Friday, October 3, 2014

Re-Post: The Abstract & The Concrete

There is this push in Christianity to make the faith as 'practical' as possible. The idea is to get religion down to the concrete, to make it accessible and 'useful' in the sense of having practical value. I think the fundamentalist movement in some way is an extension of the desire to make religion practical. Get the message simple and straightforward, understandable and usable, and people will follow you. I understand the impulse. One of the great fears of youth ministers is to hear that their youth are...gasp...bored. Boredom is the death knell of a youth ministry, or so we are told. Really, that is the great existential threat of our times: boredom. Everyone fears it. And since the abstract can be hard to understand, it can also leave people bored. Thus the abstract is equated with something almost evil.

You see this trend throughout culture. The humanities are being cut from college departments left and right, and people challenge philosophy departments in particular on the grounds that the subject is not 'useful'. I was recently challenged as to my support for Mars exploration as to what value such exploration has, based on practical benefits for people here on earth. BS, I call, BS. Instrumental value is not the only value. One of the insights of Christianity is that the 'use-less' is not 'value-less'. Knowledge is a value in and of itself. The act of exploration needs no practical justification...exploration is a value unto itself.

In the same way, the abstractness of Christianity, or its practical 'uselessness', is not something to run away from. Now, I don't think Christianity lacks any practical value. But its value is not solely practical. God is an end not a means. He is THE end, the point of everything. There is a sense in which I do not need to know everything about my wife. Certainly there are bits of information that don't make me a better husband, and more assuredly not better at anything else I do as a human being. But knowing my wife, and knowing about my wife, is an end and not a means. It has inherent value, not instrumental value. In the same way, knowing about God is an end in itself. It is not some means to an end. It is the pure value of having a deeper relationship with God.

There are parts of religion, large swaths really, that don't have any clear instrumental value. That does not make them valueless. There are aspects of Christianity that are inherently abstract, this does not mean that we should not explore them, and in detail at that. For such exploration is an end in itself. Time and eternity, freedom and predestination, imminence and is not clear what use any of this has in daily life. That does not make it important stuff. Indeed, I think it is supremely important stuff, and perhaps more important than much of the 'concrete' work that goes on. The most abstract, and the least useful, can perhaps even be the most important.

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