Dusty Academic Bullshit

No, don’t get excited, we’re not actually starting on Kierkegaard today. I’m through the first half of Either/Or and working through the second, but it won’t be ripe for writing until, uh, later. No: what I did want to talk about is how theology affects our day to day lives. That’s partly to do with Kierkegaard and his approach to theology (he hated stuffy academic bullshit), but also partly to do with Christopher Hitchens, of all people. 

I was watching Stephen Fry argue that the Catholic chuch was no good for the world (here), and there was a link on the side to a Hitchens video (here). Normally I don’t go near rabid atheism, because it strikes me as bitter and misguided, but I saw the title ‘Hitchens delivers hammer blow to cocky audience member’ and thought I might enjoy watching some fundy get intellectually bullied. As it turns out, it was the most humane and emotionally generous version of Hitchens that I’ve ever come across. He says a few different things, most of which I appreciate, but there was one in particular that struck me. He’s got a bit where he speaks against messianic religions – basically arguing that by orienting people towards the next life, you’re encouraging what amounts to a death cult. If you’re thinking about heaven, you’re not necessarily thinking about this world – so you’re not necessarily thinking about poverty or pain or suffering or hunger or illness or science or enlightenment – because you’re more interested in the next world than this one.

At the very very least, Hitchens is objectively right in saying that Christianity has historically undervalued this real physical world we inhabit. It’s a simple matter of fact. You can blame the influence of Greek philosophy to some degree, but there’s a point where the faith should take responsibility for itself. Anyway – I was thinking about an early post I wrote on Augustine, who was big on incorporating Greek philosophy, and it occured to me that I’m actually interested in how theology functions in our lives. We’ve got a theology that emphasises heaven as our end-goal, and that’s nice, but one of the practical effects of that theology is a neglect of the physical world and ultimately the obscuring of corruption and injustice. And that’s shit. It’s not to say the theology is necessarily bad, or that we should do away with the afterlife, but it does mean that we have to be cognisant of the relationship between theory and practice.

My focus on that relationship actually underpins a number of previous posts. For example, when I said something along the lines of ‘Fuck the psalms binary‘, what I meant was ‘Fuck the us & them attitude’. I think it’s just a bloody poor show for Christians to have any sort of adversarial attitude when it comes to non-believers. Our job is not to be praying that God will destroy the offspring of the unbelievers – that’s archaic, stupid, and self-obsessed. We have better things to be doing with our time. And that’s really the crux of the issue, for me – I’m less concerned with what you believe, and more concerned with what you’re doing. I appreciate that they’re related, and yes, there is a point where what you believe becomes important, but the point is that this is not an abstract exercise. It’s not about what a bunch of random wankers believe in a vacuum with no effect on anybody else – it’s about our society, and our various cultures, and the way in which we go around relating to each other because of whatever beliefs we might hold. It’s about approaching Christianity from that subjectivity, from your own point of view and considering how it might be manifested in your day to day life.

Part of the manifestation of the faith, then, at least for me, is an active opposition of certain church structures. There’s really no way around it: the institutional church does shitty shitty things. If we consider Christianity to be the outworking of God’s will on earth, then there’s an absolute moral obligation for Christians to protest against the institutional church. When the church exploits the poor and rapes children and weaponises God to maintain political power, it’s our job to tell the church to go fuck itself. It’s at the heart of Protestantism as a whole to be adversarial against the institutional church.

This is where the more theoretical abstract side of things really comes into its own. If we were merely judging the church based on what it did, we’d really have to have given up on the whole enterprise by now. For me, I remain Christian because I believe that Jesus was/is actually God. There’s no way around that fact – if the historical Jesus was actually God (which I think he was), I’m fundamentally committed to some form of Christianity. There’s room for negotiation in terms of what that commitment looks like, but there’s a point where the faith as faith has to be upheld in spite of the terrible actions of the church. If Jesus was actually God, you can’t jettison the church just because it does terrible things. So in that sense the formal set of beliefs are important – they have staying power in the face of the practical actions of the church. You can’t subjugate the beliefs based on their practical outworking. What you can do is go through and annotate the fuck out of them, so that they’re oriented towards a practical outworking – and so that the practical effects are taken into account. You can hijack the Book of James and the ‘faith without deeds’ formulation, if you like. Faith without accountability to the community and civilisation around you is fucked up (or ‘dead’, if you really prefer). That said, poor accountability calls for better faith, not less of it.

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