Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Letters to a Young Theologian


If you choose to believe in [a philosophical god (the Absolute, or Ultimate, or Real), Judeo-Christian / Muslim God, nameless Other, Emptiness, etc.] it is exactly that, isn't it, a choice? Can it be anyother but that, as there will never be a logical proof or argument that will make you feel settled -- it just boils down to the fact that you either believe or you don't.

I guess I really am asking this also because i want to know what you think of jumping completely into the abyss and saying there is nothing out there. I know several people who have done that, and I don't think they have any more answers (although I know there may not be any "answers"). They are just as unsettled in that decision as maybe I am in continuing an orthodox belief in light of some things I've picked up this semester. It seems both decisions leave you floating around in vertigo.

What do you think?

I can but say what I've said countless times on this blog: the less religiously inclined I become, the more I get drawn into questions of religion and belief. Why is this? Why do people continue to invite me to riddle their Christian faith with more than nails?

All this got me to wondering, when I should've been working feverishly; it got me to thinking a very unworked-out, quasi-mystical thought. Must belief / faith always be a conscious choice? I understand that self-consciousness, which we can't escape, behooves us to identify ourselves as 'choosers' of some sort; but I sometimes wonder whether this is the end of the story when it comes to religious assent. I remember once talking to a Hebrew Bible scholar about his reading of the prophet Jeremiah as one who, despite his best efforts, could do nothing else but be a prophet of YHWH; when he tried to look at something mundane, for instance, prophecy was still spoken. His number was called in that most enigmatic of texts, and his lot in life was unavoidable.

The email above, I think suggests a very similiar unavoidability. Namely, the unavoidability of (religious) assent -- be it the assent to confessional faith or the assent to irreligious faith. To nihilism. To secularism. Etc. (Cf., S. Zizek's On Belief). I agree that 'jumping completely into the abyss and saying there is nothing out there' provides no more stable ground than believing in God or Allah or Whatever as Absolute. Why, though?

Can it be, perhaps, that the implicit assent that marks one's religious or irreligious 'faith' can itself never be thought, consciously or not, in the singular? This is one of the more interesting aspects of J. Derrida's thinking, though lamentably not explored nearly enough. He says something very similiar here: that faith in whatever is, inevitably, a saying of 'yes, I assent to that'. Notice, though, that this saying is a present participle, it is being lived; it is not a 'yes' that is said, with a referent in mind, and thus referring to something stable and fixed (the bane of someone like Derrida).

In reply to my emailer's question: no, faith, even in something seemingly absolutely negative like, say, nihilism, cannot be nearly as stable, as 'absolute', as the Nietzsche (or Derrida)-quoting third-year philosopher might like to think it is. Rather, the saying of 'yes' in faith can only be achieved in a lived repetition; or, in other words, the saying of assent: 'yes, yes', an affirmation / confirmation of 'yes'. However, once you start such a repetition, as anyone who's ever dealt with basic semiotics might remember, it is quite difficult to know where or how stop (i.e., yes, yes, yes, yes, yes -- in this light, is faith all that different from an orgasm?).