking about, I think, comes from empathy, and is more valuable - or more authentically religious, if you prefer - the more inclusive it is. Can that sort of empathy be taught? And what are the implications if it can't? And is it really fair, let alone accurate, to call this, as Simone Weil did, "a form of the implicit love of God"?

Also, I can't quite shake the notion that this "authentic" religion, which has been purified of the initiatory and esoteric, is therefore initiatory and esoteric. That's what one gets for consorting with deconstructionists, I guess.

If it is only about what the community owes you, then what is your relationship to the community, except an economic one, of consumer?

But again, what happens when the relationship with deity is based on economics...on an exchange of value? Under Christianity, excessive self-interest can cause one to forfeit eternal life...but what is a desire for eternal life if not excessive self-interest?

While we've had our differences vis a vis romanticism, I completely agree with you here...the kind of secular fatalism I'm complaining about is firmly in that tradition. And in the case of aestheticizing, say, a ruined landscape, it leads in a sense to choosing that landscape for humankind, per Sartre. Which is the problem of the esoteric, really, in both secular and religious terms...it's highly marketable, inasmuch as it's a pretty bauble with which to flatter or reward oneself.

Phila said...

By the way, RMJ...in case it's not clear, I'm essentially challenging my opinions here, not yours.

Rmj said...

The whole point of putting forth an opinion is to be challenged by it.

Interesting point about responsibility and where it comes from. Was thinking along those lines last night, in terms of the incarnation (and this plunges us back into the emphasis on the individual under Romanticism):

For the Jews and the Hebrews, responsibility comes via the community through inheritance as sons and daughters of Abraham. Their identity may be in God and via the covenant conveyed through Moses, but the human connection is Abraham. Responsibility clearly involves a responsibility to whom, and the Jewish concept of responsiblity to the law is not the abstract notion of Socrates in the Crito. It is responsibility ultimately to God, but that is ultimately just as abstract as Socrates. The human connection is, not through Moses the law-giver, but through Abraham, with whom the covenant began.

Muslims have much the same understanding, but for them while the connection is more spiritual, it is still through a person: Mohammed, or one of the prophets (and that exhuasts my knowledge of Islam, right about there).

Christians have a more interesting difficulty. Which gets to the incarnational issue (which I'll now avoid). But aside from that, there is still the question: to whom am I, the individual, responsible?

And the answer is: the community. The Muslims; the sons and daughters of Abraham; the church. I speak in the largest of generalities, but I have to.

Why is one responsible? Because of birth; or acceptance of the teachings of the Prophet; (those could cover all three religions of the Book, of course); or because of conviction, call, conversion (which would cover Islam and Christianity). Now, is that responsibility based on a quid pro quo? To some extent, it must be, else, as you say, it is contentless. But how do we define that? Because we can easily find ourselves racing toward the prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen, the "This God's for You!" pitch of modern mass-marketed Christianity.

So there's a probelm right there. If Derrida and Patocka take us too far in one direction, how do we avoid going too fra in the other? Where are the brakes on this thing, or, in Derrida's terms, the limits? Where are the binaries, and what do we do when we've found them?

Can emptahy be taught? No, I don't think so, otherwise Greek reason or the Enlightenment or even a modified form of Utilitarianism would have saved us from ourseflves by now, or at least established paradise on earth. I can no more teach empathy than I can teach you to love your wife. Even if I do teach you, it is not guarantee you will do it. I can teach logic. That does not make people reason logically, or behave according to logic.

Much of this, it seems to me (and I lost that thread, somewhere back) comes back to the emphasis on the individual qua individual, v. the individual qua member of the community. (and, of course, of the qua qua qua. But I digress....) If we start with ourselves alone, we end up alongside Sartre, chewing on despair and negation for our bread. If we start with the community, we end with self-abnegation and abject submissiveness; or so we have been taught to think.

And we still haven't answered the original question: what is "religion," anyway?

Phila said...

But aside from that, there is still the question: to whom am I, the individual, responsible?

And the answer is: the community. The Muslims; the sons and daughters of Abraham; the church. I speak in the largest of generalities, but I have to.

But isn't that just tribalism, ultimately?

Now, is that responsibility based on a quid pro quo? To some extent, it must be, else, as you say, it is contentless.

I don't really get this. As I see it, morality is more moral the more inclusive it is, and more inclusive the more empathetic it is. I get no reciprocity or consideration whatsoever from the animals I choose, for moral reasons, not to eat, and I form no community with them in any real sense. My feeling of responsibility, in this case, seems to involve no quid pro quo at all...one can argue that somewhere under my self-loathing, I enjoy a sense of smugness or superiority, and that this is my pay-off. But that's still not intersubjective, and it doesn't really say anything, either...one can feel just as smug and superior for going bow-hunting, after all. It doesn't address the question of why expanding one's circle of moral obligation should feel better than limiting it (the latter, obviously, has a very strong appeal of its own).

As far as the impossibility of teaching empathy (or love) goes, we agree completely. And in religious terms, this leads me naturally to the creepy feeling that when we say these things are the highest aim of the spirit, we're espousing a form of predestination.

Anyway, at this point, I guess I'd turn Derrida and Patocka on their heads. Responsibility, seen as a combination of compassion with the willingness to take action regardless of personal consequences, is utterly mystagogic, esoteric, enthusiastic, and so forth...at least partially because it's anti-tribalist and anti-economic.

Does that make it religious, too? Beats me. As you say, we can't seem to agree on a definition of "religion." But it certainly makes it irrational, like a lot of the more worthwhile things in life.