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

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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.”

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