God, the Cog in Our Systems

In my post on Tuesday (“Why We Need Kierkegaard”), I mentioned that Kierkegaard’s work is still important because he addresses how we currently interact with and frame our religious beliefs. Modern Christians tend to think that we need to be objectively certain about our religious beliefs, and that this is the most important aspect of the life of faith. The problem is, as I wrote in the previous post,

The more time we spend abstractly reflecting upon the historical truth of [a] claim, the easier it is for us to not live in relation to that claim, to not line up our lives with what that claim entails for our lives.

Being overly concerned with proving the veracity of the historical and logical veracity of our religious beliefs necessarily leads to an objectification of those beliefs. This “objectification” separates our existence from those beliefs, and what they might require of us.

This is not just a modern, American phenomenon. Kierkegaard was writing in 19th century Denmark, mostly in response to a group of philosopher-theologians that were heavily influenced by the philosophical work of Hegel. Hegel, in turn, was influenced by the modernist epistemological conversations preceding him — especially from Immanuel Kant, whose important work on knowledge and reason (Critique of Pure Reason) was meant to not only define the limits and nature of knowledge, but also to determine how we can best understand the relationship between human reason and the use of physical evidence to determine truth.

The line of philosophers in this conversation stretches back to the Greeks, but modern historians of philosophy often mark the beginning of the modern philosophical period with the work of René Descartes, whose work was a watershed in several ways. Descartes, like Kant, wanted to define the limits and nature of human knowledge. Through his work (especially in Discourse on the Method and Meditations), he sought to find a firm “foundation” for human knowledge, and after much internal struggle, found that the surest piece of knowledge he could have was of his own existence (hence, cogito, ergo sum, or I think, therefore I am). His goal was never really about chipping away at every piece of knowledge humans assume is certain though — rather, it was to find something firm on which he could build a system of knowledge. An important note to remember about Descartes’s project is that (according to Anthony Gottlieb, a historian of philosophy):

Descartes infers nothing from his own existence. Instead, he asks how he comes to possess this one certainty, so that he can then find others in the same way. The secret of that certainty is just that it involved a ‘clear and distinct perception of what I am asserting.’ Crucially, Descartes then introduces God… Descartes’s system of knowledge depends not on his own existence but on God’s.

The Dream of Enlightenment, 14

It’s here, I think, where Descartes makes his fatal error. God, for Descartes, becomes pragmatic. In all of his work up to this point, Descartes relates to God “objectively”: God is no more than a guarantor of human knowledge. In such a view of the world, and especially of human knowledge, how can one relate to God subjectively, then? Kierkegaard would question whether that’s possible, and I’m inclined to agree with him. The first modern philosopher that started the epistemological conversation (that we are still having!) inverted our relationship to God. The God who once required something of us, to whom we are subject, now becomes a cog (the biggest, most important cog, at least!) in our own human systems.

Capitalism, Too

John Lanchester: article at London Review of Books

In recent decades, elites seem to have moved from defending capitalism on moral grounds to defending it on the grounds of realism. They say: this is just the way the world works. This is the reality of modern markets. We have to have a competitive economy. We are competing with China, we are competing with India, we have hungry rivals and we have to be realistic about how hard we have to work, how well we can pay ourselves, how lavish we can afford our welfare states to be, and face facts about what’s going to happen to the jobs that are currently done by a local workforce but could be outsourced to a cheaper international one. These are not moral justifications. The ethical defence of capitalism is an important thing to have inadvertently conceded. The moral basis of a society, its sense of its own ethical identity, can’t just be: ‘This is the way the world is, deal with it.’

Kyle Williams: article at Comment Magazine

A lot hinges on whether capitalism has a history. To read about capitalism’s origins, to mark its inner logics, and to learn about how human beings assembled political economic structures over time—this is to be on the cusp of critique and maybe even action. But if capitalism is not an artifact of particular people in particular places and times, then it is much more like an object of nature. Its origins recede into myths about ancient markets and primitive exchange. If capitalism is an object of nature like gravity, then it is impossible to critique or change. To attempt it would be like tilting at windmills, or worse.

These are both reminiscent of what I just said yesterday about the Enlightenment. Lanchester’s article is a sweeping history/analysis of the Great Recession and its effects — basically, an economic analysis of the West from 2008-2018. Williams’s article is a review of The Moral Economists, and its critique of capitalism as the ‘natural’ manner that humans organize economies. I can’t help but wonder if Enlightenment thought (the capitulation to rational thought as the ultimate source of authority in determining truth) and thinking of capitalism as “just the way the world works” are somehow intertwined.

But if both systems have a history, as Williams says, then both are open to critique. Because this would mean that neither are flawless — that they were birthed from and owe a debt to prior systems of thought and action. And this kind of indebtedness is also a sort of nestling — there was something before, and there will be something after.

The question is: what follows?

The Enlightenment Has Its Own Narrative Too

James K.A. Smith, in clarifying the difference between “Christian dominionists” and Kuyperians, writes on Abraham Kuyper’s understanding of worldview, especially post-Enlightenment:

To say that everyone works from a ‘worldview’ is to point out that everyone’s take on the world—how we understand the good life or human flourishing or the ideals for a society—are rooted and grounded in some story we believe about ourselves. There are many, competing stories about that, and the Enlightenment narrative is one worldview among others (which usually pretends it’s just ‘the way things are’). These orientating narratives and governing myths are the source of norms for what we think is the goal and good of society. There are differing worldviews, but there is no standpoint outside of a worldview.

Two important notes here. First, the Enlightenment narrative “usually pretends it’s just ‘the way things are.’ What is the Enlightenment narrative? It’s the one that (1) tells us that humans are capable of autonomous, rational thought, and (2) evidence-based knowledge is all we need to understand reality as-it-is. It is further a narrative about authority (something I mentioned in a previous post) — that ultimately, reason and evidence trump experience and tradition when determining what is true about the world. The point being made by Smith though, is that this is more than just a claim about authority and knowledge — the Enlightenment narrative is often presented as though it is not a narrative at all; it’s just simply how the world works. Everyone else might have a narrative, or reasons for subjecting themselves to a belief system, but Enlightenment thinking? That’s just good sense, the best way to be human.

Second, Kuyper’s sense of the term ‘worldview’ (that there is “no standpoint outside of a worldview”) is a precursor to some of the original claims of postmodernism. Smith says as much in his article. This is something else that is a part of the Enlightenment narrative that its proponents will not often admit. Enlightenment thinking often assumes that, given its trust in reason and evidence, its stance is inherently a stance “outside of any particular worldview.”

Kierkegaard, through his pseudonym Johannes Climacus, was among the first of the modern philosophers (following Kant) to doubt the Enlightenment claims towards pure objectivity:

Pure thinking is — what shall I say — piously or thoughtlessly unawaare of the relation that abstraction still continually has to that from which it abstracts… pure thinking is a phantom. And if Hegelian philosophy is free from all postulates, it has attained this with one insane postulate: the beginning of pure thinking. (CUP, 312)

On this point, C. Stephen Evans expands:

Human beings think as whole persons. It is human beings who reflect, not brains or minds detached from concrete human persons. Their thinking therefore necessarily reflects the shape of tehir human interestes and habits. (Faith Beyond Reason, 98)

Kierkegaard was, perhaps, a postmodern thinker even before Kuyper (not in the sense of worldviews and globalism and religious pluralism — those would come later). Kierkegaard was interested in critiquing the ability of rationality to transcend our finiteness, and laid the groundwork for theologians like Kuyper to question the haughtiness of rationality in the post-Enlightenment era.