Faith vs. Utopia

(The following is the text of a talk I gave August 25, 2012, at the University of Iowa’s 13th annual Religion, Literature, and the Arts conference. The topic of the conference was “Futures and Illusions: Hope and the Longing for Utopia.”)

In his book Judge For Yourself, Soren Kierkegaard writes, “The evil in our time is not the established order with its many faults. No, the evil in our time is precisely this evil penchant for reforming, this sham of wanting to reform without being willing to suffer and to make sacrifices.” Following Kierkegaard’s lead, today I will present a vision of faith, which “wills to suffer everything for the good,” in contrast to the utopian will to reform and “fix” society.

At the most basic level, the utopian wants to transform the whole of society; but faith means the transformation of the whole person. The one believes with Karl Marx that we must change the world; the other believes with Ghandi that we must “be the change we wish to see.” The one goes for external features and structural change, the other for internal features and a change of heart. I believe with Robert Frost that, “Whatever progress may be taken to mean, it can’t mean making the world any easier a place in which to save your soul”; and likewise with Pope Benedict XVI that, “If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth, then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.” Of course I do not denounce utopian imagination and effort, or deny the need for reform in our society. I simply want to show how faith and utopia offer two different attitudes, two different ways of pursuing and understanding “qualitative change.” I will begin by characterizing the utopian view.

Utopian Thinking

Utopian thinking begins from the assumption that man’s world is his own. Small as he and his world are, man is tasked to perfect them both, drawing from his own wellspring of talent and passion. This rise of this utopian impetus coincided with a shift in our definition of “truth” itself. Whereas for antiquity, truth was tied to the thinking of being and of the Eternal, for us, truth is tied to knowledge, to what we can know with certainty. As our scientific and academic world shows, for us moderns, truth has to do with causes, processes, facts; with what can be tested, evidenced, shown and repeated; and consequently with products, results, outcomes, and what we ourselves can make. In this transition, man comes to see himself as one historical fact among many, in what appears to be a haphazard process, simultaneously biological and social, without any apparent beginning cause, except for a so-called Big Bang. But the Big Bang, along with all our facts and products, cannot really give any deep meaning to our existence. Man is therefore obligated to create his own meaning, to overcome the nihilism of his situation. He comes to see himself, his world, and its meaning, as unfinished products, parts of an on-going process of becoming with himself at the helm, however limited. Erich Fromm, summarizing Marx, sums up the utopian stance:

Man is, as it were, the human raw material which, as such, cannot be changed, just as the brain structure has remained the same since the dawn of history. Yet man does change in the course of history; he develops himself; he transforms himself, he is the product of history; since he makes his history, he is his own product. History is the history of man’s self-realization; it is nothing but the self-creation of man through the process of his work and his production.

Evidence for this attitude is omnipresent, whether we look to gene-therapy, cosmetics, literature, or politics. In this admittedly broad conception, the utopian is the paradigm not only for our collective self, but also for our personal self. We believe that the truth can only be found in what is feasible, in what we can achieve or earn in this world, in the meanings we can create. Without this attempt at self-realization, we are even tempted to believe we do not exist, or that we are just a machine, a memory, or a ghost. We feel constantly as if we must fill the void we find within ourselves, lest there be no evidence of “us.” As Nietzsche said, echoing this vision: we must create and overcome ourselves. We must succeed ourselves. It is this understanding of man and his world that I am calling “utopian.”

Something is missing”

We can see how, for the utopian, modern man, something is missing, something is lacking from the present. Something is wrong and demands to be fixed. An emptiness demands to be filled. Faith, however, takes a different view. Where the future is missing for the utopian, for faith it is already brimming over in the present. This moment itself is already overflowing with the new and eternal. A qualitatively different life is always-already bubbling up within the current life. Thus, whereas modern man feels stuck in his nothingness, faith lives in the current of what forever exceeds that nothingness. For faith, we could say, nothing is lacking, everything is gratuitous. Everything is grace.

I would now like to show how these two stances in fact correspond to two logics of desire. To illustrate what I mean, I’d like to offer a reading of St. James’ epistle. In verse 4, he writes:

What causes wars, and what causes fighting among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend on your passions.

Here we see James rejecting one logic of desire and recommending another. The one proceeds from a perceived lack that gives way to selfish ambition and want, with an eye to filling the lack, an eye to satisfaction and fulfillment. For the utopian, the better future is to be appropriated in the now, to fill up what is missing from the present; but in the process, he runs the risk of sacrificing goodness, however much he does so in the name of the many. We have only to look to the French Revolution or the Soviet Union to see what can happen. But James also suggests that this logic of desire, leading from lack to appropriation, is doomed to failure and disappointment because it does not know how to ask. It “asks wrongly.” Later his words become even more potent:

Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain’; whereas really you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.

While he is explicitly condemning the capitalist act, I think we can also interpret James to be rejecting all humanly designed projects and plans; and, more generally, the drama and illusion of human intentionality itself. That is why he cautions us against being a friend of worldly ways and aspirations and instead exhorts us to trust in God, to live in an open receptivity of what is—or, faith. This receptivity, this faith, amounts to “asking rightly”—that is, not for oneself or ones social group, not asking for what one does not already have, but rather, in light of ones impending death, asking for what is already given and being given to us. This receptivity naturally gives way to gratitude, because we see that we really are living on borrowed time; and because it is borrowed, faith develops into a life that gives everything back whence it came—a life of charity. And so James tells us to be, “peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere,” to be examples of patience and perseverance in the midst of suffering: to welcome everything, good or bad, as a gift. Here, even death is a gift—because we believe, because we trust in what comes to us. Then, through faith, even what is taken from us is not for all that lost. In a word, faith seeks and achieves nothing; it accepts what is given to it, in peace.

Faith’s decision

We can now see what constitutes the fundamental decision that faith makes about reality—namely, its decision to always see within what is more than what seems to be there.Faith sees in every present, not a lack, but something ungraspable, a meaning that escapes and exceeds us, a meaning that comes to meet us rather than being created by our own efforts. Such a meaning is neither complete nor incomplete, but in-transit, incarnate, and infinite. Likewise, for faith, the sheer magnitude of the unknown in the present renders all human-intentional projects mute. Faith chooses instead to remain in-tension, without intention, so as to meet the divine intensity of the moment as it comes. Faith surrenders itself to this tension unto death, believing that all is for good, and so willing to suffer everything for it, even if we do not comprehend what good it is.

Faith is therefore not opposed to reason, nor does it see reason as “limited”; but faith carries reason to its limit, to the edge of its ability to assimilate reality into a humanly-coherent picture. Faith will not let reason settle on any assumption about self or world, because it seeks and sees what exceeds self and world from within, what exceeds any assumption we might have about the past and the future.Faith remains open to the surprise of the event, the encounter with the new. That is its basic coordinate: openness to the unprecedented and unforeseeable. Faith’s life is therefore constantly-unexpected; and so before faith is faith “in” something, it is an action, an opening, and a relationship to what is “not-the-same” with regard to oneself, to others, and to all situations. Subsequently, faith becomes faith in everything and everyone. In that sense, for faith, nothing is ever “wrong”…

In Jean-Luc Nancy’s terms, faith holds fast to “the outside of the world that opens up right in the middle of the world.” Instead of pursuing utopian efforts to imagine an outside, or to create a different world, faith exposes us to another world already there in this world, suspending whatever we thought we knew about it. Rather than trying to substitute one present for another, faith finds another present within this one, an “elsewhere” right here. It realizes in the instant what the utopian can only imagine; and in the depth of the instant, it realizes much more. For faith, then, all being is gift-being; and only the work of faith—which is love— can measure up to the immeasurability of this gift of being; and it does so by giving itself completely over to it.

This decision about reality can also be looked at in terms of value. Faith leads us to assume that everything has a value that escapes our own evaluations, that everything is “absolutely valuable” in its own right. When we are guided by human projects and purposes, we make countless cost-benefit analyses, we evaluate things according to their function and use, we gauge whether or not they fit our view of productive and valid activity in the world. But, as St. James suggests, to be guided by these worldly ways of evaluating things jades our view how things really are. This becomes especially pertinent with regard to other humans.

Faith’s hospitality

Drawing from a more overtly religious register, we could say that the goal of faith is to learn to evaluate things as only God himself could, and to love each other just as God himself loves each of us. Thus James exhorts us to “not speak evil against one another,” echoing Jesus’ own commandment to, “judge not.” Faith suspends its judgment about the other, believing and realizing that the story goes much deeper than both we or the other can know. When faith reproves, it reproves to console, to remind the other that they are where they must be, precisely because that is where they are. That is why faith demands mercy. It demands that we evaluate others, not according to their changeable and temporal aspects, but to their absolute status as a raw gift of presence.In each person, faith encounters the infinite, for as Fr. Charles Nicolet writes, “Our neighbor is nothing but the presence of God among us.” That is why faith’s great hope in others becomes manifest through love—not a love bound to human preferences and proclivities, but a faith liberated to the “impartiality” of God himself. To see others with the eyes of faith, to “put on the mind of Christ,” is to see each one as the anointed one, an alter Christus, definitively loved by God and so infinitely worthy of our love also.

At heart, faith believes, and then comes to know body and soul, that it can only find truth by going toward the other and by making itself a home for others, where anyone can be received in peace, at a remove from the violence of the world’s evaluation of them and its schemes. In that sense, faith implies an unreserved, unconditional hospitality that never looks out for its own security. But in making space for others, it does not try to grasp them, keep them, or pin them down. Faith makes a priority of letting the other be other, refusing to “tell” or prescribe, because faith sees in others more than others even see in themselves. And so, faith lets the other come and go, and its willingness to let them go increases with its love, because it knows that the bonds of love triumph over all parting. Faith, then, gives it all up, because in giving it up, it gains it back, not for itself, but for others, for the world, and for love.

To summarize what I have tried to say so far, faith believes in a transcendence that is immanent in the present, a transcendence which is the very movement of the present. Faith also believes that each person transcends themselves, and so loves and hopes in each other on the basis of their absolute value, which cannot be appraised by anyone but God. And so faith abandons itself to the present and to the other as if to God himself, loving whatever and whoever confronts it, knowing that its own access to truth lies therein, in the profound and constant interruption of “itself.” In closing, I would like to meditate on the most profound interruption of self, the most profound contact with otherness that we, as mortal beings, will ever know. That point, of course, is death.

Faith and eternal life

No matter how laudable any utopian or communitarian project might be, all attempts at realizing it run aground on this point. Death is the interruption of all community, of all human longings, projects, and achievements. As it is written in Ecclesiastes 9:10, “in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” Death marks the end of the world, each time. It tears a hole, even if that hole and the tear are a “gift.” But this does not mean that death somehow renders everything meaningless, or our action futile; as the beginning of the same verse affirms, it means that, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” Here, recognizing “where we are going,” now, changes, right now, how we see things. In fact, it changes where we decide to go.

When Jesus tells us to die, so that we might not remain alone, but bear much fruit, it is not to ruin our life, but to “make our joy complete.” It is to bring us up to speed with our real life, our infinite life, our life outside of life, which we are already exposed to in this life. To consider how, in one sense, I am already dead, frees me to live every moment outstretched, in excess of what I am, in the gratuitousness of each encounter and moment. Then, there is no limit to my gladness: I should have died, could have died, years ago, today. Conversely, to experience my death opening up already in the middle of my current life takes away its sting and my fear—not just hypothetically, but actually, really. This sense of death in life changes who I am. It changes my orientation toward other beings, my way of speaking, and my view of the fruits of my action in the world.

When I realize that I am not owed anything, not even my continued life, gratefulness itself leads me to give everything back. Knowing that my own death will be a gift to those who survive me, I want to help them understand what I mean by this now, so that amidst whatever tears they might cry, they will know that as much as I was dead while alive, I am alive when dead. Because I know, and more importantly, because I sense, that everything will be poured out of me “in the end,” I am freed to pour myself out right now. If ultimately I can keep nothing, not even myself, why would I try to keep anything now? Why would I look to secure my life? Indeed, “where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.”

I believe Jesus himself wanted to tell us this: that the only thing we can “keep” after death is what we’ve given out. We are to empty ourselves as he did. We are to remember that our love is the only thing we can take to our graves—and that only because love conquers it. It is our love that is resurrected; and it is resurrected not for us or in us, but for others and in others. My life and my love comes alive in you, or it is nowhere.

In conclusion, a life of faith means just this: life lived from, because of, and for another; life outside of myself; life eternal. Faith, really, is another life in us, the gift of life itself, harmonized by love, and so harmonized with the whole community of beings that love, with the whole of a cosmos created and sustained by love; for as Dionysius the Areopagite once wrote, “The principle effect of love is to so unite the wills of those who love each other as to make them will the same things.” That is what faith ultimately desires: that our wills be unified by a love of cosmic proportions. And so, finally, we ask only one thing of the utopian: that he never forget to love, because without it, there is no chance of transforming the human world for good. In fact, without love, there is no human being at all. Thank you.

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One Response to Faith vs. Utopia

  1. Felix M. says:

    Yes, this dualism you are positing might be one of the main polarities that our current society aligns itself to. “Does the world have to change or do I have to change?”
    The amount of stuff you can tie to or project into it is incredible. The tragedy I see is that from a technical, philosophical view the synthesis between the two seems most easy to construct, while on the other hand observing conventional subjects really most stupidly allign themselves on the opposing poles and shout at each other.

    Regarding the latter it is remarkable how well you could for example the “conservative-progressive” polarity alligning itself along “individual responsibility” vs. “collective responsibilty” or (as by your article) “religious faith” vs. “materialist utopianism”.

    Regarding the former, I said “easily”, but maybe one would have to be a little less humble here and admit that juggling those concepts with ease marks indeed a philosopher of a certain skill, the matters we are talking about here could (even in very precise definition) seen as central, all-permeating themes of perennialist philosophy.

    (I am getting sidetracked here, but a recurrent thought of mine centers around the notion of ‘banality’, and the idea that if there is something perfected, pseudo-mathematical philosophy, an or a fundamental root, an airtight as close formulation of “truth”, or “what-to-do”, as you can get, than that near-perfect formulation would seem to us maybe indeed as complete triviality. If there is indeed something like “fundamentals” of philosophy, like the most big, important, fundamental ideas of everything, then expressing those ideas most clearly might make one sound indeed like some 15-year old taking his very first step into the waters of philosophy.

    So when I talk about “perennialist” philosophy I talk indeed about exactly that which might be “eternal” in philosophy, the central themes that are perhaps indeed tied closely to very fundamental aspects of the humans setup, thus can be found in all writings of all eras, and that are perhaps most obvious, most self-evidently and taken for granted in all those writings.

    But of course if there is indeed such “basic territory”, then it is also the most important, central, and thus making only slightest alterations should lead to huge effects. Whole swaths of culture might crumble away with the questioning of a most simple assumption.

    There are of course arguments against this such as that there are no such ‘basics’, or that there are but we still haven’t figured them really out yet, but I still think the viewpoint could hold a lot of fruit and really does seem to match reality at times)

    tmlavenz:
    “We can see how, for the utopian, modern man, something is missing, something is lacking from the present. Something is wrong and demands to be fixed. An emptiness demands to be filled. Faith, however, takes a different view. Where the future is missing for the utopian, for faith it is already brimming over in the present. This moment itself is already overflowing with the new and eternal. A qualitatively different life is always-already bubbling up within the current life.”

    Again, written beautifully!! In my own thinking, I think there is a whole world of potential in simply focussing on, acknowledging the existance of this ‘religious void’. the fact that something like that is absolutely there, and then humbly examinating what exactly this void is, what it could be lacking and what it might be filled with, might be already a deeply religious/heretical act, a venture into forbidden territory

    In a practical sense, and this is something that I see as as a very technically explicable idea, but also something that fills me with pure childlike glee is the idea of focussing instead of collective utopia (e.g the revolution) on something only slightly more humble and thus practical, the “utopian movement” or as I like to call it “a club”.

    On the more technical side, we could see “the club” as exactly the middle point of this crucial dichotomy between the collective and the individual. It does not aim to transform society in one fell swoop, but it also denies the possibility (or at least sees it as a needlessly masochistic way) that a someone could truly change so deeply on their own. We are slaves to our social instincts, but in a certain pragmatic approach this maybe wouldn’t even have to be such a problem.

    I personally think this is also exactly what is brewing up in this emerging as of yet purely virtual, internet-based community around Laruelle, Agamben et al. The collective break-through that one can see in this emergent identity/ideology is that it is really building itself up for anything that could happen, even the worst. The powerful mechanism is that then such a subject would be almost infallable, indomitable. It does not even preclude the possibility of worldwide utopia but it just does not rely on it: “And may the world fall to pieces, at least here in the club we will retain/regain some of our humanity.” In a way it so also becomes close-to-immune against any “rationalistic” critique from the outside. The club does not need to justify its ethical systems as they are first and foremost for the club members themselves.

    The utopian/religious shine stays intact across all of this, by… well, by simply allowing oneself this shine, to paint oneself with the aesthetic of religious, poetic-humanist language. The fact is that with this “enlightened asian” in the current zeitgeist we already have a messianic archetype that is 100% materialistic, operating solely on grounds of mostly psychology, completely compatible with the a modernist,scientific mindset. The religious and the materialist utopian fantasy are maybe already most closely alligned, one would only have to act on this fact.

    On a personal level I can just say that I believe in the idea, just because it works for me personally very well. I feel confident in the idea in spite of the expected pedantic critique of all authorities, simply because I am such a neurotic intellectual. If the idea were not well thought out enough my mercyless rumination would not let it live.

    Related here, something that again makes the notion of this gnostic club so explosive, when you observe this drawing-power of this ‘mystic club’-fantasy, what makes e.g. sufism or the Bene Geserit so much more attractive (at least to me) than buddhism or avatar is this kind of “tough-love sageism”. The fantasy works exactly because it demands something from me, and exactly in this demand it embeds most strongly the foucauldian ‘transformative effect’. I think continental philosophy is wrongly avoiding association with a mode of expression because it thinks that would mean immediate association with this kind of narcisstic, self-indulgent “LSD-hippie”-character. But I think there are other, and perhaps much better ways to shut out narcissism than a demand of education and verbosity.

    (Again in the vein of banality, one could project huge swaths of continental philosophy into this simple switch from a scholastic exercise into a living, breathing thing, something to be practiced, spread, shared, created, instead of (put polemically) writing this giant dictionary. An impetus that one would primarly associate with stoicism or buddhism and not what pretends to be ‘philosophy’ today. One can there also I think see clearly how the messianic and the heretic are closely tied together: The great heresy against all current authorities comes inevitably embedded in every possible claim to having -some- kind of -somewhat credible- idea what to do (aka messianism) The theoretical framework that would underly a messianic movement would inevitably claim authority over territory occupied by the current authorities e.g. “buddhism, the “human sciences” “intellectuals, the “arts”, etc, etc.. and make the biggest chunk of them pretty pathetic.

    To tie all this together and I think even meet back the theme of your article, what seems to me the case is that at this point there might really be a fundamental breaking point that everything seems to be hinting at, in the form of pushing towards a fundamental “messianic/heretical act”. The magic of continental or perennial philosophy is perhaps indeed explicable in the most of 5 year-oldish babytalk, like they always ask of us, but entering this modus of ‘banal’ explication would also mean switching from a modus, of emotionally dampened, technical verbosity to direct, defiant, heresy. It does not matter how gently well-spoken or rationallly-humble it expresses itself, it would still be “that which we do not talk about”.

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