Monday, May 29, 2006

Bonhoeffer Redux: Time to Panic


Church seeks spirituality of youth . . . and doesn't like what it finds - Britain - Times Online

THE Church of England has debunked the widely held view that young people are spiritual seekers on a journey to find transcendent truths to fill the “God-shaped hole” within them. A report published by the Church today indicates that young people are quite happy with a life without God and prefer car boot sales to church...The authors began their work believing that even if the young had little knowledge of Christianity they would still have religious or spiritual yearnings. They were shocked to find that they did not...The researchers were also shocked to discover little sense of sin or fear of death. Nor did they find any Freudian guilt as a result of private sensual desires.

Bonhoeffer said it in Letters and Papers from Prison, c. 1943 so why are we surprised? There is no God-shaped hole--the bourgeois, at home in this world, happy with his family, his work and his hobbies, doesn't need, or want, religion. The Existentialist theologians who try to convince him that he's missing something are wrong, and moreover are trying to create sickness where there's health to conjure up more business for the church. That's a paraphrase because the quote is ungoogleable.

Here's a thesis with significant empirical support, not only in the sincere avowals of secular youth--Sinead Berrigan, 19: “I don’t believe in God and I think, to a certain extent, religions are a waste of time. I don’t like being told how to live by a set of religious rules. I just want to be happy”--but in the global theological landscape. Religion flourishes where people are poor and powerless, and withers away where they have decent this-worldly prospects.

Bonhoeffer's response was "religionless Christianity": we don't need God but God needs us--to suffer with him and work for him in the world. This inspired the Christian Left activism of the '60s in which I was indoctrinated. But I don't think that my mentors, or even Bonhoeffer himself realized the extent to which it undermined Christianity. Why should we work, suffer or sacrifice, as Bonhoeffer did? We have a dilemma. If the answer is in any sense religious, what's in it for me religiously? If there isn't a god who dispenses reward and punishment, why should I bother? If I don't get to enjoy religion--the art and mysticism--why should I bother? I've had this discussion with colleagues in theology who're into "liberation theology" and hold that the whole business is about forming "base communities" for Latin American peasants. Well that's very nice but I keep asking them if the kickback isn't Bach (I'm now listening to Bist Du Bei Mir) and high liturgy why should I bother? If the Church doesn't provide any reward, if you liberation theologians take away all the goodies of religion and then demand all the shit work, why should I comply?

On the other horn, if the impetus is secular--some impulse to promote the good for people, work for social justice, etc.--why should I bother with religion? Yes, Bonhoeffer, a moral hero, had a religious story to tell but lots of other moral heros who resisted the Nazis, hid Jews in their attics and took on risk to do the right thing out of common decency, didn't have religious stories to tell. So what is the point of introducing the religious story into this picture? There's the dilemma if you start with the Christian Left assumption that the whole business is geared up to promoting political action in the interests of social justice.

It was only much later in retrospect that I realized how fundamentally conservative these '60s "radical" clergy were. They were dealing with people who bought the idea that they should be nice for the Kingdom of God's sake but assumed that being nice consisted in contributing to charities, operating soup kitchens and sending condolence cards to the bereaved. The aim of these priests was to push the idea that being nice consisted also in marching in demonstrations, working politically to promote a more just society and boycotting non-union grapes. Well that's right, but it doesn't address the fundamental question of people like me who wonder why we should bother being nice in any way in the first place--or what doing the right thing, whatever it is, has to do with religion.

In their advice to the Church, the report’s authors say that the first thing to do is “avoid panic”

But why? Bonhoeffer was right: there is no God-shaped hole in people's lives. And no matter how much clergy nag and whine they are not going to convince anyone that there really is--that their this-worldly happiness is an illusion or that lives that are good by secular standards are really desperate and empty. The message of the Christian Left has no purchase on anyone who isn't already religious: dispensing with the metaphysics may be a relief for dutiful Christians who've had it beaten into them that in addition to all the obligations of niceness they have an even more stringent obligation to believe metaphysical claims that they find implausible, uninteresting or simply incomprehensible but it's not going to do anything for secular people who never felt that sense of doxastic obligation in the first place or persuade them to buy into the ethics game. There are too few aesthetes and history buffs like me to support the Church and most people who have the yen for romance, aesthetic experience and metaphysical thrills get their jollies elsewhere--in popular music, in science-fiction, fantasy and ghost stories, in computer games, and in New Age products.

Even if the Church, using all that data from surveys and focus groups could reconstruct itself to satisfy a wider range of consumer tastes--and it's very difficult to see what that reconstruction would look like--consumers wouldn't believe it: most wouldn't even notice. After a generation or two of secularism, the Church is so remote that it's off the radar screen. The secular world provides all the goods and services reasonably comfortable people in affluent countries want and there's no point in looking any further.

Time to panic.

11 comments:

Scott said...

What stood out for me about your post was the reference to "people like me who wonder why we should bother being nice in any way in the first place."

I've always felt that the reason to be nice—though I hate the word nice and would prefer to use the word "good"—isn't because of the way it helps the people we're being good to. The reason we should do it is because of the improvement that occurs in us.

It may be the selfish answer, but I've always felt that the reason to do good was so that you could stand to look at yourself in the mirror. So that when it was three o'clock in the morning in the dark night of the sould, you could get back to sleep.

H. E. said...

That's a good naturalistic answer however it assumes a sunny view of human nature that may be innacurate. I've never had one of these 3 am awakenings and I doubt that the kids interviewed in the article, or most people, do.

Different people want different things and want them to different degrees. Lots of people here in California desperately want to be "healthy"--not just non-sick or energetic enough to do the things that they want to do. They want to be the vortex of a "healthy lifestyle" that includes regular exercise, healthy whole foods, etc. I don't have that desire. Even more people want to be clean. I'm a satisficer when it comes to clean--I just want to be clean enough not to be a complete smelly freak.

I am interested in self-cultivation (my childhood ambition was to "make my life a work of art") but I want different things. I want to play the piano well, I want to become fluent in a foreign language, and, before I die, to learn calculus. I want all these things very much and I want to do them well. But when it comes to being good I'm strictly a satisficer: a C+ moral rating is good enough for me. And, more to the point, I'd bet that quite a few people don't even care about passing.

This isn't to say they're wicked: most probably behave reasonably well in most circumstances out of sympathy and habit, but that's just an empirical fact, and doesn't provide any reason to be "good" in circumstances where their sympathies aren't engaged or where there's no conventional routine they play out by habit.

H. E. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Scott said...

Regarding the statement, "I've never had one of these 3 am awakenings and I doubt that the kids interviewed in the article, or most people, do."

I find that extremely difficult to believe. Perhaps I was being too specific with my metaphor about 3:00 a.m. -- how about metaphysical concerns at other times of day?

The reason I find it hard to believe is that I've yet to meet anyone who hasn't experienced doubt about some aspect of his or her own goodness. As in -- Did I treat my parents good enough in their waning years? Did I screw up my kids? Am I wasting my life? Could I have done better in such and such a circumstance? I wish I hadn't done A or B to X or Y ...

And even those who don't have those nagging feelings of guilt usually confess concern over the lack of those feelings. As in, what kind of person am I that doing such and such or not doing such and such doesn't bother me?

This isn't about keeping the house clean. This is about keeping the conscience clean.

If the young haven't felt this yet, well, they get a pass. I think those unavoidable quandries come with age and perspective.

To say that you've "never had one of these 3 am awakenings" is to say that you've never had any doubts about any commission or ommission in your life. Is that what you're intending to say? If it is, then you're the first person I've ever known to have escaped that.

Perhaps I'm missing your point because I'm examining just one component of it outside of the context of the religious issues inherent in your original post. Religion and spirituality are not necessary in order for one to have the self-doubts of which I'm speaking.

H. E. said...

You're not missing the point because the question about the basis of ethics, the "why should I be moral" question (as I understand it) doesn't have anything to do with religion or "spirituality."

The point is that your answer puts more weight on an empirical claim than it can bear. It's not only conceivable but likely that some people never experience the kind of regret and guilt you're talking about and very likely that a great many people don't experience very much or have moral blindspots and don't feel the any regret or guilt about behavior we should want to say is wrong--or guilt about not feeling guilt about it.

Take Lay and Skilling. According to what I've read they simply didn't get that what they did--which resulted in thousands of employees losing their entire retirement savings--was wrong. They simply thought that they were being terribly clever and likely still do: I suspect they believe that the legal system that zapped them was stupid, punishing them because of the silly moralism of lesser beings to brilliant operators like them. And I doubt that they'll ever regret what they did.

This isn't a rare view--judging from business students I teach. Lots of Americans make a distinction between business, where anything goes and the smarter and more aggressive you are the better, and private life where morality kicks in. It comes, perhaps, from Victorian notions about male and female spheres: the home, where sentiment, religion and morality reside and the world of business, which operates on pure Darwinian principles.

So what do you say about Lay, Skilling, et. al.? There are 2 possible responses you can make I think: (1) They "really" do feel guilt, "really" doing like the people they've become, or will at some time in their lives get hit by tons of guilt or (2) for them, these business practices are morally ok. It's hard to defend (1) without dogmatically claiming, contrary to all empirical evidence, that they "really" feel guilty "at some level" or that they will at some point feel guilt or regret. So I think you're stuck with (2)--which is a coherent position but, I suspect, contrary to most people's moral intuitions.

Moreover when you take the more global case, the sociopath who's constitutionally incapable of feeling guilt, who goes his merry way screwing people over and just doesn't get it, this view becomes very counterintuitive indeed because it entails that his behavior is perfectly ok. In fact, beyond this, I think the view you suggest entails that we can avoid moral obligation by expunging the guilt and regret response. Suppose in the future when we know everything there is to know about the brain and how to manipulate, I can have all my conscience neurons extracted. The operation guarantees that I'll never have feelings of guilt or regret, never have the impulse to help people out or feel good when I inadvertently do, etc. Will I, after the operation, have any reason, to do what most of us would consider the right thing any any circumstance? Would you have to refrain from passing judgment on me if I behaved like Lay and Skilling? If you worry about my intention in getting the operation in the first place, let's suppose that it wasn't my doing: in the future everyone has the operation as a child, rather like the way in which everyone has their wisdom teeth pulled, to prevent them from being bothered by these troublesome feelings of altruism and conscience.

Sanpete said...

I think Scott makes a good point about the young perhaps not yet being in tune with some of the concerns that form the supposed "God-shaped hole." In addition to moral concern, it might take a while for the glitz and noise and "get everything you want for money" side of life to show up as lacking. It will also be later that concerns about death come to the fore. Not everyone will ever feel a need for God, but many more will later in life than do when they're young. What has changed in England is that the young are no longer getting religious training (which they used to despite their natural lack of interest) or taking it seriously, and this may well affect how they think and feel about religion later.

Religion is useful in regard to reasons to be good partly because it takes obligation in a more metaphysical way, one that goes beyond self-interest, partly because it enhances the self-interested reasons, and partly because it gives social and other encouragements that are somewhat harder to reproduce outside religion. Secular self-interest will probably never be a fully satisfactory basis for being good for a group of all kinds of people, so having religion in the mix is probably a good thing in that respect. It adds to the reasons. Asking young people about their self-regarding feelings won't bring out very well whatever need they might feel for others to be good, one thing religion is desired for even if one doesn't believe in it.

Unless I overlooked it, HE, you didn't actually say whether you really do feel nagging moral guilt of the kind Scott was talking about. I agree with what I take to be his point about that, though what you say about there being exceptions is also surely true. I think total exceptions are relatively rare. I doubt you're one. Religion offers one way of dealing with such feelings, though hardly the only one. They do contribute to that God-shaped hole to some extent.

The God-shaped hole is one shaped in part by circumstances, so one could argue it's caused by them as much as it is inherent in people in general. But the circumstances are common enough, even in the rich West. That people don't believe doesn't entail they feel no need or desire to. It's getting harder to fill that hole with God.

Boofykatz said...

HE, a very thought provoking and self questioning post; back to your usual high standards after that Sopranos cack.
Like you I would settle for a C+ moral rating, or even a C if I must, but not a C-; because if C is neutral C- is bad; and I don't want, by my own moral compass, to be in the 'bad' direction. Nor, I suspect, does anyone else. Evil people are not evil because they want to be bad, but because they do not know that they are sailing in the wrong direction.

Jonathan Burns said...

I'll gladly teach you calculus, at least. I've worked my way into some
of the arcana - up into the late 19th Century, really - and I can testify
that the longing for a lively, palpable comprehension of these things
need not be frustrated.

It would be interesting to see how convenient it is to convey the stuff
using mostly text and prose, with some numbers and a little algebra.
The rewards would be mutual.

As to the rest, it seems like wrestling with the obvious. Are moral callings
intrinsic to human nature? I basically gesture in the direction of the
Maslow hierarchy, and suggest that if you've ever struggled for these
things, then you'll appreciate the morality of helping others struggle
for them too.

But there's a bit more than that. Our power is that each one of us builds
a microcosm of the universe in our head, and it's a hell of a power, it's
key. By the style in which we build it - and where we find ourselves on
the Maslow hierarchy is a powerful shaper of the style - we put personal
and social forces into effect. I read about what people have thought and
done, and it fuels an optimism brighter than what I can fuel from my own
prospects. I need those others. Thus, humanism.

Worrying that I'd missed the point of this discussion, I've just read it
for the third time. Okay, let's address it.

I never thought morality was in the god-shaped hole. As my own
conceptions have shaped up, I've come to see it's in the universe-
shaped subjective microcosm. It is pragmatic: you confirm it from the
outside by seeing people being better off, and you confirm it from
the inside because it doesn't make you flinch - i.e. doesn't offend
your imaginative empathy.

You can cultivate it, or not. There's no punishment. But I can't buy
your thought experiment: you can't have it extracted, without slicing
away the whole mutualistic layer of the hierarchy. If the pronoun,
"each other", is meaningless to a person, the person is reduced
to something like autism. The rest of us can choose to ignore each
other, but ... why? And now the boot's on the other foot.

Serious about the calculus. If interested, I'm on saski at webprophets
dot net dot au.

Anonymous said...

Um, why is anybody surprised that high-school kids aren't interested in God? Developmental stages, perhaps? Aren't their little brains flooded with hormones at that point, drowning out most other input?

Sex, booze, cars. Right?

(Why are people going gaga over this? It says absolutely nothing. Sheesh.)

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Anonymous said...

Rather late to the party, but just stumbled across it. Haven't had a chance to be pedantic in a while so here's what I believe to be your ungoogle-able Bonhoeffer quote. It's from a letter to Eberhard Bethge dated 30 June 1944. At least I think this is it.

Since one can't use blockquote tags,

QUOTES ON

I had been saying that God is being increasingly pushed out of a world that has come of age, out of the spheres of our knowledge of life, and that since Kant he has been relegated to a world beyond the realm of experience. Theology has on the one hand resisted this development with apologetics, and has taken up arms - in vain - against Darwinism, etc. On the other hand, it has accomodated itself to the development by restricting God to the so-called ultimate questions as a _deus ex machina_; that means that he becomes the answer to life's problems, and the solution of its needs and conflicts. So if anyone has no such difficulties, or if he refuses to go into these things, to allow others to pity him, then either he cannot be open to God; or else he must be show that he is, in fact, deeply involved in such problems, needs and conflicts, without admitting or knowing it. If that can be done - and existentialist philosophy and psychotherapy have worked out some quite ingenious methods in that direction - then this man can now bge claimed for God, and methodism can celebrate its triumph. But if he cannot be brought to see and admit that his happiness is really an evil, his health sickness, and his vigour despair, the theologian is at his wits' end.

QUOTES OFF

Cheers.