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In Spite Of

I’ve been critical of Eric Weiner’s Man Seeks God here and there over the last little while (see here, for example), but the book does contain some memorable and insightful passages as well. One must give credit where credit is due. The themes of this quote, for example, struck me as fitting well with the words of Václav Havel in my previous post:

Those three words—in spite of—are the holiest in the English language. As Paul Tillich observes, the answer to every religious question always contains some element of “in spite of.” We are forgiven in spite of our sins. We believe in spite of the lack of evidence. We love our neighbors in spite of their flaws. Or, on a more fundamental level, we get out of bed every morning in spite of the inevitable approach of death. (An act of faith if ever there was one.) There is a huge gap between “because of” and “in spite of,” and in that gap lies the difference between a life of cold reason and a life of faith.

Most of the time we operate in because-mode. Banks lend us money because we have good credit histories. Our employer pays our salary because we contribute to the bottom line. Economic life depends entirely on “because.” The religious life, though, operates in “in spite of” mode… “In spite of” makes a mockery of cost-benefit analysis. It makes no sense, and that is precisely why we need it.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Re: “As Paul Tillich observes, the answer to every religious question always contains some element of “in spite of.””

    My impression from Tillich’s writings is that this is part of the way Tillich connected Christianity and existentialism – through a kind of courage and authenticity. Bultmann’s approach was similar.

    One can certainly see similar “in spite of” language throughout the Bible, even in a passage like, “Though he may slay me, I will yet trust in him.” I think that historically this language found its place in scripture because of the exile. The existentialist sense of being thrown into existence, thrown into a world alien to us connects with the exile experience and that is, I think, the basis for existentialist theology like that of Tillich, for example.

    I don’t think in those terms as much as I once did. Now I think more like Eliade – religion involves a kind of escape from the terror of history through finding or setting up an axis mundi. The existentialism is still there in such thought because the terror of history is similar to existentialist alienation. And Eliade’s metaphor “terror of history” connects still with the exile. And yet, I don’t think so much now of religious questions, as much as I just seek to connect with God through nature mainly. I feel like less of an alien now, and more part of a whole. I have not been thrown anywhere. I am (we are) part of a wonderful whole. The terror of history is still there, of course, and yet I am able to live outside of it to some degree by making this connection with God, with the whole of which we are all part, through nature.

    The connection is not made through reason, but through being there in the wildness that is all around us. And so, it is something like maintaining a “difference between a life of cold reason and a life of faith.” It is so easy. I just hike and it happens.

    I think the most surprising thing about such theology, whether that of Heidegger and his kind, such as Tillich, or of Eliade, or of me, is the importance of Darwin’s picture of life to such theology. And perhaps there is something of an “in spite of” there. Darwin never meant to write theology. And yet, it is his observation about the origin of species that enables one to see the wholeness of the universe and our being part of it, even while one experiences the terror of history.

    April 2, 2012
    • If there is a continuum between “being thrown into a world alien to us” and being “part of a wonderful whole,” I would probably put myself somewhere in the middle (a real shocker, I know…). I don’t think of the world as “alien,” but neither am I ever able to entirely escape the sense that there is a kind of “fracture” in the heart of reality. The world is simultaneously a source of wonder and delight AND a source of pain and longing. Perhaps this is something like what you mean when you say, “the terror of history is still there, of course”—that even though we are part of something bigger than ourselves, there is a darkness that hangs over our experience—a darkness that our hope is always “in spite of.”

      (I confess that I am not nearly so well-versed in Eliade and Tillich as you, but I do appreciate the window into their thought that you provide here.)

      April 2, 2012

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