Monday, December 6, 2010

Grace and Self-Activity

When I was meditating and praying tonight I got stuck on something Pete said earlier. He said instead of changing the world we should submit to God's grace and through His grace He may empower us to change ourselves which in turn could have an impact on the world. I disagreed based on the idea that our Self and the world are not fully separate so changing one means changing the other.

But at a deeper level, isn't my answer still limited? Aren't I denying what Marx calls "self-activity", the ability of oppressed people to take matters into our own hands and to shape history. Aren't I still projecting that human activity onto God, giving God's grace credit for something which humans actually can and must do? Isn't this just another example of what Marx calls alienation or estrangement - when human beings create an idea or a material object or a social system and then endow it with power so it appears to be acting as an independent force which alienates and suppresses our own self-activity?

I think that a lot of Christians do in fact do that. We do at times abdicate our moral responsibility to change ourselves and the world, saying "I can't do anything about it, I'll just wait for God to fix it" when we can in fact do something about it and to not do anything about it is actually a sin of omission because it leads to unnecessary suffering for other people.

BUT, I think this typical Marxist criticism of Christianity is still limited. After all, the concept of "self-activity" itself can be a fetishization or projection.

Marxists and can also estrange themselves, and the intellectual concept of "self activity" is not a safegaurd against it. Like all concepts it can actually become reified, or frozen, taken out of the flow of the historical process, and turned into an idol.

As I argued in response to Pete, the idea of the "self" is itself a creation of human history... it was born with the Enlightenment and the rise of bourgeois liberalism. So this idea of a "self" that makes history is just as alienating as the idea of a God in the sky who makes history for us.
In reality, the self is an ensemble of social and material relations.... I am a relationship, not a thing, and so are you. I am far more contradictory and complex than a thing, and so are you.

So my "self activity" is also therefore more contradictory and complex, and so is yours.

So when we make history, we are not "things" empowered with force that shape a passive world... instead we are a complex part of a living, breathing web of life and we change that web as we act.

So that brings me back to prayer. Most of my prayer is not actually begging God as some detached object in the sky for favors. The deepest prayer I have ever experienced was after I read the book the Cloud of Unknowing, by a medieval Christian mystic. It argued that any image we put forward of God is actually a false idol, and to really pray we need to extinguish all notions we may have of God.

Marxism really helps with that.. it helps us walk through exercises like the one I just did above to strip away false and alienating concepts of God. That time when I read the book I remember stripping away all concepts of God and trying to pray to the Cloud of Unknowing that resulted.

At a certain point I realized that I would also have to strip away the experience of myself praying to that cloud.... if God is no thing, then my self is also no thing. And in that encounter of no thing with no thing, we actually become real. We just are what we are, and we are what we are becoming. I remember in that moment of prayer feeling more real, more connected to the world than ever because I no longer had a sense of "self" separate from the world, I was simply a part of it's process - a part with clear agency and the ability to change, not just a cog in the wheel - but a part nonetheless.

So maybe that kind of experience is what Grace really is. Grace is when our "self-activity" transcends and extinguishes self-consciousness... when we act without the false, alienating, ever-degrading awareness of being a separate self that is acting... when our action making history is not separate from the rest of history making itself - or rather all the other sentient beings making history together... when we have a deeper consciousness that goes beyond self-consciousness and is consciousness of our activity within a larger, complex, dialectical totality of life generating life.

So worship of God is not necessarily alienating... grace is not necessarily alienating. If anything, it can help us get beyond the idea of our SELF, which is a bigger fetish for those of us in 2010, and a bigger opiate of the masses than any notion of God.

Because after all, didn't Marx say that the real movement of the proletariat, it's real "self activity" in history IS communism? In other words, communism doesn't just come after the revolution, it is what we practice when we make history now through our self-activity.

But communism is the opposite of selfishness! It is love - Marx lifted the vision directly from the Book of Acts in the Bible: from each according to ability, to each according to need. So self-activity that IS communism needs to be selfless, and prayer to God as the Cloud of Unknowing is one way to live in that selfless grace.