Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Atheism As a Denial of the Question of God

I’ve been reading The End of Faith by Sam Harris and have posted on it once already here. In this post I would like to focus on a fundamental philosophical principle behind Harris’s argument.

The basic philosophical questions never change. One such question is: What can I know and how can I know it? The classical answer to this question was always: I can know being in its fullness, and I know it through philosophy and (later) revelation. The modern age in philosophy is distinguished from the classical age primarily in the different answer modern philosophers tend to give to this question. The modern answer is: I cannot know being in its fullness, but only some aspect of being. Generally, this boils down to the doctrine that we can only know being as it appears to us rather than being as it truly is in itself.

Atheism since the time of Hume has drawn its strength from this skeptical epistemology. It is important to see that this type of atheism does not even attempt to refute theistic argument. It doesn’t argue that the Five Ways of St. Thomas are logically flawed or propose a deeper understanding of being than Thomas's. Rather, it undermines the legitimacy of the questions in the first place. If all that we can know are the appearances of being, then our knowledge is restricted to relationships among those appearances. We can’t “get behind” appearances to the basic realities that ground them. God, however, as proposed by Christians, is not merely an appearance or a relationship among appearances. He is the Creator of the Universe and is therefore the author not only of appearances, but the relationships among appearances as well. He is Being Itself.

Obviously, if we only know being as it appears to us and have no knowledge of being in itself that grounds appearances, then the only questions we can legitimately ask concern appearances and their relationships, not being itself – and certainly not Being Itself. So the question of God is simply a question that we are not equipped to ask, let alone answer. The traditional metaphysical arguments are exposed, as Kant claimed, as so much hot air.

Modern skeptical epistemology comes in a lot of flavors, from Kant’s transcendental idealism to Hume’s empiricism, but they all have in common the firm conviction that man is restricted to knowing the appearances of being rather than being itself. Whatever the particular flavor, rational theism is dead as a doornail under any form of modern skeptical epistemology. The real debate between theism and atheism, then, is whether modern skeptical epistemology is true.

For some reason, many atheists do not perceive the centrality of epistemology in the question of theism. Sam Harris, for instance, leaves an account of his epistemological views to a footnote. But, really, this footnote is the only essential thing in his book. Everything else is a more or less trivial consequence once Harris’s skeptical epistemology is accepted. Here is the footnote in question:

Questions of epistemology seem to be stirring here: How, after all, is it possible for us to have true knowledge of the world? Depending on how one interprets words like “true” and “world”, questions of this sort can seem either hopelessly difficult or trivial. As it turns out, a trivial reading will be good enough for our present purposes. Whatever reality is in ultimate terms, the world of our experience displays undeniable regularities. These regularities are of various kinds, of course, and some of them suggest lawful connections between certain events. There is a difference between mere correlation, and juxtapositions of the sort that we deem to be causal. As the Scottish philosopher David Hume famously noted, this presents an interesting puzzle, because we never encounter causes in the world, only reliable correlations. What, exactly, leads us to attribute causal power to certain events, while withholding it from others, is still a matter of debate… and yet, once we have our beliefs about the world in hand, and they are guiding our behavior, there seems to be no mystery worth worrying about. It just so happens that certain regularities (those we deem to be causal), when adopted as guides to action, serve our purposes admirably; others that are equally regular (mere correlations, epiphenomena) do not. (Note 26 to Chapter 2).

Harris writes that a “trivial reading” is good enough for his purposes. Well, of course it is! His purpose is to deny the rationality of theism, and a quick way to do that is to deny rationality to any knowledge beyond that of appearances. Trivial questions beget trivial answers, and God is surely not a trivial answer. Harris, of course, begs the question of theism rather than answers it. The question is precisely whether a trivial reading of our experience is a true reading of it.

Really what Harris is doing is denying the possibility of philosophy as it is traditionally conceived. The philosopher as traditionally conceived is just the person who is not willing to settle for a trivial reading of experience. The modern skeptical epistemologist is the man chained to the floor in Plato’s Cave, constrained to watching shadows cast by a fire dance on the wall in front of him. The most he can do is notice regularities in the behavior of the shadows, as Harris notices regularities in the appearances of being. Plato proposed that the philosopher is the man who breaks free of his chains, see the shadows for what they are, and exits the cave to know reality as it is. Philosophers from Socrates to St. Thomas Aquinas understood the vocation of the philosopher under this metaphor. Kant understood that modern thought constitutes a radical break with traditional philosophy, which is why he called his own thought a “Copernican revolution” in philosophy; it is also why Plato and Sam Harris are both called “philosophers” in only an equivocal sense. Harris is content to adopt a standard modern empiricism because he doesn’t see basic questions of epistemology as “worth worrying about.” But it is the unquenchable desire to know the answer to such basic questions that is, for Plato, the eros of the philosopher and distinguishes him from the mere technician.

Well, then, who is right – Plato or Sam Harris? Can we know things as they truly are or are we restricted to appearances? There are several fascinating things about this question that I would like to mention before attempting to answer it. The first is that modern thinkers are reputed to be hardheaded realists not given to flights of fancy, as allegedly were the old, naïve ancient philosophers like Plato. Yet modern philosophy defines itself as a flight from reality. Its fundamental premise – a restriction of the mind to appearances – is a philosophical Berlin Wall separating the mind from things as they are. Is it any wonder that modern thought has degenerated into postmodern irony and satire? The second is that, as central as the epistemological question is to modernity, modern philosophers rarely argue for their position directly but find it sufficient to do little more than assume it. Harris, for example, asks the epistemological question in the footnote and then immediately surrenders any attempt to answer it by saying that the attempt is “hopelessly difficult.” His argument for a trivial reading of experience is basically that he is too tired to try for anything more.

But why should the epistemological question be hopelessly difficult? Plato, Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas did not think it was, and modern philosophers have never really answered their arguments; their dismissal of the ancients is typically one of historical conceit. The basic reason that Aristotle and St. Thomas thought that we can know things as they are is that it is evidently natural for us to do so - a manifestly empirical argument. An examination of any animal reveals that its nature is made to fulfill some mode of living. The sleek scales, fins and gills of a fish indicate that it is a swimmer. It would be surprising, indeed unnatural, if we threw a fish in the water and found that it was unable to swim. The long legs, claws and teeth of the cheetah indicate that it is a hunter; it would be surprising, indeed unnatural, to discover that cheetah live by digging up grubs. Man has no claws, no natural coat or fur for warmth, is not fast, and possesses no sharp teeth. But he does possess his five senses, a large brain and a hand with an opposable thumb (what Aristotle calls the "tool of tools.") He is clearly made by nature to know and to live through that knowledge. He is the knowing animal. Like the fish and the cheetah, it would be surprising if he were unable to fulfill what his nature is clearly made to do.

I mentioned in an earlier post that when something is natural for us, we have an innate tendency toward it. In the beginning of the Metaphysics, Aristotle cites our natural curiosity as evidence that we are by nature knowing animals:

All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.

Sam Harris unintentionally makes Aristotle's point in the End of Faith. Like most empiricists, he invokes the empiricist wall between appearance and reality when he is attempting to undermine religious belief, but quickly forgets about it when he is talking about things he supports - like the sciences of the mind, his own theory of good and evil, or the theory of evolution. While discussing these topics, there are no qualifications that he is only talking about the appearance of the mind, the appearance of good and evil, or the appearance of natural selection. It's all just straightforward statements about reality. And that's fine... he is just doing what comes naturally to any man.

If we accept that man is a knowing animal, and that he can know things as they truly are, then the existence of God follows fairly quickly through something like St. Thomas's famous Five Ways. That is why the modern atheist is so insistent on empiricist epistemology even if can't muster any good arguments for it. If you can't deny the answer, then deny the question.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Natural Slavery II

The issue of natural slavery came to mind while I was reading The End of Faith by Sam Harris. In Ch. 1, Harris proposes a thought experiment in which we imagine that we are suddenly totally ignorant:

What if all our knowledge about the world were suddenly to disappear? Imagine that six billion of us wake up tomorrow morning in a state of utter ignorance and confusion. Our books and computers are still here, but we can't make heads or tails of their contents. We have even forgotten how to driver our cars and brush our teeth. What knowledge would we want to reclaim first? Well, there's that business about growing food and building shelter that we would want to get reacquainted with. We would want to relearn how to use and repair many of our machines. Learning to understand spoken and written language would also be a top priority, given that these skills are necessary for acquiring most others. When in this process of reclaiming our humanity will it be important to know that Jesus was born of a virgin? Or that he was resurrected?

The last two questions are rhetorical, of course, because Harris takes the answers to be obvious: Never in this process will it seem important to us to know that Jesus was born of a virgin or resurrected. Harris is right - but not for the reasons he thinks, and the implications of the negative answer are not what he thinks they are. Harris takes it for granted that a negative answer means that the Gospel is unnecessary and may be safely forgotten. To the contrary, the negative answer implies that the Gospel is absolutely necessary and is only forgotten at our peril.

Harris has not thought deeply enough about the meaning of thorough-going ignorance. We learn from Socrates that ignorance, in its deepest aspect, is ignorant of itself. When we are ignorant, we not only don't know something, we also don't know that we don't know it. Harris asks the question "What knowledge would we want to reclaim first," but his question implies that we already are knowledgeable. It implies that his state of "utter ignorance" isn't really utterly ignorant, for in it we are not only aware that we are ignorant, but we are aware of precisely in what our ignorance consists. He imagines us reacquiring knowledge as though we were browsing a supermarket, picking and choosing the items we wish to know. But on what basis does the ignorant man decide what is important to know and what is not important to know?

Necessity will certainly teach him the importance of knowing certain things, like acquiring food and shelter. Man naturally knows the objects of certain desires, like hunger, thirst and the desire for shelter. He doesn't have to be taught to eat or drink. But what about those machines, like automobiles and computers, which are not the direct objects of natural desire and are utterly baffling to the ignorant man? Harris simply says that "We would want to relearn how to use and repair many of our machines", but this only follows on the assumption that we not only know what the machines are for, but that we know that the ends for which they can be used are valuable. But the ignorant man doesn't know such things. Even something as simple as a toothbrush; how will we know what it is for and that it is important to brush our teeth? We will be as ignorant of dental hygiene as anything else.

Necessity drives the quest for knowledge only so far. The necessities of life can be met without knowing most of what modern man knows, as demonstrated by civilizations throughout history. Most civilizations reach a certain level of knowledge and then stay there indefinitely, as Chinese civilization had not significantly changed for thousands of years prior to its encounter with the Western world in early modernity. The civilizations of Polynesia and Africa similarly puttered along serenely for thousands of years at the same level of knowledge and technology, and probably would have continued doing so had they not met Western man and his startling technology.

No, Harris does not have it quite right. In the utterly ignorant state he supposes, we would see no need to learn that Jesus was born of a virgin or was resurrected. But neither would we see a need to learn how to use computers, or to learn the scientific method, or to learn much more than is necessary to maintain a basic level of civilization that allows us to survive. That is the general lesson of history. Even the civilization of Socrates and Aristotle that became aware of its own ignorance (but not exactly what it was ignorant of), never really took off. Philosophers felt the hunger for knowledge, but their hunger was always viewed as eccentric and never qualified the civilization as a whole.

In only one civilization, at one moment in history, was this pattern broken and man came to know things far beyond the necessities of survival. That civilization, as it happens, is also the civilization that was founded on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not unreasonable for us to suspect that there is a connection between these two facts. Perhaps it is only because we knew that Jesus was born of a virgin and was resurrected that we later came to know things like automobiles and dental hygiene.

The Church was commanded by Jesus Christ to teach the Gospel throughout the world, that the "repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all the nations..." Now you can preach the Gospel to all nations only if you, in fact, know all nations and are able to get to them. The Christian Gospel in its origin involves a divine summons to know and explore the world. Tradition holds that many of the Apostles died in foreign lands (e.g. St. Thomas in India, I believe). It isn't long after his conversion that Paul, the first great missionary, sets out from the Palestine he had known his whole life to tramp to the ends of the Roman Empire. The Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles are basically a travelogue of Paul's journeys around the Empire.

The outward-looking and exploratory character of Western civilization owes its origin to Jesus Christ. Western man did not develop the science and technology necessary to understand the world simply as an end in itself; he developed it as a means to achieving the religious mission to which he had been set by God. You can preach to the ends of the Earth only if you have the ships and navigational technique to get there.

But there is something more than this. Jesus Christ is the Word made Flesh. He is Knowledge Itself made flesh. So to know Jesus Christ, we must know the Flesh of which He is made. It follows that knowing the world is also a way of knowing God. More than this, we can't know God unless we truly know the world. Throughout Christian history, there has always been this dual aspect to the quest for knowledge: Knowing the world is not only good for its own sake, but we know and glorify God in coming to know the world He has made. Christian man cannot rest in knowing enough to know how to survive; he has been given a divine summons to explore the world and know it so that he not only can preach the Gospel, but also that he may know God more fully.

What about the natural slavery I mentioned at the beginning of this essay? Sam Harris mentions some things to which "we could never return with a clear conscience." Among them he mentions the caste system and slavery. As I remarked in that earlier post, it is only Christian-inspired Western civilization that has actively abolished slavery. All other civilizations, illuminated only by the light of natural knowledge, never saw anything wrong with slavery per se. So in Harris's hypothesized state of utter ignorance, we would be utterly ignorant of the immorality of slavery. And given that non-Christian civilizations never arrive at the conclusion that slavery in and of itself is wrong, we can safely suppose that neither in Harris's hypothesis would we ever conclude that slavery is wrong, no matter how much science and technology we relearned. We might return to slavery but we would do it with a clear conscience, for our conscience would be ignorant.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Natural slavery

We are all familiar with the fact that Aristotle thought that some people are natural slaves. But I don’t think we always think through the full implications of what Aristotle was saying.

For Aristotle, nature is the active, vital principle in something that makes it what it is. It is the fundamental driving force that directs an organism’s development in one direction rather than another. To say that someone is a natural slave, then, means that his nature tends toward slavery. In a real but perhaps unconscious manner, he desires to be a slave. Just as a ball will naturally roll down a hill unless something prevents it from doing so, so the natural slave will gravitate toward slavery unless something prevents him from doing so.

Now it was self-evident for Aristotle that nature should be fulfilled rather than thwarted. If some people are natural slaves, then it is right and good that their natures should be fulfilled in slavery. Before we leap up in outrage, we should understand that Aristotle means by “slavery” something a bit different than what we normally understand by it. When we think of “slavery”, we think of the modern institution of pure exploitation. We think of the Spanish capturing Africans and dragging them to the New World to work on plantations until they dropped. The Spanish, as well as the later English, Dutch and American slave traders, were not motivated by an Aristotelian understanding of slavery. They were motivated by the lure of pure profit and the slaves were entirely expendable in pursuit of that profit.

Aristotle’s understanding of slavery is not that of an institution of simple exploitation. It is something that should work for the benefit of both master and slave. It is an example of the “ruler/ruled” relationship that Aristotle finds everywhere in life; he sees the master/slave relationship as analogous with the father/son relationship. If we must find a modern image of Aristotelian slavery, then probably the best is the “noble obligation” that British colonialists felt in their rule over India. The British thought that their superiority of culture gave them the right to conquer and rule over India, but also that it carried with it the obligation to rule for the benefit of the Indians as well as themselves; a very Aristotelian view of things.

My point in the present essay is not to argue whether the Aristotelian institution of slavery is just, or whether the British rule of India was ultimately good or bad for that subcontinent. It is to ask the question: Was Aristotle right that some people are natural slaves?

I have argued in an earlier post that most people want to be told what to do. That is an admission, I suppose, that I believe Aristotle was right that there are such things as natural slaves; even that most people are by nature slaves. But that doesn’t mean that I am any less dedicated to the proposition that all men should be free. It does mean that I think that making men free, and keeping them that way, is a lot harder than we suppose it to be. We are running against the grain of their natures.

If some men are by nature slaves, and nature should be fulfilled rather than thwarted, then how do we avoid Aristotle’s conclusion that slavery is just or, at least, that it is inevitable? There is one possibility: Men must be given a new nature, a nature that is naturally free rather than inclined to slavery. This is the nature that Jesus Christ offers us through being re-born in Him. It is in this way that the Gospel is the true foundation of every kind of freedom in the world, including political freedom. It is also the reason that, as Christianity declines in the Western world, political freedom declines with it. Western man is returning to his old nature of a natural slave. In his depths he no longer desires to be free, but only that someone will tell him what to do and relieve him of the burdens of freedom.

It is often remarked that nowhere in the New Testament is there an explicit condemnation of the institutions of slavery. This is because Jesus Christ was after a much deeper target; he was after the natural slavery that is in the heart of every man. An attack on the public institutions of slavery is meaningless without a change in the natural inclination man has toward slavery; a new institution of slavery would soon be built on the rubble of the last. Once man’s original slave-nature is re-born in the free-nature found in Jesus Christ, conventional slavery will eventually disappear as a matter of course; for it will no longer be based on nature. Western history bears this out. The Western world once took slavery for granted, as every civilization has, but the Western world is the only one that eventually actively abolished it; and that for the reason that it had become unnatural.

We see the beginnings of true freedom in the Book of Exodus. Moses leads the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt, but it is by way of summons and command. Many times they demand that Moses turn back; they want to go back to slavery in Egypt. They are still natural slaves. But God forces them out of slavery and into freedom; a feat of such irony that only God could pull it off. God’s Law is a law of freedom but it is not perceived as such. One day in seven must be set aside from the demands of the world and be a day of rest. It is, in fact, a day of true freedom, a day of freedom for slaves as well as masters.

The Old Testament is a preparation for the true freedom that is found in Jesus Christ, the true freedom that can only be found by being re-born in a new nature. The nature of this new freedom is wonderfully expressed in St. Paul’s letter to Philemon. Paul does not demand that Philemon free Onesimus. He does not attack the institution of slavery directly. But he asks Philemon to reconsider the meaning of slavery in light of the new life into which he, Paul and Onesimus have been born.

For perhaps he was therefore parted from thee for a season, that thou shouldest have him for ever; no longer as a servant, but more than a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much rather to thee, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Onesimus was once just “a servant”, a natural slave. Now he is “more than a servant”, a man born into a new freedom in Jesus Christ, and Paul asks Philemon to respect that freedom. What meaning can conventional slavery have when its foundation in natural slavery has been overthrown by Christ? Paul is not asking Philemon to go against the grain of nature. He is asking Philemon to fulfill what has now become natural for Paul, Philemon and Onesimus: To be free.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Egocentrism again

Newsweek has published yet another ode to religious egocentrism in its latest issue. I commented here on an essay written by a woman who "doesn't need a piece of paper" to prove that she is committed to her lover. Now we have an essay by a woman - a practicing Catholic - who just isn't comfortable talking to her kids about God.

The old cliche applies in this case: One doesn't know whether to laugh or to cry. It is easy to make sport of the unintentional hilarity of the essay, for instance where the auther writes that "I couldn't name the seven deadly sins if my life depended on it." Of course her life already does depend on it. That's why they are called the deadly sins. Or when she sympathizes with other parents who "play down the religious aspect of church." I wonder if they also play down the musical aspect of orchestra and the aquatic aspect of the swim team.

But in the end, the laughter is hollow because the essay is just so depressing. Egocentrism is the conviction that the only thing that finally matters is my opinion about things. The logical terminus of this conviction is an indifference to the truth; my opinion is still my opinion even if it is false, so why go to all the trouble to ground my opinions in truth when the only thing that matters is that they are my opinions? This conviction now seems to be the dominant conviction in our society.

Thus we have the spectacle of a seemingly intelligent, well-educated woman writing an essay for a major news magazine, an essay that will be read by millions, who can't be bothered to acquaint herself with the elementary facts about the subject of her essay. At one time an author writing on a religious subject would be embarrassed if it were exposed that she didn't know the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly Sins. Our author doesn't need to be exposed; for she cheerfully volunteers the fact and far from being embarrassed about it, she wears her ignorance as a badge of honor. Far more important than any genuine knowledge of the Faith, it seems, is the fact that she has opinions about the Church and will damn well stick to them. So what if half the time she is fighting a phantom, for instance when she defiantly proclaims that "I don't accept all the tenets of my religion. I am never going to teach my daughter that evolution is a fraud..." The Church doesn't teach evolution is a fraud, you say? You are missing the point. In her opinion, the Church does teach it, and she's not going to let the Church deny her opinion about what the Church teaches even if she only has that opinion so she can deny it herself.

People really do think this way. They think the Church is terribly overbearing even to suggest that perhaps, maybe, it's just possible, that opinions grounded in knowledge are better than opinions grounded in ignorance. A priest from the USCCB wrote in to gently correct the author on her point about evolution, but the letter just increases one's depression. No, Father Bransfield, Kathleen Deveny doesn't want to pass on the Faith. At least give her the respect of her convictions. She's a self-proclaimed "cafeteria Catholic" who admittedly doesn't know jack squat about the Faith and has no interest in learning. What she wants from the Church is nothing but warm feelings, the kind you get when people ask you your opinions about things as though they are significant: "What are some things that you think make a mother special?"

At some point a firmer hand is needed, and people need to be told straight out that opinions based on ignorance are worthless. It's not "mean" to do so; you are finally doing people a favor by at least giving them an opportunity to face the truth that there is such a thing as truth. You might also save them from making fools of themselves in the national media.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Philosophy and obscure writing

One of the most valuable passages Chesterton ever wrote was this from Ch. 8 of Orthodoxy:

It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. If you say “The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognized by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment,” you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the gray matter inside your skull. But if you begin “I wish Jones to go to gaol [jail] and Brown to say when Jones shall come out,” you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think. The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word “damn” than in the word “degeneration.”

This is especially true when reading philosophy. The basic philosophical positions were staked out long ago. The likelihood that a philosopher might, right now, imagine an entirely novel view of things that no one has thought of before is very small. Another of my favorite dicta of Chesterton applies here: “Nine out of ten new ideas are old mistakes.” So it is a good exercise, when reading the typical contemporary philosopher who fills his writing with large, impressive looking words or strings of logic that looks like poorly written C code (~P->~Q || Q ? P ^ !P, therefore #P#), to see if you can express what he is saying in words of one syllable. As a rule, you will find that he is repeating one of the basic philosophical positions, probably one that was expressed better and more clearly by someone hundreds of years ago. It’s also likely that prior philosophers have thought through the implications of the idea more clearly than the contemporary guy, since he’s just thought of it while the ancient guys pondered it for centuries. Also, the contemporary guy is probably smitten with the perceived novelty of his own thought and can’t address it objectively.

The more general the philosophical position, the more likely it is that a “new idea” isn’t really novel. A philosopher might have something new to say about the philosophy of music, perhaps, but probably won’t have anything new to say about the philosophy of being or the philosophy of knowledge (“epistemology” in the modern vernacular.) Music isn’t a topic everyone need address, but being and knowledge are problems for all philosophers everywhere and for all time. If there is an answer to the philosophical questions of being and knowledge, someone has probably already said it. So the best way to get a deep understanding of those questions is to understand deeply the answers that have already been given, not look for someone with an allegedly novel view of the questions or – even worse – someone who says he has made a “breakthrough” with respect to them. His breakthrough is probably a repeat of an old but tempting mistake.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Wisdom and Autonomy

Most people want to be told what to do.

Here's the kicker: That's not necessarily a bad thing.

It is a part of wisdom to submit ourselves to those who are wiser than ourselves. We do what our doctor says because he is wiser in medicine than we are; what our lawyer says because he is wiser in law than we are; what our accountant says because he is wiser in money than we are. May there be someone who is wise not merely about this or that aspect of life, but about life in general? If there were, it would be a part of wisdom to submit to his rule. That man is not the philosopher; the philosopher is a seeker of wisdom, and we do not seek what we already possess. Socrates' philosophical career may be thought of as a search for someone who possessed the wisdom he did not. He never found such an individual so he did not submit to any man's rule.

What about recourse to the divine? If there were a divine revelation that expressed living wisdom, it would be a part of wisdom to submit to it. (See the banner on this webpage.) The saints are people who have submitted their lives to the wisdom of divine rule in an exemplary manner.

Unfortunately, our legitimate desire to submit to the rule of another makes us vulnerable to populist tyrants (I just finished Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, an excellent book on this subject.) Nietzsche recognized the secret desire in man to be told what to do by someone greater than himself. Zarathustra the "overman" does not come down from his mountain and overpower the mass of men; he confidently asserts his superiority and they willingly submit to him. They have been waiting for him. Mussolini and, even more profoundly, Hitler understood this dynamic. Hitler established an almost erotic relationship with his audiences, he asserting his domination and the crowd (mob?) reveling in its submission. People find it hard to believe, but Hitler was a major sex symbol in Germany in the 1930's. He seduced Germany, but Germany wanted to be seduced.

The Barack Obama campaign seems to me to have a whiff of this about it. Not that Obama is anything like an evil figure like Hitler. As Goldberg says, our fascism comes in a nice, pleasant form with a smiley face. But the Obama campaign is almost pure personality and aesthetics and no substance at all. People don't care what his actual views are. They don't want to know what he actually would do because that would break the spell, and they don't want the spell broken. They are searching for someone to whom they can submit, someone who will tell them what to do and ease the anxiety of freedom. Obama is a master orator and senses the mood of his audience and what they want. He senses that they don't want policy statements but a superior figure in whom they can lose themselves. In the words of Caroline Kennedy, he is the first politician in a long time to truly "inspire" people. Inspirational leaders, however, belong in monarchies and theocracies (which is why the last "inspirational" President's tenure is remembered as "Camelot"), not constitutional republics. Our President is supposed be a chief executive officer, not the rock on which people find the meaning of their lives. Goldberg perceptively sees that this is really the establishment of a religion of the state.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Divine Guidance of the Church

Here is how I like to think of the way in which God guides the Church in its teaching:

Suppose for a moment that I have divine, or at least superhuman powers. You want to drive from Boston to Los Angeles but are a graduate of a U.S. high school and are utterly ignorant of geography. You ask for my help. I say: "My son, have no fear. I will be with you." You say: "But I have no idea which way to go." I say: "Just start driving as best you can."

So you fill up the tank and start driving, taking your best guesses at which way to go. I watch your progress. There are a bunch of different ways you can get to L.A. from Boston, and also a lot of ways to get lost. When I see you are about to make a bad turn, I intervene and shepherd you to a better way. I do this by arranging events that look like normal occurrences. You might come upon a construction crew that makes you avoid the wrong road, or encounter a snowstorm that makes certain roads impassible. Or I might arrange to have something very attractive to you on the right road, like a microbrewery where you can stop for dinner. Maybe you will meet someone who suggests that you visit a certain city for its museums, a city that (it turns out) is on your way to L.A. The point is that you have guided yourself on the trip and I have only prevented you from making mistakes through "secondary causes." Eventually you arrive in L.A. and I say: "See, I told you so." In any case, it's pretty much a miracle that you made it from Boston to L.A. and you are justified in believing in my providence, even if you don't know how I did it.

I think of this when people mention the mundane, political machinations that go on when the Church acts as a body. It sure doesn't look like these guys are inspired by God. But what would such inspiration look like? It's not what the process looks like that counts, but whether we get to L.A.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Religious Paradox

The Maverick Philosopher has an interesting post on the "religious paradox", which is how one might recognize the true revelation.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Mere Christianity

I’m not a fan of C.S. Lewis’s notion of “mere Christianity.”

I’ve read a lot of Lewis and learned a great deal from him. For my money, his greatest book is the prophetic The Abolition of Man, a work that becomes more important as we are increasingly tempted to genetically engineer human beings. His concept of “mere Christianity”, unfortunately, is not one of his better contributions.

For those who don’t know, Lewis gave a series of radio addresses during WWII that were later collected and published under the title “Mere Christianity.” The book has become a classic of Christian apologetics, especially evangelical Protestant apologetics. Central to Lewis’s case is his concept of “mere Christianity,” which he defines as the “common doctrines of Christianity.” The common doctrines are all those beliefs that orthodox Christian believers of all stripes, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, etc. have in common. Through the notion of “mere Christianity”, Lewis hoped to avoid entanglement in intra-Christian squabbling (“ecclesiastical disputes”) while making a case for Christianity to non-believers. Lewis was careful to make clear that “mere Christianity” is not a substitute for commitment to a particular denomination once one had become a Christian (Lewis was an Anglican). He used the image of a hall off of which doors opened to many rooms. The hall is only a place to decide which door to enter, not a place of permanent residence.

In light of my previous posts (here, for example) the reader may be able to guess some of my problems with “mere Christianity.” It takes for granted that the proper approach to Christianity is through a rational analysis of doctrine conducted independently of any authority. Once the basic doctrines of Christianity are established (this is Lewis’s “hall”), then the believer can address the (for Lewis) secondary historical questions of ecclesiology (the “doors off of the hall.”) This inverts the relationship between the Church and doctrine. It makes the authority of the Church subsequent to our knowledge of doctrine, when really our knowledge of doctrine follows on the authority of the Church. It is through the living witness of the Church that we know the truth of the Incarnation and Resurrection (the basic elements of “mere Christianity.”) Instead, for Lewis, it is in light of our prior and independently arrived at knowledge of the Incarnation and Resurrection that we decide which denomination to join.

If not by the witness of the Church, how does Lewis suppose one comes to know the truth of “mere Christianity?” The only way is, of course, through the reconstruction of remote events through scientific history. I’ve already written enough regarding Kierkegaard’s point that this can provide, at most, a probable case for Christianity. Here I would like to address Lewis’s apparent short-cut to the historical truth of Christianity, the famous “Lord, Liar or Lunatic” trilemma he deploys in “Mere Christianity.” The trilemma has a logical form and therefore seems to offer more than the merely probabilistic conclusion Kierkegaard identified. There is nothing probabilistic about logic, after all. But as skeptics have long and routinely pointed out, the trilemma only works if you accept Lewis’s assumption that his three alternatives are exhaustive.

The argument works this way: The New Testament is filled with statements of Jesus Christ claiming divinity and various divine powers; the right to forgive sins, for example. Now someone who says these things is either a lunatic (e.g. David Koresh or Jim Jones) or a liar. There is a third possibility, the thrilling possibility that He might actually be Who He says He is. Lewis dismisses the possibilities that Jesus was a lunatic or a liar, leaving him with (apparently) no logical alternative but to submit to the truth that Jesus Christ is Lord. But of course there are other possibilities, among them the possibilities that Jesus never really existed at all or that, if he did, he never actually said many of the words attributed to him in the New Testament. The New Testament is a compilation of two-thousand year old documents, written twenty or more years after the facts they relate, and of which we have lost the originals and possess only copies (or, more likely, copies of copies of copies…) Taking the documents simply as data for historical reconstruction, it is not out of the bounds of reason to suppose that things didn’t happen exactly as they say they did, particularly when it comes to details of place and speech.

Lewis wanted to avoid getting involved in the intricacies of ecclesiastical history because he thought “the questions which divide Christians from one another often involve points of high Theology or even of ecclesiastical history which ought never to be treated except by real experts.” In this he jumps from the frying pan into the fire. Lewis’s trilemma doesn’t work as a way to avoid getting deep into the mud of New Testament history, and ecclesiastical history is relatively well-documented and straightforward compared to early Christian history. In a nutshell, the ecclesiastical history is this: Since at least the fourth century, the Church of Rome has perpetually and consistently proclaimed the same Gospel, summarized in the Nicene Creed, from which various splinter groups have broken off, generally under the justification that they have a better grasp on early (“true”) Christianity than does the Church. Lewis’s metaphor of the hall and the doors really does get it wrong. The Catholic Church is not one of the doors; it’s not even the hall. It’s the house in which one finds both the hall and the doors. To repeat myself from earlier posts, this is not a rhetorical point but a matter of accepted history. G.K. Chesterton put it this way: One can say that a Europe composed of nation states is better than one united under the Roman Empire, but it is simply a mistake to think of the Holy Roman Empire as just another nation state. It was what was left of the old Empire when all the other nations broke away from it; just as the contemporary Catholic Church is what is left when all the “denominations” broke away from a united Christendom. That fragmentation may have been good or bad depending on your perspective, but whatever that perspective, the Church is not just another fragment of Christianity.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Religion and the test of Life

I have been arguing that, if we desire miracles, we need look no further than the eternal miracles that are the Jews and the Church. Besides the fact that these miracles have the peculiar feature that they are not merely historical (and therefore at most probable) but are ever-present and therefore as susceptible to certainty as anything, they have another remarkable feature. God himself has defined the parameters of fulfillment for these miracles. These are not miracles that come as complete surprises, but are predicted by Him in the form of a promise. Consider the following passage from Deuteronomy, where Moses speaks in the Name of the Lord to the Hebrews as they are about to enter the land of Israel:

See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you this day, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statues and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you this day, that you shall perish...
(Deut. 30: 15-18)

Skeptics like to make a big point concerning the apparent irrationality of all the minutiae of Old Testament Law. What's with all the petty details about oxen and sheep, the slaughtering of animals, circumcision and the rest of it? How is that conducive to human flourishing? This misses the point. If you told me that if I and my family all got mohawks and dyed our hair red, and did that for generation unto generation, then God would bless my family with enduring life till the end of history, I would be skeptical. But if you showed me an ancient book where God commanded a people to do that very thing, and that people had been getting red mohawks for twenty-five hundred years and remained intact as a culture and a people, outlasting by far any other people, then I would be tempted to head for the barber myself. So what if it doesn't make sense to me? There are stranger things in the world than are dreamt of in my philosophy.

God does not offer the Law to the Hebrews as something reasonable. He does not even offer it to them as something true. God is "realistic" in the most basic sense, for he offers the Covenant in terms of the most basic realities, life and death. And it makes it clear to us, today, the terms in which it is appropriate to judge the Old Testament: Did it and does it give life? Is it alive today?

Jesus Christ casts the New Covenant in similar terms in the New Testament (John 3:16). Jesus does proclaim himself to be the Truth, but his constant refrain is that his Gospel is a gospel of life. And so we may judge the New Covenant in the same terms as the Old. Did it and does it give life? Is it alive today? Yes, in the Body of Christ in the Roman Catholic Church.

Miracles and history

Brian Holtz makes this point:

Why such ambiguous and picayune miracles? Why not raise a new mountain in the desert, or install a new star in the heavens?

One of the typical assumptions of atheism is that the nature of "miracle" is clear and easily stated, and that it is easy to propose indubitable miracles. I wonder if getting a grip on miracles is so easy.

Let's consider Holtz's request (demand?) that God raise a new mountain in the desert. Suppose God were to perform such a feat. As soon as the mountain is raised, it becomes just another feature of the landscape and its origin a matter of history. That is, how the mountain got there is a matter of the reconstruction of the past from present facts. A point that Kierkegaard hammers home is that the category of history is probability. There is no reconstruction of the past that is absolutely certain, only reconstructions that are more or less probable. Therefore as soon as a miracle becomes history - i.e. as soon as it is over - Humean arguments against its occurrence immediately become available. It is always possible to ask: Is it more likely that an honest-to-God miracle occurred, or that some natural explanation is behind it? Maybe the raising of the mountain was a freak natural occurrence. Maybe the mountain was there all the time and we simply couldn't see it because of some bizarre natural circumstance. The longer time goes on, and the more the miracle recedes into the past, the easier it becomes to argue that the mountain was really there all the time, and its absence a mere concoction of Christian apologists.

The Old Testament records the story of the voice of God speaking to Moses from a bush that burned yet was not consumed. An impressive physical miracle. Yet who is to say what really happened once the burning ceased? Presumably, once the burning ceased, the bush looked like any other bush untouched by flames. At that point, it is easy to suppose that Moses imagined the whole thing. And once Holtz's mountain is raised it will look like any other mountain. Who is to say how it originally got there? And even if we admit that its origin was sudden and spectacular, how can we claim with certainty that God was the cause? Maybe intelligent aliens with far superior technology are playing tricks on us. Not probable, for sure, but less probable than the occurrence of an authentic miracle?

The only way for a miracle to overcome the necessarily uncertain and probabilistic nature of history is for it be, in some manner, an eternal miracle; a miracle that does merely happen at a brief moment in time but that happens continually across time; a miracle that is ever-present. What would such a miracle look like?

One such miracle would be the ongoing life of something that should, by all reasonable expectation, have already died many times. I have pointed to the Jews, an ancient Middle Eastern tribe that still worships the same God it did three thousand years ago, as one such miracle. The Roman Catholic Church is another living miracle, a Roman Empire-era institution that continues to survive and proclaim the same message it did two thousand years ago. The Church is sometimes criticized for not being "relevant", but it has proven itself relevant in a far deeper sense than the many secular institutions that have come and gone in its long history. It is not merely relevant at some point in time, according to passing taste, but in a way that transcends time. This is not just apologist rhetoric but a matter of historical fact.

The miracles of the Jews and the Church are easy to overlook because they are mundane. We see Jews and Catholics every day; we assume that what we see every day has an every day explanation. We therefore filter out the mundane in our perception of miracles. But our thirst for the bizarre reflects our prejudices concerning the nature of miracles, not a reasonable theory about what they must look like. I suppose if we saw every day people walking around wearing ancient Egyptian headdress, worshiping Isis, and building pyramids and sphinxes, we would not find it remarkable. We might not pause to wonder how amazing it is that a three thousand year old civilization and its cult have persisted to this day. But someone who was not jaded by Egyptians would be startled by them; he would demand an answer to the question of just what these people are still doing here... What is the secret to their survival?