A comment in an online discussion about the value of Immanuel Kant’s thought to the Christian tradition has raised a question about the way people of faith think about their religious traditions.
The comment came in response to my own reminder that his categorical imperatives in essence were restatements of the Golden Rule placed on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels. My respondent asserted that Kant should be disregarded because he was a Deist, not a Theist.
It seems to me that we Christians far too often tend to be inordinately self-focused and thus protective of their own intellectual property, i.e., doctrine, ecclesial structures, scriptures. I often get the sense that the affirmation of our own understandings of the sacred are far more important than the content of that which we would purport to understand.
In post-modern culture, we might call that a protectiveness of one’s Brand, a common means by which consumers, terrified of their own lack of depth and authentic identity, seek to find something outside themselves to fill that existential vacuum. What I observe in various conversations about our faith is that in our concern for our brand we often lose sight of the truth to which we believe our understandings point.
You could even be fighting against G-d!
There are two incidences in the Christian scriptures in which brands come directly into question which I believe ought to make us think twice about that approach. The first comes from the Gospel of St. Luke:
Luke 9 49 John answered, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’ 50 But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.’
Jesus seems to be saying here that what is important is the brand under which the work of the kingdom is being done, the important thing is that it is being done. Indeed, from the perspective of the mentally ill now free of their demons, does it really make any difference whose name was invoked in their healing?
The second verse also comes from Luke in his Acts of the Apostles. This verse features rabbinical sage Gamaliel addressing the high council of Jewish authorities intent on putting Peter and others to death for their teachings about Jesus. Gamaliel, a highly respected figure, intervenes with these words:
Acts 5 38 So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!’
Once again, the operative understanding seems to be that the deeds of the persons in question reveal their motivation if not their source. At a basic level, the tenor of the deeds and the results speak for themselves. The fact one does not operate under our brand doesn’t mean their ideas, words and deeds do not ultimately serve the will of the divine.
An Old Question….
Plato raised this dilemma in his work Euthypro when he poses the question “Do the gods love piety because it is pious, or is it pious because the gods love it?” From our own perspective we might ask it this way: Does the holiness of a given understanding, statement or deed speak for itself or must we be given permission by our tradition to see it as holy?
Why does the Golden Rule appear in every ethical and religious system worldwide, some of the versions predating its appearance in the Hebrew Scripture by millennia? Is it any less true because it is stated by Confucius or in the second categorical imperative by Immanuel Kant? Is our brand what makes it valuable to human existence or might its value stand outside time, place and culture suggesting it is ultimately divine in itself?
Moreover, is something true simply because Jesus is reported to have said it (albeit that many of those sayings may well never have been uttered by Jesus) or might Jesus have spoken those things in the first place because he knew they were true? Is something true simply because it appears in the Scriptures (recognizing that we do not as a tradition all agree on what actually constitutes the same nor do we value all of its contents equally) or might the truth we find there be the result of the transmitters, compilers and editors of scripture recognizing it to be true and insuring its preservation to posterity?
How important is our Brand? How much of our Brand consciousness ultimately translates to a lack of authentic identity of our own or to ego writ large in a tribal form? What might our defensiveness about our Brand reveal about that? And how much harm might actually be done to the truth our Brand would purport to defend by our perhaps well-intentioned but ultimately misguided protective and proprietary behaviors?
What think ye?
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)