I spent all of September and a good part of October finishing an essay on community for a journal on the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, and it nearly killed me. I read and re-read the relevant material, and I started writing several times, thinking I had a good idea for how to proceed only to discover myself in the Swamp of Scholarly Despair later on. (I didn’t get out of the Swamp until about the first week of November.)
One of the books I spent some time reviewing was Jacques Derrida’s Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, where I was caught short by this remark:
What would faith or devotion be when directed toward a God who would not be able to abandon me? Of whom I would be absolutely certain, assured of his concern? A God who could not but give to me or give of himself to me? Who could not not choose me? (104)
It is tempting always to think of God in rosy terms, as someone who loves everyone and will abandon no one. The temptation to believe in universal salvation is strong, but Derrida’s remark brought me up short. It seems right.
Doesn’t my faith in my loved ones require that there be some meaningful possibility that they could abandon me? I don’t believe they will. I can’t imagine that Janice, my wife, would abandon me. I can reasonably say that I’m certain she won’t. However, that very claim of certainty is only meaningful because I can conceive of the possibility that she could. That she hasn’t and, presumably, won’t is only to her credit if she can. That she loves me is only to her credit if she could do otherwise. That I have faith in her is only meaningful if it is possible that my faith could turn out to have been misplaced.
The point may seem pedestrian: faith requires trust in something that is, in some meaningful sense, uncertain. A theological question to ask, however, would be what it means to speak of God as one in whom my faith could possibly be misplaced. Theological questions aside, I think a practical question is more interesting: What does it mean that so many of us seem to believe in a God who cannot not choose me?
I think that it isn’t unusual for teenagers and those in their early twenties, particularly, but also others, to think of God as a kind of Santa Claus on whom we can depend for giftsâ€”if we’ve been good. The simplest version is “If I pray, asking for blessings, then he will give them to me.” Another version is, “If I do all that is required of me, then bad things won’t happen to meâ€”or good things will.” For someone with that kind of faith, belief in God is belief in someone who cannot but choose me.
It doesn’t take much experience to discover that this isn’t the way life works. However, for some, a not inconsequential number, that discovery is faith-shattering: If God isn’t Santa Claus, if the Gospel doesn’t give me Harry Potter-like spells to cast against the evil I encounter, then there is no God, then the Gospel isn’t true.
For others, when that kind of faith shatters a kind of atheism results, but this isn’t the atheism of the faithless. It is a refusal to believe in the Santa-god. That atheism is the same as a more mature faith, a faith in the real God where doubt makes belief authentic. (See Terryl Givens’s devotional at BYU.) That is a legitimate and profound experience of faith. It is a mature faith, the kind of faith that SÃ¸ren Kierkegaard’s philosophical personae sought but could not reach. I think, however, that there is yet another move to make in faith, the move to what Paul Ricoeur calls “the second naivete.”
I am sure that someone can talk about that kind of faith better than I. However, probably because I rarely have it, I find it difficult to describe well. I’ve seen it in others, people who do not naively believe in the Santa-god, but who nevertheless have no doubt that the real God will bless them with good things if they only ask, and that he will protect them from evil if they are righteous. Somehow they believe this without losing their faith when they do not get what they pray for or are not protected though they are righteous. People with the faith of a second naivete are difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish from those who worship the Santa-godâ€”except in extremity. We are rarely in a position to judge between the two. In extremity, however, the difference is obvious, for those who have achieved the second naivete survive faithfully through the extreme.
My intuition, perhaps a bad one since the sample I draw on consists only of me and a few friends, is that those of us who read Sunstone and Dialogue and who frequent the LDS blogs are, for the most part, those who have faith of the second type, “atheistic” faith. I’ve had brief experiences of the second naivete. I’ve slipped back into the first on occasion. But for the most part I remain between the two, waiting for a change.