Friday, September 29, 2006

Religion of Eternal Childhood

In re-reading part of Sandor Goodhart's Sacrificing Commentary tonight, I'm led to wonder how much our individual (and collective) ideas about God, and who God is and what he is capable of, are governed by our own personalities -- our own sets of needs and desires. In other words, to what extent do we, knowingly or not, construct our understanding of God based on what it is we long for, or what we have seen fail in our own lives?

In the chapter "The Holocaust, Witness, and Responsibility," Goodhart juxtaposes two texts (by Emmanuel Levinas and Halpern Leivick) and ultimately concludes that:

"In the wake of an experience like that of the Holocaust, atheism or the death of God might seem the most natural (perhaps even the most reasonable) response. But we make that response only if we have held up until this moment a particularly childlike conception of God -- of one who inflicts injury and awards prizes, a God, that is to say, of eternal children. On the other hand, if we expand our conception of transcendence, if we allow God at least the same sophistication we grant ourselves, alternative possibilities appear. His very absence, for example, may be taken less as a sign of abandonment than as an index of our own responsibility for (and implication in) human behavior" (238).

To give you some context, Leivick (Yiddish poet and playwright) laments that, unlike in the biblical binding of Isaac, when it came to the Holocaust, the angel of God came too late, was tardy. Levinas, however, as you can guess, "offers us a way of distinguishing a religion of adults from a religion of eternal childhood" through the face-to-face encounter. In remarking upon the suffering of innocents, Levinas says:

"Does it not bear witness to a world that is without God, to a land where man alone measures Good and Evil? The simplest and most common response to this question would lead to atheism. This is no doubt also the sanest reaction for all those for whom up until a moment ago a God, conceived a bit primitively, distributed prizes, inflicted sanctions, or pardoned faults, and in His kindness treated human beings as eternal children. "

And, my favorite lines: "But with what narrow-minded demon, with what strange magician did you thus populate your sky, you who now declare it to be deserted? And why under such an empty sky do you continue to seek a world that is meaningful and good?" (237).


nedric said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
nedric said...



I think this is fascinating. Some forms of atheism do tend to result from presupposing a certain conception of God. I've heard friends say they cannot believe in a bearded guy sitting on the clouds. Well, no shit.

I am a little confused by your introductory questions. Are you focusing on the individual's desires and how they effect his conception of God, or is it more broadly focused on "humanity" and our collective desires?

I think Feuerbach has much to say about the latter.

Monica said...


I think I was conflating the two -- individual desires and collective desires -- or else just taking on a bit too much for one post. But, then again, I think that in many respects the individual's desires are shaped by the desires of a larger community (religious), so it may be hard to separate the two.

Mostly, I was just thinking about who I think God is, and trying to consider why it is that I believe that -- what parts of my own selfish desires dictate what I think God should be, or is.

I'll have to read Feuerbach -- thanks.

nedric said...

I agree that that they probably are hard to separate. Individuals inherit their conceptions of God from the community. And they probably put their own idiomatic twist on those conceptions as well.

Sometimes, I would like (or need!) a God who is a bit of a pushover, who let's me get away with things; I mean, a God who is forgiving.

Monica said...

I suppose that's one of the premises of Christianity -- a "God who is forgiving" -- and what makes it appealing on many levels. But then there's the flip side: the potential of eternal damnation if you don't take the right steps to seek that forgiveness.

dridio said...

What is God outside of speach? Or is that a house without nails?
Let the community sit and and be quite, and together point him out.
Sometimes I'm confused at what people are getting at when they say "GOD".

Nikki said...

So I am not even remotely well read on this subject matter (or I suppose any subject matter) but I do think about who God is, both to me and the rest of the world, often. Maybe I can get this relates to the point of your post, and maybe not. Also, I only can really offer a point of view on/of Christianity.

In talking with people who I know who are atheist or agnostic, it seems to me that most of them choose not to believe in God because of the way it is represented to them by Christians.

So many Christians revolve their life around not doing the things that Bible or their specific religion say are wrong (either directly or indirectly), that they often miss the point. Many also focus a lot of energy around judging others behaviors and forget the parts about loving thy neighbor and that when it comes down to it, sin is a sin - minute details, I know.

To get to my point - I think many people who have no religious background otherwise choose not to beleive because they are force fed the idea that God has certain rules, and if you don't break them, you win/you are superior. To me this is the most self serving form of Christianity because the people aren't forcing themselves to examine who or what God is or embracing what their purpose is in relation to that...they just follow the rules because they are told to.

I think there are as many people who don't believe because they see the phoniness in the Christianity that is projected to them as there are people who don't believe because God failed to give them what they think they deserved.

Monica said...

You're right, Nikki (and thanks for commenting!) -- sometimes people decide not to believe in God because they don't have what they want, and so they want someone (or something) to blame. Again, it's about us constructing a God based on our own selfishness.

dridio -- I think that words/language are essential when it comes to conceptualizing (or creating :)) God. We may be able to, in a quiet/silent moment, experience God, or what we imagine to be an experience of God, but we use words -- whether out loud or to ourselves -- to make sense of the experience. But, I, too am often confused by what people mean when they say "God"; I think, though, that many of these people themselves aren't quite sure what they mean.

Casey said...

Monica--have you read Brothers Karamazov? I know it's one of those retrograde Casey-Pratt novels, but the chapter right before the famous "Grand Inquistor" chapter is very interesting on this question... It's called Rebellion, and it's short enough and self-contained enough that you might like reading it? Or, maybe I'd just like to talk with you about it, so I'd like you to read it. Haha. Whatever.

Monica said...

Thanks, Casey. It's actually been about ten years since I've read Brothers Karamazov (will someone tell me how to italicize??), and, embarassingly, I cannot remember this chapter. But . . . I'm on it, this weekend, actually. And when you see me next, we are going to talk about this. By the way -- lately I'm stressing out about how few Russian writers I've read (that aren't also Jewish). Wonder whose influence this could be?