Posts Tagged ‘Faith’

True and False Religious Freedom

May 2, 2018

https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/27/opinions/paul-ryans-firing-of-patrick-conroy-should-worry-us-all-parini/

The conservative attitude towards religion, and religious freedom, has long been convoluted.  Conservatives have always been vocal about their traditional rights and privileges, and denounce any violation of their “religious freedom.”  However, conservatives have generally been slow to protect the religious freedom of others who disagree with them.  It is natural that this should be so.  Being authoritarian, conformist and conservative are not necessarily the same things, but are definitely connected.  To be authoritarian is to be inclined to submit to “proper authority” and conversely to expect obedience when one occupies a position of authority; to be conformist is to seek to obey the social norms of those around one; and to be conservative is to resist change and to prize stability.  There have been plenty of conformists who were conforming to liberal peers, and there have been plenty of liberals who either sought to obey a charismatic leader or sought to be one.  But the essence of “liberal” is to value change, particularly change that aims to establish equality of all individuals; to be “conservative” is to resist change and to value the stability of a hierarchy.  Thus a conservative is more likely to judge other religions to be “wrong,” not merely in the sense of being mistaken but to be positively harmful.  Other religions challenge the traditional social order and moral values of one’s own group.

Historically, Evangelicals have disrupted social norms, but have done so in the name of a “return” to “tradition” or “heritage.”  Sometimes the “return” is actually something quite novel, but rarely is it recognized as such by its adherents.  For example, through Middle Ages and the Enlightenment there was no systematic culture war between Science and Religion.  Most of the educated people, and thus most of the scientists and philosophers, were themselves clergy or monks, or at least educated at religious schools.  As the Enlightenment moved towards the Modern period, there were increasing numbers of atheists like Hume and Nietzsche, but also many intellectuals who were believers (Descartes, Kant, Leibniz, Kierkegaard, etc.).  Likewise, most religious thinkers accepted the teachings of science, and sought to offer theological responses to developments in the natural and social sciences.  The intense “Culture Wars” we accept as normal only really began in the 20th Century, with the publication of The Fundamentals.  In attacking Darwinism and science as a whole as an alien ideology, Fundamentalist Protestants redefined what it was to be a Christian, without really realizing what they were doing.  While once almost every Christian recognized that the Bible had allegorical as well as historical truths and often felt the allegorical, moral meanings were more important than historical literalism, today large portions of American Protestantism argues that unless the Bible is 100% literally historically true, it can’t be trusted to have any moral or spiritual value.  This would have struck most Christians as absurd for the first 1900 years of our history.

In the case of the Prosperity Gospel, even preachers who recognized that they were changing the traditional teachings of their religious communities have simultaneously denied that they were anything other than Bible-believing conservatives.  Jim Bakker turned the Assemblies of God from an anti-materialistic Evangelical subculture resisting too much integration into the commercial or political mainstream into avid consumers and political players, fully comfortable with and even hungry for wealth and power.  The religion that taught “You cannot love God and Money” and “The love of money is the root of all evil” was transformed into a religion that not only accepts money, but expects it as the reward of faith and which measures spiritual worth by financial worth.  This is way beyond the notion of the “Protestant Work Ethic.”  Our Puritan ancestors might have thought that hard work was a virtue and that God would bless the faithful with material rewards for their labors, but we go further; we look at a billionaire and assume that he is morally and spiritually praiseworthy, since God wouldn’t give a bad person money.  This is a radical change from the Biblical witness, which has a much more nuanced and mixed view of prosperity.

But the Prosperity Gospel and other forms of conservative Evangelicalism do share one thing in common:  religious intolerance.  While they jealously guard their own religious freedom, those “liberals” challenge the social order and the rightness of their own views by threatening to bring in other perspectives.  In the face of such threats, conservatives are likely to respond either defensively or judgmentally.  Glenn Beck famously denounced “progressive” churches that advocated for “social justice,” warning his millions of television viewers and radio listeners to flee such evil places; he was quite unaware that his own Mormon religion was itself one of those “social justice” churches until the leaders pointed out that he was changing their traditional religious message to suit his 21st Century agenda.  Paul Ryan behaves defensively; a Jesuit challenged his views, threatened his moral authority, and rather than just let the priest spout his powerless words, Ryan gave him the only power true Christianity has ever known:  martyrdom.  Ryan fired a chaplain for expressing his religious views.  That is pretty much the opposite of the “religious freedom” Republicans pride(!) themselves for upholding.  But today, “religious freedom” often means nothing more than the freedom of conservatives to enforce their values and views on others and demand accommodation, while denying any sort of accommodation to others.

Paul Ryan’s devotion to the writings and teachings of Ayn Rand are well documented.  It is often forgotten that Rand hated Christianity more than she hated Democrats, likely more even than she hated Socialists.  She correctly saw that Christianity means raising up the weak and pulling down the mighty (see Luke 1:46-55), the very opposite of her teaching that the rich are smarter and more virtuous than the rest of us.  She also saw that Christianity is not about worldly social structures and power, but is “mystical,” in her words, rather than materialistic.  Many conservative politicians and religious leaders alike claim to be both Christian and followers of Rand, but they are either liars or fools, and Ayn Rand would be the first to say so. That is why she urged people not to vote for Ronald Reagan, even when he was running against a Democrat (http://www.openculture.com/2014/10/in-her-final-lecture-ayn-rand-denounces-ronald-reagan-the-moral-majority-anti-choicers-1981.html). In attacking the Capitol chaplain for praying as his religion taught him, saying he was too “political,” Ryan was in fact imposing his politics on another person’s religious freedom; and furthermore, he was attacking someone who actually had a thorough working knowledge of religion, had studied it and was mentored spiritually as well as academically.

It is worth noting that Pope Francis is the first Jesuit Pope.  The Jesuits have a long history of both intense intellectual achievement, and vigorous social activism.  In fact, during the days of European colonialism and the genocide of the American peoples, the Jesuits were frequently attacked by the rich and powerful because they opposed the enslavement and robbery of the poor.  They were even “irrevocably” dissolved more than once.  Compared to what some of them suffered, Father Conroy’s loss of a plum job is so minor as to barely register on the Martyr Meter.  But from a political perspective, it is important.  He was fired for practicing his faith.  Unlike Kim Davis, he didn’t deny anybody else the right to do what they wanted; while she in good conservative tradition asserted her “religious freedom” to deny others their freedom, Father Conroy simply prayed.  Yet she is held up by Republicans as a victim of religious persecution, while he is fired from his job.  Certainly, if “religious freedom” means anything, and if Evangelicals will demand the freedom to speak about their faith, to witness to people even when they have made it clear they don’t want to be witnessed to, then for them to not stand up to defend Conroy is sheer hypocrisy—-or else it is an indication that the phrase “religious freedom,” which sounds so glorious, means something very different in the mouth of a Republican.

Boredom, Anxiety and Envy: a Kierkegaardian Attempt to Understand The Trump Question (pt.2)

June 15, 2016

Next, anxiety: Kierkegaard wrote during the 19th Century, which was a famously optimistic period in most of Europe. It was an age of exploration and experimentation, of invention and economic growth, of capitalism and commercialism. Kierkegaard frequently criticized the philosophy and theology of his time as both shallow and overconfident; his advice, through his pseudonyms as well as in his own name, was to cultivate a humble spirituality. His words largely fell on deaf ears, and he was nearly forgotten in the years after his death. His greatest influence was in the early 20th Century and beyond, in response to some of humanity’s darkest times. As theologians and philosophers sought to understand how so many millions of their fellow citizens could gladly throw away their freedom and their professed religion to follow earthly self-proclaimed Fascist and Communist messiahs, they found Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous discussions of anxiety to be uniquely instructive.

Most of Kierkegaard’s discussion of anxiety comes through his pseudonym Vigilius Haufniensis, in the book The Concept of Anxiety. Important additional insights come through his religious discourse, “Every Good and Perfect Gift is from Above,” one of his Four Upbuilding Discourses (1843). Haufniensis describes anxiety as “the dizziness of freedom.” What does that mean? The experience of freedom is the realization that one can do something that one knows one ought not to do. Haufniensis takes the story of Adam as a true account of anxiety and sin, and points out that before rebelling against God Adam is described as “without the knowledge of good and evil.” But Adam did know that there was something he ought not to do. There was a possibility, a real possibility. And realizing that there was this real possibility of something was both attractive and repulsive, like the sudden urge to jump off a cliff. We can’t really say Adam chose to do evil, since he didn’t know what evil was; but once he had chosen what was evil, he both knew what good and evil were, and that he had chosen badly.

http://www.gocomics.com/9chickweedlane/2006/06/27

At least as far as Kierkegaard was concerned, only human have the freedom to choose in this way, what the later pseudonym Climacus called an “existential choice,” a choice of what would be the highest guiding value of one’s life. And the realization that one has that freedom is disorienting. Every human falls, Kierkegaard claims, and falls in this same way: by throwing away his or her innocence and choosing to do wrong, as Adam did, one finds that one has succumbed to this vertigo of freedom. It cannot be explained more than that, because it is a free choice and thus has no “cause” that can explain it. Without that freedom, one would not be a rational spirit; but while an animal cannot help but obey God and be what it was made to be, humans have the ability to make themselves, an ability they discover only when they choose first to deform themselves and then must strive to be remade.

In the pseudonymous Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard’s alter ego writes from a psychological perspective only; then the discussion gets too theological he breaks off with a comment that “at this point, we leave the problem to dogmatics.”[1] When he writes in his own name, he is much more explicitly religious. In “Every Good and Perfect Gift is From Above (1843)” he discusses how Adam’s sin breaks the sense of God’s presence, and the results of this. Before his disobedience, Adam “walked with God,” as Genesis puts it, in apparently easy fellowship. There was no division between God’s will and Adam’s, or between Adam and any other part of Creation. Once they made that initial decision to try to “become as gods, knowing good and evil,” Adam and Eve both realized that the world is outside their control, and thus threatening. The anxiety gave the occasion for freedom to break from God; the choice to actually do so creates a separation that then opens the door for genuine fear. Concept of Anxiety focuses on how human freedom apart from divine grace, responds to this situation. Asserting my freedom meant separating myself from God and thus also from God’s creation; now I am surrounded by threats and by mysteries. Once I knew what it was good for me to do, since it was simply to obey God; but now I am left to seek the good, and faced with the danger that I will again choose what I know is wrong. And that anxiety also leaves me fearful, and particularly fearful that I could die separated from my ultimate fulfillment. “To be or not to be?” becomes a terrifying question for one caught in anxiety.[2] Every attempt to gain a sense of security and certainty by my own efforts just leaves me with an overwhelming sense of my own inadequacy. The world is simply too big and too confusing for me. There are only two possible responses. One is faith, at which point I leave the psychological and philosophical perspective of Concept of Anxiety and turn to God, accepting that “every good and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change or shadow of variation” (James 1:17). But most of us never reach that state of faith; for most of us can only escape this overwhelming anxiety by choosing to throw away our freedom. We submerge ourselves in the spirit-numbing social conformity of the modern commercial society, which Kierkegaard calls “philistinism.” Instead of struggling to find our own life values, we let the crowd around us dictate our life choices. This was the aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought that so intrigued the existentialists and dialectical theologians, as they watched their world go mad. What would make civilized people swarm into a stadium where they could throw their arms in the air and shout “Sieg Heil!” until they were hoarse? What could make millions of people worship a Stalin or Hitler or other tyrant? Anxiety offers a key. If trying to create my own values has become an overwhelming burden, turning to a strong authority who promises to tell me what is good and evil is a relief, not an oppression. And if my anxiety about myself has metastasized to fear of the world, a strong protector becomes a shield, not a cage.

No, I am not saying that Trump is just like Hitler or Stalin. But the impulse towards social conformity and authoritarianism is certainly the same in both. It is the same force that drives the Christian Dominionist and the Muslim Jihadi. It is the desire to be part of a herd and to have a strong, visible, concrete shepherd. Polls say Trump does well among self-described Evangelicals who only occasionally attend church. That is, he does not do well among those whose faith is a daily part of their lives or a directing force; he does do well among those who are social Evangelicals, who long for a traditional world with stable values and a single voice replaces the clamor of all the hawkers in the marketplace of ideas.

[1] Kierkegaard’s reasons for using pseudonyms are too complex to deal with here; for more on this, and some pointers on sorting it all out, look at W. Glenn Kirkconnell Kierkegaard on Ethics and Religion and Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation, both published by Continuum Press

[2] For an example of a person who, though not Christian, is quite religious in Kierkegaard’s sense, look at Socrates in the Apology. He says that either death is like a long, dreamless sleep, which is actually a pretty good night, or else it is a beginning of another existence; and he is confident that if death leads to an afterlife, that it will be a just and therefore enjoyable one. Thus he accepts the death sentence from the Athenian jury without regrets. In Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous work Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Socrates is presented as the archetype of prechristian faith.

To be continued….

Notes on “The Faith/history Problem, and Kierkegaard’s “A Priori” ‘proof’”

January 19, 2016

I removed a lot of material from this blog so I could edit it together into book form for publication through Kindle—seems they have a rule about putting out for free what they are trying to sell.  So, I need to start putting out some new material.  I’m currently working on a paper examining connections between St. Augustine of Hippo and Søren Kierkegaard.  Below are the notes I took on an article I first read when I was in my first year of doctoral study.  At the time I got an A- on the paper, which sadly was written so long ago that I was still using an actual typewriter; I no longer have the one copy of that paper, so I am rereading and reanalyzing this excellent essay from Dr. Ferreira. 

 

Ferreira, M. J.. 1987. “The Faith/history Problem, and Kierkegaard’s “A Priori” ‘proof’”. Religious Studies 23 (3). Cambridge University Press: 337–45. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20019226.

 

The problem is, how can faith that a particular historical event occurred (namely, the Incarnation, life ministry and death of Christ) be decisive for faith, while at the same time insulated from the results of historical research? Ferreira compares two attempts to address this problem: Tillich’s and Kierkegaard’s. Tillich admits that the historical details of the Christ are uncertain, but claims that this is unimportant to faith because the essence of faith is that one who has been grasped by the ultimate significance of the Christ event knows that it has ultimate significance, no matter how it actually happened. However, Ferreira finds all of this too vague. Tillich is so imprecise about “how the event occurred” that it becomes unclear how one can tell the Christ event from any other event. In the dark, all cats are black; and in the murky results of historical research into the life of the Christ, any event could be the Christ-event. If all details are uncertain and this doesn’t matter, then we really have no information at all, and one event is as good as another.

Ferreira points out that three times in the Philosophical Fragments the pseudonymous author Climacus asserts that the story of the Incarnation is such that no human being could have invented it on his or her own. The only way it could occur to anyone, he says, is if the god suggested it himself. In a sense, then, his is an a priori, nonprobablistic proof for the truth of Christianity. Even if all the historical details are shown to be uncertain, and all we have is a little nota bene of historical moment that some generation has said that “the god was born among us, lived as one of us and then died,” that would have been enough to establish this faith as an alternative to recollection. And Climacus seems sincere in this claim, as he even repeats it in the Postscript. And if this argument sticks, then Climacus does have a way to claim that the Incarnation is decisive for faith, even if the details are uncertain. Whatever exactly happened, the god has put this idea into history.

At the same time, though, Climacus claims that uncertainty and risk are essential to faith. If I make the leap to believe in the truth of the Incarnation, I must believe through faith alone, despite uncertainty; but if I can know that this idea could not occur to any human heart but must have a divine origin, where is the risk? This seems to leave Climacus with a serious inconsistency. Either Christian faith is reliant on at least some historical datum, which would make it vulnerable to historical refutation, or the “proof” eliminates the uncertainty necessary for faith.

My answer: the fact that this “proof” is true can only be known by one who has accepted it in faith. As Climacus says in his “Moral,” his alternative to recollection depends on accepting several other concepts, such as Sin, the teacher as god/man and Savior, etc. and these ideas themselves cannot be known except by someone who experiences them. And if they can only be known by faith, anyone who lost that sense of faith by seeing them as certain would also loose the ability to understand these concepts truly, or to see why they could not arise in any human heart. You must first believe in order to understand.

The Age of Anxiety (pt. 2)

August 31, 2012

The Age of Anxiety (pt. 2)

 

            With the “postmodern” age, both the confidence in shared truth and in inevitable progress are shattered.  Instead of truth, there are truths, and in the new pluralism it is rude and oppressive to claim that one’s truth is better than anyone else’s.  My belief that individual freedom and self-discovery are merely Western values; the Chinese Communists can claim that individuality is an evil, a threat to social harmony and an intolerable burden for any person; and who is to say which is right?  If I want to say Cleopatra was black because she ruled in Africa and believing she was black empowers my sense of self-worth, who is some historian to point out that her ancestors were all Greek conquerors who never married into the native population, and indeed rarely married even outside the family?  If I want to believe that Washington, Jefferson and all the other Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to free the slaves, who are you to point out that they and most other Founding Fathers actually owned slaves throughout their lives?  Stop imposing your liberal elite historical facts on my truth!

And if shared truth and shared value have been tossed aside, a shared sense of progress is impossible.  How can we possibly all believe in progress, when we can’t agree on where we are going or where we should be going?  After the 9/11 attacks, people of many different religions, political affiliations, nationalities and social classes felt themselves drawn together.  To many, it seemed as if the world had been changed forever.  From now on, the defining conflict of our society, and indeed of the world itself, would be the conflict between civilization and barbarism, rational debate and violent anarchy, rationality and superstition.  And while we mourned the tragic deaths and the future deaths that were certain to follow, we were united in the sense that there was good and right and that the forces of humanity and life were now aligned together against the forces of death and chaos.  What I for one did not anticipate, however, was how deeply threatening that vision was to the people who now call themselves the Tea Party.  To the hard-core culture warriors, the “Religious Right,” this all was deeply threatening.  These were people whose entire defense against anxiety is based on an entirely different reality than that shared by many others.  Where some see nations coming together as equals to talk through problems, they see Satan attempting to enslave the world.  Where some see peace as good, leading towards a better life for all, they see war as good and inevitable, since only when the whole world is plunged into nuclear conflict will Jesus return to save the righteous and establish his reign on Earth.  Where some see the United States as perhaps the best nation, but still one nation that ought to deal with others fairly and respectfully through persuasion, they see God’s nation in a cold war with virtually the entire rest of the world (except Israel).  Where some see Americans, they see Us and Them, Real America versus Liberals.  And their entire identity is tied up in that tribalism.  The day after 9/11, the leaders of the Religious Right began a concerted effort to fight the growing sense of unity Americans felt with one another.  And they succeeded.

Is that good or bad?  In the postmodern world, there is no “good” or “bad.”  There is no truth; there are only truths, each held by its own tribe.  The modern conservatives are the perfect embodiment of postmodernism.  Once it was the Marxists who said that oppressed peoples had the right to reject bourgeoisie truths, such as adherence to science and history, in order to embrace claims that advanced their political-economic struggle.  Now, conservatives claim they are the ones who are oppressed, and thus claim the right to create their own truths.  Once, I saw myself as conservative, because I rejected the right of liberation theologians to write such things as the claim that Cleopatra was black and that Europeans are innately selfish and vicious “ice people” while Africans are naturally peaceful and generous “sun people,” (ignoring the obvious empirical realities that Cleo was a Greek whose family tree was Egyptian only in that it has as many branches as a Nile papyrus reed, while the history of war shows that Africans and Europeans and Asians are all equally human in their capacities for greed and violence, generosity and mercy).  I saw myself as conservative because I believe firmly that all Americans should learn a core curriculum of shared history and cultural values, and learn the good of even the “oppressor” dominant culture as well as of other cultures.  When liberals laughed at the idea of devoting oneself to the study of dead white males, I saw myself as keeping a flame alive, because while I freely acknowledge the many shortcomings of Euro-American culture, I also see good in it, including a capacity for self-criticism.  But now, I find that I am a liberal, without myself changing one bit so far as I can tell; because now it is the conservatives who reject scientific and historical and empirical reality for the sake of self-empowering myths.  If once I was conservative for advocating a certain core curriculum for high school and college students, now I’m a liberal for advocating college at all.  If once I was conservative for advocating critical assessment of the truth claims of liberals, now I’m a liberal for advocating critical assessment.

My point is that, in the postmodern age, there is no point.  There are only points, points on a compass, and everyone runs as fast as possible in all directions.  One anxious person invests his sense of security in his identification as a “real American and true Christian.”  Another invests her sense of identity in being a “good Muslim,” outdoing all the born Muslims in her adherence to all the external rituals of her newly acquired faith.  Another is gay, another liberal, another Latino and so on.  To varying degrees perhaps, each has his or her own unique truth claims, which he or she believes are beyond all rational criticism or justification.  And to varying degrees, all find the others to be profoundly, existentially threatening, because the mere existence of an Other with other values calls my idolization of my particular values into question.  The other must be demonized; he or she is not real, not human, not part of my country or even my world.  For the postmodern person, the Other represents a call to individuality, because the Other is a living embodiment of the reality that one’s own values are partial and perhaps arbitrary.  We could discuss those values, perhaps find a more inclusive truth or at least ways to work together productively; but when the very presence of the Other awakens anxiety, the natural response is to want to do away with the Other.  Whether that “doing away” is achieved by extermination, self-deportation, concealment, or by dehumanizing the Other as some lazy, ignorant, vice-ridden Them, it is all the same; as long as my idol is victorious, I need not think for myself or awaken my own freedom, and anxiety with it.

I call this “The Age of Anxiety” because our anxiety seems so much closer to the surface, and our evasions are so much more fragile.  Once I had to look over the mountain to see a community whose values challenged my self-security; today, I cannot walk ten feet outside my door, or turn on my television or the internet, without encountering Others whose self-certainty challenges my self-certainty.  Athens had one individual, Socrates, and found him intolerable; today, there are Others everywhere, some individuals and some who are just members of a different tribe or clique, wherever I look, their differentness challenging my trust in my private values.  How can I trust my sense of superiority and control, when all around me are others with different values and an equal sense of their own superiority?  The faithful response would be to recognize that indeed I am not superior to anyone else, and to “leap, then, into the embrace of God.”[1]  As a single individual relating to God as an individual, I would find true faith, what H.R. Niebuhr described as “radical monotheism,” and thus not so much escape anxiety but rather be sustained in it.  But most of us all the time, and all of us much of the time fail to sustain such faith and individuality.  Instead, the all-too-human response is to dig deeper into one’s own idolatrous tribalism, to take comfort in one’s own herd and in its values and choices.  In the words of Isaiah 51:10, “Which of you fears the LORD and obeys his servant’s commands?  The man who walks in dark places with no light, yet trusts in the name of the LORD and leans on his God.”[2]  It is terrifying to be in the dark; most of us are like those the prophet warns us against, those who light their own light so they can see for themselves rather than letting God lead them by the hand.  Anxiety is that darkness; it is the possible, the not-yet, the undefined.  Life must be lived forward, choosing without a clear guide, trusting God alone to guide us.  Life is only understood in retrospect.  But of course, we want to go where we can see clearly, which means ultimately we always wish to go backwards, away from anxiety, away from possibility, away from the future, towards the safety of the dead past certainties and dogmas.

Kierkegaard said that anxiety is the mark of the individual; the more anxiety, the more self.  In that sense, living in an age where it is so hard to escape from anxiety is a blessing.  The futility of our evasions and the incompleteness of our idols are always before us.  On the other hand, the depth and omnipresence of anxiety also evokes even stronger efforts at evasion, and even more hostility towards Others.  It is natural that an age where technology and politics and social mores and the very Earth itself seem to be in such rapid flux, that we should also become the most tribal, the most partisan, the most fanatical and close-minded.   Many of us cling to our old myths even to our own harm, with the desperation of a drowning man clinging to a razor blade.[3]  The inexplicable is not that some should insist on the falsehood of global warming and the truth of trickle-down economics despite all empirical and historical evidence to the contrary.  The inexplicable is that anyone should recognize these truths, recognize the challenge they present to the American myth of inevitable progress and the omnipotence of the rugged individual, and yet still remain ultimately patriotic and hopeful that a better future might still be possible, if only by the grace of God.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages:  the age of revolution and the present age; a literary review; translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1978) p. 108

[2] From the New English Bible

[3] Agatha, Christie, Witness for the Prosecution; directed by Billy Wilder, Hollywood CA, Arthur Hornblow, producer:  1957

Why No Call for Gun Control? Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety (pt. 1)

August 23, 2012

Why No Call for Gun Control?  Philosophy and Politics in the Age of Anxiety (pt. 1)

            Journalists have wondered why the massacre in Colorado has not inspired any calls for gun control, unlike previous atrocities such as Columbine.  True, there have been some pleas from die-hard activists and even from non-politicians such as Jason Alexander.[1]  Jon Stewart has pleaded with us to at least have a conversation about the need to balance gun rights and gun dangers.[2]  But politicians do not dare even discuss gun control, and Americans are more opposed to gun control than ever.  We can talk about banning costumes in movie theaters, but we can’t talk about banning guns in movie theaters.  Are we more afraid of turning our movie theaters into Castle Frank-n-Furter than we are of turning them into war zones?

A quick Internet search (Wikipedia followed by checking the sources used there) reveals some interesting facts.  First, gun violence overall has fallen significantly over the last decade.  Second, most gun deaths are suicides.[3]  When you add in the gun deaths from accidents, from lost tempers during family disputes, and from previously unarmed criminals who take the owner’s own gun and use it, it seems clear that guns are, on the whole, far more dangerous to their owners than to criminals.  And yet, despite these facts, people cling to gun ownership more tightly than ever.  Even the assault weapons ban was allowed to lapse.  Why not legalize machine guns?  At least a .50 cal requires a tripod, which would be a lot harder to smuggle into a movie theater than an M-16 without being much more dangerous to the innocent.  If the 2nd Amendment is absolute, then banning any weapons is unconstitutional; if it is permissible and moral to ban machine guns, tanks and RPGs then it is not qualitatively different to ban other military hardware.  Banning guns is banning guns; if society has the right to say that heavy machine guns are too much firepower and thus beyond constitutional protection, then it has the right to make the same judgment about any military-grade weaponry.  That is not so much a plea for gun control as it is a plea for logic.  As a society, we have in fact made judgments about what weapons our neighbors and ourselves will be allowed to own, and what we will not.  It is illogical to claim that such judgments are illegal or immoral while we continue to make them.

If logic cannot explain waning support for gun control, perhaps psychology can.  Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety is a philosophical, psychological and religious analysis of anxiety as a personal and social force.  His discourse “Every Good Gift and Perfect Gift is From Above” is a theological examination of anxiety as the fruit of sin.[4]  Together, these writings present an analysis of anxiety as a primordial driving force in human life.  Briefly, anxiety is described as “the dizziness of freedom.”  Life is full of choices that are both significant and underdetermined by the facts.  We experience anxiety because of this.  This anxiety is compounded when we begin to be anxious not only about our own capacity to choose wisely and justly, but also about the world and the uncertainty of existence.  In the face of such anxiety, the common human reaction is to seek for authorities that can take the burden of freedom from us, or to transform our anxieties into fears.  Both play into the current state of the gun control/rights debate.  Logically, the idea that “I will be safer if I have a pistol, so I can stay and fight a madman in Kevlar hurling tear gas rather than running for an exit” is a stupid idea.  But as Kierkegaard points out, the person in the grip of anxiety will latch onto anything to regain the delusion of security.  The only logical, not to mention pious reaction is to admit that we live in a dangerous world and that we cannot hope to fight off all dangers; we can only commit our souls to God and then live as we are called.  The faithful person is the one who is schooled by “the earnest thought of death,” recognizing that death is both the one certainty in life and yet absolutely unpredictable, so that the only fitting response is a humble recognition of one’s own powerlessness and a commitment to live each day for values that are truly worthy.[5]  Instead, as most of us are not truly faithful, we seek a false sense of security and then turn around to devoting our time to trivialities.

Gun sales always spike after a mass shooting.[6]  Logically, what should spike are calls for gun control.  But from the point of view of anxiety, “gun control” means “I am not the master of my fate;” no control means “I can have a gun and feel safe, relying on my own power.”

In much the same way, the call for voter I.D. laws have caught the imagination of the electorate:  I say “imagination” because all the evidence is that that is where the fraud these laws supposedly will prevent exists.  Millions of dollars are being spent to prevent voter impersonation fraud, which has never taken place in sufficient numbers to affect an election.  These laws even encourage fraud by pushing more people to use the easily-faked absentee ballots instead of showing up in person.  At a time when we cannot afford to repair bridges, pay teachers what we promised them, feed the hungry, and on and on, we are spending millions to chase phantoms.  Let me repeat that, because it bears repeating:  at a time when we cannot afford to honor contracts signed with our teachers, firefighters and police; at a time when we cannot afford to fix the bridges which we cross every day, at a time when we are capable of feeding every person on the planet and yet we claim to not even have enough money to feed, cloth, shelter and provide health care for all of our own citizens—-at this time, we are ready to spend millions of dollars to fight a crime which the best evidence available suggests occurs once per state every two or three years, on average.  It is as if we were to unplug the life support system for Grandma in order to power up the yeti-repelling force field.

But from the anxious perspective, it makes perfect sense.  Those whose sense of security is invested in a certain social order find that security undermined when they contemplate the latest census.  In a few decades, whites will be a minority in this country for the first time since we invaded and occupied it.  As Kierkegaard would point out, faith is “to be out over 70,000 fathoms and yet be joyful;” but most of us don’t have faith, and want to imagine the water is only a few feet deep.  We can reestablish that sense of security first by transforming our anxiety into fear.  Anxiety’s object is really nothing; it is the possible, and thus cannot really be controlled.  Fear is fear of something actual; we feel that if we can only defeat the object of our fear we can be safe.  The fact that the whole world is changing daily and unpredictably induces anxiety; but by focusing on “illegal aliens” and convincing ourselves that if we can just control those “illegals” we can solve everything, we quiet our anxiety.  Someone comes along and says, “Don’t be anxious about the vast range of possibilities the future presents, and your responsibility to respond to them; just be afraid of illegals, and then we’ll pass laws to protect you from illegals stealing your vote and you can rest easy.”  And we jump at the offer of phony solutions to false dangers that can distract us from our real anxiety.

To be continued….


[1] Jason Alexander, reposted on Salon (http://www.salon.com/2012/07/22/jason_alexanders_amazing_gun_rant/) Sunday, Jul 22, 2012 04:38 PM EDT

[3] “55% of all Gun Deaths are Suicide,”  July 21, 2008 (http://www.shortnews.com/start.cfm?id=71736)

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, with introduction and notes (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1990) pp. 125-39

[5] Søren Kierkegaard, “At a Graveside,” from Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993) pp. 71-102

[6] Dylan Stableford, “Gun Sales Spike in Colorado After Shooting, Just Like They Did in Arizona,” The Lookout July 24, 2012 (http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/gun-sales-aurora-colorado-shooting-spike-tuscon-161409369–finance.html )