Archive for March, 2013|Monthly archive page

What is the “Religious Moment”? Philosopher Max Scheler discusses

In Dignity of the Person on March 27, 2013 at 11:18 pm


It would seem that not everyone experiences a “religious moment” in life.  Some people don’t claim any religion whatsoever, so surely they wouldn’t have a “religious moment,” or if they did, they’d be the least likely to be affected by such a moment.  Also, it seems that only “religious people” would have “religious moments” in life, so just a specific group of people have “religious moments” which changes them only, but not others.  Plus, it seems that some people, for example, Agnostics couldn’t really have a “religious moment,” nor could an atheist have a “religious moment,” which sounds oxymoronic.  Well, Max Scheler, the German philosopher, would oppose all of the aforesaid arguments.  Scheler contends a rather bold claim, in his book, On the Eternal in Man (Transaction Publishers: New Brunswick, NJ. 2010), where he says, “This law stands: every finite spirit believes either in God or in idols. “(p.267) The human person’s spirit is infinite yet it inheres in a temporal finite body which limits it, at least for a time, so, we either believe in God or idols, according to Scheler.  It is either one or the other.  How can Scheler make such a claim?

The Great Mistake Some People Make

Well, life is full of tests, trials, tribulations, or suffering, all part of the experience of life, just as there are hard times, there are also times of great joy, bliss, happiness.  So, when is that “religious moment” that Max Scheler speaks of?  Firstly, he proposes that all persons somehow fill their life with things which they believe in already. Then, he says, “The question can only be of whether he finds its adequate object, the correlative idea to which it essentially belongs,  or whether he envisages an object acclaiming  it as divine, as holy, as the absolute good, while it yet conflicts with the nature of the religious act because it belongs to the sphere of finite and contingent goods.”(p. 267) In other words, if someone is worshiping an idol,  his “religious moment” will be a grand personal realization, a life-altering event when he sees very clearly that he has to change, to reorient his life toward God and away from his idol or not change at all.  To change is the prudent, wise thing to do, an opportunity to match the adequacy of one’s mind and soul for the infinite God, who is its only “adequate” “object,” or to feign the adequacy of some lesser object for his mind and soul with profound consequences and a miserable dissatisfaction with one’s choice.  The atheist Existentialists would call this latter state, “anxiety” or “angst,” even “freedom” or “happiness” but the problem is the inadequacy of all other, non-God objects for the realm of God alone, the absolutely objective realm of the infinite.  Whereas, the atheist Existentialist places an inadequate thing in the wrong place.   He continues, “Everybody has a particular something, an object bearing (for him) the hallmarks of the supremely valuable, to which he knowingly, or by the unconscious test of practical conduct, accords precedence over all else.”(p.269)  Just as Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatably do,” so too, we can say how we act, how we behave matters, as a manifestation of what we think is the “supremely valuable”–what is the greatest good in one’s life.  Now, the person who believes in God already has the greatest good, the most supremely valuable good in its place when his deeds manifestly reflect such a value.  However, those who misplace the object of supreme value in their life, they engage in what Scheler calls “unending endeavour” to maximize their experience of that finite thing which can never satisfy their infinite desire for the infinite God.  This man “seems magically enchained to its idol, and behaves ‘as if’  it were God himself.”(p.269)  In Platonic terms, this man is worshiping a “copy” of the greatest good.  Scheler sums up this error with some comparisons saying, “For the nationalist it is his nation, for the Faustian limitless knowledge, for the Don Juan repeated conquests of woman.”(p.269)  No man is a relativist in terms of values, everyone has some one supremely valuable value which governs his whole life.

The “religious moment” is something that everyone experiences as either an affirmation of having God at the center of one’s life, or an idol which could cause a significant crisis.  This crisis comes when he realizes what he has done and he must change.  Scheler says “…showing him invincibly…that he has installed a finite good in place of God, i.e. that within the objective sphere of the absolute…he has, in our sense, deified a particular good—or ‘become enamored’ of it.”(p. 267)  Maybe we know people who do this now, maybe even ourselves at one time or even now, who mistakenly put something they really love in the place of God in their lives.  Perhaps we really identified with a sporting team, or a degree, or an institution, or a career goal, or project, an obsession, with a person or thing, a statistic, or a World Cup championship, or a car.  Whatever idol it is, it seems hard to imagine a worse mistake.

The Realization

So, what does Scheler say about how someone processes this experience?  Scheler posits that the person experiences the realization in the following way: “The personality senses that the very nucleus of its existence and value is bound so closely to the object of faith that it is ‘pledged’ to that object, identified with it, as we say.  ‘I shall exist and have worth, and wish to exist and have worth, only in so far as thou, object of faith, art and hast worth’ or ‘we two stand and fall together’- these expressions render into words the relationship in which the person feels that it stands to the object of its faith.(p.269)  This person invests his own existence into the existence of that “object of faith,” such as “my team” or “my car” or “my job,” or, hopefully, my God.  Scheler says that “Essential to the act of faith is the unconditionality with which faith is pledged, and this of course in accordance with the objects location in the sphere of the absolute.”(p.269)  “Unconditionality” is the ultimate condition one put forth toward someone or some “thing.”  The key idea is whether that object for which one would make the ultimate sacrifice is an adequate or deserving subject for such a sacrifice?  Since God is the only being who can “adequately” fill our capacity for the infinite in our mind and soul, then it is only God who can satisfy man’s desire for the infinite.

With this in mind, Scheler discusses how a person’s idols, or that which is not God, are destroyed.  He says, “Once this cause is uncovered, once the veil is removed which concealed the idea of God from the soul of a man, once his idol is shattered, which he has interposed between himself and God, once he is restored to a correct vision from the jumbled or inverted order of things with which he bedeviled his mind’s eye or from the order of values that enslaved his heart, then it is that the religious act turns from its whoremongering in spontaneous quest of its proper object, the idea of God.”(p.268)  In other words, everyone can experience a “religious moment” in any variety of ways that reorder the hierarchy of being and values in one’s life with the Supreme Being, God Himself.

What about the Agnostic?

The Agnostic, who claims to “not know” or more literally “know nothing, Scheler pities the most.  He says that the Agnostic actively resists, in a purposeful, positive way, putting “the will against this covert foreknowledge and quest of the ens a se, a resistance which will not even permit the mind to form and judge the question of God’s existence. This active resistance is accompanied by a factitious clinging to the appearance of things, their superficial aspect.”(p.270)  So, the Agnostic regularly experiences epistemological doubt because he is confounded by the common sense exceptions to reliable sense data in everyday life which founds his paradoxical basis for ontological “nothingness” in place of God.

What is this “ens a se” that Scheler refers to?  According to The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy (Edited by Nicholas Bunnin and Jiyuan Yu, eISBN: 9781405106795, in 2004), the ens a se “is a thing that is completely self-sufficient and depends on nothing else for its existence, and its description is ascribed solely to God…God is ens a se by existing independent of anything else, but all created things, including human beings, are ens ex se because they depend on God for their existence.” So, we can say that Scheler is saying that all persons have a mind and soul which has within it a realm for the absolute and objective, which is best fit by the Supreme Being, God Himself, who is ens a se, totally sovereign in every way.  However, Scheler points out that what is peculiar about the Agnostic is not that he doesn’t have this absolute and objective realm within him nor that he has no desire for that which is ens a se but that he persistently deceives himself.  Scheler says, “The agnostic maintains [that] he can refrain from the act of faith, claims that he does not believe.  Did he but look more closely into his state of mind, he would notice that he is deceiving himself.  He too has an absolute sphere to his consciousness, one filled with some positive phenomenon.  He is not without any such sphere, neither is that [which] he has empty.  But this positive phenomenon is the phenomenon of the ‘void’ or of nothingness (in respect of value).”(p.269) The Agnostic reserves the absolute and objective realm with empty space, with nothing, it is nothing (relatively) that he “puts” there instead of God.  “No-thing” is the idol of the Agnostic who is the most deceived and in for a shocking “religious moment.”

First Things First, from Blaise Pascal

In Friendship on March 7, 2013 at 7:30 am


It would seem that all goods are interdependent, in relationship with the good of other things, and that no one good in life or in the world is “sovereign.”  It would seem that if we could just continue those things that are pleasant in life, while mitigating the painful, as much possible, then we’ll be happy.  Well, it is ironic, that the very rational, Blaise Pascal, the famous 17th Century French mathematician, physicist and inventor, would show his very heart-felt common sense ideas about life in his Pensées (Penguin Classics: New York. 1966.) or book on “thoughts.”

Pascal is bold, forthright and very rational throughout his Pensées but especially in the chapter entitled, “The Sovereign Good.”  He says, “Man without faith can know neither true good nor justice.”(p.45)  Here, Pascal reminds us of Saint Anselm’s statement “I believe, so that I may understand.”  It can be said, that if one starts with faith, there is an openness of the will to accept revealed knowledge, knowledge from faith.  A closer look at Pascal’s statement reveals that he is not excluding reason, but rather he is including faith as another reliable source of available knowledge, in addition to reason, so one to come to a complete understanding of what is the “true good” and “justice.”  He continues, “All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions…the reason why some go to war and some do not is the same desire in both, but interpreted in two different ways.”(p.45)  The notion that “there are no exceptions” also rings true as a universal statement, an obvious reminder that everyone seeks happiness, just not by the same means or by the same ends.  Like Aristotle says in the very first phrase of the Nicomachean Ethics, so too does Pascal bring up this truth, that all people desire to be happy.  We can see this commonality as a source of unity for everyone, and we can see here that Pascal points to the idea that its the interpretation of what will actually bring true happiness, the difference between what will actually bring happiness and a misperception of an end that will bring true happiness.

Pascal touches on another truism.  The present is fleeting and elusive, he says, “So, while the present never satisfies us, experience deceives us, and leads us on from one misfortune to another until death comes as the ultimate and eternal climax.” (p.45)  As he mentioned earlier, that “all men want to be happy,” we can think here of the idea that the difference between pleasure, delight, play and joy–these are all fleeting, short-lived not constantly sustainable, so we are unsatisfied with them because we know very well that that experience will come to an end.  He says “experiences decieves us.” This sort of doubt sounds quite Cartesian, but we can look at it maybe from another point of view, in that, all of these momentary joys of the present disappoint us as “deceptions” because maybe we think that in the moment that the joy will continue forever, ad infinitum but, of course, we find that they do not or maybe in the moment we also anticipate their end.  Therefore, we can be decieved in the moment when we forget about the temporality of joys, of pleasures and of delights, because we desire true happiness, true joy, true delight, not fleeting, not ending, not deceptive by its short-livedness, rather we desire everlasting joy, everlasting delight, everlasting happiness.

Pascal acknowledges the existence of the soul with our body, and we are certain that the soul is the part that purdures, that part lives beyond death, that part of us that is our deep-seated interior, our true identity as persons which is unique and unrepeatable, which is seeks unity but so often finds individuation.  So what do we do?  Pascal has some ideas, saying, “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?”  Here, we can see that Pascal believes in the a priori existence of the soul, and that our hearts, our will, our person, our being, has a logic of love oriented away from that which is temporal toward that which is eternal which we somehow foreknow.  He says, “This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” (p.45)  In other words, there is an exact fit to this longing in our heart, in our soul, in our life, and we know it exists to be filled, we want to be completed, but there is no thing that can do it no matter how long and hard we search.  Pascal says, “God alone is man’s true good, and since man abandoned him it is a strange fact that nothing in nature has been found to take his place: stars, sky, earth, elements, plants, cabbages, leeks, animals, insects, calves, serpents fever, plague, war, vice, adultery, incest. Since losing his true good, man is capable of seeing it in anything, even his own destruction, although it is so contrary at once to God, to reason and to nature. (p.46)  One might be reminded here of Saint Augustine’s famous quote, “My soul does not rest, until it rests in you O Lord” from his Confessions.  This “confession” of Pascal reminds us that “yes,” we desire happiness, and “yes,” we desire what is good for ourselves and for others, but first we should be careful that we constantly seek, in our “heart of hearts,” exclusively the “Sovereign Good” who can truly satisfy this infinite desire of ours, as Pascal says, this is only God Himself.