January 11, 2006

MERE PURSUIT:

The Illusion of Disillusionment: There is a vast body of commentary on the modern spiritual plight, all of which assumes that the experience of doubt, moral relativism, and despair is distinctively modern and, in some sense, the product of mankind's “maturity.” (Christopher Lasch, July-August 1991, New Oxford Review)

The modern world has no monopoly on the fear of death or alienation from God. Alienation is the normal condition of human existence. Rebellion against God is the natural reaction to the discovery that the world was not made for our personal convenience. The further discovery that suffering is visited on the just and unjust alike is hard to square with a belief in a benign and omnipotent creator, as we know from the Book of Job.

But it is just this comfortable belief — that the purposes of the Almighty coincide with our purely human purposes — that religious faith requires us to renounce. Religion reminds us of the inescapable limits on human power and freedom. Far from endorsing comfortable superstitions, it undermines the most important superstition of all — that the human race controls its own destiny. According to its critics, religion provides the security of childlike dependence on a father figure who answers all our prayers. But the naive belief that our wishes govern the universe is precisely what religion attacks. We have no special claim on the universe, and our prayers are answered only when we surrender that claim: Such is the true meaning of religious faith, as it has been understood by a long succession of prophets through the ages.

The religious critique of pride ought to speak directly and compellingly to modern men and women, who find it galling to be reminded of their dependence on powers beyond their own control or at least beyond the control of humanity in general. Such people find it difficult to acknowledge the justice and goodness of these higher powers when the world is so obviously full of evil. They find it difficult to reconcile their expectations of worldly success and happiness, so often undone by events, with the idea of a just, loving, and all-powerful creator. Unable to conceive of a God who does not regard human happiness as the be-all and end-all of creation, they cannot see the central paradox of religious faith: that the secret of happiness lies in renouncing the right to be happy.

What makes the modern temper modern, then, is not that we have lost our childish sense of dependence but that the normal rebellion against dependence is more pervasive today than it used to be. But this rebellion is not new, as Flannery O'Connor reminds us when she observes that “there are long periods in the lives of all of us...when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive.” If “right now the whole world seems to be going through a dark night of the soul,” it is because the normal rebellion against dependence appears to be sanctioned by our scientific control over nature — the same progress of science that has allegedly destroyed religious superstition.

Those wonderful machines that science has enabled us to construct have made it possible to imagine ourselves as masters of our fate. In an age that fancies itself as disillusioned, this is the one illusion — the illusion of mastery — that remains as tenacious as ever. But now that we are beginning to grasp the limits of our control over the natural world, the future of this illusion (to invoke Freud once again) is very much in doubt — more problematical, certainly, than the future of religion.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 11, 2006 8:53 PM
Comments

Understood.

Posted by: ghostcat at January 11, 2006 9:26 PM

It would be nice if the author were to perhaps critique someone's work that is a little more current than Freud; and who is far more representative of the postmodern criticism that I would guess the author is trying to invoke with such choice phrases as "the educated masses."
But to be fair, he is very kind in trying to reaffirm the monopoly of Judeo-Christian values over every human being on the planet.

Posted by: Grog at January 11, 2006 9:58 PM

It is amusing that so many atheists like to project an image of modern rebels far above the intellectual level of the conformist sheep that constitute religious believers, considering that they without exception ground their belief in one of the two arguments for atheism discussed & refuted by Aquinas.

Posted by: b at January 11, 2006 10:25 PM

I don't know which atheist you are referring to, but I disagree, as a matter of fact, this has been discussed recently; that the term "atheism" is used only by a specific brand of monotheists who refuse to allow conceptions of the abstract word "god" that fall outside the narrow confines of the Judeo-Christian lineage.
I don't view religious believers as sheep; everyone is entitles to their own religious perspective, regardless if it is based on the 2000 year-old myths of Middle-eastern despotic societies, or whatever; I prefer the Greek myths from the era. I, and others in that lump-group of non-Christians whom you call atheists, would rather criticize those who have enough pretense of knowing what "god" is that they feel the need to force their conceptions of faith onto others.
This article is politically motivated. It is amateurish even by Religious Studies standards. It desperately tries to maintain the imperial eye of authority that has been used to control populations since the despotic origins of monotheism.
My god is personal.

Posted by: Grog at January 12, 2006 12:09 AM

Grog, are you totally unfamiliar with Christopher Lasch?

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at January 12, 2006 12:13 AM

Grog: I assume that you're a fan of A Man In Full?

Posted by: David Cohen at January 12, 2006 7:39 AM

Grog hasn't heard of Christopher Lasch, but he sure can quote Foucault (not Foucault's pro-Islamofascist writings, of course).

Lasch, on the other hand, reviewed Foucault's History of Sexuality vol 1 for the New York Review of Books, Grog. I think he was a little more familiar than you with his work and the work of others more recent than Freud. But please go on maligning him. It must make you feel very good.

Posted by: bmn at January 12, 2006 10:06 AM

Grog:

You are not the star God steers by.

Posted by: oj at January 12, 2006 10:43 AM

bmn:

Though Lasch grew up late in life and shucked off Marxism fairly easily he had the damndest time wiggling loose from the grip of Freudianism. It's unfortunate the way even the very best Rationalist critics of the Rationalisms were limited by their own participation in error.

Posted by: oj at January 12, 2006 10:45 AM

OJ--

You could be right but Lasch's sentence "But it is just this comfortable belief that the purposes of the Almighty coincide with our purely human purposes that religious faith requires us to renounce" and the paragraphs following it sure don't sound like Freudianism to me.

Posted by: bmn at January 12, 2006 10:49 AM

But it is just this comfortable belief that the purposes of the Almighty coincide with our purely human purposes that religious faith requires us to renounce. Religion reminds us of the inescapable limits on human power and freedom. Far from endorsing comfortable superstitions, it undermines the most important superstition of all that the human race controls its own destiny. According to its critics, religion provides the security of childlike dependence on a father figure who answers all our prayers. But the naive belief that our wishes govern the universe is precisely what religion attacks. We have no special claim on the universe, and our prayers are answered only when we surrender that claim: Such is the true meaning of religious faith, as it has been understood by a long succession of prophets through the ages.

What the prophets understood and what the average believer believes are two different things. Judging by the success of "The Prayer of Jabez", the bestselling self-help (or help yourself to God's bounty) book by Bruce Wilkinson, the naive belief in a prayer-answering God is alive and well. Wilkinson teaches that God will answer any prayer, all you have to do is ask. He once prayed for God to delay a flight so he wouldn't miss it (he didn't).

This next statement displays the contradiction I find in the Jobian view of God - We have no special claim on the universe, and our prayers are answered only when we surrender that claim:
That's a sort of non-claim claim. You'll get what you want as long as you don't expect it. That's a roundabout way of expecting it. If you religious were honest about your "it's not about me" mantra, then you'd say "We have no special claim on the universe, and our prayers are notanswered".

But the "it's not about me" claim is totally overruled by the very expectation that you'll be rewarded in the afterlife. If it truly isn't about you, why would you expect such a thing?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at January 12, 2006 11:23 AM

Because God loves Man, even if he doesn't fix your toothache.

Posted by: oj at January 12, 2006 11:26 AM

That's an expectation. You expect God to love you.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at January 12, 2006 11:29 AM

No, that's Creation. God made us in His Image and He even died for our sins. Getting nosebleeds seems a minor charge against Him.

Posted by: oj at January 12, 2006 11:37 AM

OJ: have you seen the article on Lasch in the latest issue of ISI's "Modern Age"?

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at January 12, 2006 1:13 PM

bmn:

'91 was pretty late in the game. Check some of the Lasch/Foucault stuff here:

http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/12/17/specials/foucault.html

Posted by: oj at January 12, 2006 2:57 PM

Jim:

No, is it posted?

Here's a good one from First Things:

http://www.leaderu.com/ftissues/ft9408/opinion/seaton.html

Posted by: oj at January 12, 2006 2:58 PM

Unfortunately not. IIRC the article is the fruit of research for a forthcoming biography of Lasch. Seems like something to look forward to.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at January 12, 2006 4:04 PM
« SHOULDN'T HAVE QUIT THE STUPID PARTY: | Main | THE PARTY OF FEELINGS: »