Arendt: Is Christianity Totalising?

Well, for the first time in what feels like too long, we’re coming back to Christianity. When I started The Origins of Totalitarianism, I had a suspicion that Christianity could be described as sharing particular structural similarities with a totalitarian state – that is, with Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. It’s not the sort of thing you enjoy suspecting about your own religion, but at any rate it made sense to investigate and see what turned up – and now here we are. 

One of the things Arendt argues is that part of the totalitarian process is an overlay of this “ideological superstition”. It’s a fundamental belief in the absolute totalising right-ness of one particular ideology, where, “as in the systems of paranoiacs, everything follows comprehensibly and even compulsorily once the first premise is accepted.” The problem here is that “the salvation value of stubborn devotion without regard for specific, varying factors already harbors the first germs of totalitarian contempt for reality and factuality.” This is what we’re really getting at here: when you start with a particular set of rules (eg. God exists and is revealed most fully in the person of Jesus Christ who was God in human flesh), there’s a fear that reality itself will be over-written by your crazy-ass set of rules. Rather than you coming to the table without baggage, and actually exploring the universe as it really is, you’re coming to the table with a set of biases and presuppositions and potentially ignoring reality.

To clarify, I’m not arguing that Christianity is de facto totalitarian, or that it’s de facto contemptuous towards reality. Don’t get ahead of the argument – all I’m saying, so far, is that there’s this particular fear we’ve identified which is linked to the totalitarian state. This fear seems to be the crux of post-modern thought. Now, as a term, I generally think post-modernism is messy, unreliable, and borderline totally fucking useless. However, in this instance, I can see its value for describing a particular intellectual position held by people in the wake of the Second World War. It’s probably not hugely stable, as a definition, but it’ll hold together for our purposes. Here’s the idea, then: post-modern thought is partially defined as the suspicion of totalising thought systems that threaten to over-write reality by bringing their own stupid biases to the table. It’s prompted by the horrors of the totalitarian states, and persists today as a cultural identity.

Curiously enough, actually, we’ve even seen this post-modern train of thought turn against the scientific community. People argue that science is prescriptive and totalising, that it’s telling us all about how the world works (but only in the light of its own biases and prejudices). The argument in short is that even science is over-writing reality with its own ideology. The entirely reasonable reply from the scientific community is that it tries to be purely descriptive about the world, rather than prescriptively defining how it works based on some biases or ideology. Stepping back from the immediate debate, we can note that Darwinism was used to justify things like racial segregation and fascism – we’ve talked about that in a previous post.

We’ve also got the example of that foolish man Tim Hunt, who basically described female scientists as “distractingly sexy, prone to weep when criticised and best segregated at work” (credit to the Guardian for the paraphrase). Clearly nobody’s calling into question the quality of Hunt’s scientific work, but the point is that scientists don’t exist in a cultural vacuum. They’re just as prone to stupid opinions as anybody else, and it’s entirely plausible that Hunt’s stupid opinions may have affected the results of the science. Even talking in the hypothetical, it’s possible to imagine a chauvinist dismissing the scientific findings of a female colleague based on the fact that she’s a woman. What we’re digging towards here is the idea that even though we don’t necessarily have to dismiss science as just another bullshit totalising ideology, it’s certainly not immune to criticism.

Let’s get back to Christianity. Obviously Christianity begins with some pretty totalising claims about the nature of God and reality. If they’re wrong, then Christians are guilty of a general contempt for reality. There have certainly been several instances in the past where Christians have just been proved objectively wrong: they didn’t think women were capable of holding the vote, they didn’t think black people were capable of self-government, there was the whole Earth going round the Sun thing – there’s a long list of stupid bullshit justified by the presuppositions brought to the table. One response is to argue that those Christians just had a bad understanding of God and reality – thus implying that there’s a ‘correct’ Christian understanding and preserving the rationale for the faith. However, there’s a strong and convincing argument that belief in God in the first place is already a prescriptive ideology. The defence of the faith as ‘not a prescriptive ideology’ hinges on the existence of God. If God doesn’t actually exist, then yeah, Christians are guilty of a general contempt for reality. That said, if (the Christian) God does exist, then actually Christians are more attached to reality than anybody else. We’ll find out when we die (or we won’t).

In the meantime, however, it’s interesting to see how the faith has responded to this post-modern thought. One response is to revive Aquinas and his argument that there’s nothing true we can say about God’s nature. He’s not actually arguing that God is opaque – rather he’s suggesting that God is too damn big for any of our words or language to accurately represent. We can only accurately talk about God insofar as He acts as a divine mediator – so basically God reveals Himself in words we can understand. They’re not totally accurate, but they’re passable for now. This whole affair is basically a reinterpretation of Christianity along post-modern lines – closed systems of meaning are inherently suspicious, God’s infinity shatters the closure of meaning, we are oriented towards receiving God’s revelation rather than prescriptively defining anything ourselves, so on, so forth. If nothing else, it’s an interesting line of defence against the concerns of a world that’s seen totalitarian horrors.

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