Friday, December 19, 2008
Chuck (if I may call him that) had a gigantic editorial printed on the opinion page of the Stillwater News Press, in which he railed against the hateful atheists—describing his response, modestly enough, as the equivalent of a “roundhouse kick” against those responsible for anti-religious hate-mongering.
If it was a roundhouse kick, I think it largely missed its target. But I suspect that the more apt metaphor would be a series of jabs, some of which struck glancing blows. But what interested me about Chuck’s editorial wasn’t the merit of his reply (or lack thereof), but the facts about the case. Both a manger scene and an atheist sign had been put up in the rotunda. And the sign read as follows: “At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven and hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”
The message (sans reference to the Winter Solstice) was familiar to me, of course. It’s the dominant message coming out of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and other recent atheist bestsellers, albeit expressed in a brief slogan and without supporting arguments.
And so, since I’ve just finished writing a book critically assessing the arguments in support of this very message, I felt I should consider the issues surrounding the posting of this sign.
The first thing I want to say is that there is more than one issue here. There is, of course, the substance of the message itself, and then there is the question about the moral propriety of posting it in a public venue adjacent to a manger scene in December. But what I want to think about first is the Washington State policy that permits a Christian group to place a nativity scene in the Capitol Building.
Now at first this may seem like a blatant case of state sponsorship of religion, except for the fact that Washington state has apparently made the same space available in a non-sectarian way to other religious groups that want to put things up (a Menorah has been put up in the past). And this year, back in October, state officials agreed to let an atheist group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), put up its own display. What appeared, a few weeks ago, was the now-infamous atheist sign.
In one sense what we have here is an example of state officials trying to fairly carry out one interpretation of our nation’s commitment to church/state separation and freedom of religion. According to the interpretation expressed by the decision-makers in Washington State (and, apparently, elsewhere), what the state should do is provide a neutral context in which divergent comprehensive worldviews can express their beliefs. And instead of doing so by purging all state institutions of religious symbols or ideas, the strategy is to make sure that all comers have the same opportunity (should they wish to avail themselves of it) to express themselves in, say, a public school holiday concert or a Capitol rotunda. And this includes not only those who believe in a transcendent reality and have certain ideas about it, but also those who believe that the natural world is all that there is. In the broadest sense of the term, the latter is a “religious expression” as much as any other. If Christians and Jews and Muslims and Hindus should be free to express their faith, then so should atheists, even if their “faith” is essentially that none of the things in which religious believers place faith are real.
Now in theory, I like this approach better than the “purge all state institutions of everything remotely religious” approach. But there are difficulties that arise in a society in which one religion dominates as much as Christianity does in the US. When that is the case, it wouldn’t be at all uncommon that an open invitation to religious communities to put up symbols of their religious holidays in a public space would lead to a nativity scene promptly going up and nothing else (other religious communities feeling reluctant, perhaps, to call too much attention to themselves). Put simply, an open invitation by the government runs the risk of combining with pervasive social forces and majority power to ensure that the invitation is only taken up by the dominant religion.
This risk is magnified if the state does not in any way regulate the content of the religious ideas being put on display. For example, suppose that the state lets all religious comers post a display in the rotunda of a public building, regardless of the substantive message expressed in that display. And then suppose that a Jewish community group puts up a Menorah. And then, a few days later, a radical Christian group puts up a signs which says “The people that put up that Menorah are all going to roast forever in the fires of hell.”
If this were a real possibility—if the Jewish group knew that putting up its Menorah could very well generate such a response, and that the state would do nothing to block such public hate speech—then the Jewish group might well decide to spare its community the hateful message by not taking up the state’s invitation to express its religion. And so powerful social forces, unrestrained by the government, could turn what in principle is an open invitation to express religious views into a lopsided forum for the promulgation of the dominant religion.
Of course, this danger could be minimized if the state exercised its judgment concerning what, exactly, could be put on display. Perhaps it could say something like, “Expressing your religion in symbols and images and words is fine, but attacking other religions is unacceptable.” But if it does so, it runs the risk of being accused of censorship.
For these reasons, it might be safest for the state to simply keep its rotundas (literally and metaphorically) free of all religious symbolism. But the effect of doing so will have its own costs, of course. I would much rather go to a holiday concert at my son’s public school in which I was treated to an array of holiday songs from a diversity of religious traditions, than I would a concert in which all we got were “Let’s Go for a Sleigh Ride” and “Frosty the Snow Man.” The fact is that religion, in its diverse forms, fires the soul in ways that often spill over into great art. And I would prefer to live in a world where all of us can appreciate, if just on an aesthetic level, public displays of these creative expressions of the religious consciousness.
So I think there’s no easy answer to how the government should best pursue its mandate to refrain from endorsing a particular religion and to foster freedom of religious expression. The general strategy pursued in Washington state is, it seems to me, a defensible approach.
But if this approach is going to be pursued, government officials need to think carefully about parameters. A Menorah is a symbol related to a religious story, one that brings inspiration to many people. A nativity, likewise, is an image that evokes a religious story that many find inspirational. Both symbols are polysemitic—that it, they do not have a single uniform meaning, but can be interpreted differently by different viewers. Many view the nativity and see in it the message that God rejects human hierarchies and affirms the dignity of the poor. But Dan Barker, head of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, claims to see in it the message that everyone who does not bow down before Jesus is bound for hell.
Now I’m sure there are experiences in Barker’s life that explain why he sees such a loathsome message in an image of shepherds and kings and farm animals gathered in awed silence around a newborn baby. But it should be plain that the nativity image does not say this. The atheist sign, by contrast, does say that “Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds”—in slightly different terms, that religion, without distinction, is a source of moral corruption and irrationality.
Now, as I argue in my book, I think that we can identify properties which, if possessed by a so-called religion, do render it a source of moral corruption and irrationality. But we can find religious believers whose faith lacks these harmful properties, and hence who are not “guilty as charged.” In short, I think that the message on this atheist sign is mistaken.
But the state should surely not welcome some religious expressions and exclude others based on judgments about truth. For obvious reasons, doing so would be a recipe for the state to take sides among religious options, and therefore abandon its mandate to refrain from endorsing one religion over others. Freedom of religion evaporates the moment that the government thinks it has the insight and authority to judge which religions are true and which are false. We see this in Muslim nations. We saw it in the atheist Soviet Union. We saw it in the explicitly Christian nations of the middle ages.
Now there is a great deal of truth to the insight that dominant religions can weather harsh criticism from disempowered minorities far better than the other way around. Thus, there is far more harm in allowing the dominant religion to ridicule and denigrate minority religions (including atheism) than in allowing minority groups to take pot-shots at some religious Behemoth. From this perspective, it might be said that allowing an atheist group to use a state forum to attack the moral and intellectual integrity of those who are religious isn’t all that serious a matter.
In fact, it probably isn’t. But I don’t know that I want public officials to be in the business of deciding who can weather attacks on their belief system and who can’t. And so my inclination is to say that when the public school puts on its multicultural holiday concert, the officials shouldn’t decide that songs explicitly attacking Christianity are okay, but ones that attack Judaism or atheism are not. Instead, they should probably just agree not to have religious attack-songs on the program—even if, as may be the case, the atheist choir director has recently composed a beautiful four-part harmony setting of the text to the FFRF sign. This choir director should have a venue in which to perform his creation, but the public school concert probably isn’t the right one.
Of course, deciding to keep religious attack-songs out of a holiday concert is a different matter than deciding to keep attack messages out of the holiday displays in the Washington State Capitol rotunda. In the case of the public school concert, it is employees of the school who are putting together the program. In the rotunda, what we have is a state policy of permitting religious groups to sponsor displays. So the choice of what is displayed is made, not by state officials, but by these groups. Do uniform criteria which preclude explicit attacks on other worldviews, communicated to all who wish to put up a display, count as inappropriate censorship?
This question inspires in me another, related question: Does atheism have enough affirmative content that it can be anything but a denigration of the alternatives? According to Sam Harris, the answer is no. In his Letter to a Christian Nation, he maintains that atheism “is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious.” By “the obvious” he means that there is no God (something that is far from obvious to many others). So, according to Harris, atheism is exclusively negative in its content. It is nothing but a claim to the effect that every religious believer is wrong--and, in his view, obviously wrong.
But even if he is right about atheism, it doesn’t follow that an atheist display couldn’t appear in a public forum guided by a prohibition on attacks against other worldviews. To say, “I think you are mistaken” isn’t an attack. It's just disagreement. To say, “We don’t believe in any higher power that can redeem us” is not an attack on those who do. But what about saying, “Those who believe other than we do with respect to the existence of a transcendent reality are lacking in both moral and intellectual integrity”? That sounds like an attack—one that is commonly heard among religious extremists of every stripe, including, recently, among atheists. And while the FFRF sign doesn’t say precisely this, it comes awfully close.
Is it state censorship to require that divergent perspectives express themselves in the rotunda with a measure of decorum and mutual respect? If it is, then I would say that the state should probably leave the rotunda empty. But I hope that fair and reasonable policies can be developed, policies which can help to put on display the rich and varied textures of our society, without at the same time creating a venue for our intolerance, animosity, and derision of those who disagree with us.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Now there are a range of difficulties here that I could get into, having to do with how we arrive at the value system that we then make use of for the sake of doing pragmatic assessments of beliefs. But I will set that issue aside for now (perhaps taking it up in a future post), and assume that we at least have a general consensus on basic values that we can appeal to when assessing the pragmatic effects of beliefs and belief systems.
Shook clearly thinks that there is considerable bad behavior that can be directly linked to Christianity—such things, I suppose, as crusades and witch burnings and Inquisitions; although I would also add the heterosexist marginalization of gays and lesbians and the patriarchal subordination of women. Shook’s first complaint is that, when confronted with this sordid history, Christians will say that “it’s the bad Christians doing the bad things (or they really weren’t Christians at all).”
His second complaint focuses on the use of the Christian doctrine of original sin. “Very convenient,” Shook complains, “how Christianity ensures that we are already such bad sinners that no bad behavior at all need ever be attributed to a Christian belief.”
Now I think there is some merit to both of Shook’s complaints. And any reader of my book will know that I take pragmatic assessment of belief very seriously. In fact, it is one of the main aims of my book to distinguish between ways of being religious that are pragmatically pernicious, and ways of being religious that are pragmatically benign. In a recent post on this blog, I attacked the doctrine of hell on essentially pragmatic grounds, arguing that the doctrine tends to promote and perpetuate ideological in-group/out-group dichotomies.
Although I think Shook is right that some Christians throw up smoke screens to block pragmatic assessments of their beliefs, I think we need to make some distinctions so as not to cast blame where it isn’t deserved.
First, there’s a difference between, on the one hand, resisting pragmatic criticism of your faith by blaming all the bad things done in its name on “bad” Christians or pretenders to the faith, and, on the other hand, pointing out that there are different versions of Christianity, and that not every version has the same pragmatic effects. The former is an attempt to avoid pragmatic assessment. The latter is an insistence that such pragmatic assessment be conducted with care so as to avoid false generalizations. Furthermore, with any complex belief system, it is never adequate to simply blame the belief system as a whole for specific negative pragmatic consequences. The diagnostic challenge is to identify more specifically where the problem lies. If we don’t take this diagnostic challenge seriously, we risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
In my book, I make extensive appeal to Plutarch’s distinction between what he calls religion and what he calls superstition. The former is about living in the hope that the universe is fundamentally on the side of goodness. The latter is about trying to appease a supernatural tyrant in the sky. I maintain that these two phenomena could not be more different, especially on a pragmatic level. And I argue, furthermore, that both the divine command theory of ethics and scriptural fundamentalism, when embraced by Christians, tend to move them away from religion (in Plutarch’s sense) and into the dangerous domain of superstition. Also, in my book, I distinguish religion from what I call religionism, which is a kind of bifurcating ideology that designates in-groups and out-groups according to religious allegiances. Religionism, like racism and ethnocentrism, is a dangerous belief system that foments violence and oppression. But religious worldviews, experiences, and ways of life needn’t be paired with religionism in this sense.
My point, of course, is that there can be very good reasons why a Christian might want to say that Christianity in some broad sense should not be blamed for the evils that have historically been done in Christianity’s name. It may be that a careful investigation will reveal that the source of the negative behaviors can be traced to specific doctrines or patterns of thinking that are not essential to Christianity, even if they have often been embraced by Christians at various times and in various places. What the pragmatic criticism therefore warrants is not a blanket criticism of Christianity, but rather the rejection of those versions of Christianity that embrace these troublesome elements.
To me, however, the more interesting of Shook’s complaints is the one that implicitly gestures to the doctrine of original sin. His thinking seems to be this: Christianity has built into its worldview a picture of human depravity that essentially immunizes it from pragmatic criticism. Since any evils done by Christians can be chalked up to the effects of original sin, the proverbial chickens can be neatly kept from ever coming home to roost. It will never be Christianity’s fault that these evils are done. The blame will lie with our sinful human nature, a nature that prevents even the most sincere Christians from behaving in the praiseworthy ways that Christianity should inspire—and would inspire in the absence of sin’s corrupting influence.
I think that Shook is absolutely right on track here, in terms of how the doctrine of original sin is too often invoked. And what is so pernicious, in my judgment, about this use of the doctrine, is that it is fundamentally at odds with where a careful theological understanding of the doctrine should take us.
For Christianity, sin is the Problem (with a capital “P”). It names what’s wrong with the world and with our lives. At heart, sin refers to the state of alienation from God and from one another. Specific behaviors referred to as “sins” are merely by-products of this condition of alienation, which cuts us off from the source of all good and all value. It’s this state of alienation that is our “original” human predicament—our starting point, if you will. And until we move past this starting point, until our alienation from the divine is overcome, we will continue to be in bondage to affective states that render us too cowardly to stand up for what is right, too superficial to attend to what really matters, too fixated on earthly security or immediate appetites to care for our neighbors in need.
Christianity professes to offer a pathway out of this original predicament. It tells us that we can find salvation from the ravages of sin. Here, “salvation” is taken to mean something far more profound than getting into heaven when we die. Salvation isn’t something that needs to wait until death, nor is it about enjoying some paradise realm of endless pleasures. It is, instead, about overcoming the state of alienation that traps us in our narrow egos, that cuts us off from one another and from the source of all value. It is, in other words, about becoming connected to the whole of reality through bonds of love. And while the “beloved community” may require a level or reciprocity we are unlikely to enjoy in this life, we come closer to salvation even in this life when our love extends around us in such a way that we become catalysts for the promulgation of loving community. When Christianity speaks of salvation from sin, this is what is most profoundly meant.
But if this is right, if in some way Christianity offers the cure for sin, then shouldn’t Christianity be uniquely susceptible to pragmatic assessment?
I think, in fact, that it should. But let me be careful about something up front. If we are to speak precisely, it would be a mistake to say that Christianity claims to be the cure for sin. Rather, it claims to teach us about the cure.
Of course, there are complications galore, some of the most theologically difficult pertaining to the relationship between justification and sanctification (two important elements in the Christian understanding of salvation). But I want to sidestep these complications to make a general point, which is this: There are different ways of developing and interpreting Christian teachings, including teachings about sin and grace. And these alternatives need to be assessed on their own terms.
Some, for example, think that salvation comes from accepting the truth of certain doctrines about Jesus, or from accepting the inerrancy of the Bible. I’m suspicious of all such views for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons are pragmatic. If salvation comes from accepting the truth of particular religious teachings, then we should expect that those who strive diligently to believe the relevant teachings will lead lives that are discernibly better, in a moral sense, than are the lives of those who do not. But in my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, this isn’t what I observe. Instead, it seems to me that there are people from a diversity of religions who exhibit what I would call “saintliness,” and that across religions there are doctrinal devotees who are as far from saintliness as one could imagine. And this constitutes a pragmatic reason to be skeptical of the idea that doctrinal commitment as such offers any kind of real salvation from the power of sin.
My own understanding of Christian theology is a roughly Lutheran one: salvation comes, not from anything that I do or believe, but from what a benevolent God does on the basis of unconditional love. In Luther’s language, our salvation comes from divine grace (mediated through Christ's work on the cross--but addressing that issue is something I will need to explore in a later post). On this view, our salvation is not something that is in our power. What is in our power is whether we block the influence of divine grace or open ourselves up to it. And one of the chief ways that we block its influence is by insisting on earning salvation for ourselves—or, stated in more secular terms, by clinging to the idea that our happiness can and should be earned by our own efforts. The idea here is that we have a right to be happy only if we’re good enough, and the responsibility for being “good enough” must rest with us.
According to Lutheran theology, this “works righteousness” is a recipe for beating ourselves up for our inevitable failures and shortcomings—or worse, for hiding from and denying our failures and shortcomings, since we can’t face them honestly without believing that we deserve only misery. In other words, works righteousness is a pathway either to false self-righteousness or to self-loathing. But more profoundly, it stands in the way of the only real pathway to salvation from the effects of sin: opening ourselves to the transforming power of a transcendent benevolence.
So, how do we pragmatically assess this version of Christian theology, which I will call the theology of grace? The difficulty here is that, while some Christians interpret their faith in this way and internalize it, others in the very same congregations are mouthing platitudes from the pews without giving them any real thought, while still others are so deeply habituated into works righteousness that they twist and distort the theology of grace even as they espouse it, turning it into another species of works righteousness.
So how do we make sure, when we try to pragmatically assess the value of a theology of grace, that we adequately distinguish those who really embrace such a theology from those who embrace something that resembles it only in the most superficial way?
Put simply, how do we make sure that our pragmatic assessment is focused on those who really are striving to put their trust in a benevolent higher power that can work through us and in us to help us overcome bad habits and impulses we just can’t seem to resist by ourselves?
My suggestion is this: we should look, not at the church down the road, but at our local meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.
But for a detailed discussion of the religious significance of AA, I must hold off for a later post.
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Apparently, one student didn't chuckle with the rest of the class. Instead, he complained on the student teaching evaluation that his professor admitted to being inebriated while grading. The department head, upon reading this, felt compelled to invite my friend into his office to explain. "Oh," said my friend. "The student misunderstood. I didn't say I get drunk. I said I drink."
"Ah," replied the chair. "Very good. On your way, then."
Teachers have a variety of strategies for coping with grading. One friend bakes herself a tray of brownies, and rewards herself with a brownie every time she finishes some milestone number of papers. And then there is the strategy of putting the pile of exams on one side of you, and a bottle of scotch on the other. When you finish one or the other, you're done for the night.
When I'm in the middle of a stack of term papers, and I realize that even though I feel as if my brain is about to leak out my ears I still have twenty papers left to grade, I feel as if an oppressive--nay, almost demonic--power has taken over my existence, insinuating tendrils of darkness into my mind, replacing all hopeful thoughts, all joy, all images of beauty, with one more awkwardly convoluted sentence, one more fallacious argument, one more redundancy, one more "Since the beginning of time, human beings all over the planet have wrestled with questions of right and wrong, struggling with age-old questions that nobody knows the answer to. One such question is abortion."
And I think to myself, as I reach for the bottle of scotch: "Were there an all-knowing, all-powerful, and wholly-good God, then that God would know about grading. That God would be able to eliminate grading. That God would want to eliminate grading. And yet there is grading. And so, it seems, there cannot be a God." And despair seizes hold and will not release its infernal grip.
Until I realize, somehow, once more, I've finished. I've graded them all. And the clouds lift. I have passed through the dark night of the soul, and found that there is, on the far side, the golden light of dawn.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Today, I was surprised by an experience that I would describe as religious, but which came over me while playing around—of all things—on Facebook. A college friend of mine had posted a picture of himself as a little boy, holding hands with his grandfather and looking up with delight into his grandfather’s face. In the picture, the two are on a walk together, both dressed in suits. In my friend’s description of the picture, he notes that this was something they did regularly—putting on their fine clothes and walking together, hand in hand through the streets of Reykjavik.
It’s one of those photographs that captures more than just a visual impression. It evokes a moment in time and the feelings that pervaded that moment. As I looked at it the photo came alive, and this personal exchange—the tender smile on the old man’s face, the unguarded delight in the boy—began to resonate with universal meanings. It was as if I was looking at a clue to the meaning of life, or more than that: the key to it.
I read the comments that had been made about the picture (it garnered a number of them, probably because the picture was so powerful)—and I learned that at the time this picture was taken, the grandfather was dying. But in the moment captured by that photograph, death isn’t written on the grandfather’s face, and there are no hints of anticipated loss in the little boy’s expression. Both are present to each other, in the moment, experiencing it and each other fully. For the space of a breath they’ve left behind the world of time, of transience and finitude.
Or that’s how it looked to me, as I sat in front of my computer gazing raptly at this image, blinking back unexpected emotion. Eventually I began to think about my own grandfather, the Norwegian with a trace of gypsy in his blood, the passionate Baptist preacher who’d once been an atheist and a Marxist, and who in his final years, as cancer ate away at his flesh, lived in stark terror of death (as if he were afraid that all his pronouncements from the pulpit would be proved wrong).
My grandfather had many admirable qualities, but he was far from a perfect man. He was part of the resistance in Denmark during the Nazi occupation, risking his life to do what he could to protect those most in danger from the occupying power. In the aftermath of the war he ministered to a young Nazi sympathizer who’d been convicted of high treason and was slated for execution. My grandfather kept pace with him as the young man was led to the firing squad, sustaining him with words of compassion and hope.
But he was also a man with a volatile temper, at least in his younger days. He beat his children. There’s evidence that early in his ministry, in the anticlimactic years after the great religious awakening he’d led in a small Norwegian town, he cheated on his wife.
But the man I knew wasn’t the child beater. Nor was it the agent of the resistance. The man I knew was the one who, when I was three years old, squatted down and held out his arms to me when I came off the airplane. I remember racing to him and throwing myself into his arms, and him sweeping me up and laughing and pressing his cheek against my hair.
The man I knew was the one who carried me through the forest at a mad run after I’d been stung in the eyelid by a bee. He was afraid I was allergic to bee stings. He was afraid that I might die, there in the woods. And so he ran for all he was worth, clutching me to him.
I can’t remember the pain. I can’t remember screaming, although I was surely squalling so they could hear me miles away. What I remember is the roughness of his cheek against mine, and the strength of his arms, and the scent of him—which in later years I came to know was the smell of cheap Aquavelva aftershave. On him it smelled good.
In these moments with my grandfather I existed in the moment, stepping out of the tide of time, the endless forward rush. It’s no surprise to me at all that this happens when human love is felt most keenly. There is a link, it seems to me, between love and the eternal.
And so I looked at this picture, which I’d stumbled across on Facebook, and I felt abruptly lifted out of myself. I felt that I was looking through a window to the eternal. This is what abides there, I thought. This is what abides in the mind of God.
And for a moment I just stayed in that space, savoring it, feeling it as an ache behind my eyes. And then, below the picture, I wrote my own comment, which included these words:
“Here’s what I think it means, on a deep level, to believe in God: it means that moments like this one, so imperfectly preserved in a picture, are imprinted in eternity, not lost but tenderly and reverently safeguarded by a fundamental reality, something beyond the empirical skin of the world, something that we come closest to in this life when we laugh like a child looking up into a beloved face.”
Monday, November 24, 2008
It all happened too quickly for me to get a plane ticket to be there, and so I had to rely on family updates. He went into surgery at 1 PM (noon my time), which meant that they were probably cracking open his chest while I was lecturing about Kant. I passed the afternoon by working on my "Species of Hell" paper, which needs to be finished soon anyway (the editor of the anthology has set a December deadline). But as the afternoon wore on and I heard nothing, it became increasingly difficult to concentrate.
I passed the time by going onto Amazon to see if they'd updated the website for my forthcoming book. Last I'd checked, the "Editorial Reviews" section for the paperback version was a bit of a mess (my endorsements were listed together in one paragraph, and then listed separately in two subsequent paragraphs, and my Publishers Weekly review had yet to be listed). When I went on the site, none of these problems had been fixed, but the site declared that it had books IN STOCK and ready for immediate shipping.
I blinked in surprise, since the release date for the US wasn't until December. This should have been exciting news. I'd been envisioning that I would celebrate it's US release in some clear way, if only by drinking champagne with my wife after the kids were in bed. But here it came while I was waiting anxiously for word about my father's surgery.
I found myself tugged emotionally between excitement and anxiety. I worried away the afternoon by sending out e-mails to let everyone know that the book was released. It occured to me only afterwards that many of those I was informing about this hadn't already heard about my father, and so would be startled by the paranthetical comment that the book's early release was a bit of good news to carry me over while I fretted about his heart surgery.
I'd been told that the surgery would last about three or three-and-a-half hourse, and so I began to wait expectantly for a phone call around 3:30. My anxiety grew as I heard nothing. 4 O'clock went by without any news, and then 4:30, and then 5. I decided to go home, but no one had called there either. I began imagining that my mother and sister were too shattered by some tragic turn to be able to make the call. My own chest hurt.
And then my mother called at 6. The operation had gone smoothly. It had taken three hours. My father was recovering well in ICU. My mother had spent some time with him and had just gotten home. I was too relieved to complain that nobody had let me know about this sooner.
The call arrived just as my wife had to leave to get into costume for her show (THE COVER OF LIFE, which finished its run this weekend). I was too worked up emotionally to sit at home with the kids watching some Disney movie, so I began calling sitters--and fortunately one of them was sitting at home doing nothing.
So I went to see my wife's play (for the third time), and was lost for a few hours in the powerful story and the magnificent performances. As always, I was moved to tears by my wife's last monologue, in which her character Sybill's facade of fast living and sexuality is shattered, and her terrible vulnerability is exposed in a final tragic choice.
And in the aftermath, as I watched the characters look for meaning where Sybill had found none, I found myself grateful for skilled heart surgeons, for my children who were at home fighting off the babysitter's efforts to put them to sleep, for my parents, for my talented wife who loves those close to her so fiercely (even the tragic character she plays, for whom she feels such protectiveness), for the single malt scotch I'd sip after the show, for job security in a time of uncertainty, for the opportunity to see my efforts bear fruit, and for the love that surrounds me every day.
"Love is a living thing," says Tood, the central character in THE COVER OF LIFE. "And it can be killed." But it can also be nurtured. I am grateful that in my life there is so much love that has, it seems, been nurtured so well.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
In Clark’s words, “If you’re interested in getting a maximally unbiased, objective view on reality, then you should take all possible steps to insulate your knowledge claims from the influence of your hopes, longings, etc. Since Christianity presents itself as an objective worldview, one that makes claims about what really exists (e.g., god), its followers should…seek to ‘avoid at all cost the risk of being duped by an alluring illusion.’”
This is a compelling view, one to which many are drawn. It is one of the two basic schemes of thinking that William James identifies as vying for our allegiance. But there are complicating factors.
One such complicating factor has to do with the distinction between knowledge claims and other sorts of affirmations of belief. It is always dangerous to claim knowledge where what one has is something else. This is what happens, I think, in the case of fanatical religion. But not all religion is fanatical. Religious belief needn’t adopt false pretensions of knowledge where one’s belief is really a kind of pragmatic decision to live one’s life as if a hoped-for possibility is true (which is what I and many others mean by “faith”). And there is a real question about whether the demand for “a maximally unbiased, objective view” that precludes being moved by your longings and hopes should prevail in every sphere of belief, even at the level of one’s meaning-bestowing worldview, even when it comes to belief that is explicitly identified as a matter of “faith,” not knowledge.
Another factor that complicates any simple picture of our epistemic responsibilities is concisely expressed by Taylor himself when he considers the two stances William James identifies as vying for our allegiance. In Taylor’s words: “Each stance creates in a sense a total environment, in the sense that whatever considerations occur in one appear transformed in the other. They can’t be appealed to in order to decide the issue, because as they pass from one stance to the other they bear a changed meaning that robs them of their force in the new environment.”
From the one stance, the deepest longings of the soul are treated as a dangerous temptation away from one’s “Cliffordian” epistemic duty (to believe only in accord with the evidence), whereas from the other stance they are treated as (again in Taylor’s words) “the hint that there is something important here which we need to explore further, that this exploration can lead us to something of vital significance, which would otherwise be closed to us.”
This religious-leaning stance is routinely viewed by those on the other side as displaying an unacceptable indifference to truth. But that is a mischaracterization on several levels. As James points out, there are two broadly epistemic goals that have to be in view when one is forming beliefs about the nature of reality: connecting with the truth, and avoiding error. And these two goals are to an important degree in tension with one another. An epistemic practice that tries to maximize the number of truths to which one gives one’s intellectual assent may also increase the number of falsehoods to which one assents. And an epistemic practice that tries to minimize assent to falsehood may also, in the process, shut off the possibility of assenting to whole classes of truth.
Every philosopher recognizes this trade off, and few are prepared to give the goal of error-avoidance absolute dominion in the epistemic sphere. After all, the consequence of doing so is a radical skepticism which we cannot really sustain when we get on with the business of living our lives. Likewise, few are willing to open the floodgates of complete credulity.
So the real question isn’t whether one or the other of these epistemic goals should rule the day. The question is really about what kind of balance we should pursue, and what belief-forming strategies are acceptable in the attempt to find that balance. James sees passion as playing an inevitable role in this decision, even for those who choose the strict regimen of pursuing “maximally unbiased” thinking by taking “all possible steps to insulate your knowledge claims from the influence of your hopes, longings, etc.” Ironically, what motivates this decision may be nothing more than a deep longing to avoid error, to escape the risk of living under a false picture of the world. All other longings are sacrificed to this singular one.
My own view is that there isn’t one belief-forming strategy that should be required of all of us on the basis of some a priori considerations. My own inclination here is more democratic and experimental. We should afford space for people to live out different alternatives to see how well they work.
Now in the sphere of scientific inquiry, it seems pretty obvious that a certain strategy of inquiry, one that is error-averse and seeks to insulate the process of inquiry from the inquirer’s desires, has proved extremely effective in advancing human understanding of the empirical world. In fact, the success of science is so obvious to any who aren’t blinkered by ideology that within its sphere of inquiry we can rightly say that it has proved itself.
But it doesn’t follow that this same scientific strategy should be transferred to spheres of human belief formation which in principle lie outside the limits of science. When it comes to meaning-bestowing beliefs about the transcendent, or what might be more simply called “religious beliefs,” the scientific approach would dictate a kind of silence, that is, a refusal to form any beliefs at all (which for practical purposes would amount to disbelief).
And it is here that James’ thinking once again becomes salient. As James puts it, “I… cannot see my way to accepting the agnostic rules of truth-seeking, or willfully agree to keep my willing nature out of the game. I cannot do so for the plain reason, that a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule.”
The conclusion here is a wholly negative one: the rules of belief formation exemplified by science should not be relied upon when it comes to religious beliefs. What this negative conclusion opens up is a question: What rules, then, should we follow?
Some strategies have been tried and, in my judgment, have proven themselves to be abject failures in the field of human experience. One such failed strategy is the idea that religious questions are best settled by blind allegiance to the literal meaning of some purported revelatory text or central authority. That some still cling to this strategy is, in my view, more troublesome than the fact that some cling in the religious sphere to what James calls “the agnostic rules of truth-seeking.”
So what are we to do? I don’t think we will arrive at the best strategy through some a priori principles. Instead, I think we will do so through a spirit of democratic experimentation. People should be free to live out alternative strategies for forming their religious beliefs. That is, we should establish a secular society in which freedom of religion is guaranteed within certain parameters (parameters that have themselves been arrived at through social experimentation, and have been found to keep the more dangerous experiments from getting out of hand).
In my own life, I’ve found a roughly Hegelian approach to be the most compelling. It is an approach that might be called “critical traditionalism”: live out an inherited worldview to see how well it works, and revise it when it crashes up against lived experience; then live out the revised worldview to see how well it works, etc.
And when deciding which worldview to adopt in this critical way, I don’t think you can do better than to choose the one that sings to you, that resonates most with who you are and with the deepest longings of your soul. Only such a worldview will hold your interest and passion enough to enable you to really live it out, and hence really discover the merits and limitations of doing so.
While this line of thinking is all I want to develop for the moment, I do want to stress that I haven’t developed in the above reflections a stream of argument beautifully advanced by Hermann Lotze, and powerfully summarized in the introduction to his magnum opus, the Microcosmus. Lotze challenges with distinctive eloquence the view that, in the overarching business of living a human life (as opposed to, say, the more narrow business of scientific or academic inquiry) we should set aside our deepest longings in favor of a strict regimen of avoiding being duped. To do so amounts to sacrificing all that is most important in one’s life to the altar of objectivity—and while objectivity is an important value that needs to be afforded its place, it is hardly the only value. The question of how these diverse values should play out in the business of shaping our view of life, and hence how we live, is one that cannot and should not be answered too hastily, or without due attention to the many voices—including religious ones—that have something of significance to say.
Monday, November 17, 2008
Last week I posted John Shook’s reply to my “Evaluating the Unfalsifiable” post, along with a few general comments about it. But it seems to me that for the sake of a more careful discussion, it might help to lay out the core of Shook’s argument more formally. What I present in this post is, first, my attempt to lay out his main line of argument as fairly and accurately as I can; second, an identification and brief discussion of the premises with which I (and, I suspect, other religiously inclined philosophers) disagree; and third, a reflection on what I ultimately suspect will be the most likely outcome of serious philosophical reflection on the choice between naturalism and supernaturalism. I begin, then, with a kind of formalization of Shook’s argument:
1. Supernaturalism will either be a vague assertion that there is “something more,” or it will involve specific beliefs about the supernatural, that is, endorsement of a particular religious creed.
2. Supernaturalism that is a vague assertion that there is “something more” is what Shook calls “Theology in the Dark,” and such supernaturalism is vacuous and hence unacceptable.
3. So, a substantive supernaturalism will have to involve specific beliefs about the supernatural—that is, endorsement of a particular religious creed.
4. Endorsement of a particular religious creed will require the supernaturalist to “explain away” the religious experiences of all those people (inevitably millions) who ascribe to a different religious creed.
5. If the supernaturalist is forced to explain away the religious experiences of all those who ascribe to a different religious creed, then the supernaturalist’s worldview has no real advantage over naturalism in terms of explaining religious experience.
6. So, supernaturalism has no real advantage over naturalism in terms of explaining religious experience.
7. While some species of naturalism have difficulty explaining the apparent objectivity of value experiences, Dewey’s pragmatic version of naturalism explains (rather than explains away) this apparent objectivity of values as well as any version of supernaturalism does (without smuggling in any assumptions about transcendent values).
8. If (7), then supernaturalism has no advantage over naturalism in terms of explaining human value experiences.
9. So, supernaturalism has no advantage over naturalism in terms of explaining human value experiences.
10. If supernaturalism has no advantage over naturalism in terms of explaining either religious experience or value experiences, then it has no advantage in its capacity to explain human experience (hereafter, its explanatory power).
11. So, supernaturalism has no advantage over naturalism in terms of its explanatory power.
12. If the supernaturalist’s worldview has no advantage over naturalism in terms of its explanatory power, then the simpler worldview (the worldview that posits fewer theoretic entities) should be preferred.
13. Naturalism is simpler than supernaturalism.
14. Therefore, naturalism is preferable to supernaturalism
As a way of helping to isolate key points of contention between myself (and supernaturalists like me) and Shook (and naturalists like him), let me briefly identify the premises with which I disagree in this argument, along with what amounts to a very cursory sketch of the strategy I would pursue in challenging these premises.
First, I disagree with premise 2. While my own theology is more substantive that the vague supernaturalism of, say, many Unitarians, I do not think that this vague supernaturalism is wholly vacuous. Here, I would gesture to R.M. Hare’s idea of a “blik,” a kind of way of seeing or experiencing one’s life. I think that a vague supernaturalism constitutes a different blik than does naturalism, one that has an impact on the overall character of one’s lived experience. It grounds a way of life characterized by spiritual practices that seek to open the individual to a relational connection with this vague “something more.” These practices frequently culminate in “mystical” experiences (of varying degrees of intensity) that feel like the attainment of such a relational connection—and these experiences in turn have impact on the life of the individual, especially in terms of mood (they tend to elevate mood), outlook (they tend to promote optimism), and character (they tend to lead to less self-centeredness).
Second, I disagree with premise 4, for reasons along the same general lines as those mentioned by John Kronen in his posted comments to Shook’s argument. Basically, there is a difference between experience and its interpretation. Much of the disagreement among the great world religions occurs at the level of interpretation (and to a great extent, also, at the level of doctrinal teachings that have little connection with experience). Admittedly, the distinction here is muddier than it sounds, and some careful philosophical work needs to be done to fully develop this line of thought. There are many good thinkers who have done some of that work. Schleiermacher is one. William James is another. And there’s Walter Stace and R.C. Zaehner. More recently, we have John Hick. While these great thinkers have important differences and disagreements, they are all provocative, and their ideas and arguments are worth meditating on.
Third, there is premise 7. Now Shook has devoted a large portion of his career to interpreting and defending Dewey’s thought. And so if Shook says there’s something here worth examining carefully, we should take him seriously. And so, the other day, I tracked down my copy of Shook’s book, Dewey’s Empirical Theory of Knowledge and Reality, and started looking through it. A few things became quickly clear to me. First, it will take a great deal of effort to figure out exactly what Dewey means, even with Shook’s guidance. Second, Dewey’s thought is both provocative and controversial. I am grateful that Dewey has devotees such as John Shook willing to devote their careers to advancing Dewey’s thought, just as I am grateful that Aquinas and Kant and Hegel have such devotees. I’m a bit saddened that some other truly great philosophers (such as Hermann Lotze) do not. But it also seems to me, in the case of all of these great thinkers, that there is both much to admire and much to criticize. What these philosophers are tackling is just too difficult to expect any one of them to have the final word. While I am grateful for John Shook’s devotion to Dewey, I don’t share it.
Finally, there is premise 12, which says that the simpler worldview should be preferred over the more complex one if the more complex one lacks any advantage in terms of explanatory power. Formulated in this way, the premise leaves out something that I’m sure Shook would not want to leave out—namely, pragmatic value. What should really be said here is that the simpler theory should be preferred all other things being equal, where “all other things” is taken to include both explanatory power and pragmatic value. But I also think that both explanatory power and pragmatic value should take precedence over simplicity. We turn to the question of simplicity only once explanatory power and pragmatic value have both been assessed and found to be comparable.
And this leads me to my final thoughts. My own view is that, in terms of explanatory power, we’re likely to find something of a standoff between the strongest species of supernaturalism and the best formulations of naturalism. In other words, the advantages of one will be offset by the advantages of the other in such a way that we are left with a kind of existential choice. This will be true not only when all is said and done (which will never happen), but also at whatever stage of personal or collective inquiry we find ourselves at.
What I mean is this: we are faced with a choice that ultimately cannot be made on the grounds that one worldview is clearly preferable to the other in terms of its rational fit with experience. All surviving contenders will require us to make sacrifices (in terms of “explaining away” elements of experience) to roughly the same degree. And so we will have to decide which sacrifices we can live with, and which we can’t.
Some will likely view this existential choice in the manner expressed by Hermann Lotze in a passage which follows his efforts to show that there cannot be “any real speculative proof for the correctness of the religious feeling upon which rests our faith in a good and holy God, and in the destination of the world to the attainment of a blessed end.” Lotze, in considering what to do on the basis of this conclusion, says the following:
“He who does not share this religious conviction may…very easily from a speculative point of view reach that Pessimism, which is just now the order of the day, and for which there will be on speculative grounds no refutation. But this Pessimism, which reverts to the thought of an original energy without will, that produces the Good and the Bad alike without design, is not a profound view but is just that cheap and superficial kind of view, by which all enigmas are conveniently disposed of—by simply sacrificing all that is most essential and supreme to the unprejudiced mind.”
Others will likely view the same existential choice in terms of the distinctive ethical perspective nicely summarized by Charles Taylor in his masterful (and masterfully brief) discussion of James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, a book called Varieties of Religion Today. Taylor describes the ethical perspective as follows:
“…it is wrong, uncourageous, unmanly, a kind of self-indulgent cheating, to have recourse to this kind of interpretation (a supernatural or religious interpretation of one’s experience), which we know appeals to something in us, offers comfort, or meaning, and which we therefore should fend off, unless absolutely driven to them by the evidence, which is manifestly not the case.”
This is the kind of ethical standpoint so powerfully voiced by Walter Stace in “Man Against Darkness,” and by Bertrand Russell when he said, in reply to someone who asked how to face mortality given his philosophy, that we should face it “with confident despair.”
In short, we are faced with an essentially pragmatic choice. Do we choose to be the kind of people who avoid at all cost the risk of being duped by an alluring illusion, and who forge ahead in life like those mountain men of old to test their mettle against an indifferent world? Or do we choose to be the kind of people who live in the hope that there is truth in the religious inkling, the feeling that something greater and more wonderful lies beyond the horizons of experience, making itself felt most clearly in the deepest longings of our souls?
On a fundamental level, I think this is the perspective sketched out by William James in his works on religion. And so I consider myself, at least in this respect, a Jamesian. The process for evaluating worldviews which I’ve sketched out is a necessary first step towards settling on a worldview, but its function is this: to identify the viable contenders.
I think it unlikely that this process will ever winnow down the contenders to just one. And I also think it unlikely that it will winnow down the contenders to just one kind (natural or supernatural). But when faced with this general choice between natural and supernatural worldviews, I don’t think the choice will ever be judged to be a pragmatically neutral one. And so deciding between naturalism and supernaturalism on the basis of simplicity doesn’t strike me as the appropriate move—unless simplicity has first been invested with pragmatic significance, and in a Jamesian way allegiance to the ideal of simplicity has been adopted over against alternative ideals.
In the end, the choice between naturalism and supernaturalism will be a Jamesian one. If Shook and others want to call this step “faith,” I have no objection. But I would resist having it called blind or irrational.
Monday, November 10, 2008
Eric, you have blatantly exposed supernaturalism’s irrationality. And you have attacked only a straw-man naturalism in the process. Your theology must be chastised for these moves. This naturalist will explain what naturalism really is, and show why supernaturalism is now reduced to an irrational fideism.
And I think it is a feature of any good worldview that it track onto the empirical world as it is, that is, to fit with the empirical facts whatever they turn out to be. And if this is the case, then any good progressive theologian will be continually shaping and reshaping their religious worldview in the light of the scientific facts, rendering the broader religious thesis--that there is some supernatural dimension to reality--scientifically unfalsifiable.
Both naturalism and supernaturalism can then agree that both worldviews should be consistent with all scientific knowledge. Now that’s progress. In Reitan’s sense, naturalism is scientifically unfalsifiable too, since naturalism similarly (and much more easily) keeps up with science. But both worldviews should remain empirically falsifiable in the broadest sense of empirical -- that is, they should struggle to explain the entire range of human experience, lest they give up that struggle and confess to complete intellectual vacuousness. Reitan himself insists on this principle of empirical falsifiability, since he accuses naturalism of failing to handle our experience of values while religion succeeds. More about naturalism and values in a moment. What I want to know is this: Is Reitan’s Christianity able to handle all of human experience? Obviously not, since his Christianity is inconsistent with millions of peoples’ objective experience of Allah, and millions more of Vishnu, etc, etc. Most of the planet not only lacks objective experience of anything essential to Christian dogma, but furthermore people positively experience religious entities that imply the non-existence of the Christian god. There apparently are other jealous gods out there, too.
Now, an atheist skeptically refrains from believing in any gods, presuming much less and proposing a much simpler naturalistic worldview. Reitan’s Christian theology, if it really be Christian in any interesting sense, must also explain away billions of peoples’ religious experiences. (Again, something our worldviews have in common!) I’d love to hear how Reitan explains away the seemingly objective experiences of billions of people who can’t and won’t be Christians because of those experiences. Every option available to Reitan only sinks his positive case for his own religion. Every argument why a Muslim’s experience of Allah is either false (simply subjective, erroneous, hallucinatory, etc. -- this is naturalism’s uniform method) or is “really” an experience of Reitan’s god can, by perfect dialectical symmetry, be used by a Muslim theologian against Christianity. And if Reitan claims that any objective experiences of divinity are all really of his god, or he claims that that there must be many gods, then his theology survives at the cost of either degrading into a tautology or becoming so vague and non-empirically falsifiable that it manages to be both non-Christian and irrational. Is Reitan ultimately only selling the Unitarian “let’s believe in Something, but don’t ask what it is”? That’s what I call “Theology Over The Edge” and “Theology Into The Dark”!
And about naturalism and values. Reitan is attacking only one sort of naturalism, a narrow reductive naturalism which, while currently popular, hardly exhausts naturalism’s resources. Reitan must be unaware of the broadly non-reductive naturalism advanced by John Dewey and many other pragmatic naturalists. This broad naturalism does believe that values are experienced because humans are evolutionarily equipped to experience them (like anything else so important in our environment), that where these values are reasonably confirmed by long practice they are judged to be objective, and that values can lose their objectivity by failing to consistently serve their function in guiding action.
Reitan is actually not worried about this objectivity of values, but rather about their transcendence -- he quests for values whose existence and validity depends neither on humans nor nature. Hence he entirely begs the question against naturalism, since naturalism confesses that it knows no transcendent values, by either experience broadly or by scientific method. How convenient for a theology to speculate about entities that naturalism must deny, and then triumphantly “explain” these very entities -- is this a reasonable debating tactic? Still, naturalism maintains the distinct advantage here too: It is positively irrational for anyone, religious or not, to believe in such transcendent values.
Remember how Reitan says that Christian theology should respect all human experience? I doubt he really can do it, and here’s why. First, religions notoriously claim to reveal a wide diversity of contradictory transcendent values -- how could Reitan’s theology neutrally judge which are genuine? No rational option here, sorry. Second, Reitan claims both (1) there are transcendent values, and (2) experience attests that such transcendent values can not only exist in relation to humans (that’s how they get experienced) but that they also exist beyond all experience. Now, how could we possibly know that (2) is true? It proposes an impossibly irrational task.
Can Reitan get around this trap of human experience to locate his beloved transcendent values? Can Reitan appeal to some other mode of acquaintance with transcendence (other than the sum total of human experience -- add mystical and revelatory experience too -- since all these modes are still experiences-in-relation-to-human-experiencers)? Does Reitan think that there is a special kind of human experience or knowledge that is not human-experience-involving-a-human?!? Last I checked, all human experiences exist in relation to humans, whatever else they may relate. Human experience can only reveal what exists in some relation to us. This is NOT silly anything-goes subjectivism, but common sense, upon which empirical science builds its impressive achievements at our collective understanding of objective reality.
If Reitan admits the silliness of all this “experiencing the truly transcendent” then he returns to the ordinary intelligent methods of empirical inquiry, where we all have to sift through the plenitude of human experience to identify the objectively reliable facts and values. That’s where naturalism makes its home, and where no religion could ever “prove” its exclusive and universal truth. The naturalist therefore prefers to withhold judgment about transcendent and supernatural matters, and just stick with ordinary experience and environing nature, which everyone is familiar with anyways.
I truly get how Reitan wishes he could understand some transcendent reality. At this point, even Christians should start wondering what is going on, though. Does he worship things that have no relation to us and make no difference in our experience? And buyer beware -- if Reitan turns around to claim that his god and his theology nicely explains ALL possible human experience, then he has now abandoned his principle of empirical falsifiability and his once-professed admiration for experience. He again succumbs to my original verdict that supernaturalism has made itself permanently unfalsifiable and hence irrational. We should also wonder if all this bother about experience from Reitan is actually just a distraction, since maybe he secretly believes that pure reason or divine grace installs knowledge of the transcendent. What isn’t Reitan telling us?
In conclusion, we all should dearly love to hear how Reitan could justify these wild claims for his Christian theology instead of resorting to mere dogmatic pronouncements. Expecting no rational justification, I conclude that Reitan’s theology amounts to wishful thinking and blind faith.
There’s a lot of material here: the implications of religious pluralism for the reasonableness of specific religious worldviews, issues pertaining to the varieties of naturalism, questions about the distinction between objective and transcendent values, and more fundamental philosophical questions about whether it can ever be rational to postulate that which in principle lies outside the bounds of human experience.
While I can’t address all these issues now, I do want to discuss one thing: Shook is right that in my earlier post I focused only on the species of naturalism that’s currently enjoying special popularity. But I want to be clear about my purpose in that post. It was not to make a definitive case for some version of Christian theology, but, rather, to do two things: first, recommend an approach to assessing the relative merits of alternative worldviews; and second, sketch out why supernaturalist worldviews in general shouldn’t be preemptively dismissed but should be included in such an assessment. But, of course, so should other species of naturalism beyond the one which I focused on.
Now let me say that “naturalism” is used in a variety of ways that are NOT intended to identify a distinctive worldview, and so do not fall within the scope of the project I was sketching out. When reading Shook’s response above, I get the sense that perhaps what he’s advocating isn’t naturalism conceived as a worldview at all, but rather naturalism conceived as a set of instructions for pursuing inquiry and forming beliefs (a “methodological” naturalism). The instructions might be briefly stated as follows: “Don’t investigate the transcendent, because it can’t be done, and don’t adopt any beliefs about the transcendent, because to do so requires you to go beyond what experience has anything to say about, and hence beyond what we can have any rationally defensible views about.”
I want to make three quick points about these naturalistic instructions, none of which I’ll be able to defend in full in this post. The first is this: I think that an important element of experience is that it points beyond itself—that, in effect, a part of our experience of experience is that it’s about objects that seem to possess a reality distinct from our experience of them. When we construct a worldview whose aim is to make sense of experience, this is an element that we’ll have to choose either to explain or to explain away.
My second point is this: A worldview is not a description of experience, but an interpretation of its significance. For that interpretation to apply to actual experience rather than to some fantasy, we’ll first need to describe experience as best we can. But an interpretation goes beyond mere description. It isn’t an account of what one experiences, but more a way of experiencing it, a way of fitting the pieces together and making sense of what they mean, especially for how we should live our lives.
Sometimes, in constructing such an interpretation, we might find it fruitful to postulate things that are not themselves part of human experience. Now it may be that such postulates will prove unhelpful in augmenting a worldview’s capacity to make sense of our holistic experience or (which is also important) provide useful guidance and inspiration for behavior. But I don’t personally see how we will be able to ascertain this fact if we disallows such “transcendent postulates” in advance.
My third point is this: If we take these naturalistic instructions seriously, we’ll not only be precluded from making affirmative postulates about the transcendent, but also from making negative ones of the sort that are made by naturalism when it’s conceived as a worldview. Put simply, the statement that there isn’t a transcendent reality is every bit as much a claim about what lies outside experience as is the statement that there is a transcendent reality.
In short, it may be that Shook’s naturalism not only isn’t a worldview, but amounts to an injunction against adopting worldviews. Perhaps the idea is that we should content ourselves with describing experience as fully as we can, and that attempts to explain its meaning by reference to what might or might not lie beyond it should be done away with. If so, I wonder if it’s even possible for human beings to live up to such an expectation. And I personally wouldn’t want us to. It would seem to me an undesirable truncation of our speculative spirit.
But perhaps I am misunderstanding Shook here, and he is making a case for a kind of naturalist worldview that I haven’t discussed or fully appreciated. And some species of naturalism may well fare better in a comparative assessment of worldviews than does any species of supernaturalism. But if so, determining this would require the concerted work of a community of thinkers, each of whom will bring to the table different areas of expertise (since I doubt that any single scholar will have sufficient familiarity with every species of naturalism and supernaturalism to be able to do the comparative work alone).
What I bring to the table is an understanding and love of what might be called the “progressive religious worldview” (which is really a genus or kind of worldview of which there are numerous species). I hope I will continue to be able to shed light on this kind of worldview, both in this blog and in other venues. But a blog is not the place to fully develop any worldview (unless, perhaps, a picture of it evolves gradually over time, to be pieced together by the reader from dozens of posts). The purpose of a blog, I think, is to stimulate fruitful discussions that might spill over into other venues. It is in this spirit that I started and continue to maintain this blog.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Instead, my hands trembled. I blinked back tears. I flipped over to CNN and stared raptly at the images of celebration—at Obama rallies in Chicago and New York, at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, in Kenya. Had Al Gore or John Kerry won in their races, I would have reacted in much the way I react when the Buffalo Bills win an important game: My team pulled it off! Yeah!
But this wasn’t just about my team. This was something more. A black journalist on CNN, who would have been born just about the time of Martin Luther King’s assassination, expressed the point in roughly the following way (this is a paraphrase, since I don’t have the transcript):
“Growing up, if a black boy or girl said they wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or a business executive, their parents and teachers would have said, ‘Go for it!’ But if they’d said they wanted to be the president of the United States, they’d have been gently told that the country might not be ready for that. But now, now if my children say they want to grow up to be president, I can give them a different answer.”
This election didn’t cure the ills of racism in America. It didn’t erase the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, or the persistent inequities that seem to fall so consistently along racial lines. But Martin Luther King’s dream of a world in which people are judged by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin, this dream in which skin color no longer defines one’s place in society or one’s prospects for the future—this dream has become more than just a dream.
As my sister put it in an e-mail I received this morning, “Now let us all pray to keep our new president safe from those who don’t share the dream, and to give him the strength and the wisdom to move forward.”
Amen to that.
Monday, November 3, 2008
My own view is that the doctrinal component of religion, at least as that component is understood and explicated by progressive theologians, is not a hypothesis about the world, but is rather an overarching interpretation of the world as we experience it—what might be called a worldview. And I think it is a feature of any good worldview that it track onto the empirical world as it is, that is, to fit with the empirical facts whatever they turn out to be. And if this is the case, then any good progressive theologian will be continually shaping and reshaping their religious worldview in the light of the scientific facts, rendering the broader religious thesis--that there is some supernatural dimension to reality--scientifically unfalsifiable.
To think more carefully about this, I want to consider naturalism for a moment. In at least one sense of that word, "naturalism" names a worldview. It says, basically, that the world that we encounter in empirical experience, and which can be studied by science, exhausts what is real. Supernaturalism, by contrast, holds that there is more to reality than meets the empirical eye.
Both of these views have in common the fact that science cannot investigate them. After all, naturalism and supernaturalism are alternative answers to the following question: Is there more to reality than science can discern? Obviously, science cannot discern whether there is more to reality than it can discern. And so it follows that science cannot decide between naturalism and supernaturalism. Neither one is empirically testable.
But what I say here about supernaturalism in general does not necessarily apply to all species of supernaturalism. A species of supernaturalism is more than just a general claim to the effect that there is more to reality than meets the empirical eye. While naturalism has clear implications for the meaning (or lack thereof) of our lived experience, the bare assertion of supernaturalism isn’t very helpful in this regard, and so can hardly qualify as a worldview at all.
To offer an interpretation of experience, the supernaturalist needs to say more. There needs to be some kind of account, however vague or incomplete, of what this something more (“the transcendent,” if you will) is like. And sometimes when people speak about the transcendent, they say things about it which, if true, would have empirical implications—that is, scientifically discernible effects. And so while a bare supernaturalism is as empirically unfalsifiable as naturalism, specific elaborations of supernaturalism may fit or fail to fit with the empirical facts.
Now here’s what I think about that. Whenever someone offers a worldview, that is, an interpretation of human experience, a minimum requirement for adequacy is that this worldview be consistent with what we can discern empirically, in particular what science teaches us. Naturalism, of course, will always be consistent with what science teaches, since it has nothing to say beyond the claim that the empirical facts are all that is the case (once again driving home the fact that naturalism is empirically unfalsifiable). But supernaturalist worldviews might or might not cohere with human experience. Hence, supernaturalists need to study what science teaches us about empirical reality and make sure their worldview fits with what we know. Whatever species of supernaturalism they adopt will need to be treated as tentative, as something to be adjusted and refined as new empirical facts become known.
If supernaturalists follow this course—if they fit their account of supernaturalism to the empirical facts and constantly refine their worldview to accommodate new empirical discoveries—then their supernaturalism will meet the minimum condition necessary for a worldview to be acceptable: coherence with the empirical facts as we know them.
Supernaturalists who do this should not be viewed as “slippery” or as “moving the goal posts.” Instead, supernaturalists who take this approach should be appreciated for taking science seriously and making sure that their worldview meets the minimum requirement for a worldview’s adequacy. If naturalists aren’t called slippery for holding to an unfalisifiable doctrine, then neither should supernaturalists who revise and interpret their worldview to assure consistency with the empirical facts--even if this means that at no point will the falsification of a particular formulation of their supernaturalism require that they give up belief in the transcendent.
But consistency with what we have discovered about the empirical world is only one criterion for the adequacy of a worldview. There are others. Two are especially important. The first, which I want to focus on for the remainder of this post, is this: our worldview needs to help us make sense of the whole of our experience, not just its empirical dimension.
Clearly, there is more to human experience than empirical experience. For example, we experience the world as value-laden in various ways. And then there is our experience of consciousness. We’re not just aware of the empirical world around us, but also aware of our own awareness. That awareness of the world is what we call consciousness. Furthermore, we experience our consciousness as unified, as all of a piece, in the sense that all of it is ours. Put simply, we have the experience of being subjects of consciousness. Subjectivity is in a sense the knot that ties our conscious states together. Some of us, furthermore, have mystical experiences of varying degrees of intensity—that is, we have experiences that feel as if they are encounters with Truth or Reality, but which are non-empirical in nature and cannot be adequately described in terms of the concepts derived from our engagement with the empirical world.
Now naturalists have strategies for accomodating all of these aspects of our experience, of course. Naturalists are quite adept at providing, for example, Darwinian explanations of the origins of our disposition to experience the world as value-laden (they have been less successful in explaining consciousness).
But when they explain the value dimension of our experience in evolutionary terms, they are in effect saying that our experience of the “value-ladenness” of the world is not an encounter with values that are in some way real independent of us. Instead, the experience of value-ladenness is the product of something our brains do, and our brains are disposed to do these things because of the forces of random mutation and natural selection. Our brains impute to the objects of experience values that aren’t really “there” at all, and our brains do this for one of two reasons: either (a) the tendency of our brains to do this provides some advantage in passing on our genes and has therefore been preserved and refined through millennia of random mutation and natural selection; or (b) the tendency of our brains to do this is a side effect of other processes that were selected for. The latter option is especially common when it comes to explaining aesthetic experience.
But here’s the thing. When naturalists explain our experience of a value-laden reality as nothing but a by-product of blind evolutionary forces (or the result of cultural conditioning, as is often also the case), they aren’t exactly explaining this dimension of our experience. They are, rather, explaining it away. That is, they are explaining how we could come to have such experiences even though they are not veridical.
According to naturalism, the objects of our experience are not in fact value-laden at all. My daughter is not objectively valuable. Donizetti’s magnificent opera, Lucia de Lammermoor, does not in itself embody aesthetic greatness. An astonishing gesture of mercy isn’t good in itself. When you say that an act of child abuse is wrong, you aren’t saying anything about the act of child abuse as such. When it feels experientially as if we're recognizing value properties possessed by these things, we are (according to these naturalists) suffering from a delusion that natural selection (or cultural conditioning, or some combination of the two) has predisposed us to have.
And it may well be so. Every worldview will be a mix of explaining and explaining away. But it seems to me that one measure of the adequacy of a worldview is how well it balances these two things. The more a worldview can explain, and the less that it has to explain away, the better the worldview is (all else being equal). Given how much of our experience naturalism may need to explain away, it may be worthwhile to consider seriously the explanatory power of supernaturalist worldviews, at least those that fit with the empirical facts (and so satisfy the first criterion for the adequacy of a worldview). In short, there may be broadly philosophical reasons for favoring one empirically unfalsifiable worldview over another. And when it comes to deciding which worldview to go with, it is such broadly philosophical concerns that we should look to.
There is, however, another important criterion for assessing the adequacy of worldviews, one which I haven’t yet discussed. It is the pragmatic criterion: What implications does a worldview have for our behavior, for how we live our lives, and how well does the behavior inspired by this worldview actually work? This criterion is sufficiently important that I want to treat it in its own right. It is with respect to this criterion that John Shook’s comments about the Christian doctrine of original sin are most salient. Stay tuned, then, for a future post exploring “Pragmatism and Original Sin.”
Monday, October 27, 2008
Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion's Cultured Despisers Eric Reitan. Wiley-Blackwell, cloth $89.95 ISBN 978-1-4051-8362-8; paper $24.95 (256p); ISBN 978-1-4051-8361-1
Atheism—and contra-atheism—is a much overpublished topic, and Reitan, a professor of philosophy at Oklahoma State University, is late to the party. Nonetheless, he makes an elegantly argued response to Christopher Hitchens et al. that is refreshing in several respects. Neither polemical nor defensive, he writes primarily as a logician, rather than a believer. He brings into the contemporary fray many philosophers who reasoned well about God long ago: Anselm, Aquinas, Leibniz, Schleiermacher. He explains so many arguments so clearly that the book could function as an introductory philosophical text on the perennial subject of God's existence. He also looks squarely in the face of the contemporary horrors that many have used to argue for God's non-existence and still comes off the theodicy battleground with a sense of God as ethico-religious hope, “the substance of things hoped for.” The clarity of his presentation should make this book useful after atheism has finished its moment in the sun. (Dec.)
Friday, October 24, 2008
Punchinello, a wooden man, lives in a village of wooden people. These wooden people are called Wemmicks, and all of them were carved by the same craftsman, a man named Eli who lives in his workshop on a hill looking down on the village. The Wemmicks are all in the habit of putting stickers on each other: gold stars on those who impress them with their good looks or talents, dots on those who fall short, who are scratched or clumsy or awkward. Punchinello is one of the latter. He’ s covered in dots.
But one day he meets a Wemmick who has neither stars nor dots on her; and when he asks her why, she smiles and tell him that the stickers don’t stick on her because she visits Eli every day. And so Punchinello goes to see his maker. Eli is delighted by Punchinello’s visit, and offers him a warm welcome, as well as words of wisdom: What the other Wemmicks think of Punchinello doesn’t matter. What matters is that Eli loves Punchinello just the way he is, without conditions or qualifications. The stickers, Eli says, only stick if they matter to you. And once Punchinello is secure in Eli’s love, they won’t matter at all. Punchinello hears, and believes. And a dot falls to the ground.
I tried to tell my son once that this is story about how divine love isn’t conditioned on our achievements, and that we shouldn’t be obsessed with what other people think about us. After I finished, he looked at me with a puzzled face and told me that, no, this was a story about wooden people and a wood carver. He likes the story a lot, but the concept of a parable still escapes him.
But the message contained in the story matters to me. And part of what matters to me is what this Christian parable doesn’t say.
In this story, Eli doesn’t have a furnace where he's seen tossing the screaming bodies of those Wemmicks who delight a bit too much in putting dots on their fellows. He doesn’t tell Punchinello that, should Punchinello fail to believe Eli’s assurances of love, Punchinello will be cast into the furnace himself. Eli doesn’t tell Punchinello that all Wemmicks, because they are limited creatures, really deserve endless anguish of the most horrible kind, but that Eli in his mercy has decided to spare those—and only those—who wander up to his workshop as Punchinello has done. Those who wander with all sincerity up to a different house on the hill—and there are several, each occupied by someone who claims to be the Wemmicks’ maker—will be dealt with harshly and decisively. Eli is a jealous maker, after all, and won’t put up with his Wemmicks making that kind of mistake. In the story, Eli doesn’t say, “I love you just the way you are, because that’s how I made you…unless you’re gay. If you’re gay, that’s not my doing. It’s your fault, and you’re a vile sinner who will burn in my furnace unless you repent.”
I can assure you that, were any of these elements part of the story, I wouldn’t be reading it to my children at bedtime. After all, I wouldn’t want them to have nightmares. “You Are Special” is a popular children’s story among Christians of every denomination, including those that believe unrepentant gays and devout Hindus will burn in hell. And I doubt that the story would be nearly as popular, even among these denominations, if the story had any of the dreadful elements listed above. Why? Because people in general--even most of those who attend hell-obsessed churches--don't want their children to have nightmares.
Why do so many Christians insist on telling stories to other adults that they would never tell their children? Perhaps we have misunderstood Jesus’ meaning when he is reported to say, in Matthew 19:14, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” The kingdom of heaven belongs to children, to those we’d never tell the horrible tales we dare tell our peers. The kingdom of heaven belongs to fragile souls who need reassurance and unconditional love. The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are persistently testing boundaries, breaking rules, violating etiquette, those who are naïve and selfish, whose favorite words are “mine” and “unfair,” who throw tantrums when they don’t get their way, but who are precious even so in their parents’ eyes, loved fiercely and unconditionally, and who need stories of hope, not stories of fear.
The kingdom of heaven belongs, in short, to all of us.
Friday, October 17, 2008
Now, I don’t want to debate the plausibility of interpreting such images as signs from God. That’s not my objective here this morning. What I want to think about instead is what happens to our relationship with God when we become obsessed with finding the stamp of the divine in such things as toasted cheese sandwiches, or in chocolate drippings (as happened in California a few years ago), or in a swirl of marble on a chapel wall (as happened not long ago in Ghana).
And I don’t want to limit my attention to this fixation on Virgin Mary sightings and the like—because something very similar is going on with what’s come to be called “Intelligent Design” or “ID” theory. ID theorists are determined to find evidence of the divine in biological structures that are supposedly “irreducibly complex” and hence can’t be explained in Darwinian terms. And when they find something that they think fits the bill, they hold it up and declare, “Must be God!” These ID theorists are really doing the same kind of thing as those obsessed with Virgin Mary sightings: They’re scouring the world, sifting through the ocean of human experience, looking for miracles.
As if life itself weren’t a miracle. As if every breath I take isn’t a miracle. As if the astonishing fact of existence weren’t a miracle.
The poet and scholar, Frederick Turner, puts the point this way: “It is easy to deceive ourselves that something strange, something supernatural, is happening, as we know well from accounts of flying saucer enthusiasts, superstitious cultists, and ghost hunters. But perhaps our greater danger, our greater credulity, lies in deceiving ourselves that something strange and marvelous is not happening.”
In fact, I think that the first sort of deception contributes to the second. When we begin to fool ourselves into thinking that this unusual chocolate dripping or that complex molecule is a special revelation of God, we magnify the risk of losing sight of the miraculous character of what’s always there, all around us.
As Kahlil Gibran puts it in The Prophet,
…if you would know God be not therefore a solver of
Rather, look about you and you shall see Him playing with
And look into space; you shall see Him walking in
the clouds, outstretching His arms in the lightning and descending
You shall see Him smiling in flowers, then rising and waving
His hands in trees.
In this passage, Gibran isn’t trying to prove God’s existence by arguing that clouds and lightning, flowers and trees, can’t be explained in scientific terms. Rather, he’s saying that if we open ourselves up to the fullness of life and reality all around us, we’ll experience the divine moving in it all.
The quest to find God in distinctive images burned onto toasted cheese, or in biochemical systems that can’t be explained in evolutionary terms—such a quest is a distraction from the religious life as Gibran describes it. When we get caught up in such a quest, we become “solvers of riddles,” rather than children of God living in the light of God’s grace. We become so focused on finding fireworks in the night sky that we lose sight of the sky itself and the beauty of the scattered stars.
And so we forget to be grateful for the miracle of existence that surrounds us and fills us up at every moment. The constancy of the sky leads us to ignore it, and we attach our hopes and joys to the ephemeral bursts of colored sparks that splash for just a moment across our vision and are gone. The sky’s very constancy, which should magnify our gratitude, leads us instead to take it for granted.
Part of what it means to live in a spirit of gratitude is to resist this tendency. It means seeing and taking joy in the deep and abiding miracles: life; our capacity to love and to be present in the world; the spray of stars across a blue-black sky.
But there’s something else as well. As the mystic philosopher Simone Weil points out in today’s meditation, the universe is filled to the brim with everything we have ever thought to wish for. But because I don’t possess this thing at this moment, I curse the universe. I define the good as my good, and all the wonders of the universe therefore count as nothing unless I hold them in my clutches.
But I don’t need to make the universe as small as I am. I can, instead, expand myself so that my sense of self sweeps outward across the heavens, and every good that exists can be for me a source of joy. When I do that I’ve left the confines of my narrow ego and chosen instead to abide in the dwelling place of the living God (Psalm 84).
In this place, gratitude and generosity are part of the same whole. To be grateful is to feel the grace of God flowing through you. To be generous is to let it flow, unimpeded. In this place, authentic gratitude has no contact with its dark pretender, that burden of indebtedness Kahlil Gibran warns against when he tells us to “assume no weight of gratitude, lest you lay a yoke upon yourself and upon him who gives.” In the dwelling place of God, generosity is a gift that makes no demands on the receiver. Gratitude is a joyous response, not the burden of reciprocal obligation. The grateful are generous, not out of duty, but because possessiveness would amount to leaving the dwelling place of God behind. It would mean a return to that lonely little universe, as tiny as a single ego.
My sermon goes on to exemplify what it means to live a human life in this spiritual space of gratitude and generosity by (no surprise here) looking at the life of Friedrich Schleiermacher. More specifically, I look at the words he spoke at the graveside of his youngest son, his beloved Nathaniel. But a discussion of that heart-wrenching sermon will have to be the subject of a later post.