Spencer Case reports from Afghanistan, and I comment in blue (older comments of mine in dark orange):
Greetings again from Afghanistan. I've been reading your blog regularly although I haven't written in a while, so I hope you'll forgive a few preliminaries. Things are winding down in my tour, despite an attack on my base by a few Taliban last week (of which my report can be found here: http://www.cjtf101.com/en/regional-command-east-news-mainmenu-401/3362-us-afghan-servicemembers-respond-during-attack.html).
Also, I became interested in Robert Reilly's book The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis because of your pointer. I reviewed it in the Idaho State Journal and on my Dateline Afghanistan blog. Imagine my delight when none other than Reilly himself posted
a comment to my review! (online at: http://www.pocatelloshops.com/new_blogs/afghanistan/?p=99)
By the time this month expires I will be drinking my much awaited first post-deployment beer. Speaking of worldly pleasures, I'd like to make a second stab at an unresolved argument we had a couple of months ago. I am still convinced that sincere conviction in a religious afterlife commits one to zealotry. After all, given a sincere conviction in Christian salvation, how could the pursuit of any finite good be justified? And who could be more of a paradigm case of zealotry than the person who thinks all worldly goods are completely overridden by some one eternal Good?
In your response to my argument, you write:
A 'normal' person, if if he is a practicing adherent of a religion, pursues all sorts of pleasures and diversions which do not advance him toward his spiritual goal, but rather, in many cases, impede his realization of it. The 'normal' Buddhist, for example, does not carry the precept "Conquer desire and aversion!" to the point where he eats whatever is put on his plate. (If a fly lands in his soup he does not practice nondiscrimination and eat the fly with the same relish or lack thereof with which he eats the rest of the soup.) But if our Buddhist really believed Buddhist teachings would it not be rational for him to modify 'normal' behavior and bend every effort towards achieving enlightenment?
Then, in the comments you write:
But then it is all the more obvious that (3) [the premise of my argument that someone who values the goods of this life only instrumentally is an extremist or a zealot in pejorative senses of these terms] is to be rejected. I fear you are equivocating on 'zealot.' As I pointed out, it carries a pejorative connotation in ordinary English; but it could also be used to denote someone who pursues with zeal some one overriding end, and subordinates all his other activities to the furtherance of that end. I wouldn't call such a person a zealot in the pejorative sense, but one whose existence has a focus.
It appears to me that your responses are basically bullet-biting ones, ones that say: "What's wrong with zealotry if your cause is true?" Now, contrast these remarks with your recent post on Buddhism, in which you write:
Permanence is the standard against which the ordinary satisfactions of life are judged deficient. Absolute permanence sets the ontological and axiological standard. The operative presupposition is that only that which is permanent is truly real and truly important. But if, as Buddhism also maintains, all is impermanent, then one wonders whence the standard of permanence derives its validity. If all is impermanent, and nothing has self-nature, then the standard is illusory. If so, then we have no good reason to reject all ordinary satisfactions.
Christianity is not in the same boat as Buddhism with its tension between permanence and impermanence, so it avoids the main thrust of your critique. However, as I read it, you do seem skeptical in this later post that non-infinite pleasures and desires can truly be of no importance. The implication is that this is a bad thing, something to be chalked up as a mark against Buddhism. But if so, Christianity is in a similar bind! While Christianity does not say that temporary pleasures are illusory, they are bound to be negligible in comparison with the eternal, permanent good of salvation as we both agreed before. It appears to me that this is inconsistent with your earlier responses, but perhaps some nuance is lost on me.
Look forward to hearing from you.
Well, Spencer, I don't believe I ever said that "non-infinite pleasures and desires" are of "no importance." Suppose one accepts the Christian scheme according to which there is an eternal Good attainment of which depends, in part, on how one lives one's life here below. By 'accept,' I don't mean a mere intellectual assent to a creed, but such an assent carried out in practice, where part of the practice is living in accordance with a moral code. The point is that everything one did in this life would have to be subordinated to the ultimate goal if one took the religion with full seriousness. That's an ideal of course and individual Christians will fall short of it. Indeed few religionists of any stripe take their religions with full seriousness. But that's beside the point.
Now your view seems to be that one who pursues such a goal is a 'zealot,' and that's a Bad Thing. I deny that such a person is a zealot in your pejorative sense. I would say that a person who has reason to believe that the Christian scheme is true does the reasonable thing by subordinating the activities of his life to the attainment of the ultimate goal. I fail to see why subordinating the activities of one's life to an overarching goal cannot be a good thing. Of course, I am not saying that every case of such subordination is good. I am saying that there is nothing in the nature of such subordination to entail zealotry in any pejorative sense.
As for Buddhism and Christianity, my point against early Buddhism was that, to put it bluntly, it is internally incoherent. On the one hand, the negative valuation placed upon the impermanent presupposes a standard of permanence. But on the other, it is maintained that this standard is nowhere satisfied, not in the phenomenal world, but also not beyond it. For all is impermanent, and nothing has self-nature. A nonexistent standard cannot be used to devalue what plainly exists. But this criticism cannot be made of Christianity since for the latter the ontological/axiological standard exists. That standard, of course, is God. So when the Christian devalues this world, as you and I both agree that he does, his devaluation is relative to (what he takes to be) an existent standard of reality and value, a standard participation in whose eternal life is possible to the individual soul who satisfies certain requirements. That is a huge difference between the two religions. I will grant to you that both religions are life-denying in that they both deny that this life -- this world as we ordinarily experience it and take it to be -- is of any ultimate or final or absolute value. But whereas Christianity promises salvation in a positive sense, early Buddhism promises only a salvation or liberation in a negative sense: the 'blowing out' of the candle of selfhood and pure extinction. In a nutshell: for Christianity, salvation of the soul consists in an enrichment and prolonging of the soul's life; for Buddhism salvation consists in seeing that the soul is an illusion.
So I flatly deny what you say, namely, that Christianity is in a bind similar to the one early Buddhism is in. As far as I can see, the view I expressed in the Buddhism post is consistent with what I said in our earlier discussion. I agree with you, though, when you say that the pleasures, desires, pursuits and suchlike of this life are "bound to be negligible in comparison with the eternal, permanent good of salvation." That's right. But how is it supposed to follow that one who pursues this good is a zealot in a pejorative sense of this term?