Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

"Who is this who darkens counsel....?"

I dragged this up out of the void for no particularly good reason except that I stumbled across it again.  I'll leave it in the original formatting so it's clearer what's going on:

"I'd like to take another look at this:

"The focus of the teachings of the gospels is not, IMHO, either soteriology nor the hereafter.

"Most of the time when I'm at work, I'm not thinking about my paycheck and what I can buy with it. Yet. if the paycheck never comes, I don't have a job. I propose that the relationship between soteriology and religion is similar to the relation between pay and employment; a path to salvation (however conceived) is the difference between a religion and a set of suggestions.

"Now, the suggestions may be very wise, but without a soteriology to back them up they don't form a religion. They aren't binding (you seem fond enough of epistemology to know what "religion" means in Latin).

"So the choices for a Christian, as I see them, are:

"-Belief in the resurrection of the body in an immortal form, requiring physical law to be almost completely and permanently rewritten by divine fiat.

"-Belief in the survival of the mind/personality/"soul" without the brain. Neuroscience and clinical psychology make this option increasingly untenable.

"-Lack of belief in the resurrection, with the attendant loss of concepts like "redemption", "heaven","accruing treasure in heaven", "hell", "blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth", &c. At this point, Christianity is so watered down as to be largely indistinguishable from atheism.

"Am I missing something? Declare, if you have understanding."

The first premise is pretty much the subject of  Derrida's The Gift of Death and of Given Time:  Counterfeit Money.  That is, can there be a gift, if a gift is understood as something given without knowledge of its deliverance, without knowledge of its receipt, so that there is no reciprocity, no possible system of exchange at all (I would liken this to consideration in contract law, where the least thing can be accorded the status of creating an offer and an acceptance and, with the consideration, a contract).   That, to me, is the first part:  is religion merely about salvation at some level, about what I ultimately receive from it?  Because if it is, can grace ever be a true gift?  Can there ever be true faith?

Christianity is certainly about receiving something; but is that something necessarily salvation?  First, we'd have to define "salvation."  The most popular definition is "eternal life," by which some get it, and some don't.  But set that aside, and what else could it mean?  A good life now?  That's the gospel of wealth; so there's another one.  What else?  Aid and comfort in this life?  Why couldn't that be salvation?  And as for the distinction between "religion" and "a set of suggestions," what religion is not a set of suggestions?  Some may take them as absolute strictures to be absolutely followed, and those who don't are damned.  But some people like chocolate ice cream, and some people will only eat vanilla.  Some of us might suggest they try other flavors, to no avail.  Are these things right, or wrong?  They certainly aren't a religion, because no matter what individuals may say, the weight of history says religion is an option, not a requirement.  You may, after all, say you are religious; but how am I to know for sure?  As Luther understood, no one can know.  Even God, in Jeremiah, says the heart is devious above all things, and therefore God has to test it to know what is in it.  If you don't accept it as binding, it is only a suggestion to you.  And does salvation alone make it binding?

What, then, of the woman who washes Jesus' feet, in Luke?  Clearly the woman expects nothing from her act except some money.  Does she go off believing in a soteriology that wouldn't be formulated for another 200 years?  Does Luke foresee the atonement theory, and that's why he includes her story in his gospel?  Declare, if you have understanding.

Or you could just go here, and read what I've said about salvation before.  An interesting trick, since it came up by thinking of "ligare" and then the akedah. It's an interesting question, what assurance of salvation Abraham had in Genesis 12, or at the moment he raised the knife over Isaac.  Not much of one in either case, from what I can see; yet see how much religion has sprung from those two simple events.

Let me finish these assertions off quickly, then:

"-Belief in the resurrection of the body in an immortal form, requiring physical law to be almost completely and permanently rewritten by divine fiat.

A common misconception, but not one supported by scriptures.  John goes to great pains to prove Jesus' resurrection was real: Thomas touches his wounds, Jesus eats fish on the beach, etc.  But none of the other gospels make Jesus' resurrection necessarily bodily, and even in John's version Jesus appears in a closed room, without opening a door.  Whatever form the resurrection takes, it doesn't require physical laws to be rewritten.  But if you accept the reality of a Creator, there's no reason why that couldn't happen, either.

"-Belief in the survival of the mind/personality/"soul" without the brain. Neuroscience and clinical psychology make this option increasingly untenable.

I don't know why, since science can neither confirm nor deny the reality of a soul, mind, personality, etc.  Science cannot confirm my love for my wife and my daughter, and I don't know why it would want to.  Science can make certain explanations, but I find them to be reductio arguments and not to be taken seriously.  Nor is there any reason why the soul/mind/what-have-you (all of the terms have their limitations, yet I hear neuroscientists speak freely about "Consciousness" and "Mind" with no more understanding of the terms than I have of the terms of neuroscience) would not interact through the brain (so the "God spot" in the brain may be merely the neuroreceptors we mistake for the experience of God in mystics, or it may be just where God interacts with the human.  To understand otherwise is to push dualism into strange new places.)  The metaphysics of Christianity are only untenable if you think science has revealed truths about reality which it hasn't.  As I said, science cannot prove or disprove my love for my family; and all attempts to explain it scientifically are really rather unnecessary, not to mention ridiculous.  Ultimately, and this is revealed by the reliance on "belief," it's a matter of language games.  You either believe in science, and discredit mind; or you believe in mind, and dismiss some aspects of neuroscience.  Or, you accept Wittgenstein's conclusion to the Tractatus.

 "-Lack of belief in the resurrection, with the attendant loss of concepts like "redemption", "heaven", "accruing treasure in heaven", "hell", "blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth", etc. At this point, Christianity is so watered down as to be largely indistinguishable from atheism.
 Whatever have you said that makes me discard the resurrection?  Attendant concepts?  You weren't paying attention.  The blessings of Christianity come in this life, not in some sweet bye and bye; else the Beatitudes you allude to are just empty phrases.  As for the particular blessing of the meek, I've written elsewhere of the power of powerlessness.  You could look it up, but here, I'll find it for you.  If these were things only to be known in some sweet hereafter, it would be a miserable state of affairs indeed.  But if they are known now; if the last parable of Matthew can have any meaning and place in this world (rather than the next, if there is one), then the life we seek is here, not there.

As for the distinction between atheism and Christianity, I leave you with this simple historical example.  My church, the United Church of Christ, started hospitals, schools, orphanages, mental asylums, social service centers, all of which still exist 150+ years later.  They were started by German immigrants, people without much money themselves, to help other German immigrants, back when, actually, there wasn't a Germany.  They were started to help strangers, in other words.  They were started by people of faith and set up for anyone who needed help, and they still serve that function today.

True, they could have been started by atheists or free thinkers (in the 19th century).  But they weren't.  They were started by Christians; because they were Christians.  If that sounds a bit triumphalist, well; I mean it to be.  I am proud of those people, and what they accomplished.  And they did it not because they believed so strongly in their own salvation; but because they believed so much in the good God wanted them to do.  And they believed in God for...well, for many reasons.  But, in major part, it is clear, for the same reasons Wittgenstein (again!) identified in John Bunyan:  because of something they had experienced.

Can you declare it false?  Well, better that falsity than the presumed assurance of the atheists, is all I have to say.  The former has clearly done more good in the world than the latter.

13 Comments:

Blogger rick allen said...

We most certainly must first define "salvation."

I always take as my touchstone the statement of the angel from the beginning of the gospel of Matthew: He shall be called Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.

Eternal life is certainly involved, since sin entails death. But it is the concept of sin that salvation addresses, not death, primarily, or so it seems to me. Our safety, our salvation, lies in overcoming our alienation from God and from our neighbor.

8:00 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Eternal life is certainly involved, since sin entails death. But it is the concept of sin that salvation addresses, not death, primarily, or so it seems to me. Our safety, our salvation, lies in overcoming our alienation from God and from our neighbor.

Which roots our salvation firmly in this world, not wholly in the next.

And really, my general point was: there are many soteriologies. Some say my salvation is dependent upon securing your salvation (thus evangelism of the "Are you saved?" variety). Other soteriologies focus solely on this life (the gospel of wealth), and others are more nuanced, still.

If I push against the centrality of salvation in Christian doctrine, it's probably because of my childhood among the evangelical "are you saved?" types. I don't so much seek to displace it, as to relocate it.

Or maybe just redefine it.

8:42 AM  
Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

Someone at You Know Where today said something about the deep insights keeping them coming back.
Only I really mean it, here.

Since beginning in 2006 when I started blogging as an internal critic of the left, to try to figure out what we were doing wrong that kept us from winning elections and making better laws, it has been my greatest surprise that so much of what was wrong could be traced back to atheism-materialism undermining the most basic metaphysical positions out of which liberalism is made. I had hoped to avoid talking about religion to avoid the divisiveness that was guaranteed to come with that but it is inevitable.

On the way, looking deeper into the scientific claims of atheism I've found that there are chasms between a lot of what is claimed and what is actually there, in science even as expressed conventionallt.

Whatever form the resurrection takes, it doesn't require physical laws to be rewritten. But if you accept the reality of a Creator, there's no reason why that couldn't happen, either.

Often presented as a "violation" of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, in my experience. I've read some interesting things some biologists have said casting doubt on whether or not living organisms don't "violate" the Second Law, continually, and not all of those among the "heretics" such as Rupert Sheldrake (look at his CV and compare it to Dawkins' or Myers to see just how "bad" a scientist he is). He has pointed out that the Second Law describes a closed system and that organisms aren't closed systems. And, of course, you don't even have to go there as there is nothing in the Second Law to cover the action of God.

As tempted as I am to go into one item after another, I've generally found that the "scientific foundation" of atheism and even materialism, when looked at in depth, doing what math one can manage, that just about all of it fails to hold together.

NOT that saying things about that is tolerable on lefty blogs where it is as forbidden to do that as it is to look at the myths that right wingers create to "support" their dogmas.

Liberalism is either based in its essential metaphysical holdings, which are actively attacked by a lot of ideological "science", especially that promoted as validating atheism, or it is invalid. I'd look to history for the validation of them, human history is the macroscopic expression of all of the things the "sciences" purport to instruct us about. And all of it, science, history, etc. is ultimately validated through what human experience persuades us of. Liberals should trust their own experience again.

I don't have any faith in the possibility that atheism and liberalism are compatible, before long there will be a major and telling discrepancy. I don't believe in atheist liberals.

8:59 AM  
Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

Having been brought up as a Catholic we didn't assume were were saved, I sort of grew up feeling that to think you were was probably a sign of being sinfully full of pride. The Irish in my feels that if something is wrong I must be to blame.

I'm sort of a universalist now. I can't imagine why God would create someone to not save them, somehow.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

I grew up a Calvinist; couldn't possibly be sure of my salvation (although we didn't push that "Elect" idea very hard).

I still marvel at the words of Julian of Norwich, who asks Christ in her vision how it is that some face eternal punishment (i.e., how is that just?), and gets the reply Eliot made famous: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

And frankly, the idea of damnation is why I try to set soteriology aside completely, where I can. As Rick said, I'm more interested in rejoining with God and my neighbor, than with saving my soul from eternal hell-fire.

As for your fight against materialism: I studied science all through school, and actually scored quite high in science on the ACT (does anybody take that anymore?). I was reading about atomic theory in the 5th grade, etc., etc., etc. No, I was no Sheldon Cooper, but I knew my stuff.

I'm dismayed now that so many people think science is heilege, set apart, meant to remain unscathed. I'm bemused by people who respond to Kuhn by denying his central insight (science is just another philosophy), so as to avoid the conclusions of his idea of paradigms. They make science a religion, but it is the "true" religion, so it's okay. And it's not a religion, because it's science-y!

You know what I'm talking about.

I'm a pastor, I've made my confession, I find theology and faith (not to be confused with belief) to be foundational to human existence. But for the non-religious, I find philosophy the touchstone that explains and comprehends all. It's amusing how many people don't want to see that, don't want to put science among the philosophies, all the while they want to denigrate religions (about which they generally know nothing).

If I could do anything, it would be to return the study of philosophy and of theology (philosophy of religion would entail world religions) to the classroom, and not just relegate it to an intro course in college, or the sole province of Philosophy majors.

How many Ph.D.'s know anything about philosophy at all?

9:15 AM  
Blogger rick allen said...

I have lately been reading Werner Heisenberg's memoirs, Der Teil und das Ganze, about half way through, and I have been struck by how deep a knowledge of philosophy he and his colleagues--Bohr, Pauli, and others--have of philosophy. Far from treating it as some sort of superstitious or naive remnant, their thinking very consciously utilizes Platonic and Kantian categories to test how the baffling phenomena of sub-atomic interactions can be rationalized.

I don't know if we can blame modern scientists for their typical extreme specialization. The explosion of scientific knowledge in the last half century makes me wonder whether the human mind has the capacity to be both broad enough to encompass the wealth of new knowledge and deep enough to see it in the context of human reflection over the centuries.

10:00 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

I would only defend my broad brush statements by pointing out the scientists you mention are all Germans.

I don't know the German educational system well, but there is little or no philosophy taught in American schools at any level, unless you pursue the major in college. And my experience is largely with the laity on blogs, not with people as knowledgeable as those you cite. Not scientists, per se, so much as people who think a) they know science and b) think they know all they need to know, because they know science.

So, generally, I find the specialization is not limited to scientists, either. Lots of people who think what they know is all the knowledge that is needed; which, again, is why I'd press for a better study of philosophy, since it underlies all other knowledge, especially how we know what we know, and why we consider that knowledge "knowledge" (as opposed to wisdom).

Interesting note, though (I'm not trying to criticize you); I wouldn't have suspected such knowledge of philosophy among non-philosophers.

Then again, the breadth of knowledge one finds reflected in the work of Bultmann (his footnotes are treatises in themselves) attest to the power and tradition of German scholarship.

10:16 AM  
Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

I have been struck by how deep a knowledge of philosophy he and his colleagues--Bohr, Pauli, and others--have of philosophy. Rick Allen

I noticed while listening to a debate between William Lane Craig (who I differ with greatly on religion) and Lawrence Krauss (with whom I differ greatly on religion) that Krauss couldn't get to level one in dealing with the philosophical issues that Craig brought up.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijQYW8cQuBE

And he was brilliant as compared with Peter Atkins ( vs. John Lennox, mathematician, you should listen to his lecture in fluent German, also on YouTube).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yx0CXmagQu0

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjBGhBduBqs

You can also find the non-debate between Lane Craig and Richard Dawkins, Dawkins chickened out, on YouTube.

Hardly any of the celebrity atheists can deal with the philosophical or even some of the scientific issues under discussion in these things. But, if you read the comments on YouTube, the pop-atheists think their boys are brilliant. It is a deeply shallow intellectual fad.

10:54 AM  
Blogger alberich said...

"Most of the time when I'm at work, I'm not thinking about my paycheck and what I can buy with it. Yet. if the paycheck never comes, I don't have a job. I propose that the relationship between soteriology and religion is similar to the relation between pay and employment; a path to salvation (however conceived) is the difference between a religion and a set of suggestions. "

This reminds me of two quotations from "Chapters of the Fathers" (in the Mishna)

"Be not like servants who minister unto their master for the sake of receiving a reward, but be like servants who serve their master not upon the condition of receiving a reward; and let the fear of Heaven be upon you." - Antigonos of Socho

OTOH, later on in the same set of chapters:

"The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master is urgent [...] It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it. If you have studied much in the Torah much reward will be given you, for faithful is your employer who shall pay you the reward of your labor. And know that the reward for the righteous shall be in the time to come." - Rabbi Tarfon


Also potentially relevant:

"All is given against a pledge, and the net is cast over all living; the shop stands open and the shopkeeper gives credit and the account book lies open and the hand writes. Every one that wishes to borrow let him come and borrow; but the collectors go their daily rounds and exact payment from man with or without his consent; for the collectors have that on which they can rely; and the judgment is a judgment of truth; and all is made ready for a feast." - Rabbi Akiva

12:06 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Thank you, alberich. Reminds me a lot (at first blush) of the parables peculiar to Matthew.

Which is not surprising.

1:55 PM  
Anonymous RKC said...

I am glad the point was made that science is philosophy. It is a set of rules of how to select the best explanation of any set of circumstances (the simplest, the most universal, predictablity, etc.). My background is a BS in physics, and I am also a Christian. The two are not in conflict. For all of those that use science as their religion, it will never answer the simple question, why does your life have meaning? Other philosophies also stumble on this basic question. But my faith, has an answer in my relations to god and to my neighbors (which I take to mean everyone). My life has purpose and meaning, even though I mostly don't know what meaning and purpose god has for me. I don't intend that to be absolute, I know that much of the purpose and meaning is in my relationship as a husband, as a father, a friend among friends, a coworker among coworkers, etc. (The purpose and meaning are all about human relations, acquiring wealth or power over others are certainly not part of it). Knowing there IS a purpose, even if not not know WHAT that purpose may be, is for me enourmously powerful. Science and the other philosophies fail to provide something so basic. On a final note, as I mentioned, science and religion are not in conflict. Science pushes outward, it explains the earth orbiting the sun rather than the reverse. It explains why an earthquake occurs. Religion used to answer those things, but now doesn't. So what. It actually focusses our faith on what matters most. Like, why does your life have purpose and meaning? As always Robert, thank you for all your time and thought to post.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Religion used to answer those things, but now doesn't. So what. It actually focusses our faith on what matters most. Like, why does your life have purpose and meaning? As always Robert, thank you for all your time and thought to post.

I would only like to raise a minor point, which is: actually, religion didn't use to answer those things.

Now, that explanation requires we not create a kind of dualism between "religion" and "ordinary life," which is a very modern split in sensibilities. But we're so used to saying that now, enlightened beings that we are, science explains what myth used to explain. And it doesn't, really.

There really aren't any stories in the Bible about why there is a moon, or why the sun is in the sky, or where it goes at night, or why the rain falls, etc., etc., etc. There are some folk tales from some cultures that purport to explain this, but most of that is more recent than ancient (the only one off the top of my head I can think of is W. Irving's explanation for thunder in the mountains, or Kipling's stories about leopards getting spots, etc.).

What people used to do was say God (in the case of Israel) created all things, and all things happen because God makes them happen. Which is not the same thing as explaining the physical universe in terms of atomic theory, or even Aristotle's unmoved mover. The Hebrews weren't overly concerned with why the sun came up in the morning, or came up in the east instead of the west, etc., etc., etc. It was enough that it did, and let's get on with it.

Science offers explanations, and also offers the idea that it is replacing superstition with knowledge. Well, if you mean science can be the cure for triskadekaphobia, I'll agree with you. But the idea that science has replaced all the ignorance that came before it is the Renaissance still talking; that's the people who gave us the term "The Dark Ages," mostly because they thought they were so enlightened the people before them were benighted.

Which is pure arrogance talking; which ain't scientific at all.

I suppose it doesn't matter much; and I certainly don't mean this as a rebuke. But it's a widely accepted idea, with as much basis in fact as the canard that Medieval theologians argued about angels dancing on pinheads. That one is still taken as an historical description, when it's an insult invented during the Renaissance, again to make themselves feel superior to their predecessors.

Science and religion don't conflict because they really don't talk about the same things; as you said, RKC. And thanks for the comment.

5:00 PM  
Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

My understanding is that science was invented by people specifically to find information of enhanced reliability about those parts of the physical universe for which there is sufficient ability to observe, quantify, analyze, publish and review. It is a collection of mutually agreed on methods on how that is to be done and a mutually agreed to body of discoveries and theories about those. Its methods are supposed to be restrictive, admitting only those observations, etc. about physical evidence and excluding other things that don't fit into those methods. Among other things it is supposed to keep out is belief that doesn't form to those, ideological, personal, religious, political... etc. That restriction has been most successfully observed in religious belief, least successful in ideological belief, especially atheism and materialism which has often found its way into some of the sciences and, beyond doubt, in the culture of science. Though I would expect financial interest and professional interest are at least as common a pollution of science. Religion hardly impinges on science as compared with those.

5:42 PM  

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