Category Archives: belief

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Republican Jesus

I’m not sure how I became a liberal. I was raised in a conservative, fundamentalist religious world that frowned on liberal activities such as dancing and going to movies; left-leaning political positions were never mentioned. barry_button1Northeastern Vermont is not known as a hotbed of liberal attitudes. My father was as politically aware as watching Walter Cronkite every night on television allowed him to be, and he was a classic reactionary voter. Starting with the first Presidential election I remember, mondalemy father voted for JFK, Goldwater, Humphrey, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Mondale, Bush the First, Clinton, Dole, and Gore before passing away in 2002. He was always voting against someone or somethingdole-button-1. The only time I recall hearing my mother saying anything about politics was probably the only time she voted differently than my father. As she returned home from voting in the ’72 Presidential election, I asked her who she voted for. “McGovern,” she said. “I just don’t like the sound of that Watergate thing.”

I was too young to vote in the ’72 election (I was 16), but that didn’t stop me from wearing a McGovern button on my jacket as I loaded groceries into customer cars at the supermarket where I worked after school. Several customers who were not in favor of someone they perceived as a virtual Communist running for President complained to ComeHomeAmericaTed, the store manager, but Ted was a liberal and was wearing a McGovern button on his store apron, so the complaints didn’t get very far. To be honest, I’m not sure how anyone who came of age in the ‘60s and early ‘70s as I did could have avoided becoming a liberal, although my cousins, who are my age and grew up in the next town managed to avoid it. The impact of growing up in the sixties and early seventies is all over me, from my ponytail to my natural attraction to pushing the envelope rather than embracing the status quo to my internal delight in ignoring rules and regulations, even if ever so slightly.

But lots of people grew up in the sixties and did not turn out to be the liberal that I have been my whole adult life. I’ve become more and more convinced over the past few years that if I am to take my faith commitments seriously, which I always have even in times when deeply submerged beneath layers of rationality, fear, hubris, complacency or even brief attempts at atheism, then if I am going to be consistent the political and social beliefs and positions I511vOzalgjL__SL500_AA280_ inhabit are going to well left of center. In other words, although there is definitely a 60s counter-cultural youngster still inside me, the real reason I am a liberal is because I am a Christian. Don’t get me wrong—I am fully aware that there are millions of people professing to be committed Christians in this country who are hard core conservatives both in their political and social beliefs and are proud of it. I just don’t know how they pull it off without crossing their fingers behind their backs.

A brief email conversation with an acquaintance several years ago illuminated this for me very clearly. My acquaintance is a Christian speaker, retreat giver and counsellor with a certain following; I was a regular recipient of her e-newsletterr-SARAH-PALIN-JOHN-MCCAIN-OBAMA-large570. During the 2008 Presidential campaign summer, she wrote passionately about her great respect for Sarah Palin, the former Governor’s ability to “stick it to the liberals,” and her plans to streamline governmental support programs. In a private email I asked my friend (ingenuously) “How do you square your political positions with your faith?” In her reply, among other interesting things, she wrote “I think that, first and foremost, Jesus wants us to stand on our own two feet and take care of ourselves.” Now that’s a Jesus that I am unfamiliar with from the Gospels, but a Jesus that has become rather popular for a lot of people in these politically polarized times: Republican Jesus.

For instance, in last Sunday’s gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus feeds five thousand people with five loaves and two fishes, not because he’s a show-off in need of a signature miracle on his resume, but because “he was moved with compassion for them.” Regardless of whether you believe this story to be factual or allegorical, it undoubtedly illustrates the compassionate heart of the gospels. In the same situation, however, Republican Jesus would have acted otherwise:lazy jesusfeeding 5000

 

 

 

 

The Jesus of the gospels came from poverty, was poor his whole life, had little if anything positive to say about the pursuit of money and wealth, and had tough news for the rich young man who wanted to be his disciple—“Sell all you have and give it to the poor, then come follow me.” I suspect that Republican Jesus would have encouraged the rich young ruler to continue amassing wealth and enabling others to do so, in keeping with an often forgotten part of the Beatitudes: Blessed are the one percent, for their wealth shall trickle down to those who do not work as hard , and who are not as smart and creative (maybe). Republican Jesus would have endorsed the message of the “Gospel of Prosperity” ministers who preach that financial success is a sign of God’s favor.NVP

Toward the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus summarizes what the life of following his example requires succinctly: I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me . . . Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. Republican Jesus? A different attitude entirely.   Jesus with rifle

It’s all parody and sarcasm, of course, and the Republican Jesus meme has gone viral all over social media. Unfortunately, the positions and attitudes expressed by Republican Jesus are carried out on a daily basis by well-meaning persons who simply assume that their hardcore conservative values somehow or another mesh seamlessly with the teachings of the Jesus whom they claim to love and follow. And I don’t get it. There are good reasons to take various political/social positions, and there are good reasons to choose to be a Christian. The trick is remembering that what you believe in one area of your life has a direct impact on things that you believe in other areas of your life. Conservative Christians—good luck with that. It’s challenging enough as a liberal (impossible, actually), but at least I’ve got the book on my side.09ab37a6ab5e3feada1e948c21889d0c

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Just the Facts

While running errands the other day I drove past a billboard that raised my blood pressure a bit. It’s the sort of billboard that dots the landscape in various parts of the country but that one very seldom sees in blue state, outrageously liberal Rhode Island. billboardTrumpeting the “fact” that God created the heavens and the earth (because the first sentence of that irrefutable science text, the Bible, tells us so), it not-so-subtlely rejects the fact of Darwinian natural selection by putting a big X through the familiar cartoon chart of primates evolving into humans. “Jesus Christ,” I thought. “The barbarians have arrived.” Don’t get me started with the “Darwin is just a theory” crap—it’s a theory in the same sense that gravity is a theory. It’s a testable hypothesis that has stood up to the challenge of subsequent data and observations so well that one has to have a poorly hidden agenda driving one’s attempts to still deny it. More importantly, it is possible to believe in a creating God (as I do) and the truth of natural selection (ass I do)—but only if one is willing to let the facts of science inform one’s divine paradigm. Oh well.

Later that same day (while still running errands) I heard something on the science guyNPR’s “Here and Now” that raised my blood pressure a bit more. At the beginning of a segment on the dangers of global warming with Bill Nye the Science Guy (I wonder if “Nye the Science” is his middle name and “Guy” his last name?), the interviewer played a brief clip from Mr. Guy’s recent appearance on CNN’s “Crossfire,”

http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2014/07/29/bill-nye-climate-change

crossfirewhere host S. E. Cupp berated him for his close-mindedness.

Isn’t it a problem when “science guys” attempt to bully other people? Really, the science group has tried to shame anyone who dares to question it [global warming] and it’s not working with the public!

When asked by the “Here and Now” interviewer to comment, Bill said

When you have a bullying person calling you a bully, you just have to roll with it. That’s fine. I just wonder what really motivates her. The evidence is overwhelming—other countries aren’t having talk shows like that.

I wonder the same thing—what is the motivation for denying something that the vast majority of qualified scientists confirm the truth of? The interviewer went on to note that every time their show has a segment on global warming, they receive dozens, even hundreds of emails complaining that they did not give equal time to “the other side”—factsrather than having a legitimate debate about the best ways to address global warming, apparently there needs to be a debate about whether it exists. My inner rational person wants to scream THERE IS NO FUCKING OTHER SIDE TO A FACT!!! Fortunately, Bill Nye and others have more patience than I do.

How is it that in the twenty-first century we constantly find ourselves spinning our wheels in belief ruts that advanced hominids should have escaped from centuries ago? In the mystery novel I am currently reading, Tana French’s Faithful Place, the main character and narrator tana_frenchFrank MacKey is discussing with his sister the frustration he faces when trying to teach his nine-year-old the difference between truth and bullshit.

I want Holly to be aware that there is a difference between truth and meaningless gibberish bullshit. She’s completely surrounded, from every angle, by people telling her that reality is one hundred percent subjective: if you really believe something is true, then it doesn’t actually matter whether it is in reality true or not. . . I want my daughter to learn that not everything in this world is determined by how often she hears it or how much she wants to it be true or how many other people are looking. Somewhere in there, for a thing to count as real, there has got to be some actual bloody reality.

This nails the problem on the head. In a world in which everyone is an expert, in which everything posted, texted or tweeted can immediately become truth without verification or testing, images1HFL89CVthe sharp line between truth and fiction becomes blurry and is ultimately erased, especially when the fiction one is spinning is something that one really, really, really wants to be true. Good luck to Frank, and to all of us, when trying to swim against that stream. Shouting “But there are no facts to support what you are claiming” into the maelstrom of “But I really believe and want this to be true” often seems to be an exercise in futility similar to spitting into a hurricane.

Except that everything I’ve been pontificating about so far—the importance of facts as the reliable touchstone and antidote to our penchant for believing things to be true just because we want them to be true—can easily and justifiably turned right back on me when the discussion moves to belief in God’s existence. As a Facebook acquaintance posted in a discussion recently, imagesBCBKIAMJ“Could some person who believes in God’s existence just provide me with ONE PIECE of evidence to support that belief?” The palpable frustration in her question is the same frustration I have with global warming and natural selection deniers. Yet I have regularly written in this blog over the past many months that when it comes to belief in God, the evidence rules change. Why do I think I can get away with that?

I have said and written that the best, perhaps the only, evidence for God’s existence is a changed life—and, of course, the person who claims her or his life has been changed is the primary judge of whether the claim is true. The evidence is subjective, in other words. john-wesley-1-1Many theists identify a powerful, life changing internal event as their primal contact with and evidence for God—I am thinking, for instance, of Pascal’s “Night of Fire,” of John Wesley’s “my heart was strangely warmed” and Simone Weil’s “for the first time in my life something drove me to my knees” as examples. But I have never had such an experience–my divine encounters end to be more like a steady drizzle than a downpour–and even the most powerful encounters of this sort are subjective and first person accounts. The “changed life” that I attribute to the presence of the divine in my life could just as easily be explained as maturation, finally growing up, learning to deal with my history or simply growing weary of wrestling with ghosts from my past.

Ultimately, the evidence for God’s reality in my life counts as evidence only because the belief is already in place. There are stories out there about atheists and agnostics who have been convinced of God’s existence because of convincing rational arguments and effective marshalling of objective evidence, but that has not been my path. I was born into an atmosphere saturated with belief in the divine and although my beliefs concerning what and who that divine is have morphed through many permutations and continue to do so, I still breathe that same God-infused atmosphere. That is undoubtedly not the sort of evidence that my Facebook non-believer acquaintance is looking for, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. This will be good to remember the next time I am sharply critical of people who shape their evidence to fit their beliefs. For better or for worse, with the highest stakes possible, I am doing the same thing.imagesCTV4CPOX

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Fake It ‘Til You Make It

I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about God. That’s a strange thing to spend time doing, given that the very existence of God, and God’s nature if God does exist, has been seriously and vigorously debated since someone first looked into the sky and wondered if anything is out there. What sorts of evidence count for or against?images Is certainty possible? And if God exists, which God are we talking about? I am a skeptic both by nature and profession, but I also believe that God exists. How does that work?

I was recently reminded by the usual random confluence of events of a way proposed close to five hundred years ago to establish belief in God while at the same time doing an end run on all of the questions above. PascalThe proposer was the seventeenth century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal; the proposition has come to be known as “Pascal’s Wager,” one of the most debated and controversial arguments any philosopher has ever offered. Pascal was a world-class thinker who found himself knocked on his ass one night by what he interpreted as a direct message from the divine. It changed his life, moving him strongly in a religious direction and causing him to put his mathematical theories on the shelf.

Pascal lived in a time of skepticism; the medieval worldview had crumbled, Montaignethe Scientific Revolution was in full swing, and religious wars were being fought all over Europe. Michel de Montaigne, one of the most eloquent and brilliant skeptics who ever lived, was the most widely read author of the time. Pascal had no doubts about God’s existence—his “Night of Fire” had burned away any uncertainty—but he was smart enough to know that not everyone has such experiences. Lacking direct experiential evidence, and knowing that every philosophical, logical argument for the existence of God has been disputed by other philosophers using logical arguments, what would a betting person do?

Consider the options, says Pascal. Either you believe that God exists or you don’t, and either God exists or God doesn’t. That means there are four possibilities

1. I believe in God, and God does not exist

2. I do not believe in God, and God does not exist

3. I believe in God, and God exists

4. I do not believe in God, and God exists

Options 1 and 2 are essentially a wash. Believer 1 will probably live her life somewhat differently than Non-believer 2, but at the end of their lives they both are dead. End of story. But if it turns out that God does exist, then everything changes. Believer 3 is set up for an eternity of happiness, while Non-believer 4 is subject to eternal damnation. On the assumption that we cannot know for sure whether God exists but we still have to choose whether to believe or not, it makes betting sense to be a believer than to be a non-believer. As the handy chart below indicates, the believer either lives her life and dies or gets eternal happiness, while the non-believer either lives his life and dies or gets eternal damnation. So be smart and believe. QED.

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Many silent assumptions are woven into the argument, assumptions that have driven analysis and critique of Pascal’s Wager ever since. For instance, the argument assumes that there is about a 50-50 chance that God exists. evil and sufferingBut it could be argued that the preponderance of direct evidence from the world we live in (evil, disease, natural disasters, etc.) counts against God’s existence—the likelihood of God’s nonexistence is far greater than 50 percent. Others have pointed out that the difference between 1 and 2 is not negligible at all. Believer 1 might spend her life denying herself all sorts of experiences and pleasures in the mistaken belief that a nonexistent God doesn’t like such experiences and pleasures, while Non-believer 2 will enjoy such experiences and pleasures to the fullest. And what if God exists but is of an entirely different nature and character than we think? What if the things we believe will please God actually piss God off?

I find such critiques to be compelling and do not find Pascal’s Wager to be an attractive argument at all, but I believe in God’s existence so what do I know? I am far more interested in what Pascal says after the options are laid out to the person who buys the argument but is currently a non-believer. If I don’t believe in God’s existence but am convinced that a smart betting person does believe in God’s existence, how do I make that happen? just believeHow does one manufacture belief in something one does not believe in? Pascal’s advice is revealing.

You would like to attain faith and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness. What have you to lose?

Pascal is borrowing a technique from Aristotle, who once said that if you want to become courageous, do the things that courageous people do. In this case, do the things believers do and one day you may find you’ve become one.

Pascal came to mind when I read a reader’s comment on my blog entry “The Imposter” a few days ago.

The Imposter

In response to my discussing imposter syndrome and our general human fears about inadequacy and lack of importance, the reader wrote

Fake it until you make it” is actually almost a principle in Judaism, although not in those words. The medieval work seferSefer Hahinuch, which goes through the 613 commandments of the Torah according to traditional rabbinic calculation, states that a person is affected by his actions. If you do the right thing, little by little it can make you on the inside more like the act you are playing on the outside. Of course you can’t just do it to fool people. You have to intend to fulfill G-d’s will in the world and do things pleasing to Him according to what He has given us to work with. We do our job and keep refining it, and the work, the very inner struggle is pleasing to G-d because we are getting closer, because we are striving to be true to ourselves and Him, even though we know we aren’t there yet and never will be totally. But that is called doing His work.

Although this principle in Judaism reminded me of Pascal’s wager, it is actually very different. The Jewish principle supposes that one accepts that it would be good to live according to the rules and guidelines in the Torah but is not naturally inclined to do so. By putting these rules into action they become my own, all the time believing that becoming a person who does such things habitually is pleasing to God. But whether they are pleasing to God or not, they are arguably making me a better husband, father, son, Bros Kneighbor and contributing member of society.

Pascal’s suggestion is far less demanding, requiring nothing more than going through the motions of certain rituals on a daily or weekly basis. This is not likely to make me a believer or a better person so much as just a person with a very busy Sunday morning every week. In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the saintly Father Zossima’s advice to an unbeliever who wants to believe is quite different: he recommends the “active and indefatigable love of your neighbor.” Much like the Sefer Hahinuch, Father Zossima provides no shortcuts to belief in God. Rather he recommends the difficult prescription of transforming one’s heart and mind by one’s actions. This doesn’t establish any metaphysical truths, but it does open the door to the good human beings are capable of. Whether God exists or not.belief

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Random Harvest

Lindelof-The-Leftovers-HBOA new HBO miniseries called “The Leftovers” started its first season a couple of weeks ago. This is the sort of series that I usually have no interest in—something weird has happened (like a huge invisible dome randomly dropping on top of a town) and the entertainment of the series is to see how people deal with the new situation. As my father would have said, it’s fun to observe a cow’s reaction to a new barn door. Shows with such premises are generally too Stephen King-ish for my taste. But the idea kernel behind “The Leftovers” is different.video-the-leftovers-trailer-shows-us-what-the-rapture-looks-like On a seemingly unimportant day, October 14th to be exact, millions of people worldwide inexplicably disappear into thin air. Here one moment, gone the next. The first episode of “The Leftovers” drops us three years later into a small Pennsylvania community as they prepare for a third year anniversary celebration (wake? remembrance?) of the dozens of friends and family members who evaporated on October 14. So what makes this bizarre premise any more interesting than a giant dome falling out of the sky? This one hits close to home, because in the parlance of the people I grew up with, the October 14 event that is at the heart of this show is the Rapture.

rapture_1_I don’t know if “Rapture Obsession” is an official medical diagnosis, but whether it is or not my family, my church, and just about everyone I knew growing up had it. In spades. The basic idea is simple—Jesus is coming back. And when he does, he’s going to take those who believe in him, who have “accepted Christ as their personal savior,” with him back to heaven (the Rapture) and leave the billions of unraptured losers here on earth for a seven-year period known as the Tribulation during which, literally, all hell will break loose. Armageddon. The Antichrist. The Apocalypse. All of these are triggered by the massive ingathering of the faithful. At least in my youthful understanding, the primary reason to put up with all of the restrictions, limitations, and general annoyance of being a Christian was to guarantee that one is going and not staying when the Rapture occurs. Not that there was any solid guarantee that I was “in” rather than “out.” I spent many panicked moments as a youngster when my mother wasn’t where I expected her to be thinking that the Rapture had occurred and I was screwed.

Where did people get such a ridiculous idea from? Actually, the textual evidence in the Bible is relatively thin and mixed at best. There are a few cryptic comments in the Gospels, a few more hints in Paul’s letters, but the bulk of the relevant material is in the Bible-closing Book of Revelation and the Book of Daniel from the Hebrew scriptures (as read through Christian filters), material containing predictions so cryptic and visions so strange as to suggest that the authors were on hallucinogenics. 375px-Tribulation_views_svgThere’s enough there to draw one’s attention if one is so inclined, but not enough for anyone to be sure about what the texts actually mean.

But that didn’t stop my church community from being sure as hell (!) that we were in and just about everyone else (including Catholics, Universalists, and tons of other people who claimed to be Christians) was out. There was plenty of debate about the details. We believed that the Rapture would be the official kick-off of the Tribulation (we were “Pre-Trib” people), but some Rapture believers thought it would happen half-way through the Tribulation (“Mid-Trib”) and some even thought it would happen at the end, just before the Final Judgment (“Post-Trib”—I never saw the point of a Post-Trib Rapture). Pastors preached on it, Bible scholars and experts gave week-long conferences piggy-backed on revivals (my Dad was one of these experts), The_Late,_Great_Planet_Earth_coverand we all went into a tizzy when in 1970 evangelical minister Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, called “the number one non-fiction bestseller of the decade” by the New York Times, exploded on the scene. And this is not a dated phenomenon. Hal Lindsey’1972 bestselling sequel had the eye-catching title Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth; a brief Internet search or a Sunday road trip to the closest megachurch will confirm that Rapture mania is also alive and well on planet Earth. “The Leftovers” is likely to be a big hit.

perrotta__120628065425-275x411I first became aware of the series when Tom Perotta, whose novel the series is based on, made the rounds of my favorite NPR shows the week before its debut. In one of the interviews, Perotta said that part of his research for the book was living as an embedded person in a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian community and church for a certain amount of time, sort of like how the Soviet spies in “The Americans” live embedded in Maryland as a typical middle-class 1980s American couple. Assuming that, as always, the book would be better than the television series (it is), I ordered The Leftovers, published in 2011, from Amazon. I’m about half way through it, but it was clear that Perotta had done his homework well on page 3 of the novel’s Prologue. As one might expect, there is a great deal of confusion and debate about “what just happened” in the weeks following October 14th—was it the Rapture or not? Many argued that it couldn’t have been.

Interestingly, some of the loudest voices making this argument belonged to Christians themselves, who couldn’t help noticing that many of the people who’d disappeared on October 14th—Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and atheists and animists and homosexuals and Eskimos and Mormons and Zoroastrians, whatever the heck they were—hadn’t accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior. left-behind-people-on-rapture-dayAs far as anyone could tell, it was a random harvest, and the one thing the Rapture couldn’t be was random. The whole point was to separate the wheat from the chaff, to reward the true believers and put the rest of the world on notice. An indiscriminate Rapture was no Rapture at all.

My church would have been at the forefront of those who denied that this was the Rapture on theological grounds. It would be understandable if not everyone in our congregation was raptured—not everyone was a good enough Christian. Those in the inner circle would have even been happy to predict who was not sufficiently up to snuff. But non-Christians? Atheists? Catholics, for God’s sake? Underlying Rapture obsession and mania is the very familiar human attempt to put God in a box, to figure out ahead of time what God is up to, what God is like, and what God likes best—then to act accordingly. A rapture such as fictionalized in The Leftovers is such an affront to our best efforts at putting the divine in a straitjacket that it has to be rejected as something other than the real thing. young_earthMaybe God threw this pseudo-rapture into the mix early just to test our faith, I can hear someone suggesting, sort of like God planted dinosaur fossils and made the earth appear to be several billion years old rather than the few thousand that the Bible says, just to fuck us up (for a good reason, of course).

Truth be told, though, the random harvest described in The Leftovers sounds exactly like something God might do, once as many human boxes and straitjackets for the divine as possible are left behind. God’s apparent randomness and lack of respect for our human obsession with fairness and justice is on display everywhere. It is entirely understandable that Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? has been a record-breaking bestseller. The very process of natural selection that has and continues to produce the vast diversity of living things is energized by randomness and chance; I’ve been noting recently in this blog beauty itself has dissonance at its core. For those who insist on going to their favorite sacred text to get a handle on the divine, you need go no further than Jesus’ observations that “it rains on the just and the unjust” and “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” Every time we believe we have God figured out, it is good to remember that if you want to give God a good laugh, just tell her your plans.when-will-the-rapture-happen-flowchart

Can a Philosopher be a Christian?

  • cunningham[1]The Dominican priest who, as the president of the college, interviewed me for the faculty teaching position I currently hold, died several years ago.  I admired and respected him for many reasons, including that his signing off on my hiring was one of his last actions as president. In addition to being an ordained priest, he was a philosopher by academic trade and a respected scholar. After he stepped down from the presidency, he returned to the philosophy department and taught for a few years before his death. He used to scandalize his Dominican brethren publicly in department meetings—I like to imagine that he took great delight in doing so—imagesCA9T7S9Xby regularly proclaiming that “There is no such thing as Christian ethics. It’s an oxymoron. ‘Ethics’ is philosophy and ‘Christian’ is theology.” Had this comment not come from one of the most respected Dominicans and scholars on campus, a number of my colleagues who believe that the purpose of philosophy is, as Thomas Aquinas suggested, to be the handmaiden to Queen Theology would have jumped on him. Instead they rolled their eyes and tried to act as if nothing offensive had been said. Since I believe that the sharp distinction between TheologyVsPhilosophy[1]philosophy and theology is the first line that must be drawn in every course I teach, I embraced my colleague’s insight.

I’ve spent my entire professional career as a philosophy professor teaching in Catholic institutions of higher education. Since I’ve always been straightforward with those interviewing me, my colleagues, and my students that I am not Catholic, I’ve never been accused of being a “Catholic philosopher” (although many of my colleagues wear that description as a badge of honor). I continually struggle, however, with whether I am a “Christian philosopher.” Somewhere along the line I became defensive when talking with others about this. I regularly say that “I’m not a Christian philosopher. I’m a philosopher who happens to be a Christian,” as if I freely chose to become a philosopher but was saddled with being a Christian in the same way I was saddled with curly hair, blue eyes, and bad teeth. On a professional level, my resistance to the “Christian philosopher” tag is similar to my Dominican colleague’s rejection of the possibility of “Christian ethics.” imagesCA4P0VAYScotch%20Buy[1]Mixing philosophy with theology is like mixing fine scotch with root beer. There’s a place for root beer, and there’s a (better) place for scotch, and never the twain should meet. But there’s definitely something much deeper going on that has nothing to do with respecting the boundaries between distinct academic disciplines.

A number of years ago Jeanne and I went to visit Forrest and Nancy, a couple who had been very important in my life before Jeanne and I met. In the seven or eight years since I had last seen this couple a number of big things had happened in my life, including a divorce, a bitter custody battle, a remarriage, and completing my PhD in philosophy. The weekend visit was lovely, with good food and conversation, a boat trip on an Alabama lake, and church on Sunday. I had been in pretty bad shape the last time Forrest and Nancy had seen me, so they were thrilled to meet my beautiful new wife, to hear about my sons, and to see that I was doing well. In the middle of one conversation, Nancy asked me a question that has stayed with me ever since: “How can you be a Christian and a philosopher?” The question was sincere, without a hint of challenge or judgment. She simply wanted to know. Nancy admittedly knew little about philosophy, but she’d at least heard that mahler12[1]philosophy is the art of questioning, of asking better and better questions about the biggest possible issues. The problem, as she saw it, was that for a Christian, most if not all of these questions are already answered. Why, if as a Christian I know all of the answers to these questions, would I spend my professional life continuing to ask them and inspiring others to do the same? Why not just introduce everyone to the truth? s question returned me to my youth, to bumper stickers on cars in the church parking lot that read God-Said-It[1]“God said it, I believe it, That settles it,” to sensing from those around me that I thought too much, that I asked too many questions, that I was too smart for my own good and too big for my britches. What I needed to do was simply believe and shut up. It would make my life, and that of those around me, a lot easier.

As I’ve processed Nancy’s question over time, I’ve come to realize that the joy and fulfillment I find in life of the mind, of academia, and of open-ended questioning is partially, at least a teeny bit, the working out of a rebellious “up yours” to everyone who sought to fit me for their straitjacket.Straitjacket-rear[1] Philosophy on the one hand, as a life-defining activity, is who I am, and I even get paid for doing it. Being a Christian, on the other hand, is something I was born into. It was part of the atmosphere I breathed from birth. My family and community were Christian, the first words I learned were Christian, the first songs I sang were Christian. One doesn’t just walk away from that or shed it as a snake sheds its skin. I’ve never really believed someone who smugly with an air of superiority says something like “I was raised in (fill in the blank religion), but now I know better and I’m an atheist.” If you were really raised in a religious tradition that seeped into your bones and psyche before you even became fully conscious and self-aware, then that influence does not end by flipping an intellectual switch. So I’m a philosopher who happens to be a Christian.

51xdfdHIzzL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_[1]As I was discussing this with a wise new friend not long ago, he reminded me of a distinction that Kierkegaard makes between “Christendom” and “Christianity.” Christendom, on the one hand, is an institution, a top-down hierarchy, the various rules, prescribed actions, and rituals that human beings have constructed to limit and control human behavior and various dangerous elements of Christ’s message. This is what 1003[1]Simone Weil called “the Great Beast,” the powerful collective which attempts to control human freedom and choice in the name of God. For better or for worse, I was born into one specific, very powerful version of Christendom. Christianity for Kierkegaard220px-Kierkegaard[1], on the other hand, is a radical, individual commitment to following Christ at all costs, a commitment to the law of freedom and love so challenging and frightening that it shows Christendom to be a timid and safe mockery of faith.

When it’s put that way, I realize that I can be a Christian philosopher—the two could very well go perfectly hand in hand. Working this possibility out in real time is a continuing challenge. This requires commitment and courage beyond anything I’m familiar with, a truly open-ended exploration of what it might really mean that God loves me and what that might lead me to become. But at least it’s a choice.

To My Satisfaction

One morning in response to a recent blog post, a friend and colleague sent me the following email:

One thing I’ve been struggling with . . . is the (im)possibility of certainty in the realm of religious belief/faith. How does one lead a religious / faithful life without ‘certainty’ that God exists, for example? Does one’s faith in God amount to a kind of certainty? If it doesn’t, how can it stand on a firm foundation?

GuttingIt certainly is no surprise that one of my blog posts raises such questions, since I have grappled with such issues for as long as I can remember. Over the past few months the New York Times has published a series of interviews on its “Opinionator” blog in which Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, explores the topic of whether belief in something greater than ourselves is rational with several contemporary academics whose work intersects with such questions. These interviews have caused me to return yet again to a well-worn theme: how can I profess to be both a person of faith and a philosopher at the same time?  

Antony bookOne of these interviews was with Louise Antony, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She is the editor of Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life and represents the hardcore atheist position among Gutting’s six interviewees. In response to Gutting’s query as to why she is an atheist, going beyond the agnostic position that we cannot know whether God exists or not to the more definitive position that one can know that God does not exist, Anthony explains:

When I claim to know that there is no God, I mean that the question is settled to my satisfaction. athiest theistI don’t have any doubts. I don’t say that I am agnostic, because I disagree with those who say it’s not possible to know whether or not God exists. I think it’s possible to know. And I think the balance of evidence and argument has a definite tilt. . . . The main issue is supernaturalism—I deny that there are beings or phenomena outside the scope of natural law.

I must confess that I found much of the succeeding conversation to be tiresome and spinning its wheels in bottomless intellectual ruts. Antony will only accept a specific type of evidence—that which can be verified within the parameters of the laws of nature. The theist makes a serious mistake when she or he agrees to play the “does God exist?” game by these rules. In truth, Antony’s belief that “everything is the product of mindless natural laws acting on mindless matter” operating according to the inexorable laws of nature is as much an act of faith as the theist’s belief that there is at least one being—God—that transcends those laws.

sastisfactionOf greater interest is her claim that “the question is settled to my satisfaction,” because this raises the threshold of conviction question. Just how convinced does someone have to be of the truth of something before further investigation is stopped? Is the threshold of conviction different from person to person? And if so, how can a person with a low threshold of conviction fruitfully converse with the doubter whose threshold is significantly higher? Gutting and Antony’s conversation shifts in this direction when it moves its focus from scientific to experiential evidence. Gutting asks What do you make of the claim from many theists that the best evidence for the existence of something greater than us is direct religious experience? imagesCAN6WX2YAfter denying that she has had such experiences, Antony offers a connective bridge that many atheists refuse to consider.

O.K., if you hold my feet to the fire, I’ll admit that I believe I know what sort of experiences the theists are talking about, that I’ve had such experiences, but I don’t think they have the content the theists assign to them. I’ve certainly had experiences I would call “profound.” . . . I’ve been tremendously moved by demonstrations of personal courage (not mine!), generosity, sympathy. I’ve had profound experiences of solidarity, when I feel I’m really together with other people working for some common goal. These are very exhilarating and inspiring experiences, but they are very clearly about human beings—human beings at their best.

Shifting the conversation from the ways in which we describe our experiences to the content of those experiences offers an opportunity for new understanding.

Antony’s comments remind me of a long-standing problem that I had with my father well into my adulthood. From my earliest memories, he peppered his conversations with phrases like “God told me that . . .,” “the Lord directed me to . . .,” and “I was going to do ___, but God told me not to,” bush and godgiving the impression that he and the Divine had a direct line of communication others did not have access to. Knowing that I had no such direct line, I had no idea what the experience of talking directly to God was like. After many years of first thinking I was my father’s spiritual inferior, then thinking that he was simply nuts, one day in my early thirties in response to yet another “God told me that” pronouncement I confronted him. “You say that all the time—what exactly does it feel or sound like when God says something to you?” Taken aback by what he perceived as an attack from his passive, introverted son he grew defensive. “Well, you know, it’s a strong feeling, an intuition, a sense that I should do this rather than that.” “It’s not a voice?” I asked. “No—it hasn’t been yet, at least,” he replied. “I know what those sorts of experiences are like,” I sputtered—“I just don’t call them God talking to me!” And for the first time we had come to at least a partial truce. imagesCACEO8TNOur failure to communicate was the result of vastly different language, not vastly different experiences.

In a moment of the sort that is all too rare in conversations between atheists and theists, Antony suggests that we focus our attention on the experiences that all human beings share, not on the various sorts of descriptions and explanations that divide them. Because after all, just how important is it, in the larger scheme of things, to be absolutely right about something that is ultimately beyond the reach of our usual sorts of evidence?

AntonyWhy do theists care so much about belief in God? [And, I might add, why do atheists care so much about not believing in God?] Disagreement over that question is really no more than a difference in philosophical opinion. Specifically, it’s just a disagreement about ontology—about what kinds of things exist. Why should a disagreement like that bear any moral significance? Why shouldn’t theists just look for allies among us atheists in the battles that matter—the ones concerned with justice, civil rights, peace, etc.—and forget about our differences with respect to such arcane matters as the origins of the universe?nuns and soldiers

This strikes me as wise advice. As Anne Cavidge says in Iris Murdoch’s Nuns and Soldiers,

What do my thoughts matter, what do their details matter, what does it matter whether Jesus Christ redeemed the world or not, it doesn’t matter, our minds can’t grasp such things, it’s all too obscure, too vague, the whole matrix shifts and we shift with it. What does anything matter except helping one or two people who are nearby, doing what’s obvious? We can see so little of the great game.

At the very least, Louise Antony suggests, theists and atheists should practice basic charity when involved in their seemingly interminable debates.

I believe I have reasons for my position, and I expect that theists believe they have reasons for theirs. Let’s agree to pay each other the courtesy of attending to the particulars.

Behind the Curtain

Earlier this week I led a seminar with a number of colleagues from the Honors Program as part of a two-day end-of-the-semester workshop. Our text was several essays from Michel de Montaigne, a sixteenth-century diplomat, philosopher, and introvert who has become one of my favorite authors over the past few years. My general tendency, both as a philosopher and as a normal human being, is toward the details rather than grand, sweeping schemes, and toward skepticism rather than certainty. French wars of religionMontaigne speaks directly to both of these tendencies. He lived in 1500s France in the midst of the bloody French wars of religion that broke out between Catholics and Protestants in the wake of the Reformation, and frequently comments on the absurdity of human beings claiming to know with certainty anything about the nature or will of God. He observes that “there is nothing in the whole world madder than bringing matters down to the measure of our own capacities and potentialities,” arguing that “It is hard to bring matters divine down to human scales without their being trivialized.” He was a person of faith and considered himself to be a good Catholic, but sought to live the sort of life that he most admired: “The most beautiful of lives to my liking are those which conform to the common measureOz, human and ordinate, without miracles, though, and without rapture.” Words of wisdom, I think.

But there is in many of us a seemingly incurable desire to peek into the mind of God. As Dorothy and her entourage in The Wizard of Oz, we want to know what’s behind the curtain. On the way to the early show at church last Sunday, Jeanne and I caught the last few minutes of Krista Tippett’s radio program On Being. She was interviewing Jewish theologian and prolific author KushnerRabbi Lawrence Kushner, who ended the interview with a charming story from one day when he was giving a bunch of preschoolers a tour of the synagogue.

I was leading a tour of the sanctuary, of the prayer hall with the children in the congregation’s preschool. And then I figured as a piece de resistance I’d have them come onto the bima, or the little prayer stage up in front of the room, where there was an ark where we kept the scroll of the Torah. It was accessible via a big floor-to-ceiling curtain. And I got them up on the stage, and I was about to call them—’Open the ark,’ but I saw the teacher at the back tapping her wristwatch, which as you may know, is an old Talmudic gesture, which means your time is about up, bucko. So, I said, ‘I tell you what, boys and girls. We’ll come back when we get together again in a couple of weeks, we’ll come back here and I’m going to open that curtain there and show you what’s behind it.’ It’s very special. You know, and so they all say, “Shalom, Rabbi,” and like little ducklings, follow the teacher back to the class.
Well, the next day, the teacher shows up at my office with the following story. Apparently the preceding day’s hastily-concluded lesson has occasioned the fierce debate among the little people as to what is behind the curtain. They didn’t know. And, the following four answers are given, which is I think pretty interesting.

FNAnswer One: The first kid guessed that there is absolutely nothing behind the curtain. As Kushner notes, this kid “is obviously destined to become a professor of nihilistic philosophy at a great university.” I read recently in the NY Times that 68% of academic philosophers in this country describe themselves as atheists, with 13% more leaning in that direction. I had no idea that I am in such a minority amongst my peers—what do they know that I don’t know? Food for thought and another post, perhaps. I am reminded of a story Nietzsche tells—in a dream he once took the mask off a Greek sculpture and found himself “staring into the empty eye sockets of nothingness.”

jewish holy thingsAnswer Two: Another preschooler, playing a safe hand, thought that behind the curtain one would find a Jewish holy thing. This kid will probably turn out to be a nominal follower of Judaism, recognizing the existence of “holy things” and perhaps people like the rabbi who are strangely obsessed by “holy things,” but unlikely to be bothered by what they might represent and what Holy Thing might be lurking behind such “holy things.” Pretty much like the vast majority of children cranked out of Protestant Sunday Schools and CCD classes every year.

Monty HallPat SajakAnswer Three: A third kid, channeling his inner Monty Hall or Pat Sajak, hoped that a brand new car was behind the curtain. There are any number of televangelists who scream something similar from various media outlets on a daily basis. There’s something attractive about The Gospel of Prosperity, the notion that God wants the most faithful followers of the Divine Plan to be rich and prosperous. Too bad that there is not a shred of evidence to support the idea anywhere that I’m aware of.

Answer Four: The most fascinating answer came from child number four. As Kushner tells it, “the fourth kid said no, you’re all wrong. mirrorNext week when that rabbi man comes and opens that curtain, behind it, there will be a giant mirror.” Not only is this creative and interesting, I’m more and more coming to believe that this little boy or girl is right. What one expects or hopes for when engaged in faith-related activities may say little or nothing about God, but it says a lot about the person doing the expecting and hoping. Whatever God is—if God is—our thinking and believing about God always begins with what we want and need God to be. Somehow the four-year-old knew that whatever is hidden behind the curtain is us. The story of Incarnation, of God becoming human so that we might become God as Irenaeus put it, begins with this mirror.

Will the Truth Set You Free?

I just don’t trust people who are convinced that they know the truth. Marcus Borg

I wrote in a recent blog post about my love of mystery novels, especially those that come in developing series

“It’s a Mystery”

and have also written about my long-standing habit of taking on an author every summer whose work I have never read and devouring everything she or he has written in three months.

“Unvisited Tombs”

nesboThis summer it appears that I will have the opportunity to combine these obsessions—I have discovered the work of Norwegian mystery writer Jo Nesbø. He is an internationally bestselling author whose books have only started becoming available in the US over the past few years. I first stumbled across the batThe Bat, the first of ten books in his Harry Hole series, a couple of months ago in the college bookstore. The cover looked interesting, Nesbø’s name was mentioned by a friend and colleague on Facebook a few weeks later as a favorite mystery writer, I recognized the usual random confluence of events that frequently leads me to a new favorite author, I ordered The Bat on Amazon and my summer reading plan was established.

Harry Hole, Nesbø’s main character, is complicated and well outside the boilerplate fictional detective. Toward the end of The Bat he has a conversation with an Australian detective about why police officers and detectives go into such a thankless profession. supermanThe Aussie sounds like the 60s Superman show I grew up with, suggesting that such public servants are motivated by a thirst for “truth and justice.” Harry isn’t buying it.

I’ve been a policeman all my life, but I still look at my colleagues around me and wonder what it is that makes them do it, fight other people’s wars. What drives them? Who wants to go through so much suffering for others to have what they perceive as justice? They’re the stupid ones. We are. We’re blessed with a stupidity so great that we believe we can achieve something.

I love it when my fictional detectives go below the surface of the current case and begin exploratory ruminations about the dark underbelly of human nature and motivation. And Harry’s not finished.

Truth is a relative business, and it’s flexible. We bend and twist it until it has space in our lives. Some of it, anyway. . . . The truth is that no one lives off the truth and that’s why no one cares about the truth. The truth we make for ourselves is just the sum of what is in someone’s interest, balanced by the power they hold.

truthTruth is a slippery business, but everyone seems to have something to say about it. For instance, Jesus is memorably reported as having said that “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” This is one of the many things I wish Jesus had never said, not because I think it is wrong but rather because it has been subject to all sorts of misinterpretation and coopted by all sorts of agendas. For instance, many suggest that the “truth” Jesus is referring to actually the “Truth.” The capital letter makes all the difference, as it signifies that the person making the proposal believes in such a thing as absolute truth, something that Harry Hole apparently does not believe in the existence of. Absolute Truths are universal, fixed, inflexible, and not subject to the subjective preferences of mere mortals such as ourselves. Sounds attractive—such Truths, if they exist, would provide an indispensable touchstone for adjudicating conflicts between mere truths, which as Harry suggests are often mere projections of our own preferences and interests that we seek to implement to the greatest extent that our power and influence allows.true believer

The problem with the idea of absolute Truths is at least twofold. First, many agree that such Truths exist but few agree on what they actually are. I believe that absolutes do exist, but discovering their content is far more difficult and complicated than many “True believers” want to admit. This leads to the second problem—True believers tend to cut corners on the search process, adopting what very well may be just provisional as if it is an absolute, then beating others over the heads, either virtually or actually, with their Truth pretenders. I’ve just spent a semester with my students in two different courses studying the limitless ways in which human beings have used Truths they claim to be in possession of—religious, political, what have you—to justify violence against and killing of fellow human beings who happen to embrace different and incompatible Truths. The Crusades, various wars of religion, the Nazis—virtually any truth can be dressed up as a Truth and used as a weapon of mass destruction. The best comment on this dynamic I ever read came from the author of a letter to the editor in the local newspaper a number of years ago: Pursue the truth, and run like hell from anyone who claims to have it.

In reality, I think the fact of the matter concerning the truth was clearly expressed by one of my colloquium students who wrote the following in her intellectual notebook this past semester: “The truth will not set you free, but it will definitely mess your life up.” This is because the truth about the truth for human beings is that it is a process rather than a thing. The truth is more like a continuing creative act than a treasure hunt that will hopefully stumble into the pot of gold at the end of an evanescent rainbow. Harry Hole is right about one big thing—the truth is something that we make. This is not a surprise, because as a matter of fact all ways of seeing reality are human constructions. Truth is not an exception. Everything we believe is a product of a complex filtering and organizing process through any number of filters, from genetic to experiential. the wayHarry is also correct in saying that truth is a relative business—relative to each human being since each of our filters are uniquely ours.

This does not mean, however, that just anything goes. It does not mean that we simply get to make truth up as we go along, as those who fear the ogre “relativism” would claim. Jesus said something else about truth that is directly applicable—“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Truth is not something we find at the end of a search—it is in fact the search itself, a search that in many traditions is connected directly to a way of life, a person. Harry is wrong when he concludes that the only motivations for the process of truth are self-interest and power. The “I am the way” alternative is that truth is a divine process in which we participate; our participation is energized positively by the things for which we hope and the things which we love.

 

Whatever Helps You Sleep At Night

Kelly-sized[1]About a year ago, a former student of mine working toward her PhD in philosophy at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, sent out a call through Facebook for anyone interested in talking on the radio show she produces about certainty as a moral problem. I volunteered, she interviewed me by phone for an hour, and the edited version of my comments was part of this week’s program on her show, cfru-93-3[1]“Pioneer Radio,” heard bi-weekly on CFRU, 93.3 FM in Guelph. The theme of the show was “Whatever Help You Sleep At Night.” If you would like to hear the broadcast, the link is at the end of this post. Here’s what I said (with apologies that I although I write in complete sentences, I do not always speak that way!):

I think that what might be wrong with being certain is that it is almost always putting a period or an end to something. Whatever it is that you feel you are certain about, once you come to that point, it kind of gives you a “get out of thinking free” card for the foreseeable future on that topic. The reason that might be a problem is that I think the world very seldom comes to us in ways that are divided up neatly and cleanly with sharply defined finish points or boundaries. The world tends to be far more open-ended or blurry or fuzzy.

When we expect that the sun will come up tomorrow, when we expect that gravity will continue to work, when we expect that the people in our life will continue to behave the way that they regularly have—you cannot live a human life without that kind of regularity. But for me certainty is something different than that. The regularity that we need in our lives going forward, whether it is relationships or just being able to get through the day might be something more like extremely high probability or trustworthiness, rather than something like certainty. “Certainty” for me is not a synonym for “it is very likely to be the case that.” Certainty—and maybe this is the philosopher in me—takes me in the direction of someone who says “This is something that cannot be doubted.”

In a relationship, somebody might be very, very confident in his or her relationship with somebody else, but would probably not be willing to go so far as to say that “there is no possibility that this relationship could change, or there is no possibility that I might be wrong about it.” They are just saying that “my experience is that this is something very reliable.” My wife Jeanne and I wrote our own wedding vows, and I recall that she was not so sure that it makes sense to say “until death do us part” about anything. As I recall we still did keep that in, understanding that for a human being with incomplete knowledge of themselves and of the future, as well as of what the future will bring, to say about anything “I will hold this to be true and I will stand on this belief until I die” sounds like—and it is—a real commitment, and I believe people mean it when they say something like that. But at the same time, I think if people talk about it, normally speaking they understand that there certainly are imaginable circumstances going forward that would undermine that promise.

In moral behavior, believing that you have moral certainty is particularly problematic because the moral life is very complicated just like the world we live in. As soon as you believe that you have certainty in the moral realm, not only are you likely to consider your work done there, but in the moral life we tend to impose our principles, our guidelines, on others as well. Believing that you have moral certainty makes it very difficult to have meaningful discussions about morals, about ethics, with those who have different principles. As soon as I think that what I believe is absolute, then I am going to defend it at all costs and am very likely to dismiss those who disagree with me.

Morality, being able to live with others in community, and rules of behavior–all these sorts of things are necessary in order for human beings to be with each other and to be in relationship with each other. But human beings as imperfect and flawed creatures are going to find themselves failing to understand each other, and very frustrated with each other and with themselves, if they are holding themselves and each other to a standard that actually can’t be satisfied. Holding yourself, or myself, or each other to a standard of certainty, saying that a promise only counts as a promise if you can guarantee me that the thing you are promising me will always hold, or that you will never change your mind, or that circumstances will not change such that the promise no longer makes any sense–these are all sources of frustration. We are not the sorts of creatures who have that capacity, to see into the future, to understand ourselves going forward in such a way that we can legitimately make those sorts of claims.

So even on the things that I believe I am most sure about, that I’m most convinced of, I always find it helpful to at least say to myself “This is what I believe, this is what I consider to be (I might even say) absolutely true,” but always tack on “But, I might be wrong,” “But, I have a lot to learn,” or “But, I’m not omniscient.” Otherwise, being convinced that we have certainty—just to put a religious term on it—as if we are omniscient, simply indicates that on this particular issue I believe that I have the mind of God. I don’t believe I could possibly be wrong. I just don’t believe that a human being is ever entitled to take that sort of a stance.

As soon as you start eroding the edges of absolutes, immediately somebody is going to say that “where you are moving, if you are not there already, is relativism, where everything is equally good.” That absolutely is not the position I am taking. I think that there are some moral principles that are far more supportable and justifiable than others, that have better evidence to support them, that are likely to be treated as more highly probable than others, but that all comes out in discussion, not in terms of certainty. We have to close things off and treat them “as if” they are certain on a regular basis just in order to survive, in order to be productive human beings. But I think the problem is that we forget the “as ifs.”

If you would like to hear the audio, here is the link. The whole show is worth listening to–my segment begins about three-quarters of the way through the hour.

http://pioneerradio.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/episode-fifty-three-whatever-helps-you-sleep-at-night/

The Big Guy and Me

There’s nothing more stressful than lunch with all of the members of a twenty-plus member department when it is a central part of an on-campus interview. Two decades ago, that’s where I found myself. Everyone was friendly and no one was trying to be intimidating, Q and Abut I knew that the supposedly “informal” conversation going on, entirely composed of “Q and A” with the Q being them and the A being me, might possibly be what caused any number of these philosophers to vote “yes” or “no” on my candidacy in a few weeks. One woman asked “who do you consider to be the five greatest philosophers in the Western tradition?” I quickly provided the answer that my graduate student colleagues and I had agreed upon a few years earlier over several beers: “Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, and Kant.” “Would you be willing to replace Hume with Aquinas?” an older gentleman in white sitting to my right asked.fat aquinas “No,” I replied while thinking to myself “I wouldn’t even put Aquinas in my top ten.”

I am amazed that I got the job. Because at Providence College, Aquinas is treated by some as a virtual fourth member of the Trinity (perhaps a fifth member, since Mary occasionally  sneaks in as number four). This is the only college in the country that is run by the Dominican Friars (there are several run by Dominican sisters), Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican Friar and was designated as the official philosopher of the Catholic Church by Pope Somebody-or-other at some point in time, there are dorms, classroom buildings, chapels, seminar rooms and probably even bathrooms named after him on campus. Our beautiful new center for the humanities is graced with a prominent statue of a seated Thomas in a small grotto to the left of the front entrance. He is holding a book, left hand raised invitingly toward the observer, and looking pleasantly corpulent. really fat aquinasI call him “the big guy,” because Thomas Aquinas was a big guy. His classmates at the University of Paris in the thirteenth century called him “The Dumb Ox,” not because he was stupid (presumably), but because he didn’t say much and was much larger in stature and girth than anyone else. Sort of like having an offensive lineman in class, if we had a football team here.

In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, there is an aging monk whose solitary claim to fame is that he was the one who figured out how to get Aquinas’ body out of his cell in one of the monastery towers when he died. EcoAs the story went, Tom had gotten so fat that he could not be carried down the winding stairs out of the tower (apparently he’d been having his meals delivered for a while); the enterprising monk in question figured out how to lower the very large corpse safely out of the window several stories to the ground using ropes and the labor of several fellow monastics.

As a philosopher, I’ve never been a particular fan of Aquinas’ work, largely because I’ve never been a fan of things medieval. Too obsessed with God (sort of like someone else I know), too stylized, too formal, too buried under layers of ossified tradition and dogma. Catherine of SienaBut on my campus, one cannot walk very far without bumping into one of Thomas’ groupies. Aquinasians and Tom-o-philes abound—they call themselves “Thomists.” Saint Catherine of Siena Hall houses the theology department on the second floor and the philosophy department on the first; I would guess that at least half of the fifty plus scholars housed in this building would describe themselves as Thomists of some sort. One of them just down the hall from my office calls himself a “Thomist with a twist.” The President of the college is a Thomist philosopher. I suspect the people who work at the new Dunkin’ Donuts on campus are Thomists. fat-squirrelThe hundreds of squirrels on campus are Thomists. They are everywhere.

Over twenty years of unavoidably breathing Thomistic air, I’ve come to realize that my general problem with the big guy is not the big guy himself—it’s what people have done with him over the past seven hundred and fifty years or so. Thomas wrote a ton of stuff—he must have done little other than write and eat—and something in his vast body of work can always be applied to whatever question is being raised or topic is being discussed. From same sex marriage, abortion, and disputes about politics to Red Sox vs. Yankees or boxers vs. briefs debates, the big guy’s opinion invariably shows up. St-Thomas-Aquinas1When “Aquinas says that . . .” is introduced into the discussion in appropriately hushed and reverent tones, it is intended to be a conversation stopper. The authority on everything has spoken.

I suspect that if Tom were transported seven hundred and fifty years from his time to ours, he would be alternately shocked and bemused that he has become such an established and unquestioned authority in some circles. Because in his day he was a radical, an out-of-the-box thinker who was in trouble with various authorities for most of his adult life. His thought is infused with the energy of Aristotle, whose work in the thirteenth-century was just beginning to be introduced into philosophy and theology after centuries of being virtually unknown to European scholars. Christian ideas and frameworks of thought energized by Aristotle were beginning to challenge long-standing doctrinal positions rooted in very different Platonic notions. Aristotelians such as Aquinas were perceived as troublemakers in a world in which such troublemakers often ended up burning at the stake. That such a creative rabble rouser turned into the fourth member of the Trinity is remarkable—and, in my estimation, unfortunate since putting “Saint” in front of anyone’s name tends to turn that person into something other than the flesh-and-blood human being he or she actually was.

mascotStudents on campus learn early on that dropping Aquinas’ name randomly into class discussions is a reliable way to please the professor, particularly if the professor is wearing a white dress. This is why I have made a point of letting students know about my own love-hate relationship with the big guy. If he even shows up in my class, that is. My ethics classes are probably some of the few ethics classes ever taught on my campus in which the big guy does not show up. I even point this out to my students on the first day, suggesting that since they are required in their core curriculum to take two philosophy courses and two theology courses, as well as a four semester required Development of Western Civilization that spends close to a full semester in the medieval world, they probably will bump into the big guy at some point (more likely at several dozen points) in their career at the college.

There is one way, however, in which I use Aquinas regularly in class—as an example of how to organize one’s thoughts about any open question whatsoever. summa-theologicaAquinas wrote thousands of pages on just about every important philosophical or theological topic imaginable, and he organized his thinking and writing by adopting the same systematic approach to every topic. Aquinas’ writing is organized into Articles; each Article is an important question to be discussed, then answered. No matter what the question is—Whether the existence of God is self-evident? Whether it can be demonstrated that God exists? Whether the New York Yankees are truly the evil empire? Whether it is permissible to serve meat at the Providence College Dunkin’ Donuts on Fridays during Lent?—Aquinas approaches it in the same way.

Objections—He begins with the best arguments he can find, supported by noted and respected sources, in favor of the position that he will ultimately disagree with. In other words, Aquinas gives the opposition the first shot, often with arguments better than the opposition itself has ever presented.

On the contrary . . . Here Aquinas presents the first statement of the position he will support (contrary to the position supported in the Objections). The “On the contrary” statement is always in the words of some source other than Aquinas, often a Church father, often Scripture itself, sometimes “The Philosopher” (Aristotle), but never Aquinas himself.

353px-Meeting_of_doctors_at_the_university_of_ParisI answer that . . . This is the main body of the article, in which the big guy makes his own argument in support of the position stated in “On the contrary . . .”

Replies to objections—To finish the Article, Aquinas returns to the original Objections and responds to them individually, essentially with the attitude “That’s a good idea, but here’s why mine is better.”

Aquinas’s method and strategy is a reflection of the stylized and formal disputatio method of education in medieval universities, but it is directly applicable to now. The other day when assigning the main paper of the semester in a class, I took a few minutes with the students to outline Aquinas’ method, then suggested that they write their papers method“in the style of Aquinas.” No matter what position you are taking, no matter how strongly you hold that position, give the other side a fair hearing first. Your paper will not be stronger or more convincing by ignoring the other side or by reducing it to an easily dismissed straw man. Only by showing that the other side has strong arguments, then demonstrating why yours are better, will you have taken true ownership of the position you are taking. Imagine how different political discourse would be, how more intelligent conversations in person and on line would be if everyone were required to follow the model of Aquinas. Not bad for an Italian monk with an eating disorder from the thirteenth century who didn’t even make it to age fifty. His official nickname is “The Angelic Doctor.” Those must be seriously big wings.