This short post is the first in the blog series, Concepts in Religious Thought.
One of the advantage for old age, as a scholar, is that you frequently have the ‘eureka’ moment.
“And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” King James Bible. Acts 2:17
I have been recently interacting with the new organisation, Humanist Australia, of which I am lifelong member. And it has caused me to dream the dreams of the 1980s, when I was in battle with the local neo-fundamentalists and moderate evangelicals in need of an education. The great lie had been sold in those years, and still being sold – that there is a humanist conspiracy, seeking to destroy Christianity. Admittedly, there has always been a few uneducated militant hotheads on both sides. My scholarly argument, back then in the 1980s, for anyone who would listen, was that Christianity (as philosophically tenable statements of belief) is Humanism, and Humanism is Existentialism, or as Jean-Paul put it, Existentialism is a Humanism.
Today, I have been rereading Sartre’s Existentialism Is a Humanism (1947; 2007). It does not appear that much changed in today’s world than what we had seen in post-war France, 75 years ago. It is notable that that the sense of time has not much changed since the 1980s present, as far as religious thought, and secular judgements – witness the new Searchlight Pictures release, The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
The Prosperity Gospel was, and is, one of the problems in religious thought, but locally in the 1980s, it was less of a problem than another aligned concept – Pentecost/Charismatic ‘Signs and Wonders’, and thus, the lack of education and understanding in the Signs and Wonders movement. It was reading Sartre that was the ‘eureka’ movement, forty years too late. It was rereading the story of the Jesuit in the German prison camp:
…No general code of ethics can tell you what you ought to do; there are no signs in this world.”
Catholics will reply: “But there are signs!” Be that as it may, it is I who chooses what those signs mean. When I was in a German prison camp, I met a rather remarkable man, who happened to be a Jesuit. This is how he came to join the order: he had experienced several frustrating setbacks in his life. His father died while he was still a child, leaving him in poverty, but he was awarded a scholarship to a religious institution where he was constantly reminded that he had been accepted only out of charity. He was subsequently denied a number of distinctions and honors that would have pleased any child. Then, when he was about eighteen years old, he had an unfortunate love affair that broke his heart. Finally, at the age of twenty-two, what should have been a trifle was actually the last straw: he flunked out of military training school. This young man had every right to believe he was a total failure. It was a sign — but a sign of what? He could have sought refuge in bitterness or despair. Instead — and it was very clever of him — he chose to take it as a sign that he was not destined for secular success, and that his achievements would be attained only in the realms of religion, sanctity, and faith. He saw in all of this a message from God, and so he joined the order. Who can doubt that the meaning of the sign was determined by him, and by him alone? We might have concluded something quite different from this set of reversals — for example, that he might have been better off training to be a carpenter or a revolutionary. He therefore bears the full responsibility for his interpretation of the sign. This is what “abandonment” implies: it is we, ourselves, who decide who we are to be. Such abandonment entails anguish.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1947; 2007). Existentialism Is a Humanism, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn. pp. 33-4.
I have read and heard the story repeated a fair, few, occasions over the years. But it has just dawned on me as to the concept of ‘signs and wonders.’ The Jesuit acted in good faith (not ‘bad faith’) subjectively, however, the ‘Signs and Wonders’ advocators completely miss that point. In the 1980s ‘Signs and Wonders’ literature, and since, up to this day, it is as if faith is only legitimate objectively – the ‘signs and wonders’ must be declared objectively. However, the only phenomenon we can state, in these cases, are facts about the subjectivity, and that is the limit of objectivity. In such cases faith is not objective but subjective.
That is the sign of freedom, the wonder we have in our own objective hands.
Image: The Wheel of Wonder in the Sign of Freedom
Sign of Freedom. Photo 702196 © Ivan Grlic | Dreamstime.com and Wheel of Wonder. Photo 120882860 © Byelikova | Dreamstime.com
Source: Jean-Paul Sartre (1947; 2007). Existentialism Is a Humanism, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn.
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