Posts Tagged ‘Johann Georg Hamann’

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt 3)

January 23, 2018

This is what puts Hamann in the Augustinian moral tradition, despite the great differences between them in other areas. For Hamann as for Augustine, humility is the cardinal virtue, and pride the original sin. Humans turn away from God out of pride, a prideful desire to be the center of their world rather than created beings glorifying their creator. This in turn also turns them against one another, as each individual becomes a competing center of value striving to put the others in orbit around it. But humility is also necessary for knowledge. Humans must receive truth; they cannot create it. Their pride tends to lead them astray as they see things as orbiting around themselves rather than seeing each thing as it is in its own right. Furthermore, even without the distorting effects of pride, we are limited beings and our senses are imperfect, as is our judgment. We will make mistakes. All our knowledge is therefore only an approximation. It takes humility to admit that one is not the center of the universe, that things and people have value regardless of how they affect you, and that you must be content sometimes with uncertainty and probability; but if one has the humility to do this, one can also have the knowledge that is there, offering itself. Humility is thus not only a moral virtue, but the essential epistemological virtue.

Hamann’s writings had a profound influence on Kierkegaard, as is clearly seen in his repeated references in Philosophical Fragments. Kierkegaard’s focus was very different, largely because he and Hamann had different philosophical opponents. Hamann’s two targets were skepticism, championed by Hume, and the idealism of his friend Immanuel Kant. Of the two, his preference was for Hume. His major move against skepticism was to emphasize the role of the will in belief—-again, a notion with roots in Augustine. Against Kant, and against the rationalism with which Kant claimed to be breaking, Hamann argued that human pride leads us to create our own truths that can exceed the truth given to us by God through our senses, but which have no actual basis in reality. Hamann believed that it is pride that keeps us from accepting the truth, and that pride expresses itself both when it asserts claims that are not true but are satisfying, and when it rejects truths that don’t measure up to its standards of proof. Kierkegaard’s target was Hegel and his historical idealism. Kierkegaard did not read Hume or English at all, and seems to have not been fully aware of what Hamann’s points were in his critique of Hume; but he did famously take up Hamann’s argument that knowledge of all questions of existing reality involves a movement of the will, to accept the evidence of the senses despite their inherent incompleteness. In his “Philosophical Interlude” in the Fragments, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes Climacus argues that even to accept the truth that one is seeing a star includes an act of will. The individual must choose, at some point, to stop questioning the evidence and to accept the evidence as it stands, to close the books and reckon the account as paid in full or not. Doubt will never end until the individual chooses to let it. In his attack on doubt, Kierkegaard (again, using his pseudonym Johannes Climacus) focuses first on Descartes, and then on the modern heirs of Descartes, particularly Hegel, who said that doubt will inevitably run its course and absolute knowledge will, eventually, emerge. Climacus says there is nothing inevitable about knowledge; there is always an element of freedom, even when it is not noticed. This becomes most obvious when the object of knowledge is God’s presence in Jesus Christ, a notion that combines the inherent uncertainty of all knowledge of existence with the added obstacle of defying our norms of human reason. Again, it is pride that is said to motivate this unwillingness to accept God’s self-revelation. As Climacus describes it in his discussion of offense, Reason chooses to set itself up as the judge and standard to which God must conform; a revelation that does not fit reason’s standards is judged to be inferior. By contrast, if God is the standard, then it is Reason that is being judged. Again, it is pride that holds us back from accepting the truth, and humility, specifically the humility to accept reason’s shortcomings and to let God be God, that allows us to accept the truth that gives itself.

Through this 1400 year evolution of the Augustinian tradition, while we have not said much specifically about environmentalism, we have laid a foundation for considering it as a religious and moral issue.   Humility tells us that we are not the center of the universe, either individually or collectively; God is the center, and it is God who decides what is valuable by choosing to bring it into existence. The individual’s task is to accept this. It is pride that leads us to think that people or other beings have value only insofar as we choose to value them. This pride is not only a moral vice leading to other injustices and sins, but also an epistemological vice that distorts our view of reality, and of ourselves.



Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt 2)

January 19, 2018

The biblical witness is, as far as I can see, mixed.   True, Genesis gives ““Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” as the first commandment God gives to humans; furthermore, wilderness is often depicted as a place of danger for humans, with wild carnivorous beasts. But the nonhuman world is also commonly depicted both as glorifying God and as the object of God’s care; both the Psalms and the Gospels assure us, for example, that God feeds the birds. The birds don’t exist solely or even primarily for our benefit; yet God cares for them just as God cares for humans. How can we proceed, and what can we say that might be helpful to all people as well as true to the biblical witness?

The Augustinian theological tradition is one of the oldest and most fruitful of Western Abrahamic monotheism, if only by default since it was the first real systematic theology to make much inroad in European culture. In doing so it prepared the ground for later religious developments as well as providing its own unique insights, and in later history it continued to echo even in humanistic philosophies like existentialism. As Alasdair MacIntyre discusses in his book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, the mortal vice in this tradition is pride, and the cardinal virtue is humility.[1] It was pride that led Adam to rebel against God.[2] This has moral and epistemological significance. To be in communion with God is to be in communion with truth, since God is Truth. In seeking to become “like God, knowing good and evil” for himself, Adam turned away from the Truth and sought to become the source of his own truth. Instead of seeing himself as part of the created order, Adam tried to take God’s place at the center. In doing his Adam, and with him all humanity, not only disobeyed and rebelled against cosmic justice, but also lost knowledge of God, of reality, and particularly of our place in reality as creatures of God. By contrast, the life of faith is good not only because it gives God his due, as justice is commonly defined, but also because the faithful person allows God to give truth about God first, and about the believer himself or herself, and about the rest of the world.

Jumping over 1400 years of Western thought, I come back to Hamann. Metaphysically, Augustine and Hamann could not be more different. Augustine set out to reconcile Neoplatonic philosophy with Christianity, on Christianity’s terms. Hamann set out, more or less, to reconcile Hume’s empiricism with Christianity, again on Christianity’s terms. But in important ways, they converge in their moral and epistemological interests. Augustine argued that Truth (that is, God) gives itself to the human mind directly. If one accepts this divine illumination in humility and obedience, one can have true knowledge, not only of God but of the world as well. If one, moved by pride, rebels and seeks instead to find one’s own truth, or to be one’s own truth, one will remain in ignorance of God, of the world, and of oneself. Hamann accepted Hume’s empiricism and his argument that human knowledge of existence is uncertain; but he claimed that it was pride, and a demand for an impossible level of certainty, that held Hume back from accepting the truth God offers us. Hamann said that God gives us truth, about the world and about God, through our senses. We know about the physical world because we see and hear and taste and feel; we know about God because we hear the prophets, we see God’s actions in history, or as the Psalmist says, “Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Ps 34:8).   In short, Hamann says we learn truth through experience. Hume holds back from this in what he calls “mitigated skepticism:” refusing to admit knowledge of anything, accepting only probability claims.   Hamann says that the refusal to accept a truth is as bad as accepting a falsehood; in his fear of being mistaken, Hume ends up denying himself the knowledge that finite, fallible beings like ourselves can know. Kant (Hamann’s friend) by contrast turns away from the world, and seeks knowledge in transcendental critique, essentially making the object of knowledge one’s own mind, rather than the physical world. Again, Hamann says, it is pride to demand a higher degree of certainty than is humanly possible; and this pride leads Kant to rethink Christianity in ways that conform to his philosophy rather than conforming his philosophy to God’s revelation; or as Kant put it, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone.

Hamann’s model for epistemology is the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, eternal Truth becomes physical, and God’s nature is expressed not through philosophical argumentation or direct mental noesis, but physically to be received through the senses. Hamann thinks that any philosophy that denies sensory knowledge of the world, whether it’s Hume’s skepticism or Kant’s idealism, will either abolish religion or pare it down to fit whatever gap philosophy has been kind enough to leave. But of the two, Hamann prefers Hume, because Hume’s empiricism asserts that there is a real physical world that we have access to through our senses. Hume himself said that believing in miracles is to believe something so improbable that it would take a miracle to believe it; Hamann accepts this jab as literal truth. Religious belief is a miracle; but it is also a miracle that one must choose to accept.

[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN; University of Notre Dame Press, 1988) pp. 146-63

[2] St. Augustine, City of God, Book XIV, chapter XIII

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology

January 18, 2018

This is the working draft of a paper I am preparing for a local Earth Day conference, but see no reason to wait until then to start a conversation.



Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology



Abstract:    In this paper I shall discuss the concept of humility, as discussed by Augustine of Hippo, Søren Kierkegaard and Diogenes Allen. In the Augustinian tradition, pride is the original and deadly sin, from which all others derive; humility is the cardinal virtue of not thinking more of oneself than is the truth. Through Kierkegaard and Allen, this theological virtue becomes an epistemological virtue as well, providing a basis for ways to think about the environment beyond the man/property/wilderness framework often found in fundamentalist theologies and libertarian economic ethics. Finally, I shall use the concept of humility to analyze and critique the environmental pronouncements and policies of my own religious tradition, the Presbyterian Church (USA).



The 18th century philosopher Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) once said that the fundamental mistake of modern theologies was their tendency to take over the dominant philosophies of their day, and try to talk about God based on those constraints. The problem in Hamman’s eyes was that these philosophies began from a more or less atheist starting point; building on this flawed foundation, any theological edifice was bound to be unstable. At the risk of anachronism, I would claim that much of 20th century Protestant American Fundamentalism falls into this trap. The philosophical foundation for writers such as Rousas Rushdoony and Jerry Falwell is a libertarian political philosophy rooted originally in John Locke. Locke’s philosophy, particularly as laid out in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, profoundly shaped the thinking and the direction of the American independence movement, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that he was the grandfather of the American Revolution. His thinking influences our culture still in ways most of us scarcely realize, and I am grateful for most of it. But when it comes to environmental thinking, his thought is unhelpful and, in its current incarnations, downright dangerous. I want here to briefly survey how Locke’s views on property and nature affect much American thought, including Fundamentalist theology. Next, I want to go back to the Augustinian tradition, and look at how the Augustinian concepts of pride and humility can give us a new starting point for discussing our relationship with nature. In particular, I will be discussing the book Finding Our Father, written by one of my favorite professors in seminary, Diogenes Allen. I will be writing this primarily as an exercise in or examination of Christian theology, but I hope the treatment will be interesting and helpful for others as well.

In his Second Treatise on Civil Government, John Locke lays out some very radical political theories. Having argued in the first treatise against the divine right of kings, in the second he argues that political power is in fact the expression of the will of the majority of the people. A nation, he says, is a group of people who have agreed to live together and work together to solve their disagreements peacefully and to protect each others’ life, liberty and property. They achieve this by creating a government which therefore ought to include representatives chosen by the people to make decisions on behalf of the rest, and who are subject to replacement by popular vote. In an era where the people were often treated as property of the monarch as much as the land they farmed was, the idea that the king, courts and Parliament existed to serve the people and carry out their will was quite literally revolutionary: it was born in response to the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, and it led to the American Revolution a generation later. Instead of considering individuals first as subjects ruled by others, Locke said each was essentially the ruler of himself or herself. No rational being owned another; rather, each owns his or her own body. Nature, by contrast, is not consciously rational, so natural resources such as water, fruit trees in the forest and so on are unowned, or common property. But if some person adds his or her own effort to the natural object, say by gathering the apples from the tree into a basket, then that formerly unowned resource is not a mixture of the natural and the efforts of some person’s body, and thus becomes by extension that person’s private property. Whenever a human shapes or changes nature, that human adds a little of his or her own body to it, and it becomes private property.

Locke does have some constraints on this natural acquisition. Importantly, he said that no one has a right to more of anything than he or she can use before it spoils. It would be irrational, a violation of the law of Reason which rules even in nature, for one person to gather all the food and hoard it until it spoils while others starve. But essentially, Locke treats the natural world as having worth only as it affects humans. People turn nature into property, and have an inalienable right to do so. Locke’s Second Treatise had a powerful influence on America’s Founding Fathers, and his philosophy both explicitly and covertly influenced our culture and still does. Explicitly, it shaped the Declaration of Independence, and Locke’s idea for a tripartite government is the foundation of our Constitution’s division into executive, legislative and judicial branches. Less explicitly, his views of property were very congenial to colonial and frontier farmers/plantation owners, justifying their wholesale conversion of wilderness to private farmland. Locke basically assumed that Nature was inexhaustible, an idea that was questionable on the British island but which seemed obviously true to the Englishmen and later Americans looking west towards apparently limitless horizons. And even today, this view of Nature is powerful, particularly in the business community: nature is raw material, and essentially limitless, unless pesky regulations get in the way.

Locke often used religious language in his political writing, referring to the law of Nature, Reason and the will of God more or less interchangeably. This made it easy for later American religious conservatives to take over his philosophy and incorporate it more or less unaltered into such theologies as Christian Reconstructionism. This represents a major and important misunderstanding of Locke’s thought, one that in turn delegitimizes this entire theological project. In his primary theological work, The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke argues that the true heart of Christianity is a moral monotheism. He has no real use for miracle stories, or the idea that one guy could die for the sins of others; his religion and thus his God is philosophical, ethical, and like the title says, reasonable. But at least since Rousas Rushdoony and continuing through Falwell and others, as well as countless Evangelical Protestant preachers, this idea that humans have a “divine” right to treat nature as an inexhaustible source of human wealth has been treated as an Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not hinder private property. For Locke, saying this was divine law was the same as saying it is reason’s law; thus, we can use reason to interpret it. For some conservative Christians, the “law of God” is more like the absolute eternal pronouncement of the Divine Lawgiver, so far beyond all human reason that even to hint that we might be harming the Earth is literally said to be rebellion against the LORD. Not only is Nature treated as an unlimited resource with value only as human property, but to say otherwise is, in some theological circles, literally a sin. And while this attitude is not the majority opinion of religious people, it has an outsized influence on American politics through the influence of well-financed lobbyists and media organizations supporting and supported by religious celebrities and mega-congregations.   Returning to Hamann’s observation, rather than start with a religious standpoint, derive their ecological theology from that and then dialog with American culture, a large swath of American fundamentalism adopted a humanistic attitude towards nature derived from Locke’s views on property as these were expressed through American culture and particularly American business culture; then, tacking on a fundamentalist Divine Commander to the rationalist foundation, they derived a theological approach to Nature that severely limits what religion can say to humans that they are not already happy to say to themselves. There can be no prophetic voice when the theology is merely an echo of the interests of economic and political powers.