Friday, April 23, 2010

Paying Attention

"Don't for heaven's sake, be afraid of talking nonsense. But you must pay attention to your nonsense."--Ludwig Wittgenstein

By way of this:

But if it be true of the reward for Good in the world, that the reward the world gives is so dangerous, then the Good has almost an edifying quality here in this world (even if this edification is somewhat softened in the blessed smile of eternity). For here the man who in truth wills the Good, by willing one thing, is very rarely led into the difficulty of being tempted by reward. Now, that the Good has its own reward is indeed forever certain. There is nothing so certain. It is not even more certain that God exists, for that is one and the same thing. But here on earth, Good is often temporarily rewarded by ingratitude, by lack of appreciation, by poverty, by contempt, by many sufferings, and now and then by death. It is not this reward to which we refer when we say that the Good has its reward. Yet this is the reward that comes in the external world and that comes first of all. And it is precisely this reward which the man is anxious about, who wills the Good for the sake of the reward. For he has no time to wait, no time, no years, no life to give away -- for an eternity. Hence that reward which comes in the external world is so far from being desirable, that, on the contrary, it is both valuable and encouraging when it does not come in the outer world, so that the double-mindedness in the inner realm may perish, and so that the reward in heaven may be all the greater.
I find myself brought back to this.

Which returns me to the real nature of Christianity, and of belief, and of faith. Or maybe just Wittgenstein:

And now I must say that if I contemplate what Ethics really would have to be if there were such a science, this result seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me obvious that nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing. That we cannot write a scientific book, the subject matter of which could be intrinsically sublime and above all other subject matters. I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor, that, if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world. Our words used as we use them in science, are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense. Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water and if I were to pour out a gallon over it.
For it is clear that when we look at it in this way everything miraculous has disappeared; unless what we mean by this term is merely that a fact has not yet been explained by science which again means that we have hitherto failed to group this fact with others in a scientific system. This shows that it is absurd to say 'Science has proved that there are no miracles.' The truth is that the scientific way of looking at a fact is not the way to look at it as a miracle. For imagine whatever fact you may, it is not in itself miraculous in the absolute sense of that :om. For we see now that we have been using the word 'miracle' in a relative and an absolute sense. And I will now describe the experience of wondering at the existence of the world by saying: lt is the experience of seeing the world as a miracle. Now I am tempted to say that the right expression in language for the miracle of the existence of the world, though it is not any proposition in language, is the existence of language itself. But what then does it mean to be aware of this miracle at some times and not at other times? For all I have said by shifting the expression of the miraculous from an expression by means of language to the expression by the existence of language, all I have said is again that we cannot express what we want to express and that all we say about the absolute miraculous remains nonsense. Now the answer to all this will seem perfectly clear to many of you. You will say: Well, if certain experiences constantly tempt us to attribute a quality to them which we call absolute or ethical value and importance, this simply shows that by these words we don’t mean nonsense, that after all what we mean by saying that an experience has absolute value is just a fact like other facts and that all it comes to is that we have not yet succeeded in finding the correct logical analysis of what we mean by our ethical and religious expressions. Now when this is urged against me I at once see clearly, as it were in a flash of light, not only that no description that I can think of would do to describe what I mean by absolute value, but that I would reject every significant description that anybody could possibly suggest, ab initio, on the ground of its significance. That is to say: I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and I believe the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.
And so, then:

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).

Which reminds me that almost no one is talking about the real nature of God, or of faith, or of belief. Though some are doing it better than others:

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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

"War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning"

Phila brings the moral outrage to the story of the video of the Apache helicopter attack from 2007:

This isn't some aberration. What these soldiers did to these people is what we did to Iraq. We attacked it because it was there, and we could, and we thought it would make us feel better. We did it because we're stupid, because we're brutal, because we're bored, because we don't like foreigners, because we're scared of our own shadow. We did it because the seriousness of war made us feel like serious people. We did it because we're angry and unhappy, and we'd rather take our anger and unhappiness out on others than accept any measure of the "personal responsibility" we claim to hold dear.
Me, though I've never been to war, I can't help but think this is what war is, and what war is for. I also can't believe I'm not the only person who thinks we've seen this movie before:

What, My Lai?

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Meditation for Easter Sunday 2010

(yes, a few days late, but I've been busy)

For Christians, the answer to Pilate’s question about truth is the death and Resurrection of Jesus and what those events came to represent for believers. “Came to” is a key point, for the truth as Peter and the apostles saw it on that dark Friday was not the truth as 21st-­century Christians see it. The work of discerning — or, depending on your point of view, assigning — meaning to the Passion and the story of the empty tomb was a historical as well as a theological process, as was the construction of the faith.
ProfW has set me thinking again, with a link to this review of Diarmid McCullough's "Christianity: The First 3000 Years. First, let met say it's as if Rudolf Bultmann never wrote a word, and German Biblical scholars in the 19th century never found the folklore links between the tales being collected by scholars, and the stories of the Gospels or even the Torah. Pastors and priests and scholars all know the Torah was written by at least 4 hands (probably schools, in each case), that Isaiah is the work of 3 prophets (not one), that Baruch probably wrote the Lamentations attributed to Jeremiah, etc., etc., etc. Maybe some portion of the reading public still remembers Harold Bloom's shocking (and baseless) conjecture that "J" (of JEDP, the four "authors" of the Torah*), was clearly a woman, but it's as if Dom Crossan never wrote about the life of Jesus, or the first years of the church, or the Jesus Seminar never published its skeptical edition of the Gospels. I say that not to complain, but to put the following in context, to explain what pastors and priests are up against:

Magic, however, has powerful charms. Not long ago I was with a group of ministers on the East Coast. The conversation turned to critical interpretations of the New Testament. I remarked that I did not see how people could make sense of the Bible if they were taught to think of it as a collection of ancient Associated Press reports. (Cana, Galilee — In a surprise development yesterday at a local wedding, Jesus of Nazareth transformed water into wine. . . .) “That’s your critical reading of the Gospels,” one minister replied, “but in the pulpit I can’t do that.” “Why?” I asked. “Because,” he said, “you can’t mess with Jesus.”

Well. If the power of Jesus — “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” as Peter called him — cannot survive a bit of biblical criticism, then the whole enterprise is rather more rickety than one might have supposed. Still, the objecting cleric’s remark illuminates one of the issues facing not only Christians but the broader world: To what extent should holy books be read and interpreted critically and with a sense of the context in which they were written, rather than taken literally? To later generations of the faithful, what was written in fluctuating circumstances has assumed the status of immutable truth. Otherwise perfectly rational people think of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven on the 40th day after Easter to be as historical an event as the sounding of the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. To suggest that such supernatural stories are allegorical can be considered a radical position in even the most liberal precincts of the Christian world. But the Bible was not FedExed from heaven, nor did the Lord God of Hosts send a PDF or a link to Scripture. Properly understood — and MacCulloch’s book is a landmark contribution to that understanding — Christianity cannot be seen as a force beyond history, for it was conceived and is practiced according to historical bounds and within human limitations. Yes, faith requires, in Coleridge’s formulation, a willing suspension of disbelief; I do it myself, all the time. But that is a different thing from the suspension of reason and critical intelligence — faculties that tell us that something is not necessarily the case simply because it is written down somewhere or repeated over and over.
"Magical thinking" deserves a bit of elucidation here, at least as I use the term. It means (or should) the expectation that powers can be harnessed to do work we'd rather not do ourselves (or, as Joan Didion wrote about it, that our will alone can change the course of the universe, or the nature of, well, nature). When Harry Potter uses magic, he mostly is exerting will in ways we wish we could, but can't; and sometimes in ways we do, but through the intermediary of what we call, in an umbrella term, "technology."

That said, one would think that, after 200+ years, word would have filtered down to the laity that the Resurrection of Jesus is not the historical event that the opening bell of the NYSE will be tomorrow, or was Friday. But we have faced in that time the rebuttal, the response, the opposition, of the fundamentalists, as American a school of thought as any this country has inspired. And interestingly, we've spread that school of thought to the world, and now it has made our newest enemies.

So it goes. So it always goes.

What is rickety, of course, is not the "power" of Jesus, nor even the "power" of faith (no, those aren't "scare quotes"). What is rickety is the concept of confession, one that truly no longer holds in this post-modern world without a new context to put it in. The Church Fathers (starting with Paul, but Peter did as much himself) put the essential Hebraism of the teachings of the Jesus of Nazareth and (more importantly to Paul) the meaning of his life and death, in a Greek context, the better to spread it among the Gentiles. Augustine re-contextualized it again, and Aquinas put it in terms of The Philosopher (Aristotle) when those works returned to Europe from the Islamic world long after the bonfire in Alexandria. Luther reshaped it again in the 15th century, and Calvin shortly after him, and it changed again as people like Tyndale made the scriptures available to ordinary people in their own language. 19th century German scholars reshaped it yet again, with insights gleaned from the Romantics determination to preserve and respect folklore and treasures like the prayers of the Carmina Gadelica. We are always changing our understanding of Christianity, in other words, just as science is always going through new paradigms which may shatter the old understandings, but manage to preserve some essential truth across time, anyway. What is "rickety" now is that we are on the cusp (finally!) of another such change, but without the binding authority of a central church (Augustine wrote as the Church was beginning to assert authority, Aquinas when that authority was in full flower) it is harder than ever to realign the confession to the world we now understand and live in. I've long noted the irony that the most conservative Christians are also the ones most willing to embrace the technology of a modern world. I still don't know what this means, so much as it indicates a strange ability, or willingness, to compartmentalize "faith matters" apart from worldly matters, and probably serves Mammon far better than it serves God. It's no accident a far from Fundamentalist Jesuit priest first posited the "Big Bang" theory, just as it surprises no one that fundamentalists are the ones most opposed to the theory of Darwin.

Interestingly, that picture above shows the compartments of life being blown apart. Luke's story is that Jesus joins some disciples on the road to Emmaus, but they don't recognize him:

And he said to them, "What are you talking about?"

And they said to him, "About Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet powerful in word and deed in the eyes of God and all the people, and about how our ranking priests and rulers turned him in to be sentenced to death, and crucified him. We were hoping that he would be the one who was going to ransom Israel. And as if this weren't enough, it's been three days now since all this happened. Meanwhile, some women from our group gave us quite a shock. They were at the tomb early this morning and didn't find his body. They came back claiming even to have seen a vision of heavenly messengers, who said that he was alive. Some of those with us went to the tomb and found it exactly as the women had described; but nobody saw him."

And he said to them, "You people are so slow-witted, so reluctant to trust everything the prophets have said! Wasn't the Anointed One destined to undergo these things and enter into his glory?" Then, starting with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted for them every passage of scripture that referred to himself.

They had gotten close to the village to which they were going, and he acted as if he were going on. But they entreated him, saying, "Stay with us; it's almost evening, the day is practically over." So he went in to stay with them.

And so, as soon as he took his place at table with them, he took a loaf, and gave a blessing, broke it, and started passing it out to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.--Luke 24:17-31, SV
Reviewing that story, I wonder that it isn't repeated at every Eucharist, as it clearly recalls the "Last Supper:" Jesus is known to his followers, after his death, in the breaking and offering of the bread. There's also a hospitality element that isn't insignificant here. But the point of the story is Caravaggio's version of it: they know Jesus in the gesture.

That's what the painting captures: that moment when Jesus breaks the bread, and in the gesture, in the action, they see. Perhaps it was a familiar gesture, something characteristic of Jesus that makes them realize "It's him!" Perhaps it's simply a metaphor, the breaking and offering of the bread a symbol for how believers afterward will know their Lord and Savior. Who knows? But notice how they have compartmentalized their world; Jesus even scolds them about it, and still they don't seem to understand. He takes them through the entire story of the prophets, starting with Moses, and still they don't seem to get it. And there's the point, there's where the magic can be stripped away and the story remain. What kind of body does this Jesus have? What kind of person is he, that he can disappear like this, and later ascend into heaven in full sight of all those watching? As Carl Sagan liked to point out, if that latter story were literally true, then Jesus would still be ascending, all these centuries later, and would be at best 2000 light years away from earth, and still moving. But we don't interpret it that way, any more than we interpret the story that Jesus was literally there in body, and literally vanished like a soap bubble. Between that disappearance and his ascension Luke says he appears again, right in the middle of the crowd of disciples, even as they discuss this event. Is this Jesus real? A figment of fevered imaginations? A fiction? Luke doesn't even try to answer the question, doesn't even attempt to explain the resurrection. Who, then, are we to insist it can be known, or must be known? Atheists and non-believers insist on materiality, but what is that to believers? Yet we insist on that same materiality, or tremble when it isn't presented to us in church as a solid conclusion of empiricism. Or worse, we don't insist on an empirical reality to buttress such a story, but we also tacitly accept it as a nice tale, and implicitly less real, and therefore less important, than the reality of our possessions, our technology, our scientifically derived world.

Perhaps it is not that we accept and prefer magic in our Christian stories, but rather that we can't accept a world so contradictory that God can work miracles in it, so we reduce God to something that makes us more comfortable, and keeps God manageable. Maybe our fear is not that we would lose God if we couldn't retain the "magic" Meacham writes about; maybe our fear is that Jesus could appear to us as he did at Emmaus, and then we would know him, and then he would vanish. And could all the king's horses and all the king's men put our Humpty-Dumpty back together again?

*(for "Jehovist, "Eloist," "Deuteronomist," and "Priestly")

Concluding minor scholarly postscript:

Meacham says:
Or, in a wonderfully revealing insight of MacCulloch’s, that the “daily bread” for which countless Christians ask in the Lord’s Prayer is not what most people think it is, a humble plea for sustenance. “Daily” is the common translation of the Greek word epiousios, which in fact means “of extra substance” or “for the morrow.” As MacCulloch explains, epiousios “may point to the new time of the coming kingdom: there must be a new provision when God’s people are hungry in this new time — yet the provision for the morrow must come now, because the kingdom is about to arrive.” We are a long way from bedtime prayers here.
Well, maybe. Per a note in the Scholars Version of Luke:
The meaning of the Greek word epiousios is disputed. Possible translations are "daily," "for sustenance," and "for the future." Its only certain occurrence in the Greek language is in the Lord's prayer.
Bauer's Greek-English lexiconconfirms this, and tells me that Origen claimed the term was coined by the evangelists. This is why I like, and dislike, serious works written for non-scholars.

Monday, April 05, 2010

The Real Problem of Resurrection

I haven't commented on the scandal in the Roman Catholic church in large part because I'm not RC, and it's a complicated issue that, clearly, the Vatican is handling badly (but what other institution would be any different?). So I have enough to deal with without pointing out the splinter in my friend's eye. Besides, there seems to be a great deal of division in the Church itself. From New York:

New York Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan was praising more than God on Sunday.

Asked about the Church's response to ongoing sex abuse scandals, the Archbishop was upbeat, saying, "Nobody nowhere has confronted this crisis... better than the Catholic Church."

The Archbishop also claimed that the Church keeps implementing "solid, sound policies" that are working, and which people are saying are "better than ever."
And from the Archbishop of Dublin:

This has been a difficult year. We see how damaging failure of integrity and authenticity are to the Body of Christ. Shameful abuse took place within the Church of Christ. The response was hopelessly inadequate. I do not wish to give the impression that I want to go on forever hammering home a message of grief about the past, that I am obsessed with the past. Some ask me: “can we not leave all that aside now, proclaim closure and move on?”

I cannot agree. There can be no overlooking the past. There is no short-cut in addressing the past. The credibility of the Church in this diocese of Dublin will only be regained when we honestly recognise the failures of the past, whatever our share of responsibility for them. There can be no rewriting history. There is no way we should impose fast-track healing on those whose vulnerability was abused.
That said, I appreciate the Acbhishop of Ireland's remarks, especially this:

The Church in Ireland is not a large anonymous conglomerate structure. The Church in Ireland is built up in communities where the Word of God is proclaimed and the Eucharist is celebrated and where the Christian message is lived. Renewal must begin and take deep root in our parishes.
And, what Athenae said:

And so instead of defending you, we are angrier than anyone else. Instead of excusing you, we say, we deserved better. Instead of helping to shield you by mocking journalists or blaming gays or bemoaning the exposure of child rapists as harshing our spiritual buzz, we're first in line to demand: Resign. Subject yourselves to the rule of the laws in the countries in which you live. Repent, as you so often are telling us to do for offenses like eating meat on Friday. Live by the rules of the God you claim to represent, and we'll just have to see if you ever earn back any of our respect. I don't think it's likely, but hey. Miracles happen.

In the meantime, we'll keep bringing bags of food to the altar, bread among the hyacinths, and carry on the work of your God while you cover yourselves in shame.

Amen. Amen. And Alleluia!

Starting Easter Monday with a Bang, not a Whimper...

I don't really agree with this essay, simply because I'm Niebuhrian enough to regard human nature as essentially "fallen" (to borrow a metaphor) and not at all responsive to a simple realization of truth, or to a situation which leaves them alone together to discover a new and better society.* However, in light of the argument of Sam Harris, this passage was interesting:

To paraphrase Marx, the abolition of these false moralities and neo-paganisms would constitute the demand for the rediscovery of true morality and sustainable, virtuous forms of communal life. And here the "new atheists" fall tragically short of their mark.

By failing to pursue the critique of religion into the sanctuary of global capitalism itself, by reducing discussion of morality to well-being and personal security, and by neglecting to advocate some alternate form of virtuous community, they end up supplying the pathologies of capitalism with a veneer of rationality.

It is no wonder that the proper task of the critique of religion, which these "new atheists" have abandoned, is part of the Christian legacy. It was, after all, the first Christians that ripped the mouldering shroud of paganism off the cultures of late-antiquity by their unflinching declaration that God raised Jesus from death.(emphasis added)
There is certainly an argument to be made that Christianity began as "paganism" which subverted all the gods of Rome, although I'd say it 'ripped off the shroud' of Roman religions only when Constantine converted, and only because they preached Christ crucified (in Paul's terms). And there's the rub: do we preach Christ crucified anymore?

Well, how popular are Good Friday services, v. Easter Sunday services? And how much do our religious institutions rely on the latter, than on the former?

*I'm also perplexed by any theologian who lumps Kierkegaard in with atheists like Hume, Freud, and Marx. I sort of take his point in doing so; then again, I don't.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Holy Saturday 2010

A repeat from a few years back. The words of G.K. Chesterton:

Our faith begins at the point where atheists suppose it must be at an end. Our faith begins with the bleakness and power which is one night of the cross, abandonment, temptation and doubt about everything that exists! Our faith must be born where it is abanoned by all tangible reality; it must be born of nothingness, taste this nothingness and be given it to taste in a way that no philosophy of nihilism can imagine.-- H. J. Iwand

That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already; but that God could have his back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents for ever. Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone has felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point - and does not break.

In this indeed I approach a matter more dark and awful than it is easy to discuss; and I apologize in advance if any of my phrases fall wrong or seem irreverent touching a matter which the greatest saints and thinkers have justly feared to approach. But in that terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt. It is written, "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." No; but the Lord thy God may tempt himself; and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemane.

In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God. He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God.

And now let the revolutionists of this age choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.

Sam Harris Explains It All For You

Courtesy of Phila, who does this much better than I do, we get the subject for Holy Saturday's meditation (sort of). Viz:

The moment we admit that consciousness is the context in which any discussion of values makes sense, we must admit that...
We are in the realm of tautology?

Isn't this like saying we can't think without a brain, and we can't speak without language? Oh, wait, my confusion is because I'm one of those people who believe in "the Word of God," which means I "just happen to believe that the universe functions in such a way as to place the really important changes in conscious experience after death (i.e. in heaven or hell)."

Yeah, nothing about my religious beliefs places any value on life here and now. Just ask Martin Luther King, Jr. Or Dorothy Day. Or Mother Teresa.

Wow. Just how stupid is this guy? Well, one of the most important philosophers since Plato, was just lazy:

Indeed, Carroll appears to think that Hume's lazy analysis of facts and values is so compelling that he elevates it to the status of mathematical truth.
And Immanuel Kant was an ineffective wanker:

And those philosophical efforts that seek to put morality in terms of duty, fairness, justice, or some other principle that is not explicitly tied to the well-being of conscious creatures--are, nevertheless, parasitic on some notion of well-being in the end (I argue this point at greater length in my book. And yes, I've read Rawls, Nozick, and Parfit).
To which I want to reply: "Of course you did. But did you understand them?"

Apparently not. Because what is truly laughable is that the critique of Rawls' Theory of Justice is that it is too materialistic, too wedded to the utilitarianism it seeks to modify; and yet apparently for Harris Rawls is...not materialistic enough? One wonders if Harris is any more aware of the contemporary critiques of materialism than Robert Wright is, or any more capable of understanding them than he does Rawls, et al.

I would thank God for Sam Harris, but I suppose I must just thank consciousness.

I recognize this is all just good bloggy snark, and not necessarily a considered rebuttal of Harris' points. But Harris' point is this:

In fact, I believe that we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What's the alternative? Imagine some genius comes forward and says, "I have found a source of value/morality that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings." Take a moment to think about what this claim actually means. Here's the problem: whatever this person has found cannot, by definition, be of interest to anyone (in this life or in any other). Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is -- again, by definition -- the least interesting thing in the universe.

So how much time should we spend worrying about such a transcendent source of value? I think the time I will spend typing this sentence is already far too much. All other notions of value will bear some relationship to the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. So my claim that consciousness is the basis of values does not appear to me to be an arbitrary starting point.
Yes, that's it. Consciousness (whatever that is; he never explains) is where everything happens, so consciousness is the only source of knowledge we have, so consciousness is it's own proof of what has moral value.

If this sounds like Cogito, ergo sum, it basically is; except without Descartes' insights. It's much, much less than that, however, because Descartes understood his Discourse on the Method as merely a beginning, not as the summation of a philosophy. Harris, like Daniel Dennett before him, imagines he has figured it all out. And what he has figured out is that all we know, we know because of consciousness, and all we can know, we can only know because of consciousness. Stop the presses!

Wait. Isn't that pretty much the first principle of Western philosophy? So Sam Harris has invented...the wheel?

If I really want to be pedantic, I'd point out that Harris "believes" this about consciousness, which raises a fairly legitimate question of how he "knows" this to be true; i.e., what upon what reasoning does he base this conclusion, aside from the tautology that all we know is because of consciousness, and therefore all we can know is because of consciousness (By the way, Sam; David Hume wants to talk to you about a little matter of plagiarism.). It's hard to get away from the bloggy snark in order to move to a considered rebuttal but, honestly, it's hard to give this the kind of consideration needed for a reasoned rebuttal. Still, the loose use of terms like "believe" lead us to a serious issue of definition that Harris doesn't address.

Harris' argument is essentially a patch on Aristotle. He argues that ethics, through science, "can help us get what we want out of life." His "further claim is that well-being is what we can intelligibly value--and "morality" (whatever people's associations with this term happen to be) really relates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the well-being of conscious creatures." The telos of the Nicomachean Ethics is to discern what, within the community one lives in, leads to the "good life," and then to do it. This we call ethics, which simply means "how one behaves in a community."

Morality, on the other hand, can be understood differently. " 'Morality,' " Harris says, "(whatever people's associations with this term happen to be) really relates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the well-being of conscious creatures." Let's stop right there, with the dismissive parenthetical. For a "detailed argument" (as he says at the outset he wants to present), this is a pretty big term to toss away with an offhand remark. It might be fair to say morality relates to ones intentions to affect one's well-being. The same, of course, can be said of "ethics;" but here the confusion begins, and Harris only makes it worse. First, morality should be understood as something transcendent of ethics in the metaphysical sense: that is, it is impossible for me to be ethical if I find myself alone on a desert island, but it is still possible for me to be moral. One is a relationship to a community, the other a relationship to an ideal, even to a deity. This is not a common distinction but it is a useful one. Aristotle's Ethics is not so much a rule book as it is the first self-help guide. His advice is, in sum: find the happiest, most respected man in your community, and do what he's doing. Morality, on the other hand, says there are things you should do, and things you should not do, regardless of the ethos of where you are. Jesus of Nazareth, for example, directly challenged the ethos of Rome on the basis of the covenant Israel claimed with the God of Abraham, but Jesus didn't base his moral teachings solely on a strict adherence to the Torah. Had he done so, it would have been very hard for Paul to preach to the Gentiles, or for Jesus to put much distance between his followers and the Pharisees. That he did challenge the ethos of Rome is proven by the crucifixion (it's Holy Saturday as I write, so now I've managed to make this post topical). Clearly his moral teachings are not bound to the ethos of first century Palestine, and while over time Christian ethics has become encrusted with the ethos of many centuries and cultures, it is Christian morality that still calls to us today. This is, admittedly, a rough distinction, but it serves our purposes here.

The problem for Harris is that this kind of discussion of morality brings in the concept of transcendence, a concept he is loath to acknowledge and anxious to dismiss. All things, he avers, are known to consciousness, and what is not known to consciousness is not known, and transcendence necessarily infers a state of being beyond consciousness and therefore inaccessible to consciousness, and therefore unknowable. One is tempted to simply point him to Kant and move on; but that would be cheating.

Let's examine the concept of "transcendence" then. Is language purely a product of my consciousness, or is it somehow apart from me? If it is, and yet it has no empirical existence (I cannot touch, taste, or smell language, I can only hear sounds which I am told are "language", or read symbols which I interpret as "language"), is it not in some sense "transcendent," i.e., it existed before me and will exist long after me? You may say it is purely a product of consciousness, but does not that explanation imply a transcendence, something beyond the individual, a shared reality that exists at least so long as consciousness is available to be aware of it? And is consciousness really a reality, or merely a symbol, a product of a language game, which we use to refer to a concept we all try to agree on, but can't fully explain (and yes, Harris runs into Godel's theorem of incompleteness any minute now, but don't tell him, he might let his foot off the epistemological gas pedal)? Does "transcendent," in other words, necessarily entail a state of being, or is it simply something beyond any one individual, in which case even the polis is transcendent of the person.

And isn't it?

So Harris has two definition problems: his loose use of the concept of transcendence, and a wholly unexamined idea of the difference between "morality" and "ethics." He dismisses both because he never considers them. He regards transcendence as some kind of false analogy to "super-consciousness," some thing that must be wholly other to consciousness and therefore wholly unknowable by it (such is his epistemology). Of course, most of Christian theology (at least) is concerned with the relationship of the Creator to creation, and how the Creator can be wholly other and yet known by the Creation, of which one part lays claim to the consciousness Harris seems to rely on (without every identifying it), while the rest of Creation is assumed (by people from the Psalmist to St. Francis to 19th century Scots) to be equally aware of the Creator. Harris' implicit claims for consciousness partake of the very dualism he would probably eschew in the name of science; which would be funny, if it weren't so sad. Likewise, he regards religion as the province of those wholly concerned with the afterlife, wholly unconcerned with this life. Nice work, if you can get it. Against that I would add to what I've already observed a few words from Wittgenstein:

In religion every level of devoutness must have its appropriate form of expression, which has no sense at a lower level. This doctrine, which means something at a higher level, is null and void for someone who is still at the lower level; he can only understand it wrongly and so these words are not valid for such a person.
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.
Which is the politest way of saying Harris doesn't know what he's talking about that I can come up with. As for his definition of science (upon which part of his argument turns), it's simply laughable. All I can do is point him toward Descartes, and advise him to try to learn a thing or two before he speaks again.

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Good Friday 2010

Oh, life is bigger
It's bigger than you
And you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Oh no, I've said too much
I set it up

That's me in the corner
That's me in the spotlight, I'm
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don't know if I can do it
Oh no, I've said too much
I haven't said enough
I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try

Every whisper
Of every waking hour I'm
Choosing my confessions
Trying to keep an eye on you
Like a hurt lost and blinded fool, fool
Oh no, I've said too much
I set it up
Consider this
Consider this
The hint of the century
Consider this
The slip that brought me
To my knees failed
What if all these fantasies
Come flailing around
Now I've said too much
I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try

But that was just a dream
That was just a dream

(repeat chorus)

But that was just a dream
Try, cry, why try?
That was just a dream
Just a dream, just a dream

I've been rolling that chorus over and over in my mind, probing it like a sore tooth, wondering why it fascinated me so and wanting to figure it out and not figure it out, at the same time. It's not fun knowing everything, as the Monty Python "Penguin on the Telly" sketch points out; it takes all the mystery out of life.

But lately I've begun to consider that the line is true, and that's why it attracts me, and annoys me at the same time. That in the spotlight, in the public glare, in the examination of the individual by the crowd, one does lose one's religion. That religion is, in fact, a private matter; but not at all in the ways that phrase is usually used; and losing one's religion because of public scrutiny is not at all a good thing for the individual, or for the public.

Religion is personal, which is to say it is internal. It is not personal in the sense that it is peculiar or particular, nor in the sense that it is wholly subjective and not subject to review by a community. Indeed, solipsism is the very opposite of religion. All religious claims must be of and from a community, or they are by definition not religious claims at all. The religious community claims a confession to the God of Abraham, for example. The individual claims an insight, a message, a communication, from that God. The community judges whether this is valid, or madness; whether it is a prophecy, or a heresy; whether it is true and can be trusted by the community, or is a plea for attention or the result of delusion. Religion is internal, but it must be shared in order to be actual.

In the sharing arises the problem. The religious community makes a claim the non-religious community does not share, does not participate in, cannot evaluate, or cannot accept. But the religious claim without a community is simply madness, or self-deception, or rank hypocrisy. Without the community to bear witness and assess the truth, the claim is nothing. With the community, comes judgment. Still, the claim must be internal, must be important to the individual, or it is purposeless and empty. Without being internal, it is false.

Other things, accepted by the non-religious as well as the religious community, are internal as well. Love; food preferences; tastes in art or music. These are personal, but shared with a community. One individual cannot know love, or art, or the varieties of foods, in isolation; anymore than language can be the province of one speaker. But who among us wants to put such preferences in the spotlight, present them for public display and approval? If we truly love, do we want our love examined and subject to approval by those who don't share our love? Do we want to explain our love, defend it, justify it, to strangers who may even be hostile to it? Would our love survive such examination? Would be expect it to? And why would we do that?

Our love is personal, is internal; but is it not shared with a community? Do we not marry in public, with friends and family? Do we not share our love with them, to make it more real? And yet we don't subject it to their scrutiny, examination, re-approval, re-assessment. We establish that it is real, but we never establish the reasons our love has reality, merit, worth. If our friends and family don't accept it, perhaps our love is false. But if it is true, they honor our love, they don't belittle it.

Our love is personal, it is internal. It is ours, but ours only when it is shared. It is protected, too, though. We don't wear it on our sleeves, lest the daws peck at it. We don't put it in the spotlight, lest we demean it and destroy it by our abuse, by our neglect of its value. Love put on display for approval and attention is not love at all; or it is, at best, self-love; excessive self-love.

Is faith a purely personal issue? No. Consider the position of Roman Catholics, some who love their church and faith, some who have wandered away from it, but are still hurt by the ongoing revelations of abuse, the assumption and appearance that every Roman priest everywhere in the world, was a pedophile. No one really thinks that's an absolute blanket truth, of course; not, at least, among the cohort named; but it's hard not to avoid the conclusion, even though the Roman church is particularly positioned to have a few priests affect many persons in many countries, seemingly simultaneously, and especially when the problem is not publicly acknowledged for a very long time. As I write, Rome is still resisting acknowledging the reality of the problem, still dismissing concerns and new stories and public anger, as "Catholic bashing." It isn't at all personal what happened, not to the victims or the priests or the priesthood or Rome or to Catholics. Then again, when you are put in that spotlight, when you are called upon, implicitly or explicitly, to defend the very grounds of your faith, the very why of your beliefs; that's precisely when you find that life is bigger than you, and you are not me.

What is faith, then? What does it mean to associate yourself with a church in trouble? Or a church that publicly pursues and proclaims the value of social justice? To wear ashes on your forehead on Ash Wednesday? To observe Good Friday? Were you there? Does it sometimes cause you to tremble (let the reader understand)? If faith is trust, then trust in what? And how can you be sure you trust it? What do you trust? Why? Here, stand in this spotlight and explain yourself....

So religion is a private matter; and when you have to defend it in public; when you are put in the spotlight and told to conform to an idea or explain why you cannot, when you are forced to choose between the world and your God, it is a choice of damnations. If the world decides your religious beliefs are the cause of your curious behavior, the world may decide it doesn't like your curious behavior, and so your religious beliefs are not worth retaining, and you should abide by the world and let them go. If the world decides your religious associations are subject to judgment, the world may decide those associations should be replaced. If the world decides your religion is personal, so you should behave in public like you don't really have one, the better to resemble the world.

When your religion, your faith, your beliefs, put you in the spotlight: that may be when you start losing your religion. How many religious public figures in history have disgraced themselves in the spotlight? The examples in America alone go back at least as far was the Great Awakening, and encompass public figures almost forgotten, their scandalous behavior lost to time. But the spotlight does that: it assumes the posture of life, and while it is bigger than you, it is not you. And life is bigger than you; "And I am happier than you are,/And they were happier than I am;And the fish swim in the lake/and do not even own clothing."

Oh, life.

The spotlight demands, but does not provide; takes, but does not give. And it's the perfect metaphor of our celebrity-besotted, Twitter and Facebook obsessed, age. The two are connected, you know, connected as surely as all are the outcome and consequence of Romanticism, a movement that ended in the 1820's, but hasn't ended yet, that was once a live wire of history and is now the dead hand we can't crawl out from under, whose clutch we cannot yet escape. We shine the spotlight on ourselves, convinced this is the highest and best purpose of human existence: to be noticed, to be particular, to be fulfilled, to achieve some measure, some tiny sliver, of what we think is fame. We worship celebrities as we worship ourselves, and our worship leaves no room for the worship of another, of a God, of something that is bigger than us, and that is not us. Because we aspire, in the spotlight, to be alive, and to be larger-than-life; and dream that if we achieve that, we will be fulfilled.

Oh, life. O machine. Oh no I've said too much. I haven't said enough.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Holy Thursday 2010

'Twas on a holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two and two in red and blue and green:
Grey-headed beadles walked before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul's they like Thames waters flow.

O what a multitude they seemed, these flowers of London town!
Seated in companies they sit, with radiance all their own.
The hum of multitudes was there, but multitudes of lambs,
Thousands of little boys and girls raising their innocent hands.

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song,
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among:
Beneath them sit the aged men, wise guardians of the poor.
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

And their sun does never shine,
And their fields are bleak and bare,
And their ways are filled with thorns:
It is eternal winter there.

For where'er the sun does shine,
And where'er the rain does fall,
Babes should never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.

--William Blake