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, October 29, 2013

First you make a category....

Literally just like that; except he'll decide based on doctrines....

Classification and division are powerful tools  of reasoning and order.  It is not too much to say they have become the basic tools of our time.  All things are to be divided and subdivided and categorized and classified down to the smallest unit convenient to the ordering system.  So the system of classification of living things ultimately reducts all humanity to homo sapiens; and beyond that it does not go.  The classification serves the purpose of the system, but does it serve any purposes of the individual?  I have known for years the old classification system of the two kingdoms:  plant and animal.  Now I learn there are five kingdoms in all, and I need to know this so that when I speak of the system as an example of classification and division, I speak of the system correctly.


It is a useful system.  But it's classifications and divisions are not, in themselves, of any ultimate concern to me.  My concern with them is only in what they represent:  the post-Enlightenment (and so modern) desire to categorize all things, to reduce the universe to a series of boxes in which everything fits, and so can be known.

"Known" here being a complex term, as there are so many ways of knowing.  Some people "know" mathematics far better than I, some "know" music.  My daughter reads people like I read books; not for the same purpose, but with the same ease.  Her knowledge of them qua persons is as intuitive as Mozart's knowledge of music which allowed him to copy down, note for note, the "Miserere" of Allegri after one hearing.  But her knowledge is not based on classification and division; it is based on understanding.  And, as you can guess, even "understanding" has a kaleidoscope of possible meanings, not all identical one with another.

As for "know," I know a great deal about theology and literature; but I also know that I love my wife.  These ways of knowing are not the same.

Our language is not quite subtle enough to capture all of these nuances; not without effort and help.  A single word alone is not enough.  A universe of words might not yet fully clarify the situation.  "It is impossible to say just what I mean!" is not an abdication; it is a cri de couer.  The heart, she holler.  Who can deny that?  And who can classify it and therefore better understand it?

Yet a different meaning of understanding; perhaps.  It is going to be difficult to nail these things down; if nailing them down is even the best metaphor to use.  We are not quite working in jello, and we are not approaching a wall with hammer and nails, but it may seem so before we surrender (nothing is ever finished).  Let us start with dividing understanding into two distinct realms (Division!  and then classification!):  one is the internal realm, where you understand your own thoughts, even if you can't express them as clearly as your understanding presents them.  The other is the external realm, where understanding is governed by accepted rules of reasoning (although which rules are accepted depends on the domain in which they are trafficked.  We cannot escape the central insights of Wittgenstein, even if we are ignorant of them.) 

Having linked to this, it reminded me of the record number of comments there, and that led (like one thing to another) to these comments, toward the end (the bold bit is a quote):

By "science" I mostly mean the physical sciences; the social sciences are more problematic because humans are far less identical than electrons.

As examples of skeptical observers, I'll note the hundreds of millions of Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and other peoples who have considered our physical sciences worthy of study, adoption, and extension, despite the objections of the more conservative members of their cultures.

Generally, when I use a word, I use the word's contemporary English meaning. For example, although we use an old Greek word for it, "science" does not usually mean "wisdom" in modern English.

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

Um... The "Good News" that these books were named for has everything to do with soteriology and the hereafter. Take those things out, and you're pretty much left with a few warnings against greed and general dickishness.
Let's stop here, and focus on that last bit, because it reveals both an ignorance of the Gospel texts, and a general desire to use classification and division to one's advantage, whether it is warranted or not.

The content of the Gospels first.  The bulk of the Gospels, especially the Synoptics (John's represents in some ways a special case), is interested in an answer to Tolstoy's question:  "How should we then live?"  The "hereafter" isn't mentioned, even after the Resurrection.  There is a vague reference to it in a few of the parables, but even in the most famous parable of the judgment, Matthew's last parable of the sheep and the goats, the emphasis of the lesson is on how life was lived, not on what doctrine was appropriated or what advantage was gained by accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior.  (And "savior" only became a metaphysical concept many centuries after the Gospels were written.  More on that in a moment.)  All talk of a general resurrection, indeed, comes from Paul's letters, not the gospels. Even John's references to it come long after the Pauline explanations have been widely circulated (indeed, all four canonical gospels post-date Paul's efforts, and yet none of them really present a doctrine of the resurrection and its connection to salvation as Paul does.  It is quite possible to read the gospels and never to come to any of the doctrines Paul comes to, just as it is easy to read Paul's letters and never encounter any of the teachings of Jesus in the gospels.  This business of interpreting scripture is a tricky business indeed.)  And Paul's interest in soteriology is, at best, overstated and, at worst, badly misunderstood and misinterpreted.  By and large, I blame Augustine for that. 

There really isn't much evidence that Jesus, either the reconstructed historical figure of the Jesus Seminar or the literary character presented in four different approaches to his story, had much interest in metaphysics, or spent much time thinking about salvation as a prospect of the sweet bye and bye.  You could get that impression by reading (or more likely, not) the Gospels and looking for such evidence; but the corrective corollary to "seek and you shall find" is "Be careful what you look for, you might find it."  Classification and division:  if you start off anxious to divide the gospel into neat categories, you'll probably find convenient ways to do that.  What you come up with, however, may not be the "gospel," and may well be only what you went looking for.  There are reasons religious persons spend their lives reading and rereading this small set of texts, trying to exclude their own predilections and leave themselves open only to what the text reveals.  It is an approach not too distant from that of competent scientists toward nature.  And still philosophy warns us to avoid the concept of a "mirror of nature."  Religious people issue the same warning about scriptures.

Obviously I'm using "Religious people" in a specific way, too; but if you stand around explaining every word you say, you won't get much said; so I have to press on.

And here I want to introduce two real persons as symbols of what I'm driving at:  Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis I.  I mean no disrespect to either personage, nor do I mean to characterize their lives, theologies, activities, etc., but cheap and easy reduction to symbols, but this isn't a book length treatise and I need to get to the point.  They, as symbols, will help me do that.  The current Pope is largely regarded as a sharp contrast to the Pope Emeritus. It is that contrast I wish to employ.  The Pope Emeritus became a one-dimensional figure in the minds of many:  an exclusionary church leader who wished to reduce the Church to a faithful remnant if that's what it took to make the Church faithful (I have longed for the same myself; mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa).  The Pope, by contrast, seems to welcome people, not faithful adherents to a doctrine.  The Pope Emeritus emphasized doctrine and theology (again, my own predilections).  The Pope emphasizes humanity.  The Pope Emeritus reveled in the trappings of the Papacy; the Pope seems to wish to shed as many of those trappings as is feasible, and to downplay the rest.  In short, the Pope Emeritus represents everything that is unyielding and overweening about religion, without actually being a snake oils salesman or a snake handler (two more caricatures of Christianity in America).  And the Pope seems to be the Everyman even atheists long for.  So there's my simple dichotomy:  the religious figure of doctrine v. the religious figure of common humanity.

Which figure is easier to castigate, especially for the atheist, or just the critic of Christianity in general (let's not generalize out to all religions, it would be impossible to come up with a single figure adequately representative of them all):  the Pope; or the Pope Emeritus?  The latter seems almost tailor-made to tie up in rhetorical harangues and arguments on minutiae.  The former?  You just want to have a beer with him.  And which is a more defensible reflection of Christianity, as taught by the Christ of the gospels?

There is a place and a reason for the doctrines represented by the Pope Emeritus in my example.  We will not indulge in throwing out baby with bathwater here, in part because that metaphor itself is a part of the desire for classification and division which plagues our modern world already.  In that spirit this example by symbol is not an analogy:  the Pope Emeritus is a man of spirituality just as Pope Francis is a pastor of reason (he is, after all,  a Jesuit).  Their pastoral means may be different, but their pastoral goals are the same.  But as an intellectual matter, as symbols of Christian belief which is all any atheist I read ever seems capable of dealing with, the Pope Emeritus makes a useful framework for the straw man that Pope Francis refuses to stand still and model.  And the distinction they can be used to represent is not an unimportant one.

All discussions and arguments I've ever had on the internet with atheists (or the few I've had in real life, for that matter, though those were more civil and better informed.  Probably it's the forum, not the messenger; though I'm not sure that distinction is as clear a line as it could be.) revolve around straw-man constructions such as:

The "Good News" that these books were named for has everything to do with soteriology and the hereafter. Take those things out, and you're pretty much left with a few warnings against greed and general dickishness.
That is no more accurate than Sam Harris' assertion that the only true Christians as the most extreme conservative fundamentalists.   It is no more accurate than the assumption behind this assertion:


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.
The assumption there being that salvation is only a metaphysical concept, as abstract as the concept of money, but without the physical representative of that idea which societies accept as legal tender.  I've tried before to get at the concept of salvation, with limited success.  But that is not because salvation in religious terms is and always must be limited to metaphysics involving an immortal soul and a place of existence for that soul without a carnal shell.

That brings me around, rather sharply I know, but I have to draw this up sharp or it will become unwieldy (the blog post is not an "essay," I don't care what anybody says), to the theology of Karl Rahner.   I mention him not so much in defense of his theology, of which I know only a little, but because he is in many ways what would be characterized, by atheists and Christians alike, as more of an atheist than a theologian.  And yet he's completely a theologian, and a Christian.  If he exceeds the boundaries of your own theology or atheology, the problem is yours, not his.  Let me quote my friend Rick, who knows more about this subject than I do:

Rahner isn't "anti-metaphysical" because of any particular antipathy to Plato. As far as I can tell, he is more "ante-metaphysical," insofar as he follows Heidegger in finding Plato already dealing with "beings" "Seiende" rather than the preliminary, more fundamental question after "Being," "Sein." Rahner's difference from earlier theology is his starting point, the analysis of one's own Being, as Heidegger began with Dasein. The criticism of Rahner is that, by beginning with man rather than God, his whole theology amounts to an existentialist anthropology. The reply is that modern man, not so much by virtue of his scientific orientation, but by his situation outside of the Church, knows little enough of God or revelation or Church, so that his own existence is the only place one can begin.

Rahner's starting point, though controversial, may in fact have influenced the Catechism overseen by then-Cardinal Ratzinger. Though Rahner is not cited in it, it does not begin with God, or Revelation, but with man, if I am remembering right, "Homo capax Deo," the human being who is capable of receiving God. It's a two-way street, God seeking man and man seeking God...but the catechism, interestingly, begins with man, as does "Grundkurs des Glaubens."

What I fear about Rahner's method is not that it's unorthodox, but that, philosophically, it may lose appeal. How many people today are excited about Hegelian dialectics? For how long did the left-Hegelians and right-Hegelians carry on a passionate debate about the development of Absolute Spirit or History? And who cares today?

I fear that the thrill that the very term "existentialism" carried in my day is fading. Who cares, among the young today, about Heidegger, or Sartre? Rahner certainly speaks to me, but I rather inherited that capacity, and most kids today seem to care more about egalitarianism, patriarchy,gender revolution, technology, media, and, understandably, employment. Religion is, basically, politics by other means. Heidegger, if they took any notice of them, would seem as old and hidebound as Hegel, I'm afraid.

This, I'm afraid, is far truer than it should be:  "Religion is, basically, politics by other means."  But that's a topic for another day.   It is really quite impossible to overstate the importance of Heidegger to modern thought, despite Rick's concerns.  Derrida was a student of Heidegger, and much of his work is in direct reference to the German existentialist.  Paul Tillich was also stamped by Heidegger's concerns (though he's usually blamed on Kierkegaard); and I think the way out from the concern (or lack therof) with Hegelian dialectics lies with the melancholy Dane.  Still, the fact that Rahner speaks to Rick is a reflection of Rick's reflection on these matters; in that sense he speaks from the Pope Emeritus side of my simplifying symbolism; and he does a damned good job of it, too.  But it is clear Rahner has not left us with only "a few warnings against greed and general dickishness."

There are still more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

There's nothing wrong with doctrine, you see; but it is not the whole of Christianity, either.  Faith seeking understanding and understanding seeking faith are two parts of the Christian religious experience; but neither is the whole of it.  As Wittgenstein understood:

Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For 'consciousness of sin' is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.--Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Ethics, Life and Faith," The Wittgenstein Reader, ed. Anthony Kenny (Oxford, Blackwell Press 1994).
Christianity is not a doctrine, alone.  The moment you try to reduce it to one, you are creating a straw man and, if you want to destroy it, setting that on fire.  Christianity stands beside you and watches the blaze, but it is no more involved in the burning than you are.

The Pope Emeritus represents, for many now, Christianity as doctrine.  Pope Francis represents it as Christianity as humanity.  But, as Rick points out, the Catechism overseen by the Pope Emeritus begins with "the human being who is capable of receiving God."  Doctrine need not lead us away from humanity, but arguments that begin with doctrine and want to classify humanity into categories the better to contain it are precisely the efforts that drove Kierkegaard to polemic.  He wielded the tools of the philosophers, but he used those tools to his religious ends; and surprisingly did so without being a fundamentalist or denouncing Darwin (it would have been an historical anachronism if he did, but to this day it is impossible to invoke Kierkegaard on the side of either of those arguments; this is not an accident of history).

Classification and division, you see, means that Rahner is not a "real Christian," because his terms are not those of "classical" Christianity.  Except, by and large, the terms imagined by the critics never were the terms of classical Christianity.  By "critics" I limit myself to the atheists opposed to the very idea of religion at all.  The original critics of Christianity were not atheists so much as they were non-Christians; critics now can come in all stripes (I am one myself, more often than not), but I limit myself here only to the atheists who imagine they "know better" than any Christian does (or could).  And "know," of course, is a term subject to clarification.

So classification and division starts at the root, at the idea that religion is something separate and apart from life itself, something personal which is better excluded from the public sphere and even better relegated to private practices.  Never share my hearth, never think my thoughts, is pretty much the preferred but unspoken posture; but that applies as well to many Christians, and so again ironies abound.  But classification and division have to do with extirpating religion (generally Christianity) from human existence by slowly snipping away all connections between religion and human life.  And the first course is to divide faith from reason, to wall off reason from credulity (which is called "faith") and to separate religion from any root connection to social life.

One of the best ways to do that, of course, it so reduce Christian beliefs to a set of postulates which can be challenged and cannot, by the terms of the challenge, be affirmed.  That is one reason I raise the specter of Rahner; his theology is not rooted in the generally accepted principles to be critiqued; therefore he raises a challenge which must be answered, or dismissed.  Dismissal is easier, and so Christianity is reduced to an absolute minimum of the resurrection (physical and not otherwise, despite the conflicting testimonies of the Gospels themselves) and salvation (metaphysical, and not otherwise).  And the entire focus of Christianity is shifted from this life, to the life beyond; despite the fact that is largely a late 19th century diversion of a small portion of American Christianity (which should not be confused with world Christianity) and is itself as ahistorical as fundamentalist literalism.

But Christian faith neither rests on the physical resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth nor on a doctrine of salvation which no Christian church joins wholly in affirming (every church has its own idea of what is essential).  If the former were needed, we'd have to have at least one holy relic to cling to, and Christians have never had anything.  If the latter were necessary, Christianity would have died before the fourth century could get around to arguing about doctrines of salvation in the first place.

And to say it is essential now, is to deny the reality of the experience of the clouds of witness, and the observation of Wittgenstein.  Which can be done, but the denial will come to rest on "It's never been my experience, so it must not be true."  As I observed once, if everybody loved my wife, I'd find it hard getting in the door at night.  Just because they don't experience what I do, doesn't mean "love" is not true.

This issue of classification and division returns us to the two Popes:  Benedict representing the faithful remnant argument, that the Church should be the truly faithful, however few that is, and Francis representing the Church as hospitality center, the "big tent" where all are welcome (well, almost all.)  Immediately we run into the problem of group dynamics. If I am fair to Francis's position, I have to be careful how I describe it.  He doesn't want to declare everyone a Christian, or every Christian a Catholic; but he does want the church to be first a place of welcome, not first a place of judgment.  Which doesn't mean he wants to include, as I say, everyone in the church.  His true ecclesiology may be closer to Benedict's than we suspect; it just may be he wants to emphasize the pastoral care of the church more than the strength of doctrine of the church.  It is possible to see Francis' public attitude as hospitable without being evangelical.  Hospitality is central to Christianity; but it is not necessarily central to the relationship between the Church and its membership.

Groups, after all, need some cohesion.  Groups are basic to human beings.  To quote myself:

We start...with this basic sociological principle: "that the human drives for meaning and belonging are necessarily realized through interaction with others, primarily in social groups. It is within the context of groups, especially religious groups, that one answers questions such as 'Who am I?', 'Why do I exist?,' 'How should I relate to others?,' and 'How do I understand tragedy...." We saw this after 9/11, when people returned to church looking for answers to what had happened to the nation, or to them personally. It's an old and well-known function of the church: to provide a meaning to life. But the principle is, we have to get this answer from a group. "No one," as Emerson and Smith note, "can opt out of commitment to some fundamental moral orientation or take a normative view 'from nowhere."
And that normative view has to be both defended and defensible.   jim, in response to this post, noted that:  "at some point, doesn't an organized disbelief turn into a sort of religion itself? maybe it has already."  Atheists who want to identify their position as normative have to do it in community with other atheists.  It's the same reason Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins would speculate on "closeted atheists."  It may have been meant as a joke, but clearly there was some desire behind the humor, some wish to make the speculation come true.

The normative view must be protected, because it is bound up with personal identity.  So:

Groups must symbolize and utilize symbolic boundaries to both create and give substance to shared values and identities. So in Catholic Europe at the time of the Reformation, Protestant churches limited communion to certain Sundays in the year, simply because the Catholic Mass celebrated the Eucharist at every worship service. "In many respects," Emerson and Smith note, "we know who we are by knowing who we are not. Thus, an ingroup always has at least one outgroup by which it creates identity. Blacks are not whites, Lutherans are not Presbyterians, evangelicals are not mainline Christians.
Or, in the current context:  atheists are not Christians.

Now, what about hospitality?

 Groups that stress tolerance, openness to diversity, and inclusiveness, typically lack the ability to have strong comparison groups by which to define their boundaries (with the exception that they may compare themselves to groups that do draw distinct boundaries). Their boundaries are fuzzy, and they thus find it more difficult to provide meaning and belonging.
Francis' emphasis on tolerance, diversity, and inclusiveness is probably playing a bit better outside the group (or at least certain groups within the group that is "the Church"), just as Benedict's played better insider the group than outside.  Groups must provide meaning and belonging, and when boundaries begin to fall, that purpose of the group begins to falter.

I would pause here to note that Jesus of Nazareth was more interested in eliminating boundaries than in creating them, although his idea of unnecessary boundaries wasn't always the ideas we have in 21st century America.  I would also point out that Jesus, according to Luke, sent out his disciples as "sheep among wolves," so he understood the need for group identity that didn't include just everyone, even that outsiders would be hostile to insiders, and that was a point of cohesion for the insiders (they need to take the group with them, so to speak).  The same can be said for the Hebrew vision of the telos (goal, not final end) of time, when all nations would come to Israel to learn from and benefit from the blessings of being the people of God and children of Abraham.   If it wasn't shared, it wasn't a true blessing; but if it didn't originate with the children of Abraham, and flow through them from God and their own faithfulness, what was the point of being faithful?  What was the purpose of the covenant?

 Any church (again, let us limit ourselves to Christians, for specific reasons) ends up being pulled between two poles:  the church of meaning and belonging, v. the church of sacrifice for meaning and belonging.  Francis, in our simple symbolism, represents the former (which is especially why Dawkins would warn, in jest, against such a "nice guy" being in the Vatican); Benedict, with his call for a faithful remnant to preserve the Church in time and over time, represents the latter.  (I've cast my lot with the "Benedict" side of this more than once, but I still recognize the tensions and problems of that decision, so I've never set it in stone.  The Francis position has much to recommend it.  One more reason, the theologians would say, to recognize that our God is a living God.)

[T]he organization of American religion encourages religious groups to cater to people's existing preferences, rather than their ideal callings. In trying to create meaning and belonging, even to teach religious truths.. .religious leaders must act within a limited range shaped by the social location of their congregation. The congregation often looks to religion not as an external force that places radical demands on their lives, but rather as a way to fulfill their needs. If we accept the oftentimes reasonable proposition that most people seek the greatest benefit for the least cost, they will seek meaning and belonging within the least change possible. Thus, if they can go to either the Church of Meaning and Belonging, or the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging, most people choose the former. It provides benefit for the least cost. [A]s seminary professor Charles Thomas, Jr. has summarized, "In practice congregation members expect the minister to do nothing (such as taking a prophetic voice) which would interfere with the harmony and growth of the membership.

This is, by the way, precisely where the argument between Benedict and Francis (again, as symbols) occurs:  "If we accept the oftentimes reasonable proposition that most people seek the greatest benefit for the least cost, they will seek meaning and belonging within the least change possible."  Francis is easily the more acceptable version, to the world outside the Church, than Benedict.  But shouldn't church membership require some change, some fundamental change?

That'll go 'round and 'round for quite a while.

And this reasoning also leads to the usual critiques of Christian churches:  they are full of hypocrites (because not everyone claiming membership is also deeply devoted to the radical demands that might be placed on their lives); they are mere 'social groups'; they must adhere to a certain set of beliefs, else what are they there for?; they don't adhere to those beliefs, so what are they there for?  And so on, and so forth.

And most of that, as I say, arises from classification; and division.  Can't really have one, without the other.


I should go read some Heidegger; and some Kierkegaard.  I have a feeling I need a little of both at the moment.


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