Every Vote Counts

Every vote counts. Decisions are made by those who show up. Refusing to vote is not a protest, it’s a surrender. Don’t boo, vote.

When our circle of reality is threatened, common sense aphorisms will be invoked in its defense. Pay attention to these today, of all days. An election is always threatening to the circle of reality because it's a liminal moment, a transition from one narrative arc to another. What we know to be true is called into question behind the veil of the voting booth, so we work extra hard to reaffirm our basic assumptions about the way the world works.

However, an election is also the highest liturgical moment in the circle of reality. Reality requires a “should-be” condition in relation to the present “is.” Sound like anything going on right now? Reality, as we experience it, is part of a meaning-making story told by those who depend on it for power. Those who cannot tell this story are the most vulnerable in our society. They also tend to be our scapegoats. That is, the vulnerable among us, who cannot tell our story, are blamed for impeding the “should-be” from being actualized in the present.

Questioning the value of our political apparatus is met variously with criticism of patriotism or privilege depending on their source on the right or the left. Each "side" strives to meet every threat and re-establish the circle of meaning that maintains reality. This is especially ironic with an eye on the left, because demanding the liturgy of reality be carried out according to plan ensures the vulnerable among us continue to function as a scapegoat—they are structurally necessary. Liberal social justice ultimately cannot address the condition of the vulnerable because social problems are necessary to the continued existence of our circle of reality.

I end up taking an existential view. Can society be a bit more humane for my friends living on the street? Can we show a little more mercy to those who need it? Are the policies we enact in this circle of reality hospitable to everyone? And that's how I vote. But I'm not confused about the limits of human imagination.

Christ & the End of Meaning, Paul Hessert: Chapter Two

This post is a continuation of a previous post on Christ and the End of Meaning by Paul Hessert.

In Chapter one Hessert laid out the basic idea of his book: much of Christianity agrees with the culture's primary task, the search for and maintenance of meaning and power. He also describes the basic structure within which this search for meaning and power functions.

Chapter two assumes this cultural structure and asks how faith exists in relation to it. It is helpful to remember Hessert's definition of faith is not the same as what most of us might think of when we hear or read the word faith. At this point, Hessert hasn't introduced us to this definition directly. Before we get to that and as an introduction to my first post in this series I wrote,

If faith is a deficient way of knowing, a kind of believing that surrenders reason to make-believe, then I am afraid I cannot be a Christian. If, however, faith defines a way of being, a stance toward reality that sees it clearly for what it is, then it is possible that I might strive to be faithful—a "faither" has Paul Hessert puts it. All the better if that faith sees the reality of our human situation more clearly than other ways of being and knowing.

Hessert argues that the unique meaning of "faith" has been conflated with the ambiguous meaning of "to believe" in its translation from New Testament Greek to English.

Signs and Wisdom

Hessert begins chapter two with a passage from the Apostle Paul that, Hessert argues, "distinguishes the Christian Gospel from from two characteristic religious outlooks of [Paul's] age." The quote comes from 1 Corinthians 1:22-35. Hessert explains that coming to terms with this passage is the most important purpose of his book. He argues that the passage "brings into focus the break with the cultural structure" that is a part of what it is to be a follower of Christ (18).

In the passage Paul distinguishes the proclamation of the crucified Christ from two religious outlooks, one "of the Jews" and the other "of the Greeks." To modern ears this sounds discriminatory or even offensive. To those concerned with supersessionism and antisemitism it may be particularly concerning. However, Paul is not interested in setting cultural groups against each other, nor with replacing one group with another. Instead, as Hessert will argue, he aims to challenge the cultural structure through which these two religious outlooks—outlooks that still function today—understand reality.

For the sake of clarity and in an effort to respect the Apostle Paul and Paul Hessert, while also avoiding the possible supersessionist and/or racist connotations of "Jews/Greeks", I will replace "of the Jews" with Outlook X(Jews) and "of the Greeks" with Outlook Y(Greek). Here I attempting to maintain the author's meaning while also retaining his words. Outlook X corresponds to what Paul calls the demand for signs. Outlook Y corresponds to the search for wisdom.

So:

  • Outlook X(Jews) = Signs
  • Outlook Y(Greek) = Wisdom

Outlook X(Jews) – Demanding Signs

As I have already touched on, those who demand signs of divine favor, labeled by Paul as "the Jews," are not confined to the people of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and certainly not modern Rabbinic Jews. Indeed, Hessert points out that this outlook is perhaps most dominantly held "among certain contemporary Christians" (19). The particular people is not important, however. The outlook is the thing.

A sign, in this sense, is simply an event that is interpreted as a manifestation of divine power in favor of the search for meaning of a certain group that otherwise does not have the power to manifest such meaning in time. A perfect contemporary example of this kind of thinking is the reaction to Hurricane Katrina among various groups in the United States and worldwide." The linked article includes views from the mayor of New Orleans, an ultra-Orthodox Israeli rabbi, terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, Christian minister Louis Farrakhan, a Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop, and Evangelical Christian Pat Robertson. The outlook clearly is not limited to one group or ethnicity, but stems from anyone seeking divine confirmation of their particular reading of meaning in the world.

Paul argues, for all these groups the preaching of "Christ crucified" is a stumbling block. Hessert explains that the crucifixion of Christ cannot be a sign in the positive sense. It is not a "self-manifesting act of God confirming our values" but "can only be an unfortunate event." To be a positive sign for those seeking God's approval, Jesus would have had to have been delivered from condemnation and death at the hands of Roman authorities. "Christ crucified" may be a negative sign, a confirmation of God's curse: Jesus, who was crucified, was not the Christ. To preach that Jesus was crucified but remains Christ is counter to the circle of reality that searches for meaning in signs. As Hessert writes, "Preaching 'Christ crucified' is not saying merely that bad things happen to good people but that God's approach to us belies our expectations—in fact, is manifest in the very contradiction of our experiences" (20-21).

Hessert also points out that there is a difference between explaining the historical event of Jesus' crucifixion and the preaching of "Christ crucified." That Jesus was crucified at the hands of Roman authorities, that he was a good man, a friend to the poor, an enemy of injustice, and that he was misunderstood and killed may move one to sadness or the determination to be with the poor and oppressed as Jesus was. But to hear the preaching of "Christ crucified" and to react to it with faith is to take part in contradiction—even paradox. "Christ crucified" does not invite one to respond with preconceived understandings provided for us by our society and its search for meaning. To these preconceptions "Christ crucified" is offensive, an obstacle, a stumbling block, because it condemns the search for meaning through signs. "For faith, however, Jesus' crucifixion manifests Christ crucified, and Christ crucified become a judgement on our circle of reality" (21).

Outlook Y(Greek) – Searching for Wisdom

Outlook Y(Greek), is simply the search for "the overall rational pattern in which everything can 'make sense' for us" (21). This is the quest for meaning not contained within any discrete event, but for ultimate meaning—the meaning that provides a key to everything else (22).

This meaning is understood by the intellect and is held to be unapproachable by anything except the perfection of the rational mind. With outlook, God is seen as most perfect Mind and the source of all rational order. An event itself as it relates to the future is less important than the act of bringing our intellect to events, which gives us a perspective on them. Every event, everything that exists is an extension of the mind of God and is reconcilable as part of the ordained order of things. That is, if one has the wisdom to see it as such.

The preaching of "Christ crucified," more than a simple description of an event, carries a contradiction. The search for wisdom would reconcile this contradiction as a part of God's plan. To preach "Christ crucified," however, focuses on on this contradiction as the object of faith and as a denial of the idea that "the manifestation of God fulfills the quest for rationality and order" (22).

Faith

Outlook X(Jews) seeks to confirm the presence of god through the seeing of signs. These signs are possessed by the seer as a sign of God's special favor on them or their group (24-25). Outook Y(Greek) seeks knowledge of God by decoding hidden meaning in the physical world. The ideal is abstracted away from the physical world (the "is," or "existence") into the abstract ideal (the "ought-to-be" or "essence"). To gain this special knowledge is to know the mind of God, the Ultimate Mind that binds the whole world together in meaning. For Outlook Y, God is not present through signs, but known by them. This is typified by the gnostic (Greek: gnostikos, "learned" / Arabic: gnōsis, knowledge) outlook the early church fought hard against, and which is so popular now amongst popular religious commenters such as Elaine Pagels (25-26).

But Christ crucified denies both of these outlooks. As Hessert says, "'Christ crucified' is the absence of that divine confirmation of human values which seeing seeks and the absence of that rational coherence which knowing seeks." Christ crucified is not seen or known, but faithed (26).

The Uniqueness of "Faith"

Hessert argues that the Greek word πιστις (pi'stis), often translated into English as "believe" is crucial to understanding Christianity as a whole. He writes,

"In New Testament Greek, "faith" is both a noun and a verb. English lacks a special verb to translate 'faith' and so uses 'believe' instead. But the English 'believe' carries a very different nuance of meaning. Of the many things that conceivably could be known, some we definitely know, some we definitely do not know, and of others we are not certain. Uncertainty is not the same as not knowing, however, for although we may not know, we may have very good reason to 'believe' that something is or is not the case, and here 'knowing' and 'believing' function the same: I turn down the road I know goes to Franklin Forks or that I believe goes to Franklin Forks. We often speak of this latter situation as 'taking it on faith.'" (27)

The conflation of "faith" and this popular usage of "believe" leads to a misunderstanding of the "faith" referred to by Paul specifically and the New Testament generally." The "faith" Paul speaks of is not to be understood as a way of knowing, but as a specific relationship (or posture toward) "Christ crucified." In this case, "faith" ought to be approached through the verb form, what Hessert coins in English as "to faith" (27).

"To faith." The verb transforms our entire idea of what it means to be a Christian. Hessert goes so far as to argue that to qualify faith with the adjective "Christian" is redundancy, because the verb form of "faith" implies a unique relationship communicated by Christianity and the Gospel. Indeed, whether one is Christian, Buddhist, or Muslim in the cultural sense is beside the point. Rather, the existential stance of faith, in relationship to the divine, the world, and the other is the content of "faith." Faith does not claim signs, or propound a certain secret knowledge, but instead faiths a relationship with "Christ crucified" (28).

Hessert explains the content of faith like this: "'Faithing' is a willingness to live without the control and understanding (the 'power' and 'meaning') that the relationships of seeing and knowing provide." God is manifest in "Christ crucified" but is unable to be seen or known, only faithed. To live this way is to live without the reassurances that power and wisdom provide. "Christ crucified" contradicts the expectation that we will be granted a sign or come to understand a hidden, unifying wisdom (28).

Hessert admits that conceivably the repudiation of power and meaning could be expressed in other ways than "Christ crucified"[^1] but argues that the Christian tradition does not provide other expressions. However it is expressed, it is important that it tells us "that God must be found in the absence of power and in the absence of meaning" (29).

Criteria of Faith

Hessert concludes his second chapter discussing the criteria of faith. What checks are available to us to measure faith, not as belief, but as a new posture toward Christ crucified? Hessert provides two positive checks, one objective and one subjective, and two negative reactions to Christ crucified, unbelief/unfaith and make-believe.

Objective Faith

To be confirmed objectively, Hessert argues, faith must have made a break with striving after signs or seeking knowledge. Genuine faith lives without power over the future granted by the structure of meaning offered up by culture. And this objective reality is confirmed experientially by the individual in what one's faith responds to and what it affirms (30-31).

Subjective Faith

The subjective criteria of faith also lies in a break with the status quo. Human individuals are normally oriented toward self-interest both as individuals and as individuals with a self-interest in maintenance of culture. Faith, says Hessert, changes this orientation away from self-interest and orients an individual toward a relationship with God. This form of this relationship, according to Hessert, is contained by son-ship and daughter-ship, while a relationship toward meaning is contained by an illusion to slavery. In other words, as a son or daughter and not as a simple child, one stands with a posture toward God characterized by maturity, confidence that God loves oneself as God loved Christ, and by trust. Importantly, this relationship does not strive or seek for power, but remains open to receiving the gifts of the Spirit (32-33).

Unbelief/Unfaith and Make-believe

Finally unfaith and make-belive. Unfaith, interestingly, also rejects signs and wisdom, but rather than faithing, instead chooses the despair of death as giving ultimate meaning to life. Socially, the outcome here is a philosophical and practical nihilism that justifies every action by the lack of any sign from above, and the meaninglessness of any human action in a universe without order. Make-believe, on the other hand, abandons reality entirely and collapses into positivism, superstition, and feel-good platitudes based on nothing (34-35).

Faith, meanwhile, does not seek signs, strive after wisdom, nihilistically embrace death, nor does it rush past pain into make-believe. Like a ballerina moving on point[^2], faith remains suspended, existing with a strange confidence in the new identity given to the faither (35).

  • [^1]: Hessert suggests "Holocaust" in the Jewish tradition.
  • [^2]: A Kierkegaardian metaphor

Christ & the End of Meaning, Paul Hessert: Chapter One

Faith

If faith is a deficient way of knowing, a kind of believing that surrenders reason to make-believe, then I am afraid I cannot be a Christian. If, however, faith defines a way of being, a stance toward reality that sees it clearly for what it is, then it is possible that I might strive to be faithful -- a "faither" as Paul Hessert puts it. All the better if that faith sees the reality of our human situation more clearly than other ways of being and knowing.

Christ and the End of Meaning, by Paul Hessert, seeks to make the latter argument for faith and the Christian gospel.

Reading Christ and the End of Meaning for the first time was a revelation. Actually, it was more of an apocalypse (an apocálypsis, an un-covering) that destroyed my previous ways of knowing and understanding the world and my life in it. It sounds like an overstatement, but I mean it earnestly when I write that this is the most radical book I have ever read.

Hessert sketches an outline of the gospel that has informed some of the theological ramblings on this blog (see the bottom of this post for links), and that has tended to dominate most of my recent theological reflections. It doesn't hurt that the work is profoundly Kierkegaardian.

A professor (Doug Meeks) at Vanderbilt impressed upon us the idea that one cannot know what one thinks until s/he writes it down or speaks about it in conversation. I think he has a point. The post that follows (and the posts that will follow in the coming weeks) is my attempt to better understand Hessert's book one chapter at a time, and hopefully to introduce a few others to it.

Meaning

Paul Hessert doesn't begin out of the gate with faith, but begins the book saying, "Christianity often assumes a form that outrightly contradicts its central tenant that God is uniquely present to humans in a crucified Christ" (3). He extends criticism not only to the usual suspects of Christendom -- conservative Christians stressing a particular morality, family values, and seeking to support the power of American empire, often with an emphasis upon otherworldly salvation -- but to progressives as well, those seeking to correct culture toward particular concepts of justice, truth, and goodness driven by liberalism. Hessert aims at any and all who call on Christianity to make "better children, better parents, better students, better workers, better citizens, better business people, even better soldiers," to any who generally seek to leverage the Christian story primarily to make a "general improvement of life" toward a better future or back to a ideal time in the past (3).

In his first chapter, Hessert defines the cultural structure of meaning within which these groups function and for which these groups, both conservative and liberal, work to support.

Hessert begins by seeking to understand how religion in general functions within and defines what he calls "the circle of reality." The circle of reality is that common world of symbols that binds culture together -- the realm of cultural agreement supported by "what everyone knows to be true" (4). Defining this circle of reality are the structures required to make sense of the data gathered in the day-to-day experience of the individual. These structures are supported by generalizations, both formal and informal. We view experiential data through structural lenses to make sense of our lives. Generalizations include science (demonstrable formal generalization), aphorisms (ingrained common sense), and myths and images (visceral generalizations invoked to re-establish our circle of reality when it is threatened, the "basis of doubt and certainty") (5). Humans, Hessert argues, actively use these generalizations in a largely unconscious effort to make meaning.

Meaning itself is important as the wellspring from which individuals draw to answer the question "Why," to give us a reason to live, to feel that things are in order and that life has a satisfactory goal worth heading toward. Meaning, then, is "the major drive for human life" (7). In this sense, humans are believing, meaning making animals.

Meaning does not just exist in the ether, however. It, too, has a structure. Defining this basic structure of meaning is the key required for understanding the rest of Hessert's thought. To understand the structure, Hessert must first define the constitutive elements of the structure -- possibility, progress, power, and reality -- and how they interact.

  • Possibility: The first element of the structure of meaning is the "should-be" condition in relationship to the "is" condition, that is, the present. The present is always, necessarily, seen as deficient compared to how things could be. The ideal against which we see the present as deficient exists outside of time, but meaning requires time for possibility to exist. More on time and the direction of possibility later.
  • Progress: To actualize the timeless ideal into the timely realm of our lives is called "progress." To lack possibilities is to be cast into a meaningless or hopeless situation. It is also true that to lack the ability to actualize the timeless ideal into timely existence results in meaninglessness or hopelessness.
  • Power: To lack power is to lack the ability to actualize possibilities. Power, then, is the ability to manifest possibilities in time. For power to be meaningful, however, there must be a goal. Power itself is meaningless without possibilities to manifest in the actual. And again, possibilities without power are likewise meaningless. Hessert points out that if meaning is one pole of human striving, then power is the other. One is pointless without the other.
  • Reality: Our experience of reality within culture occurs within the interplay of possibility, progress (from actual to ideal), and the power to carry possibility into actuality. To cease to exist within this interplay is to cease to exist within the prescribed circle of reality tacitly agreed upon within the culture.

All of our understanding of life -- historical, biographical, and scientific -- Hessert argues, happens within this basic structure of meaning (8).

Time, Questioning, & Guilt

We relate to this structure of meaning in different ways, but primarily through the concept of time and guilt. Time relates the present ("the 'is' condition") to the ideal ("the 'should be'"). Interestingly, Hessert points out, "if the ideal were to be reached, the time of possibility would collapse," and meaning with it. Thus, in our search for meaning the ideal is always rushing away from us as we draw closer to it. Otherwise our search for meaning would cease. The present, then, is always seen as deficient.

We seek to maintain meaning by searching for one who is responsible for this deficiency in relation to the ideal. Thus we arrive at guilt: "Guilt is manifested as human responsibility for the separation of the present from the ideal." We ask why the ideal is absent and almost in the same moment ask, "Who is responsible? Who has failed? Who entertains alien goals?" Guilt then, is part in parcel with our culture. Guilt is our relationship to meaning, and thus to time itself (8).

Most importantly for Hessert, when we experience frustration with our circle of meaning, we do not question the structure but instead seek answers within the realm of the meaning -- the ideal, time, guilt, and the generalizations of science, popular aphorisms, and powerful myths and images. In so doing, we reify the structure that led to our frustration in the first place (11-13).

Religion

Often this structure is seen as divinely ordained. Religion is the traditional resource and last line of defense in legitimating meaning. In the contemporary West, we no longer turn to religious authorities for cultural legitimation of meaning, but we do tend to hear invoked a "highest common factor" of religious opinion (13). The "god" of presidential speeches, for instance. Or "In God We Trust," printed on our money. Or, a most nefarious theological statement: "the way things are." According to Hessert, though, religion's most powerful legitimation of culture is not in its provision of authority figures, but the very modeling of the structure culture imposes upon the world. By modeling this structure, religion imparts upon it an ultimate significance it would otherwise lack (14).

In conclusion, Hessert turns specifically to Christianity -- or what he calls "Meaningful Christianity."[^1] For Christianity to be meaningful, he writes, "it must validate the culture's demands for meaning and power and try to fulfill them … by accepting the cultural structure as the basis of its own understanding." Meaningful Christianity primarily does this in both its conservative and liberal forms by condemnation of the present. Focusing on moralisms of illicit sex, drugs, family values, or secularism, on the one hand, or systematic poverty, greed, and materialism, on the other, both stripes of Christianity end up supporting the same base level structure of meaning in the culture by pointing out our present separation in time from the ideal and projecting guilt upon those they deem to be responsible (15).

Conservative or liberal, Hessert finds that Meaningful Christianity "agrees with the cultural tenant that the quest for meaning and power is the legitimate human task" (emphasis mine). Rather than contradict the culture, Meaningful Christianity seeks to reinforce it. Hessert's example is illuminating. He writes, Meaningful Christianity "will not say, 'Blessed are the poor,'" which would contradict the culture, "but 'We can all be rich'" (16). And, I would argue, that even when the church says "Blessed are the poor," they usually mean "the poor can be middle class just like us, we just have to teach them." Worst of all, when "Blessed are the poor" is actually muttered with contradiction of the culture in mind, the audience who hears it does not find contradiction, but instead hears "We can all be rich," making a direct approach impossible. Rather than expunging guilt, Meaningful Christianity leverages guilt to encourage people to use their power to pursue the ideal in time, and thus to take part in the structure of meaning to which they are enslaved (17).

Salvation

Hessert will argue that it is this enslavement to the hegemony of meaning that Christ -- specifically the faith of Christ crucified -- offers as salvation. More on that in chapter 2 and the next post.