Bag video

Holland, MI The present age remains haunted by the specter of “atheism,” with significant consequences for our understanding of politics. I think we can distinguish between at least three different sorts of atheism (meant here as a rejection of traditional notions of God), and find variations within each type. The first type I would identify as a materialist atheism. Cicero, in his Tusculan Disputations identified “the disease of consciousness” as manifesting itself in restless moneymaking, status-seeking, womanizing, overeating, addiction to delicacies and snacks, alcohol abuse, irascibility, anxiety, desire for fame and public recognition, rigidity of attitude, and various forms of misanthropy. These are symptoms of a pathology wherein the soul has misdirected itself.

The hedonism resulting from misplaced love can quickly turn into boredom, and from there into despair – a second type of atheism. This is the problem of acedia, an unwillingness to live up to the glory to which God calls us, emptying us of our aspirations to the good. It is a refusal to engage in the hard work that a well-ordered but ultimately satisfying life requires. It is, in Christian parlance, a turning against a faith that presents obstacles to our lusts and desires.

If acedia is sorrow in the face of God’s intentions for our lives and his creation, then the final kind of atheism is the opposite of that. Rebellious atheism is the conviction that divine intentions act as barriers to the greatness we might otherwise achieve. The foremost articulator of rebellious atheism was Ludwig Feuerbach, who saw religion as a necessary step in the dialectical process which would end in the glorification of man. Feuerbach claimed that the “divinity of man” was the final aim of all religion, and that “the turning point of history will be the moment when man becomes aware that the only God of man is man himself.” This type of atheism has at least two experiential sources. One source would be the conviction that God seriously botched things, while another would be an expansion of the human tendency toward self-deification.

This tendency is represented by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra who, upon determining the conjectured nature of God announces that he will “reveal my heart entirely to you, my friends: if there were gods, how could I endure not to be a god! Hence there are no gods.” It was given to Nietzsche to see the range of implications of such rebellion. In his “Parable of the Madman,” Nietzsche presents the death of God not as an occasion of celebration, but one that induces dread and foreboding. The death of God would cast us into an abyss from which we couldn’t escape. Faced with this situation, Nietzsche sought consolation and suggested we must now become gods ourselves. Failure to do so will cast “a shadow over Europe” that will lead to the “long plenitude and sequence of breakdown, destruction, ruin and cataclysm;” it was the foretelling of a “monstrous logic of terror,” a “gloom and an eclipse of the sun whose like has probably never yet occurred on earth.”

Nietzsche saw the path to apotheosis as the only one available to us. It was born simultaneously of his hatred for the “God of the Christians” and the expansion of the will to power into divine substance. The fascination with the expansion of human power is explored to its limits by Nietzsche in his own relentless self-exploration. But we find here also the dead end of such self-defining movements. From within his rebellion, Nietzsche can find no way out, expressed in his lament that “I do not know the happiness of those who receive; and I have often dreamed that stealing must be more blessed than receiving. This is my poverty, that my hand never rests from giving; this is my envy, that I see waiting eyes and the lit-up nights of longing. Oh, wretchedness of all givers! Oh, darkening of my sun! Oh, craving to crave! Oh, ravenous hunger in satiation!”

Nietzsche demonstrated the connection that exists between the movement of self-apotheosis and the hunger for power. By extending his analysis of the death of God into the realm of time, he came to see that prior ideological movements had attempted to maintain the teleological structure of reality while denying the ground of existence from which reality emerges and toward which it moves. As a result, the great social movements of the 19th century were regarded by Nietzsche as incoherent. So too were the theories of moral action which were derived from Christianity, even while they predicated themselves on the rejection of Christianity. Stripped of their teleological assumptions, these movements and ideas were thus exposed as little more than grabs at power. Moreover, because of the relentless honesty of his questioning, Nietzsche posed a genuine problem for those who would hold to the atheistic viewpoint: many of them can maintain their atheism, but only at the cost of intellectual dishonesty.

Once Nietzsche’s analysis is known, the consequences prove to be too much for most to bear. Nietzsche thus argues that the world will belong to the last men, those who will live a herd-like existence in a deformed and defamed view of rationality; or to those who, scornful of the last men, will be nihilists, knowing all values are man-made and that human beings are pure will. They put truthfulness above happiness, resolute in their will to mastery. Nietzsche believed the future would be divided between those who pursued an empty and boring happiness and those who would rather will nothing than not will.

This dual dynamic finds further development in the thought of Albert Camus, who had little patience with Christian orthodoxy or its emphasis on the redemptive value of suffering.  At the same time, Camus was haunted by the horrors of mass existence. In The Rebel he identifies the “impatience with limits” and the deification of the self as the source of the widespread cruelty and bloodshed of the 20th century. After fighting against and killing God, Europeans turned their attention to fighting against and killing one another. The kingdom of justice, he wrote, crumbled after the destruction of the kingdom of grace.

In The Plague, Camus reflects on the relationship between power and suffering. In the novel, the plague itself stands as a metaphor for the modern extension of political power and Camus explores how to live within the confines of this absurdity. The character Rambert notes that mankind has “lost the capacity for love” and insists that we must “wait to acquire that capacity or, if it’s beyond us, wait for the deliverance that will come for each of us.” More to the point, the two main characters in the novel, Rieux and Tarrou, who are working diligently to tend to the plague-sufferers, have a conversation concerning their reasons for doing so. Tarrou discusses the organization of modern life around the use of violence, and how he determined to resist this. “’It comes to this,’ Tarrou said almost casually, ‘what interests me is learning how to become a saint.’ ‘But you don’t believe in God.’ ‘Exactly! Can one be a saint without God? – that’s the problem, in fact the only problem, I’m up against today.’”

Camus saw the crisis of modernity as resulting from spiritual loss. In the arc of his career we see a movement from protest, to analysis, to longing, to recognizing divine forgiveness and the cleansing power of sacrificial love as the end of that longing. Camus’ most unforgettable character, Jean-Baptiste Clamence in The Fall, went through the process of self-apotheosis, realizing at the end of the novel that the only way out of the hell he created for himself was to pursue a new baptism in the waters of sacrificial love. Redolent with Christian symbolism, the novel traces Clamence through a series of falls that conclude with his realization that his virtue is purely a mask, that the deepest desires of his heart reflect the libido dominandi.

In both his mode of address and in his vocation as judge-penitent, Clamence gets us to realize that he is a mirror, and we have succumbed to the lust for power and domination, couching them in the language of virtue. From the grip of this lust Clamence (like Augustine in Book VIII of The Confessions) can find no escape. His soul has closed in upon itself, even though there are moments of humbled self-doubt. Clearly, though, he has two choices: to continue to pursue the project of self-apothesois and the indulgences of a perverted will, or to face his guilt and finitude, moving to a life of humility and love.

Earlier in the novel, he had failed to jump into the river to save a young woman who was drowning. Clamence’s question to us at the end of the novel is designed to resonate to our core: “Are we not all alike, constantly talking and to no one, forever up against the same questions, although we know the answers in advance? Then please tell me what happened to you one night on the quays of the Seine and how you never managed to risk your own life.” His anguished concluding cry “O young woman, throw yourself into the water again so that I may a second time have the chance of saving both of us!” is the cry of modern humanity cut off from the ground of its being, desperately pleading for divine grace.  Clamence’s resigned “It’s too late now.  It will always be too late.  Fortunately!” demonstrates that we avoid the journey of faith because it is too difficult for most to bear.

As Eric Voegelin wrote: “Ontologically, the substance of the things hoped for is nowhere to be found but in faith itself; and epistemologically, there is no proof for things unseen but again this very faith. The bond is tenuous, indeed, and it may snap easily. The life of the soul in openness toward God, the waiting, the periods of aridity and dullness, guilt and despondency, contrition and repentance, forsakenness and hope against hope, the silent stirrings of love and grace, trembling on the verge of a certainty that if gained is loss – the very lightness of this fabric may prove to be too heavy a burden for men who lust for massively possessive experience…. The more people are drawn or pressured into the Christian orbit, the greater will be the number among them who do not have the spiritual stamina for the heroic adventure of the soul that is Christianity.”

Identifying the free movement of the soul in faith constitutes a new truth, making atheistic forgetfulness no longer a possibility. But like Nietzsche “craving to crave” we are culturally so cut-off from the sources and objects of faith that recovery becomes nearly impossible. For example, in the ironically entitled movie American Beauty, set in the extreme boredom of suburban America, Ricky is an amateur filmmaker fascinated with things beautiful. At one point he invites the girl-next-door, Jane, over to watch a video he made of “the most beautiful thing” he had ever seen. The video is of a bag being buffeted by the wind. As they are watching it, he says: “It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it, right?  And this bag was like, dancing with me.  Like a little kid begging me to play with it.  For fifteen minutes.  And that’s the day I knew there was this entire life behind things, and … this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid.”

Ricky is having an intimation of a transcendent reality. However, we in the audience are having the same reaction that Jane is having: we can’t see anything beautiful in the video. It is random and pedestrian. “Video’s a poor excuse,” Ricky continues, “but it helps me remember. And I need it to remember. Sometimes there is so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.” Ricky shoots the video in the paradox of hidden beauty, resulting from our lack of vision, and points to an underlying societal crisis. As we watch Ricky’s video, we realize that as a culture we have forgotten God, but what is worse, we have forgotten we have forgotten. So we are twice removed from the Truth: it is no longer a living reality for us, and we can hardly see its traces.

Ricky is a tragic figure, twice removed from the Beauty he so desperately seeks, his heart caving in but not opening. He is longing for Beauty, but the world he inhabits can give him nothing more than a paper bag floating on the wind. His longings go unsatisfied.

According to Plato the Good deals with justice, the True with philosophy, and the Beautiful with art. Our culture’s disregard for art/beauty and philosophy/truth has led to a genuine crisis in justice/good. Think, for example, of the following words of Nietzsche: “Justice. – I’d rather let myself be robbed than be surrounded by scarecrows – that is my taste. And in any case, it is a matter of taste – nothing more!” In other words, all our talk about justice is merely a “construct,” a mechanism by which we try to keep ourselves safe and secure. But like any construct, it can easily be deconstructed and then reconstructed in accordance with our tastes, for any talk of justice or goodness is nothing more than personal tastes and can have no binding claim on anyone else.

When the claims of philosophy are deconstructed, and the claims of art subjectivized and eroticized, then also will the claims of justice be reduced to power. Claims of power can only be upheld by coercion, for by definition there is nothing we can be persuaded of. There is no reason, given in the nature of things, why we should want justice. We might do so as a matter of taste, but such postulating has no foundation, resulting from intimations but having no rational defense.

This crisis of justice is being experienced by us on all sides. We have forgotten what is Good, and what is worse, we have forgotten we have forgotten. But we are not hopeless. In the traces of beauty, of Divine presence, our intimations turn to longing, and our longing to remembering. The call that comes to us from Beyond can result in the opening of the soul to the voice of the Other. That Other has an objective reality that we can know more or less, and that we can respond to more or less faithfully. After our consciousness has been differentiated to the reality of the Other, it cannot go back except in either atheistic forgetfulness or intellectual dishonesty.

Once the reality of the love of God is known to us, it stands as a new Truth, revealed to us in its sublimity, and as the “incredibly benevolent” force behind all things. In such recovery we recover our humanity.  We must remember to remember what is Good, have our remembering pass into thinking, and from there into loving. Outside of our liturgical communities, remembering to remember becomes most difficult. Religious disciplines force us to remember, and it is largely in this sense that communities teach us to love.

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Jeffrey Polet
Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.


  1. Over at that redoubt of those who would rather have an elevator than a front porch…First Things…not long ago, someone was discussing one of the current declarations of a basic human right and they said something that is of great clarity : When we discuss what might be a right, we may be talking about something that is less a “right” than it is a “good”. It would appear that this notion of “rights” has subsumed the basic morality of any issue, thus effectively replacing moral considerations with a secular righteousness upon any professed claim…a righteousness that is automatic now and so “freed” from the far more complex issue of morality. With freedom like this, who needs slavery? Relativism replaces moral conviction but it is a righteous relativism…the worst kind, the kind that is always covetous of power.

    Rights are made pedestrian these days , not a grail but something as common as grains of sand on a beach, thus easily deformed by the waves of ideology that storm into our midst with regularity. Everything we discuss as a social construct should be held up to the light of the Good, not in the prosaic manner of morality that is bandied about by the constantly scheming political class but the simple, unadorned and immortal light of Good. Thanks for this piece.

  2. I don’t know, this is just a delightful piece, and worthy of an in-depth critique where we might argue that there’s just a bit too much despair….or is there?
    We have come to see that Voegelin’s mentor(?), Herr Schelling had established the greatest critique of the Enlightenment in his ‘proton pseudo’, the first error that declared the idea of the substantial difference between ‘subjects’ and ‘objects’ to be truth, when in fact it was error. Then by developing his identity philosophy that precedes discourse or reflective thought, that resulted in the force to critique the Enlightenment rationalists, where reality is beyond rational manipulation and to illustrate the idea that reason stands well beyond the subject-object paradigm.
    And, there is so much more Schelling did to the monsters of the egophanic revolt that there remains hope for the West if good men are determined to gain the knowledge and speak the truth to reality.
    And, today, in my wife’s Bible study I learned the meaning of the 23rd Psalm…which addresses these questions perfectly.
    Delightful essay!

  3. I too was disappointed in “American Beauty,” which is, as you say, an ironically titled film. However, I could understand how Rickey might find the bag blowing in the wind a subject of minor interest to record on video.

    Moreover, I don’t see Rickey as a tragic figure, for that. There are certainly beautiful objects, people, places in the world to see and record. Rickey and the movie, can be “redeemed,” if you will, within the film’s own thought and aesthetic system.

  4. “We are no longer dealing with differences of political opinion, you see, with matters of mere ratiocination on which intelligent persons of good will might disagree. We are dealing with the deep-down psyche-shaping forces of culture. With matters of Purity. With all that Rieff and the anthropologists have meant by culture. And about cultural matters, Rieff knew, there could be no arguing…”

    Which was how Jeremy Beer was putting it when talking about liberals in his thoughtful, well-written essay. As is yours. I’m struck by the coincidence of having you write that atheism is “..symptoms of a pathology…a refusal to engage in the hard work that a well-ordered but ultimately satisfying life requires….the conviction that divine intentions act as barriers to the greatness we might otherwise achieve.”

    I’m not certain that you have enough shades of atheism. Sometime people just come to the conclusion that religion is a power game, a way to control what people think and do. Sometimes they conclude that it’s a bronze-age mythology, outdated and irrelevant. You know, it’s hard to rebel against something which one does not believe has existence.

    Anyway, maybe it’s possible to live with an overarching sense of awe and wonder and reverence for life and humans and the earth without any religious belief.

    But that’s not my point – I’m neither a theologian nor a Richard Dawkins clone – your essay is thoughtful and insightful, and I enjoyed it very much. I simply would have liked to seen a bone thrown out to that one atheist who’s actually well-adjusted, moral, virtuous and loving. It’s possible. But maybe it’s hard work – as you say so eloquently, “the hard work that a well-ordered but ultimately satisfying life requires.”

    I’ve had a similar discussion on atheist boards, except my position in that case was on the side of religion. I volunteer for hospice, and was making the point that from my own experience religious belief often provides tremendous sustenance for both the dying and their families. I found it quite difficult to get people to move past the opening position that religious belief was symptomatic of some pathology.

    I am guessing that this is indicative of a general insecurity in our present society – taking the other seriously, granting that the other may have a reasonable, intelligent and yet polar opposite view perhaps feels too threatening. I don’t know, of course. Just curious.

  5. Some good thoughts, Dave. Thank you.

    I know many of the hard-working, “well-adjusted, moral, virtuous and loving” atheists Dave describes, and I think it unfair to assert that all atheists are simply hedonistic, rebellious, or lazy. I know from experience that challenging faith and living with faith are equally difficult. I know a number of atheists who describe the path to unbelief as a harrowing, difficult experience. Far from being lazy or rebellious, (and given that many of my atheist friends grew up leading simple Mennonite lives by the work of their hands, certainly not hedonistic), these atheists are some of the most well-adjusted individuals I know.

  6. Thank you for your comments. I would like to point out that at the beginning I refer to “at least” three types of atheism. This qualification was intentional, for I did not pretend to have an exhaustive analysis. Here I focus on a very particular type: the rebellious type. I don’t assume that everyone who considers themselves an atheist will find themselves so defined.

    That said, there remain some unanswered questions. A self-identified atheist may in fact be “well-adjusted” and virtuous, but that doesn’t solve some fundamental problems. Just as Christians may not live lives of virtue consistent with their faith and thus be less than that which is vouchsafed to them, so also atheists may be inconsistent as regards the connection between their beliefs and their actions, and thus be better persons than their beliefs imply. Such, at least, seems to be the trajectory of Nietzsche’s thinking on this issue. Is their virtue a residual of Western morality? Have they, to use MacIntyre’s analogy, simply picked up and clung to fragments of the tradition, even while they reject it in toto?

    Then too, I make no judgment concerning the difficulty any particular person may encounter in pursuing such a path. I don’t assume it’s easy. Indeed, if one comes from a deeply pious background such choosing may be accompanied by tremendous personal heartache and conflict. This makes one wonder even more why a person would choose such a path. Could such choosing, despite their own self-understanding, be related to impulses of superbia? Might it involve a type of negation, and if so, why? These seems to me questions worth asking.

    Finally, I am intrigued by the notion of atheists being “well-adjusted.” The obvious question is: to what, exactly, are they well-adjusted? If we take Freud seriously in claiming that civilization involves adjusting the desires of the individual to the surrounding culture, then I have to confess I would expect to find atheists to be among the best adjusted persons in this culture, and Christians among the worst. But that might well be more a commentary on the state of the culture than on the veracity of any adopted belief.

    My own interest in this subject has two experiential sources I’ve identified: 1) the profound attractiveness of atheism; and, 2) the belief that Christians haven’t extended basic charity in trying to understand atheism, both from within the atheist experience, and also in terms of allowing the claims of atheism to shape Christian experience. I have much more I could say about that, but will leave it there for now.

  7. I’m not sure if I’m exactly an atheist– I certainly don’t agree with Richard Dawkins on much of anything. But then again I’m not a Christian, either. A freethinker in the fullest sense, I suppose. In that light, a few comments:

    I do think that the kind of atheism that you talk about does exist, and some of it does contain submerged belief. There are those who reject God like adolescents testing their limits, and break all the rules to see if God will care. This can do a lot of harm, and such people might well be better off returning to the church. It is not unlikely that they will, since their atheism really is mere rebellion.

    I think a lot of Christians assume that all atheism is like this, like the phases of doubt and rebellion they may themselves have been through. But that’s not always the case.

    I am deeply interested in virtue, truth, and beauty, and I do see that there is some of that in some parts of the vast Christian world (more in some parts than others). I would freely admit that I owe some of my outlook and morality to Christian thought and Christian values, but I don’t think that obligates me to take on Christian beliefs in their fullest form. It would be easier, I admit, to join a church and let my values be dictated by that community. But I cannot see churches as other than human concerns, or those at the pulpit as other than human beings speaking their own minds and creating their own values, which many times stray far from what the Bible seems to say on the face of it.

    I don’t trust human authority. I understand that for some people following tradition and respecting authority works, and gives them a path through life. I don’t have that experience. I have my reasons for not trusting authority and tradition, and they are not trivial. I cannot joyfully return to the fold and place my trust in God, pretending not to know that words about God come from fallible men, and can be used to manipulate, to dominate, to hurt. This is a source of considerable disappointment to me. I love the idea of tradition– the reality, however, is too complicated for me to wholeheartedly embrace.

    So although I am just as interested in truth, and virtue, and beauty as you are, following my conscience and understanding of truth as well as I can keeps me out of church at the moment. There is some amount of independence in this, certainly, some amount of following my own discernment, but it is not arrogant or materialistic. Is it sad? Well, maybe it’s a little bit sad. But I can see the beauty in bags flapping in the wind. Reality is beautiful everywhere you look. That’s something else that can be missed.

  8. I assume Erika is female…a breath of fresh air on the Front Porch which seems to be inhabited by males. I agree with her. Organized religion seems to me to be about men making rules for everyone else. Reality is beautiful everywhere you look…get off the porch, gentlemen, and take a walk.

  9. “This is a source of considerable disappointment to me. I love the idea of tradition– the reality, however, is too complicated for me to wholeheartedly embrace.”

    Erika, I’m afraid I don’t understand your sentiment here. Or elsewhere, when you mention that Christians perhaps don’t “understand” atheists. Lots of us are converts, reverts, or wanderers-in, as I’m sure you know.

    “Organized religion seems to me about men making rules for everyone else.”

    My wife will be sooo miffed when she finds out I’m fallible.

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