The OF Blog: Anarchism and Religious Morality: Thoughts on Books by Emma Goldman and Pope Benedict XVI

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Anarchism and Religious Morality: Thoughts on Books by Emma Goldman and Pope Benedict XVI

For eighteen hundred years, the Catholic Church has preached the gospel of peace.  Yet, when the people actually wanted to make this gospel a living reality, she urged the authorities to force them to bear arms.  Thus the dynasty of Spain followed the murderous methods of the Russian dynasty, – the people were forced to the battlefield. (p. 135)

This quote, taken from Emma Goldman's "Francisco Ferrer and the Modern School," represents a key component of her thoughts on liberty and religion.  An anarchist since her youth, Goldman approaches issues such as labor conditions, political tensions, religious belief, gender inequalities, and other related social issues from the view of what provides the most freedom for people.  As she said later on in that particular essay, Goldman views with antipathy anything hinting at discipline and restraint:  "Discipline and restraint – are they not back of all the evils in the world?  Slavery, submission, poverty, all misery, all social iniquities results from discipline and restraint. (p. 142)" 

There is much that is appealing to this virulent distrust of anything that hints at restraint or any control from an outside agency.  We live in a world where commercials exist to persuade us to "just do it," to "take the Pepsi challenge," to value as "priceless" things purchased with credit cards.  We imbibe the often-inane political mantras of all points on a spectrum of political thought – taxes are bad, the rich ought to pay a greater share, entitlements are good, entitlements are bad, the poor are wretched, the wretched are worthy of contempt – without much in the way of critical engagement with the issues at hand.  There is something ridiculous about the current arguments between the US branches of government about debt reductions, as why should some nebulous, intangible thing such as debt control our lives and futures as much as it does currently?  Cui bono?  Surely not mine nor yours, for do we ever really control the puppeteers that act out the farce that we see played out in political theaters all across the nation and world?

Goldman in several of the essays contained within Anarchism and Other Essays tackles these thorny issues.  She notes the betrayals of revolutions, of the tendency toward despotic centralism that infects even the most egalitarian of institutions.  Writing in the early 20th century, her take on woman suffrage is sobering in its blistering dismissal of it being a panacea for the social and economic ills that plagued the US a century ago.  So often we want to claim freedom, while we fasten the chains around us.

The central area of contention deals with religion and its role in constraining human action and apparent freedom.  Goldman criticizes not just the institutionalization of religion as represented by European Catholicsm, but also the Puritan streak (taint?) that is still visible today a century after Goldman's essay was composed.  Goldman begins by presenting a contrast between life and Puritan views:

More than art, more than aestheticism, life represents beauty in a thousand variations; it is, indeed a gigantic panorama of eternal change.  Puritanism, on the other hand, rests on a fixed and immovable conception of life; it is based on the Calvinistic idea that life is a curse, imposed upon man by the wrath of God.  In order to redeem himself man must do constant penance, must repudiate every natural and healthy impulse, and turn his back on joy and beauty. (p. 144)
This certainly rings true; several people do tend to denigrate the natural in favor of the idealistic.  Behind this, however, lurks a hidden question that Puritans and atheists like Goldman answer in opposite fashions:  just what "meaning," presuming there is one, that can be derived from life.  For Puritans, this is relatively simple:  life is meant to be lived in accordance with certain prescribed religious ideals and that the natural is subservient to a God that judges humans based on how close they hew to the idea of religious morality and its practices.  Goldman argues that life is a manifestation of change and the freedoms inherent in it.  Beauty is intrinsic; it does not require a curator to proclaim it to be "good," for it is already "good" without any need for a human to proclaim it so.  Whereas a Puritan would view discipline as the key to religious faith and the preservation of the link between humanity and God, Goldman in her essay "The Hypocrisy of Puritanism" argues that religion places fetters on human freedom and that its insistence on discipline and restraint deters humans from following a path to freedom.  Religion is the greatest and most cruel of slavemasters, as it shapes human responses to external stimuli in such a way that the fetters are not even detected by most.

Yet there is something dissatisfying about Goldman's arguments on religion.  Yes, religious dogma can easily enslave those who want to be bound to rules and regulations, yet there is that sneaking suspicion that behind the promise of anarchistic freedom lurks yet another insidious enslaving force, that of desire and the cravings it inspires.  Nothing in Goldman's essays really addresses those tendencies; they might be scarce imagined by her.  Yet there is a plethora of evidence that the non-disciplined tend to enslave themselves to certain impulses or substances.  Whether it is the drug addiction that I see everyday at my current job or if it is manifested in a vapid materialism that urges us to buy this or consume that in order to experience that fleeting high of satisfied lust, there just does not seem to be much freedom in anything humans ever create or act out.

What if there was a God?  What if that God was not the stern schoolmaster portrayed in Puritan sermons?  What if, indeed – it is a powerful question that does force us to consider the hypothetical arguments surrounding religious faiths.  This is especially true with Christianity these days, with the crises of faith it has experienced over its history.  How does one react to such a question (or to its inverse of what if there were no God)?  Do we reject it out of hand as being a tool of power-hungry humans or do we consider which elements might be true and which might be false?

In his 1968 book (revised in 2000), Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, tackles that question and other related ones.  He does not shy away from the nagging doubts surrounding the (non)existence of God; he embraces it.  Instead, he takes upon himself the difficult task of explicating a creed that is not always understood by the myriad Christian groups, much less those not members of this particular religion. 

At the heart of this book is the Apostle's Creed, conceived by the late fourth century CE.  The major part of the book is devoted to this creed, quoted below:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.
 Ratzinger's thoughts are erudite and yet written with a clarity that average laypeople can understand the points being made.  One such point is the very issue of control/restraint that so irritated Goldman in the 1910s.  He does not argue for a God that sits in judgment on a holy throne; instead he argues for the God who, in the human form of his son Jesus, offered himself up for sin expiation.  This touches upon the issue of humility, a presumed virtue that is not addressed in Goldman's book.  Is humility the ultimate gesture of a free soul, or is it the sign of the most depraved slavery?  Ratzinger would almost certainly argue that it is the former, based in part on this excerpt:

According, in the New Testament the Cross appears primarily as a movement from above to below.  It stands there, not as the work of expiation that mankind offers to the wrathful God, but as the expression of that foolish love of God's that gives itself away to the point of humiliation in order thus to save man; it is his approach to us, not the other way about. With this twist in the idea of expiation, and thus in the whole axis of religion, worship, too, man's whole existence, acquires in Christianity a new direction.  Worship follows in Christianity first of all in thankful acceptance of the divine deed of salvation.  The essential form of Christian worship is therefore rightly called Eucharista, thanksgiving.  In this form of worship human achievements are not placed before God; on the contrary, it consists in man's letting himself be endowed with gifts; we do not glorify God by supposedly giving to him out of our resources – as if they were not his already! – but by letting ourselves be endowed with his own gifts and thus recognizing him as the only Lord.  We worship him by dropping the fiction of a realm in which we could face him as independent business partners, whereas in truth we can only exist at all in him and from him.  Christian sacrifice does not consist in a giving of what God would not have without us but in our becoming totally receptive and letting ourselves be completely taken over by him.  Letting God act on us – that is Christian sacrifice. 
Ratzinger thus would likely dismiss Goldman's arguments due to this belief in a humble God who serves, among other things, as an exemplar for ideal human behavior rather than as an immortal, capricious despot.  This is not to say that Goldman's ideas do not have merit, for one only has to look at the practices of people following various religious creeds to see how readily some utilize religion as a means of controlling people, whether it be ministers exhorting their congregations to campaign against alcohol or, at its extreme, violent cult leaders like Jim Jones or David Koresh.  By our deeds we shall be known, for good or for ill.  Yet it is hard to fathom freedom without some sense of responsibility, which Ratzinger argues later in his book when he discusses the responsibility inherent in deeds born of faith.

At this point, one might wonder whether or not Goldman or Ratzinger is more correct.  It is, of course, only natural to take sides and to judge which is more cogently argued or which fits one's own needs better.  Although I am more inclined to Ratzinger's points (being raised in a religious family does influence one's takes on such matters), Goldman's arguments on freedom do merit consideration.  Questioning our assumptions often leads to fruitful introspection that in turn leads to new conceptualizations of life, ideals, and religious belief that can benefit someone regardless of whether or not that person ultimately views religion as a positive, mixed, or negative force.  Ratzinger's book is valuable in the sense that it is one of the deeper "introductions" to a religion that has deeply influenced global philosophical, political, social, and cultural currents for two millennia now.  Whether or not one agrees with him or not (I largely do) on matters of dogma and its application in the world, he puts forth the notion of a Christianity that depends more on voluntary action and sacrifice that centers itself around the notion of humility than around the utilitarian practices that many associate with this faith.  Reading both works certainly will provide much food for thought for others and this perhaps is the greatest worth that these two books contain.


Brian Murphy said...

Great post, and plenty of food for thought here.

Matthew Cheney said...

Very interesting books to compare, Larry -- my head spins even thinking about them on the same shelf! Goldman is one of my heroes, but I've never thought she was a very good philosopher; her Living My Life is the book to read; Anarchism and Other Essays is the first I encountered but one I still find more tantalizing than anything.

I expect she, and most anarcho-communists, would agree that responsibility is important, which is one of their arguments against a hierarchical state, that it not only oppresses but also diverts us from acknowledging our responsibilities. Religion, of course, she had no use for, especially a religion with a pope. (Well, and she was Jewish, and given some of the past skuffles between Christianity and Judaism...) She agreed at least in general with Kropotkin's ideas of mutual aid, and that's a concept in which responsibility is given a semi-scientific spin. Anarchism and nihilism are different things, religion is certainly not the only path toward discipline, and discipline is vastly more complex and less unambiguously good than I have time or space to explore here (but then, as someone who finds Foucault more philosophically interesting than Goldman, I would say that!)

It's hard to understand Goldman outside of a historical context, since she was not at all a systematic thinker, was as much activist as anything else, and lived during very interesting times. Alice Wexler's two biographies of her are worth seeking out (the first, Emma Goldman: An Intimate Life was reprinted in paper as, I think, Emma Goldman in America; the second is Emma Goldman in Exile). She was a remarkable, brilliant, contradictory, difficult person.

Emma Goldman and The Pope. Wow. I'm still marveling. Major points for thinking outside the box!

Larry said...


The two exist on separate e-book reader programs on my iPad, so maybe that doesn't quite count as being on the same shelf? :P

I've only read this particular book of hers (will likely read Living My Life at some point) and while my essay doesn't make it clear that she's not a strong philosopher (being as it is a focus on two points that I took from the two books I read over the past week), I do agree with your points. Oh, and I'm someone who has admired Foucault's writing since grad school in the mid-90s; perhaps I should review him sometime.

As for pairing her with the pope, it was just so I could think out in writing the points about constraint/worship that I pondered after finishing the two this past week. Don't know if I'll ever be able to do this sort of wacky pairing ever again, though.

Add to Technorati Favorites