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Sunday, November 26, 2017

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not a good commenter piping up here, but a thought about this topic: imho, Christianity at it's truest core, is the sum of all paradoxes. I think your last paragraph anticipates this. It is rather the point that Christianity (historically and ontologically if i use the word correctly) blends incompatibilities. Much to our dissatisfaction/satisfaction, we must embody these incompatibilities to be like the founder of our creed. I am becoming something bigger and better and truer than i could ever hope to obtain or realize on my own. Herein for me is why I, ultimately and in countless ways, find Christianity surpassing my meager critical faculties to refute. My faith has historically been an unceasing and unsuccessful effort to do just that.

I absolutely love your blogging, sir, and I follow it daily. Often above my head, sometimes beside, yours remains one of a very few i consider the very best of the web(such as Belmont Club). Thank you, and I hope you continue to enjoy blogging for a very long time. Thank you for allowing comments on this one, and for moderating them. I think your decision to keep comments to a minimum is wise and improves your site's readability. This one is intended for you alone.
Respectfully,
Mark

It's interesting to note that Jesus was born of a virgin who was herself immaculately conceived (or so it is said). This is to endorse a peculiar sort of procreation, not procreation ordinarily understood, so I still don't think Christianity is unambiguously natalistic. By the way, as someone attracted to Christianity but with antinatalist tendencies, I appreciate your addressing this surprisingly underaddressed topic (where are the Christian intellectual responses to the work of Benatar or Schopenhauer, for example? I've yet to really find any, excepting your posts).

S,

Good comment. My claim is not that Xianity is unambiguously natalistic, but that the Incarnation does not comport well with Christianity's being anti-natalist. If God sends his only begotten Son into the material world to be born of a woman in humble circumstances and then to live and die as man, indeed, to die a horrific death as a criminal, then this rules out any interpretation of Christianity as unambiguously anti-natalist.

But you make a good point. The birth of Christ was no ordinary birth, but a unique sort of birth. He was born of a virgin, without an earthly father, and the mother was conceived without O.S. (Interesting that the latter became a Catholic dogma only in 1950.)

So this muddies the waters. Perhaps Karl could grant what I maintain but hold that Christianity is still anti-natalist with respect to all ordinary (non-divine) humans.

One might say that if God the Son becomes man, that is not so bad because after the crucifixion of Christ came the Resurrection and the Ascension, and those events were assured from all eternity. Not so for miserable slobs like us who might end up in hell for all eternity.

I agree that it is surprising that the challenge of anti-natalism is underaddreessed by Christian intellectuals.

A mere trifle of a passing comment, but:

"As I mentioned earlier, Christianity blends probably incompatible themes."

Chesterton stressed this point in his inimitable polemical style. Christianity as the violent clashing, and miraculous synthesis, of opposing tendencies. I (as a Christian myself) think he is just right.

Mark,

You allude to the vexing question of the crucifixion of the intellect. Kierkegaard would say that Christianity demands it. This involves two things. First, the recognition that the doctrines of orthodox Christianity are absurd, i.e., logically contradictory and a slap in the face of the discursive intellect. Second, that this logical absurdity is no objection to Xianity. Xianity is true, despite its absurdity. We must become as little children. We must set aside our proud but futile reasonings. We must in all humility accept a truth that we cannot render rationally acceptable to ourselves.

Both of these are hard sayings, and the conjunction of the two harder still.

There is a fruitful comparison with Zen Buddhism here, despite important differences between Buddhism and Christianity. The cross is the ultimate stumbling block for the natural man, and in a sense the Christian's koan. God, the absolute master of the universe dies in utter impotence and abandonment, even by his Father, by crucifixion?!?

And thank you very much for your kind words.

Bill,

Thank you for taking the subject of antinatalism seriously. Even if one does not accept it's premises or conclusions it is a fascinating subject within philosophy, from the Wisdom of Silenus and Ecclesiastes to Schopenhauer, Zapffe and Benatar's latest work, that as you correctly point out has been underaddressed. Your dialogue with Karl White is always stimulating.

You're welcome, Michael.

Hi Bill,

I do credit your point about the Incarnation, but we all seem agreed on the ambiguity at the heart of Christianity so that can also be interpreted in a manner that led the Gnostics and Cathars to their conclusions.

A Virgin birth and a non-deadly death could be symbolically read as a refutation and overcoming of the flesh and its deadly cycle.

Also I like to reference Augustine in these matters:

'But I am aware of some that murmur: What, say they, if all men should abstain from all sexual intercourse, whence will the human race exist? Would that all would this, only in "charity out of a pure heart, and good conscience, and faith unfeigned"; much more speedily would the City of God be filled, and the end of the world hastened.'

'On the Good of Marriage' Section 10. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: First Series, Volume III St. Augustine: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises

So we have the Blessed Augie himself, perhaps *the* most important Father of the Church perfectly happy with the idea of a voluntary end to childbirth if it serves the coming of the Kingdom. No "life for life's sake" there.

And here is David Bentley Hart talking about his recent translation of the New Testament (I recommend reading the whole piece, which also emphasises Christianity's ambiguities):

'As Paul bluntly says, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:50). At times, the early Christians, no less than their pagan or so-called “gnostic” contemporaries, had a somewhat jaundiced view of “this cosmos” or “this age,” as well as of “this body of death,” not merely as moral dispensations, but as physical realities.'

http://blog.yalebooks.com/2017/11/03/the-spirit-of-the-text/

Karl,

What does Augustine say about how souls come into existence? Don't they come into existence only at birth? If so, birth into a material world is necessary for souls to exist in the first place. Procreation would then be good inasmuch as it leads to the production of more souls to manifest and share in the glory of God.

On the other hand, if souls exist whether or not they are born, then this fits with anti-natalism.

Judging by the Augustine statement I quoted he doesn't seem to have been a "More is better" man. He seems happy to have had a cap on the number of souls in existence.

So he's natalist up to the point where there are 'enough' souls in existence, and then he goes anti-natalist?

That is not a position that recommends itself.

Here's a thought: the Fall is the Fall into time and change and matter. Give the Scriptures a thoroughly 'Platonic' reading. Souls exist eternally. That is consistent with their being creatures, by the way.

He's never anti-natalist, in the sense that he believes procreation is wrong. He just appears to believe there can be a point where the glass is full to satisfaction.

Also, if we imagine the Last Judgement to be true and that it will happen then presumably at that moment there will be no more souls created, so therefore heaven/hell etc will contain a certain amount of X souls and not one more than that, no?

He's not anti-natalist in the sense of believing anti-natalism to be a moral evil, clearly. He seems to believe there is a point where the glass is perfectly full.

And if we assume the Last Judgement is true and will happen at a certain moment in time, then after that I assume no more souls will be created, so Heaven/Hell etc contains a definite X number of souls, and not one more, no?

>>He's never anti-natalist, in the sense that he believes procreation is wrong. He just appears to believe there can be a point where the glass is full to satisfaction.<<

I agree with the first sentence. Augustine does not hold that procreation is morally wrong, but he does seem to hold that it would be better if no one engaged in it.

>>Also, if we imagine the Last Judgement to be true and that it will happen then presumably at that moment there will be no more souls created, so therefore heaven/hell etc will contain a certain amount of X souls and not one more than that, no?<<

That's a good point! On the other and wouldn't an infinitely good God go on creating souls infinitely? Perhaps he would be under a metaphysical necessity to do that.

God under necessity, from whom or what?

I assume if you take Scholasticism seriously he could create an indefinite number of angels, but to my mind that takes on an almost surrealistic nightmarish vision.

Plus, if they have no choice but to love him, is it really love? Is not freedom to reject God part of creaturely dignity, whether that creature is human or angelic?

Under necessity from his own nature. For example, it is God's nature to exist; whence it follows that not even God could bring about his own nonexistence.

Is the actual infinity of natural numbers nightmarish as well?

I don't understand your third para.

I am not convinced of the idea of God being under necessity of any kind, even that he must exist. There are strains in Jewish thought that speak of God's self-destruction. If we are speaking of the God of Christian Scriptures, the overwhelming focus seems to be on God's Sovereignty, particularly in the OT. It must be my inner Calvinist screaming to get out.

I don't accept the analogy between angels and numbers. I assume the former are real creatures of some nature, as opposed to the Platonic nature of the latter.

Sorry about the third paragraph. I was thinking of a debate I had with some Christian friends on the topic of AN.

I was asking them what purpose life served in the Christian vision. They said it was so we could come to know and choose freely to love God. I replied by saying that surely within any final Beatific vision or state we would be wholly infused within God in some manner or other: we would not be daydreaming about our previous life, or regretting that we didn't ask that cute girl on a date etc. They found this plausible.

That being so, why did God not skip the life stage, which you agree is a deep predicament, and simply establish the Beatific Vision from the start. (Not to mention the fact that those born with severe mental disabilities are unlikely to be contemplating God or his nature in this life, or that thinking about God is not available to those who die as children etc).

Some of them are also Universalists and followers of Origen who believe all are saved and none go to hell, a position which ironically makes the utility of life and the idea of freely choosing God even more dubious.

A quibble:

...the mother was conceived without O.S. (Interesting that the latter became a Catholic dogma only in 1950.)

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was defined in 1854, not 1950. (The Assumption was defined in 1950).

Ian,

You got me! A clear blunder on my part based on a confusion, not of the dogmas, but of the dates. Thanks for the correction!

If only philosophical and theological mistakes -- if mistakes there be --
could be spotted and corrected so easily.

Karl,

So you think God is absolutely sovereign over everything including his own nature, logic, etc. You are right that that view has been held.

Is God sovereign over his own sovereignty? E.g. could God decide to give himself a nature that he would henceforth be subject to? Could he change his modal status from necessary to contingent? The aporetics of sovereignty belong in a separate thread, not here.

You expressed a subjective aesthetic distaste for an infinity of souls. I think my analogy counters it effectively.

>>That being so, why did God not skip the life stage, which you agree is a deep predicament, and simply establish the Beatific Vision from the start. . . .
Some of them are also Universalists and followers of Origen who believe all are saved and none go to hell, a position which ironically makes the utility of life and the idea of freely choosing God even more dubious.<<

You are on to something here. In the prelapsarian state as suggested by Genesis, we are not infused into God is some manner or other as in the Beatific Vision, but have very separate individual identities. Why then should the final state be one of such 'fusion' even if it is a fusion in whch some peersonal identity is maintained as it would have to be to keep the B. V. from collapsing into something like immersion in Brahman. No Xian theologian could say, "Tat tvam asi," "That art thou!"

As you say, in the B.V. we won't be rehearsing our earthly doings or recollecting our earthly loves. We will be absolutely transfixed by an eternal but ever-new blissful reality in a glorious nunc stans that fully blots out all earthly memories.

This is clearly a mystical-Platonic notion that we find in Aquinas and not one that sits well with Genesis and the usual theological narrative.

Check out the following Johnny Mercer tune which became a hit for Frank Ifield in '62: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQF-VsbMfDA

Around :53 Frank has angels asking him to recall the thrill of it all when he was on earth, i.e., before death.

This popular conception of heaven has nothing to dio with what I take to be the hard-core of Christian theology which is mystical-Platonic.

The popular conception could be denigrated as 'hillbilly theology' acc. to which in the after life Gomer will be reunited with his brother Jethro, his girlfriend Miss Daisy, and his old dog Blue.

The mystical-Platonic-Aquinate conception, however, is far to austere for popular consumption.

Bill,

Yes, my own instinct is that the Christian God is absolutely sovereign over everything including his own sovereignty.

I assume that within the Christian framework where God becomes wholly man in Jesus and is exposed to the vicissitudes of earthly life that we have an example of some form of Absolute Sovereignty reducing itself in power and embracing some level of contingency, no? I'm sure people far cleverer than I have written on this.

As for the BV, of course there are plenty of competing visions. Some think it will be Life 2.0 where we will be walking around in a renewed body and playing with our childhood pets, meeting old friends etc in which case some form of previous earthly life is essential. But what would such a reality mean for those who died as infants etc etc?

Others subscribe to the Dante vision as captured in the famous illustration by Dore, but as you say, that would surely verge on the Brahminesque without personal individualisation, but then to be a person is to be separated from God in some manner, so who knows!

I'm a bit wary of what may be termed "theological snobbery" if I'm to be honest.

I don't see anything particularly ignoble about wanting to be re-united with loved ones in an afterlife.

After all, Jesus passes through the gates of death, re-assumes fleshy form, allows Thomas to touch his wounds to end his doubts, and eats and drinks with his disciples. Surely that would be theological grounds alone for those who wish to hope for an individuated post-mortem life?

And Bill, wouldn't you love to spend eternity debating with Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas?:-)

To further Karl's point: As well, before manifesting him from the grave, Jesus wept over the loss of Lazarus.

Jesus is the demonstration of the intersection between Holy, Ancient and Vast God and what we make of this life of flesh. I remark that the Incarnation is praxis of God.

Also, Jesus speaks so much of the love a parent has for their child or a mother bird for her hatchlings, that I couldn't consider Christianity to be anti-natalist in any significant part. To know and to be known is the supreme gift of creation, of incarnation, of this envelope of time. If we do not value that gift to ourselves and to others, it is we who are out of line.

This puts us markedly out of step with many other points of view, ones that we could call "intellectual", but that the ways of God are not the ways of Man is hardly a small point of scripture.

Through a lens of Christianity, what anti-natalists seem to say is that life is hard, and they add: with little, if any, reward for the hardship. And even though, I believe our Lord grieves with us in our weakness where we would relent, to suffer through life and to overcome it, is very much the point.

However, that's not to say that, putting on secular glasses, I can't see the point in all its humanness.

Having wrote the above, I must confess that this effort to appreciate how the Lord would have me see things, like this gift he has given me, could sound like an affectation of hardiness. However, it is simply the value of separating the theory from the practice and the practice from the theory. My attempt is mainly in discerning what is consistent with Christianity--which is not simply all stale theory, but requires participation. And participants.

But the idea that life is hard and full of seeming thanklessness and meaningless--without finding purpose in the Lord is a 2800 year old observation. Once the main equation is set up, I don't find anti-natalism to that much of an elaboration. I could elaborate on that, but that would require at least the second half of this post I axed for brevity.

Bill,
I think you are on point with the characterization of the Christian message as koan...
[I really do not have the educational tools to adroitly articulate these ideas on a par with you or your esteemed colleagues and interlocutors. But I may as well give it a go since i seem to have something i want to contribute, and a bit of the juju may rub off on me by trying or even drawing fire in response.]
...but Christianity is more than just crucifixion of discursive intellect. It is also its resurrection. That's the hope anyway. There is some evidence that that is indeed the case. Rather than a slap in the face, it is perhaps more of a natal slap on the butt. Numerous passages throughout the new testament, not to mention the old, can be cited underscoring the value of understanding, wisdom and noesis. Strict rationality, as in dianoia, is but one part of the equation. God is not the author of confusion. (Although i haven't finished with this notion as yet.)
Natalism versus anti-natalism seems an unconjugated antithesis. (no pun intended) Someone once said "he not busy being born is busy dying."
We humans are not the only intellects on the cross, but just so is all creation, and so is even God, the uncreated, who remains hidden, absorbing all the abuse and blame in the universe. In this way, every tension can be reframed as a dynamic state of rest, a burning bush unconsumed.
my 2 cents. Thanks again!

Mark,

You are doing fine. Don't worry about whether you have the 'tools.' I am well-disposed to anyone who quotes Dylan.

Karl,

I am using 'Beatific Vision' more of less in Thomas' sense and not as equivalent to 'afterlife.' The B.V. is one construal of the afterlife among several.

If you tell me that God is sovereign over his very modal status, then we are approaching total nonsense. God is a necessary being. Surely his power does not include the power to transform himself into a contingent being! Surely that is absurd.

The Incarnation is a different matter. Each of the persons of the Trinity is a necessary being. How one of them, the Son, can become fully human is puzzling, to put it mildly, especially if human beings are by their very nature contingent beings.

As for theological snobbery, I am not aiming at snobbery but at a intellectually satisfying conception of the afterlife. See repost near top of queue.

Suppose there is a world behind the scenes in which we have transfigured bodies and meet again loved ones from this life -- that is still going to leave us will all sort of unanswered questions . . . . I don't have the time to explain this properly.

Bill,

If we stick with Christianity as the topic, then we do have an element of a Supremely Necessary Being rendering part of itself open to some form of contingency in the person of the Son. That's just the Christian mystery - no one is capable of "solving" it with reason alone.

I didn't mean to imply you were being a snob, apologies if it came across like that. I meant that Christianity is a deeply personalistic, Incarnational religion with an emphasis on the individual, both in the shape of the believer and the person of Jesus.

I suspect that here you may be hitting the buffers of your own pull toward both Athens and Jerusalem. The philosopher in you wants clear explanation, but the firmly convinced Christian will tell of you of the necessity of the acceptance of Faith and Mystery.

It may be partly related but I note that a lot of Christians believe the arguments for Theism lead inevitably to Christianity, but they don't. The God proposed by Theism may have little to do with the God of Christianity, but I know you're an opponent of Fideism.

Thanks for the fascinating discussion on anti-natalism, Bill.

“Without denying that there are anti-natalist tendencies in Christianity … it cannot be maintained that orthodox Christianity, on balance, is anti-natalist.”

“To sum it up aphoristically: Nativity is natalist.”

I agree. The Incarnation seems to show the the Second Person of the Trinity values human birth. Moreover, as Jesus taught in Mt. 6:25-34, God values the birds and the flowers. A fortiori, he values human life.

But there are curious strands in the Judeo-Christian tradition of what might be called counterfactual nihilism and counterfactual anti-natalism. They are most profoundly articulated in Ecclesiastes, which includes arguments to support the following claims:

-- If there is no God (which is counter-to-necessary-fact, from the J-C pov), then human life has no meaning, value, or purpose. (Ecclesiastes 1:2)

-- If there is no God, then it is better not to have been born. (Ecclesiastes 4:3, 6:3; See also Job 3:16)

Juxtaposing these verses with Mt. 6:25-35, it appears that, for the J-C tradition, God is a necessary condition for human value. Thus, without God, nihilism and anti-natalism are quite plausible.

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