The Protestant Theory of Religion

Let’s define the Protestant Theory of Religion (PTOR) in a broadly Augustinian way: the idea that man by nature worships (perhaps we could call this the Worship Faculty), and if he doesn’t worship God, he worships something else, with worship being (broadly, of course) defined as a fixation upon that which we love ultimately. Examples abound in the Protestant world: one can worship money, fame, power, sex, whatever. Thus, it’s not our activity as such that is wrong but the object of it, or what our desires (on the broadly Augustinian conception, man is primarily an animal of ‘desire’) and faculties are aligned to. There is always something man is worshiping, always that to which man is fixated upon. We can then lay out the PTOR as such:

‘Man is by nature a creature of desire, who worships.’

(note: this fits in with Tillich’s ‘ultimate concern’ as well)

On this theory, it is a universal condition of humanity that they are worshipping creatures, and thus religious creatures – if their religion is not that of God, it is of something else, fame, fortune, etc – but every man has a religion. This, as Nicholas Wolterstorff puts it, is part of the ‘standard Protestant apologetic’. (Art in Action, p. 85). Is it, however, an accurate description of the human condition? Can we paint every man as someone who worships something?

A first difficulty has to do with confirmation of this theory: upon close inspection, it’s a theory which can be confirmed by anything. Search deep enough, and you’ll find something you worship, even if you’re a modern Western secularist. We’re all worshippers. We all fixate upon some ultimate concern.

A second difficulty is anthropological. Wolterstorff points out that, contrary to the PTOR, many people may not have one ultimate concern but many concerns:

‘Is it not rather the case that many live their lives with a multiplicity of conerns, shifting about from time to time, with no one concern ever being ultimate? Such people care a bit for their families, a bit for their material possessions, a bit for country, a bit for personal esteem, and so forth…if some situation would arise forcing them to choose, then one or more of those conflicting concerns would, for the time being at any rate, be subordinated. But for many, no such agonizing, clarifying conflict ever arises. Their life remains a fractured multiplicty concerns.’ (Art in Action, p. 86)

In a nutshell, some people just aren’t ultimately concerned. Some people just may never have an existential crisis. Sure, you could still say that such people are ultimately concerned and just don’t know it, but this seems like a case of trying to convince someone who isn’t sick that not only are they sick, they need your medicine. That’s the peril of existential apologetics – many people simply don’t have dark nights of the soul.

A third difficulty is biblical: is it in fact the biblical teaching that all men are religious in this way? Is this a universal statement made by the biblical writers? Again, Wolterstorff disagrees:

‘The Bible speaks about the true worshippers of the true God, and describes their unity-in-variety. But it never attempts to locate some ineradicable religious tendency which, though it can be turned in different directions, can never be resisted. It never tries to pinpoint some tendency such that what ultimately differentiates the true worshipper of the true God from all other men is that the former turns that universally shared tendency in a different direction than all the others – namely, in the right direction. It never contends that all those who are not true worshippers of the true God nevertheless have a Religion. It simply regards them as falling away in a vast multiplicity of different ways.’ (Art in Action, p. 87)

Wolterstorff then gives a brief exegesis of Romans 1, which for brevity’s sake I will not reproduce here. He concludes, however, that Paul is not teaching that all men have a religious tendency which cannot be resisted but only directed.

This raises some a few questions: If Wolterstorff is right, and I think he (of course) broadly is, what are the implications? Perhaps one implication is that instead thinking of man as primarily a creature of worship (note: man still certainly is a worshiping creature, only not primarily so) perhaps man should be thought of as creature of action. This, of course, is not a novel insight – the Christian idea of vocation has been around for a good long time.

Another question that’s best perhaps phrased in the form of an answer: God is not found at the limit of human life but at the center. This is a huge theme in Bonhoeffer, especially his Ethics and Letters and Papers From Prison. Instead of attempting to identify an existential crisis or God-shaped hole, which may or may not be there or may or may not be viewed as significant, the Christian should simply act in the world. It is in the real world, in the concrete actions of the Christian in the real world, in the center of our existence, not in the deep dark existential moments, where God is. When God is found in the gaps, even deep existential gaps, He disappears when they close.

Thoughts on Beauty and Rationality

It’s a mistake to contrast ‘rational’ with aesthetic categories. For example, some people hold that the thesis of man being a rational animal means that man is just a ‘thinking thing’ or that man is simply a ‘decision making machine’, and contrast this with the thesis that man isn’t ‘rational’ but ‘imaginative’, moved by beauty rather than convinced by rationality. What such a view fails to take note of is that it is only in virtue of our rationality that we have any appetite for beauty. Desire for beauty is a rational desire, rational in the fullest sense, rationality which derives both from our participation in the source of all rationality which is also the source of all beauty and the nature of rationality itself, which includes the desire and drive to seek out ends in life and not just means. The beautiful is an end in itself, and not just a means. It is the nature of man as a rational animal to seek out ends. Hence, man, as a rational animal, seeks and delights in beauty.

Notes on the Unity of Consciousness

- The unity of consciousness (UoC) broadly refers to the fact that consciousness comes to us in and is experienced as a unified form (duh). I don’t have this conscious experience and that conscious experience – I don’t experience a series of discrete ‘bits’ but rather have one single experience of consciousness. Or, to be a bit more precise, all my experiences occur within one unified consciousness. This is a fairly old idea, with lots of arguments that go back as far the neo-platonists (for those interested in a more contemporary exploration of and argument for the unity of consciousness, see William Hasker’s ‘The Emergent Self‘). Kant called it the ‘transcendental unity of apperception, and David Bentley Hart gives a good description from a more classical point of view:

‘…in order for there to be such things as representation, or reason, or conceptual connections, or coherent experiences, or subjectivity, or even the experience of confusion, there must be s single unified presence of consciousness to itself, a single point of perspective, that is, so to speak, a vanishing point, without extension or parts, subsisting in its own simplicty.’ (‘The Experience of God’, p. 197)

- The UoC is generally thought to be related to the ‘binding problem’, which John Searle explains as follows:

‘If you think of consciousness, for example, your present conscious field, as made up of the various elements – your perception of the chair over there, your feeling of the clothing against your back, the sight of the trees and the sky outside your window, the around of the stream coming in from below – then you are confronted with a number of serious problems. Most famously, you are confronted with the problem…of how the brain can bind all of these various elements together in a single united conscious experience.’ (‘Mind, Language, and Society’, p. 80)

- It may be helpful to distinguish the UoC from the binding problem, however, in the following way: the UoC is a metaphysical ‘problem’, while the binding problem is a psychological/biological ‘problem’.

- It’s fairly common to point to medical cases concerning brain trauma, surgeries, etc, as examples of how consciousness can break down (two oustanding sources for those interested in the biological/medical aspect of consciousness are, ‘Consciousness, A Users Guide‘, by Adam Zeman and ‘Mapping the Mind‘, by Rita Carter  – surely such traumas/injuries/surgeries/what have you prove that a disruption in the brain means a disruption in consciousness. But, going along with the distinction between the UoC and the binding problem, there should be a distinction between the empirical/psychological ‘ego’ (for lack of a better term) and consciousness – in short, a distinction between the UoC and psychological unity should be made. Hart also makes roughly this point in ‘The Experience of God':

‘…it is necessary to grasp that what is at issue here is not mere psychological unity or integrity of personal identity or of private memory over time. These can be diminished, impaired, or largely destroyed by deep psychosis, brain damage, cortical surgery, drugs, amnesia, and so forth. The unity of consciousness, however, is immune to all disruption. When I say that consciousness cannot be reduced to material causes I am not denying that the regular operation of consciousness in corporeal beings are dependent upon the workings of the brain, or that the contents of consciousness can be radicaly changed or disrupted by physiological events. I am talking here only about the transcendental condition of consciousness, a simple and perhaps anonymous singularity of vantage, which makes subjective awareness and mental activity possible. It is present even when the ego’s psychological or cognitive operations have been disoriented, clouded or shattered. It is the failure to make this distinction – between, on the one hand, the unity of this transcendental perspective within the mind, and, on the other, the integrity of personal mental states…’ (p. 198-199)

- Searle spends a good deal of time defining consciousness as unified – it simply is a unified thing by definition. Hence, even in, say, split-brain patients:

‘If we think of the split-brain patients as having two centers of consciousness, then we are not thinking of a single consciousness that is broken in two, we are thinking, rather, of two separate unified conscious fields. What is unthinkable is that there should be an element of consciousness that is disunified. That is, it is unthinkable that my conscious states should come to me as a simultaneous series of discrete bits, for if all the bits were part of my conscious awareness at once, then they would all be a part of a single conscious field. If, on the other hand, we were to think, for example, of seventeen bits, each as having a separate existence, then what we are thinking of is seventeen separate consciousnesses, not one consciousness with seventeen elements.’ (‘Mind, Language and Society’, p. 82-83)

- It may be helpful to think of the UoC as related despite being distinct. Underlying the binding of my conscious experiences (experiences which take place within the field of consciousness) is the unity of consciousness itself:

Unity of consciousness ——–> binding

- Breakdowns within various perceptual modalites does not = breakdown in consciousness.

Scruton and Nussbaum on Consolation, Individuality, Emotion and Music

Transcribed from Scruton’s and Nussbaum’s brilliant ‘Beauty and Consolation’ interviews:

‘All our unhappiness and alienation come from the attempt to be an individual above everything else, whereas consolation comes when one relaxes into a sense of something greater than oneself, and that is one’s species life and also the whole of history and eternity which that represents. And you do that in conjunction with animals because they already exists in that species life.

This horse for instance is immersed completely in his species being and that’s why he’s frightened of you lot [the interviewer/camera crew]. He’s not frightened of me, he knows me from hunting. We go side by side into these great animal adventures, and we lose our individuality together, and individuality which in fact he never fully had but I always have.’

- Roger Scruton

‘We form our deepest emotions at a time when our inner life is rather dreamlike, that is when we’re such small infants that we can’t speak and we aren’t part of society yet, and I think that music has some of the power it does because it’s able to tap some of those deeper layers of the personality and bring back to us some of the intense and extremely sharp but also archaic and unfocused emotions of childhood.

So in that way it is more able than is a lot of literature to jolt us out of our sense of normalcy, our sense that we’re just going about in the world using language in the usual and habitual way. So there’s a way in which music pierces like a beam straight to the most vulnerable parts of personality.

When Mahler was conducting his own work he described this experience saying, ‘a burning pain, crystallized’. And that’s the experience I think I often have with music, that there is a kind of pain in the personality somewhere buried to deep for words, and music doesn’t just reproduce it but in some way does crystallize it, it gives it a form, but a form that’s not the form of daily conversation, and it’s precisely for that reason that it has the power that it does.’

- Martha Nussbaum

Guest Post on Understanding Jurgen Moltmann

Another guest post from my Eastern Orthodox friend, David Hemlock. Go read his incredibly intelligent blog, Katachriston
To understand Moltmann we must understand Classic Marxism as interpreted by Marxist/atheist Ernst Bloch (esp. his masterwork ‘Das Prinzip Hoffnung’ (The Principle of Hope, 1959) and more general conversations between secular Marxists/socialists and Christian intellectuals of the time regarding which Moltmann’s The Theology of Hope (1969) is a mere footnote that became very popular in the context of the Ecumenical Movement. Central to dialogue was the category of hope as a major issue of common concern, rethinking this issue in a manner facilitating achievement of common goals was a common task. “The past is prologue” of Classical Marxism found development and expression in Marxist/atheist Ernst Bloch’s masterful analysis of hope which fed directly into to Moltmann’s. Bloch recovered the root metaphors of apocalyptic literature as a manner of portraying the nature of man and political reality e.g. oppression. Key to Bloch’s use of hope is the conviction that our being in the world necessarily involves the not-yet – a form of “transcendence” even apart from considerations of otherworldly eternity (compare Moltmann’s theological elimination of this latter category correlates to his understanding of not just God and the Word of God, but the Trinity -vertically, i.e. a world-historical understanding of transcendence and Trinitarian theology). Whereas for St. Basil, “No one has ever seen the essence of God, but we believe in the essence because we experience the energy”, leftward leaning Christian intellectuals within the Ecumenical movement regarded this as if not a point of contact, at least an agreement relative to common praxis. Moltmann regarded God’s ousia as self-defined in the historical process (psychology of God an even more fruitless enterprise than psychology of the living or psychology of the dead IMO). So (1) the essence of God is knowable; (2) it is known not only in the historical process, but only in the historical process. Bloch would surely not have objected.
Moltmann’s vertical perspective of things divine included a denial of the epiphanic. On this view there can be no union or theosis in the classical sense of the earliest apostolic fathers. Moltmann was wrong to view classical Trinitarian and Christological thought as abstractions; they were over safeguarding the Church’s experience of salvation as union (as described in Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, ch 1). As church historian J. N. D. Kelly has noted there was no other view of salvation among the apostolic fathers besides this. Politics aside or not aside, to find an entirely divergent epistemology, soteriology, ontology, ecclesiology, and so on than the apostolic fathers which explicitly contradicts the heart of their faith and casts Christianity in an entirely alien key is to my mind no less dubious than something like the Scofield Reference Bible; I do not say that simply because I’m Eastern Orthodox. That is not to say everything in Moltmann is disagreeable, but his understanding of God, Trinity, Christ, the Church are clever innovations incommensurable with classic Christianity as understood by the Eastern Church.

T.F. Torrance on Personal Onto-Relations

‘Here we have a distinctive element in Scottish and Reformed theology which dates back to Duns Scotus’ development of the concept of the person as it emerged from the Trinitarian teaching of Richard of St. Victor, and was passed on through Duns Scotus’ Commentaries on the Sentences of Peter Lombard to John Major in Paris and then to John Calvin and back, not least through the Syntagma Theologiae Christianae of Amandus Polanus, to Scotland. This was a theological mode of thinking which rejected the analytical, individualist notion of the person that was put forward by Boethius and Thomas Aquinas and was later reinforced and built into western social philosophy through the positivist individualism of John Locke and Auguste Comte who thought of persons as separated individuals connected through their external relations, rather like Newtonian particles. In the Reformed theological tradition the notion of person is held to be controlled b the person-constituting and person-intensifying activity of God in the Incarnation, such that the union becomes the ground for interpersonal relations in the Church. Relations between persons have ontological force and are part of what persons are as persons – they are real, person-constituting relations. That was the theology underlying Clerk Maxwell’s concept of union with Christ and of inter-personal relations in Christ, which it was not his nature to isolate in some compartmentalized way from his understanding of real, ontological relations in the physical universe.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Transformation and Convergance in the Frame of Knowledge’, p. 230)