Hitchens says somewhere that he didn't suffer from cognitive dissonance of the sort that arises when a deeply internalized religious upbringing collides with the contrary values of the world, since he never took religion or theism seriously in the first place. But then I say religion was never a Jamesian live option for him. But if not a live existential option, one that engages the whole man and not just his intellect, then not an option explored with the openness and sympathy and humility requisite for understanding.
So why should we take seriously what Hitchens says about religion? He hasn't sympathetically entered into the subject. He hasn't fulfilled the prerequisites for understanding. One such prerequisite is openness to the pain of cognitive dissonance as suffered when the doctrines, precepts and practices of a religion taken seriously come into conflict with a world that mocks them when not ignoring them. But in Hitchens by his own account there was not even the possibility of cognitive dissonance.
Consider two working class individuals. The first is a sensitive poet with real poetic ability. His family, however, considers poetry effete and epicene and nothing that a real man could or should take seriously. The second is a lout with no appreciation of poetry whatsoever. The first suffers cognitive dissonance as his ideal world of poetic imagination collides with the grubby work-a-day-world of his unlettered parents and relatives. The second fellow obviously suffers from no comparable cognitive dissonance: he never took poetry seriously in the first place.
The second fellow, however, is full of himself and his opinions and does not hesitate to hold forth in the manner of the bar room bullshitter on any and all topics, including poetry. Should we credit his opinions about poetry? Of course not: he has never engaged with it by practice or careful reading or the consultation of works of literary criticism. He knows not whereof he speaks. His nescience reflects his lack of the poetic 'organ.'
Similarly, a fellow like Hitchens, as clever as he is, lacks the religious 'organ.' So religion is closed off from him and what he says about it , though interesting, need not be taken all that seriously, or is to be taken seriously only in a negative way in the manner of the pathologist in his study of pathogens.
Biblia Vulgata: Si autem Christus non resurrexit, inanis est ergo praedicatio nostra, inanis est et fides vestra.
King James: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.
Orthodox* Christianity stands and falls with a contingent historical fact, the fact of the resurrection of Christ from the dead. If he rose from the dead, he is who is said he was and can deliver on his promises. If not, then the faith of the Christian inanis est. It is vain, void, empty, delusional.
Compare Buddhism. It too promises salvation of a sort. But the salvation it promises is not a promise by its founder that rests on the existence of the founder or on anything he did. For Christianity, history is essential, for Buddhism inessential. The historical Buddha is not a savior, but merely an example of a man of whom it is related that he saved himself by realizing his inherent Buddha-nature. The idea of the Buddha is enough as far as we are concerned; his historical existence unnecessary. 'Buddha,' like 'Christ,' is a title: it means 'the Enlightened One.' Buddhism does not depend either on the existence of Siddartha, the man who is said to have become the Buddha, or on Siddartha's becoming the Buddha. Suppose that Siddartha never existed, or existed but didn't attain enlightenment. We would still have the idea of a man attaining enlightenment/salvation by his own efforts. The idea would suffice. (One might wonder, however, whether the real possibility of enlightenment needs attestation by someone's actually having achieved it -- which would drag us back into the realm of historical fact -- or whether the mere conceivability of it entails, or perhaps provides good evidence for, its real possibility.)
Hence the Zen saying, "If you see the Buddha, kill him." I take that to mean that one does not need the historical Buddha, and that cherishing any piety towards him may prove more hindrance than help. Non-attachment extends to the Buddha and his teachings. Buddhism, as the ultimate religion of self-help, enjoins each to become a lamp unto himself. What is essential is the enlightenment that one either achieves or fails to achieve on one's own, an enlightenment which is a natural possibility of all. If one works diligently enough, one can extricate oneself from the labyrinth of samsara. One can achieve the ultimate goal on one's own, by one's own power. There is no need for supernatural assistance. If Buddhism is a religion of self-help, Christianity is most assuredly a religion of other-help. On the latter one cannot drag oneself from the dreck by one's own power.
Trouble is, how many attain the Buddhist goal? And if only a few renunciates ever attain it, how does that help the rest of us poor schleps? By contrast, in Christianity, God, in the person of the Word (Logos) made flesh, does the work for us. Unable ultimately to help ourselves, we are helped by Another. And the help is available to all despite their skills in metaphysics and meditation. As Maurice Blondel observes, . . . if there is a salvation it cannot be tied to the learned solution of an obscure problem. . . It can only be offered clearly to all. (Action, p. 14) (By "do the work for us," I of course do not mean to suggest the sola fide extremism of some Protestants.)
I remain open to Christianity's claims because I doubt the justification of Buddhistic self-help optimism. Try to hoe the Buddhist row and see how far you get. One works and works on oneself but makes little progress. That one needs help is clear. That one can supply it from within one's own resources is unclear. I know of no enlightened persons. But I know of plenty of frauds, spiritual hustlers, and mountebanks. I have encountered Buddhists who become very upset indeed if you challenge their dogmas such as the anatman ('No Self') doctrine. The ego they deny is alive and well in them and angry at having the doctrine to which their nonexistent egos are attached questioned.
Both Buddhism and Christianity are life-denying religions in that they both reject the ultimacy and satisfactoriness of this life taken as end-all and be-all. But while Christianity denies this life for the sake of a higher life elsewhere and elsewhen, Buddhism denies this life for the sake of Nirvanic extinction. The solution to the problem of suffering is to so attenuate desire and aversion that one comes to the realization that one never existed in the first place. Some solution! And yet there is much to learn from Buddhism and its practices. Mindfulness exercises and other practices can be usefully employed by Christians. Christianity and Buddhism are the two highest religions. The two lowest are the religions of spiritual materialism, Judaism and Islam, with Islam at the very bottom of the hierarchy of great religions.
Islam is shockingly crude, as crude as Buddhism is over-refined. The Muslim is promised all the crass material pleasures on the far side that he is forbidden here, as if salvation consists of eating and drinking and endless bouts of sexual intercourse. Hence my term 'spiritual materialism.' 'Spiritual positivism' is also worth considering. The Buddhist is no positivist but a nihilist: salvation through annihilation. What Christianity promises, it must be admitted by the intellectually honest, is very difficult to make rational sense of. For example, one's resurrection as a spiritual body. What does that mean? How is it possible? For an introduction to the problem, see Romano Guardini, The Last Things, "The Spiritual Body," pp. 61-72.
Admittedly, my rank ordering of the great religions is quick and dirty, but it is important to cut to the bone of the matter from time to time with no mincing of words. And, as usual, political correctness be damned. For details on Buddhism see my Buddhism category.
I should say that I take Buddhism very seriously indeed. It is deep and sophisticated with a rich tradition of philosophical commentary. Many of the sutras are beautiful and ennobling. Apart from its mystical branch, Sufism, I cannot take Islam seriously -- except as a grave threat to other religions and indeed to civilization itself. An interesting and important question is whether Muslims are better off with their religion as opposed to having no religion at all. The question does not arise with respect to the other great religions, or if you say it does, then I say it has an easy answer.
Here is something for lefties to think about. While there are are some terrorists who are socioculturally Buddhist in that they were raised and acculturated in Buddhist lands, are there any Buddhists who terrorize from Buddhist doctrine?
*By 'orthodox' I do not have in mind Eastern Orthodoxy, but a Christianity that is not mystically interpreted, a Christianity in which, for example, the resurrection is not interpreted to mean the attainment of Christ-consciousness or the realization of Christ-nature.
Within this scheme, where to locate Islam? For Christians and Jews alike, the difficulty—and the embarrassment—lie in the indisputable fact that Islam believes in one God, eternal, almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, merciful. Is not this formula, which I have adapted from the Christian credo, continuous with the words spoken by the Lord when He passed before Moses on Mount Sinai at the second giving of the Ten Commandments? Yes. But those same Ten Commandments open by identifying God as the liberator of His people in a particular historical situation: “I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” In the God of the Qur’an, there is no such history.
Nor is that the only problem that presents itself if one tries to approach Islam as a revealed religion, at least as Christians and Jews understand the term. The Christian Church believes that it is the desire of the revealed God to manifest Himself and communicate His message of redemption, letting man know of the truths that elude the grasp of the human mind unaided by grace. To the revelation contained in the Hebrew Bible, the Christians added a “new testament,” while continuing to recognize the full authority of the document given before the arrival of their messiah.
Muslims also hold that they received a revelation. It is conceived, however, not as part of a historical narrative but as the transmission of an eternally preexisting text. In this transmission, the prophet, Muhammad, does not play a role akin to that of Moses and Jesus. He does nothing but receive texts, which he repeats as if under dictation. As opposed to the Bible, which Christians declare to have been “inspired,” the Qur’an is uncreated. It is the uncreated Word of God.
[. . .]
Thus, for a Christian as for a Jew, there can be no continuity between the Bible and the Qur’an. The point holds even for those passages reflecting an evident concurrence on the idea of the one God. Although Muslims like to enumerate the 99 names of God, missing from the list, but central to the Jewish and even more so to the Christian conception of God, is “Father”—i.e., a personal God capable of a reciprocal and loving relation with men. The one God of the Qur’an, the God Who demands submission, is a distant God; to call him “Father” would be an anthropomorphic sacrilege. The Muslim God is utterly impassive; to ascribe loving feelings to Him would be suspect.
Are Muslims, then, like Jews and Christians, “children of Abraham”? The Abraham whom Islam claims for itself is yet another messenger—and a Muslim. He is not the common father first of Israel and then of Christians who share his faith. Indeed, since the truth, according to the Qur’an, was given totally on the first day and to the first man, it is inconceivable that Abraham could have played the founding role assigned to him by Jews and Christians. Rather, the Ibrahim of the Qur’an takes part in Muslim worship by building the Ka’ba temple and instituting the pilgrimage to Mecca. Far from Muhammad sharing the faith of Abraham, it is Abraham who holds the faith of Muhammad.
[. . .]
Much fun has been made, wrongly, of the Muslim notion of paradise. Admittedly, it is not like the Jewish or Christian notion, which envisions an eternity participating in the life of the divine. In the other-world of Islam, God remains separate and inaccessible, but man finds there forgiveness, peace, “satisfaction.” If biblical religion suggests a road map that originates in a garden, Eden, and finishes in a city, the heavenly Jerusalem, the Qur’an charts a return to the garden. Ancient mythologies are replete with similar images: idealized banquets with flowing cups, beautiful virgins and young men, a climate of heavenly satiety in which all desire is fulfilled.
In concordance with natural religion (and with the Hellenistic substratum on which Islam was built), Muslim religious life offers more than one model of piety. For the truly devout, two ways are open, just as in the Greco-Roman world: philosophy (Arab falsafa, itself heavily impregnated with neo-Platonism) and mysticism. Less rigorous souls, with the help of the law and moderate observance of the “five pillars” of Islam, can adhere to a mild but perfectly sufficient religious regimen. This is surely a great advantage over the two biblical religions, which expect of believers a greater scrupulousness and a deeper introspection; it is also, once more, reminiscent of ancient paganism, whose rites were designed to ornament and to enhance the individual’s natural, spontaneous sense of the divine.
From this perspective, two facts about Islam that always astonished medieval Christians seem not so astonishing after all: the difficulty of converting Muslims, and the stubborn attachment to their faith of even the most superficially observant. From the Muslim point of view, it was absurd to become a Christian, because Christianity was a religion of the past whose best parts had been included in and superseded by Islam. Even more basically, Christianity was anti-natural: just as Manuel’s Muslim debater insisted, its moral requirements exceeded human capacities, and its central mysteries defied reason.
[. . .]
Of all the contemporary expressions hinting at a consanguinity between the Qur’an and the Bible, the falsest may be “religions of the Book.” This phrase is itself of Islamic origin, but it has nothing to do with what it is widely and misleadingly supposed to suggest. It refers, rather, to a special legal category, “people of the Book,” that provided an exception for Christians and Jews to the general rule decreeing death or slavery for those who refused to convert to Islam. Instead, these groups (as well as two other peoples in possession of a scripture, namely Sabians and Zoroastrians) were allowed to retain their property and to continue to reside in Muslim lands with the second-class status of dhimmi.
That such expressions can be so lightly employed is a sign that elements of the Christian world are no longer capable of distinguishing clearly between their own religion and Islam. Are we returning to the times of John of Damascus, when it was possible to entertain the deluded thought that Islam might itself be a form of Christianity? It is not inconceivable. History records more than one instance of a Christian church unconsciously drifting toward Islam when it does not know any longer what it believes in, or why. This was precisely the fate of the Monophysites in Egypt, the Nestorians in Syria, the Donatists in North Africa, the Arians in Spain.
Islam is not some primitive, simplistic, unworked-out religion. It is neither a “religion of camel drivers” nor a religion of soft and malleable borders. To the contrary, it is an extremely strong religion, with a specific and highly crystallized conception of the relation between man and God. That conception is no less coherent than the Jewish and Christian conceptions; but it is quite opposed to them. Although some Christians may imagine that, because Muslims worship the common God of Israel, Islam and Christianity are closer than either is to paganism, this is not the case. In fact, Christianity and Islam are paradoxically but radically separated by the same God.
It follows that the effort to engage in “dialogue” with Muslims has been set on a mistaken course. The early Church fathers deemed the works of Virgil and Plato a preparatio evangelica—preparation for the Gospel, for the truth of Christianity. The Qur’an is neither a preparation for biblical religion nor a retroactive endorsement of it. In approaching Muslims, self-respecting Christians and others would do better to rely on what remains within Islam of natural religion—and of religious virtue—and to take into account the common humanity that Muslims share with all people everywhere.
So far, Ed Feser's is perhaps the best of the Internet discussions of this hot-button question, a question recently re-ignited by the Wheaton dust-up, to mix some metaphors. Herewith, some notes on Feser's long entry. I am not nearly as philosophically self-confident as Ed or Lydia McGrew, so I will mainly just be trying to understand the issue for my own edification. But I am sure of one thing: the question is difficult and has no easy solution. If you think it does, then I humbly suggest you are not thinking very hard, indeed, you are hardly thinking.
1. Feser rightly points out that a difference in (Fregean) sense does not entail a difference in (Fregean) reference. So the difference in sense as between 'God of the Christians' and 'God of the Muslims' does not entail that these expressions differ in reference. Quite so. But I would add that on a descriptivist semantics reference is routed through, and determined by, sense: an expression picks out its object in virtue of the latter's unique satisfaction of an identifying description associated with the referring expression, a description that unpacks the expression's sense. If we think of reference in this way, then 'God' refers to whichever entity, if any, that satisfies the definite description encapsulated in 'God' as this term is used in a given linguistic community. So while difference in sense does not by itself entail difference in reference, difference in sense is consistent with difference in reference, so that in a particular case it may be that the difference in sense is sufficiently great to entail a difference in reference. Suppose that in one linguistic community a person understands by 'God' the unique contingent being who created the universe but was himself created, while in another a person understands by 'God' the unique necessary uncreated being who created the universe. In this case I think it is clear that the difference in sense entails a difference in reference. Both uses of 'God' may fail of reference, or one might succeed. But they cannot both succeed. For nothing can be both necessary and contingent.
From what has been said so far, 'God' (used by a Christian) and 'Allah' (used by a Muslim) may have the same reference or may have a different reference. The issue cannot be decided by merely pointing out that a difference in sense does not entail a difference in reference.
2. Feser makes a point about beliefs that is surely correct. You and I can have conflicting beliefs about a common object of successful reference without prejudice to its being precisely a common object of successful reference. For example, we both see a sharp-dressed man across the room drinking from a Martini glass. Suppose I erroneously believe that he is drinking a Martini while you correctly believe that he is drinking water. That difference in belief is obviously consistent with one and the same man's being our common object of perceptual and linguistic reference. "Similarly, the fact that Muslims have what Christians regard as a number of erroneous beliefs about God does not by itself entail that Muslims and Christians are not referring to the same thing when they use the expression 'God.'" (Emphasis added.)
True, but it could also be that conflicting beliefs make it impossible that there be a common object of successful reference. It will depend on what those beliefs are and whether they are incorporated into the respective senses of 'God' as used by Muslims and Christians. I will also depend on one's theory of reference, whether descriptivist, causal, hybrid, or something else.
It should also be observed that in perceptual cases such as the Martini case there is no question but that we are referentially glomming onto one and the same object. The existence and identity of the sharp-dressed drinker are given to the senses. Since we know by direct sensory acquaintance that it is the same man both of us see, the conflicting beliefs have no tendency to show otherwise. But God is not an object of perception via the outer senses. So one can question how much weight we should assign to the perceptual analogies, and indeed to any analogy that makes mention of a physical thing. At best, these analogies show that, in general, contradictory beliefs about a putatively self-same x are consistent with there being in reality one and the same subject of these beliefs. But they are also consistent with there not being in reality one and the same subject of the contradictory beliefs.
But not only is God not an object of sensory acquaintance, he is also arguably not an object among objects or a being among beings. Suppose God is ipsum esse subsistens as Aquinas held. It will then be serious question whether a theory of reference that caters to ordinary references to intramundane people and things, beings, can be extended to accommodate reference to self-subsistent Being. Not clear! But I raise this hairy issue only to set it aside for the space of this entry. I will assume for now that God is a being among beings. I bring this issue up only to get people to appreciate how difficult and involved this 'same God?' issue is. Do not comment on this paragraph; it is off-topic for present purposes. See here for one of the posts in which I disagree with Dale Tuggy on this issue.
3. Now consider these conflicting beliefs: God is triune; God is not triune. Please note that it would be question-begging to announce that the fact of this dispute entails that the object of the dispute is one and the same. For that is exactly what is at issue. The following would be a question-begging little speech:
Look man, we are disputing whether God is triune or not triune; we are therefore presupposing that there is one and the same thing, God, about whose properties we are disputing! The disagreement entails sameness of object! Same God!
This is question-begging because it may be that the tokens of 'God' in "God is triune; God is not triune" differ in sense so radically that they also differ in reference. In other words, the mere fact that one and the same word-type 'God' is tokened twice does not show that there is one and the same object about whose properties we are disputing.
4. Feser writes,
Even errors concerning God’s Trinitarian nature are not per se sufficient to prevent successful reference. Abraham and Moses were not Trinitarians, but no Christian can deny that they referred to, and worshiped, the same God Christians do.
[. . .]
But shouldn’t a Christian hold that some reference to the Trinity or to the divinity of Jesus is also at least necessary, even if not sufficient, for successful reference to the true God? Doesn’t that follow from the fact that being Trinitarian is, from a Christian point of view, also essential to God? No, that doesn’t follow at all, and any Christian who says otherwise will, if he stops and thinks carefully about it, see that he doesn’t really believe that it follows. Again, Christians don’t deny that Abraham and Moses, or modern Jews, or Arians and other heretics, refer to and worship the same God as orthodox Christians, despite the fact that these people do not affirm the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus.
There is a modal fudge across these two passages that I don't think it is mere pedantry on my part to point out. In the first passage Feser claims in effect that
A. No Christian CAN deny that Abraham and Moses worshiped the same God that Christians do
while in the second Feser claims in effect that
B. No Christian DOES deny that Abraham and Moses worshiped the same God that Christians do.
If we charitably substitute 'hardly any' for 'no' in (B) then we get a statement that I am willing to concede is true. (A), however, strikes me as false. I myself am strongly tempted to deny that Jews and Christians worship the same God -- assuming that the Jewish God is non-triune and explicitly determined to be such by Jews -- and what I am strongly tempted to do strikes me as entirely possible and rationally justifiable. Why can't someone reasonably deny that Jews and Christians worship the same God?
Feser thinks he has cited some incontrovertible fact that decides the issue, the fact being that everyone or almost everyone claims that Jews and Christians worship the same God. I concede the fact. What I don't concede is that it decides the issue. My claim against Feser on the present occasion is not that he is wrong to maintain that (normative) Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God, but that he is not obviously right, his confident asseverations in the passages lately quoted notwithstanding. I am saying to Feser what I said to Beckwith and Tuggy: you gentlemen think this issue easily resolved. But it isn't, in large part because its resolution depends on the solution of hitherto unsolved problems in the philosophy of language.
Here are two questions we ought to distinguish:
Q1. Do Christians use 'God' and equivalents with the intention of referring to the same being that Jews refer to or think they are referring to with 'God' and equivalents?
Q2. Do Christians and Jews succeed in refer to the same being?
An affirmative answer to the first question is consistent with a negative answer to the second question. I agree with an affirmative answer to (Q1). But this affirmative answer does not entail an affirmative answer to (Q2). Moreover, it is reasonable to return a negative answer to (Q2). I will now try to explain how it is reasonable to answer (Q2) in the negative.
5. The crux of the matter is the nature of reference. How exactly is successful reference achieved? And what exactly is reference? And how is worship related to reference?
First off,the causal theory of Kripke, Donnellan, et al. is reasonably rejected and I reject it . It is rife with difficulties. (See e.g., John Searle, Intentionality, Cambridge UP, 1983, ch. 9) Connected with this is my subscription to the broadly logical primacy of the intentional over the linguistic. Part of what this means is that words don't refer, people refer using words, and they don't need to use words to refer. All reference, at bottom, is thinking reference or mental reference. Reference at bottom is intentionality. To refer to something, then, whether with words or without words, is to intend it or think of it. This is to be understood as implying that words, phrases, and the like, considered in their physical being as marks on paper or sounds in the air or carvings in stone (etc.) are entirely lacking in any intrinsic referential, representative, semantic, or intentional character. They are not intrinsically object-directed. There is no object-directedness in nature apart from mind. (Though it may be that dispositionality is an analog of it. See here.) This is equivalent to saying that there is no objective reference without mind. A word acquires reference only when it is thoughtfully used.
Reference to particulars in the sense of 'refer' just explained is always and indeed necessarily reference to propertied particulars. This is because reference to a particular 'picks it out' from all else, singles it out, designates it to the exclusion of everything else. Particulars taken in abstraction from their properties cannot be singled out to the exclusion of all else. To think of a thing or person is to think of it as an instance of certain properties and indeed in such a way as to distinguish it from all else. So, to think of, and thus refer to, a particular is to think of it as an instance of a set of properties that jointly individuate it.
To refer to God, then, is to think of God as an instance of certain properties. I cannot think of God directly as just a particular, and then as instantiating certain properties. This ought to be quite clear from the fact that in this life our (natural) knowledge of God is not by acquaintance but by description. I don't literally see God when I look upwards at "the starry skies above me" or gaze inward at "the moral law within me" to borrow a couple of signature phrases from Immanuel Kant. Our only access to God here below is indirect via his properties, as an instance of those properties. Here below we approach God from the side of his properties as we understand them. The existence and identity of my table is known directly by acquaintance. Not so in the case of God. The existence of God is not given to sense perception but has to be understood as the being-instantiated of certain properties. The God I know by description is God qua uniquely satisfying my understanding of 'God.'
Someone could object: What about mystical experience? Is it not possible in this life to enjoy mystical knowledge by acquaintance of God? This is a very large, and I think separate topic. To the extent that mystical experience leads to mystical union it tends to collapse the I-Thou and man-God duality that is part of the framework of worship as we are discussing it in this context. See my Buber on Buddhism and Other Forms of Mysticism. It also tends to explode the framework in which questions about reference are posed . I mean the framework in which: here is a minded organism with linguistic capacity who thoughtfully utters certain words and phrases while out there are various things to which the organism is trying to refer and often succeeding.
There is also the question of the veridicality of mystical experience. How do I know that an experience of mine is revelatory of something real? How do I know that successive experiences of mine are revelatory of the same thing? How do I know that the mystical experiences of different people are veridically of the same thing? So I suggest we bracket the question of mystical experience.
Any natural knowledge of God in this life, then, is by description. Reference to God is indirect and via the understanding of 'God' within a given religion. Now the orthodox Christian understanding of 'God' is that God sent his only begotten Son, begotten not made, into our predicament to teach us and show us the Way (via, veritas, vita) and to suffer and die for our sins. Together with this contingent Sending goes the triunity of God as the necessary condition of its possibility. This is part of what an orthodox Christian means by 'God,' although I reckon few Christians would put it the way I just did. It is part of the sense of 'God' for an orthodox Christian. But this is not part of the sense of 'God' for the orthodox Muslim who denies the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the soteriology connected with both.
So do Christians and Muslims succeed in referring to the same being? No. Successful reference on a descriptivist semantics requires the cooperation of Mind and World. Successful reference, whether with words or without words, requires that there exist outside the mind something that satisfies the conditions set within the mind. (Remember: it is not primarily words that refer, but minds via words and mental states.) Now suppose there exists exactly one God and that that God is a Trinity. Then the Christian's understanding of 'God' will be satisfied, and his reference to God will be successful. But the Muslim's reference will fail. The reason for this is that there is nothing outside the mind that satisfies his characteristic understanding of 'God.'
Of course, the Muslim could put it the other way around. Either way, my point goes through: Muslim and Christian cannot be referring to the one and the same God.
You say the Christian and Muslim understandings of 'God' overlap? You are right! But this overlap is but an abstraction insufficient to determine an identifying reference to a concrete, wholly determinate, particular. In reality, God is completely determinate. As such, he cannot be neither triune nor not triune, neither incarnated nor not incarnated, etc. in the way the overlapping conception is. So if the triune God exists, then the non-triune God does not exist. Of course, we can say that the Christian and the Muslim are 'driving in the same direction.' Heading West on Interstate 10, I am driving toward the greater Los Angeles area, and thus I am driving toward both Watts and Laguna Niguel. But there is a big difference, and perhaps one pertaining unto my 'salvation,' whether I arrive in Watts or in Laguna Niguel. What's more, I cannot terminate my drive in some indeterminate location. The successful termination of my peregrination must occur at some wholly definite place. So too with successful reference to a concrete particular: it must terminate with a completely determinate referent.
Here is another related objection. "If the Christian God exists, then both Christian and Muslim succeed in referring to the same God -- it is just that this same God is the Christian God, i.e., God as understood in the characteristically Christian way. The existence of the Christian God suffices to satisfy the common Christian-Muslim underdstanding of 'God.'"
In reply I repeat that both mind and world must cooperate for successful reference on a descriptivist semantics. So it is not enough that God exists and that there be exactly one God. Nor is it enough that the one God satisfy the common Christian-Muslim conception; for the Muslim God to be an object of successful reference it must both exist and satisfy the characteristic Muslim understanding of 'God.'
My thesis is a rather modest one. To repeat what I said above:
My claim against Feser on the present occasion is not that he is wrong to maintain that (normative) Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God, but that he is not obviously right, his confident asseverations in the passages lately quoted notwithstanding. I am saying to Feser what I said to Beckwith and Tuggy: you gentlemen think this issue easily resolved. But it isn't, in large part because its resolution depends on the solution of hitherto unsolved problems in the philosophy of language.
Each of the following three propositions strikes me as very reasonably maintained. But they cannot all be true.
A. Worship Entails Reference: If S worships x, then S refers to x. B. Reference Entails Existence: If S refers to x, then x exists. C. Worship Does Not Entail Existence: It is not the case that if S worships x, then x exists.
It is easy to see that the triad is inconsistent. The conjunction of any two limbs entails the negation of the remaining one. For example, (A) and (B), taken in conjunction, entail the negation of (C).
What makes the triad a very interesting philosophical problem, however, is the fact that each of the constituent propositions issues a very strong claim on our acceptance. I am inclined to say that each is true. But of course they cannot all be true if they are logically inconsistent, which they obviously are.
Why think that each limb is true?
Ad (A): While there is much more to worship than reference, and while reference to a god or God can take place without worship, it is surely the case that whatever one worships one refers to, whether publicly or privately, whether in overt speech or in wordless thought.
Ad (B): Unless we make a move into Meinong's jungle, it would seem that reference is reference to what exists. There are different ways for reference to fail, but one way is if the referent does not exist. Suppose I think Scollay Square still exists. Trying to say something true, I say, 'Scollay Square is in Boston.' Well, I fail to say something true because of the failure of reference of 'Scollay Square.' My sentence is either false or lacks a truth-value. Now if one way for a reference to fail is when the referent does not exist, then reference entails existence.
Here is a second consideration. Philosophers often speak of reference as a word-world relation. Better: it is a relation between a word of phrase thoughtfully deployed by a person and something that exists extralinguistically. But surely if a genuine relation R holds, then each of R's relata exists. In the dyadic case, if x stands in R to y, then both x and y exist. A weaker principle is that of existence-symmetry: if x stands in R to y, then either both relata exist or neither exists. Both principles rule out the situation in which one relatum of the reference relation exists and the other doesn't.
So if reference is a genuine relation, and a person uses a word or phrase to refer to something, then the thing in question, the referent, exists. So again it seems that (B) is true and that reference entails existence. If the referent does not exist, then the reference relation does not hold in this case and there is no reference in this case. No referent, no reference. If reference, then referent.
Ad (C): Some say that the Christian God and the Muslim God are the same. But no one this side of the lunatic asylum says that all gods are the same. So at least one of these gods does not exist. But presumably all gods have been worshipped by someone; ergo, being worshipped does not entail existence.
So how do we solve this aporetic bad boy? We have three very plausible propositions that cannot all be true. So it seems we must reject one of them. But which one?
(A) is above reproach. Surely one cannot worship anything without referring to it. And I should think that (C) is obviously true. The idolater worships a false god, something that does not exist. As Peter Geach points out, the idolater does not worship a hunk of gold, say, but a hunk of gold as God, or God as a hunk of gold. But then he worships something that does not exist and indeed cannot exist. The only hope for solving the triad is by rejecting (B). For (B) does not share in the obviousness of (A) and (C). (B) is very plausible but not as plausible as the other two limbs.
London Ed will presumably endorse (B)-rejection as the solution since he is already on record as saying that one can successfully refer to purely fictional (and thus nonexistent) individuals and that one also be confident that it is numerically the same fictional individual to which different people are referring in different ways. Thus if London Ed brings up in conversation the fictional detective who lives on Baker Street, has an assistant named 'Watson,' etc. , then I know he is referring to Sherlock Holmes. And referring successfully. We are talking about one and the same individual. Successful reference thus seems not to require the existence of the referent.
But notice. If there is successful reference to nonexistent individuals, then it would seem that reference is an intentional state just like worshiping is. Or to put the point in formal mode: it would seem that 'refers' is an intentional verb just like 'worship' is. What one worships may or may not exist without prejudice to one's being in a state of worship. On (B)-rejection, what one refers to may or may not exist without prejudice to one's being in the state of referring.
By the way, it is not words that refer, but people using words. Of course, one can say that 'cat' in English refers to furry, four-legged mammals, but that is elliptical for saying that competent English speakers who are using 'cat' in a standard, non-metaphorical, way refer by the use of this word to furry, four-legged mammals. Linguistic reference is grounded in and parasitic upon thinking reference, intentional reference. And not the other way around. Not everyone agrees, of course. (Chisholm and Sellars famously disagreed about this.) This is yet another bone of contention at the base of the Same God? controversy. And one more reason why it is not easily resolved.
Well, suppose that linguistic reference is like mental reference (intentionality) in this respect: just as the intentio is what it is whether or not the intentum exists, the reference is what it is whether or not the referent exists. This makes sense and it solves the above aporetic triad. We simply reject (B).
Now where does my solution to the above triad leave us with respect to the question, Does the Christian and the Muslim worship the same God? My solution implies that they do not worship the same God. For it implies that reference to an individual or particular is not direct but mediated by properties. Let's consider private, unverbalized worship in the form of discursive prayer. Suppose I pray the Jesus Prayer, or some such prayer as 'Lord, grant me light in my moral and intellectual darkness.' Such prayer is on the discursive plane. It is not a matter of infused contemplation or any state of mystical intuition or mystical union. On the discursive plane I have no knowledge of God by acquaintance, and certainly not by sensory acquaintance. My knowledge, if knowledge it is, is by description. I refer to God mentally via properties as that which satisfies, uniquely, a certain identifying description. Obviously, I cannot have God before my mind as a pure, unpropertied particular; I can have God before my mind only as 'clothed' in certain properties, only as an instantiation of those properties.
Now if the properties in terms of which I prayerfully think of God include the property of being triune, and the properties in terms of which a Muslim thinks of God include the property of not being triune, then no one thing can be our common mental referent. For in reality outside the mind nothing can be both triune and not triune.
If you object that there is a common God but that the Muslim has false beliefs about it, then I say you are either begging the question or assuming a causal theory of reference. It is certainly true that different people can have contradictory beliefs about one and the same thing. But if you say that this is the case with respect to the Muslim and Christian Gods, then you assume that there is one God about whom there are contradictory beliefs -- and that is precisely to beg the question. This is the very mistake that Beckwith and Tuggy and others make.
If, on the other hand, you are assuming a casual theory of reference, then how will you solve my triad above? Besides, you take on board all the problems of the casual theory. The notion that reference can be explained by causation is a very questionable one, about which I will have more to say later.
Having just read Peter Geach's "On Worshipping the Right God" (in God and the Soul, Thoemmes Press, 1994, pp. 100-116, orig. publ. 1969) I was pleased to discover that I had arrived by my own reasoning at some of his conclusions. On Christmas Eve I quoted Michael Rea:
Christians and Muslims have very different beliefs about God; but they agree on this much: there is exactly one God. This common point of agreement is logically equivalent to [the] thesis that all Gods are the same God. In other words, everyone who worships a God worships the same God, no matter how different their views about God might be.
Rea's argument is this:
A. There is exactly one God if and only if all Gods are the same God
B. Everyone who worships a God worships the same God.
But as I pointed out, the state of worship/worshipping is an intentional or object-directed state, and like all such states, not such as to entail the existence of the object of the state. One cannot worship without worshipping something, but it does not follow that the object worshipped exists. So (B) is false. Geach makes the same point in 'formal mode':
It may be thought that since there is only one God to worship, a man who worships a God cannot but worship the true God. But this misconceives the logical character of the the verb 'to worship.' In philosophers' jargon, 'to worship' is an intentional verb. (108)
Exactly right. And so, just as I can shoot at an animal that is not there to be shot at, I can worship a God that is not there to be worshipped.
I put the point in my own 'formal mode' way when I said that 'worships' is not a verb of success.
The possibility of worshipping what does not exist is connected with the question whether 'God' is a logically proper name. Geach rightly argues that "'God' is not a proper name but a descriptive term: it is like 'the Prime Minister' rather than 'Mr. Harold Wilson.'" (108) One of his arguments is similar to one I had given, namely, that God is not known by acquaintance in this life. As Geach puts it, ". . . in this life we know God not as an acquaintance we can name, but by description." (109)
God is therefore relevantly disanalogous to the examples Beckwith and Tuggy gave. Those examples were of things known or knowable by sensory acquaintance here below. Suppose Dale and I are seated at one and the same table. I pound on it and assert "This table is solid oak!" Dale replies, "No, it is not: there is particle board where you can't see." Dale thinks that a disagreement about the properties of a putatively self-same x presupposes, and thus entails, that there really is a self-same x whose properties are in dispute. But that is not the case. Disagreement about the properties of a putatively self-same x is merely logically consistent with there really being a self-same x whose properties are in dispute. In the case of the table, of course, we KNOW that the dispute is about one and the same item. This is because the table is an object of sensory acquaintance: its existence and identity are evident. But it can be different in the case of God with whom we are not sensorily acquainted.
Clearly, a Spinozist and a Thomist are not worshipping one and the same God despite the fact that for both Thomists and Spinozists there is exactly one God. One of them is worshipping what does not exist.
And so it is not at all obvious that Jew, Christian, and Muslim are all worshipping the same God. That, I submit, is crystal-clear. And so those who think that the question has an obvious answer are plainly wrong.
But this is not to say that Jew, Christian, and Muslim are NOT worshipping one and the same God. That is much more difficult question.
This thing has really 'gone viral' as they say. A tip of the holiday hat to Dale for his excellent compilation of hyperlinks and commentary. Everybody and his uncle seems eager to jump into the fray, one that is at once bitterly political and deeply philosophical.
A moment ago I headed over to The Catholic Thing to drop a link there to my piece, but the combox to Dr. Beckwith's article has been closed at 170 comments. Just as well. That comment zone resembles the Augean stables and you are well-advised to don your hip-length boots before wading in. "Don we now our gay apparel." Better yet, just read the material Dale has selected.
The following entry has been languishing in the queue for years. I just now finished it for what it's worth.
Which is worse, the fundamentalism of a Jerry Falwell or the snarling hatred of religion of a Christopher Hitchens, who, in his anti-Falwell diatribe, shows just how far someone who is a leftist about religion can sink?
Readers of this blog know that I have little patience with fundamentalist forms of religion. But whatever one thinks of Falwell's views, he was a decent human being capable of compassion and forgiveness. (I recall with admiration the kindness and forbearance he displayed when he confronted his tormentor, the pornographer Larry Flynt, on Larry King Live.) Can one say that Hitchens is a decent human being after his unspeakably vicious attack on a dead man while he was still warm? I have in mind the matchbox quotation. In "Faith-Based Fraud," Hitchens wrote:
In the time immediately following the assault by religious fascism on American civil society in September 2001, he [Falwell] used his regular indulgence on the airwaves to commit treason. Entirely exculpating the suicide-murderers, he asserted that their acts were a divine punishment of the United States.
The problem with Falwell's statement was that he was in no position to know that the 9/11 attacks were divine punishment. What is offensive about such statements is the presumption that one is en rapport with the divine plan, that one has some sort of inside dope as to the deity's designs. In his credulousness and self-confidence, Falwell displayed a lack of respect for God's transcendence and unsearchableness. But this is just part of what is wrong with fundamentalism, which is a kind of theological positivism.
It is also offensive to hear some proclaim in tones of certainty that Hitchens is now no longer an atheist. They know that God exists and persons survive bodily death? They know no such thing, any more than Hitchens knew the opposite. Convictions, no matter how strong, do not amount to knowledge. (Here is a quick little proof. Knowledge entails truth. So if A and B have opposite convictions, and convictions amount to knowledge, then one and the same proposition can be both true and not true, which violates the Law of Non-Contradiction.)
But although Falwell's 9/11 statement can be criticized, he can't be criticized for making it. He had as much right to make that statement as Hitchens had for his cocksure proclamation that no God exists, not to mention his assaults on Mother Teresa and who all else. After all, that was Falwell's view, and it makes sense within his system of beliefs. There was certainly nothing treasonous about Falwell's statement, nor did it "entirely exculpate the suicide-murderers." Perhaps Falwell was a theological compatibilist, one who finds no contradiction in people acting freely in accordance with a divine plan.
So while we should certainly not follow Hitchens' nasty example and trash the dead, we should not go to the other extreme and paper over the foul aspects of Hitchens' personality. And we should also give some thought to the extent to which his viciousness is an upshot of his atheism.
For in the end, the atheist has nothing and can be expected to be bitter. This world is a vanishing quantity and he knows it; and beyond this world, he believes, there is nothing. That is not to say it isn't true. But if you are convinced that it is true, then you must live hopelessly unless you fool yourself with such evasions as living for some pie-in-the-future utopia such as Communists and other 'progressives' believe in, or for some such abstraction as literature.
Nobody will be reading Hitchens in a hundred years. He'll be lucky if he is still read in ten years.
Have you ever heard of Joseph McCabe (1867-1955)? Not until now. But he too was a major free-thinker and anti-religion polemicist in his day. Who reads him now?
Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1979), p. 227 in a letter to Maryat Lee dated 28 June 1957:
I doubtless hate pious language worse than you because I believe the realities it hides.
To the unbeliever, pious language is just so much cant and hypocrisy and offensive for these reasons. At funerals for worldly persons one sometimes hears pious claptrap about the dearly departed going off to be with the Lord. This may prove sickening to the unbeliever. Here is someone who spent his whole life on the make. And now you portray him as eager to meet his Maker? Or a nominal Catholic who never prayed the rosary in his life is set in an open casket with a rosary interlaced between his fingers. Disgusting!
The conventional lukewarm believer, for whom there is a tendency to conflate formulas and usages with the underlying realities, will not be offended. He does not take religion all that seriously in any case. It is a matter of habit and acculturation and respectability together with a vague sense that it might be a good idea to attend services as a sort of insurance lest any of the stuff about heaven and hell turn out to be true.
And then there is the person of genuine faith, for whom faith is not a convenience or a crutch or cheap consolation or an insurance policy or a mere matter of habit or acculturation or respectability. Such a person aims to penetrate through the formulas and usages to the transcendent realities and is offended by conventional piety for the right reason.
Current events warrant this re-post from two years ago. Christian precepts such as "Turn the other cheek" and "Welcome the stranger" make sense and are salutary only within communities of the like-minded and morally decent; they make no sense and are positively harmful in the public sphere, and, a fortiori, in the international sphere. The monastery is not the wide world. What is conducive unto salvation in the former will get you killed in the latter. And we know what totalitarians, whether Communists or Islamists, do when they get power: they destroy the churches, synagogues, monasteries, ashrams, and zendos. And with them are destroyed the means of transmitting the dharma, the kerygma, the law and the prophets.
So my question to Catholic bishops and their fellow travellers is this: Do you have a death wish for you and your flocks and your doctrine?
An important but troubling thought is conveyed in a recent NYT op-ed (emphasis added):
Machiavelli teaches that in a world where so many are not good, you must learn to be able to not be good. The virtues taught in our secular and religious schools are incompatible with the virtues one must practice to safeguard those same institutions. The power of the lion and the cleverness of the fox: These are the qualities a leader must harness to preserve the republic.
The problem as I see it is that (i) the pacific virtues the practice of which makes life worth living within families, between friends, and in such institutions of civil society as churches and fraternal organizations are essentially private and cannot be extended outward as if we are all brothers and sisters belonging to a global community. Talk of global community is blather. The institutions of civil society can survive and flourish only if protected by warriors and statesmen whose virtues are of the manly and martial, not of the womanish and pacific, sort. And yet (ii) if no extension of the pacific virtues is possible then humanity would seem to be doomed in an age of terrorism and WMDs. Besides, it is unsatisfactory that there be two moralities, one private, the other public.
Consider the Christian virtues preached by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. They include humility, meekness, love of righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, love of peace and of reconciliation. Everyone who must live uncloistered in the world understands that these pacific and essentially womanish virtues have but limited application there. (I am not using 'womanish' as a derogatory qualifier.) You may love peace, but unless you are prepared to make war upon your enemies and show them no mercy, you may not be long for this world. Turning the other cheek makes sense within a loving family, but no sense in the wider world. (Would the Pope turn the other cheek if the Vatican came under attack by Muslim terrorists or would he call upon the armed might of the Italian state?) This is perfectly obvious in the case of states: they are in the state (condition) of nature with respect to each other. Each state secures by blood and iron a civilized space within which art and music and science and scholarship can flourish and wherein, ideally, blood does not flow; but these states and their civilizations battle each other in the state (condition) of nature red in tooth and claw.
The Allies would not have been long for this world had they not been merciless in their treatment of the Axis Powers.
This is also true of individuals once they move beyond their families and friends and genuine communities and sally forth into the wider world.
The problem is well understood by Hannah Arendt ("Truth and Politics" in Between Past and Future, Penguin 1968, p. 245):
The disastrous consequences for any community that began in all earnest to follow ethical precepts derived from man in the singular -- be they Socratic or Platonic or Christian -- have been frequently pointed out. Long before Machiavelli recommended protecting the political realm against the undiluted principles of the Christian faith (those who refuse to resist evil permit the wicked "to do as much evil as they please"), Aristotle warned against giving philosophers any say in political matters. (Men who for professional reasons must be so unconcerned with "what is good for themselves" cannot very well be trusted with what is good for others, and least of all with the "common good," the down-to-earth interests of the community.) [Arendt cites the Nicomachean Ethics, Book VI, and in particular 1140b9 and 1141b4.]
There is a tension between man qua philosopher/Christian and man qua citizen. As a philosopher raised in Christianity, I am concerned with my soul, with its integrity, purity, salvation. I take very seriously indeed the Socratic "Better to suffer wrong than to do it" and the Christian "Resist not the evildoer." But as a citizen I must be concerned not only with my own well-being but also with the public welfare. This is true a fortiori of public officials and people in a position to influence public opinion, people like Catholic bishops many of whom are woefully ignorant of the simple points Arendt makes in the passage quoted. So, as Arendt points out, the Socratic and Christian admonitions are not applicable in the public sphere.
What is applicable to me in the singular, as this existing individual concerned with the welfare of his immortal soul over that of his perishable body, is not applicable to me as citizen. As a citizen, I cannot "welcome the stranger" who violates the laws of my country, a stranger who may be a terrorist or a drug smuggler or a human trafficker or a carrier of a deadly disease or a person who has no respect for the traditions of the country he invades; I cannot aid and abet his law breaking. I must be concerned with public order. This order is among the very conditions that make the philosophical and Christian life possible in the first place. If I were to aid and abet the stranger's law breaking, I would not be "rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" as the New Testament enjoins us to do.
Indeed, the Caesar verse provides a scriptural basis for Church-State separation and indirectly exposes the fallacy of the Catholic bishops and others who confuse private and public morality.
Given that the ubiquity of crosses all across this great land has not yet established Christianity as the state religion, why, as it declines in influence, do the cruciphobic shysters of the ACLU and their ilk agitate still against these harmless and mostly merely historical remnants of a great religion?
A mercifully short (9:17) but very good YouTube video featuring commentary by name figures in the philosophy of religion including Marilyn Adams, William Alston, William Wainwright, and William Lane Craig. Craig recounts the experience that made a theist of him. (HT: Keith Burgess-Jackson)
As Marilyn Adams correctly points out at the start of the presentation, the belief of many theists is not a result of religious experience. It comes from upbringing, tradition, and participation in what Wittgenstein called a "form of life" with its associated "language game." I myself, however, could not take religion seriously if it were not for the variety of religious, mystical, and paranormal experiences I have had, bolstered by philosophical reasoning both negative and positive. Negative, as critique of the usual suspects: materialism, naturalism, scientism, secular humanism, and so on. Positive, the impressive array of theistic arguments and considerations which, while they cannot establish theism as true, make a powerful case for it.
But my need for direct experience reflects my personality and, perhaps, limitations. I am an introvert who looks askance at communal practices such as corporate prayer and church-going and much, if not all, of the externalities that go with it. I am not a social animal. I see socializing as too often levelling and inimical to our ultimate purpose here below: to become individuals. Socializing superficializes. Man in the mass is man degraded. We need to be socialized out of the animal level, of course, but then we need solitude to achieve the truly human goal of individuation. Individuation is not a given, but a task. The social animal is still too much of an animal for my taste.
It is only recently that I have forced myself myself to engage in communal religious activities, but more as a form of self-denial than of anything else. My recent five weeks at a remote monastery were more eremitic than cenobitic, but I did take part in the services. And upon return I began attending mass with my wife. Last Sunday a man sat down next to me, a friendly guy who extended to me his hand, but his breath stank to high heaven. Behind me some guy was coughing his head off. And then there are those who show up for mass in shorts, and I am not talking about kids. The priest is a disaster at public speaking and his sermon is devoid of content. Does he even understand the doctrine he is supposed to teach? And then there are all the lousy liberals who want to reduce religion to a crapload of namby-pamby humanist nonsense. And let's not forget the current clown of a pope who, ignorant of economics and climatology, speaks to us of the evils of capitalism and 'global warming' when he should be speaking of the Last Things. (Could he name them off the top of his head?)
But then I reason with myself as follows. "Look, man, you are always going on about how man is a fallen being in a fallen world. Well, the church and its hierarchy and its members are part of the world and therefore fallen too. So what did you expect? And you know that the greatest sin of the intellectual is pride and that pride blinds the spiritual sight like nothing else. So suck it up, be a man among men, humble yourself. It may do you some good."
I read about your recent experiences with communal
religion. Your self-reflection reminded me of something Rabbi Harold Kushner
writes about in his book WHO NEEDS GOD. He talks about visiting with a young man
who told him, "I hate churches and synagogues, they're full of nothing but
hypocrites and jerks"...Kushner says he had to fight the urge to say, 'yep, and
there is always room for one more'.
For $85 a month, you get discounts on his merchandise, and the chance to meet ‘Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science personalities’. Obviously that’s not enough to meet the man himself. For that you pay $210 a month — or $5,000 a year — for the chance to attend an event where he will speak. . . . But the $85 a month just touches the hem of rationality. After the neophyte passes through the successively more expensive ‘Darwin Circle’ and then the ‘Evolution Circle’, he attains the innermost circle, where for $100,000 a year or more he gets to have a private breakfast or lunch with Richard Dawkins, and a reserved table at an invitation-only circle event with ‘Richard’ as well as ‘all the benefits listed above’, so he still gets a discount on his Richard Dawkins T-shirt saying ‘Religion — together we can find a cure.
The website suggests that donations of up to $500,000 a year will be accepted for the privilege of eating with him once a year: at this level of contribution you become a member of something called ‘The Magic of Reality Circle’. I don’t think any irony is intended.
Just as religion is a hustle for some, anti-religion is for others.
You are free to imagine a world without religion as per the silly ditty of John Lennon, but if Pew Research Center predictions are correct, atheists and leftists need to brace themselves for serious disappointment:
. . . the religiously unaffiliated population is projected to shrink as a percentage of the global population, even though it will increase in absolute number. In 2010, censuses and surveys indicate, there were about 1.1 billion atheists, agnostics and people who do not identify with any particular religion.5 By 2050, the unaffiliated population is expected to exceed 1.2 billion. But, as a share of all the people in the world, those with no religious affiliation are projected to decline from 16% in 2010 to 13% by the middle of this century.
The suggestion was made that I give a little talk to the monks of Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine monastery outside of Abiqui, New Mexico. I thought I would offer a few words in defense of the monastic life, not that such an ancient and venerable tradition needs any defense from me, but just to clarify my own thoughts and perhaps help others clarify theirs either by way of agreement or disagreement with mine. I will attempt three things. I will first list some convictions I hold to be of the essence of religion. Then I will suggest that the monastic path is an excellent way to implement these convictions. Finally I will ask myself why I am not a monk.
The Essence of Religion
There is much more to a religion than its beliefs and doctrines; there are also its practices. The practices, however, are informed and guided by certain central convictions whose importance cannot be denied. Religion is not practice alone. Now it is not easy to define religion, and it may be impossible. (Religion may be a family-resemblance concept in Wittgenstein's sense.) In any case I will not attempt to define religion by specifying necessary and sufficient conditions of the concept's application. But as I see it, most of the following are essential (necessary) to anything that deserves to be called a religion, and all of them are essential to Christianity. What I offer is a characterization, not a definition.
1. In first place, and not just in the order of exposition, is the belief that there is what William James calls an "unseen order." (Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 53) This is a realm of absolute reality that lies beyond the perception of the five outer senses and their instrumental extensions. It is also inaccessible to inner sense or introspection. It is also not a realm of mere abstracta or thought-contents. So it lies beyond the discursive intellect, as it does beyond the senses. One can reason about it, and reason to it, but one cannot access it directly via the discursive intellect. It is accessible from our side via mystical and religious experience. An initiative from its side is not to be ruled out in the form of revelation.
Compare the first item in Simone Weil's Profession of Faith: "There is a reality outside the world, that is to say, outside space and time, outside man's mental universe, outside any sphere whatsoever that is accessible to human faculties."
2. The belief that there is a supreme good for humans and that "our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves" to the "unseen order." (Varieties, p. 53) The Unseen Order is thus not merely a realm of absolute reality, but also one of absolute value and an object of our highest and purest desire.
Compare the second item in Weil's profession: "Corresponding to this reality, at the centre of the human heart, is the longing for an absolute good, a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world."
3. The conviction that we are morally deficient, and that this deficiency impedes our adjustment to the Unseen Order. Man is in some some sense fallen from the moral height at which he would have ready access to the Order which alone is the source of his ultimate happiness and final good. His moral corruption, however it came about, has noetic consequences. That is, our ability to know the saving truth has been impaired by our moral deficiency.
4. The conviction that our moral deficiency cannot be made sufficiently good by our own efforts to afford us ready, or perhaps any, access to the Unseen Order. Proximately, we need the help of others; ultimately, we need help from the Unseen Order.
5. The conviction that adjustment to the Unseen Order requires moral purification/transformation.
6. The conviction that help from the side of the Unseen Order is available to bring about this purification and adjustment.
7. The conviction that the sensible order, while not unreal, is not plenary in point of reality or value, that it is ontologically and axiologically derivative, and as derivative defective. It is a manifestation or emanation or creation of the Unseen Order.
Each of these seven convictions is an element in my personal credo. Can I prove them? Of course not. But then nothing of a substantive nature in philosophy, theology, or any controversial field, can be proven. But each of the above convictions is rationally defensible. So while not provable, they are not matters of mere faith either. They can be argued for, their negations are rationally rejectable, and there are experiences that vouch for them. (See Religious Belief and What Inclines Me to It.)
The Monastic Path
I will now suggest that the monastic life is perhaps the best way to realize existentially the above convictions, but also to have the sorts of experiences that tend to provide evidence for the convictions. One lives the convictions, and by living them is granted experiences and intimations that validate the convictions.
Let us suppose that you accept all or most of the above seven propositions, in their spirit if not in their letter, and that you also share with me the meta-conviction that these first-order convictions are to be lived (existentially realized, realized in one's Existenz) and not merely thought about or talked about or argued over.
Then it makes sense to go into the desert. The negative reason is to escape the manifold distractions of the world which keep one scattered and enslaved to the ephemeral, while the positive reason is to live a life focused on the the absolute and unchanging Source of all reality and value. The entrance into the monastery signals that one is truly convinced of the reality of the unseen (#1), it supreme value for us and our happiness (#2) and the relative unreality and insignificance of this world of time and change and vain ambition (#7).
To live such a focused existence, however, requires discipline. We have a fallen nature in at least two senses. First, we are as if fallen from a higher state. Second, we are ever falling against the objects of our world and losing ourselves in them, becoming absorbed in them. (Compare Heidegger's Verfallenheit, fallingness.) Here we find the ontological root of such sins of the flesh as avarice, gluttony, and lust. Given our fallen and falling nature, a monastic institution can provide the moral discipline and guidance that might be difficult if not impossible to secure on the outside, especially in a secularized and sex-saturated society such as ours has become. The weight of concupiscence is heavy and it drags us down. We are sexual beings naturally, and oversexualized beings socially, and so we are largely unable to control our drives to the extent necessary to develop spiritual sight. The thrust of desire confers final reality upon the sensuous while occluding one's spiritual sight. Sensuous desire, especially inordinate sensuous desire, realizes the things of the senses while de-realizing the things of the spirit.
Here, as I see it, is the main reason for sexual continence. We are not continent because we are undersexed, or prudes, or anti-natalists, or despisers of matter. (Certainly no Christian could despise the material world, and a Christian such as Kierkegaard who at the end of his life waxed anti-natalist veered off into a personal idiosyncrasy.) The continence of the loins subserves the continence of the mind and heart which in turn are probably necessary, though certainly not sufficient, for a Glimpse of spiritual realities. (I say 'probably necessary' because divine grace may grant sight to the committed worldling nolens volens.)
And then there is the great problem of suggestibility. We are highly sensitive and responsive to social suggestions as to what is real and important and what is not. In a society awash with secular suggestions, people find it hard to take religion seriously. Here is another reason why a community of the like-minded may be necessary for most spiritual seekers. They provide reinforcement and the requisite counter-suggestions. (It is worth noting that if cults can 'brainwash' their members, whole societies can go off the rails and brainwash their members.)
Why Am I not a Monk?
"If you think so highly of the monastic life, what are you doing on the outside?"
A fair question deserving a straight answer. I didn't come to religion; I was brought up Roman Catholic by a pious Italian mother and pre-Vatican II nuns and priests. But I had a religious nature, so the training 'took.' But I also had a strong intellectual bent and was inclined philosophically from an early age. So I couldn't avoid asking, and not just intellectually, but existentially as well: how much of this is true and how do I know? The ferment of the 1960s only intensified my cognitive dissonance as the religious upbringing clashed on the one side with my philosophical questioning, and on the other with the secular and counter-cultural suggestions of the 'sixties. I remember in 1965 listening intently to the words of Bob Dylan's Gates of Eden and trying to discern its compatibility, if any, with Catholic teaching. (By the way, attending a Dylan concert in those days was like going to church: the audience remained dead quiet, hanging on every word.)
So philosophy took over the role in the pious youth's life that religion had played. That kept me away from any conventional religious vocation. And so it kept me out of the monastery. For one cannot join a monastery in general; it must be either Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or Buddhist or whatever, and to do that in good faith and with a clear intellectual conscience one must accept the central doctrinal content of those religions. But that content was exactly what to my mind needed examination. Athens at that point got the upper hand over Jerusalem. So why am I not a monk? Because of Athens.
But now, as I approach the end of the trail, I see ever more clearly the vanity of any philosophy that does not complete itself in something beyond it. But what? The empty discursivity of reason needs to be filled and completed by a direct spiritual seeing. Concepts without intuitions are empty. (Kant) So philosophy needs completion by mystical intuition, but this is rare and sporadic and fragmentary here below, mere Glimpses; to sustain us in the between times we need faith grounded in revelation.
Actually, the preceding sentence is ambiguous. The thought is that at least one leftist understands that religion has far deeper roots in human nature than a typical leftist analysis can expose, let alone eradicate. The following quotation borrowed from the weblog of Keith Burgess-Jackson:
The left has always had difficulty recognizing the power of religion. Aren’t all religions the ideological tools of the ruling class? And aren’t all millenialist and messianic uprisings the ideologically distorted response of subaltern groups to material oppression? Religious zealotry is a superstructural phenomenon and can only be explained by reference to the economic base. These ancient convictions are particularly obfuscating today. Parvez Ahmed, a Florida professor who is fully cognizant of the “scourge” of Boko Haram, provides a typical example in a recent blog [sic]. He argues that “much of the violence [committed] in the name of Islam is less motivated by faith and more so by poverty and desperation.” Similarly, Kathleen Cavanaugh from the National University of Ireland, writing on the Dissent website, insists that “the violent and oppressive actions [of ISIS] have little to do with religion per se,” but rather are “underpinned” by material interests. But is this right? Why don’t poverty, desperation, and material interests produce a leftist rather than an Islamist mobilization? In fact, the religious revival, not only among Muslims but around the world, among Jews and Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, has enlisted supporters from all social classes, and the driving motive of revivalist activity seems, incredibly, to be religious faith (Fawaz Gerges’s Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy provides ample evidence of religion’s power).
(Michael Walzer, "Islamism and the Left," Dissent 62 [winter 2015]: 107-17, at 112-3 [brackets in original])
Although Walzer has a better understanding of human nature than most lefties, he betrays his residual leftism by his use of 'incredibly' in the last sentence above.
Why is it "incredible" that people should have religious faith? Only a benighted leftist, soulless and superficial all the way down, bereft of understanding of human nature, could think that human beings could be satisfied by a merely material life. Religion answers to real needs of real people, the need for meaning, for example. Some meaning can be supplied by non-exploitative, mutually beneficial social interaction. But not ultimate meaning, meaning in the face of death. To put it cryptically, an "existing individual" (Kierkegaard) standing alone before God and eternity is no Marxian Gattungswesen.
Whether any religion can supply ultimate needs for sense and purpose and transcendence is of course a very different question. Suppose that no religion can. It would be a mistake to conclude that the needs are not real. It would be even more of a mistake to conclude that something as paltry as the utopias envisaged by Marxists could satisfy religious needs. Supplying everyone with a overabundance of natural goodies will never sate the human spirit. But it takes spirit to understand this point.
Leftists, and atheists generally, typically have a cartoon-like (mis)understanding of religion.
No higher religion is about providing natural goodies by supernatural means, goodies that cannot be had by natural means. Talk of pie-in-the-sky is but a cartoonish misrepresentation by those materialists who can only think in material terms and only believe in what they can hold in their hands. A religion such as Christianity promises a way out of the unsatisfactory predicament in which we find ourselves in this life. What makes our situation unsatisfactory is not merely our physical and mental weakness and the shortness of our lives. It is primarily our moral defects that make our lives in this world miserable. We lie and slander, steal and cheat, rape and murder. We are ungrateful for what we have and filled with inordinate desire for what we don't have and wouldn't satisfy us even if we had it. We are avaricious, gluttonous, proud, boastful and self-deceived. It is not just that our wills are weak; our wills are perverse. It is not just that our hearts are cold; our hearts are foul. You say none of this applies to you? Very well, you will end up the victim of those to whom these predicates do apply. And then your misery will be, not the misery of the evil-doer, but the misery of the victim and the slave. You may find yourself forlorn and forsaken in a concentration camp. Suffering you can bear, but not meaningless suffering, not injustice and absurdity.
Whether or not the higher religions can deliver what they promise, what they promise first and foremost is deliverance from ignorance and delusion, salvation from meaninglessness and moral evil. No physical technology and no socio-political restructuring can do what religion tries to do. Suppose a technology is developed that actually reverses the processes of aging and keeps us all alive indefinitely. This is pure fantasy, of course, given the manifold contingencies of the world (nuclear and biological warfare, terrorism, natural disasters, etc.); but just suppose. Our spiritual and moral predicament would remain as deeply fouled-up as it has always been and religion would remain in business.
It helps to study history. The Communists slaughtered 100 million 'cows' in the 20th century alone. But where's the beef?
It could be like this. All religions are false; none can deliver what they promise. Naturalism is true: reality is exhausted by the space-time system. You are not unreasonable if you believe this. But I say you are unreasonable if you think that technologies derived from the sciences of nature can deliver what religions have promised, or any socio-political re-arrangement can.
As long as there are human beings there will be religion. The only way I can imagine religion withering away is if humanity allows itself to be gradually replaced by soulless robots. But in that case it will not be that the promises of religion are fulfilled by science; it would be that no one would be around having religious needs.
Yesterday I quoted Christopher Hitchens as saying that nothing is sacred. I now ask what it means to say that nothing is sacred. I think it means something like the following. Nothing, nothing at all, is holy, venerable, worthy of worship; nothing is an appropriate object of reverence. (One cannot appropriately revere one's spouse, 'worship the ground she walks on,' etc.) If nothing is sacred, then nothing is so far above us in reality and value as to require our submission and obedience as the only adequate responses to it.
If nothing is sacred, then man is the measure of all things; he is not measured by a standard external to him. Man is autonomous: he gives the law to himself. Human autonomy is absolute, the absolute. There is nothing beyond the human horizon except matter brute and blind. There is nothing that transcends the human scale. If so, then it makes sense for Hitchens to maintain that the right to free expression is absolute, subject to no restrictions or limitations: "the only thing that should be upheld at all costs and without qualification is the right of free expression."
The right to mock and deride religious figures such as Muhammad follows. For if nothing is sacred, then there is no God, no Allah, and hence no prophets of God. And of course no Son of God. If nothing is sacred and there is no God, then there is no revelation of God in any form, not in nature, not in a human person such as Jesus of Nazareth, and not in any scripture. If there is no God, then the Koran and the Bible are not the word of God; they are books like any other books, wholly human artifacts, and subject to criticism like any other books. And the same goes for physical objects and places. There are no holy relics and holy sites. Mecca and Jerusalem are not holy because, again, nothing is sacred. If there is nothing that is originally sacred, then there is nothing that is derivatively sacred either.
One obvious problem with Hitchens' position is that it is by no means obvious that there is nothing sacred. I should think that something is originally sacred if and only if God or a suitably similar transcendent Absolute exists. No God, then nothing originally sacred. Atheism rules out the sacred. And if nothing is originally sacred, then nothing is derivatively sacred either. If there is no God, then there are no prophets or saints or holy relics or holy places or holy books. And of course no church of God either: no institution can claim to have a divine charter.
I reject the position of Hitchens. I reject it because I reject his naturalism and atheism. They are reasonably rejected . But I also reject the position of those -- call them fundamentalists -- who think that there are people and books and institutions to which we must unconditionally submit. Here is where things get interesting.
I do not deny the possibility of divine revelation or that the book we call the Bible contains divine revelation; but I insist that it is in large part a human artifact. As such, it is open to rational criticism. While man cannot and must not place himself above God, he can and must evaluate what passes for the revelation of God -- for the latter is in part a human product.
God reveals himself, but he reveals himself to man. If the transmitter is perfect, but the receiver imperfect, then one can expect noise with the signal. Rational critique aims to separate the signal from the noise. To criticize is to separate: the true from the false, the reasonable from the unreasonable, the genuine from the specious.
I insist that religion must submit to rational critique. Religion is our affair, not God's. God has no religion. He doesn't need one. He needs religion as little as he needs philosophy: he is the truth in its paradigm instance; he has no need to seek it. Since religion is our affair, our response to the Transcendent, it is a human product in part and as such limited and defective and a legitimate object of philosophical examination and critique.
It is reasonable to maintain, though it cannot be proven, that there is a transcendent Absolute and that therefore there is something sacred. But this is not to say that what people take to be embodiments of the sacred are sacred. Is Muhammad a divine messenger? That is a legitimate question and the right to pose it and answer it negatively must be upheld. To answer it negatively, however, is consistent with holding that something is sacred. Is Jesus God? That is a legitimate question and the right to pose it and answer it negatively must be upheld. To answer it negatively, however, is consistent with holding that something is sacred.
My position is a balanced one. I reject the New Atheist extremism of Hitchens & Co. These people are contemptible in a way in which many old atheists were not: their lack of respect for religion, their militant hostility to any and every form of religion, shows a lack of respect for the unquenchable human desire for Transcendence. Religion is one form of our quest for the Absolute. This quest is part of what makes a human. This quest, which will surely outlast the New Atheists and their cyberpunk acolytes, must not be denigrated just because many of the concrete manifestations of the religious impulse are fanatical, absurd, and harmful.
One ought not mock religion, and not just for the prudential reason that one doesnot want to become the target of murderous Muslim fanatics. One ought not mock religion because religion testifies to man's dignity as a metaphysical animal, as Schopenhauer so well understood. Even Islam, the sorriest and poorest of the great religions, so testifies.
But while I reject the extremism of Hitchens and Co., an extremism that makes an idol of free expression, I agree that what passes for religion, the concrete embodiments of same, must submit to being hauled before the bench of Reason, there to be interrogated, often rudely. Reason, in its turn, must be open to what lies beyond it. It must be open to revelation.
The wild diversity of religious doctrines suggests to Kitcher that they are all almost certainly false. Plantinga makes an interesting response:
But even for whole systems: there is certainly wide variety here, but how does it follow that they are all almost certainly false? Or even that any particular one is almost false? Kitcher's book is an exercise in philosophy. The variety of philosophical belief rivals that of religion: there are Platonists, nominalists, Aristotelians, Thomists, pragmatists, naturalists, theists, continental philosophers, existentialists, analytic philosophers (who also come in many varieties), and many other philosophical positions. Should we conclude that philosophical positions, including Kitcher's low opinion of religious belief, are all almost certainly false? I should think not. But then wouldn't the same be true for religious beliefs? The fact that others hold religious opinions incompatible with mine is not a good reason, just in itself, for supposing my beliefs false. After all, if I were to suppose my views false, I would once more be in the very same position: there would be very many others who held views incompatible with mine.
To put it my own way: a philosopher discrediting religion on the ground of doctrinal diversity is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Philosophers notoriously contradict one another on anything and everything. Everything is up for grabs. What then gives philosophy the right to judge religion?
Reading John Anderson has enhanced my sense of the centrality of the question of levels of reality for those of us who view philosophy as a quest for the Absolute and a project of self-transformation. Of course it was more or less obvious to me all along, Plato's Allegory of the Cave being the richest depiction we have of the two-world theme.
Essential to religion is the belief that there is what William James calls an "unseen order" (Varieties of Religious Experience, 53), a higher order, above or behind the phenomenal order of time and change, doubt and confusion, mendacity and evil.
The unseen order is to be affirmed without the phenomenal order being denied. So there are two levels of reality. How exactly they are related is the problem, or one problem. We will pursue the problem in due course in connection with John Passmore's discussion of the "Two-Worlds Argument" in his Philosophical Reasoning.
Suppose you believe that man has been created in the image and likeness of God. Can you, consistently with that belief, hold that only some possess a religious disposition?
I often say things like the following:
The religious person perceives our present life, or our natural life, as radically deficient, deficient from the root (radix) up, as fundamentally unsatisfactory; he feels it to be, not a mere condition, but a predicament; it strikes him as vain or empty if taken as an end in itself; he sees himself as homo viator, as a wayfarer or pilgrim treading a via dolorosa through a vale that cannot possibly be a final and fitting resting place; he senses or glimpses from time to time the possibility of a Higher Life; he feels himself in danger of missing out on this Higher Life of true happiness. He feels his fellows to be fools endlessly distracted by bagatelles, sunken deep in Pascalian divertissement, as Platonic troglodytes unaware of the Cave as Cave.
I maintain that one in whom this doesn't strike a chord, or sound a plaintive arpeggio, is one who lacks a religious disposition. In some it is simply lacking, and it cannot be helped. I 'write them off' no matter how analytically sharp they are. One cannot discuss religion with them, for it cannot be real to them, any more than one can share one's delight in poetry with the terminally prosaic, or one's pleasure in mathematics with the mathematically anxious. Religion is not, for those who lack the disposition, what William James in "The Will to Believe" calls a "living option," let alone a "forced" or "momentous" one. It can only be something strained and ridiculous, a tissue of fairy tales, something for children and old ladies, an opiate for the weak and dispossesed, a miserable anthropomorphic projection, albeit unconscious, a wish-fulfillment, something cooked up in the musty medieval cellars of priestcraft where unscrupulous manipulators exploit human gullibility for their own advantage.
A perceptive interlocutor raised an objection that I would put as follows. "You say that some lack a religious disposition. I take it you mean that they are utterly bereft of it. But how is that consistent with the imago dei? For if we are made in the divine image, then we are spiritual beings who must, as spiritual beings, possess at least the potentiality of communion with the divine source of the spirit within us, even if this potentiality is to no degree actual. After all, we are not in the image of God as animals, but as spiritual beings, and part of being a spiritual being is having the potentiality to know itself, and thus to know that one is a creature if in fact one is a creature, and in knowing this to know God in some measure."
How might I meet this objection?
One way is by denying that all biologically human beings bear the divine image, or bear the divine image in its fullness. Maybe it is like this. The existence of specimens of the zoological species to which we belong is accounted for by the theory of evolution. God creates the physical universe in which evolution occurs, and in which human animals evolve from lower forms. The story of Adam and Eve in Genesis is not an account of how human animals came to be that is in competition with the theory of evolution. It is not about human animals at all. Adam is not the first man; there was no first man. Eve is not the first woman; there was no first woman. Adam and Eve are not the first human animals; they are the first human animals that, without ceasing to be animals, became spiritual beings when God bestowed upon them consciousness, self-consciousness, free will, and all their concomitants. But the free divine bestowal was not the same for all: from some he withheld the power to know God and become godlike.
I suspect this is not theologically 'kosher.' But it fits with my experience. I have always felt that some human beings lack depth or spirit or soul or inwardness or whatever you want to call it. It is not that I think of them as zombies as philosophers use this term: I grant that they are conscious and self-conscious. But I sense that there is nothing to them beyond that. The light is on, but no one is there. (In a zombie, the light is off.) There is no depth-dimension: they are surface all the way down.
But it may be that a better line for me is the simpler one of saying that in all there is the religious disposition, but in some it is wholly undeveloped, rather than saying that in some it is not present at all.
UPDATE (12/19): The "perceptive interlocutor" mentioned above responds:
To suppose that some persons lack the religious disposition is certainly not theologically kosher, at least not from the Christian perspective. This is more akin to certain varieties of predestinarian gnosticism to which early Christian theologians (e.g., Origen, Irenaeus, et al.) vehemently objected. These gnostic theories proposed that there were various different classes of human persons, some of whom were structurally determined to realize saving knowledge (gnosis) of Reality whereas others were cruder, baser, and doomed to live unenlightened lives in the body. The difference between classes was not choices they had made or anything of the sort; it was simply their ontological structure to reach enlightenment or not. The early Christians objected to this in two ways: first, it is denial of the freedom of the will of the human person, since some evidently are intrinsically incapable of choosing salvation; second, it is incompatible with God's goodness, since if he is good, he desires the salvation of all and works to accomplish it.
I don't disagree that these are among the theologically orthodox responses to my suggestion above. How good they are, however, is a separate question. First, if God does not grant to some class of persons the religious disposition, that is not a denial to them of freedom of the will. They can be as free as you please; they just lack that particular power. I am not free to fly like a bird, but it doesn't follow that I am not free.
As for the second point, there may be a confusion of damnation with non-knowledge of God. The suggestion above is that only some biologically human persons are disposed to seek God and possibly know God. That is not to say that these persons are predestined to a state in which they are conscious of God's existence but cut off from God.
God desires the ultimate beatitude of all that have the power to achieve it -- but not all have this power on the above suggestion. If God desires the ultimate beatitude of all whether or not they have the power to know God, then God desires the ultimate beatitude of dolphins and apes and cats and dogs.
I suppose these are the two greatest problems for the quasi-gnostic position you consider in that post. Another problem would be that it might ethically justify mistreatment and prejudice against persons deemed to lack a religious disposition. After all, if they cannot sense God's existence and enjoy communion with him, how are they any different from animals? If God himself didn't care to make them such that they could know him, why should theists and those having the religious disposition care for them any more than for a dog?
I don't see any problem here either. Not all human beings have the same powers but people like me and my interlocutor would not dream of using this fact to justify mistreatment of certain classes of people.
The following quotations are from Martin Buber's I and Thou (tr. Walter Kaufmann, Scribner's, 1970, pp. 140-141):
Nor does he [Buddha] lead the unified being further to that supreme You-saying that is open to it. His inmost decision seems to aim at the annulment of the ability to say You . . . .
All doctrines of immersion are based on the gigantic delusion of human spirit bent back into itself -- the delusion that spirit occurs in man. In truth it occurs from man - between man and what he is not. As the spirit bent back into itself renounces this sense, this sense of relation, he must draw into man that which is not man, he must psychologize world and God. This is the psychical delusion of the spirit.
The context of the above quotations is a section of I and Thou that runs from pp. 131 to 143. Here are some quickly composed thoughts on this stretch of text.
In this section Buber offers a critique of Buddhism, Hinduism and other forms of mysticism (including Christian forms such as the one we find in Meister Eckhart) which relativize the I-Thou relation between man and God by re-ducing it (leading it back) to a primordial unity logically and ontologically prior to the terms of the relation. According to these traditions, this primordial unity can be experienced directly in Versenkung, which Kaufmann translates, not incorrectly, as 'immersion,' but which I think is better rendered as 'meditation.' As the German word suggests, one sinks down into the depths of the self and comes to the realization that, at bottom, there is no self or ego (as Buddhism proclaims with its central doctrine of anatta or anatman) or else that there is a Self, but that it is the eternal and universal Atman ( = Brahman) of Hinduism, "the One that thinks and is." (131)
Either way duality is overcome and seen to be not ultimately real. Buber rejects this because the I-Thou relation presupposes the ultimate ineliminability of duality, not only the man-God duality but also the duality of world and God. Perhaps the underlying issue can be put, roughly, like this: in the end, does the One absorb everything and extinguish all finite individuality, or in the end does duality and (transformed) finite individuality remain? In soteriological terms: does salvation in the end consist in a becoming one with the One or is duality and difference preserve even at the highest soteriological levels?
Mysticism "annuls relationship" (132) psychologizing both world and God. (141). Verseelen is the word Kaufmann translates as 'psychologize.' A more literal translation is 'soulifies.' Mysticism drags both God and the world into the soul where they are supposedly to be found in their ultimate reality by meditation. But spirit is not in man, Buber thinks, but between man and what is not man. (141). I take it he means that spirit is not in an individual man, to be reaized in the depths of his isolated interiority, but between individual human beings and individual humans beings and between individual human beings and what is not human. Spirit is thus actualized only in the relation of man to man, man to world, man to God.
At this point I would put a question to Buber. If spirit subsists only in relation, ought we conclude that God needs man to be a spiritual being in the same way that finite persons need each other to be spiritual beings? Is God dependent on man to be who he is? If yes, then the aseity of God is compromised. A Christian could say that the divine personhood subsists in intradivine relations, relations among and between the persons of the Trinity. But as far as I know Trinitarian thought is foreign to Judaism. Anyway, that is a question that occurs to me.
The "primal actuality of dialogue" (133) requires Two irreducible one to the other. It is not a relation internal to the self.
Buber is not opposed to Versenkung as a preliminary and indeed a prerequisite for encounter with the transcendent Other. Meditative Versenkung leads to inner concentration, interior unification, recollectedness. But this samadhi (which I think is etymologically related to the German sammeln (to gather, collect, concentrate) is not to be enjoyed for its own sake, but is properly preparatory for the encounter with the transcendent Other. "Concentrated into a unity, a human being can proceed to his encounter -- wholly successful only now -- with mystery and perfection. But he can also savor the bliss of his unity and, without incurring the supreme duty, return into distraction." (134)
Buber's point is that the mystic who, treading the inward path, arrives at the unitary ground of his soul and experiences sat-chit-ananda (being-consciousness-bliss) shirks his supreme duty if he merely enjoys this state and then returns to the world of multiplicity and diremption. The soulic unity must be used for the sake of the encounter with God. Samadhi is not an end in itself but a means to an end.
Buber seems to be maintaining that Buddhist and other mysticism is an escape into illusion, an escape into a mere annihilation of dual awareness for the sake of an illusory nondual awareness: "insofar as this doctrine contains directions for immersion in true being, it does not lead into lived actuality but into 'annihilation' in which there is no consciousness, from which no memory survives -- and the man who has emerged from it may profess the experience by using the limit-word of non-duality, but without any right to proclaim this as unity." (136)
Buber continues, "We, however, are resolved to tend with holy care the holy treasure of our actuality that has been given us for this life and perhaps for no other life that might be closer to the truth." (136-7, emphasis added)
This prompts me to put a second and more important question to Buber. If there is no other life, no higher life, whether accessible in this life via Versenkung or after the death of the body, and we are stuck with this miserable crapstorm of a life, then what good is God? What work does he do if he doesn't secure our redemption and our continuance beyond death? This is what puzzles me about Judaism. It is a worldly religion, a religion for this life -- which is almost a contradiction in terms. It offers no final solution as do the admittedly life-denying religions of Buddhism and Christianity. Some will praise it for that very reason: it is not life-denying but life-affirming. Jews love life, this life here and now, and they don't seem too concerned about any afterlife. But then they don't have the sort of soteriological interest that is definitive of religion. "On whose definition?" you will object. And you will have a point.
On my definition. "And where did you get it?" From examning the great religions, the greatest of which are Buddhism and Christianity.
UPDATE (12/15). Karl White comments:
I assume Buber and many strains in Judaism would answer that loving God for his own sake and the world for its own sake is the highest form of religiosity. To ask what 'use' is God would be tantamount to idolatry, as it consists in an instrumentalisation of God in order to serve one's own needs or less prosaically, to save one's own sorry ass.
Cf. Yeshayahu Leibowitz: Those who would question, indeed those who lost their faith in God as a result of Auschwitz “never believed in God but in God's help… [for] one who believes in God … does not relate this to belief in God's help” (Accepting the Yoke, 21).
This is a very trenchant and very good comment that opens up numerous further cans of theological worms. I am immediately reminded of the the extremism of the jewess Simone Weil. Here is part of what I say in the just-referenced entry:
Although Weilian disinterest may appear morally superior to Pascalian self-interest, I would say that the former is merely an example of a perverse strain in Weil’s thinking. One mistake she makes is to drive a wedge between the question of the good and the question of human happiness, thereby breaking the necessary linkage between the two. This is a mistake because a good out of all relation to the satisfaction of human desire cannot count as a good for us.
What “good” is a good out of all relation to our self-interest? The absolute good must be at least possibly such as to satisfy (purified) human desire. The possibility of such satisfaction is a necessary feature of the absolute good. Otherwise, the absolute good could not be an ideal for us, an object of aspiration or reverence, a norm. But although the absolute good is ideal relative to us, it is real in itself. Once these two aspects (ideal for us, real in itself) are distinguished, it is easy to see how the absoluteness of the absolute good is consistent with its necessary relatedness to the possibility of human happiness. What makes the absolute good absolute is not its being out of all relation to the actual or possible satisfaction of human desire; what makes it absolute is its being self-existent, a reality in itself. The absolute good, existing absolutely (ab solus, a se), is absolute in its existence without prejudice to its being necessarily related to us in its goodness. If God is (agapic) love, then God necessarily bestows His love on any creatures there might be. It is not necessary that there be creatures, but it is necessary that God love the creatures that there are and that they find their final good in Him.
The Leibowitz remark deserves to be mulled over carefully. Part of what Leibowitz suggests is right: Auschwitz is no compelling argument against the existence of God. (Sorry Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno.) But I humbly suggest that it is border-line crazy to suggest, if this is what Leibowitz is suggesting, that belief in God is wholly out of relation to the human desire for ultimate happiness and to belief in God's help in securing such felicity.
There is more to say but I must get on with the day.
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, The Waste Books, tr. R. J. Hollingdale, New York Review Books, 1990, p. 112, Notebook G, Aph. #24:
To make man as religion wants him to be resembles the undertaking of the Stoics: it is only another grade of the impossible.
I agree completely with Herr Lichtenberg that the Stoic ideal is an impossible one.
The Stoic sage would be as impassible as God is impassible. But here's something to think about: Jesus on the cross died in agony like a man, even though, if he was God, he could have realized the Stoic ideal.
What is the lesson? Perhaps that to be impassible is for us impossible, and so no ideal at all.
What Lichtenberg overlooks is that while Stoicism is a self-help therapeutic, religion, or at least Christianity, is not: no Christian who understands his doctrine fancies that he is able by his own power to effect genuine, deep-going, and lasting self-improvement.
What Lichtenberg fails to appreciate is that what is impossible for us, both individually and collectively, is not impossible with divine assistance.
If you deny the possibility of divine assistance, then you ought to abandon the project of ameliorating in any truly fundamental way the human condition: just accept it as it is, else you may end up like the Communists who murdered 100 million in the 20th century alone in quest of their u-topia.
Jack Kerouac quit the mortal coil 45 years ago today, securing his release from the wheel of the quivering meat conception, and the granting of his wish:
The wheel of the quivering meat conception . . . . . . I wish I was free of that slaving meat wheel and safe in heaven dead. (Mexico City Blues, 1959, 211th Chorus).
The Last Interview, 12 October 1969. "I'm not a beatnik. I'm a Catholic." "I just sneak into church now, at dusk, at vespers. But yeah, as you get older you get more … genealogical."
As much of a screw-up and sinner as he was, as irresponsible, self-indulgent, and self-destructive, Kerouac was a deeply religious man. He went through a Buddhist phase, but at the end he came home to Catholicism.
I have been accused, on a forum, of being a second-class Christian because I have stated that I cannot understand Trinitarian doctrine [as presented in the Athanasian creed]. I have stated that I do accept the Apostles' Creed, but that is not seemingly good enough. So I have asked for clarification from forumites as to why they believe not only that the doctrine is true, but that believing it is a must for 'full fellowship'.
My reader goes on to say that the responses of his fellow forum members were unsatisfactory. His main question is: "What practical difference does a belief or non-belief in the Athanasian doctrine of the Trinity make?" My reader accepts and tries to live by the the Apostles' Creed, but doesn't understand the Athanasian Creed. As well as he might not, given the logical difficulties of the doctrine.
To answer the reader's question: no practical difference to speak of.
The underlying problem, as it seems to me, is that of the relative importance of doctrine and practice. In every religion there is both. Are they of equal importance? Or is one more important that the other? I suggest that, while both are important,
1. Practice is more important than doctrine;
2. Theological doctrines are necessary makeshifts, feeble human attempts at conceptualizing what by its very nature must remain in the main beyond the human conceptual horizon in this life;
3. Doctrinal disputes can and often do lead to acrimonious controversies that are the exact opposite of conducive unto salvation.
The two central precepts of Christianity are: Love God with your whole heart, whole soul, and whole mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. What exactly is enjoined by these two absolutely central precepts may be reasonably discussed, and ought to be. But we know more or less what they mean and require of us. And we know more or less what would be incompatible with their practical realization.
To love God is not to love one's ideas about God. For then one is loving, not God, but products of one's own ego. A theologian in love with his own pet formulations is arguably a high-level idolater. And analogously for the doctrinal formulations of one's church or sect.
And it would seem that bitter, rationally unresolvable dispute about exceedingly abstruse questions is not at all conducive to love of neighbor, and is in fact in many cases incompatible with such love. Consider some such theological nicety as the filioque clause. The question is whether the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son -- filioque means 'and the Son' -- or from the Father directly. Quite apart from the question of what practical difference this could make in the life of a believer, does the question have a sense clear enough to permit a rational solution?
The Athanasian Creed, quite unlike the Apostles' Creed, makes subscription to verbally precise Trinitarian and Christological doctrines a necessary condition of salvation. Their verbal precision, however, has not prevented centuries of debate as to their exact meaning and coherence. To hurl an anathema at anyone who fails to accept them on pain of damnation strikes me as nothing more than an expression of the human-all-too-human need for doxastic security. People have a terribly strong need to be secure in their beliefs even when the beliefs in question are plainly open to serious doubt.
Doubt is to be deployed against the complacency of unbelief as much as against the complacency of belief.
A vital faith is never entirely free of purifying doubt which in some persons, at some times, extends to the brink of despair. Christ on the cross experienced the deepest depth of Incarnation in the feeling of being forsaken and abandoned by God. Can a Christian then expect his faith to be free of doubt?
A fruitful doubt is not a sterile skepticism but a questioning attitude that holds open the possibility that its questions be answered. If you cannot believe, then you cannot. The matter can't be forced. But the unbeliever oughtn't rest in the complacency of unbelief any more than the believer in the complacency of belief. Seek, and you may or may not find. But seek.
Sam Harris is a liberal I respect and admire. He has not succumbed to the PeeCee delusion and he actively combats it. Although Harris is a contemporary, he is not a 'contemporary liberal' as I use that phrase: he is a classical or old-time or paleo or respectable liberal. But on religion and some philosophical topics he is out beyond his depth.
And just like moderates in every other religion, most moderate Muslims become obscurantists when defending their faith from criticism. They rely on modern, secular values—for instance, tolerance of diversity and respect for human rights—as a basis for reinterpreting and ignoring the most despicable parts of their holy books. But they nevertheless demand that we respect the idea of revelation, and this leaves us perpetually vulnerable to more literal readings of scripture. The idea that any book was inspired by the creator of the universe is poison—intellectually, ethically, and politically. And nowhere is this poison currently doing more harm than in Muslim communities, East and West. Despite all the obvious barbarism in the Old Testament, and the dangerous eschatology of the New, it is relatively easy for Jews and Christians to divorce religion from politics and secular ethics. A single line in Matthew—“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”—largely accounts for why the West isn’t still hostage to theocracy. The Koran contains a few lines that could be equally potent—for instance, “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256)—but these sparks of tolerance are easily snuffed out.
Why does Harris think that the idea of divine (scriptural) revelation is intellectual, ethical, and political poison? Perhaps his reasoning is along the following lines.
1. In every extant scripture there are morally offensive prescriptions and proscriptions which, if followed, would be detrimental to human flourishing, and in that sense 'poisonous.' 2. If one believes that a given scripture is the Word of God, then one believes that everything in that scripture carries divine sanction (approbation): it proceeds from the ultimate moral authority in the universe. 3. If one believes that everything in a given scripture carries divine sanction, then one believes that one has an obligation to commit some morally offensive actions, namely, those enjoined in the scripture in question, actions detrimental to human flourishing. (from 1+ 2) 4. Actions detrimental to human flourishing are 'poison.' Therefore 5. The idea of divine revelation, if accepted, is 'poison.' (from 3 + 4)
I have just imputed to Harris an argument the reasoning of which is correct. Please recall the Logic 101 distinction between correctness/incorrectness of reasoning and truth/falsity of premises and conclusions. (If this argument, or something very similar, is not the argument at the back of Harris's assertion, then I have no idea what that argument would be).
But no defender of divine revelation need be troubled by the above argument. For such a defender may simply deny premise # 2. If a given scripture is the inspired Word of God, that doesn't change the fact that it is written down by men -- and we know what they are like: fallible, sometimes foolish, liable to embellish and distort, biased, limited in ever so many ways.
To put it very simply, I can accept a scripture as divinely inspired while rejecting parts of it as merely human accretions. Why not? There are things that St. Paul says, for example, that are pretty obviously nothing but reflections of his own personal preferences and biases, or else those of his time and place.
Notice that Harris is attacking the very idea of divine revelation: the acceptance of that idea is 'poison.' But he has given us no good reason to accept this wild claim. Of course, if there is no God, then there cannot be divine revelation. But the existence of God is not at issue here. The above argument is logically independent of the existence/nonexistence of God. Indeed, a theist could deploy the above argument.
And the issue is not whether particular portions of some scripture are credible or not. The issue concerns divine revelation as such and in general.
Harris may be assuming that anyone who accepts scriptural revelation must be a fundamentalist in the sense of someone who believes that everything in the Christian Bible, say, wears its meaning on its 'sleeve' and is literally true. But obviously, not everyone who accepts scriptural revelation need be a fundamentalist!
So much for the second of the two bolded sentences above.
The first sentence reads: But they nevertheless demand that we respect the idea of revelation, and this leaves us perpetually vulnerable to more literal readings of scripture. This sentence encapsulates an inference which, unfortunately for Harris, is a non sequitur. If one respects the idea of divine scriptural revelation, how is it supposed to follow that one is vulnerable to literalism? It obvously doesn't follow. And what exactly is literalism?
Harris ought to read Augustine on the interpretation of Genesis. Here is a sampler of some of the issues that arise.
As I said, Harris is way out of his depth when he enters these theological waters.
I would like to believe that James V. Schall, S. J. has a better understanding of Catholicism than I do, but I just now read the following from his otherwise very good On Revelation:
Catholicism is a revelation, not a religion. The word “religion” refers to a virtue by which we know what we can about God by our own human rational powers, “unaided,” as they say. Revelation means that, in addition to all we know by our own powers, another source of knowledge and life exists that can address itself to us, can make itself known to us.
The first sentence in this paragraph is the conjunction of two claims. The first is that Catholicism is a revelation. The second is that Catholicism is not a religion. The second claim is plainly false. If Catholicism is not a religion, what is it? It is not a branch of mathematics or a natural science. It is not one of the Geisteswissenschaften. It is not philosophy or a branch of philosophy such as natural theology.
Schall is of course right to tie religion to human beings: God has no religion. But it doesn't follow that Catholicism is not a religion. It is a religion based on divine revelation. God reveals himself to man, and man appropriates that revelation as best he can using the limited postlapsarian resources of intellect and will and emotion at his disposal.
Schall may be confusing the genus with one of its species, religion with natural religion the Merriam-Webster definition of which is accurate:
a religion validated on the basis of human reason and experience apart from miraculous or supernatural revelation; specifically: a religion that is universally discernible by all men through the use of human reason apart from any special revelation — compare revealed religion.
Catholicism is a revealed religion and therefore a religion. Or will you argue that 'revealed' in 'revealed religion' functions as an alienans adjective? I hope not.
Now what about the first claim, namely, that Catholicism is a revelation? That's a lame way of putting it in my humble opinion. If Catholicism is a religion based on revelation, then, since religion is a human enterprise as Schall rightly notes, it involves an interaction between God and man. So it cannot be a pure revelation which is what Catholicism would have to be if it is not a religion.
Compare the Bible. It is the word of God. But that is only half of the story. The Bible is the word of God written down by men. Similarly, Catholicism is divine revelation appropriated by men. It is therefore neither purely divine nor purely human.
I could be wrong, but I don't think what I have just written is too far from Catholicism's own self-understanding.
"Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence!" (Bertrand Russell)
It may well be that our predicament is such as to disallow conclusive or even sufficient evidence of the truth about it. If Plato's Cave Allegory is apt, if it lays bare the truth of the human predicament, then it must be that the evidence that the cave is a cave and that there is an outer world, whether it be the evidence of someone's testimony or the evidence of one's own rare and fleeting experiences, is scant and flimsy and easily doubted and denied. What I merely glimpse on rare occasions I can easily doubt. One can also doubt what any church teaches for the simple reason that there are many churches and they contradict each other on many points of doctrine and practice. And the same goes for what I believe on the testimony of others.
We don't know that the human condition is a cave-like predicament along Platonic lines, but if it is then we have an explanation of the paucity of sufficient evidence of its being what it is. (By sufficient evidence for a proposition p I mean evidence that renders p more likely than its negation.)
It is vitally important to us whether God or some form of Transcendence exists, and whether a higher life is possible for us beyond the miserably short and indigent predicament in which we presently find ourselves. But it may be that the truth in this matter cannot be known here below, but only believed on evidence that does not make it more likely than not. It may be that our predicament is such as to make impossible sufficient evidence of the truth about it.
Do I violate an ethics of belief if I believe on insufficient evidence? But don't I also have a duty to myself to pursue what is best for myself? And seek my ultimate happiness? Why should the legitimate concern to not be wrong trump the concern to find what is salvifically right? Is it not foolish to allow fear of error to block my path to needed truth?
Lately I've heard bandied about the idea that to have faith is to pretend to know what one does not know. Now that takes the cake for dumbassery. One can of course pretend to know things one does not know, and pretend to know more about a subject than one does know. The pretence might be part of a strategy of deception in the case of a swindler or it might be a kind of acting as in the case of an actor playing a mathematician.
But in faith one does not pretend to know; one honestly faces the fact that one does not know and ventures beyond what one knows so as to gain access to a needed truth that by its very nature cannot satisfy the strictures that we moderns and post-moderns tend to build into 'know.'
As usual, the mainstream media is all wrong about Islam. In FrontPage Magazine, Daniel Greenfield points out that “looting was the core of Muhammad’s conquests.” And it came with Allah’s seal of approval. Numerous passages in the Koran and in the biography of Muhammad attest to the legitimacy of booty as the proper reward of fighting. Islam has no trouble with looting, says Greenfield, because it is “innately a gang religion”:
The gang … finds meaning in the ethos of the fight and in the comradeship of fellow gang members. That is why jihad is so central to Islam … Jihad is the gang culture of Islam. Its bonding rituals are central to Islam, whose original elements derive mainly from the raids of Mohammed and his companions…
Young men don’t join gangs just for the booty, but also for the sense of brotherhood the gang confers, and, perhaps primarily, for proof of masculinity. Psychologists and sociologists have known for a long time that gangs are particularly appealing to fatherless boys because boys who lack the guidance of fathers are most likely to feel insecure about their masculine identity, and thus most likely to seek confirmation of it in the ultra-masculine activities of gangs. Social scientists were hardly the first to discover this basic fact of male psychology. From the earliest times, almost all societies developed special rites of initiation for males to assist them in the passage from boyhood to manhood, and to channel them away from anti-social activities.
When boys grow up in communities without the guidance of fathers and elders and without established rites of initiation and confirmation, they tend to create their own initiation groups and rituals of passage. This is why modern urban areas with high concentrations of fatherless boys are the places where gang formation is highest.
The epidemic of fatherless boys is a worldwide phenomenon and it spells more recruits for the Islamic jihad. The reason the jihad doesn’t have a recruitment problem is that it appeals to basic masculine psychology. It promises action, male bonding, legitimate looting, a cause to fight for, subservient females in this world, and dozens more in the next. It’s the reason Muslims have been extremely successful in recruiting prisoners to Islam both in Europe and America. As I noted in Christianity, Islam, and Atheism:
In the United States, roughly 80 percent of inmates who find faith during their incarceration choose Islam. Many of these men are in prison in the first place because they were attracted to the masculine world of gangs. Now they’re being offered the chance to join the biggest, most powerful “gang” in the world. We’re seeing the beginning of a trend in the West: fatherless boys joining gangs, then ending up in prison, then coming out of prison as converts to Islam and the jihad. (p. 169)
There seems to be no shortage of young men willing to join up with the warrior culture of Islamic jihad. How about our own warrior culture—the U.S. military? The military still produces warriors, but the military culture is changing in ways that may make it less attractive to potential future warriors. Traditionally, the military has served, among other things, as an initiation into manhood. Past Marine recruiting campaigns, for example, were built around themes such as “The Marines Make Men” or “A Few Good Men.”
I posted on Armstrong's naturalism yesterday, and that got me to thinking whether he ever said anything anywhere about religion. A little searching turned up the following 2002 interview of Armstrong by Andrew Chrucky. Here is an excerpt that touches upon Armstrong's view of religion:
Chrucky: Let me move on to something else. What I would want to know from a philosopher if I were an ordinary person. Probably the first things I would want to know is: Are you religious in any way? Armstrong: No. I'm not.
Chrucky: What is your take on religion? Armstrong: I have the greatest respect for it. I think it may be the thing that many people need, and it enshrines many truths about life. But I do not think it is actually true.
Chrucky: So, it expresses truth in some metaphorical way? Armstrong: In some metaphorical and symbolic way, I think it grasps at truth. And I think it gives hope and comfort to many.
Chrucky: I am not much into religion as a subject, but perhaps someone like Bultmann who was demythologizing religion is someone you would find favor with? Armstrong: I am quite happy with religion going on the way it is. I don't want to alter the religions. That's not my interest. But I suppose that if you are considering what is the truth behind religion then it would have to be demythologized.
Chrucky: How do you view the state of the world? Right now there seems to be a rise in fundamentalism all over. Armstrong: Yes.
Chrucky: You know Iran became a theocracy, and there seems to be a Christian-Islamic confrontation going on. How does one resolve this? Is there a philosophical way of looking at it? Armstrong: No. I don't think so.
Chrucky: Is there a need for dialogue? . . . so that religions confront one another, or is this hopeless? Armstrong: I don't really know. I really don't have any views on this point. I think of myself as in the Christian and Jewish tradition, and in the tradition of Greece. Matthew Arnold thought of Hebraism and Hellenism as the twin poles of Western culture. I see myself as a person in the stream within that culture, and I think it may perhaps be the best tradition of thought and life that has so far been evolved. Certainly I don't think we should be apologetic about it.
This interview confirms what I suspected was Armstrong's attitude toward religion. As a naturalist, he cannot consider any of the characteristic claims of religion to be literally true. But as a conservative, he has "the greatest respect for it" and he appreciates the important and beneficial role it plays in the lives of many people. While not true in its characteristic claims, religion "enshrines many truths about life." Armstrong endorses the notion that Hebraism and Hellenism are the twin poles of Western culture, the tradition of which is the best that has so far been evolved. Armstrong sees himself in that tradition. One might wonder, however, whether his work in philosophy has had or will have the effect of undermining it.
He is clearly a traditionalist who takes the great problems of philosophy seriously and unabashedly uses phrases like 'great problems.' He respects the tradition even while diverging from it. I cannot imagine him writing a book like David Stove's The Plato Cult. His approach in philosophy is direct, realistic, ontological, nonlinguistic. He is also traditional in that he sees an important role for philosophy. He is far from scientism as I tried to make clear in my earlier post.
A final observation. Armstrong's is a disinterested search for truth. He is like Aristotle in that regard. One cannot imagine his naturalism becoming a substitute religion for him.
You blogged that doing philosophy has great value in itself; even if philosophy is aporetic. But how often, or how long per day or month, should one devote to it? Doing philosophy seems (to me at least) to have diminishing returns, if philosophy is aporetic. Or has your experience been different?
My approach to philosophy could be called radically aporetic. Thus I hold not only that philosophy is best approached aporetically, via its problems, but also that its central problems are insoluble. Thus I tend, tentatively and on the basis of inductive evidence, to the view that the central problems of philosophy, while genuine and thus not amenable to Wittgensteinian or other dissolution, are true aporiai, impasses. It is clear that one could take a broadly aporetic approach without subscribing to the insolubility thesis. But I go 'whole hog.' Hence radically aporetic.
I won't explain this any further, having done so elsewhere, but proceed to V.'s question.
I take our friend to be asking the following. How much time ought one devote to philosophy if philosophy is its problems and they are insoluble? But there is a deeper and logically prior question lurking in the background: Why do philosophy at all if its problems are insoluble? What good is philosophy aporetically pursued?
1. It is good in that it conduces to intellectual humility, to an appreciation of our actual predicament in this life, which is one of profound ignorance concerning what would be most worth knowing if we could know it. The aporetic philosopher is a Socratic philosopher, one who knows what he knows and knows what he does not know. The aporetic philosopher is a debunker of epistemic pretense. One sort of epistemic pretense is that of the positive scientists who, succumbing to the temptation to wax philosophical, overstep the bounds of their competence, proposing bogus solutions to philosophical problems, and making incoherent assertions. They often philosophize without knowing it, and they do it incompetently, without self-awareness and self-criticism. I have given many examples of this in these pages. Thus philosophy as I conceive it is an important antidote to scientism. Scientism is an enemy of the humanities and I am a defender of the humanities.
There is also the threat emanating from political ideologies such as communism and leftism and Islamism and their various offshoots. The critique of these and other pernicious worldviews is a task for philosophy. And who is better suited for debunking operations than the aporetician?
2. Beyond its important debunking use, philosophy aporetically pursued has a spiritual point and purpose. If there are indeed absolutely insoluble problems, they mark the boundary of the discursive intellect and point beyond it. Immersion in philosophical problems brings the discursive mind to an appreciation of its limits and raises the question of what, if anything, lies beyond the limits and how one may gain access to it.
I take the old-fashioned view that the ultimate purpose of human life, a purpose to which all others must be subordinated, is to search for, and if possible, participate in the Absolute. There are several approaches to the Absolute, the main ones being philosophy, religion, and mysticism.
The radical aporetician in philosophy goes as far as he can with philosophy, but hits a dead-end, and is intellectually hnest enough to admit that he is at his wit's end. This motivates him to explore other paths to the Absolute, paths via faith/revelation and mystical intuition. The denigration of the latter by most contemporary philosophers merely shows how spiritually benighted and shallow they are, how historically uniformed, and in some cases, how willfully stupid.
But once a philosopher always a philosopher. So the radical aporetician does not cease philosophizing while exploring the other paths; he uses philosophy to chasten the excess of those other paths. And so he denigrates reason as little as he denigrates faith/revelation and mystical intuition. He merely assigns to reason its proper place.
Now to V.'s actual question. How much time for philosophy? A good chunk of every day. Just how much depending on the particular circumstances of one's particular life. But time must also be set aside for prayer and meditation, the reading of the great scriptures, and other religious/ mystical practices.
For one ought to be a truth-seeker above else. But if one is serious about seeking truth, then one cannot thoughtlessly assume that the only access to ultimate truth is via philosophy. A person who refuses to explore other paths is like the churchmen who refused to look through Galileo's telescope. They 'knew' that Aristotle had 'proven' the 'quintessential' perfection of celestial bodies, a perfection that would disallow any such 'blemishes' as craters. So they refused to look and see.
One of my correspondents is a retired philosophy of professor and a Buddhist. He maintains that one ought to spend as much time meditating as one spends on philosophy. So if one philosophizes for five hours per day, then one ought to meditate for five hours per day! A hard saying indeed!
There is much depth in your short post on religion and reason from 6 May. Here are two points I often ponder about this topic:
First, I appreciate the difficulty of solving philosophical problems, but I wonder about the claim that they are insoluble (I suppose “insoluble” means “insoluble by humans alone”). If the problems are beyond mere human knowledge, how could we know this? One may inductively suspect insolubility by reflecting upon his experience of practicing philosophy, but how could he know the unknowable? If we can’t solve philosophical problems by philosophizing, then it seems we can’t conclude insolubility by philosophizing because this very conclusion would be a philosophical conclusion.
BV: I hold that the central problems of philosophy are most of them genuine, some of them humanly important, but all of them insoluble. And you are right, by 'insoluble' I mean insoluble by us or by beings of a similar cognitive architecture, ectypal intellects in Kant's jargon. Furthermore, pace Nicholas Rescher, I don't count a 'solution' that is relative to some set of background assumptions and cognitive values as a solution. Of course there are solutions in this sense. Nominalists solve the problem of univerals in one way, realists in another, conceptualists in a third, etc. But those are merely intramural solutions. What is wanted are solutions acceptable to all, solutions that hold ouside the walls of self-reinforcing enclaves of the like-minded.
You ask a very important question: How could one know that the central philosophical problems are insoluble? You yourself supplied the clue: by induction from philosophical experience. The best and the brightest have been at this game for thousands of years but not one single problem has been solved during this period, solved to the satisfaction of all competent practitioners. Everything is up for grabs, even the most elementary and picayune topics. Take a look at what is going one as we speak in the thread on logical form. Philosophers can't even agree on the most basic concepts of deductive logic. There is controversy everywhere. This is a plain fact.
The strife of systems and the ubiquity and longevity of controversy need explaining and I offer the insolubility thesis as the best explanation. Why haven't the problems been solved? Because they are insoluble. I agree with Benson Mates on this point. Of course, the following is an invalid argument form: Such-and-such has hitherto not been accomplished; ergo, such-and-such will never be accomplished. But then every inductive argument is invalid. Some inductive arguments, however, do quite reasonably support their conclusions.
But you can and should press your objection. If I maintain that the problems of philosophy are insoluble, then, given that the metaphilosophical problem of whether or not philosophical problems are soluble is a philosophical problem, it follows that the metaphilosophical problem is insoluble. Is this a difficult for my position? Not obviously. I simply 'bite the bullet' as they say. I accept that the meta problem is also insoluble.
In fact, the insolubility of the meta problem is further evidence of my thesis.
In other words, I am not dogmatizing. I am not claiming to know with certainty that the problems of philosophy are insoluble. I am not claiming to have solved the meta problem. I am merely claiming that the insolubility thesis is very reasonably maintained. Not every truth is such that we can know it to be true. With some truths the most we can expect here below is reasonable belief.
Compare God and the soul. I do not claim to know with certainty whether either exists. I claim merely that it it is reasonable to affirm both.
Second, I agree that it’s wise to intelligently practice religion and mysticism -- which, by the way, rules out superstition and group-think! Take religion: religious practice does not exclude reason, as Mates’ quote implies. It is a false dilemma to say “One can seek truth either by reason or religion, but not both.” Why not both? If I try to lift a stone and realize I can’t manage alone, this would not entail that I can or should stop lifting. If a stronger person assists me, and I trust his assistance, I can still lift. He may request my help. He may even require that I give it my all, and I may grow from the effort. Likewise, intelligent religion requires reason.
Consider Christianity: The biblical conception of faith is “trust based on good reasons”. This point is clear in passages such as Hebrews 11:1 and 1 Peter 3:15. In the Gospels, Jesus himself reasons and encourages others to do the same. Christian faith calls for the whole self: heart, mind, soul, and strength.
I’d be interested in your thoughts on reason and intelligent religion.
BV: I basically agree with you. Reason in the end must confess its own infirmity. It cannot deliver on its promises. The truth-seeker must explore other avenues. Religion is one, mysticism is another.
Over at the The Philosopher's Stone, Robert Paul Wolff waxes enthusiastic over a quotation from Hobbes:
"Fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publicly allowed, RELIGION; not allowed, SUPERSTITION."
Just think what Hobbes accomplishes in these eighteen words! The only distinction between religion and superstition is whether the tales that provoke our fear of things invisible are allowed or not allowed. It is the law, the will of the sovereign, that constitutes the difference betwixt the two. I think that single sentence may be the most powerful argument against religion faith ever written.
There, now I can face another evening of bloviating pundits.
I grant that the Hobbes quotation is a stylistically dazzling English sentence. But I find no non-question-begging argument in it, just a series of assertions:
1. The object of religious belief is an invisible power. 2. This object evokes fear. 3. The fear-evoking object of religion is imaginary, hence nonexistent. 4. Religious and superstitious belief have the same object. 5. There is no intrinsic difference between religion and supersition; the only difference is a relational one. Belief in an imaginary, fear-evoking invisible power is religion if the sovereign allows it. Otherwise it is superstition.
If this is the best the anti-religionists can do, they are in sad shape.
Meanwhile over at Oxford University, Vince Vitale maintains that God or rather God-belief is not dead. Watch the video. My old atheist friend Quentin Smith is quoted. (Note that 'old friend' does not imply that the friend is old; but Quentin is.)
Jime Sayaka interviews philosopher of religion Michael Sudduth on the topic of postmortem survival. (HT: Dave Lull) Excerpt:
My central thesis is that traditional empirical arguments for survival based on the data of psychical research—what I call classical empirical arguments—do not succeed in showing that personal survival is more probable than not, much less that it is highly probable, especially where the survival hypothesis is treated as a scientific or quasi-scientific hypothesis. So my objection is first and foremost a criticism of what I take to be unjustified claims regarding the posterior probability of the hypothesis of personal survival, that is, it’s net plausibility given the relevant empirical data and standard background knowledge. Consequently, the classical arguments, at least as traditionally formulated, do not provide a sufficiently robust epistemic justification for belief in personal survival. That’s my thesis.
Our friend Sudduth a couple of years ago made the journey to the East (to allude to a Hermann Hesse title). Thus he states elsewhere in the interview, "I am a Vedantin philosopher, so I certainly accept the idea of survival, at least broadly understood as the postmortem persistence of consciousness." I would have appreciated some clarification and elaboration on this point. I would guess that Michael now no longer believes in the survival of an individuated, personal consciousness, but believes instead in the survival of a pre-personal or impersonal consciousness common to all of us. But I am only guessing. I am aware, though, that one can be a Vedantin without being an Advaitin.
Albert Camus, one of the luminaries of French existentialism, died on this day in 1960, in a car crash. He was 46. Had he lived, he might have become a Christian. Or so it seems from Howard Mumma, Conversations with Camus. This second-hand report is worth considering, although it must be consumed cum grano salis. See also Camus the Christian?
Csezlaw Milosz also draws attention to Camus' religious disposition.
Czeslaw Milosz, "The Importance of Simone Weil" in Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision (University of California Press, 1977), p. 91:
Violent in her judgments and uncompromising, Simone Weil was, at least by temperament, an Albigensian, a Cathar; this is the key to her thought. She drew extreme conclusions from the Platonic current in Christianity. Here we touch upon hidden ties between her and Albert Camus. The first work by Camus was his university dissertation on St. Augustine. Camus, in my opinion, was also a Cathar, a pure one, ['Cathar' from Gr. katharos, pure] and if he rejected God it was out of love for God because he was not able to justify Him. The last novel written by Camus, The Fall, is nothing else but a treatise on Grace — absent grace — though it is also a satire: the talkative hero, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, who reverses the words of Jesus and instead of "Judge not and ye shall not be judged: gives the advice "Judge, and ye shall not be judged," could be, I have reason to suspect, Jean-Paul Sartre.
Here’s fodder for a follow-up MP post, if you care to pursue it. I do not endorse the following objection, but I wonder how you’d reply.
In “David Lewis on Religion” you say: "To be a good philosopher of X one ought to know both philosophy and X from the inside, by practice." But there is some prima facie tension between this claim and your insistence that arguments don’t have testicles (or skin color).
Objector: “You, Maverick Philosopher, can never know *from the inside* the relevant experiences of women (or racial minorities), so your arguments are not to be taken seriously.” Why not let Lewis’s arguments stand or fall on their merits? And if his arguments *are* defective in some way Lewis cannot see due to his irreligiousity, then mustn't you allow the same charge against your political/cultural arguments mutatis mutandis?
"Arguments don't have testicles" is my preferred response to women (and men) who claim that men have no right to an opinion about the morality of abortion due to their inability to become pregnant. An argument for or against abortion is good or bad regardless of the sex of the person giving the argument. And similarly for race. One doesn't have to be black to have a well-founded opinion about the causes and effects of black-on-black crime. The point holds in general in all objective subject areas. For purposes of logical appraisal, arguments can and must be detached from their producers.
It is also clear that one can be a competent gynecologist without being a woman, and a competent specialist in male urology without being a man. Only a fool would discount the advice of a female urologist on the treatment of erectile dysfunction on the ground that the good doctor is incapable of having an erection. "You don't know what it's like, doc, you don't have a penis!" In objective matters like these, the 'what it's like' is not relevant. One needn't know what it's like to have morning sickness to be able to prescribe an effective palliative. I know what it is like to be a man 'from the inside,' but my literal (spatial) insides can be better known by certain women.
But in other subject areas, the 'what it is like' is relevant indeed. Consider Mary, a character in a rather well known piece of philosophy-of-mind boilerplate.
Mary is a brilliant neuroscientist who has spent her entire life in a visually impoverished state. Pent up in a room from birth and sheltered from colors, her visual experience is restricted to black and white and shades of gray. You are to imagine that she has come to know everything there is to know about the brain and its visual system. Her access to the outer world is via black-and-white TV. The neuroscience texts over which she so assiduously pores have beeen expurgated by the dreaded Color Censor.
Mary knows every third-person, objective fact about the physics of colors and the neurophysiology of color perception. But there is plenty she dos not know: what it is like to see a red rose or a blue sky. That sort of thing. In Chisholm-speak, she does not know what it is like to be appeared-to redly.
So let's say Mary knows everything there is to know about colors from the outside, but nothing about them from the inside. She has no first-person, experiential, knowledge of colors. Do you think she would be in a position to write about the phenomenology of color? Obviously not.
Analogously, a philosopher of religion who has never had a religious experience, and indeed lacks a religious sensibility or disposition such as would incline one to have such experiences, is in no position to write about religion. And this, even if he knows every objective fact about every religion. Thus our imagined philosopher of religion knows the history of religions and their sociology, and can rattle off every doctrine of every religion. He knows all about the Christological heresies and the filioque clause and the anatta doctrine, etc. He is like Mary who knows all about colors from the outside but nothing about them from the inside. He knows the externals and trappings, but not the living essence.
He literally does not know, from the inside, what he is talking about just as Mary literally does not know, from the inside, what she is talking about.
Now no analogy is perfect (else it wouldn't be an analogy) but the foregoing analogy supports the following response to the above objection. The objection is that one cannot consistently maintain both that
(i) some claims and arguments are such that their logical appraisal (their evaluation in terms of truth, validity, soundness, relevance etc.) can and must be conducted independently of inquiries into the natures and capacities and environments of the persons who advance the claims and arguments
(ii) some claims and arguments are such that their logical appraisal can legitimately involve inquiry into the nature, capacities, and environments of the persons who advance the claims and arguments.
My response is that one can, with no breach of logical propriety, maintain both (i) and (ii). It depends on whether the subject matter is wholly objective or also necessarily involves elements of subjectivity. If we are talking about the morality of abortion, then the arguments are good or bad independently of who is making them. They are neither male nor female. But if we are talking about the phenomenology of colors, then a person such as Mary is disqualified by her lack of experience should she advance the claim that there are no phenomenal colors or color qualia or that the whole reality of color perception is exhausted by the neurophysiology of such perception.
Can a man know what it is like to be a woman, or more specifically, what it is like to be a woman in philosophy? (There is an entire website devoted to this variation on Nagel's question.) Some women complain bitterly about their experiences as women in the male-dominated field of philosophy. (And some of these women have legitimate grievances.) Can a man know what it is like to be mocked or ridiculed or made to feel stupid? Of course. Who has never been mocked or ridiculed or made to feel stupid? The point here is that men and women have the same types of experiences. I can't feel your pain, only Bill Cinton with his special powers can do that. But I feel pain and so I know what it is like for you to feel pain, whether you are male of female, human or feline. Since I know what it is like to be ridiculed, I know what it is like for a woman to be ridiculed. But an irreligious person does not know what it is like to have a religious experience for the simple reasons that he does not have them.
I know fear and so does my cat. But he has never experienced Heideggerian Angst. So if he were, per impossibile, to say something about it, having read, per impossibile, the relevant sections of Sein und Zeit, we would be justified in ignoring his opinions. Go take a car nap! The irreligious person is like my cat: he lacks a certain range of experiences.
I am not saying that if one has religious experiences, then one will necessarily reject the view that religion is buncombe. For it is possible to have a certain range of experiences and yet decide that they are non-veridical. What I am saying is that religious experiences are a sine qua non for anyone who expects to be taken with full seriousness when he talks or writes about religion. So given that David Lewis did not have a religious bone in his body, as his wife stated, that gives me an excellent reason not to take with full seriousness his asseverations on religion. He literally does not know what he is talking about.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, by contrast, was clearly a religious man. So I take his writings on religion with utmost seriousness, which is not to say that I endorse his philosophy of religion.
Jim Slagle points me this morning to a post of his that links to four papers by David Lewis on religion from Andrew Bailey's Lewis page. (Occasional MavPhil commenter Bailey deserves high praise for making available online papers by van Inwagen and Lewis.) Slagle goes on to make some criticisms of Lewis with which I agree.
Since Lewis "didn't have a religious bone in his body" as I recall his wife Stephanie reporting in an A. P. A. obituary, a serious question arises: if you don't know a subject-matter from the inside, and indeed by sympathetic practice of that subject-matter, how seriously should we take what you have to say about that subject-matter?
For example, how seriously ought one take a philosopher of law who has never practiced law or who doesn't even have a law degree? How seriously ought one take a philosopher of physics who has never done physics? Such a philosopher does not know the subject from the inside by practice. Equally, how seriously should one take a physicist such as the benighted Lawrence Krauss who does not know philosophy from the inside, by practice, yet pontificates about philosophical questions? In the case of Krauss, though not in the case of all such physicists, we should not take him seriously at all.
To be a good philosopher of X one ought to know both philosophy and X from the inside, by practice.
Why should it be any different for the philosophy of religion? I incline to the view that one should not take too seriously what a philosopher says about religion unless he knows religion from the inside by the sincere and sympathetic practice of a particular religion. David Lewis, without a doubt, was one of the best philosophical practitioners of his generation. And yet he understood nothing of religion from the inside.
I am not saying that we should dismiss what Lewis says about religion. I am saying that we should not take it too seriously. He literally doesn't know (by sympathetic practice, from the inside) what he is talking about.
It cuts the other way too. What many if not most religionists says about philosophy is stupid and pointless because it 'betrays' no understanding of philosophy from the inside by sympathetic practice.
Yesterday I argued that atheism is not a religion. Well, theism is not a religion either, but for different reasons. Atheism is not a religion because it amounts to the rejection of the central commitment of anything that could legitimately be called a religion. (So if atheism were a religion, it would amount to a rejection of itself.) This core commitment is the affirmation of the existence of a transcendent reality, whether of a personal or impersonal nature, contact or community or identification with which is the summum bonum and the ultimate purpose of human existence.
Theism is not a religion for at least two reasons.
First, there is no religion in general, only particular religions, and theism is not a particular religion. Theism is merely a proposition common to many different (monotheistic and polytheistic) religions. It is the proposition that God or gods exist. As such, it is simply the negation of the characteristic atheist proposition. No extant religion consists of the theist's bare metaphysical asseveration, and no possible religion could consist of it alone.
Second, both doctrine and practice are essential to a religion, but a theist needn't engage in any specifically theistic practice to be a theist. He need only uphold the theoretical proposition that there is such a being or such beings as God or gods.
If theism is not a religion, then, as Tully Borland suggested to me, it is difficult to see how a reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance could be construed as violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. The clause reads as follows: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ."
"One nation under God" from the Pledge is at most an affirmation of theism. But theism is not a religion. So the occurrence of the word 'God' in the pledge does nothing to establsh any religion as the state religion. Understandably, atheists don't like that word in the Pledge, but the Establishment Clause gives them no ground for removing it.
Similarly with "In God We Trust" on our currency. This is more than a bare affirmation (or presupposition) of the existence of God; it brings in the further notion of trusting God, a notion that is admittedly religious. But which religion is established by "In God We Trust"? Judaism? Christianity? Islam? All three Abrahamic religions have monotheism in common. Obviously, if Congress were to establish a state religion it would have to be some one particular religion. But no particular religion has proprietary rights in "In God We Trust." So why should we think that the phrase violates the Establishment Clause.
And the same goes for the Ten Commandments as I maintained years ago when I first took to the 'sphere. The Decalogue is common to the three Abrahamic religions. So if a judge posts them in his chambers, which religion is he establishing by so doing?
Once again we see what extremists contemporary iberals are. The plain sense of the Establishment Clause is that there shall be no state religion. One has to torture the Clause to extract from it justification to remove all references to God and every last vestige of religion from the public sphere, a sphere that ever expands under liberal fascism while the private sphere contracts.