Saturday, June 19, 2010

Heavenly Buddies

"I don't know how to love Him."
Jesus Christ Superstar

"In the end, however naked, tall, there is still
The impossible possible philosophers' man,
The man who has had the time to think enough,
The central man, the human globe, responsive
As a mirror with a voice, the man of glass,
Who in a million diamonds sums us up."

Wallace Stevens, "Asides on the Oboe"

In my current reading (Melvin Konner's The Evolution of Childhood) I came across the sentence, "Religion is largely about relationship" (p. 671). Initially this took me aback as an extraordinary claim (isn't religion also about history, narrative meaning, social tradition, and morality?), but I realized it wasn't, for a couple of reasons. For one, I had implicitly but mistakenly read it in the impoverished sense in which "relationship" is used in contemporary popular culture.

Perhaps this was because in a local show last night the great Iris DeMent, chatting between songs, talked about her 92-year-old mother, who, after watching Oprah on relationships, said something like, "I'm not sure I even know what a 'relationship' means" (she had been married for 50-odd years and borne 14 children). In common parlance "relationship" is inextricably and often trivially tied to romance and dating, generally in the sense of novelty and excitement. In a couple of paragraphs I'll speculate on why that might be.

But Konner was merely stating the obvious in this case in the sense, which I've written about before, that religion is primarily about emotional needs, not metaphysical conviction. God serves vital interpersonal functions on two levels, providing both an idealized, all-accepting Other as well as a real and connected community of believers focused on that Other. While religion obviously is diverse, even a supposedly atheistic "faith" like Buddhism generated over the millenia a massive emphasis upon the figure of Buddha himself, arguably a God-substitute. While a tiny minority of "believers" may view God from an abstract perspective, for the vast majority of believers, religion is intensely personal. In a world of inevitably imperfect relationships (whether with parents, childrens, friends, or lovers), God is infinitely supporting and reliable. In psychoanalytic terms, as many have written, God is a superb "selfobject," the ideal that can also be related to (witness Christ as both God and human).

If the essence of religion is emotional and relational--if we may view it as a boat (an ark?) sheltering people on a threatening sea--it nevertheless requires a metaphysical anchor, that is, the being who is this idealized Other must be held to actually exist. Otherwise the whole enterprise is for naught. And it is this anchor, philosophically very shaky indeed, that has been the focus of most critics of religion over the millenia. But for most believers the intuition of the presence of this perfect Other is so obvious, so strong, so overpowering that it is impervious to argument. One may as well try to convince someone that he is not, in fact, in love with his beloved (perhaps Iago, one of the most despicable characters in all of literature, did pull this off with Othello, but it didn't turn out very well).

If religion were as universal among human beings as, say, language or sexual drive, then that would be end of story (Homo religiosus?). But while the great majority of human beings who have ever lived have been religious in some way, shape, or form despite arguably devastating philosophical objections to belief, it is of course the case that a minority of individuals, both now and throughout history, have been either implicit (i.e. agnostic) or explicit atheists. How do they manage relationships without the perfect partner who is God? Would a therapist in Scandinavia care to comment here?

To get back to Oprah, I wonder if "relationships" are so much the talk of the popular airwaves for the very reason that relationships are harder to maintain than ever. Not only religion, but the family and community have grown progressively more fragmented over the past century or two. Among other things, people turn on Oprah (another selfobject) as they might go to church. The anchor is loose, so the pressure to locate, attract, and keep (!) the "soul-mate" increases. When the Bible palls, family is distant, and the suburban street is empty, there is always eHarmony (or for Wallace Stevens, the poetic ideal). While neo-atheists such as Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins are smugly confident, Nietzsche saw the death of God (as opposed to the Church, a very different animal) as undeniable and inevitable, but also as an immense tragedy for humanity, a tragedy past which we are still trying to feel our way.


Dr X said...

You are speaking very much in terms that a Kohutian would see God, the internal object. From Kohut's self-psychological perspective, God is a self-object--an internal relation that serves several self-regulatory functions.

This has nothing to do with the question of whether God is real or not. Rather, it's about the nature of internal object relations with respect to omnipotent, omniscient, perfection.

You might be interested in Kohut's formulation of the bipolar self if you're not already acquainted. It speaks to the notion of both the idealized imago and the perfect admiring (accepting) figure.

That little section of Wikipedia is my handiwork.

Anonymous said...

'Metaphysical anchor' is a nice way of characterising the idealised Other. The problem is that some people's idealised Other is not so healthful but is rather more symptomatic of a spiritual pathology: they formulate/use/construct it/he/she as an existential crutch to support the fractured edifices of their anxious lives. Or worse still, as putty to fill in the nasty gaps they are too afraid to fill with lived life.

Retriever said...

Excellent post. The Early Church Fathers had an image of the soul as a boat on endless oceans, the grace of God as what could fill the sails (I suppose the wrath of God might shred them?), and free will as the decision to travel with the wind but charting a course with all the skill and knowledge and energy at one's command. Have to go back to work, so no time to find the exact quotes.