Tag Archives: Kierkegaard

Fresh Apologetic Challenges

The academic year has now drawn to a close. I’ve been accordingly occupied with a number of issues in relation to the finale season, and of course there have been other life transitions to distract me lately, but I’ve had plenty of philosophizing on my mind that I’ve been planning to write about. Let’s see if over the next week I can get caught up a bit here. Now I have no more excuses for not working some of these things through here.

One of the most important things from last month that I want to do some “thinking aloud” about here is what I was trying to say in the last university post-graduate seminar I attended this month. It was my turn to offer a critique of my colleague Lari’s presentation, and I don’t think I really did it justice. I also believe that the subject in question deserves to be discussed with a broader audience than in our little research group. Lari will be making other public presentations of his material, but I hope he doesn’t mind my spreading my take on it to the little collection of readers I have here.

The basic topic of Lari’s paper was the alternative strategies that Christians (and other theists) can use to counter the most recent variations on the Occam’s Razor argument: the claim that all god-concepts can be quite thoroughly explained in terms of the operations of a Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device, that no further explanation is necessary for them, and that they should therefore be dismissed as irrelevant.

As the argument goes, we humans are instinctively prone to attribute random occurrences to some sort of agent or intelligent being. Not only are we ready to assume that consciousness exists outside of ourselves; we are prone to see evidence of conscious activities in all sorts of places where, on closer examination, we can actually be relatively certain that they don’t exist: What looked like a monster posed to attack me from my closet was actually just a pile of dirty laundry. The noises coming from the attic are not ghosts, but old timbers contracting as they cool in the night air. No one stole my keys; I just misplaced them.

In terms of evolutionary theory, it is better for our imaginations to be hyperactive in this area than for them to be insufficiently active to identify potential enemies and allies.  As with a fire alarm at home or in a public building, it is better to have dozens of false alarms than to have the alarm system “not notice” one actual fire. Thus our mental programming, designed to detect other “agents” in our environments, tends to be a bit high strung, causing us to see intentionality and strategic thought in many things that we later realize were entirely random or accidental matters.  The question from there is, how well are we able to identify all of these “false positive readings” for things we take to be the activity of other minds after the fact; and if these tend to go undetected, might they essentially explain where all of our beliefs in a spirit world “out there” come from?

In its most aggressive form, this argument asserts that the most common intuitive reasons people have for believing in God all come back to dependence on their ability to detect “agency” –– the results of conscious actions committed by others –– in the world around us; an ability which is inherently flawed. Therefore, since spiritual beliefs are easily explained away as the products of the buggy “agency detection devices” that are programmed into each of us, it is most rational to reject all spiritual beliefs out of hand.

Lari’s argues, quite fluently, that in broad terms there are two strategies for committed theists to use in countering this sort of argument: We can either claim that we have entirely separate –– and more “respectable” –– reasons for our beliefs in various spiritual entities and phenomena, or we can claim that our agency detection device programming is not as faulty as its critics are prone to believe. The former style of argument he refers to as an internalist-evidentialist strategy; the latter, an externalist-reliablist strategy –– as good of names as any. From there he contends that both strategies can be useful, but whereas the evidentialist strategy makes it easier to construct reasonable sounding counter arguments, the reliablist strategy while more difficult to defend, may provide a more useful tool in terms of defending the faith of the average active church member, given the number of believers whose faith really is based on a combination of traditions they have been socialized into and the function of their agency detection devices.

As far as he goes with that, I have little argument with Lari’s analysis. My problem is with the way in which these arguments attempt to address epistemological questions in abstraction from their ethical implications. I categorically reject the idea that we can search for some ultimate truth about the existence of God separately from practical questions of how we should live and what the purpose of our lives should be. The whole issue of “respectability” within epistemology as an end unto itself –– as a holy calling regarding which philosophy takes on the role of a priesthood of sorts –– is effectively a continuation of the Hegelian tradition, and I firmly believe that Kierkegaard’s critique of this tradition makes a legitimate point, especially when it comes to questions of what it means to believe in God.

There are two particularly famous Kierkegaard quotes that sum up the issue rather succinctly:

“If Hegel had written the whole of his logic and then said, in the preface or some other place, that it was merely an experiment in thought… then he would certainly have been the greatest thinker who had ever lived. As it is, he is merely comic.” (Journals, 1844)

And then,

“What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose… to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.” (Journals, 1835. Emphasis added.)

Kierkegaard’s primary critique of Hegel concerned the old German’s lack of basic humility in his epistemological perspective. Acknowledging our fallibility is a very necessary starting point in these matters. There are two challenging aspects of the philosophical search for truth that we, as humans, are never going to overcome: our finitude and our biased personal perspectives. Any honest philosophical inquiry needs to keep these limitations in mind throughout the process; not claiming to have found infinity within oneself, nor to have found a level of truth that isn’t based on what we can discover within our human limitations. Those who turn to either philosophy or religion as a means of trying to escape life’s uncertainties and ambiguities fundamentally miss this point.

If, however, we set somewhat more modest goals for ourselves of determining what truths are worth acting on, and what sorts of actions are justified on such bases, both philosophy and religion can provide useful guidelines for choosing a course of action. (Many will disagree with me about the usefulness of either. For some of them philosophy might provide a useful framework for discussing the matter at least. For the rest, c’est la vie if they disagree.)

jack and jillTo follow on Lari’s choice of hypothetical character names, let me illustrate this with a story of Jill and Jack: This couple first met at a student gathering one fine spring day, and over the subsequent weeks they began dating. This took some courage for Jill in particular, as she was just getting over the rather bitter ending of a previous dysfunctional romance with Joe. Jack, however, showed himself to be a kind, respectful, funny, intelligent and seemingly emotionally mature sort of guy, so in spite of her wounds and fears Jill decided to keep seeing him. Then one night Jill had an especially vivid dream, in which she saw herself and Jack as an old couple snuggling together on a porch swing as their grandchildren arrived for a weekend visit. Jill believed that this dream was somehow prophetic; that she and Jack were just meant to be together.

When she told Jack about this dream though he seemed a bit skeptical, and perhaps a bit intimidated even, as though his new girlfriend might have a few screws looser than he had first realized. Nevertheless he deeply appreciated her otherwise quick wit, her sweet smile, her gentle affectionate nature, and her overall sense of style, so he too wanted to keep the relationship going. Some months later an occasion arose where Jack thought it would be appropriate to take Jill to meet his family. Jack’s parents were immediately smitten with Jill, and made every effort to make her feel completely at home with them. Jack’s mother, June, in particular wanted to get in some one-on-one time with this sweet thing her son had brought home, so she asked Jill to come help in the kitchen. While the two ladies were in there alone together, June suddenly became rather confused mid-sentence and then collapsed on the floor. Jill instantly reacted to the situation with complete composure, kneeling down next to the older woman and trying to revive her. June soon came back to consciousness and apologized, making excuses of being overly excited and not having eaten properly that day, but Jill could see that things were not entirely right. She immediately yelled for Jack to come in and told him, “I believe your mother is having a stroke. We need to get her to the hospital right away!” As it turned out, Jill’s diagnosis was entirely correct, and getting June into immediate treatment prevented any major damage from resulting from the incident. She was thus able to make a quick and complete recovery. Jill’s rapid and well-informed reaction had saved her from suffering paralysis and loss of speech, and may have even saved her life.

Jack’s gratitude to Jill for saving his mother in this way seriously intensified his feelings for her and his commitment to her. Two months later he asked her to marry him. She enthusiastically agreed.

Now the question is, was it wise for these two to believe that they had found a true love that was just meant to be?

In Jill’s case her original decision to entrust herself to Jack was based on a naïve belief in the power of dreams. To try to defend the general validity of seeking guidance from one’s dreams is a rather difficult and problematic matter to say at the least. This can be associated with all manner of superstitions that can ultimately cause all sorts of problems in one’s life, to say nothing of the relational conflicts that could arise if Jack wouldn’t happen to share such beliefs with her. On the other hand though Jill’s dream might still be seen by a non-believer in the magical power of such things as a subconscious indication of how much healing Jack had succeeded in bringing about in her life. Thus even if there was nothing prophetic about it, the dream could be taken as a sign that he really was good for her. Her epistemological premise for believing in the value of the relationship may well have been flawed, but it is possible that the conclusion which it brought her to could have been the right one, and perhaps even “true” in a practical sense.

Jack’s more careful and skeptical consideration of the value of their relationship may be easier to rationally defend on some levels. It was not dependent on any magical concepts or superstitious beliefs as such. To the less romantically inclined he could justify his decision to marry Jill on the basis of the significant practical value of having her around, as seen in the way she saved his mother. Did that prove beyond doubt that Jill was the ideal woman for him and that they were destined to live “happily ever after”? In itself of course not. Telling that story to Joe would by no means be enough to convince him that he had made a mistake in letting Jill go. But even so, this experience, taken together with Jack’s other reasons for appreciating Jill, provided him with as good a rational justification for making a romantic commitment as people can really expect to find these days.

None of this excludes the possibility that within a few years Jack and Jill would end up driving each other crazy and getting divorced. If that were to happen inevitably both of them would have to reconsider the thought processes that led them to believe in their relationship to begin with. If either were naïve enough to believe that their reasons for choosing each other were matters of absolute rational certainty, a marital crisis could end up shaking their personal existential foundations in really horrible ways. But even in that case we wouldn’t have enough information to say that marriage was a mistake for them. One or the other might well have made later mistakes to screw up what otherwise would have been a beautiful thing for both of them. Whatever the case their epistemological premises for believing that they belonged together were not the best determinant of the validity of the proposition, nor a particularly strong indicator one way or the other regarding the strength of their future marriage.  (There’s also a lot to be said these days for people daring to love each other in spite of all of the risks involved, but that’s another essay.)

So how does this relate to the question of our grounds for believing in God? One aspect of the matter is that neither an externalist-reliablist strategy nor an internalist-evidentialist strategy –– neither “a sense of God’s presence” nor attempts to prove His existence on the basis of historical events and the like –– is entirely foolproof. Our means of knowing by way of such means are always going to be flawed, and we need to acknowledge that.  But more importantly, we need to acknowledge that faith can have significant value even when it doesn’t have an epistemologically “respectable” basis.  A lot really depends on what you do with that faith.

Let’s go back to Jack and Jill. One significant risk for their relationship would be if Jill would somehow start expecting Jack to live up to all of her wildest dreams –– daydreams and night dreams. Getting angry at him for not living up to such an impossible standard would be a certain recipe for disaster in their relationship. Just as bad would be if Jack were to start seeing preserving their families’ health as one of Jill’s essential roles in the relationship, thus (perhaps secretly) feeling bitter against her whenever a family member would get seriously ill. Those aren’t the sort of things that their decision to join their lives together should have been based on, but then again many couples have married based on similarly irrational expectations. If, however, based on their differing epistemological premises, they were able to form a mature, caring, supportive commitment to each other’s happiness, the inherent flaws of their respective epistemological processes need not become an issue.

Likewise when it comes to faith, magical expectations and false certainties can do all sorts of damage. Thus I believe that addressing these practical concerns may in fact be more important than justifying the foundations for one’s faith.

In Lari’s seminar paper he mentioned an old quote from a particular Finnish “Christian Democrat” politician that he and I both happen to be acquainted with. Some years ago this fellow made a public statement to the effect that God had caused a particular volcanic eruption in Iceland as a way of getting Europeans’ attention. This sort of rhetoric rang true with enough people here were this guy has now been elected as a member of parliament here! I would pretty much expect such foolishness in the United States, but not in Finland. I know this fellow to be fairly well-meaning and relatively harmless character overall, but the idea that he might seriously believe that his job is now to try to pass laws to keep Finns from doing “sinful” things so that God doesn’t cause natural disasters… is more than a little disturbing to me.

The question is not one of whether this politician is epistemologically justified in believing in God, but whether he is justified in politically attacking what he sees as the sinfulness of others on that basis. Or perhaps that question needs to be expanded a bit: Does he feel called to fight against things like greed, hate-mongering, lack of caring for the poor, and the destruction of the environment, because of the ways in which such sins can be seen to have a destructive impact on the lives of others; or is he more interested in keeping too many people from enjoying the wrong sorts of sex as a means of magically preventing earthquakes and volcanoes and such? From there comes the question of what sort of justifications various sorts of believers would have in voting for (or against) a political party characterized by such positions.

By Kierkegaard’s standards these would more important questions to consider than that of whether or not, in the abstract, one is justified in believing in God. At the very least I am convinced that abstract arguments regarding justifications for believing in God have little value without their ethical implications being taken into consideration.  From there I’m prone to see the internalist-evidentialist vs. externalist-reliablist discussion as a matter of relatively minor concern.

But then again, if some academic theologians are able to get grants to study such things I wish them all the best with their endeavors. 🙂


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Filed under Epistemology, Ethics, Religion, Respectability

A Theological Alternative to the Creationist Dogma

I’ve been on vacation from my writing here for the past week and some, but during all the time I’ve “been away” I’ve been thinking of giving some sort of response to the Creation Museum’s big debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye this month. That event seems to have served no other purpose so effectively as to drive a further wedge between sincere Christian believers and sincere seekers for truth. I doubt that I can undo such perceptions to any significant extent, but I’d still like to give it a try.

It’s easy to write off Creation Museum front man Ken Ham as a flake on all sorts of levels. He basically holds to a position which states that “true Christian belief” –– an existential reliance on the teachings in the Bible –– requires that we accept the Bible as an infallible all-purpose guide to everything we really need to know about life, the universe and everything; and that any information which contradicts his understanding of the Bible must be categorically false. Among Christians worldwide this is by no means a majority position. The equivalent position regarding the Qur’an is still the orthodox majority position among Muslims, but among Christians Ham’s position is that of a shrinking minority who more or less explicitly self-identify as Fundamentalists. But regardless of demographics involved, the question deserves to be asked: Is it fair for Ham and company to assert that biblical literalism regarding creationism the one true form of Christianity from which all others have drifted? I don’t believe so, and my decision not to believe so is not something I acknowledge to be a retreatist or fall-back position based on the Fundamentalist position being so untenable in a scientific age.

As a theist I'm the first to admit, the slogan "God's way" has historically been used to market lots of seriously funky stuff!

As a theist I’m the first to admit, the slogan “God’s way” has historically been used to market lots of seriously funky stuff!

The fundamental issue is that I don’t believe that authoritative positions of “absolute certainty” about what “God’s way of doing things” is relative to “man’s way of doing things” are what God had in mind to give us. If he had intended for us to have such a perspective I think he would have arranged the world and the history of man’s religious experiences significantly differently. In contrast with this, though the vulnerability of uncertainty is something that many people come to religion (and to science) hoping to escape from, an essential part of the message of Jesus is that this vulnerability is part of the human condition that God has chosen to share with us, and something which we need to have the courage to embrace and to share with each other.

Before going any further here, let me clarify that I am not attempting here to further demonstrate to non-believers why I consider God to be worth believing in. I would ask those who have serious doubts about that matter to address discussions of their differences of perspective to my various essays here more directly related to that question. I have posted a few such essays in recent months, and I intend to further address that matter in the weeks to come, but this entry addresses a rather different topic. What I wish to talk about here is why, on the working assumption that there is a God, I still believe Fundamentalists such as Ken Ham are fundamentally wrong in their approach to determining what sort of character God is, and what he expects of humans who would hope to please him. The sort of dialog I’m hoping for in response to this particular essay is one with folks who would wish to defend different means of relating to and serving God than what I suggest here; perhaps with those who still cling to one particular form of fundamentalism or another. Fair enough? OK, on we go.

Let me start by taking the discussion back to the times when essentially no one attempted to question the premise that the book of Genesis provided all of the foundational information we need to understand the origins of the universe and mankind’s place in it –– what Fundamentalists would call the “good old days”; what many others would call “The Dark Ages” –– roughly from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries of our calendar. The authoritative Christian hegemony of that era was strong enough so that defensiveness against non-believing perspectives essentially became redundant. Thus the intelligentsia of the age, those who managed to build careers out of finding things to argue about between themselves, were more occupied with questions of what we can know with certainty about God’s nature than with fighting off skeptics as such.

In the later part of that era, following the innovative writings of Thomas Aquinas, one aspect of that project was to attempt to harmonize Aristotle’s understanding of the relationship between physics and metaphysics with the Genesis narratives, which effectively gave rise to the creationist dogmas so important to Ham and his followers today. It should be pointed out though that this was actually something of a later adaptation of Islamic thought that Christian intellectuals inadvertently picked up on during the time of the Crusades. It is also fair to say that, advanced as he was for his time 2300-some years ago, Aristotle’s grasp of physics and related matters had some significant failings to it that these days any bright school kid can point out, so his ideas are no longer the best horse to hitch our intellectual wagon to for purposes of harmonizing physics and metaphysics.

The Medieval stuff I’m interested in comes from further back, in the more strictly Christian contemplative traditions that were around before the Thomist system of proofs of God’s existence was developed.

Another disclaimer is in order here by the way: my area of specialty is not medieval philosophy or medieval theology as such. My comprehension of the original Latin these documents were written in is pretty basic and rusty, and my own academic research is focused much more on phenomena within the past couple of centuries. So it wouldn’t take much for someone to outdo me in this particular field. What I can claim is that I know enough about that era to appreciate a bit of the wisdom of those back then who laid the groundwork for how we do philosophy of religion still today, and to spot the BS of those who claim to be representing and defending “eternal truths” which have their roots in this era. But beyond that if someone wishes to correct my understanding of the details involved, or dispute my interpretation of the overall trends in question, I welcome your input. Now back to the subject at hand.

239335To deal with the issue of scriptural certainty we have to take the discussion back at least as far as Peter Abelard. Students find the story of Abelard’s tragic biography and his post-castration love letters to Heloise particularly memorable, but in terms of philosophy he is best remembered for his classic Sic Et Non, where he demonstrates that simply relying on the authority of the scriptures and the sayings of church fathers without stopping to critically analyze what they are talking about is not only intellectually lazy and dishonest, but inevitably self-defeating in the long run. In this regard attempting to discover the true nature of God through authoritative second-hand accounts is a particularly problematic endeavor.

The authority of scripture on this matter is best regarded in terms of what the church fathers originally called it: the canon –– a measuring rod or a benchmark by which to measure other phenomena, in particular the experiences of God’s presence felt in prayer and worship and in serving his people (and among God’s people the poor in particular). From this perspective, worshiping the Bible itself (or any other holy book) rather than using it as a means of building, enriching and evaluating one’s spiritual experiences and practices, is a particularly bass ackwards way of “doing religion”.

Once this is realized, the seeking pilgrim soon comes to understand that if there is one thing God didn’t tend to provide us with, it’s certainty about matters of faith. Functional certainty is a human goal in terms of which we are continuously attempting to reach the point where they can set aside the troublesome task of actively thinking about things.  We hope to settle questions in our minds so that we can forget about them, relax and devote our energy to other things. That is a worthy goal in engineering for instance –– a well-designed device is one where the user can functionally forget about how it works and just move on to the process of using it without having to think about it. When it comes to theology however, God does not give us such a luxury. We can never get to the point of completely comprehending and mastering the divine essence so that we can then functionally just forget about it, or else it ceases to be divine. If we could capture God in a formula he would no longer be God.

Beyond that, the stated point of Christianity in particular (and to one extent or another other religions as well) is to teach us to love and respect each other. (I trust this is self-evident to all who have studied the matter as far as actually having read through the New Testament at least, but if anyone needs me to proof-text this out for them just write and ask.) To this end, as social theorist Jeremy Rifkin points out, uncertainty and vulnerability are essential elements for enabling empathy –– and thereby love –– to function in practice. In this regard I believe that Frank Schaeffer is also entirely right in referring to theological certainty as a “death trap”. Our natural desire to have complete certainty in our understanding of the transcendent, and to dominate one another through some absolute understanding of theological truth, is actually about as opposite to the message of Jesus as any theological concept could be.

The path of searching for peace with God and each other through the words and work of Jesus without pretending to certainty that God never meant us to have –– humbly serving one another rather than using the teachings of the Bible as means of attacking one another –– is one that the Orthodox Church can claim to have followed more consistently than the Western Christian tradition has, but there are plenty of important exceptions to this rule on both sides. Accepting the limits of our knowledge –– even (or perhaps especially) knowledge we claim to have received through infallible revelation –– and living a life proscribed by the humility that this implies, is a tradition that can also be traced as a minority position through the history of Western Theology as well, from the monks who transcribed the writings of the “Desert Fathers,” to the writings of John Scotus Erigena and the meditations of Blaise Pascal, on into the 19th century writings of Kierkegaard and those he in turn inspired. Nor can the east/west cross-pollination seen in and brought about by Dostoevsky’s novels be ignored in this context.  Of course those who have wished to use Christian doctrine as a Machiavellian tool for political manipulation have consistently labelled all of these thinkers as heretics, but that’s sort of beside the point. Their influence has been frequently ignored, but never silenced. (For an interesting overview of the subject, have a look here.)

In contrast to this, Ken Ham, representing the Fundamentalist, biblical literalist creationist perspective, claims that we need to have absolute certainty about everything written in the first book of the Bible in particular as having come entirely by God’s special revelation to Moses, or else we lose certainty about all sorts of critical matters like how marriage is supposed to work, what counts as sin, why people die, why nudity is problematic, etc. Because of the need for a sense of certainty in these areas, Ham and his comrades refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of any information that contradicts the world view presented in Genesis. From there it becomes a rather transparent process of looking for viable excuses to interpret the data of the material world according to this ideological perspective. Thus the emotional need for certainty and control within a religious framework is at the heart of his argument. The resulting intellectual dishonesty in the process of interpreting the data of natural sciences is merely a by-product of this problematic ideology.

Ham's slide depicting his perception of the moral risks entailed in not being a creationist

Ham’s slide depicting his perception of the moral risks entailed in not being a creationist

If we turn the priorities of Christendom around from an emphasis on social control to an emphasis on enabling compassion, as many of us believe the priorities should have been all along, the certainty argument goes out the window. Rather than seeking for a justification to stone those who we consider to be less holy than ourselves, we begin seeking for means of gaining acceptance for them, and ourselves, into the sort of club that by rights shouldn’t have people like us as members. Rather than focusing on controlling other people’s sex lives, we begin to focus on preventing people from being sexually abused and sexually objectified, and beyond that on building the sort of caring community that equips people to experience the sort of personal intimacy in which sex finds its greatest expression. Rather than basing medical ethics on abstract concepts of the value of life, we base our medical ethics on showing compassion and communicating to each individual that his or her life is personally important to us.

Pope Francis was not looking for excuses to set aside creationism when he wrote in his epic letter Evangelii Gaudium of “practical relativism” being a greater risk than “doctrinal relativism”. The pontiff is telling his flock that rather than worrying about losing a sense of absolute doctrinal certainty, they should worry more about the sort of relativism where they end up “acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist. It is striking that even some who clearly have solid doctrinal and spiritual convictions frequently fall into a lifestyle which leads to an attachment to financial security, or to a desire for power or human glory at all cost, rather than giving their lives to others in mission.” (§ 80) In other words doctrinal absolutes are far less important to the Church in fulfilling its basic mission than believers having an experience of joy in being able to serve as an instrument of God’s mercy for others.

When the priorities of the Church slip from such a foundation, it amounts to what Pope Francis calls “spiritual worldliness”, based on carefully cultivated appearances and thus, “not always linked to outward sin; from without, everything appears as it should be,” yet far more dangerous to the mission of the church than any outward moral failures. (§ 93) This takes the twin forms of “gnosticism” and “promethean neopelagianism”: a detached form of religious experience without relevant application in serving others, and a trust on one’s own sense of moral power and religious superiority. “A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. […] It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity.” (§ 94)

I am in no way a supporter of any doctrine of papal infallibility, but on these matters Pope Francis comes across as having a far clearer grasp of the essence of the Christian message than Ken Ham does. When we build from that sort of moral foundation described in Evangelii Gaudium motivations for twisting geological and biological data to fit one’s ideological “scriptural” premises are greatly reduced. Our message no longer depends on proving to ourselves that we have the right gnostic code –– the correct system of passwords for getting into heaven and staying out of hell that others need to learn from us in order to have the same hope we do. Nor does it leave us with anything to prove in terms of our having a superior moral code that we can expect everyone else to live up to. Once we reach that point of simply desiring to overcome our selfish barriers to truly loving God and each other certainty about the details of the physical origins of the universe is no longer an emotional issue. If it turns out that the stories in Genesis are based on ancient folk legends which allegorically explain something about how people over 3000 years ago believed that God expected them to relate to each other, nothing about our essential message fails on the basis of such a discovery.

If God’s top priority was for us to keep each other in line in terms of recognizing traditional moral standards as eternal and unchanging, there would be no point in the message of a suffering savior. God would merely have sent a team of angelic messengers with official declarations of the divine will and flaming swords to deal directly with those who resisted their message. There would have been no need to dignify human vulnerability and frailty with God taking on such a form. On the other hand, if God’s top priority were to convince us to treat each other with love and respect regardless of one’s status within various human power struggles, he would have driven this point home for us by himself taking on the form of a humble servant –– sort of like Jesus…

Thus I conclude that the message of Christianity is not about guilt, justice, retribution and forensic certainties; but rather about embracing frailty, experiencing empathy, showing mercy and finding redemption through deep, undeserved interpersonal connection. In order to communicate this sort of message it is not necessary to pretend that we have an absolutely reliable technical understanding of the prehistoric origins of the earth and the universe which must remain impervious to all evidence to the contrary. On the contrary, such an assumption of certainty tends to be rather counter-productive in that it entails a belief that certain people have a God-given right to dictate to others a set of standards regarding every area of life for them to live up to, which in turn goes directly against the Gospel message of humble service.

Good news: One does not need to believe that the event depicted here, happening roughly 5000 years ago, explains the existence of the worlds great canyons and the limits of biodiversity that we find among humans and animals in the world today in order to have a capacity to accept forgiveness and to forgive and care for others in return. Just in case you were wondering...

Good news: One does not need to believe that the event depicted here, happening roughly 5000 years ago, explains the existence of the worlds great canyons and the limits of biodiversity that we find among humans and animals in the world today in order to have a capacity to accept forgiveness and to forgive and care for others in return. Just in case you were wondering…

Thus to reject the Creation Museum’s theological premises is not a matter of submitting to the superiority of a non-theistic premise; it is a matter of putting the teachings of Jesus ahead of a lust for power and an emotional need for certainty. I would encourage all who wish to be counted as followers of Jesus to adjust their perspectives accordingly: “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” (Philippians 3:15)


Filed under Education, Empathy, Epistemology, History, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science, Skepticism, Spirituality

Is there an Alternative to Secularism and Fundamentalism?

In trying to be a good little boy and use my summer vacation from teaching productively in terms of my doctoral studies, over the past week and a half I’ve been reading a fair amount of theoretical literature about the sociology of religion. Part of what I have realized in the process is that there are effectively two paradigms that dominate the discussion in the field: secularization and fundamentalism.

secular marchThe sad narrative goes something like this: Starting in the late 1700s a series of revolutions started to seriously weaken the political authority of churches within the western world. Priests were allowed no role in government in the United States, the power of the cardinals was demolished with the collapse of the monarchy in France, and the political authority of the papacy became a thing of the past in southern Europe in general. This led to Copernicans being allowed to come out of the closet, and other ideas that would have previously been considered dangerous heresies to develop and advance –– the most infamous being Darwin’s theory of evolution. By the mid- to late 1800s the Vatican states had collapsed entirely; Comte, Marx and Freud were each predicting the complete demise of religion as a force within society; and Nietzsche was declaring that God was already dead. A concerted effort to phase out traditional Christianity and to realize a new, “more advanced” sort of social structure started to take shape among western intellectuals.

Within Christianity some German theologians in particular started working on developing new variations on the faith which would be less at odds with these modern ideas, but rather than making Christianity more relevant this merely made it more relative: rather than putting the faith in touch with new realities these theologies had the general effect of making it harder to see how there could be any distinctively Christian message left. It sort of helped the secularists prove their point. Other Christian leaders, however, particularly in the United States, went to work with great vigor on trying to defend the traditional understandings within their various branches of Christendom as eternal and unchangeable truths. They declared that there are certain basic ideas which are absolutely essential, or fundamental, to anything which could dare to call itself “Christian”. Thus within this sort of siege mentality the social phenomenon of “Fundamentalism” was born.

Over the course of the twentieth century secularism and fundamentalism continued to do battle with each other. After starting out as a Protestant Christian reaction to modernization, variations on fundamentalism began to spring up within other religious traditions as well, most notably within Islam. Effectively those religious movements which remained “mainstream” and interactive with the modern world have become less and less relevant culturally and politically, while those who have been seen as taking a strong stand in promoting the implementation of God’s will –– sticking to “eternal truths” regardless of how unpopular they are with the mainstream –– have managed to draw significant numbers of new converts continuously. While these new, radically conservative religious movements have not been able to establish anything like the sort of power base that the Medieval Catholic Church had –– or even the sort of pull that the first generation Protestant Reformers had within central Europe –– they have progressively become the most politically significant forms of religion in the world today. Particularly intimidating in terms of world peace over the next generation are the Saudi, Pakistani and Iranian variations on Islamic fundamentalism, and the US “religious right” variations on Christian fundamentalism together with some of its radical off-chutes in developing countries.  BRAZIL-MARCH FOR THE FAMILY

The information revolution of the past generation has further intensified the battle between these trends. Anyone can find as much reinforcement for their extreme positions as they could hope for, 24/7 –– telling you why you should ditch all religion as nonsense, or telling you that you need to stand and fight against the global conspiracy to destroy your faith, whatever your taste may be. The question is, is there any alternative left between these two extremes?

Before taking this question further, I think it is useful to unpack one current distinction in terminology: between secularism and secularization. Secularization is a matter of sociological theory which addresses the fact that religious institutions do not have the sort of power that they did a couple of centuries ago, or even a couple of generations ago. This much is in many ways self-evident in most western societies, even in the United States. This is not necessarily an indication of a victory for a group of politically and intellectually anti-religious activists who can be referred to as “secularists.” Such activists undoubtedly exist, and have a significant audience, particularly in Europe, but they don’t really deserve much of the credit or blame for the reduced role of Christianity in, for instance, determining what hours shops will be open, or determining which children are “legitimate” these days.

What I am talking about here though is the ideological battle between secularism –– the socio-political effort to phase out religion as a factor in public life at least –– and fundamentalism –– the religious belief that the teachings of a particular faith tradition need to remain unchanged and unquestionable as a social norm, with subsequent claims over all aspects of public life. For both of these ideological movements the social realities of secularization make up the essence of the cultural environment in which they function.

So is there some viable middle ground to be found between secularism and fundamentalism then? To address this challenge we have to stop to consider what we regard as the basic point of religion is to begin with. There are a few alternatives to be considered. It seems that most secular sociologists are making a combination of two assumptions on the matter: the point of religion is either to enable social control or to secure magical help in day-to-day life, or both. On the first account it could say that a cultural assumption of a religious or biblical standard being binding in society was once useful as a means of creating cultural solidarity and mutual trust and the like; but this also had its down-sides in encouraging things like gay bashing and witch burning as accepted social practices. The second consideration puts Christianity on even footing with Shamanism: rather than worrying about pleasing God or building an ethical code for its own sake, it implies that people are worried about God sending the rains so that their crops grow. Then if they get beyond worries about this life then maybe they’ll start worrying about life after death as well, needing magical assistance in securing a favorable position for themselves there as well. As far as the basic purpose of Christianity goes I believe both of these assumptions are fundamentally wrong, but in terms of understanding portions of the social dynamics within particular societies they are worth taking seriously at least.

Knowing where you want to go is an important part of getting there. If what you really want is a safe, comfortable and controllable life in the material world, and that’s really all you want, then a secularized technological perspectives on life is probably the most effective means of getting you there. Not that prayer and use of technology are mutually exclusive. If I were to become seriously ill I would definitely use both, and I really don’t think I’m alone in that matter. But I would not substitute prayer for taking medication or whatever else a trusted medical professional would recommend on a purely materialistic basis. In many very fundamental respects we all depend on modern technology to keep our lives functioning safely and dependably. In the western world one important fruit of this technological perspective is that, unlike just a few generations ago, having a few children in each family die of disease before reaching adulthood is no longer the norm within society. Another significant effect of the technologically driven world that we live in is that I can sit here and write this in my low budget teacher’s apartment, with no significant financial backing for my ideas, and with minimal skill in using publicly available technologies I can send out this essay realistically expecting it to be read in 50-100 countries. So overall I think it’s fair to say that rather than depending on prayer as a means of magical control of our environment we can more reliably turn to technology to help and protect us in practical terms.

Sports technology company Suunto came up with a pretty funny ad about technology replacing luck.

Sports technology company Suunto came up with a pretty funny ad about technology replacing rituals to improve our luck. If improved luck is the point of religion for you…

This deserves two important qualifications though: First, our technological approach to life can have many horrible unforeseen consequences, which we need to be watching out for continuously. We have not yet mastered the art of using our technological skills and possibilities in sustainable ways. We as humans have burned out many habitats where we have set up shop, sometimes successfully moving on to other places afterwards; sometimes dying out en masse as the result of our mistakes. The only thing that’s really changed about that dynamic over the generations is that we’ve got fewer and fewer alternative habitats to move on to when we burn out our old ones these days, and our impact on the planet as a whole is more something we need to pay attention to than in the old days. So in this respect we need to limit the faith we put in technology as we now have it, carefully insisting that it serves us and not visa-versa.

Secondly, there are many aspects of faith healing –– involving feeling a sense of purpose and in our lives and a sense of connection with forces beyond ourselves –– that really do work in terms of helping our bodies to heal at times and helping our technical operations in this world to function more efficiently. Praying really does help people to be more successful on all sorts of different levels. Regardless of your understanding of why that might be, there is really no point in trying to deny this fact. This is not to say that prayer is as effective as modern technology in terms of realizing many basic goals, but as a factor operating in conjunction with technology, or in the absence of technology, there is plenty of evidence that it really does work somehow. At a bare minimum it reinforces a sense of being loved, which any medical doctor can tell you is not something to be belittled.

In any case, on the other end of the spectrum, if the strongest possible sense of social control in society is really what you are looking for, then fundamentalism is probably the most effective way of getting there. As one old agnostic acquaintance of mine on line pointed out some years ago, “Just look at the pyramids. Religion gets s**t done.” The less you allow religion to be questioned, the more s**t it is able to get done. There are a number of more politely expressed and politically accepted variations on this theme, ranging from the writings of Nicolo Machiavelli to those of Francis Schaeffer, with the common theme that if people can be assumed to share certain religious values, you need far less authoritarian brutality to keep them in line. And when you do use authoritarian brutality, if you do so in the name of a god that everyone trusts in they are far less likely to revolt and make a (literally) bloody mess of things as a result.

Beyond that, as a matter of temperament many people do not want to live in a state of uncertainty about any more than is absolutely necessary. They want things to be cut and dry and simple; clearly understood by all as operating according to “proper principles”. If that’s the way things have to be for such people, an absolutist understanding of religious tradition is the most tried and true means of keeping things that way for them.

But such pragmatic considerations aside, these aren’t the most important aspects of religion –– or “spirituality” –– to be considered. Part of the broader perspective necessary has to do with the qualifications stated above regarding the usefulness of prayer at times, but more to the point would be the consideration of the enduring role of some traditional religious practices even in secularized societies: rites of passage, the most important of which are affectionately known as “hatching, matching and dispatching.” What is it that continues to make baby dedications, church weddings, and religious funerals –– and to a slightly lesser extent coming of age ceremonies of various sorts –– within religious settings popular even with essentially non-religious people? It could be argued that these rituals have been used as means of controlling people and bringing good luck to those participating, but neither of those explain why people want to keep doing them these days. There’s obviously something more to it than that.

Why is it really that church weddings continue to mean so much to so many people?

Why is it really that church weddings continue to mean so much to so many people?

These rites are means of marking out times when the overall meaning of life is most profoundly being considered and open to question –– when people are thinking about why we’re here, what it means to be human, what we might hope to accomplish in life, what meaning our lives have to others, what makes someone a “good person,” and the possibility of something more “out there” that ties all of this together. It is in its capacity to consider these matters that religion distinguishes itself from being just an expedient of politics or a crude form of control to be replaced by technology.

The essential Christian answer to these questions of the meaning of life is in what Jesus taught were the most important commandments given by Moses –– the Twin Commandment of Love: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. We must first find a way of relating to the transcendental principle that gives our lives true meaning, and embrace it fully and without reservation; and once we have that established we must recognize that each of us is essentially connected with all of those around us, and we need to treat them accordingly. It is the process of developing this sort of meaning in life, not the politics or the luck improvement rituals, which is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian –– perhaps what it means to be a religious or spiritual person in general.

It must also be recognized, however, that while there is a very generalized seeking and vague awareness of the challenge of finding meaning in life, that makes particular religious rituals at different phases of life feel particularly comforting, it has always been a small minority within the population who truly “get it”. In this regard I believe that Sören Kierkegaard was on the right track –– in the generation before secularization and fundamentalism became significant social dynamics in northern Europe –– in saying that the religious mob mentality that was dominant in his time had little to do with the message of Jesus. True faith is a matter of individual connection with a power beyond ourselves, in a way that is not intended to win popularity contests. What the masses are into as means of establishing social acceptability is never going to be a matter of loving God with one’s whole being.

kierkegaardFrom Kierkegaard’s perspective then secularization is hardly to be regarded as a threat to true faith; quite the opposite. It is only when faith can be seen as a matter distinct from social respectability that it can truly have significance as a dynamic unto itself. This does not mean that Kierkegaard would have been happy about the program of secularists –– those whose political agenda includes the elimination of religious observance as part of everyday social interaction. He would have wanted God to remain important in people’s lives in ways that these folks have made it their mission in life to deny. But secularization as a progressive historical trend towards less mass religiosity within mainstream culture is something that Kierkegaard certainly would have received as very good news.

Fundamentalism would have been a greater problem for Kierkegaard. Trying to distill the essence of Christianity down to a set of doctrinal standards intended to provide a safe basis for social identity and a valid criteria for controlling and judging others is precisely what the gospel is not about. In fact this is a greater threat to the processes of learning to find meaning in our lives through loving God and truly connecting with our neighbors –– believers and non-believers alike –– than either secularization or secularism. But I believe that Kierkegaard would believe that in spite of the Fundamentalists who attempt to dominate religious dynamics these days, those who truly seek God with all their hearts will still be able to find him.

There is still something to be said for the argument that human beings have a near universal sense of spiritual craving, unfulfilled and ignored as it may be for most people. But somewhere deep down inside, almost everyone wants to find a sense of transcendental purpose and social harmony based on connecting with factors beyond themselves. In our secularized age many people turn to experiences other than religion to fulfill these longings. In this regard, while reading up on the passing of “Funky Claude” Nobs this year, I was rather struck by a quote from Deep Purple front man Ian Gillan, saying that for 40 years he’d never done a concert without Smoke on the Water because “it’s almost a spiritual experience. The song no longer belongs to us… we just accompany the crowd.”

Deep+PurpleThat sounds about right actually. Rock concerts involving standard anthems enable people to experience a sense of transcendent connection with those around them in ways that few other things do these days. If religion fails to enable people to find such experiences they will seek them elsewhere… with varying degrees of commitment and success in finding what they are looking for.

I’m not really sure how important it is in the big scheme of things, but I’d sort of like to see more sociologist of religion actually get this point.


Filed under Love, Purpose, Religion, Respectability, Social identity, Spirituality, Tolerance

The Problem with Death

This week’s post-grad seminar session began with our professor recommending that we be a little more disciplined in our discussions than last time… when I was rattling on about my viewpoints on things until a professor from another department knocked on the door and said it was her turn to use the room. I wasn’t singled out for discipline in any sense, but there was clearly a hint for me to take: new students in particular need to avoid the temptation to say everything they think they know about whatever subject comes up. This is one of the advantages of having a blog though: when I feel like I have something to say about a subject, and I’m not sure if anyone is actually interested or not, I can put my ideas up here for the perusal of those who are interested, and those who don’t really care can easily ignore my comments.

As it happens, I’ve given a fair amount of thought to the question that was up for discussion this week’s seminar gathering: the moral acceptability of suicide. To me the most important aspect of the question is to prevent kids from doing it, or even getting to the point of seriously considering it even if we can prevent that. The question is, can we find a philosophical justification for preventing suicide, especially in an across-the-board sort of manner?teen_suicide_in_black_and_white_tollie_international (1)

By way of background perspective, I had some friends who, in the 1980s, got to do a trans-Atlantic crossing together on a rather small ship. In fact one of them “accidentally” took my camera tripod along on that adventure to film the motion of the ship at “calmer moments” from the bridge and the deck. They all had plenty of stories to tell about the joys of extreme motion sickness under such circumstances. A common turn of the phrase for them was, “First you get to the point that you’re afraid that you might die. Then you get to the point where you’re afraid that you might not die!”

Émile_DurkheimI’ve known many people who have come to feel that way –– fearing that they might not die –– for many reasons other than sea sickness as well. Taken to the extreme where someone feels that all life has to offer is suffering, and the only way to escape from that suffering is to die as soon as possible, this leads to what Durkheim called fatalistic suicide. I find this particularly tragic especially in the case of young people, where there are so many possibilities beyond the horizon of pain that they are not able to see beyond, which lack of perspective robs them of. I would go as far as to say that adolescent suicide is, in my honest opinion, the greatest of all human tragedies, bar none.

From extensive first-hand and second-hand experience I can say that tragically painful situations, when (like seasickness) they don’t end up resolving themselves and going away entirely on their own, are things you end up getting used to. The human mind automatically starts to block out useless information about on-going states of affairs. As I sit writing this, for instance, no matter how hard I listen I can’t hear my own heart beating. I rationally know that the vibrations that my heart is sending to my ear drums are stronger than those coming from my refrigerator about 5 meters away, which in the quiet of my apartment I can actually hear. But since I can take for granted that if I am conscious my heart is actually beating, there is no real benefit to be had from hearing this organ’s function; so my mind blocks it out, enabling me to pick up smaller, less continuous stimuli that the sound of my own heart might otherwise cover up. My mind does the same with many other continuous physical and emotional stimuli as well. If it isn’t changing we can’t help but learn to ignore it. Or to put it in the terms that one friend said to me as I was struggling with the pain of my first divorce, “’You can get used to anything,’ said the man on his third day swinging from the gallows.” The sad part is to see how many people give up on life before they reach the point of peace with automatic acceptance of new sorts of limitations in life.

Two significant Hollywood films have tackled this question from the perspective of the tragically injured quadriplegics: Whose Life is it Anyway? and Million Dollar Baby. The question that such films and stories raise is, what is actually morally wrong with suicide in such cases? If the source of my basic joy in life is permanently gone, without the slightest hope of it returning, and I have nothing to look forward to in life but on-going, useless suffering, why should I be required to continue on with such an existence? Who has the right to place such a requirement on me? What gives them such a right?

The standard answer given in such cases is that if people would be allowed to give up whenever they cannot see beyond the horizon of pain they are faced with, society would suffer from too serious a series of deaths as a result. The suicide epidemic would be worse in this respect than the African AIDS crisis. And since we can’t just let everyone who feels that way go ahead and die, we need to set legal and moral standards which prohibit anyone from committing fatalistic suicide. The problem with this approach is that it frames the question as being one of a power struggle between the interests of the individual and those of the society, with an assumption that the good of the society has to take priority over the good of the individual. The same essential weakness is present in any argument that requires people to continue living just because it is “against God’s will” for them to die until “He takes them”: it assumes that individuals have the moral duty to suffer for some “greater good” regardless of what it does to their personal possibilities for satisfaction or thriving.

This is inherently related to questions of what makes human life as such valuable, who has the right and duty to defend particular human lives, when is it “natural” to allow lives to end, and on what authority can anyone be kept alive against their will. All of these questions have a long tradition of finding answers in the theological realm, and the process of attempting to answer them on purely non-theistic bases –– as a matter of principle for those who wish to avoid any morality based on theism –– has caused at least as many problems as it has solved thus far.

I could open up the question of whether or not we actually need to assume that humanity has any inherent value. Finland’s pioneering mass school shooter, Auvinen, posted on-line pictures of himself in a t-shirt which read, “Humanity is overrated.” Is that a philosophically and morally defensible position? My guess is that in the current age finding “serious moral philosophers” to defend such a position would be more difficult than it would have been for Anselm in his age to find the sort of “fool” who doubted the existence of God enough for him to test out his arguments properly. The postulate that human life has inherent value is the one thing that all ethical thought in our age seems to hold in common. Treating people as valuable only when they serve some purpose for those in positions of power is an age old problem, and many would say that such an attitude is the basis of the fundamental evils that any system of thought calling itself “ethics” has a duty to fight against.

Treating people as mere means of achieving some “greater good” rather than considering them (us) as inherently valuable entities unto themselves is what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted to prevent; this being, from the UN founders’ perspective, the most obvious means of preventing the evils of Nazism from freely reoccurring. It is fair to say that both religious and strictly secular authorities have had their own ideas of what sort of people are less valuable and more disposable than others, and these ideologies should be seen as equally evil. What we all theoretically agree on is that people should be considered important and valuable, and entitled to certain rights, just because they are people.

The question remains, however, as to how we are to conceptualize the basic human value that our ethical systems must be sworn to defend. Should it be on the basis of sentience, or intelligence, or capacity for empathy, or shared evolutionary interests, or some more “spiritual” factor? On this we have no consensus, and on this basis I continue to believe that religious approaches to the question deserve to be taken seriously. The only paradigmatic alternative is to postulate that evolutionary competition is the basis for all morality, and the risk of eugenic approaches following from such a paradigm cannot be readily dismissed. Suffice to say, I accept the proposal that we agree that human life is valuable in and of itself, and for the time being (for purposes of considering the moral status of suicide) the issue of its metaphysical reasons for being so can be set aside.

A related question that I believe can also be set aside as unresolved here is that of the complete extent of authentic volitional choice available to the individual with suicidal tendencies. Choice is never absolute, yet choice exists, else this whole debate is nonsense. It must be accepted as a basic given that nothing we do as human beings is the result of some abstract “free will” operating within a metaphysical vacuum. Everything we do has causes involved, including hormonal, environmental, genetic and behaviorally conditioned factors. Likewise it must be accepted that conscious choice as we experience it, to the extent that it is not demonstrably an illusion, should be accepted as a reality of the human condition. There are some things that we decide for ourselves, and were this not to be the case then to accuse any person of acting immorally would be as absurd of accusing the Atlantic Ocean of acting immorally in flooding New Jersey last October. We must postulate then that there is some extent to which people intentionally choose their actions, and some extent to which we can justifiably attempt to limit the extent which others can choose actions that we find particularly risky or offensive in some sense. And while it is theoretically possible that this choice factor is key to what makes human life valuable, we are not going to reach the point of basing or conditioning our defense of human life on such a factor.

Sea-sick-while-fishingAll that being said, when it comes to dealing with the issue of fatalistic suicide –– a person wishing to end her life because she sees no alternative path that it could take beyond continuous and meaningless suffering –– I’d like to come back to the question of my seasick friends. One of them actually did fall overboard and was rescued on that voyage, but none of them actually died, and some 30 years later the vast majority of those trans-Atlantic adventurers are happy to still be alive. Fearing that they might not die in their deepest moments of suffering was a passing phenomenon. Most of them were intelligent enough to realize this at the time, and for those who weren’t, their friends took responsibility for keeping them alive even if was against their will at the time.

The logic of preventing suicide in these cases is obvious. These friends were able to return to life very much as they knew it before their painful experiences. But what about those who lose some significant part of their physical and intellectual joys in life? What if they can no longer walk, or drive, or use their hands, or see, or hear, or have sex? What if their brains become damaged to the point where they can’t they can’t any longer appreciate great literature, or recognize their loved ones, or control their emotions in a dignified manner? At what point are they allowed to say, “Enough is enough”? And how can we find a way to draw the line between these cases and those in the above paragraph?

Obviously there are no black and white moral answers here, especially in cases where medical science keeps bodies functioning long after their diminished capacities would “naturally” have shut them down. But we also need to remember that human life as we know it is a terminal disease. All of us are getting older all the time, and all of us are continuously, progressively losing particular important abilities. Eventually this process kills us –– every one of us. The real moral question here is, how far we can justifiably intentionally slow down or speed up the actual dying process under given circumstances? What is lost when death comes sooner than it “rightfully should”? What is gained by “getting it over with” in certain sorts of particularly hopeless cases?

I believe there need to be two operative rules of thumb here: First, with time the transitional pains that go with the onset of illness, injury or personal trauma of any sort have a tendency to pass or to become easier to live with, and we need to allow time to “do its work” in this regard before making room for rash decisions. Of course certain things may never be the same, and certain opportunities and capacities can never be restored, but life has a way of offering us surprising new forms of satisfaction when we let it. Getting those who are depressed due to acute pain and sense of personal loss past their immediate crisis is thus the first moral priority. Second, though there may be some cases where things have become irreparable and new joys in life are entirely out of the question –– where continuous entropy is entirely inevitable and justifiable to avoid –– it is still far better to ere on the side of preserving life too long than on the side of ending it too quickly.

But all this this really only covers one of four aspects of suicide that Durkheim’s seminal work on the subject identified. At the other extreme from the fatalistic we have the case of anomic suicide, where the individual feels that his or her life is too far out of control to be enjoyed any further; where rather than certainty of pain, the person feels lost in a sense of uncertainty about all that she considers to be existentially important. In such cases the act of ending one’s own life can be the last ditch effort necessary to prove to oneself that there is something I’m still in control of. For these people I believe that it is important to put them into the sort of therapy where they come to realize that there are more important things in life than a sense of control. The fact that many people never realize this is tragic enough, but it doesn’t have to be something worth dying for. Then again, when dying becomes the symbolic object of a power struggle against others and the world, there are limits to how much you can help a person with therapy.

That covers the suicides caused, in Durkheim’s analysis, by too much or too little predictability in life. That leaves those which are caused by too much or too little personal connection with those around us. Those who feel detached from society –– who give up on life because no one seems to care, or who decide to end their lives as a form of revenge against those who “should have cared more” –– commit what Durkheim’s translators called “egoistic suicide”. The opposite extreme to this is those who risk or sacrifice their own lives “for the good of others,” thus committing “altruistic suicide.” In both of these cases our moral priority seems to be to avoid these suicides being based on mistaken premises and, ironically in both cases, to encourage all the greater level of social connection.

When an egoistic suicide attempt is viewed as a “cry for help,” we are actually prone to actually give the suicidal person what they want in some form; that is unless we consider them to be unreasonably demanding and incapable of recognizing the importance of others in turn. But rather than a moral issue or an individual mental health issue, we tend to take egoistic suicide attempts as a sign that we have some repairs to do on our social structures. Thus the prevalence of teen suicide in Finland and Japan is one of the strongest signs we have of a need to fix some aspects of the school systems in these countries. Some blame goes to the individuals in question, but more goes to the system.

spocks death scene

The classic scene of Spock’s self-sacrifice is something that no one would dare to moralize against.

When it comes to altruistic suicides, unless they are suffering from a tragically delusional messiah complex we tend to treat them as heroes: the soldier who falls on a grenade to save his comrades, the firemen who rush into the burning World Trade Center on 9/11, the nuclear power engineer who goes into the highly contaminated reactor area to shut down the reaction and save the local village, the mother who is killed in defending her daughter against brutal rape by invading soldiers… all heroes. As long as they are doing something authentically important in sacrificing their lives, we tend to praise them for doing so. That may be a matter of society callously encouraging people to consider their own lives less important than the society’s shared objectives, or it might be a matter of recognizing some things to be more important than the prolonging of the physical processes of human life for their own sake.

In the latter sense these altruistic suicides can be compared with recreational drug users and extreme sports enthusiasts. In both cases it could be argued that the risk of death, or the extreme likelihood of death, is not the primary objective of the action, but it is considered a valid risk to take / price to pay for the benefit potentially gained by the action. So the question is whether or not the audience offering the moral evaluation agrees with the pro-and-con assessment implicit in the risk-taker’s actions. To save other people’s lives, sure, we’ll morally accept that choice. To experience an ever increasing heroin high, no, we’re not likely to accept that as a valid trade-off. To get the adrenalin rush of pushing out the envelope with your stunt performances, reviews are likely to be mixed. In any case, whether your actions are accepted by others or not there’s some truth to the adage that there’s no point in prolonging your survival if you never really live; and if this process of really living shortens your period of survival in some cases, you can be at peace with that –– even if, strictly speaking, you might not be able to “live with that”.

Life is short; there’s no getting around that fact. Eventually, inevitably, death has to become part of life for all of us. But if we can keep ourselves and those around us from making life even shorter than it has to be, that has to be a step in the right direction. I still agree with Kierkegaard though, that the point of life is to find something worth living and dying for, and no amount of longevity can replace that sort of purpose in life. A death that reflects a deeper purpose is far to be preferred to an extended life without such. But some sort of life has to keep going for that purpose to be revealed and realized, and the longer that extended life can be my own, the more successful I will consider myself to be at the art of living. I wish that as many others as possible would have the same sort of success, and that as few as possible would end up getting short-changed in this regard –– especially by their own hand. Your mileage may vary.

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Filed under Death, Ethics, Human Rights, Philosophy, Purpose, Risk taking, Spirituality

KE part 6 (Epistemological considerations regarding our sources of confidence)

Continuing on with the re-edit version of this series, before I get to evaluating connection I believe it is necessary to take into consideration some of the epistemological factors related to choosing our sources of confidence. When I set out to improve myself –– to find a valid justification for my self-confidence –– should that be a matter of learning to please God more, or somehow helping the evolutionary process to advance, or being more of an authentic individual, or promoting some form of social good? When it comes to deciding which of the four points of the compass (the transcendental, the material, the individual existential or the social) one is ultimately going to base one’s sense of value and morality on, is there really a rational way to choose?

There are plenty of people out there telling you what to believe. How do you decide which ones are right?

I pointed out last time that there is a fair amount of ethical risk involved in each of these approaches, and that all of them can be misused. But regardless of the risks involved, regardless of whether or not we can be sure about such things, we need to find some basis for proving to ourselves that we are worth something. To be truly self-actualized, as Maslow calls it, we need to have some sort of target in life that we can justifiably consider worth shooting for. So the task here is to consider how we can go about determining which source(s) of confidence are most trustworthy, sustainable, admirable and efficient in terms of actually making people happy.

To start with, we need to recognize that, if we are going to be honest with ourselves, a certain amount of uncertainty is somewhat inevitable here. As I wrote for my son years ago,

There is in fact no conclusive system for evaluating metaphysics which does not itself depend on some metaphysical presupposition. This is what philosophers refer to as tautology, also known as circular reasoning. If for instance I say that God is the ultimate source of reality, and I know this because God has shown it to me, that says nothing to an outsider. I might just as well say that I am the most important person in the world, because I say that I am, and as the most important person in the world I have the right to say so. It may be a legitimate statement of faith, but logically it proves nothing. Yet outside of starting from such assumptions there are no grounds for proving that any system is the best.

So how do we avoid sinking into the quicksand of confusion on this one? First of all we need to recognize that at some point we will have to just “dive in” in spite of our uncertainties. This is what Kierkegaard called “the leap of faith.” Since we can never have absolute certainty in advance when it comes to choosing a foundation for building our personal value on, eventually we just have to dive in and try something. If that first attempt doesn’t work out it’s likely to hurt like hell, but hopefully it will still leave you whole enough to try another alternative. The good news is that it is probably fair to say that of those who are sincerely seeking for this sort of purpose, more often actually find something that works for them than die in the frustration from searching in vain.

Of course that doesn’t mean that what works for some individual is beyond doubt the final metaphysical truth of the matter. We know that because we can see how different people actually find workable purpose and confidence for themselves at all four points of the compass I’ve laid out, and in the final metaphysical analysis obviously not all of them can be right. I’m not saying that it makes no difference which premise you base your confidence on, or that they are all equal when it comes to truth value, or that the dangers I pointed out in relation to each given foundation are not real. But rather than jumping into the process of justifying my personal preference on this matter, I want to lay out some useful rules of thumb on the matter of making such commitments.

So how do we go about deciding which foundation is “close enough” to start with? I’d suggest beginning with the following:

Consistency / Coherence
If you’ve studied a little bit of epistemology, you know that there are two primary ways of judging the truthfulness of any given proposition: the extent to which it fits together with other things which we accept as true, and the extent to which it is able to avoid self-contradiction. The former is called correspondence theory and the latter, coherence theory. Since theoretically we want to begin with an open mind here as to what foundation our starting “facts” that set the standard for the factuality of other things will come from, we should probably avoid using the correspondence theory as a starting point here. So that leaves us with coherence to look at.

You might call this Sudoku logic: if you can’t continue by the rules of the game without putting the same number twice in some row or column, you know there is a mistake in there somewhere. Likewise when some person’s ideological position leads them into self-contradiction––saying that certain things are both morally required and morally forbidden at the same time––you can pretty much tell that they’ve got something in the wrong place.

We have to be careful not to judge too quickly here though: any moral position will involve difficulties and paradoxes, and if some position seems to just fall together without any such challenges that is not so much a sign that it is true as a sign that it is superficial. Any system can be kept consistent by avoiding its application to the messy process of human experience; and if it isn’t applicable to deeper aspects of human experience, it’s unlikely to be of much value as a source of confidence. Some capacity to deal with internal tensions must be part of the value of any meta-ethical starting point. The way Kierkegaard put it, “a thinker without paradox is like a lover without passion.”

Another rule of thumb that can be applied to choosing what to believe in has to do with whose word you are willing to take on the matter. Like many decisions in life, you want to ask various people who have tried the different alternative “products” that you are considering “buying.” But you need to be careful about this, because many who will try to win you over to their own way of thinking will do so as a way of trying to get your money, for instance. Others will try to convert you to their way of thinking as part of a personal power trip they are on. If you can catch these signals they can serve as valuable warning signs. It’s always best to avoid following the recommendations of hypocrites if you can help it. But on the other hand many wonderful people can be sincerely wrong, and some real sleaze balls can randomly end up as representatives of beliefs that have a lot of value to them, so don’t take this as the final standard of what to believe.

The role of the belief in the person’s life

Grossly generalizing here, among sincere recommendations for a belief the most unreliable ones tend to be those coming from someone who has converted to the belief in question either in their late teens or early twenties. This usually means that they turned to this belief as a means of becoming an independent adult and/or as a way of drawing a line under the painful mistakes they made as adolescents. That can make any belief system look better in the eyes of the convert than it really merits. Slightly more credible than this, but still rather unreliable is the testimony of those who have remained faithful to their childhood beliefs without ever seriously questioning them –– who have never seriously considered the possibility that their parents were wrong about key issues. On other hand, the more serious a set of crises a person can get through without having to radically change his or her belief system in the process, the more it says about the genuine value that belief system has for the person.


A viable source of confidence will decrease rather than increase your need to attack others.

One final factor worth mentioning is that those who have a serious hatred towards those who believe, act or look different from themselves should not be trusted. One characteristic of a workable set of foundational beliefs is that it enables the person to act secure and civilized around those who don’t share his/her beliefs. This sort of personal confidence enables the individual with a functional belief system not to feel threatened by those who see the world differently. This is what we call tolerance. In short, the less tolerance you see among believers in a particular system, the less likely it is to have much value, and visa-versa.

All this is based on the premise that your source of confidence is something you actually choose. It’s fair to say that this is something the vast majority of people –– even well educated people –– never really stop to think about that seriously. For most people the things they pursue as sources of confidence are things that they are socialized into by their families, their schools, their religious communities, their local peer groups or some combination of the above. It might be rather idealistic to believe that any of us genuinely choose our beliefs and our career paths. But I have to agree with Kant on one basic thing here: if we’re going to have anything called “ethics” we’re going to have to postulate some basic capacity for people to choose what they do with their lives. “Ought” implies “can.” And since on that basis I’m willing to postulate that people can choose, at least somewhat, how they are going to live and what goals they are going to pursue, I would hope that they would choose carefully and wisely; and dare to admit their mistakes and revise their choices if necessary. It is the capacity to make such decisions for oneself that qualifies a person for the elite status that Maslow calls self-actualized.

In any case, though intellectuals of many sorts tend to believe that this sort of existential autonomy is the highest form of happiness, as I’ve said already, I really don’t see it that way. First of all, I don’t believe that in practice a person’s level of happiness depends so much on how intelligent she/he is or even how important she/he is seen as being. I believe there is something greater than confidence as a source of happiness: connection. This includes, but is not limited to, all of the different emotional and spiritual experiences we call “love.” Explaining what I consider that to entail will be the subject of the next (and for now probably the final) installment in this series here.

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Existential Verification

In the film “Awakenings” there is one particularly chilling scene where the young doctor investigating a group of catatonic patients goes to consult with an older expert on these cases. After learning more about the history of the patients in question –– how for over 30 years they had been cut off from the world and locked within their own shells as a result of a disease they had suffered –– the young doctor (Oliver Sachs’ persona, played by Robin Williams) comments somewhat rhetorically, “I wonder what if feels like to be them.”

The older doctor replied with professional confidence, asserting that they had no feelings because, “the disease did not spare any higher cognitive functions.”

“How do you know?” the young doctor asks.

“Because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.”

As the film goes on it then becomes clear that these patients’ higher cognitive functions really were not entirely destroyed by the disease after all, but the horror of their life was not entirely as the older doctor would have expected either.

How many things do you and I “know” for sure because we find “the alternative too horrible to contemplate”? This is what I would call existential verification: deciding that something is true because it comforts us to think so; it helps us make sense of our existence. It is a far more common phenomenon than any of us really care to admit, and the fundamental question is what do we do about it?

In the film example given above the older doctor was never directly confronted with his error. How might he have related to it if he had? It probably would have made his life very uncomfortable and caused him to wonder what other poor judgment calls he might have made just because of personal cognitive comfort concerns over the years; but it probably would not have crushed him, in that it wouldn’t have called his whole life’s work into question. Contrast that with the case of the poor butler in ­­­­­ Kazuo Ishiguro’s tender story, Remains of the Day, where his primary accomplishment in life –– his outstanding service to a Nazi sympathizing English lord –– had the effect of enabling Nazi Germany to continue a policy of appeasement and manipulation in its relations with Britain for some years into the 1930s. Could he admit to himself that his former employer deserved the historical disgrace that fell upon him, and that his own work had made the world a worse place rather than a better one? In the end, no he couldn’t. It is difficult to imagine that many of us could.

Kierkegaard speaks of the purpose of philosophy being to enable us to find a purpose “worth living and dying for.” Daniel Dennett claims that the key to happiness is “finding a cause greater than yourself and dedicating your life to it.” We all do the best we can when it comes to choosing such causes and purposes, but in the end the purpose itself invariably becomes more important to its followers than how rationally certain we can be about our chosen purpose in life.

How do we really know that a cause is worth fighting and suffering for?

This is true with regard to ideological issues ranging from political liberation struggles to environmental protection initiatives to education promotion programs to battles against infectious diseases. People become committed to these causes, and many times the world is better for them, but in the process they become unable to tolerate the suggestion that some of the premises on which their cause is based may be mistaken, or that the unintended negative effects of their efforts may be worse than the evils they have set out to fight against. This is tragic really, because good people can thus become locked into patterns of destructive defensive reaction.

Nowhere is this more true than in the area of religious conviction. Religion in general is such an incredibly powerful force in the world because it enables people to follow a particular direction with complete certainty and devotion for generation after generation, regardless of how much evidence there may be as to the error of their ways. It has been said that there is no act so horrible that it cannot be justified by religious means. Yet it is just as accurate a generalization to say that the starting purpose of all of these religious motivations is an effort to harmonize oneself with the ultimate powers of the universe and to find ways to serve a virtuous cause greater than oneself. So how can we preserve the noble goals and ambitions of these happy idealists while at the same time limiting the destructive potential inherent in their existential certainty?

I have no silver bullets for this one, but I do have a few practical suggestions. To start with, we have to remember that not everyone can be saved from themselves. Some people’s existential commitments to their chosen beliefs are more important to them than life itself –– their own or anyone else’s. Whether or not you consider them evil in this regard (and I recommend against it wherever possible), sometimes the best thing to do is to protect yourself and the rest of the world from these ideological fundamentalists by what ever means are at your disposal. Never trust someone who is committed heart and soul, beyond a capacity for reason, to an ideology you don’t share, particularly if it involves destroying those who disagree with it.

That being said, not all zealous ideologues are harmful or dangerous. Almost all of them have some honest reason for believing that they are on the right side and they are doing good, even if they are fundamentally blind and stupid in other respects. Yes, in a different setting they could easily have been Hitler Youth (or Putin’s contemporary equivalent) and they would have done lots of evil things, but for now they’re not generally doing anything worse than talking nonsense. No, they aren’t thinking carefully enough about things, but most people actually don’t. Just because they can’t be trusted doesn’t mean you have to go do something to stomp them out. If you automatically go on the attack against all who don’t share your beliefs, you are really no morally better than they are; probably considerably worse.

Beyond that, you might be surprised by how reasonable some people are capable of being sometimes. Even those who have been thoroughly indoctrinated and even brainwashed to believe whole heartedly in the most extreme dogmas, if you can make them feel emotionally safe without reference to their pet beliefs, and if you can sincerely ask them to explain some of the more inconsistent things about their beliefs –– respectfully, but still being honestly and persistently critical of weak arguments and explanations –– you might be surprised at how much rational thought they are capable of. Even if you know that you won’t be able to talk sense into all those who embrace wild beliefs, don’t go about thinking, “She believes in X, therefore she must be impossible to reason with.”

And above all, avoid being a hypocrite when it comes to accusing others of being closed-minded. No matter how obvious to you the logic and basic premises of your own belief are, if you can’t see how someone else could sincerely disagree with you and still be a good, honest and intelligent person, odds are you are very closed-minded. You need to be able to look at the grounds of your own belief just as critically as you look at the grounds of the next person’s. If you discover that the only reason you believe something is because for one reason or another you are scared not to believe it, it’s probably time to do some re-thinking. That isn’t to say that you have to forsake all of your traditional and provisional beliefs just because not everyone agrees with them; just if you want to be a morally better person than the average Nazi you have to accept the possibility that you are in error and be willing to reason with those who disagree with you without getting upset with them for disagreeing.

It is true that the most enviably happy people in the world are those who are able to promote what they believe in without having to get defensive and without having to feel conflicted about it. Mother Theresa, for instance, was an incredibly happy woman in the sense of being completely satisfied with her place in the world and completely at peace with herself. I believe she was fundamentally wrong about many things, but that didn’t stop her from being a wonderfully happy person who did a lot of good in the world. I would say the same for the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, Vaclav Havel and my own mother. All of these exemplary individuals have stood up in defense of their personal beliefs in spite of intense opposition –– deep personal suffering even –– without taking any of that personally. Any of them could be accused of being misguided, and it is a logical impossibility that all of their world views are correct, but anyone who would deny that the world is a better place because of each of these people –– or deny that overall each of them has lived a fundamentally happy and successful life –– is just plain wrong (and I’d be happy to argue out the case for any of them if someone wants to challenge me on one or two of them). Needless to say, I don’t want to take that away from any of them. What I’d ideally like to do is bring an end to the sort of unthinking existential commitment that turns some people into terrorists, “tea partiers,” tyrants or worse. Sometimes the line between these phenomena is not easy to draw.

I’d suggest that besides being rational about choosing what we commit ourselves to and remaining open to the possibilities of our own mistakes (both easier said than done) the best we can do is to prioritize spirituality over certainty. Rather than trying to take comfort in the power of our own ideas, we can take comfort in being able to deeply connect with something beyond ourselves –– our environment and other people in particular. That doesn’t mean that we should forsake our beliefs in the face of social pressure or that we ignore all of the problems we see around us. It means we basically say to our opponents, “I still don’t think you’re right on this one, but there are more important things than proving that I’m right and you’re wrong. There’s life out there for us to appreciate together.”

As a monotheist I believe that there are certain things only God knows, and he ain’t telling. We don’t know what the purpose is behind so many random things that happen. We don’t know how and when this world will end. We don’t know who will ultimately get into heaven. Those who claim to have final answers on these matters are either bluffing or crazy. Meanwhile those who don’t believe in one God out there in charge of the whole ball of wax have even less to be sure of than I do. The point is to learn to live with our uncertainties –– daring to believe that there is purpose in our lives, but also daring to believe we could just be wrong about many of the details, but that’s OK because we’re all part of something bigger than ourselves.

I can see where this might come off as empty platitudes, but I’m afraid that’s the best I can do for now no this one. Like I said, I have no silver bullets here. Even so, I hope this encourages honest self-evaluation and dialogue about how we decide that we know things for sure. So if you have some better ideas on the matter don’t hesitate to share them with me.

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Revisiting my Compass Theory for Ethical Objectivists

Kierkegaard is remembered for his “leap of faith”. Pascal is remembered for his “wager”. Nietzsche is remembered for his poetic claim that society had killed God. They were all dead by the time they were my age. If I was to die this year and the world was to go on without me, would I be remembered for anything in particular? Obviously I’m not in a particularly good position to answer that, but one thing I’d like to think might be remembered is my idea of the border area between metaphysics and ethics, which I have dubbed “the Metaphysical Compass”. This week I’ve seen another place where it could be useful as a tool.

Some of my more interesting online discussion partners these days are promoters of an idea of non-theistic ethical realism or ethical objectivism. The basic question they are dealing with is, on the assumption that there is no God telling people what to do, what is it that makes particular things right or wrong? More specifically, is there some other moral foundation that makes certain things –– like rape, torturing children or murder –– always wrong, regardless of culture or era? To say no to this is a rather dangerous sounding position, because it effectively reinforces Dostoyevsky’s character’s claim that without God all things are permitted, and therefore we need God to maintain some sort of moral stability in the world. Some Christian’s have even gone so far as thumping themselves on the chest for creating the position of ethical objectivism by showing how truly unpalatable any purely subjectivist ethical position has to be.

Yet to make ethics an absolute without some stronger metaphysical foundation than evolutionary materialism seems a bit far fetched, to say at the least. We’re not just talking about the old “doesn’t every design have a designer” argument; we’re looking at the fact that in many cultures and at many points in history people have done things that western societies now see as irredeemably wicked, and in doing so these people never batted an eyelash about it. So if those things have always been wrong, why couldn’t those people see how wrong they were? And for that matter what foundation can we really claim that the moral absolutes which we now recognize are based on?

My goal in looking at this question over the years has not been to find a way to force people to accept my own religious or non-religious views, but to facilitate a dialog which allows for a greater level of mutual respect between parties that happen to fundamentally disagree on these matters. I believe that one can be a “real philosopher,” according to whatever definition you care to tack onto that term, regardless of what sort of God(s) or lack thereof one believes in. I believe that a lot of agreement in applied ethics can be reached and a lot of lives can even be saved through cooperation between believers and non-believers if we can find a way to address this issue without ignoring it and without dogmatically damning each other over it.

So my basic premise is this: there are basically four ultimate metaphysical/meta-ethical starting points that philosophers –– and sometimes even non-philosophers –– might appeal to. Depending on one’s convictions, they can be ordered in at least six different ways. The ultimate question is which, if any of them, do we feel safe in prioritizing as the basis for our moral reasoning? Trying to label them as neutrally as possible, these starting points would be the transcendental, the material, the individually existential, and the societal.

Playing this for the ethical realist crowd, let me go over to a rough summary of Karl Popper’s metaphysics, as filtered to me by way of Finland’s Ilkka Niiniluoto: We can talk about “reality” on at least three levels, in each of which we can meaningfully speak of correct and incorrect perspectives.

On the first level we have the external realities of the material world, including such statements as “My sofa is blue” or “This house was built over 50 years ago” or even “Giant hogweed can cause serious skin damage.” All of these statements remain true regardless of who is looking at the situation and how they feel about it. None of them depend on “how you see it.” Science, as we know it, tries to operate primarily on the level of discovering things that can properly be said to be true on this level: things about the basic structure of the material universe that we all live in. We all more or less naively assume that these things are somehow fundamentally real; that we’re not in some illusion orchestrated by “the matrix” or some Cartesian demon or the like. We also trust that the experts our societies have trained and appointed to look into these matters are giving us fundamentally accurate information about them.

Beyond that though we have the level of reality as each of us experiences it. This would include such statements as “Maple syrup tastes better than syrup made from sugar beets” or “My dog is an ideal companion for me” or “This floor needs washing.” All of those are true statements, but not things which can be scientifically proven. They are matters which first and foremost relate to my individual experience of life. They have been confirmed as accurate in the experience of others, and there may even be a popular consensus on all of them (eccentric tasteless fools who can’t appreciate good maple syrup aside), but that is ultimately beside the point. What makes these things true is that I consistently experience them in that way. Making sense of my individual experiences, and arranging them to flow in a more satisfying and sustainable manner is something I can get various forms of therapy to help with, but ultimately it is my own responsibility, my own project and something to be appreciated by me alone. The fact that others can relate to these experiences and have their own equivalents, and that they can be richer when shared with others, don’t take away from the fact that their reality is something that I speak about based on my individual experience of them.

And they further still we have a level of reality that is based on mutual understanding between individuals, which remains relatively constant regardless of any one individual’s perspective. Statements in this realm would include things such as “The price of gold is rising” or “It is illegal to use studded snow tires in the summer” or even “Hitler was a very effective motivational speaker.” All of those statements are true, and anyone who would attempt to deny them is fundamentally wrong. But the factuality of any of them is not based on issues of personal experience, nor is it based on the atomic structure of the physical universe –– at least not in any way that we can communicate with each other about such issues meaningfully on the basis of such a premise. These things are true because people collectively accept them as true. That doesn’t make them a matter of opinion, but it doesn’t reduce them to set of external physical realities either.

Popper was basically satisfied with those three levels of reality. Is that enough? I actually think not. (Poof, my Cartesian self disappears… Never mind stupid philosophers’ joke.) I think we need to speak as well of a realm of truths which are not culturally contingent, not matters of individual experience, and a priori to the structure of the physical universe as we know it. Many of the principles of mathematics would belong in such a category. To say that (in standard base-10 notation) 101 is a prime number is something we assume to be true regardless of culture, experience or physical context. If you have a pod of dolphins out feeding together and they come upon a school of 101 herrings, as long as they are eating these little fish whole and none of them get away, and there is more than one but less than 101 dolphins in the pod, it is impossible that they will all get to eat the same number of little fish. Near as we can tell that would be true in any universe, with any calculating system, and any type of distinct individual items being counted. I would refer to this “fourth level” as the transcendental.

What else besides mathematical principles might go into the category of things we can discover as universally true prior to their being manifest in particular physical forms? It is no accident, from my perspective, that most outstanding mathematical thinkers, all the way from Pythagoras to Whitehead, have also had a bit of a mystical bend to their thinking. They have instinctively felt that there must be other elements to this pre-material and yet post-social level of reality than just the mathematical. Searching for other eternal truths along these lines has been a life-long pursuit for many a young man (and not quite as many, but a fair number of young women as well) who started out becoming fascinated by the mysteries of numbers.  Demonstrating the eternal truth of their other ideas became more difficult, however, especially to those outside of their own religious or quasi-religious fellowship.

statue on New York's upper west side

So if we accept four metaphysical levels of reality, I propose that ethical systems can be grounded on a world view that starts with any of the four, and with some funky combinations of the four besides. When it comes to ethical foundations it is historically most natural to start with the transcendental: Somewhere out there is a personal or impersonal God or Force which sets particular standards as to how we should live, and through some combination of rational analysis and meditation and prayer for guidance we should seek to discover what that God wants for us. There are thousands of variations on this theme –– most of them mutually exclusive. But beyond the conflicts between different claims within this field, there are other problems which lead the non-theistic ethical realists to seek elsewhere for their foundation. In short, some really nasty stuff has been done in the name of God over the course of human history.

So if we chuck out the idea of God as a starting point, the next alternative would seem to be the material world as an ethical starting point. Ethics just evolved, like everything else. This theory is still being worked on quite actively by thinkers like Singer and Dawkins, with limited success thus far. Looking at the “sub-human” animal kingdom as the basis for a theoretical model of how humans should act just isn’t working that well yet. Meanwhile we have the older post-Darwinist materialist thinkers to consider: Marx on the one hand and the likes of Nietzsche and Spencer on the other. From a Marxist perspective, the evolution of societies as moral entities entails subsuming all individualistic drives into promoting the collective interest. Both Nietzsche and Spencer, on the other hand, would have espoused the perspective articulated by Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov at the beginning of “Crime and Punishment”: Some people are more evolved than others, and therefore they shouldn’t be ashamed to stomp out and push aside those inferior beings that get in their way.

Both of these classical materialist ethics programs then have the characteristic of disregarding the value of each individual as an individual. That might be sufficient reason to set aside that whole premise for ethics and move on to something that focuses on individual interests. In this regard we can look to some extent to Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky and company, but a more careful analysis reveals that they were in fact quite thoroughly theists or transcendentalists in their approaches to ethics. Perhaps the fellow who deserves credit for developing a purely individualistic basis for a world view that could work as an ethical foundation would be Jean-Paul Sartre. I still have a personal theory that Sartre’s approach is in part the product of his having been born ugly, but that’s rather beside the point. The main issue is that J-P believed that the only thing that any individual has to worry about is making the most out of his or her individuality, with no excuses and with no serious regard to what others happen to think of it. And that’s all well and good as long as you just want to smoke and drink and hang around with other Bohemian romantics –– being free to screw whoever and whatever is available to you in that regard –– but as a basis for building a family and contributing to the long-term stability of society, Sartre’s approach is rather “challenged”.

So the last of the basic levels of reality to appeal to as an ethical foundation then would be the societal. This can have at least two popular forms: Heideggerian “care” and all the variations on language-based philosophy. Heidegger basically thought that trying to build a strong society was the noblest and most fulfilling thing an individual could do, and thus contributing to the society and the world as a whole trumps the sort of Bohemian interests of a guy like Sartre. Whether that perspective made it inevitable that he would suck up to the Nazis is an open debate still. But besides this we have the French structuralists and post-structuralists who argue that one’s reality is to a great extent based on one’s language and language is essentially a social phenomenon. Therefore we must conclude that our most foundational reality is a social reality, and we must find our place within that social reality before we can move on to discover any other significant realities.

But one of the earliest premises of philosophy has been not to trust the herd instincts of societies to set moral standards. Socrates was democratically condemned to death, and Plato made it his mission in life to prove to the world how wrong that was. No moral foundation that leads to such a sacrilege can be trusted. Instead we need to look at our lives here on Earth as but a shadow of some greater form of reality that we must endeavor to get closer to. In other words he brings us back to the transcendental or theistic realm that some are working so hard to escape from.

There are at least a couple of other alternatives that I’m aware of, both promoted by Jewish boys who had strained relations with their religious traditions. We have Spinoza, who basically said that we really can’t draw any distinctions between the material and spiritual worlds, and we shouldn’t try to abstract ourselves from this force which envelops us and ultimately sweeps us along towards whatever we are destined for. And that’s cool, except it leaves us with no reason to give a crap about anything at all, because our efforts really don’t mean anything or make any difference if we thing that way. And then we have Heidegger’s French translator, Derrida, who says that life is pretty much random anyway, so the point is to avoid the mistake of assuming that there’s a point. Which brings us back to the point where…

We need to recognize that none of our ethical foundation systems are foolproof. Whenever someone comes up with a more foolproof ethical system, inevitably a greater fool comes along right after to foil it. In the end we’re probably not going to agree on which of these foundations our ethics should be based on, or on how completely objective our ethical systems can be; but we can agree that people should be entitled to a certain degree of respect and support, Good Samaritan style, just because they happen to be people, and through open and respectful dialog we can build from there. And if we can avoid abstract black or white dichotomies in the process, so much the better.

For what difference it makes, my own meta-ethical premise is a transcendental one, taken with a great deal of caution and reservation about how much of God’s mind those who claim to be his representatives actually know. But as all of my former students can testify, I’ve never based my grading or respect for others on how close to my own ideology they happened to be. As Einstein famously claimed, I want to know the mind of God (the rest being just details). I want to be able to take some of my understandings in that direction fairly seriously even, but I never want to make the mistake of assuming that I have fully arrived. And knowing how far I am from my goal, if you want to be a kind, empathetic, responsible and constructive participant the world we share on some other basis, I don’t consider it to be my responsibility to further “set you right” on these matters. I only hope that you can offer the same sort of respect to my fellow theists and me, even if respectful individuals are a minority on both sides.

And with the disclaimer that this was written rather off the cuff, with portraits painted in rather broad brush strokes, and apologies for any limitations this essay may have on that basis, I bid you farewell for this time. I’ll come back to plugging philosophy as a school subject next time around.

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Filed under Empathy, Ethics, Human Rights, Individualism, Materialism, Philosophy, Purpose, Religion, Respectability, Tolerance

Abrahamic Certainty

I’m going to make this week’s blog a double. In part this has happened by accident, in that I was inspired to bite off a bigger theoretical piece than usual here, and by the time I’d finished chewing my way through it I had about twice as many words as I usually allot myself for one of these things. But in part that is a happy accident because I was planning to allow myself to set my writing aside next weekend anyway, as I celebrate Easter in my own radically untraditional way this year. I could have broken this up into two chunks to keep readers coming back more regularly, but why bother? If you find this to be too heavy an intellectual snack for one weekend, read half of it now and save the other half for sometime next week.

Let me also warn you that this entry is written from the perspective of a sincere but questioning faith in God. If you are the sort of person who finds a presupposition of the existence of God offensive, you might want to skip this essay. I have elsewhere explained at some length why I believe in God and what sort of role that faith plays in my life, and this piece is more than long enough without adding in a repetition of those arguments. On the other end of the spectrum, if you are the sort of religious person who finds it offensive to have the authority of your own tradition seriously questioned, you too might want to skip this particular essay. I operate here on the assumption that even the most sincere prophets and saints have made serious mistakes, and that when it comes to seeking for direct spiritual guidance, a certain amount of uncertainty goes with the territory. You are fully entitled to disagree about these matters, but accommodating all of the various authoritative dogmas that might take offense at my approach is another thing I don’t really have time for this weekend.

All of this starts with a personal re-evaluation of Kierkegaard. For many years if people would ask me to list my favorite philosophers I’d have to stop and think, and a different list might come out each time, but Kierkegaard would always come out within the top 5. Kierkegaard prioritized finding meaning in the absurdities of everyday life as the essential task of both philosophy and Christian faith. He drew on both the Bible and on classical Greek and Latin materials to demonstrate how the respectable Lutheran status quo of his time had a fair percentage of BS involved. On those merits I still believe that he was probably the most outstanding and influential genius that the Scandinavian countries have ever produced. At the same time, however, Kierkegaard was rather open about his own human limitations and fallibility. He never claimed to be a prophet, which as I see it is quite a good thing; especially as lately I’ve noticed areas in his thinking where, as a product of his own time and culture, he seems to be quite seriously mistaken.

Kierkegaard is at his best as the cynical humorist and critical analyst. Where has been seen as intellectually weaker is in terms of giving his own final answers to life’s persistent questions. After recognizing that life can only be analyzed by looking backwards, but it can be only lived by looking forwards, and that the analytical
process itself inevitably includes more than a little bit of paradox; for everyday decision making Kierkegaard turned to a form of faith that was riddled with paradox and thin on proofs, which was precisely what he loved about it. For many, however, this involves unjustified and unjustifiable risks: diving into things that you can’t be totally rationally sure of, but where “something in your heart” tells you that it’s right.  (Quotation marks there refer to the term being borrowed from pop culture, not Kierkegaard’s writings.) For some the question follows from there, “Can’t we do better than that?” leading to the answer “Maybe not.”

Recently, as I’ve been contemplating some major decisions in my own life and talking with some close friends about these matters, one of these confidants raised the issue of Abraham’s faith, as considered by Kierkegaard. For those unfamiliar with the story it goes something like this:

Like any rich nomadic herdsman of his time, Abraham had dreams of raising a huge family… but it just wasn’t happening for him. He was on the north side of middle age already, as was his beloved and hot looking wife, and as hard as they worked on making babies, they just weren’t coming. At one point then Sarah, his wife, told Abraham to try to deal with the situation by seeing if he could get her slave girl pregnant. That worked pretty well, and Sarah sort of adjusted to the idea of her new step-son, Ishmael, taking over the family fortune. But then, after they had given up on trying to make babies, and got back to intercourse for the fun of it, as sometimes happens in such cases, Sarah managed to get pregnant and have a son, Isaac. That’s where things started to get complicated. Abraham really loved both of his sons, but his wife clearly came first in his life, and she loved her surprise biological son to the total exclusion of her step-son; and Ishmael, it seems, was not adjusting to this very well himself. Finally Abraham, on Sarah’s orders, sent Ishmael and his mother packing, to go live further south, where they wouldn’t be the subject of so many arguments.

In the next chapter then (Genesis 22) comes the real climax of the story. It says that “God tested Abraham” by telling him to kill and roast his dear son Isaac. Abraham was pretty secretive about this, but he set out to take care of what he believed God had commanded. He took a couple helpers and his son, along with some wood and butchering utensils, and snuck out one morning before his wife woke up. They rode for a good three days “to the place God had shown him,” and then he left the servants behind so he could go do a secret ritual with his son using the wood and a butcher’s knife. The kid was smart enough to notice that something strange was going on, in that there was a conspicuous lack of a sacrifice animal with them, but Abraham just cryptically told him, “God will provide one.”

The happy ending then comes when at the last second God stops Abraham from killing Isaac, and says, “I was just testing. You passed. Don’t hurt the kid!” Then Abraham sees a ram with its horns stuck in a bush (not the smartest animal in the pack, it would seem) so he kills and roasts that creature instead. Ever since then, however, there has been burning speculation about what was going on there. To start with, how did God give these messages to Abraham, and how could Abraham be sure that it was God talking to him? And after that, what lessons does this story really hold for the rest of us? It is one of the major turning points in the patriarchal narratives in Genesis, so it can’t really be ignored; yet it seems to have nothing to do with principles of kindness, trust, cooperation and understanding that religion “should be promoting.”

Kierkegaard latched onto this tale just because it makes so little sense in terms basic humanistic ethical principles being manifest in religion. His take on it was that sometimes you just have to trust God for no other reason than that he’s God. He gets to give the orders because that’s part of what he gets to do, being God and all. So if you try to crunch any religion –– Christianity in particular –– down to a sweet little set of humanistic principles, you’ve rather missed the whole point.

Thus far, in terms of coming to grips with the foundational metaphysical assumptions that monotheistic faiths are based on, I strongly sympathize with what Kierkegaard is saying. My problem with all this comes when I start to look for an answer to the question my friend puts to me: “What would you do in Abraham’s place?” My provisional answer: “I’d make damned sure of my epistemological reasons for believing that it was God talking before I’d do anything.” And that’s the crux of the matter: can any form of personal emotional experience ever be enough to provide absolute certainty that it is God with whom we are dealing?

The alternative of looking for rational certainty of God’s will –– discovering the divine through a series of systematic algorithms –– is something that Kierkegaard has adequately shown to be inconsistent with the core understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition at least. (And as I understand it, Al Ghazali made a similar point from an Islamic perspective 700-some years earlier.) Beyond that it would seem to me to be an implausible proposition on a number of different levels.

In brief, if God had wanted to provide absolute certainty about his intentions and desires for mankind, there would have been a number of ways in which he could have made that more clear. That, however, would have entailed an increased risk of various religious groups claiming that their authority is based on enforcing God’s revealed will for everyone else. That would have turned “true religion” into the most impersonal and authoritarian bureaucracy imaginable. Even without true, divinely inspired intellectual certainty we have some pretty serious problems with authoritarian religious bureaucracies. We can only imagine what it would be like if one of these groups really
did have God’s unequivocal stamp of approval!  Thus God, in all his wisdom, in the interest of remaining personal and relational, has chosen to remain somewhat mysterious and non-systematizeable. All this is to say, faith in God does not necessarily entail an assurance of being perfectly aware of what the God wants in every possible situation; somewhat the opposite in fact.

Now of course no authoritarian religious organization which enforces orthodoxy in its standardized teaching can readily accept the idea that they have anything less than a mandate from God himself to maintain such standards. Thus it would be more the rule than the exception for the ideas in the above paragraph to be labeled as the most evil sort of heresy. But the more dogmatically a religious group insists on maintaining absolute control as God’s sole (or primary) representatives, the more damage they do to their own credibility. The ultimate nature of God clearly beyond human understanding, and thus any group which claims to have an exclusive understanding of him is either bluffing or they really don’t get the question.

In any case, this brings us back to the question of a less rational, more mystical or emotional awareness of God’s intentions and desires for us; and how far we can trust such sensations. Is it possible to “just know” what God wants of each of us, and of each other? If so, to what extent?

Some would say that these matters are best left to those who have a legitimate claim to being apostles or prophets. But what gives such individuals the right to claim such authority? Short answer: we don’t really know, but some individuals’ “messages” in this respect just sort of ring true for their followers and for future generations. But on careful consideration that really isn’t such a great epistemological standard. Given the mutually contradictory nature of prophetic messages from different sources, each seen as “obviously divine” by millions of faithful followers, the only obvious thing is that the vast majority of those “prophets” or “apostles”, (to be charitable about it) must have got at least some of their basic details mixed up. On the other end of the spectrum, the standard job description for a prophet or an apostle says that you’ll be rejected in terms of popular opinion, at least in your own time and your own village, because others just won’t “get it.” So external confirmation in terms of reinforcement from other (potential) believers really can’t be taken as firm evidence of whether or not any given apostle, prophet, guru, etc. is the real deal or not.

Yet even if the authority of a prophet’s or apostle’s message can never be fully confirmed in terms of its overall popularity, that still leaves open the possibility of inter-subjectivity: to one extent or another the issue always comes back to a question of a particular prophetic message “resonating” with what “God says to the heart of the believer”. Along these lines each of the Abrahamic religions officially holds that each believer’s status as a believer is ultimately between the “believer” and God –– not something that anyone else can competently judge; and the voice of God within the heart of the believer –– confirming for that believer the message of the Prophet(s) –– is the only thing which ultimately matters. On this Jews, Christians and Muslims theoretically agree: if God is not in fact speaking directly to your heart, all the rest is really just an empty show.

Such a doctrine actually poses a very limited risk to those who have a vested interest in enforcing orthodoxy. For starters this can easily be turned into an “Emperor’s New Clothes” dynamic: everyone inevitably claims to see the beauty of the message, because not to do so is tantamount to proclaiming one’s own moral and spiritual inferiority! Then once you have enough people proclaiming their personal affirmation of the beliefs in question, a sort of Asch social conformity dynamic kicks in (see, e.g., http://changingminds.org/explanations/theories/normative_social_influence.htm), and people start sincerely seeing things “the way they are supposed to” because everyone else claims to see them that way. So when people are told to “judge for themselves” as to whether or not the “divine message” they have been given resonates with them, chances of dissent are pretty limited.

[And for those who do not have the time or patience to read this all in one sitting, this might be as good a place as any for you to take an intermission. See you after the break.]

But if we set aside the question of why others claim to believe what they believe, and if we ignore the risks inherent in believing differently from the mainstream, if we then take these admonitions to judge for ourselves at face value, we find ourselves in a position
where there is really no categorical difference between the prophet and the true believer: personal spiritual intuition of one form or another is the thing that really counts. What makes the prophets’ or apostles’ spiritual intuitions special is that they are intended to serve as benchmarks for improving one’s own spiritual intuitions.

So when it comes to getting messages from God that might instruct us to do things which go against the grain of popular opinion, as Abraham is said to have, we really can’t flog that one off on the prophets –– leaving it to authority figures to make our spiritual decisions for us. Each truly believing Jew, Christian, Muslim, etc. is personally responsible to listen for God’s voice for her- or himself, and to follow that voice to the best of her/his God-given ability.

But this brings me to the point where my good friend Kierkegaard and I part company. I realized this in going through my personal library this week, thinning out the materials that are not worth lugging around or cramming into my limited personal space. In the process I picked up a book of his essays that I hadn’t opened in a while, and had a read through Of the difference between a Genius and an Apostle. His main point there was to say that, contrary to the message being preached in the various churches of Copenhagen at the time, the Apostle Paul was no genius; or even if he was it would be rather irrelevant. The relevant matter is that he spoke with authority, as one having a message from the Almighty. That much I don’t necessarily have a problem with either. Where I disagree is when it comes to his categorical assumption that acceptance of authority and careful epistemological investigation should be treated as separate, unrelated issues.

Part of this has to do with the fact that Kierkegaard was thoroughly adjusted to his role as the subject of a king rather than being a participant in a democracy. He wasn’t comfortable with the idea of having a leader who pandered to the masses; whose authority was based on being likeable or convincing: “There is something disturbing in the idea of a king who is witty or an artist. […] To ask whether a king is a genius –– with the intention, if such were the case, of obeying him, is in reality lèse-majesté; for the question conceals a doubt as to whether one intends to submit to authority. […] To honor one’s father because he is intelligent is impiety.”

Obviously the cultural assumptions which the reader is expected to bring to such a passage have changed a lot in the past 150 years. Does that mean that we have slipped further from God’s intended design for humanity? I rather doubt it. I don’t actually believe that there ever was any true “divine right of kings.” Frederick VII having ruled Denmark in Kierkegaard’s time was no more a manifestation of God’s will than Berlusconi’s presidency of Italy is today. The practical opportunities for citizens to influence matters may be limited in both cases, but that does not mean that anyone who has succeeded in gaining such power has Carte Blanche from God himself to run things as he pleases. Every holy book worth its salt contains passages on what constitutes good governance and what standards rulers should be held accountable to. Rulers which do not live up to their responsibilities are to be peacefully removed from office wherever possible. Unwise rulers are no longer routinely obeyed merely because they are rulers, and overall the world is a better and safer place for it. This clearly goes against the grain of Kierkegaard’s understanding of how authority is supposed to work, but then again he probably faced far worse disillusionments in other matters.

Part of what this entails is that citizens are at least in part responsible for the state of the government they live under. Rather than unquestioning obedience, what we theoretically owe to our rulers is respectful awareness of the issues they are dealing with, and active participation in the process of encouraging wise decisions. Thus respect for authority, rather than being a passive matter entirely distinct from epistemology, becomes an active matter acutely dependent on epistemology. And for reasons outlined above, this also applies quite directly to spiritual authorities as well.

So that brings me back to the question of what I would do if I were Abraham…

Perhaps, like Gideon and so many other holy men who have been faced with counter-intuitive instructions, I would ask for specific signs to prove to me that the instructions were at least coming from something more than my own disturbed emotional state. Perhaps I’d look up my old friend Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18) who comes from an entirely different religious tradition but still worships and gets messages from the same God, to see what sort of wisdom he could impart on the matter. Perhaps I’d just try to decompress for a while; leaving my foreman in charge of the flocks and all and spending some time just traveling, either by myself or with the wife and kid, depending on which would most effectively help me to be sure that I was thinking straight again. I figure if God would want the kid dead he wouldn’t be in such an all-fired hurry about it anyway.

My overall take on old Father Abraham is that he meant well, but he may have seriously got his wires crossed in trying to figure out what God wanted of him. Isaac actually comes across overall in the narrative as sort of retarded, and given how he was born long after his mom should have stopped having children, that’s more than possible. Having just kicked his smarter, stronger son out of the camp on his wife’s demand to improve the chances for this cute little weakling must have been rough on him. The chances of this little mommy’s boy ever amounting to anything seemed pretty slim. Maybe if he sacrificed this kid to his God, the way his neighbors sometimes sacrificed their kids to their gods, that would earn him extra favor from up above to make sure good things came to the kid who seemed to have better prospects anyway.In spite of all of his confusion though, God somehow got the message through to him just in time not to do it! So Isaac was saved, and Abraham was left with a feeling of God telling him, “Don’t worry. Everything’s cool. I know you meant well, but I have plans for this kid.”

Isaac went on to lead a limitedly successful life. He wasn’t really interested in any other women than his mommy until after she died. His dad then arranged for him to marry one of his cousins, who sort of a became substitute mommy for him. After failing at it for quite a while he finally managed to get his wife pregnant… once. And from there the rest of the stories about Isaac have to do with his wife and son taking advantage of his blindness and stupidity. Meanwhile Abraham remarried and had a big bunch of kids with his new wife, but then left the family fortune to Isaac and his family.

So when it comes down to it Abraham’s success is less down to him earning it through his heroic readiness to kill his weaker son, and more a matter of God being merciful to him in spite of his occasional screw ups, of which killing his son could have been by far the worst. Overall, if I would have been in Abraham’s position I believe I would have made an entirely different set of mistakes than he did, but God could have been merciful to me too in spite of myself. As things stand, some 4000 years or so later, Abraham’s legacy lives on, and those of us who follow in the different variations of the spiritual
path which he pioneered keep doing our best to get the message right in our own contexts. That includes me, and every true believer in any faith, who throws him- or herself on God’s mercy and then tries the best he/she can to live worthily of the mercy thus received. And as near as I can tell, that would also include Kierkegaard.

Like Kierkegaard, I make no claims at having prophetic gifts, but I listen for God’s instruction the best I can anyway. Ultimately, in spite of our uncertainties, we all must live our lives looking forward. We seek whatever help we can get from above. We fail on a regular basis, but we keep trying. Not giving up hope can be easier said than done.

Trusting that God will be merciful to those who call out for his mercy, and who are willing to show mercy to others on that basis, is the first order of business. Seeking valid general rules for living wisely and relating to others respectfully comes next. Getting special wisdom and guidance for unique circumstances where the general rules don’t necessarily apply would come after that. None of those are the exclusive territory of prophets or exceptional saints; they are available to all believers. None of them require special genius, but all of them require careful consideration of what information and sensations can be trusted. All of them require a certain humility, but none require blind obedience to those who claim to speak for God.

And with this in mind, may we each experience his mercy then this Easter, this spring, in our own surprising and revitalizing ways.

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Filed under Control, Ethics, Holidays, Individualism, Religion, Respectability, Risk taking

In the City of David…






Christmas day, spilling over into Boxing Day… The “delicacies” have been consumed, the basic rituals have been observed, the children have been suitably amused and the choirs have had their chances to sing. Of course the “12 days of Christmas” are really only getting started for those who want to make serious number out of the holiday, and plenty of time off from school still remains for many of us fortunate enough to have routines built around such concerns, but over the weekend already I have been able to start looking at the holiday itself in a reflective sort of way. What does it ultimately symbolize or represent? Which tales associated with it deserve to be taken most seriously? Which rituals really serve the deepest purposes? Is there some “truth about Christmas” most worth sharing?

This week I must credit my dear virtual friend “Sam” with stimulating and challenging my thinking about the way I balance the subjective and objective, as well as the individual and the collective, in the process of defining what faith, God, love, hope and thereby Christmas ultimately mean to me. In order for people starting from different perspectives, or those who have developed different viewpoints than I have, to relate to the sorts of harmony I was talking about last week, I really should better define what I mean in reference to some of these very basic concepts. I’m not sure if I can break these ideas down into genuinely basic understandable terms, but I’ve decided to give it an effort. And right from the start I must say how thankful I am for my virtual friends who keep pushing me to further clarify my thinking in these sorts of ways.

The main point on which Sam has asked for clarification is what God actually means to me. I sort of ducked that to begin with by saying that my views on the matter are rather Kierkegaardian, but she didn’t let me off that easy, pointing me to some rather interesting considerations on the subject by one Avi Sagi (Kierkegaard, Religion and Existence: The Voyage of the Self, Editions Rodopi, Amsterdam 2000), and asking me if I would agree. It doesn’t become the style of my blogging to give a fully annotated scholarly reply, citing all of Professor Sagi’s sources and all, so let me just say that what is to follow here is not entirely my original thoughts on the matter, but the ultimate responsibility for the picture I paint here lies with me alone.

So let’s start with Kierkegaard’s picture of God. One of Kierkegaard’s most famous meditations regards the case of what the book of Genesis presents as God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. This is one of the most mysterious and paradoxical passages in the Torah, so it is no surprise, given his love for paradox, that Kierkegaard tackles it head on. If we assume there is a direct correlation between morality and the will of God, how can we justify claims that God has commanded people to do things that must otherwise be regarded as blatantly immoral? Some scholars dismiss the whole issue by saying that the primary purpose of the passage in question was to provide a legendary precedent for the elimination of the ancient practice of human sacrifice in the Middle East. But even if that is the case, it rather misses the point of the larger moral dilemma being presented, which in many senses remains relevant to this day. Others, Kantians in particular, claim that no God which corresponds to the attributes given to him in the Abrahamic tradition could possibly demand the atrocity of human sacrifice, therefore Abraham must have got his wires crossed and taken some absurd inner conflict he was experiencing at the time to be “the voice of God”. This consideration at least addresses the question at hand, but not in a way that gives Abraham the credit he is believed to deserve as the Patriarch of the majority of the monotheists in the world today.

Kierkegaard’s solution was to say that the real point of faith, illustrated so powerfully in this tale, is to relate to God as something other than the product of our own rational processes. If God is nothing but an abstract personification of our basic moral algorithms, we can hardly consider this character to be worthy of worship. If God is in any way “capturable” by our logical processes She/He/It (or just “He” for traditional shorthand here) could no longer be God. In order to be truly recognizable as divine, God has to be something more than, and different from, what we are able to squeeze into, or out of, our funny little brains.

But then there’s another factor that Kierkegaard points out as even more necessary for God to be worth our bothering with: this God has to have a genuine interest in and available to beings like us, in spite of our being infinitely less than He is. In short, He has to love us in spite of ourselves. In fact this aspect of the relating to our object of worship really needs to come first. It doesn’t make so much difference for us if there is something out there that is fully beyond what we can formulate if that something doesn’t really give a toot about us. For God to be worth the trouble of worshipping, He really needs to be a personal being that not only accepts us for who we are, but enables us to be the most complete versions of ourselves that we can be through contact with Him. The recognition that He is beyond our comprehension and intellectual control really only becomes relevant to us when, like Abraham, we have some experience of his mercy, generosity and good will towards us and we need to know how to relate to that.

How do we get to that point? According to Kierkegaard, by throwing ourselves fully into a search for Him and a commitment to being completely at his mercy. If we try to take charge of our relationship with God and dictate the terms of the relationship to him, or if we try to understand him in a systematic, comprehensive sort of way, we are no longer respecting him as God. We are thus losing the possibility of relating to anything beyond ourselves in our systems of worship. We have to let God be God, and we are thus able to find the value of our personal identity fully in relation to this God, because He is merciful enough to grant that favor to those who seek him with all their hearts.

Setting aside the skeptics’ question of whether such a God exists in the first place, Kierkegaard’s primary question from there is one of how one can know that it is truly God we are interacting with in those moments of surrender to forces beyond ourselves, as opposed to some other spirit entity, or merely shadows within our own warped psyches. There are a number of epistemological methods at our disposal for this particular task, but none of them are entirely foolproof. As the saying goes, every time someone comes up with a foolproof religious system, along comes an even greater religious fool. Ultimately however, Kierkegaard would say, certainty about such things is overrated. The point of the matter is to have a purpose greater than yourself, worth living and even dying for. Being honest with yourself about the risks of self-deception is important. Being honest with yourself about the risk of blindly following patterns of cultural conditioning is even more important. But once those risks have been adequately taken into account, the best we can do is to take the famous “leap of faith” and hope and believe that there is a benevolent force out there ready to catch us.

From there, still according to Kierkegaard’s way of looking at things, the next consideration is how we can best go about the process of getting to know and love this God whom we have discovered in the process of throwing ourselves on his mercy. We must take it as given that we are never going to be in any position to get God down to an manageable pattern and thus tell Him how He should run things; but it is just as bad, if not worse, for us to either naively or cynically assume that whatever desires and/or repulsions come into our mind must have been placed there by God. This is where the practical side of things gets rather complicated. We cannot simply drift along in the bliss of ignorance, but nor can we claim the power of dogmatic certainty about what God would have us do.

Near as I could tell from Professor Sagi’s text that “Sam” sent me, Kierkegaard never really found a workable answer on this one. If Abraham could be sure beyond doubt that his call from God to sacrifice his son was the real deal, what is to stop any religious radical of his own generation, or ours for that matter, from claiming the same certainty regarding their own absurd sounding mystical inclinations? Or on a more theoretical level, if God is necessarily so “totally beyond” that it defies all our attempts at perception––if anything we can understand and explain is necessarily less than God, by virtue of the fact that it fits within our minds––how can anyone really “know” anything about God’s will?

Speaking not for Kierkegaard then, but for myself and other like-minded souls, this necessarily becomes a question of balance. Unlike natural sciences, theology as a field of study does not, and cannot, involve a definitive and exclusive understanding of how its subject works––at least if it is to continue to define its subject as an all-powerful, all-knowing and absolutely benevolent God. God cannot be systematized, rationalized, symbolized and placed in a display case and still be God. But on the other side of the balance, God must be approachable, communicative and relatable to others to be worth bothering to worship. Those who humbly seek for Him with all their hearts have to be able to find him, regardless of their starting points in the process. The combination of these factors leads to a true Kierkegaardian paradox: we are given a sense of purpose, but not complete certainty to go with it; but a sense of being able to trust in the goodness of something beyond ourselves to direct us in the way that ultimately leads to the greatest good.

Part of this paradox is the process of relating to religious rules and authorities. On the one hand there is a long human history of searching for peace, purpose and direction in life. Even if we assume that true seekers––as opposed to religious opportunists––are rare indeed, it would be the height of vanity and presumptuousness to refuse to learn from any of them. As Isaac Newton claimed as his practice in natural sciences, those of us who seek a clearer perspective concerning God must find giants on whose shoulders we can stand in order to gain such a perspective. Yet at the same time we must recognize that these giants are themselves human beings, with their own insecurities, frailties, biases and blind spots. Reading many of the great devotional and canonical writings of the world’s religions we can be struck by a sense of awe at how they can be so insightful and magnificent in some areas, and so narrow-minded and barbaric in others. So we are left with a question of how we can best take advantage of (what we might refer to as) “the light God has given us” through these great men and women of faith, using this received wisdom as something of a benchmark against which to measure our own spiritual intuitions, without getting stuck in the fundamentalist trap of not daring to question or move beyond the teachings and meditations of these heroes of faith. How do we draw the line between humble submission and blind dogmatism? How do we draw the line between diligently searching for truth and absurd intellectual presumptuousness?

One thing we are probably safest not appealing to would be the established authority structures within particular religious traditions. When there is power to be had in telling people what they must do to be accepted by God, no matter how pure and spiritually advanced the foundational beliefs of a group are, and no matter how carefully checks and balances are installed, the comfort and control available at the highest levels will draw in individuals with little concern for anything else than what’s in it for them. For this reason I personally believe that while all religious traditions are to be respected for the elements of wisdom and spirituality they contain, none are to be trusted completely as God’s officially authorized spokespersons.

Those who wish to defend the rights of their particular group to speak exclusively for God would at this point be likely to raise the argument: “By not accepting what God as said by way of our prophets and tradition as a final standard, you are effectively setting up yourself and your own beliefs and intuitions as the final standard of your faith. In doing so you cannot end up worshipping anything other than yourself! How dare you be so presumptuous?”

To such believers I can only respond, as much as I may be able to benefit from the wisdom your tradition has to offer, and as much contact as your forefathers may have had with the one true God, I still cannot accept your right to speak exclusively for God. I cannot believe that the all-powerful and all-loving creator of the universe would need your group to fight to defend His interests on earth, or that He would give your group exclusive distribution rights for his mercy. I seek to be informed by any true wisdom you may have, but I do not believe that the final truth of the nature of God can be found in your teaching, mine or anyone else’s. Beyond that, as Abraham is quoted as saying, may the Lord judge between me and you.

This does indeed leave me without a final absolute standard to appeal to in terms of knowing what God wants for my life, and that leads to all the now standardized critiques of postmodern theory, but somehow I believe that this is how God wants it. God does not want to be a means by which self-appointed leaders or aristocratic heirs can systematically manipulate and control those around them. Thus God does not offer the certainty of a clear method by which to get His support in your pet projects. All he offers is a promise of long-term comfort to those who seek Him (or truth, or justice, or the ultimate purpose of their lives) with all their hearts. If the point is being able to love Him and have His purposes as part of your own, what else do you really need to know? Those who are blessed with a sense of having found this truth are then morally responsible to live in such a way as to spread the resulting kindness, empathy, peace and a sense of reverence in the world around them. That too is a process fraught with uncertainty, but that is just the way God wants it. We’re not in charge; He is, and attentiveness to the various ways in which He wishes to speak to us is part of what that surrender to Him means. The good news is that if we make a sincere effort for our own part and leave the rest in His hands, that’s all He really wants of us, and the rest is up to Him.

When in doubt about whether my desires are in sync with God’s desires or plan for me, I turn in part to an understanding of the Bible, in part to trusted friends whose sincerity and purity of heart I can trust, and in part to a deeper seeking of mystical communication with Him through prayer. Other trusted friends turn to other holy books, to a sense of harmony with nature and to other meditative techniques. I have no doubt that the same God is able to speak to them by those means. Of course we all make mistakes in our spiritual judgments. Of course all claims of spiritual understanding are not to be given even weight. But the question here isn’t how to gain absolute systematic certainty, or how to justifiably condemn the approaches others use; the question is how to determine what the kind, merciful, loving… Godly thing to do is in the particular situations in which each of us find ourselves. Rarely does a sincere search for God’s will leave us hanging in such cases.

Another part of the balance needed here though is not looking for divine guidance in every little detail of life, where common sense will usually do. In deciding what spices to put into a pumpkin pie I was making when I ran out of ginger this week, it wasn’t a matter of prayer and meditation but basic culinary judgment. The spiritual can be part of everything, but not everything requires a spiritual answer.

So that’s about the best I can do for defining my sense of who God is and how I can know about him for this weekend. In some ways, though on a much lower level, I would apply the same principles of inevitable uncertainty balanced with a sincere search for the truth of the matter to consideration of what faith, hope and love are all about.

If any of you have more wisdom to share on these matters I am more than willing to listen, as long as you can accept the possibility that I might not agree and respect my right to differ. If, however, reading this has you dogmatically convinced that my lack of submission to your chosen path––religious or secular––makes me an instrument of evil, all I can say is, may God judge between us.

And in case you don’t hear from me here before it comes, have a wonderful New Year.

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