Faith Beyond the Masters of Suspicion: High Gravity Pt. 1 (Ricoeur)

One of the ways in which I’m nerding out this summer is by participating in an online course on the Radical Theology tradition. It’s put on by Tripp Fuller over at Homebrewed Christianity as well as author and post-modern philosopher Pete Rollins. Each week we read a passage from someone who’s contributed to the Radical Theology tradition before posting our questions and areas of clarification on a discussion board. Tripp and Pete then take up the questions in a lecture that introduces the thinker and his contributions to the tradition. It’s been a fantastic experience of alternative education thus far and I’m really looking forward to the rest of it.

I want to take some time to blog through some of the insights I pick up from the readings as well as the lectures so that I can both better internalize the content and broaden the conversation to include those who read the posts on my blog. Much of the content is pretty dense and difficult to wade through especially if you’re not versed in philosophical concepts and jargon. The two pieces we’ve read thus far, one from Paul Ricoeur and another from Martin Heidegger, were not easy for me to grasp (although the lecture definitely helped!) given my lack of experience in the realm of the primary sources of philosophy. For these reasons, what I want to do here is not provide an exhaustive introduction to the thinker and the piece that I read for the course (I don’t feel qualified to do so) but rather just highlight a few insights and offer some commentary when necessary.

We began the course by reading two essays by the French thinker Paul Ricoeur entitled “The Critique of Religion” in which he discusses who he calls the masters of suspicion (MoS), namely, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud and the implications of their critiques of religion for the Christian and, the second essay, “The Language of Faith” in which he attempts to formulate a way for us to use religious language in a world that has internalized the critique of the MoS.

Ricoeur begins by touching on the critiques of each of the MoS.

(What follows is obviously a gross oversimplification of the critiques of the three MoS. Feel free to add to and/or nuance each of the critiques I summarize in the comments)

For Marx, religion is used as a mechanism of oppression. Those who are submissive in this life are said to be rewarded with a paradise in the next and those who are in power in this life are given an ideological foundation for their spot at the top of the hierarchy of classes. Thus, religion rewards the passivity of those in the working class who, rather than submitting to the oppressive ruling class in the name of obedience to God, ought to be engaging in a revolution aimed at overthrowing them.

Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity comes out in a quote that Tripp read for us in the lecture:

“Belief in what? In love with what? In hope for what?—There’s no doubt that these weak people—at some time or another they also want to be the strong people, some day their “kingdom” is to arrive—they call it simply “the kingdom of God” as I mentioned. People are indeed so humble about everything! Only to experience that, one has to live a long time, beyond death—in fact, people must have an eternal life, so they can also win eternal recompense in the “kingdom of God” for that earthly life “in faith, in love, in hope.” Recompense for what? Recompense through what? In my view, Dante was grossly in error when, with an ingenuity inspiring terror, he set that inscription over the gateway into his hell: “Eternal love also created me.” Over the gateway into the Christian paradise and its “eternal blessedness” it would, in any event, be more fitting to let the inscription stand “Eternal hate also created me”—provided it’s all right to set a truth over the gateway to a lie! For what is the bliss of that paradise? Perhaps we might have guessed that already, but it is better for it to be expressly described for us by an authority we cannot underestimate in such matters, Thomas Aquinas, the great teacher and saint: “In the kingdom of heaven” he says as gently as a lamb, “the blessed will see the punishment of the damned, so that they will derive all the more pleasure from their heavenly bliss.”

Thus, for Nietzsche when Christians claim that they love those whom they say will be damned they are merely perpetuating a delusion. Underneath, our talk of love is really a deep-seated hatred of the other. Nietzshe called this the “will behind the will.”

Freud’s critique is that religion is really a means of satisfying humanity’s hidden desires. In other words, religion is nothing more than a coping mechanism in the face of our worst fears (like fear of death) or a way for us to superficially satisfy our deepest longings.

It’s been my experience that many well-meaning Christians respond to these potent critiques of Christianity in one of two ways:

  1. They ignore them. By plugging your ears to the most cogent critiques of Christianity you never have to face the holes in your own belief system.
  2. They dismiss them as atheists who don’t have anything true to offer us.

For Ricoeur both of these responses are unacceptable. If one is to have a genuine faith in the modern world one must pass through the brutal critique of the MoS and somehow come out on the other side. If this is not done then we’re left with nothing more than a shallow faith that holds no water in a world that has thoroughly internalized and accepted as true the critiques of the MoS. In other words, we as Christians must face the facts: our faith is often a mask that is covering something unhealthy at best or, at worst, sinister that’s going on beneath the surface.

In order for us to move forward we must begin to dream of what faith looks like beyond the critiques of the MoS. We must acknowledge the ways in which our own faith has indeed been a means of oppression or of masking our secret hatred or of coping with our deep-seated fears.

In what ways have you seen these critiques operating in the lives of Christians?

What might faith look like on the other side of the MoS?