Anarchism and Religious Morality: Thoughts on Books by Emma Goldman and Pope Benedict XVI
July 22, 2011 § 3 Comments
For eighteen hundred years, the Catholic Church has preached the gospel of peace. Yet, when the people actually wanted to make this gospel a living reality, she urged the authorities to force them to bear arms. Thus the dynasty of Spain followed the murderous methods of the Russian dynasty, – the people were forced to the battlefield. (p. 135)
There is much that is appealing to this virulent distrust of anything that hints at restraint or any control from an outside agency. We live in a world where commercials exist to persuade us to “just do it,” to “take the Pepsi challenge,” to value as “priceless” things purchased with credit cards. We imbibe the often-inane political mantras of all points on a spectrum of political thought – taxes are bad, the rich ought to pay a greater share, entitlements are good, entitlements are bad, the poor are wretched, the wretched are worthy of contempt – without much in the way of critical engagement with the issues at hand. There is something ridiculous about the current arguments between the US branches of government about debt reductions, as why should some nebulous, intangible thing such as debt control our lives and futures as much as it does currently? Cui bono? Surely not mine nor yours, for do we ever really control the puppeteers that act out the farce that we see played out in political theaters all across the nation and world?
Goldman in several of the essays contained within Anarchism and Other Essays tackles these thorny issues. She notes the betrayals of revolutions, of the tendency toward despotic centralism that infects even the most egalitarian of institutions. Writing in the early 20th century, her take on woman suffrage is sobering in its blistering dismissal of it being a panacea for the social and economic ills that plagued the US a century ago. So often we want to claim freedom, while we fasten the chains around us.
The central area of contention deals with religion and its role in constraining human action and apparent freedom. Goldman criticizes not just the institutionalization of religion as represented by European Catholicsm, but also the Puritan streak (taint?) that is still visible today a century after Goldman’s essay was composed. Goldman begins by presenting a contrast between life and Puritan views:
More than art, more than aestheticism, life represents beauty in a thousand variations; it is, indeed a gigantic panorama of eternal change. Puritanism, on the other hand, rests on a fixed and immovable conception of life; it is based on the Calvinistic idea that life is a curse, imposed upon man by the wrath of God. In order to redeem himself man must do constant penance, must repudiate every natural and healthy impulse, and turn his back on joy and beauty. (p. 144)
This certainly rings true; several people do tend to denigrate the natural in favor of the idealistic. Behind this, however, lurks a hidden question that Puritans and atheists like Goldman answer in opposite fashions: just what “meaning,” presuming there is one, that can be derived from life. For Puritans, this is relatively simple: life is meant to be lived in accordance with certain prescribed religious ideals and that the natural is subservient to a God that judges humans based on how close they hew to the idea of religious morality and its practices. Goldman argues that life is a manifestation of change and the freedoms inherent in it. Beauty is intrinsic; it does not require a curator to proclaim it to be “good,” for it is already “good” without any need for a human to proclaim it so. Whereas a Puritan would view discipline as the key to religious faith and the preservation of the link between humanity and God, Goldman in her essay “The Hypocrisy of Puritanism” argues that religion places fetters on human freedom and that its insistence on discipline and restraint deters humans from following a path to freedom. Religion is the greatest and most cruel of slavemasters, as it shapes human responses to external stimuli in such a way that the fetters are not even detected by most.
Yet there is something dissatisfying about Goldman’s arguments on religion. Yes, religious dogma can easily enslave those who want to be bound to rules and regulations, yet there is that sneaking suspicion that behind the promise of anarchistic freedom lurks yet another insidious enslaving force, that of desire and the cravings it inspires. Nothing in Goldman’s essays really addresses those tendencies; they might be scarce imagined by her. Yet there is a plethora of evidence that the non-disciplined tend to enslave themselves to certain impulses or substances. Whether it is the drug addiction that I see everyday at my current job or if it is manifested in a vapid materialism that urges us to buy this or consume that in order to experience that fleeting high of satisfied lust, there just does not seem to be much freedom in anything humans ever create or act out.
What if there was a God? What if that God was not the stern schoolmaster portrayed in Puritan sermons? What if, indeed – it is a powerful question that does force us to consider the hypothetical arguments surrounding religious faiths. This is especially true with Christianity these days, with the crises of faith it has experienced over its history. How does one react to such a question (or to its inverse of what if there were no God)? Do we reject it out of hand as being a tool of power-hungry humans or do we consider which elements might be true and which might be false?
In his 1968 book (revised in 2000), Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, tackles that question and other related ones. He does not shy away from the nagging doubts surrounding the (non)existence of God; he embraces it. Instead, he takes upon himself the difficult task of explicating a creed that is not always understood by the myriad Christian groups, much less those not members of this particular religion.
At the heart of this book is the Apostle’s Creed, conceived by the late fourth century CE. The major part of the book is devoted to this creed, quoted below:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.
According, in the New Testament the Cross appears primarily as a movement from above to below. It stands there, not as the work of expiation that mankind offers to the wrathful God, but as the expression of that foolish love of God’s that gives itself away to the point of humiliation in order thus to save man; it is his approach to us, not the other way about. With this twist in the idea of expiation, and thus in the whole axis of religion, worship, too, man’s whole existence, acquires in Christianity a new direction. Worship follows in Christianity first of all in thankful acceptance of the divine deed of salvation. The essential form of Christian worship is therefore rightly called Eucharista, thanksgiving. In this form of worship human achievements are not placed before God; on the contrary, it consists in man’s letting himself be endowed with gifts; we do not glorify God by supposedly giving to him out of our resources – as if they were not his already! – but by letting ourselves be endowed with his own gifts and thus recognizing him as the only Lord. We worship him by dropping the fiction of a realm in which we could face him as independent business partners, whereas in truth we can only exist at all in him and from him. Christian sacrifice does not consist in a giving of what God would not have without us but in our becoming totally receptive and letting ourselves be completely taken over by him. Letting God act on us – that is Christian sacrifice.