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"Had we but world enough, and time..." *
The Use of Faith2/17/2008 23:29:00
In recent weeks I've been writing an article for the Brooklyn Rail about Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. This morning I went to my second service there. It was a wonderful thing, movingly orchestrated by Rev. Donna Schaper, a woman I have come to admire very much.
In passing to me, she called Judson a "postmodern" church. This term has been thrown around by Christians quite a bit lately, usually a part of the evangelical expertise at appearing more happening than the present. But Judson seems to come by it a bit more honestly. Religious tradition for them does not mean a command from above but a tool available to be used, a resource from which to draw. They spent Ash Wednesday mourning the renovation of Washington Square Park. They pick and choose what they want from the Bible and other texts, ancient and modern. Everything is fair game for re-interpretation.
As such, it seems a remarkable illustration of Philip Rieff's vision in The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966). Rieff was a sociologist (he died in 2006), but also a kind of brooding giant. Both he and his wife, Susan Sontag (as is revealed in their son's recent memoir), embraced a kind of hubris too total to be true yet too poignant to be ignored. This one, like his precious few other writings, reveals a deep pessimism of where modernity (or postmodernity) is taking us.
The Triumph's subtitle speaks best to its point: "Uses of Faith after Freud." It took me several chapters in to realize that the emphasis is not on "after Freud" (though Freud, on whom Rieff was an authority, is a character throughout). It is uses, first of all, and how use transforms faith.
Rieff shows how Frued's descendants, especially Carl Jung, took psychoanalysis as a license to rediscover the religious and artistic traditions of the world as therapeutic tools in the hands of a new mystical science. Rather than fearing God, Jung implies, we can take hold of him and, in doing, make ourselves better.
This kind of thinking, it turns out, has spread far and wide. Even if not in name, religionists have adopted Jung's ideas as they try to present their traditions to the modern world. Religion becomes offered as a set of resources available for people to use.
In fact, Rieff believes, only Freud understood the real relevance of religious faith and its power. No god earnestly believed in can be available for use. Like Freud's society-as-superego, the objects of faith so transcend individual human psychologies that, inevitably, they are beyond our control. Recognizing this, Freud made no effort to tame religiosity. He rejected it ruthlessly instead.
(This point is extremely pertinent to some discussions over the years on what I've called "aesthetic theology," a speculation about what religious ideas mean in the absence of commitment. See especially this one, which puts the issue in terms of Freud.)
Pessimism comes in this way: Rieff is concerned that a society built on this Jungian model rests on a false promise. Meanwhile, the strong, community-driven efforts that once shaped human life dissolve into a scattered society of individuals, all seeking their enlightenment every which way they think they can find it.
My experiences at Judson, however, make me question (as I am desperate to do) Rieff's pessimism. There, using faith seems to work. Unlike Jung, I sense, they are worldly enough not to expect utopic awakenings of higher human consciousness. Like Freud, rather, their aims are modest: to ease the trouble of life. To that, they dare to add that life might even be treasured and enjoyed.
Today, the service was almost entirely devoted to a woman in the congregation who had taken her own life the week before. People were sad, angry, and confused about it all. They sang beautiful songs and read from the Hebrew prophets. Here, clearly, was a thing beyond human control, a crisis of faith of many kinds. But the community functioned. They established common purposes. There was great feeling and love.
The dead end that Rieff points to for the users of faith, Judson seems to say, is not an impasse. Rather, it is a starting point for new truly higher powers, new faiths, and new absurdities.