Thursday, October 29, 2009

Intellectual Archeology

This week my department has been moving into a new building. In a future post I want to say something about this move--specifically, about the building's controversial name and the failed efforts to change that name. But in this post I want to share the results of a bit of intellectual archeology.

My new office is smaller than my old one, and it doesn't have a closet. What this means, among other things, is that I have to go through those boxes of old papers and notebooks that have been sitting in my office closet for years. There is no place to shove them and forget about them, so I need to make some decisions about what I'm going to keep and what I'm going to discard.

This morning I started leafing through some old notebooks which were clearly from sometime in the 1990's. One of them looked as if it were nothing but my notes for an introductory logic course I was teaching--and I was about to toss it when I flipped to a page of scribbled thoughts.

I noticed several things as I read through the three notebook pages of unpolished ideas. First, I'd obviously been reading Simone Weil, probably Gravity and Grace (this was especially obvious with respect to the final scrawled paragraph). Second, some of the phrases were familiar--early formulations of ideas that I would later refine in different ways. Third, some of my thinking from back then is impenetrable even to me. Fourth, I've evolved alot in my thinking over the years. Fifth, some of the main themes in my thinking about religion and reason, themes which have found expression in my book and elsewhere, were first scribbled in logic notebook years ago.

So I thought I'd share the contents of those pages with readers of this blog. If you find the views expressed outrageous or absurd, feel free to take issue with the younger me. I may or may not jump to his defense, depending on whether I agree with him.

Although there's no dating in the notebook, changes in ink color or spacing indicates entries made on different days (although all but the final entry seems to be a development of a single of thought). To capture this, I have numbered each new entry consecutively. Other than that, the notebook entries are unedited. However, in a couple of places I've been unable to resist interjecting a comment. While the text from the notebook appears in italics, the occasional comments do not (and they are enclosed in parentheses). So here they are, in order of appearance:


Consider the claim that human reason is not enough, that we must have faith.

This is at once one of the most important and most dangerous claims ever uttered: important because, when correctly understood, it teaches us that the absolute is beyond our grasp, and that to reach the absolute we must abandon the search and, instead, wait attentively; dangerous because, when misunderstood, it deprives us of both faith and reason, and leaves us more hopeless and helpless than the staunchest atheist.

(Did I really believe that staunch atheists were hopeless and helpless, or did I just say this because it had a nice rhetorical ring to it? From what I can recall about my earlier self, I suspect the latter. Also, since my earlier self could not have expected my later self to betray his trust by publishing what was intended as a private activity, I suspect he felt more freedom to indulge rhetorical flourishes such as these, just for the fun of it.)


"Faith" is used in two senses. In one sense it is something that we do: believe without reason. In another sense it is something that happens to us when we permit it: when we empty ourselves enough to let the divine presence in; when we are seized, as it were, by God; when the light of divine truth illuminates the limits of our intellect and lifts us beyond those limits; when we are humble enough to let go and allow this to happen--which requires, of course, that we let go of words, forsaking our desire to neatly box experience.

Faith in the first sense deprives us of both reason and God. To believe without reason is to believe without human reason, but it is also be believe without divine reason. Faith in this first sense is either arbitrary--the deification of your will--or a submission to personal history--the deification of culture. It is what we mean by "idolatry."

(The ideas here find their way into my book--especially the idea that willful belief amounts to idolatry. See especially pp. 185-186.)


To believe that God exists ON FAITH is either dangerous or irrelevant, depending on the sense of "faith." To believe that God exists by an arbitrarty choice of will is to vaunt your own will in a way that makes obedience impossible--true faith involves permitting God's will to usurp your own; this so-called faith is therefore the opposite of true faith. Such affirmations of God are not welcomed by God.

If, by "faith," we mean a connection to God which happens when we let go of our egos, then it makes no sense to say that we believe God to exist ON FAITH. It is like saying we believe the food in our mouth to exist on faith. We chew our food and let it nourish us. We believe IN it. But believing THAT it IS has no relevance once it is in our mouths. Likewise, believing THAT God exists has no relevance once He has entered us. Unlike food, the advent of God makes human beliefs irrelevant.

(The last paragraph of this entry puzzles me. Did I really mean "unlike food"? And was I really convinced that belief is irrelevant when one is in the grip of God? Irrelevant for what purpose? I suspect one would need to make some distinctions here in order for this to be acceptable. If all I meant was that the experience of being in the grip of the divine, and what one does in light of the experience, is more important than what one believes about it--that is something I can probably endorse today.)


In the domain of beliefs, reason is our surest guide. To say that reason is not enough is to say that the most important truths are not only beyond reason, but beyond belief--they can be felt and known, but not propositionally, and not without divine intervention.

Divine revelation produces a species of knowledge that is not a species of belief.

(Here, I'm pretty sure I was deliberately trying to sound profound. If I were interested in clarity, I would have said that what divine revelation produces is an immediate experiential acquaintance rather than propositional knowledge--the distinction between knowing Fred and knowing things about Fred).


This is not to say that all divine truths are beyond reason, or beyond propositional expression. There are things that we can say about God. Some of what we say can be evaluated with reason. Some of what we say is metaphorical, and can be understood only in the light of faith. Some of what we know in faith cannot be said.


The act of creation is an act of withdrawal. Before creation, God was everything. In order to create, God must bring it about that there is something which He is not. To exist as part of creation is to exist at a distance from God. To preserve us in being is to perpetuate that distance. God creates out of love. God's distance from us is a sign of that love.

(This is pretty obviously my own restatement of ideas I took from Simone Weil.)


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  2. I enjoyed reading the scribblings of the younger Eric. They reminded me a lot of myself - I was an ardent scribbler, spending most of my university days writing down whatever new philosophy of life that could help alleviate my existential angst!

    " If all I meant was that the experience of being in the grip of the divine, and what one does in light of the experience, is more important than what one believes about it--that is something I can probably endorse today.)"

    Reminds me of the thesis of Karen Armstrong's works. I can endorse this as well - though perhaps interpretation can affect the effects of the "divine grip"? I think of it as the difference between direct experience and the "thinking mind"'s interpretation. When we think of something, we put limited boundaries around it. When we put it into language the boundaries become even tigher.

    Sounds like you were really contemplating faith. I have done much of that lately myself. I also remember contemplating love back in the mid-90's and having the insight that "love is looking at another person and seeing yourself."

    I guess we spend our lives processing the initial fires of our first "adult" thoughts. Thanks for sharing!