Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Religion of Experience

Rousseau set out to counter the Religion of Reason by replacing Reason as the key to religion and substituting Experience. According to him, the only way to know something was to read it in the book of nature. And what is this book of nature? Why his own natural self, of course. What he meant is that we do not know anything unless we read it in our own nature, through our natural ways. How does one move from oneself into religion? According to Rousseau there are three convictions:

  1. If we reflect on ourselves with a position of doubt, reminiscent of Descartes, we will come to the conclusion that there had to be someone outside of the self to cause the self. And if the self is ordered, then the creator is the one who creates order. Thus, he can conclude that "a will moves the universe and animates nature." (Modern Christian Faith, Livingston, pg. 43) This then points to the second conviction.
  2. If there is a will, there has to be an intellect. Therefore, there is an intelligent first cause. We can look at the order and not just posit something that created the order, but we can posit that the creator of order has an intelligence which allows order to be created and maintained. This intelligent first cause can then, in the common vernacular, be called God
  3. From the first two premises, we can conclude and see that there is a separation of the physical and the mental. With this, we can posit that the mental, our intelligence, is free from the physical. With this, he states, "Man is free in his actions and as such is animated by an immaterial substance." (pg. 43)
Now, if this sounds like the starting point of the Religion of Reason, do not be confused. It is. However, Rousseau makes a move from these logical assertions that no Rationalist would make. The key change he makes is summarized by Livingston: "Reason cannot produce assent to religious beliefs until it is in harmony with our affections and conscience." (pg. 43) This leads Rousseau to posit two requisites for the affirmation of faith:
  1. "Religious ideas, doctrines or convictions" have to be "related to and a reflection upon our personal experience." (43) It is not enough for doctrines and ideas to be reasonable to warrant our assent. Our intellect can assent to such things, but that is only step one. For the doctrines, ideas and convictions to be valid, they need to pass the text of my personal experience. Do I see these to be true? Do they have bearing on my everyday life? Do I encounter these ideas in the concrete, non-abstract world?
  2. The only concerns that are not idle speculation are those that are related to my moral sentiments. If it does not affect my behavior, then it is worthless at worst, and needs to be meet with skepticism at best. 
In Rousseau, you can see a dynamic shift from Reason to Experience. But what is kept is the importance of the self. You will notice that in the second requisite, nothing external judges right or wrong, true or false. It is my moral sentiment, not moral sentiment that validates or invalidates ideas and doctrines.

The positive step that Rousseau takes for the Church is that "he strove for a conception of reason more consonant with human experience than the narrow rationalism of the critical Deists." (pg. 45) Religion is not an abstract system of knowledge for Rousseau, and that is a wonderful insight. Religion needs to have a grounding in actual life. Without this grounded, it has no bearing or weight on us.

The negative is that it is not only a move towards Moralism, but Subjectivism. If it does not speak to me, I will not listen. Doctrines like the Incarnation, Virgin Birth, Election, or the Trinity do not matter if they do not address my feelings. This quickly leads to an anti-intellectualism in the Church. The Church becomes a place of comfort not due to the salvific work of the Cross, but because it confirms my feelings and attitude toward the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment