Friday, June 19, 2009

A Relational Ethic

The father of modern atheism, Ludwig Feuerbach, is relatively unknown today. He wrote a book once considered the "Bible" of atheism (The Essence of Christianity). He was also seen as the heir to Hegelianism. His claim that all religion was a projection of human values deeply influenced Freud and the future of psychology of religion. By the end of his life, however, his popularity had slipped. His drop in popularity was not because of a resurgence of orthodox Christianity. Hegelianism, too, was still popular in the form of Marx. No, rather, Feuerbach lost popularity, as Max Stirner put it, because Feuerbach was "too religious." The question remains: how could an atheist be too religious?

I recall my first impression as I read The Essence of Christianity. Feuerbach sounded haunted. One could tell that he spent his life in the archives, leaving no book unread. In fact, Feuerbach was the premier Luther scholar of his day. In Essence, he quotes Luther more than anyone. Feuerbach was driven, was on a quest. Feuerbach was on a quest to exorcise the ghost of God. And so, as I read Feuerbach, more than anything, I felt the presence of specters.

Feuerbach's primary argument against the existence of God is a simple one. Feuerbach claimed that it was fairly evident that we ascribed our highest values to God. For example, if an individual valued intelligence, their god would be perfectly intelligent. The same would be true of strength, love, etc. Feuerbach claims that the culture, age, sex and race of god for a believer is typically simply a reflecting pool. Rather than ascribe existence to a reflection, it would be best to recognize that the ideals exist in the viewer. Perfection lies in humanity. For Feuerbach, our religious beliefs are mirrors before beholders. We are our own paragon.

This is what caused Barth to condemn Feuerbach. But his words were not a simple condemnation of Feuerbach. Barth wrote that modern theology was corrupt with high views of humanity, triumphalist views of human kind. Barth claimed that these views conflicted with revelation, where humans are depraved creatures. Writing during and after the world wars, it is hard to blame Barth for his views. One can see some irony in Barth's claims about Feuerbach, however. Barth's words are not a simple condemnation of Feuerbach, but rather they wield Feuerbach as a weapon. A dualism is created. The Gospel or Feuerbach's false triumphalism. Revelation or false idealism. Truth or lies.

The irony runs deeper than this, however. There are specters beneath Feuerbach the weapon, beneath Barth's shallow reading. One of Feuerbach's favorite words is "Phantasie." For Feuerbach, religion is pure phantasie. Phantasie is an insult. There is what is real, and there is "pure phantasie." Revelation or realism. Truth or lies.

Or perhaps not. Feuerbach's theory of projection is fairly complicated. After all, Feuerbach cannot simply claim that religion is the projection of values. Feuerbach must explain where those values arise from. Whence come values?

Values arise from our experiences of humanity. Or more simply put, we value what we value because of our experiences with others. Value is a matter of relationship. And in the end, we are what we value. We are our relationships. We are a nexus of value-imbedded relationships.

Those values are not simply a beginning, however. Feuerbach claims that we project our values on others, even while they arise out of our experiences with others. Our ideals become part of our relationship. Our values become part of the other. Values are both our beginning and ending. And yet, our values do not exist. Values pull, values push, but they are not a matter of being. Values are not presence. Values haunt. "Ghosts blow where they choose, and you hear the sound of them, but you do not know where they come from or where they go."

Truly, Feuerbach was more clever than Barth led modern theologians to believe. Religion is "phantasie." This does not mean religion is false. Rather, religion is a haunting, a matter of phantoms. Feuerbach was cognizant of the fact that it is difficult, nearly impossible, to live with our ghosts. So, Feuerbach attempted to exorcise our specters. Feuerbach recognized that our values do not exist, and yet they still hold great power (the only power) over us. All we can do is follow our ghosts. This is why Feuerbach was condemned for being "too religious." Within Feuerbach's failed exorcism, Feuerbach more subtly acknowledged his own haunting. Materialists have no place for ghosts.

While it is unclear whether Feuerbach recognized this or not (my guess is that he did), the practice of exorcism is not exactly possible. Feuerbach claimed that once one recognized that religion was all projection of one's own values, one should internalize those values and remove the projection. We will have power over our ghosts if we bring them within ourselves. Our values can no longer be a matter of relationship. Rather, values must be, strictly put, selfish. We must remove the power of our ghosts. We must transform the persuasive, pleading power of our ghosts to the coercive power within ourselves.

(At this point it is important to point out that Feuerbach was a humanist in the strongest sense of the word. Feuerbach did not believe that values could arise out of experiences with non-human others, nor did he have a particularly helpful view of nature. However, it seems possible to extend Feuerbach's philosophy beyond the human-other. It is not a leap to consider the animal as other, or even nature as other. We would be wise to consider that we have many ecological ghosts - ghosts we should bear witness to).

However, no matter how hard we try, we cannot internalize our ghosts. For our specters are always external and internal - ghosts live within our act (of value) itself. As Derrida recognized, the other is a ghost of a sort as well, a ghost beyond our presence. The stranger as specter. And as Feuerbach recognized, values arise and blend with our experiences of others. Values live within relationships - there are no purely internal values. Once we value, those values have become part of our relationships. The only way to internalize our values would be to destroy our relationships. The end of our relationships would end our values. The only internal values are non-existent values. The only escape from ghosts is death. Even then, one more ghost is born.

This is why Feuerbach lost his popularity. Our desire for peace and tranquility pleads that Feuerbach's enterprise succeed. We pray that Feuerbach succeed in exorcising ghosts. Instead, within his failure, we are simply reminded of the haunting we so desperately wish to escape. Feuerbach becomes one more ghost, one more specter, haunting us to our limits. We cannot escape our ghosts.

So, then, Feuerbach discovered a dilemma without discovering a solution. Or, perhaps, there is no solution to be dis-covered. Perhaps the solution is in plain sight. Perhaps our ghosts are visible. The solution does not lie within Barth's unwieldy weapon. The solution does not lie within an act of impossible internalization. We cannot internalize what is already part of us. Remember, we are our relationships. Our values, our ghosts, already are who we are. If we are to live, we agree to be haunted. Life is value. And within that life, we agree to live with ghosts.

Practically, what does this all mean? A while ago, I asked if momentary theopoetics would create a completely arbitrary ethic. Can we discern any semblance of right and wrong? Is preference anything more than preference? Should we hold some values as opposed to other values? Is life completely arbitrary? Is life completely relative?

Feuerbach's in/out-sight was that there is a difference between the two last questions. Feuerbach (and I) would answer the first question with a negative - life is not arbitrary. However, Feuerbach (and I) would answer the second question with an affirmative - life is relative. One of the modern problems has been equating the two. Relativism has received a bad name. At its roots, though, relativism is not absolute arbitrariness. In fact, relativism, at its heart, resists absolutes. Relativism is the insight that ethics is a matter of relati-onship. Ethics is relati-onal. Ethics is consideration of values. Values are relationships. By living, by valuing, we are within relationships - we are our relationships. Ethics is not a matter of objects or subjects, of static entities (self/other). Ethics is not the consideration of how we should treat ourselves or others, as such. Instead, ethics is the art of considering the direction of our relationships. Ethics is the consideration of how we should live within relationships. Relationships are primary.

Relativism has been slandered. However, we should not give up on the power of words. I am a relativist. I am not a nihilist, nor am I an arbitrary-st. As we consider ethical dilemmas (what values should we hold? how should we follow our values? how should we resolve conflicts between our values?), we should be honest with ourselves. Every ethical dilemma is born from our values - what our relationships are at that moment. That is the entire point behind the gesture of momentary theopoetics - every decision, every act, every event is momentary. Every moment is a locality of relationships. To remove ourselves from the moment is to separate ourselves from our locality, is to sever our relationships. In the end, we cannot exorcise our ghosts. But we can kill them. We can kill them with our own death. Suicide. We would do best to remember, however - justice never rests in the grave.

Even the choice of life and death is driven by values. When we confront the void, we face a decision. At that moment, with the temptation of isolation before us, even then we are not alone. Our ghosts (values, others, god?) are always with us. And, at that moment, we will consider several questions. Or, perhaps, we will hear the almost silent whispers of ghosts. Will we live with our values? Will we live within our relationships? Will we live in a world of phantasie?

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