Sunday, May 29, 2011

Exposing Entrenched Power Dynamics in American Political Narratives, Part 1: Evangelical Literalism

I have set myself to a certain task in philosophy. Through philosophy, it is more or less a hobby as I do not want to give it much time, but I think it cannot be helped. In following out the conception of philosophy that most bears fruit, it is one in which the philosopher is intimately connected to evaluate the structures of the lifeworld as they are currently lived, that is to philosophize about contemporary cultural forms. In so doing, it is my intention to expose dangerous political narratives in American culture that entrench unjust power dynamics and not just proceed phenomenologically. There are those that do this better than me. Butler has, for instance, written much on the performative aspects of gender and taken to task a critical interrogation of the concept with surprising results. I am no Butler.

In this entry, let me take to task Evangelical Christianity. Evangelical Christianity is particular form of Christianity that naively appropriates the Augustinian principle of having a personal relationship with God. Now, this is true of all Protestant forms of Christianity. As an institution, The Church is no longer man's correction to his sinful nature and by emphasizing that one can have a personal relationship towards God one is no longer required to relate to God institutionally through the Church. Therefore, not only does the Augustinian conception of a personal relationship with God emphasize a new orientation for the believer, it also de-legitimizes the historical and political authority of the Church. This forms the background of Evangelical Christianity, but in a more practical way.

With no mediated authority for the sacred to take place, the Christian message can come right into your home like any product of direct marketing. James Kennedy and the "Hour of Power" or Jerry Falwell can come streaming into your life through your television set, or literally streaming from the internet. They tape broadcasts and convince thousands of others of their powerful message. In this way, the personal relationship gets co-opted by their powerful charismatic personalities. Some ministers have even called themselves "Doctor" for marketing sakes only to have no PhD (Jerry Falwell took on the term "doctor" because he felt honorary degrees conveyed the privilege of doing so even outside the institution that awarded the degree).

More than that, these religious authorities relate Biblical themes straight into their own participation in culture from a naive literalism. To be fair, no religiously oriented person can avoid participation in culture. To be a communal being means we participate in our cultural setting. However, the point of this group is to abuse how such a personal relationship with God manifests in experience. Augustine's personal relationship with God did not mean being the naive source of direct Biblical literal reading. Augustine meant reading scripture in its original Greek and attending to this relationship with God with the serious mind of a scholar. It did not mean two hicks in a trailer being moralized by a Sunday preacher 453 miles away in Columbus, OH. It did not mean promoting megachurches and their mission like one supports the profit mission of Walmart to bring cheap goods to American consumers.

As a philosopher, I don't have much patience for religion. That much is clear. I have a general sense of the divine, but do not account for it metaphysically. Instead, I find extreme comfort in Kant's criticism against speculative metaphysics. That is surely not the way into religion. That's why we have faith as Kant wanted "to make room for faith", yet in the expression of our faith, if we miss the point of God as "wholly other", then we miss the point of God. For God has always been an expression of that which is radically transcendent and outside ourselves. In every worship of Him, we are humbled before that which is Other in God. This is a model for relating to Others, and we are called to be humble for God inasmuch as we OUGHT to humble ourselves before others (that which is different from ourselves). This means whenever a gay boy is bound to a tree and beaten to death, we are called to oppose such treatment of those that are different. We must embrace difference and not shy away from it. Whenever an LGBT person is ridiculed, mocked, beaten or killed, difference is not respected. Evangelicals have politically instituted their naivety and abandoned the ethical call of Christianity. They would rather hate sinners than see themselves as one and the same. But why?

The answer comes aground once more. Evangelicals believe in the inerrancy of Biblical scripture. Incapable of understanding revelation through metaphor and analogy, they conclude some very strange things. Down near Cincinnati, there is the Creation Museum. Filled with animatronic machines, music and amusement park rides, one can simulate the actual co-habitation of man with dinosaurs.

This is how messed up my country is. Though to be fair, the founder of the Creation Museum is Australian.

In such an experience, one doesn't need to critically evaluate the claim made upon us through religion. Religious texts, indeed, make claims of us. Like any art or cultural work, the texts demand to be thought and rethought. This is why the experience of scripture is anything but naive. It calls for a deep hermeneutic experience in much the same way that Gadamer describes. The depth of hermeneutic experience of the Bible is completely missed by those pictured above.

Let me dispose of one common and anticipated objection. If I make a universal claim about all Evangelical Christians, then the counterfactual existence of one Evangelical that shares in what I have claimed will falsify my account. Well, if that is what you think I have done, then you've missed the point completely. When I commit to being philosophical about cultural forms of life and practices, it is not a claim about the people of the cultural form. Instead, it is the danger of the idea, what the idea gives rise to. In this, I do not think it can be denied that the people in the documentary Jesus Camp fulfill what I have said, and the level of education necessary for that type of Christianity is very low, unreflective and naive in the fullest sense. As such, yes, there very well could be a reflective Evangelical Christian whose experience is devoid of my criticism. However, such a person is not in the spotlight and I would hope such a person would come to internally question their own tradition in the way that I have explained its overall weakness.

In conclusion, a naive literalism accompanied with a dearth of understanding Luther's retrieval of Augustine's personal relationship with God makes for a dangerous combination. It is not so much that these things are "wrong" (for whom am I to judge the accuracy of theological work as a phenomenologist) as much as they are dangerous in practice. This much is clear philosophically. Without acknowledging God as wholly other and how this relation is the basis for honoring difference, naive Christians will find reasons to hate that which is impure even with the irony that we are all sinners. In addition, their form of unreflective Christianity will unlikely disappear insofar as the Bible is treated with literalism that does not challenge the hermeneutic promise of the text itself, including understanding the very dimension of a personal relationship of God Augustine actually meant. Instead, Christianity will continually devolve into the similarity it already possesses with consumerism to the point that it will continually surface as a force to challenge thoughtful and reflective people (believers and non-believers alike). This is even more dangerous since the populism of Christianity and the populism of American politics integrate into a new narrative of America as a shining city on a hill. Once a polity gets a sense of its own destiny through the divine, it will tend towards more dangerous aims. More on this later...

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