There are two quotes I wish to start with today. These are:
It is necessary to have had a revelation of reality through joy in order to find reality through suffering. Otherwise life is only a dream---more or less bad. ~ Simone Weil
You stir us and we delight to praise you, who made us yours---and so the heart within us is restless until it rests in you. ~ St. Augustine
Into the Belly of the Beast
Long before Kierkegaard meditated on the anxiousness of human life in the 19th century (and to whom we often describe as the first existentialist), philosophy was joined with religion in its mission to explain suffering. In Roman times, the stoics taught about how philosophical reason could reign in emotional life, and Plato through Socrates teaches that philosophy is preparation for death (at least that is one way to read the Phaedo). Yet, notice the Christian insight spanning the Fall of Rome until Weil's encounter with mysticism in 1937 while visiting the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli in which St. Francis of Assissi prayed. Suffering must be encountered in religious feeling, and only by participation in religious life will people ever come to rest. Yet, Augustine could also be endorsing that human life is entirely restless and only release from death to God is permanent rest. Now, while they both may be different, a fundamental tension and anxiousness cuts all the way down to the core of what human life is. Human life is, as described by Hobbes: poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Surrounding these negative words is the future fate of death and the shared suffering of incarnate existence.
What interests me here is not so much either Weil or Augustine, but the role that both philosophy and religion play together culturally as a response to the existential situation that spans the Fall of the Roman Empire in Augustine to Weil's 20th century pronouncement. On some level, philosophy has lost its therapeutic role in the 21st century, and recovering it might be beneficial given the manner in which we choose to suffer. Today, our social media and instantaneous age feels this anxiety in the very awareness of all dangers experienced in the world no matter how far away, it seems, some tragedy is, and yet I wonder how these feelings function within our experience as it pertains to the essential question of suffering itself given these technologies. Does the terrorist attack in France really affect me? Are some forms of suffering more proximate in technology? Or does social media lessen the intensity by which I may be said to share in an experience with another? Am I dull to the pain of another when it enters my Facebook feed or twitter account?
Why'd I Even Go Here?
Perhaps, when I too briefly asserted that we have no new arts to cope with tragedy and someone responded back, Ed...what else other than religion can pose this question to us and unfairly in the back of my head, I had religiously-formed art in mind. The fact is that response might be the correct one. Whereas art can navigate the space of its own meaning to fulfill a variety of purposes, especially if we are to believe Heidegger that art is world-generating. Perhaps, I should have explored what suffering might mean within religion. Religions tend to intensify feelings, and the feeling are rooted in the experience of suffering.
The Intensification of Feeling in Religion?
For William James, religion serves the purpose of uniting us into harmony with the unseen order to which he felt human feeling led us. In his Moral Philosopher, Moral Life religion draws us out of ourselves such that we can concern the satisfaction of other people's desires. In this way, religion has a pragmatic purpose. This purpose is rooted very much in attempting to cope with the problem of suffering. James is not the only one to conceive of a philosophy of suffering. Consider Shusterman here.
Most theologies are borne in suffering if not out of the pragmatic need of its believers. Consider James H. Cone. He offers this starting place in his God of the Oppressed,
There is no truth for and about black people that does not emerge out of the context of their experience. Truth in this sense is black truth, a truth disclosed in the history and culture of the black people. This means that there can be no Black Theology which does not take the black experience as its source for its starting point. Black Theology is a theology of and for black people, an examination of their stories, tales, and sayings. It is an investigation of the mind into the raw materials of our pilgrimage, telling the story of "how we got over." For theology to be black, it must reflect upon what it means to be black. Black theology must uncover the structures and forms of black experience, because the categories of interpretation must arise out of the thought forms of black experience itself (p. 17).
Similarly, Leonardo Boff (alongside his brother Clodovis) introduce the starting place of liberation theology in the following story in their Introduction to Liberation Theology.
One day, in the arid region of northeastern Brazil, one of the most famine-stricken parts of the world I (Clodovis) met a Bishop going into his house; he was shaking. "Bishop, what's the matter?" I asked. He replied that he had just seen a terrible sight: in front of the cathedral was a woman wiwth three small children and a baby clinging to her neck. He saw that they were fainting from hunger. The baby seemed to be dead. He said: "Give the baby some milk, woman!" "I can't, my lord," she answered. The bishop went on insisting that she should, and she that she could not. Finally, because of his insistence, she opened her blouse. Her breast was bleeding; the baby sucked violently at it. And sucked blood...there and then [he] vowed that as long as such hunger existed, he would feed at least one hungry child each day (pp. 1-2).
For Cone and Boff, each starts with an identity of their own experience and those around them. Theology is generated in response to the crisis of a shared vulnerability amongst either the poor Brazilians or Black Americans. What cuts across each identity (and we should be clear that immediately also on p. 3 Boff rejects identifying the poor with the proletariat but the systemically starving). One can see very easily that philosophy is not necessarily the same as it is with religion. Philosophy is the contemplative act of the intellectual imagination to solve problems that cannot be solved by common sense, faith, or science alone. In that way, philosophy comes to the aid of those that suffering as a potential conceptual problem whereas, perhaps, religion sustains a theological awareness of the subject as a particular unique person living in a world that of expectant suffering and vulnerability. Isn't this a fallen world after all? The ethico-theological commingling of philosophy to address suffering in theology comes only if the philosopher sees no sharp divide between the theologian and herself.
Let's take another example of Paul Tillich. In his work, Tillich describes the very tenuous character of what it means to be in his Courage to Be. For Tillich, there are three forms of anxieties: (1) the anxiety of death, (2) the anxiety of meaninglessness, and (3) anxiety of condemnation. "In all three forms anxiety is existential in the sense that it belongs to existence as such and not to an abnormal state of mind as in neurotic and psychotic anxiety" (41). Anxiety is ontological through and through, and not even the form through which we medicate it is really the problem for Tillich (at least if we take his word for it).
How Might We Consider the Relationship Between Philosophy and Theology?
The theologian addresses the symbolic order of meaning and revelation, and attempts to translate this entire symbolic order of poetry, parables, literal statements, and narratives into a meaningful whole for the religious community. Unlike the philosopher, she is allowed to assume the existence of the object of her inquiry. Like a biologist never questioning what life is, the theologian is allowed to assume God's existence.
By contrast, philosophers often transcend this same symbolic order. Since philosophy is rooted in the intellectual imagination, the imagination is free to mix, synthesize, abstract, separate, evaluate, and reject ideas and entire assemblages of ideas that constitute and/or inform this symbolic order. In this way, philosophy can undermine as much as facilitate, and even more to the point, philosophers can imagine problems that do not pertain to human action at all. Philosophical questions sometimes undo the status-quo.
Yet, for some of us, philosophy is aimed at distilling problems we face in culture and the environing world. The deep problems of human existence are the types of the problems that existentialists understood we cannot possibly avoid. The role of culture is, in part, to address these problems. Weil, Augustine, and the religious mode directly address how human life is felt and experienced. As such, only a philosophy capable of engaging experience directly can be of service to address problems we face and experience.
Philosophy without Theology?
The problem of suffering cuts all the way down into our very being. Nietzsche understood this insight very well. For him, life was already injurious. While rejecting the therapeutic elements Christianity could offer, Nietzsche ironically suggests his own nearly-religious symbolic order. In his effort to save us from the death of God, he invents a set of concepts that approximate the function of religion.
With this in mind, I come again to art. However, rather than call for art to address a particular function, what if its current creation contains this cause already? What if art, as much as culture itself, are ways to navigate the meandering ways in which we suffer. For instance, if the purpose of art is to beautify human life, then beauty itself has the same existential root. Beauty may be a response to suffering. If an art work is cynical, then perhaps the feeling and cognitive meaning of the art evoke responses that ultimately serve to address human suffering, even if there is a dearth of creative art works that directly engage this theme. The lack of direct engagement may be a lack of therapy.
I suggest that there are two minimal statements surrounding the possibility of philosophy and theology as they engage in suffering. On the one hand, philosophy and theology may correspond in their efforts to address human suffering. In that way, both philosophy and theology can corroborate their efforts. On the other hand, if philosophy does not engage suffering with its freedom found in the imagination, then art may be seen as one other way beyond religion that can cope with human suffering.
In this post, I have shared some reflections about how one may relate philosophy and theology. In addition, I have shared three examples of how theologians address the immediate concerns and self-interests of their own identities, and these are identities rooted in struggle. Since these struggles are so constitutive of their own interests and needs, philosophy should also be empowered to accept a therapeutic role that unites with theology to address the anxiousness of human life. In future posts, I will return to this theme. For now, I will say that a philosopher might wish to address suffering itself and not mediate this understanding through particular identities.