God as a Symbol of Society

In Simmel's sociology God constitutes a conceptual equivalent of society. The main common features of these two notions are found in the phenomenon of faith and in the idea of unity. In A Contribution to the Sociology of Religion, and later in Religion, Simmel stated that many human relations - social conditions or interpersonal relationships - like the relation of a child to its parents, of a patriot to their country, of a worker to their class, of a subject to their sovereign, etc., may have a common tone which has to be described as religious. This 'religious tone' constitutes a mixture of specific feelings: 'of unselfish devotion and eudaimonic desire, of humility and exaltation, of sensual concreteness and spiritual abstraction' (Simmel 1997: 104). Even faith, which is commonly held to be the essence of religion, is first a relation between individuals:

We illustrate a specific psychological reality, hard to define, when we [say that we] 'believe in someone' - the child in its parents, the subordinate in his superior, the friend in a friend ... The social role of this faith has never been investigated, but this much is certain: without it, society would disintegrate. (Simmel 1997: 109)

Our primary confidence or trust in other people - which Simmel calls 'practical faith' - is one of the strongest of the ties that bind society, an a priori condition which makes society possible. What is particularly interesting in our context, Simmel also stressed the crucial role of trust for monetary economy: without it, the circulation of money would collapse. As Patrick Watier reminds us, Simmel was convinced that the modern society in which we live is grounded on 'a "credit economy" in a much broader than a strictly economic sense' (Watier 2009: 211).

For Simmel, practical faith (or: trustfulness - 'Gläubigkeit') is a specific 'emotional factor' of social origin which serves as a mediating element between subjective religiousness and objective religion. It is exactly this feeling that lies at the heart of many social relations: not only these listed above (the relation of a child to its parents, etc.), but also of every act of exchange (Simmel 1997: 158). The very form of these relations makes them an ideal foundation for the objective religion. As Watier comments, 'Social forms of confidence ... always contain a bit of this sentimental, even mystical "faith" of man in man' (Watier 2009: 205). One can also say that there are some forms of social relations whose structure predestines them to be an ideal raw material for development of religious life. Simmel characterizes these relations as 'semireligious in form' (or as the 'religious semi-products': religiöse Halbprodukte; he also uses the term 'religioid factors'). If they reach a certain level of intensity, they may condense or refine themselves into a system of religious ideas, and 'form religion - that is, the world of the objects of faith' (Simmel 1997: 150). Religious faith emerges when the practical faith loosens its bonds with social partner and enters the transcendental plane. In other words: on the basis of social relations there develops a 'religious function', which creates itself a new object: 'gods'. For Simmel, a god is a 'general object of faith', in which religious function crystallizes ('precipitates'). This statement also calls to mind Luther's words from his Large Catechism: 'to have a god is to have something in which the heart entirely trusts.'

The transcendent idea of God constitutes an absolute object of faith (Simmel 1997: 171). It also constitutes an ultimate answer to the 'desire' for 'unity', the need to be unified with the whole, which is rooted in the social nature of humans. This 'drive for unity', as Simmel also calls it, finds its expression in the desire for resolving inner conflicts and being united (or reconciliated) with social partners. Simmel identifies this drive as a kind of general 'religious drive' (Simmel 1997: 111ff.). The idea of unity constitutes for Simmel another basic common feature of the notion of God and the notion of society. He claimed that 'the unity of things and interests which first impresses us in the social realm finds its highest representation ... in the idea of the divine' (Simmel 1997: 112). Simmel suggested that God was a name given to the social unit: the interactive processes within the group 'have taken on their own distinct existence as the god' (Simmel 1997: 208).

In Simmel's opinion, the idea of unity originated in the social group. It developed from a twofold contrast: firstly, from the hostile demarcation from other groups; and secondly, from the relation of the group to its individual elements. Since all social life is interaction, it is also unity (Simmel 1997: 174). Synthesis of individuals in the form of group unity is often perceived by the individual as some kind of miracle. Simmel stated that the process of social unification causes a religious reaction: the individual experiences at first-hand their dependency upon mysterious, incomprehensible forces. The point is that such a feeling does not result from a simple recognition of numerical advantage of the other group members over a given individual, but exactly from the fact that the group is more than a sum of its elements: it develops powers which cannot be detected in individuals themselves (Simmel 1997: 165, 181).

The consequence of the thesis that the idea of God is a representation of the group forces is the statement that God might be conceived of as the unity of existence. This unity is not a pantheistic monolith, nor a simple aggregate, but rather a cohesive whole: a network of reciprocal bonds, of relations tying together all the elements of the world. The idea of unity, elevated to the transcendental plane, is somehow personified in God - a specific entity who emerges at the intersection of all these relations. Only such construction of the idea of God as a cohesive unity (in contrast to monolithic, pantheistic conception of God) makes it suitable for an object of faith and religion, because only in this case God is placed vis-à-vis of an individual as a partner of relation. It is clear, though, that emotions associated with the idea of God can be traced back to the relation of individuals to the social unit.

 
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