On Idols and Idolatry: Feuerbach, Trump, and Female Self-Identity

 

women-statue-cross-monumentWritten by: Christy Flanagan-Feddon

Christy Flanagan-Feddon (Ph.D. in Religion from Florida State University) is a Lecturer at the University of Central Florida.  Her teaching and research interests relate to the points of intersection between the areas of religion and identity, culture, ethics, and philosophy.

 

For the last six weeks, the world has been ablaze with the news that Donald J. Trump has been elected the 45th President of the United States.  Feature news stories and social media are fixated on pondering the future implications of a Trump presidency.  One common criticism from women that frequently cuts across political lines and religious affiliations, and is offered particularly by mothers of young daughters, is a concern about the role model that a President Trump will be for young women.  We’ve all heard the sound bites from his Playboy interview, the conversation with Billy Bush, statements in the media about women, and so on.  I am also the mother of two young children, a boy and a girl, and it is of the utmost priority to me that we teach them both how to treat women with respect and expect to be treated, respectively.

So I get the worry.

I also have many concerns about a Trump presidency, namely the impact on the environment, healthcare and issues of tolerance and diversity, among others – but the impact on my daughter and her self-identity is not one of them. 

Let me tell you why.

The issue relates to the extent to which idealized external figures or influences are constitutive of human self-identity.  This relates not only to how we view ourselves as individuals, but also to how we view other human beings as well.  I think that 19th-century philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach, has much to contribute to this conversation with his thoughts on religion, self-consciousness, and idolatry.

Feuerbach is probably most known for his projection theory discussed in the Essence of Christianity.  He explained that in Christian practice believers conceive of God by projecting an idealized version of human traits.  Where human beings display wisdom, love, temperance in limited and imperfect forms, God represents these traits absolutely.  In this regard, he presented an ambivalent view of religion: insofar as religious consciousness relates to a reflection on the potential of human self-identity it was positive, but it was also negative in that the emphasis on the idealized God human beings alienated themselves from their own inherent source of goodness, believing that good comes only from the ideal God and not as the own traits of our human nature.  In Feuerbach’s view, this has the consequence of human beings denying the value of our own essence, rendering us passive to the idealized God and believing that goodness comes only from this being.  He relates this to problems of not only human self-identity but also religious violence.  More on this in a moment.

In the 20th century, some authors appropriated versions of Feuerbach’s projection theory in relationship to issues of religious identity and gender.  In Sexes and Genealogies, Luce Irigaray argued that we need to posit a vision of a God with female predicates in order to help women establish a robust female self-identity in religious consciousness. This line of thinking also relates to the aforementioned concerns about the impact of the Trump presidency on women: that the positive self-identity of our young girls is dependent upon a President who affirms such views in his words and actions.

Irigaray’s model is helpful in the sense that it forces us to expand paradigms of the divine and acknowledge the importance of language and symbolism in both religious consciousness and society in general.  However, I’ve argued in other forums that this model misappropriates the most important aspects of Feuerbach’s understanding of human self-consciousness. He explains how we come to understand that our identity is not only comprised of what exists in the present state but also what is abstract or possible (for example, we might say, “I’m really mad right now, but I really should think about this situation from her point of view”).  In his view, when we think about the ideal God in religious consciousness, we are also thinking about the best version of human nature.  We need to do this in order to grow and become the best possible versions of ourselves. It’s also an activity that binds us to other human beings both morally and socially as we collectively think about the potential of the human species.

However, Feuerbach is worried that we have lost the idea that these assertions about God really begin as self-assertions about the potential of our nature.  It is on this point that Feuerbach is the most ambiguous: is he saying that “God” is nothing more than a psychological projection, or that this is what we do when we make assertions about God?  This is a complex question that I do not have the space to tackle here, but at the very least Feuerbach is speaking within the inherent limits placed on knowledge and language after Kant. Namely, I do not have knowledge of the speculative realm outside of my observation, so I can only make reference to what I see in this horizon.  In spite of his many criticisms of religion, Feuerbach believed that it was in religious consciousness that we most essentially engaged in fundamental deliberations about the nature of selfhood and the human species.

The question therefore is how do I perceive this God to which I relate in order to contemplate my potential and the potential of the human species?  In Feuerbach’s view, too often we forget the fact that the contemplation of self and God is inherently relational and an extension of the complexity of our own self-consciousness.  We become passive in the process, believing that our worth can only be given to us by an external source.  We become alienated from our own inherent goodness and this causes a number of dangerous psychological and social effects.  Not only does this alienate ourselves from our own sense of goodness, damaging our sense of self-worth, but also from the goodness we perceive in other human beings, establishing an inherent sense of competition and divisiveness.

If I am fixated on the external God and goodness only comes from this being, what happens when our definitions of God differ?  According to Feuerbach, this creates a “partisanship” that cultivates a culture of religious intolerance and even violence.  It’s also the inevitable and ironic fate of many understandings of religion: in their emphasis on the speculative and non-natural, they become fixated on their own sense of truth at the cost of all others.  In his own words, “faith gives man a peculiar sense of their own dignity and importance.  The believer finds himself distinguished above other men, exalted above the natural man.” In this hyper-exaltation, believers worship their own worshiping, they have no sense of intrinsic worth so they become fixated on a sense of worth gained through the ideal object. Sadly, they collapse into a type of idolatry themselves.

And it is on the issue of idolatry that brings us full circle.  I began this discussion with a consideration of the concern about the external influence of our future President on our children’s identities, which led us to Feuerbach, the consideration of human self-consciousness and how its misunderstandings relate to concerns of idolatry.  Yet I would argue that it is, in fact, a kind of idolatry itself that gave rise to this specific issue in the first place.  Merriam-Webster gives us two definitions of idolatry: 1) the worship of a physical object as a God; and 2) the immoderate attachment or devotion to something.

Much has been written about the underlying reasons for the Trump victory and there is no need to rehash those claims here.  However, it does seem to be well established that in spite of a general view that many believed Hillary Clinton demonstrated the competence to be President, she failed to carry the needed votes of Americans living in rural areas. Generally speaking, this constituency was disenchanted by Washington, felt that their needs were underrepresented in politics and their plight ignored.  Simply put, they felt alienated by the standard political process and were undeterred by Trump’s seeming shortcomings – in fact, some of these traits even further cemented his “outsider” reputation and gave him more validity.

If such political assessments are in fact accurate, then Merriam-Webster’s second definition above rings true here.  In a situation where a group of people feel not only unheard but powerless, Trump speaks their language and embodies their hopes. He will build the wall, apparently without cost to us.  He will personally control who is entering our country.  He will make the necessary deals and in fact “Make America Great Again.” It does not matter if these proposals end up being implausible or even potentially unreasonable.  For these voters, these are needs that must be fulfilled even if it is at the cost of creating a more divisive and fractured union. The system is broken and he will make it right.  This is a partisanship that suits not only the political definition of idolatry, but also Feuerbach’s.

So what do we tell our children regarding how to view themselves in light of our President-elect?  The same things we would tell them anyway: that they are loved and their opinions are valuable, that identity and self-worth comes from within (as people made in the image of God) and is never ultimately defined by another (lest we project our own images as idols).  We will tell them to respect and care for others, even in disagreement.  We will encourage critical thinking and seek to cultivate the confidence they need to think for themselves. If we wish for something to change, then we must consider how we can ourselves effect that change rather than believe someone or something will do it for us.

Both history and religion have surely taught us one thing—and that is to beware of false idols.

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8 thoughts on “On Idols and Idolatry: Feuerbach, Trump, and Female Self-Identity

  1. Jason

    This was a challenging and engaging read. I actually read it 3 times. Once at 10 pm. Once at 4am and once at 9 am. I think Im three different people sometimes so its important to give all three of them an shot to read stuff.

    I have 3 daughters. I like the idea of promoting self worth within and not from an outside voice. Im old enough now to see that outside voices change and there must be a “true north” regarding self esteem inside a young woman. I also like the warning of idolatry. That could extend to many areas of life not just politics.

    I struggle with grouping people together. Especially over 40 million people. This article stops just short of saying “People who voted for Trump are idolators with self esteem issues.” I would say that description fits much of America. But it also is too broad of a brush to paint with. This notion of political figures being idolized was also present when Obama was elected. Do some people place”immoderate attachment” to political figures? Yes. Arguably for Hillary and Donald. But the hope for change has led to the election of MANY presidents and political leaders. And fortunately for us, this climate of politics and the desire for change seems similar to the hope for change when Jesus was born. We must remember that change in that day didn’t come politically and not in the format many were looking for.

    I get the whole self worth thing and I support its ideas, but how does this fit in with the idea of total depravity? The article leans in some ways toward humanism. Maybe this is just a personal struggle, but inherent goodness in humanity isn’t something I can totally buy in to. Goodness comes from God and I know that is a somewhat outdated doctrine. But nothing has greater affect on political or social views than the answer to the question “Is humanity inherently good or evil?”

    Thanks again for the article. Very interesting reading. I would very much like to read more of this Dr. Flanagan-Feddon’s thoughts. Merry Christmas.

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    1. Christy Flanagan-Feddon

      Hi Jason – thanks for not only reading three times (I can relate to being three different people as well!) but also for your insightful comments.

      I certainly did not mean to imply that a vote for Trump indicates self-esteem issues – and as you rightly note, I didn’t say that. I also agree completely that much of this analysis would have been applicable to the election of President Obama 8 years ago. I was most interested in the notion of alienation and disenfranchisement expressed by the Trump supporters because this also relates to the initial issue presented about the concerns people have raised regarding his influence on our daughters. This is the connection to Feuerbach.

      I can understand the tension about Feuerbach’s humanism and the worry about what a full vision of this might look like. Each and every day we can look in the news to see examples of the atrocious things human beings are doing to each other. While Feuerbach was very critical of religion, he also took it very seriously. He was extremely well-versed in religious texts and wrote an entire book about Luther. The theologian Karl Barth said that Feuerbach had an “unhappy love” of theology and that “the attitude of the anti-theologian Feuerbach was more theological than many theologians” insofar as he was willing to ask the difficult questions about the tensions that exist with understanding the value of self-identity in relationship to God.

      The main issue that I tried to tackle in this piece relates to how a certain type of idolatrous thinking associates all of our goodness with an external ideal object, whether we are talking about gender, politics, or just selfhood in general. Feuerbach was worried about what happens when we believe that we only passively receive good from this ideal object. If human nature is by itself depraved, then we have no reason to value ourselves or other human beings, as goodness comes only from this external source. And herein lies the theological tension Barth references above: while Christian doctrines of original sin and redemption through Jesus indicate our inherent dependence upon God in this respect, we are also made in the image of God. If we see no good in ourselves, we are incapable of self-transformation, advancement or finding solutions to our problems. If we see no good in other human beings, then we are incapable of love, empathy, or tolerance. These are all the issues that are the subject of the post, both in terms of female self-identity but also worries about tolerance and respect in general in the upcoming Trump administration. There have been reports of hate crimes around the country that Trump did himself condemn http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/10/us/post-election-hate-crimes-and-fears-trnd/ , but the point is if this “immoderate attachment” gave certain individuals a certain justification in their minds to do these things.

      You are right that Feuerbach was ultimately a humanist, but I do not think that his view is incompatible with religious belief. He even acknowledged that it was in religious reflection that we have our “earliest and most direct” form of self-knowledge. The key is to consider the ways in which consideration of God is a consideration of human nature, and vice versa. Feuerbach’s greatest criticism was that we lost sight of the inherent reciprocity that exists in how we must think about God, ourselves, and ultimately ourselves existing before God (as in literally existing before or in front of God, not “before” in the sense of priority).

      Thanks again for your great response!

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    2. Hey Jason, I am sorry for how long it has taken me to respond to your very important comment. I think that I am very much in agreement with Christy’s reply such that total depravity can be cashed out in a variety of ways. I tend to read and understand it in a kind of Kierkegaardian way. The idea is that there is an absolute need for God, but making God merely an external object of one’s desire (kind of like a really nice truck or house or job or whatever) threatens to misunderstand the relationship between God and subjectivity from the outset — accordingly, idolatry looms large (as Christy warns, not just in relation to conservative voices, but also liberal ones as well – the point is a structural one about how desire functions relative to externality, not about a particular political orientation). Alternatively, if we begin by understanding ourselves as image bearers of God, then a particular sort of theological humanism makes a lot of sense (I would describe this as a Christian existentialist orientation). So, the point is not that either we start with the Bible’s account of a depraved anthropology, or we start at a secular humanist account of human goodness. Instead, we can realize that part of what the creative act of God’s love can look like is a realization that, as Kierkegaard says, “Subjectivity is truth.” That is, truth happens when we invest ourselves in becoming Christians, not in being conservatives, or being liberals, or (and this is CRUCIAL) being Christians. The task is to be able to depend on ourselves for our own self-making and, in light of the Christian anthropology deployed, the kenotic wisdom modeled by Christ is then what should call us to task whenever we think we have it all figured out. In other words, to turn inward should throw us onto God. But, when God remains a merely external object of desire that can be obtained internal to specific political, ecclesial, or social institutions, then we are in danger of losing not only God to the idol of our own making, but also losing ourselves to the image that is projected onto us as the only option. In some ways, then, Feuerbach and Kierkegaard, help us to understand that standing for the Christianity of the New Testament might frequently require us to stand against what passes as Christianity in our social world. This realization is one that does not require academic speculation, the example of Christ is sufficient for understanding this, but given the echo-chamber in which so much of American Christianity takes itself up according to a very specific political logic, appealing to the Bible becomes a complicated affair.

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      1. Jason

        Thanks Christy and Aaron for the responses. I especially like the way you lean on the identity of Christians not being affiliated with a political, national or social label. With the examples used in the article I felt it important to expand that idea beyond the most recent election. Idolatry abounds in many forms. Sometimes as an elephant sometimes as a donkey, sometimes as an eagle.
        The old timers in our specific tribe of Christianity would often say that as Christians “our citizenship is in heaven”. I think that’s an important mindset to recapture.
        Thanks again.
        Jason

        Liked by 1 person

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