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Secular faith

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GSOgymrat:
I just finished reading This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom by Martin Hägglund, who is a Swedish philosopher and Professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities at Yale University. The book was very thought-provoking. One of Hägglund's primary arguments is that the sense of finitude—the sense of the ultimate fragility of everything we care about—is at the heart of what he calls secular faith. To have secular faith is to be devoted to a life that will end and to be dedicated to projects that can fail or break down. From a religious perspective, our finitude is seen as a lamentable condition that ideally should be overcome. What religion offers is something eternal, but he argues convincingly that eternal existence is incompatible with human welfare. If nothing ends, nothing matters.

A religious faith in eternity cannot add anything to the dignity and pathos of mourning; it can only subtract from the mourning by diminishing the sense of loss. This is not to say that avowedly religious people do not mourn. But insofar as they do mourn, their mourning is animated by a secular faith in the irreplaceable value of a finite life rather than by a religious faith in eternity. If you truly believed in the existence of eternity—and in the superior value of eternal life—there would be no reason to mourn the loss of a finite life. Thus, Buddhism teaches that a fully enlightened person is beyond the pain of mourning and loss, having extinguished the desire to hold on to any life that is passing away. The same logic is articulated by the founding figures of Christianity. Saint Augustine forcefully argues against mourning the loss of mortal lives and upon the death of his mother—when he cannot hold back his tears—he condemns his weeping as an act of sin. Martin Luther in his turn declares, upon the death of his daughter Magdalena in 1542, that “I rejoice in the spirit, but sorrow in the flesh,” emphasizing to the congregation after her funeral that “we Christians ought not to mourn.” ...

He goes on to make a point about Christianity that explains why the resurrection of Jesus Christ has never made sense to me on an emotional level.

What the Crucifixion reveals, then, is the emptiness of divine love. The reason God has abandoned his son is that he could never care about him in the first place. It makes no difference to God that his beloved son is tortured and put to death. Curiously enough, he is eternally just the same. Yet the emptiness and meaninglessness of divine love should not lead us to despair. Rather, it should recall us to finitude as the condition for any sense of responsibility and love. Only someone who is finite—only someone who understands what loss means—can care for the beloved. Only someone who is finite can allow the world to matter and only someone who is finite can take responsibility for anyone else. ...

An endless existence would have no horizon of death and could therefore never be the life of a person. The same problem is even more obvious in the case of a timeless eternity. “Even if we can make sense of the idea of a timeless consciousness, such a prospect clearly will not be me,” Collins writes. He continues: No action, no thought, no intentions, aspirations, or memories can be possible without time. With no time to remember anything, let alone to have new experiences, it would be impossible to have any sense of personality, any sense of “who one is.” For this reason such a prospect, although certainly a possible aim for me now, cannot be said to be a form of survival—rather, for me now it is indistinguishable from death.  Buddhism is remarkably honest about this implication of eternal life. Rather than promising that your life will continue, or that you will see your loved ones again, the goal of nirvana is to extinguish your life and your attachments. The aim is not to lead a free life, with the risk of suffering that such a life entails, but to reach the “insight” that personal agency is an illusion and to dissolve in the timelessness of nirvana.

Secular faith embraces finitude.

The most fundamental form of secular faith is the faith that life is worth living, which is intrinsic to all forms of care. In caring about our own lives and the lives of others, we necessarily believe that life is worth living. This is a matter of faith because we cannot prove that life is worth living despite all the suffering it entails. That life is worth living cannot be demonstrated through a logical deduction or rational calculation. Rather, the faith that life is worth living sustains us even when our lives seem to be unbearable or intolerable. Moreover, it is because we believe that life is worth living that our lives can appear as unbearable or intolerable in the first place. If we did not believe that life is worth living, we could not experience our lives either as fulfilling or as unbearable, since we would be indifferent to the quality of our lives and unmoved by anything that happens. ...

The idea that we can be utterly finite and still of ultimate value—an end in ourselves—is unthinkable in Christianity. Yet that is precisely the idea at the heart of liberal thought. The liberal commitment to the ultimate worth of each individual is not dependent on any assumption about the immortality of our souls or the inherent goodness of our nature. Liberalism can acknowledge our finitude, our fallibility, and our corruptibility without regarding these traits as testifying to an original sin or a fallen condition. Rather, our corruptibility and our perfectibility go together. This is why everything is at stake—for better and for worse—in how we lead our lives individually and collectively. Our lives are of ultimate worth not because we are immortal or destined to do good, but because we are capable of leading our lives, which always comes with the risk of doing harm or failing in our pursuits. These risks cannot and should not be eliminated, since they are part of what it means to lead a free life.

Hägglund argues that secular faith has three interrelated aspects, which are inseparable in the dynamic of care but can be distinguished analytically.

First, secular faith is an existential commitment. The faith that life is worth living is not caused by some vital force but is constituted by the commitment to a fragile form of life. ... Second, secular faith is a necessary uncertainty. In being committed to someone or something, I must have faith in the future and in those on whom I depend. I cannot be certain of what others will do, so I have to relate to them on the basis of faith. ... Third, the precariousness of secular faith is a motivational force. In keeping faith with a form of life—whether expressed through the commitment to a person, a project, or a principle—I have to believe that the object of faith is precarious. My commitment to the continued life of someone or something is inseparable from my sense that it cannot be taken for granted.

The argument for secular faith is only one part of this book. He goes on with a detailed critique of religion and capitalism, how they restrict our freedom and fail to sustain our democratic values. He then proposes a form of democratic socialism, one that doesn't merely focus on the redistribution of wealth.

Mike Cl:
That's a hell of a book!  Great stuff!

SGOS:

--- Quote from: GSOgymrat on January 26, 2021, 09:40:44 AM ---What the Crucifixion reveals, then, is the emptiness of divine love. The reason God has abandoned his son is that he could never care about him in the first place. It makes no difference to God that his beloved son is tortured and put to death. Curiously enough, he is eternally just the same.

--- End quote ---
Wow, this resonates.  I know this misses the point of all his other heady thoughts, but divine love is empty to me, just nada, zip, zero, and it's not just because of my atheism.  Ever since I can remember since I was maybe three years old, the crucifixion and resurrection never meant anything to me, partly because none of it made sense to me (because it actually makes no sense), and it never raised the slightest bit of emotion.  It was just a story from my childhood and was repeated over and over so often that it just became a meaningless drone in my brain.

There was a time in my late teens when I puzzled over the logic of killing your own son to save the world's population from its sins. How does that work?  It seems pointless (empty if you will).  So I asked this old Church Lady, who was almost exactly like the one on SNL years ago, and she explained it to me.  You see, before Christ was born, the ancients would make sacrificial slaughters to the gods.  It could be goats or sheep, or as directed by the Lord in the Old Testament, it could be your first born child.  Virgins were also appropriate.  She explained that God changed his mind and to rid the world of such brutality, he would make the ultimate and final sacrifice of his own flesh and blood that would save the world, and make ritual slaughter obsolete.

I remember being satisfied with that, because it made sense... for about 10 seconds, when I had one of those, "Hey wait a minute" moments and I realized her explanation didn't make any more sense than the ancient sacrifices did in the first place.  It was just a stupid act to replace the stupid acts of the ancients.  The ancients were scientifically ignorant.  Sacrifices were done because they were ill informed.  God didn't have to kill his only son.  He could have told the ancients, "Look, Guys, I don't want you to do that anymore.  It's stupid and accomplishes nothing.  What the fuck would I do with a dead goat anyway?  Do you people even have a brain in your collective heads?" 

It's like God thought the only way to stop the brutality was to play to idiocy of the ancients.  The only way that makes sense is when I later accepted that the whole god narrative wasn't God speaking to stupid people.  It was stupid people designing a god that made sense to them.  And that became the god of the Bible.

Sorry, I don't want to derail the thread.  There's plenty of reasonable thoughts to chew on in the OP.  But every once in a while, something comes along that just gets me going.

GSOgymrat:

--- Quote from: SGOS on January 26, 2021, 12:02:57 PM ---Wow, this resonates.  I know this misses the point of all his other heady thoughts, but divine love is empty to me, just nada, zip, zero, and it's not just because of my atheism.  Ever since I can remember since I was maybe three years old, the crucifixion and resurrection never meant anything to me, partly because none of it made sense to me (because it actually makes no sense), and it never raised the slightest bit emotion.  It was just a story from my childhood and was repeated over and over so often that it just became a meaningless drone in my brain.

--- End quote ---

If God was real, the death of Jesus Christ would be similar to the death of your avatar in a videogame that you designed yourself. There is nothing at stake in such a situation.

Ironically, the death of Jesus Christ only matters if he wasn't actually divine.

Rather than celebrate his death as a pathway to heaven, we should recognize that Jesus died, as every beloved has always died, with no afterlife apart from those who cared to remember him. To behold the death of Jesus in this way is to acknowledge that every life, even the life of the most beloved, ends in death. The death of the beloved is irrevocable—it is a loss that cannot be recuperated—since there is no life other than this life. From a Christian perspective, this is the most devastating scenario. “If there is no resurrection of the dead,” Paul writes in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Cor. 15:13–14). Indeed, Paul emphasizes that “if for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). If there is no life other than this life—a life that ends in death—then life is vain and futile, according to Paul. All that is left is to “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32).

Yet Paul’s conclusion is the wrong one. That life ends in death does not entail that our long-term commitments are futile, leaving us only with the physical pleasures of eating and drinking in the time that remains. On the contrary, the peril of death is an intrinsic part of why it matters what we do and why it matters that we devote ourselves to someone or something living on beyond ourselves. We have to take care of one another because we can die, we have to fight for what we believe in because it lives only through our sustained effort, and we have to be concerned with what will be passed on to coming generations because the future is not certain. This is the double movement of secular faith. You run ahead into the risk of irrevocable death—you acknowledge that everything will be lost—and yet you are resolved to make the most of the time that is given. You see that even the most beloved will die—that he actually can perish, that his life irrevocably can come apart—and yet you maintain your love for him. You see that death is utter darkness and yet you seek to maintain the light that will be extinguished.

Cassia:
Exactly when during our evolution did we graduate to be heaven worthy?

Some sort of demarcation. Unless a believer thinks all living things qualify. Nah.

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