Radical faith and creation

As my previous post may have suggested, I’ve been dipping into the greatest hits of H. Richard Niebuhr (Reinhold’s younger brother and no mean theologian himself).

Right now I’m finishing up his Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, which I had read as an undergrad, and I remember it making an impression on me at the time even though I was in a very different place, religiously speaking.

Faith, for N., has two aspects, the trust aspect and the loyalty aspect. To have faith in something is to trust it as a source of our worth and well-being. But it is also to have loyalty to that thing, to ally ourselves with it and take it up as our cause.

N. distinguishes “radical” monotheism from polytheism and henotheism. The latter term referred, originally, to the worship of one god, but a god who is recognized as one among several. This god might be a national or tribal deity, but isn’t identified with the universal lord and creator. It’s generally agreed, as far as I’m aware, that the OT scriptures exhibit a mix of henotheism and monotheism.

But N. wants to use both polytheism and henotheism in a more extended sense to refer to the ways in which we invest our trust and loyalty. For instance, if my loyalties are divided among devotion to work, family, community, leisure, etc. without any unifying or ordering principle, then I am a functional polytheist.

N. is more interested in modern forms of henotheism, however, both because forms of henotheism are more significant and because they often masquerade as monotheism. A classic case is when our ultimate loyalty is given to our country. Goodness as such is identified with what is good for the nation. And this is often draped in the clothing of civil religion. The cause of god is identified with the cause of our society. Henotheism always involves elevating the penultimate to the place of the ultimate.

By contrast, radical monotheism identifies the ultimate principle of value with the ultimate principle of being. Giving our loyalty to God as understood by radical monotheism means recognizing God as the bestower of existence and of worth. It also involves making God’s cause our cause:

For radical monotheism the value-center is neither closed society nor the principle of such a society but the principle of being itself; its reference is to no one reality among the many but to One beyond all the many, whence all the many derive their being, and by participation in which they exist. As faith, it is reliance on the source of all being for the significance of the self and of all that exists. It is the assurance that because I am, I am valued, and because you are, you are beloved, and because whatever is has being,therefore it is worthy of love. It is the confidence that whatever is, is good, because it exists as one thing among the many which all have their origin and their being in the One–the principle of being which is also the principle of value. In Him we live and move and have our being not only as existent but as worthy of existence and worthy in existence. It is not a relation to any finite, natural or supernatural, value-center that confers value on self and some of its companions in being, but it is the value relation to the One to whom all being is related. Monotheism is less than radical if it makes a distinction between the principle of being and the principle of value; so that while all being is acknowledged as absolutely dependent for existence on the One, only some beings are valued as having worth for it; or if, speaking in religious language, the Creator and the God of grace are not identified. (p. 32)

God’s “cause” or project is nothing less than all being. N. strikes an impeccably Augustinian note when he says that, for the radical monotheist, being qua being is good. God calls all that is into existence and calls it good. And wills its flourishing.

This is why radical monotheism qualifies all partial loyalties, at least when they threaten to displace the whole. Even putatively monotheistic faiths like Judaism and Christianity aren’t immune from henotheistic tendencies. A Christian tribalism that confines its concern to “the brethren” or an ecclesiasticism that comes close to identifying the church with God is a betrayal of the principle of radical monotheism:

In church-centered faith the community of those who hold common beliefs, practice common rites, and submit to a common rule becomes the immediate object of trust and the cause of loyalty. The church is so relied upon as source of truth that what the church teaches is believed and to be believed because it is the church’s teaching; it is trusted as the judge of right and wrong and as the guarantor of salvation from meaninglessness and death. To have faith in God and to believe the church become one and the same thing. To be turned toward God and to be converted to the church become almost identical; the way to God is through the church. So the subtle change occurs from radical monotheism to henotheism. The community that pointed to the faithfulness of the One now points to itself as his representative, but God and church have become so identified that often the word “God” seems to mean the collective representation of the church. God is almost defined as the one who is encountered in the church or the one in whom the church believes. (p. 58 )

The ethical implication of this radical faith, according to N., is to make the cause of all being our cause. Radical monotheism breaks down the barriers between the sacred and profane. Rather than there being “holy” places, objects, and classes of people are “secularized.” “When the principle of being is God–i.e., the object of trust and loyalty–then he alone is holy and ultimate [and] sacredness must be denied to any special being” and a “Puritan iconoclasm has ever accompanied the rise of radical faith” (p. 52). But the flip side of this iconoclasm is “the sanctification of all things”:

Now every day is the day that the Lord has made; every nation is a holy people called by him into existence in its place and time and to his glory; every person is sacred, made in his image and likeness; every living thing, on earth, in the heavens, and in the waters is his creation and points in its existence toward him; the whole earth is filled with his glory; the infinity of space is his temple where all creation is summoned to silence before him. Here is the basis then not only of a transformed ethics, founded on the recognition that whatever is, is good, but of transformed piety or religion, founded on the realization that every being is holy. (pp. 52-3)

One thing that struck me is how N. follows his own logic to its rather non-anthropocentric end; non-human creation has its own intrinsic non-utilitarian value:

How difficult the monotheistic reorganization of the sense of the holy is, the history of Western organized religion makes plain. In it we encounter ever new efforts to draw some new line of division between the holy and profane. A holy church is separated from a secular world; a sacred priesthood from an unhallowed laity; a holy history of salvation from the unsanctified course of human events; the sacredness of human personality, or of life, is maintained along with the acceptance of a purely utilitiarian valuation of animal existence or nonliving being. (p.53)

N.’s Augustinian outlook provides a foundation for a theocentric worldview. As Christopher has recently blogged, Christianity is still stuck much of the time in an anthropocentric perspective, seeing God’s concern aimed primarily at us. For N. this would just be another form of henotheism; God is being used to prop up the human project.

However, what N. doesn’t provide (which is perhaps understandable given the brevity of this book) is a criterion for ranking the importance of the needs of different kinds of beings. Are we too embrace a flat egalitarianism where all existents have the same value? That doesn’t seem right. And yet, any hierarchical ordering threatens to bring anthropocentrism in through the back door.

What I’m inclined to say is that ethics have to be grounded in the nature of different beings and the needs that arise from those natures, along with their relationships with other beings. What’s good for x is what x needs to flourish as the kind of being it is.

For instance, it’s sometimes absurdly claimed that proponents of animal rights want animals to have the same rights as human beings. But a right to vote or to an education, say, isn’t going to do a pig much good. Rather, what a pig needs arises out of her nature: room to root around, be social, to nest, and nurture offspring. If we are depriving our fellow creatures of the opportunity to express their essential natures, then that’s a good sign that we’ve overstepped the bounds of what we truly need to flourish. To attend to all being, then, doesn’t require us to reduce everything to the same level, but it may require us to curtail our own desires when they threaten the essential needs of other creatures.

The most appealing version of this vision that I’ve come across is Stephen R. L. Clark’s “cosmic democracy,” where each kind of creature is provided with sufficient space to thrive. But this presupposes a couple of things, first that the world is set up in such a way to permit this (which is, in part, a question about providence) and second, and more pressing, that human beings can learn to see themselves as one species among many.

9 thoughts on “Radical faith and creation

  1. Lee, I’ll have to check out Clark’s work.

    I am always struck by the Niehbuhrs. They’re both still so relevant. I cannot speak on behalf of all humanity, but for Christians, I can say a few things. I don’t expect that we’re going to suddenly come to a realization of our being one among many species. The struggle to take up our crosss in response to subjection to Sin and death and the resulting egoism will always be with us “this side of the New Creation”.

    But, I think we can begin to articulate in light of Jesus Christ something of a Christian response to ecological realities. I find it frankly stunning that our churches, so incurvatus in se, are all caught up in human sexuality at the moment, not because I don’t see the interconnnections, but because apparently our church leaders do not. A wider context for thinking about such things, an ecological context, framed as response to Christ and help of neighbor is sorely lacking.

    What does it mean to take up our cross and struggle with our incurvatus in se/egoism/Sin in light of these ecological realities? This includes the language we use for describing how we are interrelated with our fellow creatures and Creation as a whole. It may ask us to consider our consumming habits and ways, including what we eat? Nash’s notions about benevolence and his honest recognition that a straight across egalitarianism is romantic and somewhat silly are helpful as well in this regard. Questions such as those you ask, perhaps retailored to recognize the Lutheran concept–a world full of neighbors–would look at what a particular animal needs to have a good life and would ask questions as well of us about our taking of such life? Thanksfulness is central. As is limited consumption at the very least. These are after all living beings cared for by God, who spill blood red like ours. Even plants we have discovered feel. Again, recognizing we need to eat other creatures–plant and/or animal, to live is important to reground that we require the taking of life, but that such taking need not be callous, indiscriminate, or uncontrolled.

  2. A bit on, I think that our theo-anthropology is somewhat stuck in looking at ourselves rather than looking at Jesus Christ. What kind of human being is revealed and then given to us truly in, with, and under bread and wine? It certainly is not the rapacious, dominating human so often conflated with the image of God. From a Lutheran perspective, the human being revealed in Jesus Christ, in my opinion, seems to be that of one who serves neighbor.

  3. Pingback: Noli Irritare Leones » Blog Archive » Blogwatch

  4. I do agree that we should treat animals with the respect due to their nature, because it’s right and, if you believe in God, then they are all part of His or Her creation.

    However, mosquitos, the smallpox virus and the river-blindness parasite that causes thousands of people in Africa to go blind prematurely also exist.

    I can’t see a way of reconciling these to a loving and all powerful creator God- who I also try and follow the best way I can.

    Can anyone shed any light? “Original sin” does not make any sense to me.

    1. I wonder if the difficulty in reconciling mosquitoes with a loving God comes about only if you think of humanity as the point of creation. I believe there just might be a great deal of wisdom in Genesis 1, which depicts the rest of creation (everything but humans) as having been made by God and found to be “good,” with no reference to us at all. So then, the mosquito is good simply because it is a mosquito. It exists for its own sake and as a part, annoying thought it be, of the larger world.

      All of which, I think, simply restates what is in the post, so it’s probably not much of a reply at all.

  5. Tom Cullen

    Re Nick Heap’s question of reconciling mosquitos and virus to a loving God. A couple of thoughts… Mosquitos for one are a food source for many organisms, including birds, which we humans often “value” highly. This, of course, is a anthropocentric view. I personally think of God as being embodied by the universe, which includes everything in it.
    Another view is also that the wonder of evolution allows and necessitates that species that do not adapt to or overcome the challenges of lifesuch as viruses or parasites, do not survive. Note that human-caused climate change is facilitating the spread of many vector-borne diseases to much larger populations than occurred previously.

    Organisms simply exist. Each species and individual has value as it is part of the universe and part of God. The fact that we humans as a species and as individuals are becoming aware of our place in it and how we are compromisng the earth by our selfish behaviour is good. Good in the sense that we typically cannot change our behaviour until we become aware of the consequnces of that behaviour.

    The part that Christianity played in this path the human race takes in terms of assuming “dominion of the earth” will be a point for future historians. We have the gift of intelligence, so perhaps we as a species will continue for a while yet.

  6. Pingback: Addendum to previous post « A Thinking Reed

  7. Pingback: H.R. Niebuhr on revelation, ethics, and nature | A Thinking Reed

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s