donderdag 14 mei 2009

Mission Completed

When you think about it, it’s stunning how fast the Catholic Churches, at least in Holland, ran empty. It is extra amazing when you observe that this happened from the moment the churchleaders decided to give their church a more humane image. How could this happen?

This observation reminds me of a statement of a French revolutionary who in about 1790 declared that Christian civilization had completed its mission with the establisment of a regime of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

From this perspective one could say Christianity’s ultimate destiny is a humane society where reasonableness reigns and which may very well be secularized, as soon as Christian ideals have found their embodiment in reliable institutions. That could be a first explanation for the lessening attractiveness of Christianity in our developped world. It reached its destination and made itself redundant.

Apart from that another explanation is possible, and this one is to be found in the Christian orientation towards truth. The tendency to make the question of truth – metaphysical as well as factual truth – into a central one, possibly brings a kind of aridity with it which Christianity pays for at this moment.

The central position of the question of truth in Christianity is easily demonstrable by referring to the consternation that was aroused once about the true character of Jezus – God or man – or about the question whether the snake in Paradise could yes or no really speak. As far as I know, there is no other religion in which the question whether something took place in the exact way as it is described in the Holy Books, can stir up people so much.

This holds for example for the nowadays much debated question whether the world has been created in six days or not. From the newspapers I understand that Muslims have discussions about that question but treat it pliably. What is being presented in Scripture as one day may as well be a thousand years. The story of creation is six days can by Muslims easily be explained as a gradual process of millions of years. For Jews, also orthodox Jews, this question is not much of a sore subject.

But Christians are very much divided about this question. That’s not because Christians are more fundamentalistic: fanatical Muslims or Jews are equally fundamentalistic or more so. But their fundamentalism is different from that of the Christians. Their fundamentalism is not about whether something did or did not happen. They are fundamentalistic about commandments, about taking seriously what you have to do or not.

Also in this domain, of the search for truth, Christianity seems to be overtaken by its own success, in the same way as in its striving for a humane society. For that orientation, towards the rightness and fidelity of transmitted truths, in the West stimulated critical, scientific research. Also historical research, and the outcomes thereof appeared to be desastrous for that religion in which so much depends on the question whether a certain event did actually happen or not.

Islam is much less vulnerable on this point. I know that statements about the behaviour, the morals and the way of life of the Prophet may arouse sentiments. But I don’t think that Muslims would be greatly upset if it turned out that Mohammed has not really ascended to heaven but lies burried somewhere. The practise of commandments and prayers will not get less because of that.

And for the Jewish tradition it would not be much of a problem if the Exodus would turn out not to have taken place as the Bible relates. Also not if it would appear not to have taken place at all. The commandment to keep telling about it remains in place, even if there has never been an Exodus.

The two above mentioned explanations for the evaporation of Christianity are possibly linked to each other. Orientation towards truth comes close to orientation towards reason which strives for a humane society. What those two have in common is an uneasy relationship with experience. As Frank Ankersmit says in his book Sublime Historical Experience: in the West the interest in truth and reason has always had the upperhand of the interest in experience.

That’s what Christianity pays for at this moment. For attachment to a tradition originates primarily from continuing, shared experiences. And these are to be found more easily in doing things, in performing commandments, than in focusing on reason and truth. Those certainly can help a tradition move forward, but also make it become redundant.

(Scientific Postscript: form reliable sources I learned that in relation to Mohammed no problem needs to arise: he has as well ascended to heaven, as well – ten years after his return on earth – been buried in Medina.)

Also see La Trahison des Clercs and Taylor, Levinas and Emptiness

dinsdag 12 mei 2009

A real shame

How frustrated can you become by reading Levinas?

Rather much, I would say, when sometimes I hear the negative reactions to the ‘Philosopher of the Other’. Those reactions remind me of the resentment that some people inherited from their Christian upbringing. They have experienced that education as demanding, inimical to life and unrealistic, and they don’t want to have anything to do with it anymore. When the importance Levinas attibutes to our confrontation with someone else becomes a similar burden, then it is quite natural that his work will easily be pushed aside as unrealistic. And that would be a real shame.

The tendency to present Levinas in absolute terms is clearly visible. Recently for instance that happened on the occasion of the opening of a health care centre in Rotterdam which is dedicated to Levinas. One of the initiators told on that occasion that the centre takes the unconditional responsibility for the other as a point of departure.

But how realistic is it really to depart from a permanent, absolute responsibility for (every?) other? I think that such a startingpoint doesn’t help us any further. It saddles us with an impossible mission and easily becomes moralistic. This kind of Levinas interpretation (to which – it must be said – he himself contributed in his later work) makes his work irrelevant. By talking in permanent, absolute terms a simplification is made: the real puzzle is taken from sight. Namely: the absurdity that, in a world in which everything is relative, all of a sudden something may appear which doesn’t tolerate relativizing.

But of course, nobody is obliged to interpret Levinas as is being done in the above mentioned startingpoint. Another possible interpretation comes to the fore when some Levinas readers stress the existence of the third: apart from the other with whom I have a compelling encounter, there are others who may claim me equally. As I cannot do ten things at a time, the claim of the one other restricts the claim of the other other. In this way the absolute is being relativized and social acting can again become a matter of calculation at last.

But I don’t like this solution either. I think this way of reasoning takes away Levinas’ unique contribution to the moral debate: the urge which originates from the compelling other. To keep Levinas interesting one has to take seriously the urgency which he connects to the face of the other, as well as the experience that everything is relative within a rationally ordered whole.

This position leads up to an impossible but at the same time very true combination of words: relative absoluteness. It’s difficult to phrase the paradox which this combination contains. It is especially the young Levinas who knows to present this paradox in a convincing way. He manages to show that the steadily crawling time with its balances of interests once of a sudden can be broken through by the absoluteness of death or by the Other. To result consequently in a situation of a new, relativizing balance of interests which in its turn undoubtedly will be broken.

This sounds realistically. So Levinas does not have to be more burdening than reality itself.

See also Emergency Shelter and Levinas and egoism