The Blog of Jack Holloway

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Alienated Soul

art by Frank Kelly Freas
In my last blog, I talked about the film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and what it says about the plight of human existence. That is, in our finitude we are insignificant and are denied answers to our questions about the meaning of life. For all we know, we could be pawns in some primordial, metaphysical game--like Job.

Faith, then, is essentially a bone that our creator(s) throws us so that we can find a little comfort in our meaningless and insignificant existence. As if to say, "Here, you can't know the grand scheme of things, you can't have the answers to your questions, so have faith. Come up with a construal of reality that comforts you and believe in that. So while you're insignificant and your life is meaningless, you'll find comfort in your faith."

This, I think, is a weakness in truly believing in a metaphysical realm. Our inability to know anything about the metaphysical realm makes it alienating to us, which is why Hegel spoke of "the alienated soul" or "the unhappy consciousness." The human being projects himself or herself onto the metaphysical blank canvas and conjures up a theology which then alienates the human being.

I think it's alienating because it's clouded with considerable doubt. What is the metaphysical God like? Your guess is as good as mine. God is a blank canvas on which we paint our fears and desires.

But maybe it's not even God beyond our physical realm. Maybe it's like Descarte's example and I'm just a brain in a vat and the "metaphysical realm" is made up of a mad scientist in a laboratory. The ultimate unknowability, the mysterium tremendum, of the metaphysical realm makes it alienating to us. We become lead actors in supporting roles, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Suppose, however, that there isn't a metaphysical realm. Suppose we have no real concrete reason to posit the existence of anything beyond the material world. Then, the unknowable consists of that in the material world which we have not come to know. Instead of a blank canvas on which to paint our elaborate guesses, we would have a world of unmapped territory to explore.

Furthermore, instead of worrying about the goings-on of the metaphysical realm (if it even exists!), we could busy ourselves with cultivating a more harmonious social order here in the material world. Here, again, I am pulling from Hegel, who said that the development of ideas culminates in human freedom, which consists of harmony with the social order.

Does this grant us certainty? Of course not. There could be a metaphysical realm. There could be a God. There could be gods even. It is indeed a faith claim to accept the material world as the full range of reality. But it can be debilitating to preoccupy ourselves with a metaphysical realm that may not actually exist. Which leads me to my next point.

Does this mean we should abandon religion and theology? No, not exactly. Though, it does mean that the purpose of religion should be the material world. The focus of theology should be enabling us to further pursue harmony with the social order. In this vein, I think the Christian idea of the kingdom of God, for example, is quite valuable because it is an idea of the kind of social order we should strive toward. Martin Luther King saw the promised land and all of his efforts were in pursuit of that ideal. Religion and theology can do a lot of good in forming the ideal we are working toward, as well as laying out how we can pursue that ideal.

The danger is that revealed religions can be regressive if they claim too much about the ideal we are pursuing. If you have the picture of what a puzzle is supposed to look like, but it isn't the right picture for the puzzle you're actually working on, you'll be working toward a goal but you won't make much progress. Revealed religions, if they claim too much about how the world should be, may take us afield and inhibit us from progress.

The truly virtuous religions are those that assist in our efforts here on the material world, and don't claim too much or get bogged down by preoccupation with a metaphysical realm.

At least, these are some thoughts I've been having lately.

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