Wednesday, October 29, 2008

organizing my thoughts

I'm trying to get a handle on what I'll be writing about for my Religion & Society paper, and realized some theological assumptions I hold that are making a difference in the way I'm reading texts and interpreting sociology, ethics, theology and life in general. So in order to help myself focus I decided to write them out.

I think my paper will be mainly about "Individualism vs. Individuality," with the point being that in American society we say we champion the individual, but what that really means is we champion the self--or perhaps the Id. We have a fear that there is a scarcity of individuality to go around, so I need to make sure that all my needs are met (and those of my family and friends and country that I think of as an extension of myself). If this has to happen at the expense of other individuals, so be it. This is individualism.

But individuality realizes that for my own needs to be met most fully, the needs of all other people and of the entire system of the world need to be met. There is enough to go around and we can live ethically with one another, but in order to do so we have to recognize the uniqueness and value of other people. If we do this, putting the other before the self, at the same time we create a world in which our own needs are met--both physical and metaphysical.

So: assumptions in my basic premise, as outlined above...

- The world is basically good.
- Humanity is basically good, but broken.
- Our human desires point to good things God has created, but we often express these desires out of a space of brokenness (e.g. it's good to want our needs to be met, and to work for that end, but we twist this into "my needs are more important than your needs.")
- We all have an inner knowledge of what's true and good, and we can cultivate this or ignore it (i.e. Inner Light, Light of Christ, Light Within, etc.).
- Human institutions tend to take one or more of our basic desires--or perhaps our only basic desire, that for meaning--and twist it to support the institution rather than humanity (e.g. desire for meaning and therefore quest for immortality twisted into supporting the continuation of our nation, of which we are a part and with which we identify, so that even if we die, we are immortal because the ideology with which we identify continues).
- Brokenness mainly revolves around lack of trust, and therefore fear, which are intimately connected. We fear there is not enough. We fear God isn't actually good, because bad things happen. We fear that if there is nothing good controlling the world, there is no meaning, and our lives are meaningless. Therefore we don't trust anything or anyone.
- Life is sacred, the life cycle is sacred not because of something inherent in people or animals, etc., but because of the Creator, who has chosen to be known through the created world (but is not the same as the created world).
- God is relational: we know God through relationship with God and with other people, as well as with nature.
- Freedom requires that we can't just have loving choices made for us. There probably wasn't a literal Eden, but Eden and the Fall are metaphors of freedom.
- Fear comes from freedom: we like and need boundaries, but chafe against them. We think we want freedom but we also like the security of the law.
- We need government and institutions because we need to have communities--we are social creatures who can't survive alone. Communities need rules of some sort that help us live a shared life. It would be great if we'd all live altruistically, in which case it wouldn't much matter what system we lived in, because whether communist, democratic, monarchical, theocratic or anarchic we would all look out for one another's needs. But since we don't do this on our own, we need laws and governments to enforce them. (But this, of course, gets into shady territory regarding HOW governments should enforce laws, and over whom those laws have jurisdiction.)

True ethics is always intimately personal, contextual, relational. This goes against most "rational" ethical theory, which assumes that if we make law impersonal it will be more just, but the problem is that when we create a system that is impersonal it automatically DE-personalizes people. Here's what Weber says:

"Today, however, the homo politicus, as well as the homo economicus, performs his[/her] duty best when [s/]he acts without regard to the person in question,...without hate and without love, without personal predilection and therefore without grace, but sheerly in accordance with the factual, material responsibility imposed by his[/her] calling, and not as a result of any concrete personal relationship. In short, [a] modern [hu]man discharges [one's] responsibility best when [one] acts as closely as possible in accordance with the rational regulations of the modern power system." (The Sociology of Religion, 1993, p 235)

Weber says this is more like karma than like Yahweh, who metes out vengeance on particular individuals/communities based on relationship with them. Karma, however, works within a set system where punishment and reward are carried out in perfect relation to one's actions, if not in this life then in another life, but always reflecting what one deserves.

The problem is, that isn't the way the Christian God works. God doesn't impersonally decide that based on one's actions, one receives a particular reward or punishment. God is a God of relationship and grace, who out of love does crazy, radical, over-the-top-merciful acts like die for people who aren't even paying attention, or worse--who are actively rejecting God's offer of relationship and wholeness.

Now, in my moments of vengeance (of which I hope I have relatively few), when I really wish someone was going to get "what they deserve" for some wrong they've done, I generally don't want a God like that to take vengeance on my "enemy"--I want to do it myself, or better yet have someone do it for me--because I don't trust a God like that to actually punish someone. If God is a God of crazy, radical, relational love, God's probably going to show mercy to that person, and then I won't get to see them suffer for the suffering they've caused. There are consequences, yes--but not God-caused suffering. Maybe someone will choose to suffer because of their own actions, and God will allow that because of our radical freedom, but God won't cause that.

Anyway, it seems like any legal system we set up inevitably impersonalizes laws to ensure everyone is treated equally. In theory this is a good idea: supposedly everyone who commits X crime receives Y punishment. Two problems, however, are born of this theory: 1) people do not always receive the same sentence, even in our own legal system with a jury of one's "peers," where people can hire more or less influential lawyers, and where some people have relational connections with those in the legal system such that they can literally "get away with murder"; and 2) there are always going to be exceptions to the rule--a law is never good 100% of the time. As Jesus put it, "The Sabbath was created for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath." Laws are put in place for people, but when they get in the way of loving and helping people, they should be disregarded. Like when Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath: he broke the law of the Sabbath, but he broke it in order to do something good--to restore wholeness to creation--and that is what the Sabbath is for. (Of course, I may have just disproved my own point, because that means that although human laws are never good 100% of the time, my comment makes it clear that I think that there are ultimate laws behind the human laws, and those ultimate laws ARE true 100% of the time--it's just that our laws can't quite encompass those ultimate laws.)

I think there are tons of examples of this in modern literature and media, which deal with questions of morality and law quite frequently. One I think I've used before is from Les Miserables, when Jean val Jean was thrown in jail for stealing a loaf of bread because he had no other way of getting food for his starving family. What is the ethical thing to do? Feed one's family. What if it breaks the law? Who cares? Les Mis shows that the ethical thing is more correct, and that Javier, who lived for the law, eventually sees this, and finds himself swimming in a pool of relativity he can't handle, so he commits suicide.

The problem is when law and order is set higher than human individuals, and I think this is the heart of the matter, and the heart of the Christian problem of how to interact with governments. In the Weber quote above, he basically puts the law above the individual. Upholding the law creates a society that hopefully allows the individual to live free from fear, and so the law should always be upheld. But the problem is that then an ordered society becomes more important than anything else, so that we are willing to kill to keep that order. Karl Barth (theologian in Switzerland during and after WWII) faced this problem, recognizing that the New Testament requires an ethic of nonviolence--but he ultimately decided that since God is a God of order, we have to keep that order (that God has instituted) at all costs. When that order is threatened, that supersedes the injunction against violence. He knew this was not biblical, and even though he based his whole theology on "the Word alone," he fell into the trap of making the rule of law more important than individual lives, and more important than the Word (living or written).

But we need laws in order to live together!

So that's the main problem.

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