What essentially is a conviction? According to the Dutch-American Chicago theologian and philosopher Willem Zuurdeeg (1906-1963) convictions are: ‘all persuasions concerning good and bad; concerning gods and devils; concerning representations of the ideal man, the ideal state, the ideal society; concerning the meaning of history, of nature and of the All’. Men not only form, but are also formed by convictions. In etymology the root of the word conviction is the Latin convinco: to conquer, in the particular sense of someone being convinced or overcome by something that is overwhelming. Zuurdeeg: “We are our convictions”. This is only one of the reasons why theologians are so busy in doing theology as a rational enterprise: since they try to screen, detect and eliminate convictional outlooks from mainstream religious thinking or vice versa.
It goes without saying that the impact of convictions is profound. We introduce them and we are formed by them. Despite the alleged purifying power of religion, religion as such is seldom (and presumably can never for a long time be) pure form or unbiased pure message. Convictions are filled with experiences. If people say they don’t know their convictions, we should in a pastoral way be helpful to them: perhaps they did hide them in art, in poetry or in politics. This above described ability to build and deploy our own personal and communal religious needs, using religion as an empty form without theology, is therefore so interesting. In a revealing experiment Zuurdeeg studied and analyzed the hidden inclusion of conviction(s) stemming from different backgrounds. He shows how they are regularly being overlooked, because outwardly theology or philosophy succeeds very well in maintaining some nominal identity.
He criticizes a great many philosophers on several considerations, e.g. for not having resisted the desire to fixate their views in metaphysical convictions. ‘Philosophy plays, as in so many traditional metaphysical systems, the role of a savior’, he says. And he would also be ready to dismiss parts of the Bible in so far as based on the Greek cosmos conviction. What he is aiming at in the early sixties of the last century, against the grain of his time, is the purity of Biblical theology, unbiased with ontological or metaphysical doctrine. Emphasizing the slippage between convictional language and metaphysics rather than supporting the necessity of bringing them together. In his view this kind of argumentation is simply superfluous. In exploring the different ways convictions were actually used in the context of churches, political parties, and communes, he created the possibility to evade the traditional emphasis on the far smaller concept of doctrine in theology.
Recently Daniel C. Dennett challenges what he called ‘the academic smoke screen’: we feel comfortable in the fact that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. But we are not allowed to break the spell even if it has lost its truth (and his dislike is especially directed towards the agnostic, atheistic connoisseurs of religion, who are without any creed). Here we are at the heart of the convictional center, when religious symbols and worldviews are becoming too sacred. Or when religions lose their convictional base and are being reloaded with new doctrine behind the old time smoke screen of their ordinary performance.
This is an important factor also in the attention Zuurdeegs approach has received. Since in contrast with doctrine, we are unable to justify our convictions. In his search for hidden convictions he did not stop by paying attention to philosophers and theologians exclusively. Talking about pastoral care he believed that it belongs to the professional task of the minister to help people in finding out where they lodge or hide their religious convictions, for example in art, poetry or civil religion. He was praised for his unique contribution and sharp thinking, but in the theological milieu there were also uneasy feelings. The world is full of convictional outlooks. They may even be nonsense. The fundamental question here is not about truth or logical conclusion but about the fundamental and therefore extremely vague human activity of decision making, of choice.
Zuurdeeg made no secret of it that his own personal convictional outlook was Protestant Christian in a neo-Reformative form. In his own wording: ‘Real research is possible only when Christian scholars admit that Isaiah, Luke, Paul and even Jesus can endorse convictions which are not only alien to all that we believe, but which we cannot take over in our body of convictions, in our language.’
Apparently he feels strongly the pressure of what two thousand years of preaching has constituted, when he writes: ‘Many people are accustomed to believe that they have only one conviction. This belief is encouraged by the attitude of many Christian ministers, who not only proclaim that a Christian should have only one convictor (i.e. Christ), but they also suggest that the faithful churchgoer actually enjoys such a privileged mode of living.’
The reality however is that man is always busy with many convictions. At all levels of our lives this process is functioning as long as we live. This feature in particular one could perhaps call the autonomy of belief. How complex this process can be, can perhaps best be illustrated by Elizabeth Costello, after the novel by the same name by John M.Coetzee. She gives a lecture to an audience with lack of conviction in what she is saying. When she listens to another speaker, she does not accept his arguments, but then in a sense his orality comes to complicate all her publicly announced and once-held beliefs and makes her shudder only by the power of his voice. Its sexual appeal changes everything. In the absence of sound proof or precise grounding, we are therefore constantly dealing with finding some hierarchy and structure in the vast realm of our many convictions.
Let me close this section with an example that may illuminate the clash between different convictions. On the occasion of my visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, I found on a wall the following inscription by the artist Andy Warhol: ’I don’t feel I’m representing the main sex symbols of our time in some of my pictures, such as Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor – I see Monroe as just another person as for whether it’s symbolic to paint Monroe in such violent colors – it’s beautiful, and if something’s beautiful it’s pretty colors, that’s all’. A better example of an apparent conflict between public and personal convictions can perhaps hardly be found. Our hidden convictions are often far more strong and persistent than the beliefs (or the rejection of them) we advocate in public. Man thinks differently from how he acts. He is imprisoned in a language he cannot use, according to the writer Stefan Zweig in whose pre-war Vienna, he sees that indolence and impotence becomes the low road to tolerance. The withdrawal from our inner institutions does not take place silently, but by lively discussions and by debate in the public arena. Nowadays the silence (of religions) in the public sphere affords fanatics and religious extremists the perfect podium for hijacking free speech. For make believe feigning that whatever we perform is never what we think. But the highway to tolerance is perhaps primarily blocked by those who want to live in peace but protest in silence.
(Afbeelding: foto straatbeeld Chicago USA uit privé collectie)