Sunday, December 28, 2008

Epistemological Explosion in Miracle on 34th Street (Part 2)

In my previous post "Epistemological Explosion in Miracle on 34th Street (Part 1)" I discussed some of the confusing elements in the original Miracle on 34th Street. In this article I shall continue the discussion by suggesting that the film sets up a number of false dualisms, not least the antithesis between faith and reason.

Faith and Reason in Miracle on 34th Street

Consider the following dialogue between Doris Wood and Fred Gailey, after the later decides to prove in a court of law that Kris is Santa.

Fred: You don’t have any faith in me, do you?

Doris: It’s not a question of faith, it’s just common sense.

Fred: Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to. Don’t you see, it’s not just Kris that’s on trial its everything he stands for: kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.

Doris: O Fred, you’re talking like a child. You’re living in a realistic world and all those lovely intangibles of yours are attractive but not worth very much. You don’t get ahead that way.

Fred: It depend on what you mean by getting ahead. Evidently you and I have different definitions.

Doris then accuses Fred of going on an “Idealistic binge”, whereupon Fred responds: “Someday you’re going to find that you’re way of facing this realistic world just doesn’t work, and when you do, don’t overlook those lovely intangibles. You’ll discover they’re the only things that are worthwhile.”

As the ice on Doris’s heart begins to melt, she begins to have faith in things which go against common sense. She says to Fred, “I never really doubted you. It was just my silly common sense.” She then tells her daughter that she was wrong to refer to Kris as just as nice old man with whiskers: “I was wrong when I told you that. You must believe in Mr. Kringle and keep right on doing it. You must have faith in him.” When Susan doesn’t get the present that she asked for on Christmas, she begins to doubt that Mr. Kringle is Santa. But her mother encourages her to believe against all evidence, saying, “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.” Taking this advice, Susan keeps repeating to herself, “I believe, I believe. It’s silly but I believe.” She keeps repeating this phrase until they stumble upon the present that Susan asked for: a house.

Given this fideistic backdrop, I think my article Santa and Postmodernism was mistaken to see the courtroom scene as a nod toward modernist epistemology. When watching the film more recently, it struck me that the lawyer’s Post Office proof served as a convenient loophole by which Fred could beat Kris’ enemies on their own turf and get him acquitted, but no one actually believed on the basis of this evidence. Indeed, to do so would have gone against one of the dominant themes of the film, which is the importance of exercising blind faith.

Fall and Redemption in Miracle on 34th Street

All good stories are echoes of the One Story, telling the account of the fall and redemption. Jack and the Beanstalk is typical of a good fairy story: it begins with Jack and his mother impoverished, which we later learn was because of the giant’s cruelty to Jack’s father. This is a type of the fall, although in this case the enemy is not the serpent but the giant. Just as Adam and Eve were banished from paradise, so Jack and his mother are sent to live the life of paupers. Jack, who is a type of Christ, comes and plunders the giant’s castle and redeems is father’s lost fortune, just as Christ bruised the serpent’s head and redeemed us for His kingdom.

The reason Jack and the Beanstalk and similar tales are so enjoyable is because they echo themes at the very heart of our world and our humanity. All good stories follow this same basic pattern, telling a story of fall and redemption.

Miracle on 34th Street is no different. It begins with Doris and Susan in a fallen state, although in this case it is a fall into a rationalistic, restricted epistemology which the cold Doris adopted as a form of self-protection after her divorce. Kris revealingly refers to Doris and Susan as “a couple of lost souls.” By the end of the film they are no longer lost but have found redemption, metaphorically, through “faith.” However, unlike Biblical faith, this faith is an existential leap of irrationality.

The Enlightenment and Miracle on 34th Street
According to many thinkers of the Enlightenment, the only things we can really know objectively are those things that we can perceive tangibly through the senses. This is known as the philosophy of empiricism. Empiricism created a divide between those ideas that could be verified through empirical observation, vs. ideas derived by other means. Ideas belonging to the latter category (which included religious ideas) were necessarily personal and private, existing in a different sphere to that of normal objective phenomena. Since one could apply reason to the former but not the latter, it followed that religion could only be a matter of blind faith. Whereas the pre-Enlightenment worldview generally attempted to apply reason to both the tangible and intangible realms (so that you could apply reason to the content of faith just as easily as the content of sense perception), empiricism said that reason could only apply to the former. Anything intangible (such as the content of religious belief) was necessarily personal, private and subjective. Lessing’s parable of the 3 rings, mentioned in my earlier post, brings this out very clearly.

It is doubtful that the Enlightenment would have succeeded in achieving any long-term effect had it not been for the fact that most Christians were caught off guard by this change in categories. While rejecting the Enlightenment’s conclusions, few Christian thinkers took the challenge of offering a rational critique of the assumptions upon which those conclusions were derived, notably the divided epistemology. Like the Romantics in the 19th century, serious Christians at the time of the Enlightenment tended to emphasize the importance of religious truth, while still unconsciously accepting the epistemological package which kept that truth subjective and privatized. The Church tended to react to the new wave of secular philosophy by taking refuge in an emotional, devotional type of Christianity which, because it required no intellectual underpinning, fit nicely into the divided epistemology.

The “double-truth universe” bequeathed by the Enlightenment found renewed impetus in the increasing polarization between earth and heaven that was so characteristic of 20th century piety. If religion is about our personal and private experiences with God cut off from the objective realm of empirical fact, then true piety consists in having our minds fixed on heavenly realities instead of earthly concerns. In practice this meant getting as many people into heaven as possible. Once you were “saved” - that is, once your ticket to a happy afterlife was secured – Christian living was thought to involve little more than living by a pedestrian code of personal pietism. No longer was the Bible seen as giving us a worldview that structured the whole of public reality. It became instead a privatized faith that, as Roszak put it, was “socially irrelevant even if privately engaging.” It is hardly surprising that around this same time (late 19th early 20th century) hymnology began to be increasingly ‘feminized’, with the singing of robust psalms and hymns replaced by subjective sentiments (“he lives within my heart” or “now I am happy all the day” or “precious memories of everything Jesus has done for me”).

As the church became diluted by anti-intellectualism, feminization, pietism and cultural anorexia, the church as a whole was largely unprepared to combat the influx of liberal theology and deconstructionism that began to pour into England and America in the 19th and 20th century. In the early 20th century, three Christians tried to address this situation by writing a twelve volume work titled The Fundamentals. The Christians who affirmed the doctrines in this book soon came to be known as fundamentalists, a term which has subsequently come to carry pejorative connotations. As fundamentalism began to be a badge to distinguish true ‘Bible-believing-Christians’, the emphasis came to rest more on what you believed rather than why you should believe it.

The notion of ‘faith’, long since subjectivized, deteriorated further to become an approximation for anti-intellectualism, to the point where the word can now be used in movies like Miracle on 34th Street to indicate belief that goes against common sense. Being able to “just believe” and “have faith” against evidence and common sense has become a sign of fundamentalist piety, in contradistinction to Biblical belief which always appeals to the evidence (consider the opening of Luke’s gospel, for example, or Paul’s appeal to the evidences of the resurrection in the Corinthian correspondence).

The only time the Bible ever comes anywhere near to advocating faith that goes against reason is when the prophets enjoin the people to hold on to God’s promises in the light of contrary circumstances. Thus, even as Jerusalem is being plundered, the people are told the glories that will accompany the restoration. The heroes of faith mentioned in Hebrews 11 are praised for their ability to believe in God’s promises in the face of martyrdom and apparent defeat. Is this a case of faith as “believing in things when common sense tells you not to”? I don’t think so, for it is clear throughout the prophets and the Psalms that the ability to believe in God’s promises in the midst of trying circumstances is only because we first have evidence of God’s covenantal faithfulness and trustworthiness demonstrated over time, from the call of Abraham to the Exodus to the monarchical period, and so on. That is why the Psalmists and prophets respond to suffering and persecution by reminding God of the great victories of the past and the great victories promised in the future. Faith in the promises of a trustworthy God is not the irrational option for the believer; rather, it is the rational option. Irrationality (and the corollary dualism between faith and reason) is the tool of the father of lies. No where does the Bible instruct us to “just believe” without evidence, like Doris instructed Susan to believe that Kris was Santa even when the evidence seemed to suggest otherwise. Unfortunately, many Christians have bought into secular assumptions of the Enlightenment project and the subjective concept of faith that arose as a consequence and which permeates Miracle on 34th Street.

Many modern films take this subjective epistemology one step further by suggesting that as long as you believe something to be true, then that can be true for you. Miracle on 34th Street anticipates this Postmodern epistemology by mixing the categories of truth and falsehood. When Doris and Fred are standing in the home that Susan believes Kris has provided, they talk about purchasing the house in order to preserve Susan’s illusion that it is a gift from Kris. In being willing to allow her to believe a lie, they reveal that truth does not matter for them. In this final scene, we find that Fred never really believed Kris was Santa after all, for when they spot Kris’ stick leaning against the wall of the house (an apparent vindication that he had actually provided it as a gift), Fred says that maybe he hadn’t done such a wonderful thing after all in proving that this old man was Santa Clause (the subtext being because he really is Santa Clause). We are then left to wonder in what sense Fred and Doris ever believed that Kris was Santa prior to this scene. If they only believed in him in the sense of believing in all the intangibles that Kris stood for, then that is accidental to his actual identity as Santa, thus rendering vacuous all the characters' statements about faith in Santa Clause. After all, I can affirm intangibles such as love and kindness without having to believe in the tooth fairy.
To receive automatic notification every time new material is added to this blog, send a blank email to phillips7440 [at sign] with “Blog Me” in the subject heading.
Post a Comment

Buy Essential Oils at Discounted Prices!