Leszek Kolakowski, socialist and Christian. Kolakowski was a polish intellectual who died in 2009. He is most well-known for his critical analysis of Marxism, but he was hardly a Western liberal. His political position, and only his political position, could be compared to that of Bernie Sanders. In other words, he was a democratic socialist. When Poland was a satellite of the Soviet Union, Kolakowski was effectively exiled, spending the next forty years at prestigious universities in the West. Even, or especially in exile, he was a leading thinker of the Solidarity movement.
In the later decades of his life, Kolakowski became less interested in politics, and more in religion. It is his religious views that I focus on. If he had a thesis, it would be that without absolute values to guide us, we shall remain lost. Nihilism, politics, “spirituality,” and trivial pursuits will prevail. Absolute values are found only in God.
The five basic values of Christianity
The core truths of Christianity are that God exists and we are wretched. By wretched Kolakowski doesn’t mean miserable all the time, or without happiness. He means that we must die, we know we must die, and while we live we are perpetually vulnerable to events beyond our control.
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Elaine Pagels, Why Religion? A fine but flawed book.
A recent (2018) book by Elaine Pagels, Why Religion?, has garnered great reviews. It’s a brave book, telling the story of the death of her six-year-old son from a long illness, and then her husband in a hiking accident, both in the space of about a year. It’s been almost thirty years since these tragedies, and the reader gets the sense that it took her this long to tell the story. Or rather, to weave her story of loss together with the place of religion in her life, and our collective lives.
I admire the book, but I have a problem with it. She seems unaware that people who are not well-off and famous might have a different experience of loss. She aims to be realistic about the politics of religious belief, but perhaps there is also a politics of loss, or better a political economy of loss. About this she says not a word.
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Psychology of God
I’m going to look at some psychological reasons for belief in God. Whatever I uncover will say nothing whatsoever about the existence of God. Referring to the human need for God helps us understand our need for transcendence. But the need does not prove or disprove God, which is impossible in any case. Good psychology is not the same as good theology. Theology is concerned with how we should talk about God, and to God, especially in times of trial and pain. Psychology is about the need for transcendence.
The inspiration for this post is the fear of death experienced by many Christians. The website www.billygraham.org is filled with emails like the following. “I’m a good Christian, but as I get older I’m terrified of death.” That’s OK, I want to say to the woman who sent the email; everyone is afraid of death. Christianity doesn’t take away that fear; it just makes death meaningful. For what people fear most is not death, but meaningless death, in which one lived and died for nothing. Seen from this perspective, it’s not just religion that gives meaning to death, and hence to a life lived toward death, as all lives do. Participation in great art or music (enjoying as well as making it) gives life meaning, a meaning that will continue after my death in the ennobling activities I give myself to. So too does love of natural beauty.
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