Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Religious Diversity and Anonymous Christians

There are many religions out there. They make very different and often inconsistent claims about God and other religious matters and practices, so they can’t all be right. To truly accept a particular religion must be to believe that truth, the truth, and salvation are located within that religion alone, not the other religions which disagree with it. But at the same time most theists believe that God is merciful, just, benevolent, and good, with humans’ best interests at heart.

And that’s a problem.

For whatever your particular religion might be it seems clear that most people will not obtain salvation through it. The problem isn’t so much with the many who may explicitly reject your particular faith, for at least they can be said to have freely chosen to decline salvation. Rather it’s with the millions who never have or had any opportunity even to know about your religion--who lived long before your religion arose, or who live or have lived in nations, cultures, or remote areas never infiltrated by your religion. For something seems very wrong with a “benevolent“ God quite literally hiding the sole means of salvation from the vast majority of people, condemning them, in effect, through no fault of their own.

As Karl Rahner (1904-1984), a Catholic theologian, puts the problem, true Christians must believe that the only salvation is through Jesus Christ, available by supernatural grace to all and only those who have the proper faith in and relationship to him. They also must believe that the good and benevolent God desires the salvation of all people. Yet millions of people lived either before Christ or, if after, in places where they never could even hear of Christ.

But now, Rahner replies, if God desires the salvation of all and there is no salvation apart from Christ, then the conclusion is obvious: every human being must really and truly be exposed to the divine grace by means of which God communicates Himself. Every human being is in fact provided with the opportunity to accept or reject Christianity.

Even those who never had the opportunity to hear about Christ.

How could that be?

It is plausible (Rahner suggests) that, given our social nature, human beings are incapable of achieving the proper relationship to God purely on our own, divorced from the organized religions in our social environment. Moreover it is implausible to expect of most individuals the ability to escape their immediate religions, no matter how critical an attitude they might have towards it on particular matters. So if, as must be the case, every individual has the possibility of obtaining salvation but yet is unavoidably bound up with his immediate religion, it follows that he must have that possibility of salvation within that religion. And if salvation is truly available through Christianity alone (as a Christian must believe), then it must be that Christianity itself is somehow present within that religion.

It may not be easy to see, in all the world’s religions, any explicit traces of specifically Christian grace. But perhaps, Rahner suggests, one could see if one looks more deeply, and with more love, at the non-Christian religions, for it must be there. Indeed Christianity ought not simply confront members of other religions as mere non-Christians, but rather as people who must already be regarded in some respects as anonymous Christians. Whatever specific religious concepts they may explicitly have, those concepts must in the end contain implicitly the knowledge that their lives are oriented in grace-given salvation towards Jesus Christ.

Even if they’ve never even heard of him.

(1) Karl Rahner, “Christianity and the Non-Christian Religions,” in Theological Investigations, vol 5 (Baltimore, MD: Helicon Press, 1966). Excerpts reprinted in John Lyden, ed., Enduring Issues in Religion (San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1995).
(2) “Observations on the Problem of the ‘Anonymous Christian,” in Theological Investigations, vol. 14 (New York, NY: Seabury Press, 1976). Excerpts reprinted in John Lyden, ed., Enduring Issues in Religion (San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1995).

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The God-dess

Western religion and philosophy of religion have been dominated by men. Obviously. But what is less obvious is that that should make any philosophical difference. Philosophy is supposedly governed by reason, and reason is supposedly universal, unbiased, standpoint-neutral. It shouldn’t matter who is reasoning; reason itself leads to its results. So it shouldn’t matter philosophically that philosophy has been dominated by men.

But it does matter, Cambridge philosopher Sarah Coakley (b. 1951) argues. If the feminist philosophy developed in recent decades were taken seriously, it could have far-reaching implications for the philosophy of religion.

Consider, for example, the concept of the self. Great emphasis has been placed on the individual’s utter autonomy, his ability freely to determine his actions. This emphasis derives from traditional responses to the problem of evil: God permits the evils perpetrated by individuals because that is the necessary price for granting them the greater good of free will. But feminist philosophers notice something interesting about this conception of the “autonomous self”: rather than being historically and gender neutral, a product of pure reasoning, it in fact traces directly to the visions of autonomy promoted by the 18th century Enlightenment--and reflects an ideal available and suitable only to males. For only males were “independent” and “autonomous,” capable of earning their own living, susceptible to the education which allows one to make genuinely autonomous choices, and so on. Women were dependents, financially, politically, intellectually, and otherwise.

That paradigm notion of the “free individual” turns out to be that of a man!

And the very conception of God also reflects this bias. From the earliest Greek philosophers the deity was conceived to be eternally unchanging, an unmoved mover with unlimited power and autonomy: that is, a magnified version of the male ideal just described. Moreover the attributes philosophers have for centuries attributed to God, such as power, wisdom, immutability, moral purity, and so on, are attributes traditionally stereotypical of men, while the attributes they’ve assigned to human beings so inferior to God, such as weakness, ignorance, inconstancy, and sinfulness, are those traditionally stereotypical of women.

It’s clear: we must reject the idea that the philosophy of religion has been “universal” and “neutral” in its pursuits--for how convenient that their very conception of the “transcendent” and “genderless” God in fact was that of a man!

It’s also clear: if God has ultimately been conceived as male, then maleness itself must be conceived to be divine.

As feminist philosophy slowly begins to make inroads into philosophy of religion we might expect to see shifts of emphasis and new ideas and arguments. We might begin to see less emphasis on this masculine notion of individual autonomy, the “unconditioned” self who dominates and controls his environment, and more openness to the perhaps feminine notion of a self involved in mutual dependence and relationship with others and her environment. So too we might begin to see changes in the masculine conception of God as autonomous, all-powerful, and all-dominant, outside of time and history yet controlling of it, and more openness to the perhaps feminine idea of a nurturing and loving God, one who is within the world, to whom we may be more than mere “subjects” and with whom we may be in active relationship.

We may not go so far as to insist that God just is a woman. But we can at least hope that philosophers of religion become aware of the male perspective and bias which ever so subtly influences their allegedly neutral, universal, “rational” reflections.

Source: Sarah Coakley, “Feminism,” in Philip L. Quinn and Charles Taliaferro, eds., A Companion to Philosophy of Religion (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1999).

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Paradox of the Preface, and World Peace

Reprinted from Religion Dispatches

The epiphanies came as suddenly and strong as my newborn’s projectile spit-up. Yes, I realized, I SHOULD wear a burping cloth. And also, the Paradox of the Preface is the key to universal religious harmony and world peace.

It might also help you lose that weight, quit smoking, and find the man or woman (or both) of your dreams, but that is for another essay.

What is the Paradox of the Preface?

Imagine an author writing something like this as a preface to her work:

I am certain, of each and every sentence in this work, that it is true, on the basis of various considerations including the careful arguments and use of evidence which led me to it. And yet I recognize that I am a fallible human being, likely to have made some error(s) in the course of this long work. Thus I am also quite certain that I have made some such error somewhere, even if I cannot say where.

Such a refreshingly honest preface! So what is the paradox?

Well, there is the implicit, apparent contradiction. To believe of each and every sentence that it is true is to believe, in effect, that not one of the sentences is false; but to believe that there is at least one error in the work is to believe that at least one of the sentences is false, and thus to contradict the first belief.

And yet both beliefs can seem so plausible! Indeed—and here’s the key—even after we become aware of the implicit contradiction, both the contradictory beliefs remain quite appealing in their own right.

Thus the paradox.

But the key to world peace?

Well, there may be a number of ways to respond to this paradox. Amongst them, you might take the certainty in your fallibility to undermine the certainty in any or all of your particular individual beliefs. My thought here is that those who take this route are not the ones primarily responsible for disturbing the global peace. Or you might take the certainty in each particular belief to take away the certainty of your general fallibility. My thought here is that the folks who go this route—convinced of their infallibility—are generally the troublemakers.

My hope, however, is that these same people might, just might, be open to a third option, if only they were aware of it.

What I suggest, instead, is that we simply acknowledge the paradox: that is, recognize that both contradictory propositions are, in their own right, extremely plausible. In the preface case this actually seems quite easy to do. My ultimate hope, then, is that world peace will break out when enough people simply acknowledge the paradox as well and begin applying it more generally.

Why is that?

Because acknowledging the paradox allows you simultaneously to say two things.

Choose some important, life-governing, very controversial thing you happen to believe in with great fervor: the existence of God (or perhaps atheism), the truth of Christianity (or perhaps Islam or Hinduism, etc.), absolute morality (or relativism), the right to bear arms (or the government’s right to regulate them), etc. Focusing on religion as our example, you can now say, first, that you believe, with certainty, in the truth of (say) Christianity, and thus believe, with equal certainty, in all the things entailed by that belief: that, say, all other competing religions are simply false.

But then you can say, second, something else: that you may be wrong.

Got it? You can simultaneously be certain that Christianity is true and everything conflicting with it is false, and yet acknowledge that you may be wrong without taking away your certainty. You can thus keep your certainties without having to claim that you are, in fact, and grossly implausibly, infallible. It’s what everyone (other than bakers) has yearned for since time immemorial: the proverbial cake, both eaten yet had!

Imagine, now, that all parties came to acknowledge the Paradox of the Preface as well. Then THEY could say that they are certain that (for example) Islam is true and everything conflicting with it is false—and yet acknowledge that they may be wrong without taking away their certainty.

Everyone could get what they most want: namely, certainty in the truth of whatever it is they are certain is true. This certainty can lead people to do all the things they should do when they are certain of a thing: defend it, live in accordance with it, try to spread it, etc. But once you add the proviso “but I may be wrong” you might, just might, no longer do it in quite the rather unpleasant or sometimes violent way that such things are often done.

Thus universal religious harmony and world peace.

I refer to this overall perspective as “Humble Absolutism.” You may believe, with certainty, in the truths in question, and that they are absolute truths. But you do it with the form of humility appropriate to the recognition that your belief might be false.

Now let me go find that burping cloth.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Do the right thing -- whatever THAT means

Does morality truly depend on God?

Religious thinkers often hold that there is some important connection between morality--which actions are right and wrong--and the divine. But what connection is that, exactly? To answer, the great ancient Greek thinker Plato (427-347 B.C.E.) attempts to get clearer on just what morality itself consists in.

If you were to ask someone what “moral rightness” is, they might first provide some examples of right actions and perhaps also of wrong ones. Many would agree that murder is wrong and that pursuing justice is right. But merely citing such examples won’t get us what we want. What we want is the very definition or essence of rightness, the thing that all right actions share and wrong ones lack.

Now many of Plato’s contemporaries were polytheists, believing in the existence of many gods (such as Zeus, Poseidon, Athena, etc.). When questioned about the nature of morality one of them responded this way: rightness is that which is loved by the gods and wrongness that which is hated. While this does appear to be a definition, there is a problem: the gods of his time were, just like humans, constantly bickering about everything including morality. For any given action some gods might love it while others do not. But then the very same action could be both god-loved and god-hated, and so, by that definition, both right and wrong. And surely that could not be.

Believing only in the one God, the monotheist may avoid this problem: towards any given action the single God presumably feels only love or hate, but not both. But then another problem arises. If rightness were “that which is loved by God,” we couldn’t know that a given action is right or wrong unless we knew just what God loved and hated--and unless you are a prophet you have no way of knowing that. Morality would become unknowable to us!

And there is a deeper problem still. Even if we did somehow learn the complete list of actions God loves and hates we still would not have the ultimate definition of rightness. For consider this question: is the right action loved by God because it is right, or is it right simply because it is loved?

Suppose we answer the former: the right action is loved because it is right. But then the rightness comes “before” the loving, so to speak: it is the reason that the action is loved by God. That means that the action is right “in itself,” independent of God’s loving it. But then what makes that action right? We have no idea; we still lack the definition of rightness.

That suggests the other answer: an action is right because it is loved by God. That is, rightness simply consists in the fact that the action is loved. That would give us a definition perhaps, but it surely is not the correct one. For presumably any God worth believing in is not arbitrary. He doesn’t randomly love some actions and hate others. There must be some reason He loves kind and just actions and hates evil ones like murdering and stealing. And what could that be if not that the former actions are morally right and the latter ones are not? But this returns us to the first answer, and its problems.

So what is the relationship between God and morality, according to Plato? God no doubt does love the right actions but that doesn’t tell us anything about what their rightness consists in--and indeed implies that their rightness in fact is ultimately independent of Him. Morality does not in the end depend on God.

Source: Plato, Euthyphro. Transl. G. M. A. Grube, in John. M. Cooper, ed., Plato: Complete Works (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997).

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Divine Huppity Hoo-Ha

“Rationalist” philosophers have long claimed that our reason can generate knowledge about things which go beyond what we can experience with our senses. “Empiricist” philosophers to the contrary have insisted that all genuine knowledge must in fact be grounded in sensory experience. The British philosophy A. J. Ayer (1910-1989) takes this empiricist idea a step further: it’s not merely knowledge that must be grounded in sensory experience but also meaning. A given sentence is only meaningful if it is “verifiable”: that is, if it is either a direct statement about something we can observe with our senses or logically leads to such a statement. Any sentence which is not verifiable isn’t even worthy to be called “false”: rather it is literally meaningless or nonsense, and therefore no more true or false than some random series of sounds. And if so, it certainly is not something one could be said to have any “knowledge” about.

This criterion of meaning now wreaks havoc with many areas of philosophy, including that concerned with God.

For what, exactly, is the meaning of a sentence such as “God exists”?

Well, “God” either refers to something which transcends the world or is somehow present within it. Most theists have in mind the former, but to say that God transcends the world is precisely to say that He is not accessible to sensory observation. But if so then the sentence “God exists” is not related to anything observable and therefore, by our criterion, as meaningless as a sentence like, say, “The huppity hoo-ha exists.” To avoid this conclusion some may insist that “God exists” entails the existence of certain regularities within the world, perhaps even the specific laws of nature. But then the sentence “God exists” must either mean simply “there exist regularities in the world” or it means something more than that. If the former then the sentence is true but not useful to the theist: asserting that God exists amounts merely to asserting that there are regularities in the world, which even the atheist can accept. But if the sentence means more than that then once again it transcends sensory observation and is therefore meaningless.

Either way the theist is not in good shape.

This result also sheds some light on the age-old question of the conflict between religion and science. There can be conflict only where the sentences of one are inconsistent with the sentences of the other. But that occurs only if both are uttering genuinely meaningful sentences. If religious sentences are not genuinely meaningful then they can in no way conflict with any scientific sentences.

This may seem bad for theists but in fact many theists ought ultimately to agree, or at least Ayer suggests as much. They commonly admit that God transcends our intellectual capacities, but that is to admit that God is unintelligible--and what is unintelligible cannot meaningfully be talked about. Or they say that God is an object not of reason but of faith, accessible only by some purely mystical intuition that cannot be put into words. But if it cannot be put into words then one is bound literally to talk nonsense when describing it!

This is not to say that religious experience or feelings have no value. It is only to say that religious sentences are not properly meaningful sentences. Whatever “truth” religious belief might contain, it is not truth in the way in which ordinary sentences are true--in which case there can be no such thing as genuine religious knowledge, or knowledge about God.

Lest this give comfort to the atheist, however: note that the sentence “The huppity hoo-ha does not exist” is no more meaningful than the sentence claiming it does.

The whole debate between theists and atheists turns out to be a meaningless one!

Source: Alfred Jules Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (London, UK: Gollancz, 1936). 2nd. Edition, 1946. Reprinted by Dover Publications (New York, NY: 1952).

Monday, October 26, 2009

Everywhere At Once: The Problem of Omnipresence

"God is the soul of the world--and the world is therefore His body...."

One of the traditional attributes of God is His omnipresence: God is “everywhere.” But this idea is immediately problematic. The world is filled with physical bodies separated by small, large, and vast gaps of empty space; if God is neither a physical body (as traditional theism says He is not) nor empty space, then where exactly is He? And if God is “simple” in the sense of not being composed of any parts (as traditional theism also says He is), then how could He be present both here and there, for such divided presence would seem precisely to divide Him into parts? Indeed what could it mean to say that God is present even in any one location, much less in every?

The American philosopher Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000) borrows some ancient wisdom to make some sense of divine omnipresence.

The first point to recognize is that anything we say about God must rely on analogies and metaphors. Theists tend to invoke interpersonal relations: God’s relationship to his creatures is like that of a parent to a child, a ruler to subjects, or a teacher to students. But the great ancient philosopher Plato invoked a quite different, intrapersonal analogy: God’s relationship to the world is like that which a mind or soul bears to its own physical body.

Think about our relationship to our bodies. We conscious souls are a single “simple” indivisible reality while our body is a diverse society of realities, composed of smaller bodies composed of still smaller bodies. In a sense we “rule over” our organs and cells; our thoughts and decisions move large numbers of them, for example when we choose to eat dinner and our entire body heads towards the kitchen. In so doing we preside over the coming to be of our cells, over their constitution and organization. We are quasi-deities in our own bodily system.

Yet at the same time we are also constituted by our bodies, our cells, our molecules.

And that is how we should think about God: not as entirely removed from the world but as embedded or embodied within it. Not as some remote eternal being ruling from afar but as one governing from within, just as we govern our own bodies.

Now how can this illuminate the idea of omnipresence?

Consider: some things we know vividly and directly, such as our own thoughts and significant changes occurring in our bodies. Other things, such as what is going on elsewhere or with others, are known only indirectly, by inference. Similarly, some things we have direct power over (such as our own volitions and bodily movements) while other things we can control only indirectly, through intermediaries. Since direct knowledge and power are superior to indirect knowledge and power, God must have direct knowledge of, and direct power over, the world as a whole.

And that is what His omnipresence is: God is “present” in or to the world precisely insofar as His direct knowledge and power extend to every location in the world, just as we ourselves have direct knowledge of and power over our own bodies. In that sense we too are present in and to our own bodies, even to the “gaps” within and between our cells and molecules--which answers the first problem above. So too the “simple,” undivided being which we are may now be said to be wholly present everywhere our body is present--which answers the second problem.

What makes this particular region of matter and not some other region our body, in fact, is just this knowledge and power we have concerning them.

Which makes the world, therefore, God’s body.

(1) Charles Hartshorne, Man’s Vision of God and the Logic of Theism (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1941).
(2) Charles Hartshorne, Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1984).

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

And behold, it still IS pretty good

“And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)

It might have been easy to agree with this verdict after Day Six of Creation, when God renders it. But now? A quick look around reveals much that does not seem very good at all: everything suffers, decays, and dies. If the perfectly good and all-powerful God is responsible for the existence of everything, then how could there be so much imperfection and evil in the world?

It’s a hard question, and which continues to vex philosophers to this day, but the great medieval Jewish thinker Maimonides (1135-1204) thinks it can be answered.

Consider, to begin, the difference between light and darkness. Light has genuine being or existence, and wherever it does exist something actively produces it, some source of light. But darkness has neither genuine being nor must be actively produced: it’s what you get when there is nothing to produce light. Similarly creatures who can see have a genuine property: seeing is something we do and sight is an ability we possess. But a creature who is blind does not possess some other ability for blindness; not seeing is not something it does. Rather, blindness is what results in the absence of sight.

The natural evils of the world, then, are like darkness and blindness, with no real existence of their own. Terrible things like poverty, illness, and death are really nothing but the absence of wealth, health and life. Once we recognize this then we see that God does not create evils after all, for these evils are not “actively produced.” Everything God creates is in itself good. But goodness is a matter of degree, and when He produces things with less goodness than we might like, we call it an “evil.” But in itself it is just a lesser degree of that healthy goodness we desire.

And indeed we often show great ignorance in our judgments about what is evil! We naturally think of our own illnesses and deaths as great evils and wish they could be avoided. But that doesn’t really make much sense. We are physical beings made of matter and it’s the nature of matter to decay; to wish that we didn’t become ill or die would be like wishing we material beings were not material beings. But that is not to wish that we were healthier; it’s to wish that we didn’t exist at all, since a non-material being wouldn’t be us! And nobody wishes that.

Our judgments about evil can also be remarkably self-centered. If something happens against our personal desires or interests we immediately condemn it as evil, as if everything were all about us personally. But individual people, and even all humanity, are but the tiniest components in this immensely vast world--a world which is not made worse because some beings enjoy less goodness than others but rather more beautiful by the tremendous variety of beings it contains. We may not like it but the world just might be better off overall, as whole, if we personally happen to be enjoying less goodness than we might. Who are we to declare that the world as a whole is only good if things go well for us in particular?

So everything God does is good, to various degrees, then and now, Maimonides concludes--and we shouldn’t be so quick to judge as an evil our own rank in the relative distribution of goods.

Source: Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, Part III, Chs. X-XII. Transl. M. Friedländer, 2nd edition (New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1904/1956).