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The Human Evasion by Celia Green

Chapter 8 : The Religion of Evasion

The basic tenet of sane theology is that the chief barrier between man and God is constituted by pride—that is, self-sufficiency and ambition, which prevent him from recognizing his true place in the scheme of things. And we are enjoined to be humble—that is, to accept our place in the scheme of things and adopt an attitude of unassuming trustfulness.

This is remarkably like the standard prescription for preserving the human evasion, especially as it is usually accompanied by exhortations to take a particularly thorough interest in our fellow humans.

Now it might actually be true that a man was prevented from perceiving very much of reality (or from perceiving anything very interesting about it) by his satisfaction with himself as he is.

But if we tried to say anything about this in ordinary language the most extraordinary results would ensue. We should have to say, for example, that the essence of humility was to recognize one's desire to be God.

This follows from the fact that if you define "pride" as "what makes people feel they can manage all right as they are", "anti-pride" or "humility" should be "what makes people aware that being as they are is unsatisfactory".

The idea of anyone desiring to be God is very shocking to a sane mind which, with its usual facility for confusing the issue, makes no distinction between "desiring to be God" and "imagining oneself already to be God". Now what would actually happen to someone who desired to be God is not that he would be overwhelmed by sensations of satisfied megalomania, but that he would find being finite intolerable.

We know, of course, that sanity is designed to make finiteness comfortable, so it is not in the least surprising that the religion of evasion should contain this kind of thing:

It is possible for individuals to be saved from this sinful pretension, not by achieving an absolute perspective on life, but by their recognition of their inability to do so....

The recognition of creatureliness and finiteness ... may become the basis of man's reconciliation to God through his resignation to his finite condition.[1]

So the thing to do is to accept your finiteness. Notice, as usual, that "to accept" means "not to fight against; to settle down within". It does not mean (as it might) "to observe the presence of". I may accept that there is a rattlesnake in the corner without necessarily approving of the fact.

Now although all evasively religious people are clear that finiteness is to be treated in a spirit of peaceful coexistence, they do not like talking about it more than is strictly necessary.

They find the ideas of "sin", "guilt", "morality", and so on far preferable to ideas about "creation", "existence", or "non-existence", and the idea of "helplessness to improve" preferable to the idea of "helplessness". Some idea of the way these substitutions are made may be gained from the following account of Wittgenstein's attitude to the notions of "God" and 'immortality'.

... Wittgenstein did once say that he thought he could understand the conception of God, in so far as it is involved in one's awareness of one's own sin and guilt. He added that he could not understand the conception of a Creator. I think that the ideas of Divine judgement, forgiveness, and redemption had some intelligibility for him, as being related in his mind to feelings of disgust with himself, an intense desire for purity, and a sense of the helplessness of human beings to make themselves better. But the notion of a being making the world had no intelligibility for him at all.

Wittgenstein once suggested that a way in which the notion of immortality can acquire a meaning is through one's feeling that one has duties from which one cannot be released, even by death. Wittgenstein himself possessed a stern sense of duty.[2]

The substitution of "guilt" for "sense of finiteness" is immediate in most writers. So Tillich can say that the "power of nothingness" is experienced in the "anxiety of guilt".[3]

Unlike most writers, Tillich does recognize a sense of finiteness per se as a separate object of discourse, but plainly gives "guilt" the greater psychological importance. For example, he doubts whether the Stoics could have reached "utter desperation" because, though they could experience the despair of "fate and death", their philosophy did not recognize that of "personal guilt".[4]

This is in spite of the fact that he describes the awareness of finiteness in the following terms:

It is impossible for a finite being to stand naked anxiety for more than a flash of time. People who have experienced these moments, as for instance some mystics in their visions of the "night of the soul", or Luther under the despair of demonic assaults, or Nietzsche-Zarathustra in the experience of the "great disgust", have told of the unimaginable horror of it.... or facing the God who is really God means facing also the absolute threat of non-being. The "naked absolute" (to use a phrase of Luther's) produces "naked anxiety"; for it is the extinction of every finite self-affirmation....[5]

In fact, the recognition of "naked anxiety" would render guilt an untenable emotion.

Guilt in social situations arises from the assumption that you know at least some of the rules, and know the extent of your supposed obligations to keep them, and know also the extent of your power to do so (or at least the extent to which your inability to keep them will be misunderstood).

Perhaps there are cosmic rules (rules for what, rules about what?) and perhaps you have broken them all. Perhaps you broke them all by being born in the first place. Maybe the universe will blow up tomorrow on account of all the rules you have broken, but there is no point in pretending that even then you will know what the rules were.

Whoever you are, you are in an unknown situation which, rather incredibly, exists. You do not know what your past has been (though you do seem to have a certain supply of memory images). You do not know the significance of what you did in the past, and you do not know whether you could have done otherwise.

You do not know how many relevant factors there may be which you did not know, and still do not.

But this is not what evasive religion is about. Let us return to Tillich. He has an intellectual lucidity which not even the mannerisms of sane writing can conceal, and he is not unaware of "the astonishing pre-rational fact that there is something and not nothing."[6]

But as we have already observed, he says firmly:

It is impossible for a finite being to stand naked anxiety for more than a flash of time.[7]

This is at once evidence that Tillich knows there is an Outside, and proof that he is nonetheless sane. He is sure that no one can perceive the fact that there is an Outside for more than a flash of time.

He does not say how many people he thinks have tried to experience this perception for longer. He does not say if he has tried himself. But he is sure that it cannot be done.

Human beings like to accept their limitations, and this one in particular.

Here is another example of Tillich's writing:

The state of our whole life is estrangement from others and ourselves, because we are estranged from the Ground of our being, because we are estranged from the origin and aim of our life. And we do not know where we have come from, or where we are going.[8]

The fact that "we do not know where we have come from, or where we are going" is stated in the second sentence, which begins with an "And". The first sentence is a statement of a very composite kind. Characteristically, it refers both to existence (using the ambiguous word "being") and to "others" in the same breath. Even more characteristically, it makes the statement about existence or "being" after the one about "others".

This is the complete sequence of ideas in the passage (observe the order of priorities): we are estranged from certain "others" and from ourselves; because of this we observe that we are estranged from the Ground of our being; incidentally (in a second sentence starting with "And") we notice that we don't know anything.

Needless to say, all modern theologians are much more interested in our estrangement from other people than in the fact that we don't know anything.

The object of religion would seem to be to overcome the estrangement by the "life of community". Belonging is all. In view of this, they do not wish to demand any particular beliefs from people who wish to belong. A community of Christians means a community of persons who call themselves Christians, and a person who wishes to belong to such a community is a Christian. It is presumptuous to look for any special qualities in such a community; this is to forget our complete dependence on the Word of God (in Jesus Christ). God declared that He would create a spiritual community and we cannot question this decree. The great point is that its distinguishing attributes are spiritual—i.e. imperceptible.

Linguisticism, you see, is very useful once more. When it is used in theology it is usually associated with "the Word of God".

In general, the meaning of any part of the Word of God is spiritual, i.e. meaningless. We should not seek to attach any meaning, historical, metaphysical, or psychological, to the statement "Jesus Christ was the Son of God", but simply accept it as a valuable part of the Word of God.

This process is known as "demythologizing".

I hope this brief analysis may help those who find modern theology hard to understand. But perhaps it is not very hard for sane people.

[1] R. Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, Meridian
    Books Paperback, 1956, p.85.

[2] Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Oxford University Press
    Paperback, 1958, pp.70-71.

[3] Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, Collins Fontana Paperback,
    1952, p.46.

[4] Ibid., pp.27-28.

[5] Ibid., p.47.

[6] Ibid., p.48.

[7] Ibid., p.47.

[8] Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, Penguin Books,
    1949, p.161.

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