Friday, September 03, 2010

The President's Favorite Philosopher

Do you remember when Geo. W. Bush was asked who his favorite philosopher was and he answered, "Jesus Christ"? I thought that was a pretty dumb answer.  Jesus is the the only true object of philosophy.  He is the Logos, the Giest, the All-Soul, the One, the Prime Mover the philosophers only had a vague idea about.  He is the one who holds all power and authority in Heaven and on earth.  He is an imperious King who accepts no rivals, who is busy battering down even the gates of Hell in order to expand his dominion.  He does not share space with Plato, Aquinas, Hume, or Kant.  He is the only wisdom the wise pursue.  In short, Jesus is the -sophy one must philo-.  So, it was pure dumbth that Bush said Jesus was his favorite philosopher.  Sure, there was a political reason he said it, and it paid off.  Nevertheless it was wrong.

I much preferred what Obama said about his favorite philosopher.  In the New York Times he said,"Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr? I love him. He's one of my favorite philosophers".  Aside from the fact that this is the kind of thing you'd expect an undergrad liberal arts major to say, we can learn quite a bit about the President from Niebuhr.   Probably the most important thing is that symbol - not the Greek understanding of symbol, e.g. two to or more things being merged so that experiencing one is the same as experiencing all - is more important than reality.  For instance, Niebuhr denied the physical resurrection of Jesus, writing in 1938,"I have not the slightest interest in the empty tomb or physical resurrection." Yet claimed it as a an important symbol for people's moral action to make the world a better place.  The Resurrection of Jesus isn't for the salvation of individual men.  Rather, it is a symbol that gives people enough hope - and all he means by symbol in this context is mythical ideas that motivate people -  to take public action.

But what about evil?  What about the sin that corrupts every heart?  If Jesus does not heal us what is to be done?  How can I live if Jesus did not trample down death?  What hope do I have if, as Niebuhr says, "Evil is not to be traced back to the individual but to the collective behavior of humanity."    The "world" is certainly loved by God, but I and you are the individual "whosoever" in needs Jesus.  For someone who denies the resurrection of Jesus, as Niebuhr did, who claims there is no such thing as immortal individuals this idea that salvation is really political action on the part of groups of people is probably the best answer possible.  

But the Church teaches that we are immortal individuals.  We are, each one of us, made in the image and likeness of God, and that we do, each one of us, live for ever.  Job said that though he die he, not some collective intellect, not a group of people making political actions, but Job himself would see his redeemer.

But Niebuhr, lake the serpent in the Garden, was partly right. There is a collective element to evil.  We see this in the Icon of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday)  The children ("and a little child shall lead them") in the icon are all distinct persons.  But the adults, the same people who later in the week would cry out, "crucify him" are merged into one mass.  Their hearts were not pure, even as they shouted "Hosanna", thus they are depicted as merely parts of a group.  The sinful can not relate to Jesus as individuals, only as a mob.   

Sin is like that.  It is all the same.  It is truly infinitely less than the variety God offers because it shuns His infinitude in favor or repetitive sin.  Sin is repetitive and boring and constraining.  Consider the man who can only see women as potential sex partners.  How many amazing people has he ignored because they were too old, or too young, or too skinny, or too fat.  Even those women he notices he regards very narrowly, the most important thing about them is that he can have sex with them.  Compared to that fact, all other aspects of their persons, no mater how wonderful, pale in the mind of the man who regards their sex as their most important feature.  How boring!  How repetitive!  How horrible!  This man has closed himself off from the revelation of Himself God has built into every individual human being. Individuals matter not to him.  They didn't matter to Niebuhr.  But when Orthodox Christians approach the chalice for Holy Communion we are called by our names: "The servant of God Matthew receives...."  Truly, we approach God as part of a community, but it is a community composed of individuals.

Niebuhr embraces the denial of individuals.  His belief in some sort of non-personal collective salvation went hand in hand with his recognition that coercive force has to be employed to fight evil within large groups of people.  That "social justice" requires the strong hand of government is not a problem because the individuals being coerced are not as important as the group.  Because individuals don't last, are not immortal, it is okay to force them to do whatever is necessary for the good of the group, which does last.  Or, as Rudyard Kippling wrote in his famous poem, plenty for all is achieved "by robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul".  In this we can see why Niebuhr would be Obama's favorite philosopher.  


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