Religious but not Spiritual Part II


I’ll admit being sincerely jealous of Christians who experience the joy of God daily. Of course, I’m mostly cynical of their experiences, but a part of me is envious of that spiritual intimacy. I can only recall a handful of experiences where I’ve felt the “presence” of God. It’s really difficult for me to take religious experience seriously. Much of that has to do with the psychoanalytic lens through which I look at religion. The idea that theological beliefs and religious experiences are a byproduct of wish fulfillment is one of the most important critiques Freud ever leveled at religion in his great work Future of an Illusion. Let me re-post a quote from Clayton Crockett concerning wish fulfillment:

“As someone who has studied theology and psychoanalytic theory, I struggle with the conflation of theology with idealistic wish-fulfillment…Yes, it is good, yes, mommy and daddy love me and God loves me. Yes, the USA and democracy are good and yes, love and hope and faith are sustained and rewarded now and forever, amen. I want to affirm that too, but I also know better, which means that I know differently, and it seems faithless to disavow that knowledge, which is also an ethical form of knowledge” (Crockett, The Sublime and the Messianic: A Reply to Agata Bielek-Robson, 55).

This really resonated with me. I think this is why I’m so suspicious of process theology and Calvinism. I mean really, don’t they just fit so perfectly into our lives? If you’re a Calvinist, oh great you’re elected from the get-go. Well that’s that. People that believe in process theology conceive of God as a friend who isn’t judgmental, but playful. He loves us, and he is gentle. He lacks omnipotence and omniscience and he does not determine the future. He’s our buddy. I think that’s what scares me so much about process theology. It’s just a view of God that is too convenient and comfortable. Well that, and I don’t see the Biblical support.

The other day I was at a bar with some friends from graduate school, and a friend asked me if I believed in God. I hesitated and could only respond with a “sometimes”. I didn’t feel like going into how the God I believe in is not the God I experience. That perhaps I’m a Christian atheist who reads Christianity through an Altizerian lens. Or if I do believe in God, it’s not a creator God. Nor do I ascribe to the idea of a Heaven or Hell. I also think the Fall is a worthless doctrine considering it has no place in history. The Trinity? I have no idea about that one. Sometimes, I think it’s important, at other points I think it’s one of the greatest hindrances to Christianity. I really think I have to acknowledge that the man Jesus of Nazareth is the only reason I even bother with religion. But was he even God? I think historical research has demonstrated he didn’t claim to be the Messiah much less the incarnate Son of God. Does it all come back to the truth of the resurrection? Perhaps, the resurrection was God’s eternal “Yes!” to Jesus or maybe it was merely a myth. No one will ever know for sure. I mean man’s been on earth for over three million years long. Why did God only incarnate himself once? Why did he wait so long? Is it really possible to believe anymore? The more I think about it, the more studying science, history, and psychology make it increasingly difficult to believe in a certain conception of God.

However, I hate the idea that when one reaches this impasse the only thing that remains is a simple decision. As if it all boils down to a single choice, a leap of faith into the abyss of the unknown. I want to resist such a simplistic option. Faith cannot merely mean blind belief. I don’t believe in providence. I don’t look towards religion for meaning. I’m not even sure I would live much differently if God existed or not. Moreover, I would claim that only an atheist could be truly ethical. Otherwise you fall into the temptation that the gospel of Matthew offers us with the promise of a heavenly reward for our earthly deeds. As Simone Weil says beautifully, sometimes it’s a sin to think of God when we see our neighbor in need.

I think Crockett’s right. The knowledge I have is an ethical knowledge. This knowledge does not make my spiritual journey an easy one. However, around three years ago I made a resolution that if I was going to take religion seriously, that meant that I was not going to ignore any evidence that might challenge orthodox Christianity. This began with me studying other religions seriously especially Islam. Then I moved on to philosophy and psychoanalysis and more recently historical Biblical studies. I won’t lie, sometimes its hard to engage all of the great atheistic critiques of religion offered by Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud and not come out of the fight with many doubts and unsettling questions. The space for what I consider to be an intellectually and ethically justifiable form of religion shrinks by the day. However, I remain resolute that there is a part of religion that can resist oppression, ideology, and dishonesty. A part of religion that is redemptive good news. The good news is the apocalyptic message of the Kingdom of God that Jesus of Nazareth announced over 2000 years. Even if God is dead, the apocalyptic good news still resonates loudly in my ear.


7 Responses to “Religious but not Spiritual Part II”

  1. dave Says:

    Jeremy, this is only tangentially related, but if you haven’t already read it, I’d recommend checking out Merold Westphal’s Suspicion and Faith. While Westphal mentions in the preface that the book is written more for pastors than philosophers (and the book is often billed this way), he also says that he hopes nonbelievers or people from other traditions will find it “edifyingly disturbing.” Given that you might be a mixture of all these audiences (I think of myself in this way sometimes), I think you would enjoy the book.

  2. Jeremy Says:

    Funny thing you mention that book because I almost considered referencing it in this post. Yeah I read it about a year ago when I began seriously engaging philosophy, theology, and psychoanalysis. Anyway, I’d second that recommendation for any other readers because it’s both accessible and challenging.

  3. dave Says:

    Yeah, it’s definitely one of my favorite books. I feel the need to revisit it soon, especially because I just spent the entire semester doing work on Ricoeur, who is of course where the phrase “masters of suspicion” comes from.

  4. Jeremy Says:

    I’m curious if you’ve read Ricoeur’s book on Freud. From what I recall it’s an appropriation of Freud that tries to read psychoanalysis as a unique hermeneutic. Also, I remember over at AUFS you mentioned being somewhat familiar with Richard Kearney. Have you checked out his newest book Anatheism? I’m curious to read it out over Xmas hopefully. Other than Strangers and the God Who May Be are there any other works in which he engages theology?

  5. dave Says:

    Jeremy, I hope you’ll forgive me for not being more substantial, because it’s way past the time I needed to go to bed. I’ve been staying up way too late this week (week before finals). Maybe it’s because I’m not apeshit busy like most of my friends, so I’m procrastinating the little bit that I have left to finish before I go home.

    Anyways, I want to read Anatheism too. I’m only familiar with Kearney’s book on Ricoeur, which I think you mentioned that you started reading but could not get into (correct me if I’m wrong). If so, perhaps it’s worth revisiting, as it is one of my favorite sources on Ricoeur (the other being Charles Reagan’s multi-genre biography). As far as Kearney’s engagement with theology, I’m not sure about this, but it’s probably at least implicit in most of his work. The other books he has out besides those you mention engage narrative or story. I can’t speak for any specific books, but there are definitely theological underpinnings to be drawn out of his account of narrative (and he engages other modern theorists of narrative in the Ricoeur book; the section on narrative and memory is one of the best in the book, and is probably my favorite part of Ricoeur’s philosophy).

    I haven’t read Freud and Philosophy thoroughly, I skimmed the third section of it for the paper I wrote, but ran out of time to actually get much out of it. I relied mostly on essays by Ricoeur for the paper, which attempts to sketch out Ricoeur’s philosophical journey, In my opinion, the section on psychoanalysis is the worst one, but I have just ran out of time to do any improving on it now. Really, I regard the whole project as a bit of a failure, because to do it justice would be a much larger work.

    As I understand it, Ricoeur’s basic take on Freud and psychoanalysis is as follows. He goes through some of the criticisms that were being leveled at psychoanalysis by logicians, empirical psychologists, etc. The claim of these critics is basically that psychoanalysis cannot meet the minimum requirements of a scientific theory, and Ricoeur actually agrees with them. He argues that psychoanalysis is closer to human sciences in its methodology, and he proposes to read Freud in the same way that philosophers read Plato, Descartes, and so on (ie as a philosopher concerned with basic philosophic questions).

    A major insight that he takes from psychoanalysis is that the self is what is most unknown to itself. This is what all of the masters of suspicion show us, I think. My engagement with this part of Ricoeur’s philosophy is pretty shallow, though, so that’s about as far as I can go. I can email you the paper if you want it, but I only talk about psychoanalysis for about 3-4 pages (the paper is around 23-24 pages). Also, I haven’t done any engagement with psychoanalysis at all, really. I’ve never read a book by Freud (we were supposed to in my 19th cent. phil. class this semester, but he got replaced by Darwin, which was frustrating for me). I mean to rectify this soon, but there are always more books. Anatheism is definitely on the top of my list of things-to-read.

  6. Jeremy Says:

    Ok, thanks for the clarification about RIcoeur and Freud. So it sounds like he basically accepts the critique of psychoanalysis by Popper who argued that because psychoanalysis is not falsifiable then it could not be an empirical science. Yeah send me that paper when you get a chance. I’d be be curious to read more.

  7. Michael Says:

    I would like to applaud you for the honesty your post displays. I only wish I could be more scholarly in my response. With that said, I sense your spiritual journey is not that much different from the countless many who use the traditional religious documents of their belief systems in matters relative to trying to figure out all the big picture questions like “Is this all their is to life?”

    Faith is a very powerful thing. Faith in failure brings failure. Faith in a love and a life worth living produces loving life filled experiences. Whatever it is that motiivates and moves this life forward….IT has allowed us to sit in the driver seat and reap all of its benefits….or experiences it darkest deeds.

    What we will we do. What we wish we simply won’t

    Thanks again…..

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