Sunday, April 20, 2008

An Interesting Juxtaposition

I came across this in Ben Myers' Faith and Theology blog. It's a quote from Carl Schmitt, Roman Catholicism and Political Form:

“The Catholic Church is a complex of opposites, a complexio oppositorum. There appears to be no antithesis it does not embrace…. Ultimately, most important is that this limitless ambiguity combines with the most precise dogmatism and a will to decision as it culminates in the doctrine of papal infallibility."

Ignoring what Schmidt's book and the blog post is about (politics and the Church), what I find interesting is to compare this quote with one from a book I read recently, How Mathematicians Think: Using Ambiguity, Contradiction, and Paradox to Create Mathematics by William Byers.

"...the power and profundity of mathematics is a consequence of having deep ambiguity under the strictest logical control." [p. 77]

It is a pity that, in theology, decision tends to come down to something on the order of papal infallibility, but lacking the means for applying the strictest logical control, what else is there? Well, one can at least step back from the 19th century, when the doctrine of papal infallibility was made explicit, and consider control by the magisterium. As I've mentioned previously, I have to admire what the magisterium did with respect to central Christian doctrines, namely that of the Trinity, and of Christ's nature, as described in part 4 of Robert Magliola's Derrida on the Mend. What it did was to preserve the ambiguity. The doctrines should not be taken as saying how it is that God is One, yet Three, or how it is that Christ is 100% human and 100% divine. Rather, they should be taken as saying that in denying or fudging or in any way lessening either side of the contradiction one is being led into heresy.

And that, according to Byers, is how mathematics operates. Take the concept of 'zero', (or better for those acquainted with elementary set theory, the concept of the empty set which is used to define 'zero'). There was mathematics without 'zero' for a long time, but with it, it could do much, much more. Yet 'zero' is inherently ambiguous. It is the presence of absence. True, within ordinary language one can say "I don't have any apples", so in that sense, there was always an implicit concept of 'zero', but what happened in mathematics is that that concept became reified in such a way that it could be used with "strictest logical control".

Now I do not expect that this ability can be carried over to theology. Spinoza's dream remains unfulfilled. But what I do expect is that the principle of "preserving the ambiguity" can be more heavily emphasized, and of course the Path of Reason that I've been describing has that as its method. Its method and its content:

"Whereas the attempt to make a definitive object out of a "deep" concept cannot succeed, the drive to do so is itself an expression of the Absolute. Mathematics, we could say, is driven by the need to express the "Infinite" in finite terms, and this very drive is the "Infinite" in action." [Byers, p. 296]

Can this not be just as true for theology?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Importance of Owen Barfield

Although I have mentioned Owen Barfield a couple of times, I have not so far in this blog said how important he is in shaping my thinking about religion. I wrote a short essay (here) but that presupposes some acquaintance with contemporary theology. For a longer and more in-depth account, by Caryl Johnston, see here. But there is no substitute for reading his book Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, for there is where you will find all the reasoning behind his thesis. Here's a much too short overview of that thesis that I wrote in a comment on Sam Norton's blog:

"Briefly, then, Barfield argues -- based on changes in language, art, and ideas -- that human consciousness has evolved in historical time, that the consciousness common in the pre-Axial Age (prior to c. 500 BCE) experienced nature differently from after, and that another major change happened c. 1500 CE. (Julian Jaynes, in The Origin of Consciousness from the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind makes a similar argument about the earlier change, though Jaynes argues from a materialist perspective). Barfield calls the earlier stage "original participation" which he describes as perceiving "spirit" on "the other side" (from the observer) of the phenomena. Hence, the corresponding religion was shamanistic, or pagan, and it worked. For we moderns, on the other hand, this participation has become unconscious, which made the rise of Cartesian dualism, eventually descending into materialism, possible. The intervening period was one of gradually losing this sense of participation, but the metaphysics of the time remained "participatory", that is, it was a given that the phenomenal was a representation of the spiritual. Mystics are those who have glimpses of a further stage, "final participation", in which the spiritual aspect of nature is rediscovered, but now experienced as "within" us, rather than, as it was for original participation, "without". The key point is that, as consciousness changes, so does nature and our relationship with it. Though now we need two words, "breath" and "spirit", the Greeks just had one ("pneuma"), or we have two words "word" and "thing", biblical Hebrew had one ("daber"). It was not the case (as the modernist filter would have it), that those "primitive" Greeks used "pneuma" in a strictly metaphorical sense for "spirit", but that for the Greeks, they were perceived as the same, occurring both in nature (as breath) and inside us (as mentality). What must be understood, though, is that the flip side of this sundering is the rise of intellect, which requires a stronger distinction between "inside" and "outside", so that we can think about the phenomena, rather than, as in pre_Axial times, be thought by the phenomena. "

In my opinion, religious philosophy/theology that does not take this change in human consciousness into account is going nowhere. It will either replace the wisdom of the ancients and medieval thinkers with modernist idolatry (what I call "materialism plus God"), or replace it with postmodern negativity, or attempt to reconstitute that ancient/medieval wisdom without acknowledging that it no longer works as it used to.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Speculations on the Path of Reason

In the previous post on this topic, the logic of contrafactory identity was introduced, but not much was said on what to do with it. Here I want to continue on with that discussion.

In monotheist religions, God is revealed as unknowable, because God is not an object (cannot be perceived, cannot be captured in discursive reason, etc.). Not being an object, one cannot apply Aristotelian logic to questions about God. If one does ascribe some attribute to God, that ascription must immediately be put "under erasure", as deconstructionists like to put it, that is, accompanied by loud warnings that the attribute is being used analogically. To do otherwise is to fall into idolatry. All this, of course, is familiar ground to theologians. Now the problem with this, for one without faith, is that it is all kicked off by the assumption that God is real yet unknowable, and so one might ask: who cares?

The reason to care is that bit about falling into idolatry. Another place this pops up is in Buddhism, where the problem is self-idolatry, that is, believing in the "inherent existence" of one's self, which causes attachment, which causes suffering. But here, the lack of inherent existence of the self is not just something revealed (though it is), but something one can work out on one's one, and indeed in one strain of Buddhism (the Gelukba sect of Tibetan Buddhism), this thinking is the primary practice.

The common sense way of thinking about the self is that it persists as one observes objects. I was not seeing the tree, and now I am. But in stating this, I have also stated that in seeing the tree the self has changed. Are there two 'I''s involved? If so, what lets me connect them? Nor can one say that most of the self has stayed the same, while just part of it has changed in observing the tree, for that would imply that the part that has stayed the same is totally unaware of the part that observed the tree (to be aware, it would have to have changed). And so, in order to persist when it observes objects, the self must not persist when it observes objects. Hence, one concludes: one cannot say that the self persists.

Can one just say that the self is an illusion, that all there really is is change? Then where does the illusion of the self come from? Or to put it another way: how is experiencing an illusory self different from experiencing a non-illusory self? In either case, there is a sense of persistence, which is to say consciousness. Yet if all there is is change, then there can be no spanning of the state before a change to after, for that which spans cannot be the change. Hence, one can cannot say that the self does not persist.

Now this sort of word-wrangling has been going on since there has been philosophy, East or West. Why shouldn't one, as Wittgenstein and contemporary pragmatists urge, just stop wrangling? There are a couple of reasons. The first is that by asking "does the self persist", or more generally, "what is self", and as one goes through arguments like the foregoing, one is in effect deconstructing the self, and that is, according to Buddhists, at least, a good thing to do. It is a way of breaking one's attachment toward self-idolatry. But there is another reason, which I think is more important, though I admit there is a touch of speculation involved. In an earlier post, I quoted Denys Turner in regard to Aquinas' view of intellectus with respect to ratio. Here is another quote from the same book (Faith, Reason and the Existence of God, p. 87):

For Thomas, ... reason's powers, pushed to their limit, open up into the territory of intellectus: and they do so, as I shall argue, precisely in the proofs of the existence of God. In those proofs, we could say, reason self-transcends, and by its self-transcendence, becomes 'intellect'".

As before, I have yet to see whether he can make the case that this applies particularly to Aquinas' proofs of the existence of God, but even if not, I would say they do apply to any exercise of the logic of contrafactory identity (LCI). Now I do not mean to imply that just by rattling off the above arguments over the persistence of the self one has transcended static intellect. All that that does is take one to the limit, but not beyond. On the other hand, what better place is there to contemplate what might be beyond?

At this point, consider again the quote from Merrell-Wolff: "It [the experienced flow of contradiction] seemed to be the real underlying fact of all consciousness of all creatures." What I hypothesize is that dynamic intellect just is the LCI, but seen from its own perspective. It is the LCI that creates the self, with its changing by not changing, etc., or one can say that the self (or consciousness) is LCI doing its thing. From our (fallen) perspective, we imagine our self as separate from that reasoning, which is to say we only perceive it as a nest of contradictions, and not as creative contrafactions. And that arises from our belief that we are an inherently existing self that is doing the reasoning, which is to say, is a result of self-idolatry.

Now I mentioned that, for me, this line of thought is speculation, though given Wolff's statement (which I assume is not speculative, but experiential), I have some confidence in it. What is missing, for me, is what Wolff calls a "shift in the basis of consciousness", which is one way he describes mystical states. From the discussion in the previous paragraph, I would say that the shift is from a basis of self-idolatry, to a basis of LCI. In seeing the LCI-type reasoning from this (self-idolatrous) side all one sees is limit. By "becoming" the LCI, one would then "see" the self being created by the LCI. But, of course, there is no button to push to accomplish that shift -- it just happens. Perhaps by living at the limit (i.e., engaging in LCI exercises) one makes the shift more likely, but that is definitely speculative.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Defining God

Sam Norton has started a series of post on "Reasonable Atheism", the intent being to see if the conversation between theists and atheists can be raised above that of Dawkins and company. The problem largely lies in the difference between how many atheists understand what is meant by 'God' and how many theists understand the word. The problem is compounded in that I had to use the word 'many' in both cases: the reasonable theist usually means something different from what most atheists mean, but also different from many of those who say they believe in God. Primarily, this disjunct lies in that (most) atheists think that theists believe in the existence of a being, while the reasonable theist says that God is not a being, and so the phrase "God exists" is problematic. (Note: by atheists' I am referring to secular atheists, not, say, Buddhists. Given the common usage in Western countries of the word 'atheist' as meaning someone who rejects all religion, a Buddhist might be better referred to as a 'religious non-theist' than as an atheist.)

What I want to do here is define some vocabulary that both reasonable theists and reasonable atheists can agree on. Or rather, suggest these definitions, and see what needs to be done in addition to either get to a common vocabulary, or to see where this attempt fails.

Firstly, I suggest making a distinction between the words 'real' and 'exists'. As I shall use the terms, something exists if (as its etymology suggests) it can "stand out", that is, can be an object of perception, in that it can be discerned from a background (where 'perception' is to be taken here more generally than sense perception, for example a mathematical object exists because it can be thought of, an emotion exists because it can be felt). The word 'real', on the other hand (admittedly despite its etymology) is to be taken as that which one takes into account in making decisions, in the way one lives one's life, and so forth. Needless to say, these definitions are rough around the edges, but I think they are enough to go on with.

I define God as at least the eternal (i.e., non-spatiotemporal), loving intellect that grounds all that exists. Thus, to believe in God (i.e., to be a theist) is at a minimum to claim that the ground of all that exists is to be characterized with these words (eternal, loving, intellective), while not believing in God is to claim that the ground of all that exists does not have these characteristics. And, given my distinction between 'real' and 'exists', while one runs into difficulties saying "God exists" (can something be its own ground? can the ultimate background "stand out"?), one can say without much difficulty, "God is real (or not real)".

Some comments:

I put in that "at least" because I recognize that many theists will demand that something more be put into that definition. In particular, the word "personal" might be thought to be required. But such objections, I think, are only relevant within the theological community. Similarly if words like 'omnipotent' are added -- additional argumentation is required to discern what is meant by such words.

On the other hand, I consider the three words used to be a minimum needed to distinguish a theist's God from, say, the God of Einstein. Also, just saying that God is "the ground of all that exists" does not make a difference that makes a difference.

Many theists may also object in that they take as given that God cannot be defined at all. To this I make two responses. The first, is that I am under no illusion that the definition I gave is final. It is only intended to provide a common ground for conversations between theists and atheists -- that is, to see if with this definition, the atheist can understand what the reasonable theist roughly means by 'God'. The second is to point out that all three words used to characterize God are themselves undefined. Again, my intention is to indicate that the difference between the theist and the atheist is in what each party considers the ground of all that exists is "like", and the three words serve as a minimum to understand roughly what is being claimed in saying that God is or is not real.

The effort that the atheist must bring to this is to understand that the words "loving" and "intellect" are being used analogically. Which is to say, we only know what these words mean insofar as they are applied to humans. Applying them to the ground of all that exists is, no doubt, problematic. And, of course, we are unable to imagine what non-spatiotemporal reality is like. But these limitations in our ability to think about God do not in themselves invalidate the possibility that God is real. They just indicate that the concept of God cannot be "thought through", which is to be expected concerning the ground of all that exists -- the same problem exists in trying to imagine a context in which a Big Bang might occur.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Aquinas and Intellect

I've just come across the following in Denys Turner's Faith, Reason, and the Existence of God:

...for Thomas, as for the long tradition which he inherits, you begin to occupy the place of intellect when reason asks the sorts of question the answers to which you know are beyond the power of reason to comprehend. They are questions, therefore, which have a double character: for they arise, as questions, out of our human experience of the world; but the answers, we know, must lie beyond our comprehension, and therefore beyond the experience out of which they arise. And that sense that reason, at the end of its tether, becomes an intellectus, and that just where it does, it meets the God who is beyond its grasp, is, I argue, the structuring principle of the 'five ways' of the Summa Theologiae [p. xv].
This is the same idea as in the Goethe quote in my last post: "one is only truly thinking when that which one thinks cannot be thought through", that is, describing what I am calling 'dynamic intellect'. But what also intrigues me is the idea that this is what Aquinas was getting at with the 'five ways'. Like any modernist thinker (which I am trying to cease to be), I had pretty much dismissed them as "proofs", but apparently, like Barthians, I have misinterpreted what is going on. But I haven't read Turner's book yet, just the preface, so it remains to be seen if his argument convinces.

Anyway, that such questions do arise out experience is what happened to me with respect to consciousness, as all-too-briefly discussed here. I conclude that consciousness could not exist unless the eternal is real, but that, of course, does not resolve the mystery, which is how the eternal and spatiotemporal relate, and that cannot be "thought through". Nevertheless, I can say that by reason alone, reflecting on normal, everyday experience, one can grasp that there are real mysteries to which "the answers...must lie beyond our comprehension, and therefore beyond the experience out of which they arise."

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Path of Reason

My favorite mystic, Franklin Merrell-Wolff, says that there are two ways to salvation, that of Love and that of Reason. But, he emphasizes, they both lead to the same place, where (in theistic language) God is Known as Loving Intellect, or Intellective Love. (Please excuse the neologism 'intellective' -- just that 'intellectual' and 'intelligent' have connotations I want to avoid. Also, the excessive use of capital letters can, I realize, be annoying. But it serves a purpose: to remind one that God's Love must be distinguished from human love, and the same for Intellect/intellect).

Christianity has emphasized the path of Love, while Buddhism has put more emphasis on the path of Reason. But, of course, neither downplays the other (except for certain Christian Protestant strains). The Catholic Catechism, for example, says that "sin is an offense against reason", while the Buddhist should never let Compassion get under the radar.

Some notable names who have taken the path of Reason are the Buddhist Nagarjuna, the Vedantist Shankara, the pagan Plotinus, and the Christian Nicholas of Cusa. And, of course, Wolff, who has, I think, provided the contemporary reader with the most articulate expression of this path, in his two books Pathways Through to Space and The Philosophy of Consciousness Without an Object, both reprinted in a single volume: Experience and Philosophy. Another philosophic overview, not of the path, but of the resulting worldview, can be found in Owen Barfield's What Coleridge Thought.

Both paths have dangers. Love can be misdirected, and reason can go astray, which is to say that both are susceptible to idolatry. For this reason, one might say that the first commandment of the path of Reason is to learn to think with the danger of idolatry in mind. Buddhism has a tool for that, which I will get to shortly. First, though, there is a need to make a distinction within the general category of reason. Unfortunately, different authors have used different words, or the same words in opposite ways. In particular, Cusa distinguished between intellectus and ratio to mean what Coleridge meant by reason and understanding respectively. Hence I will borrow some terminology from Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality (MoQ -- see his book Lila) and call the first 'dynamic intellect' and the second 'static intellect'. I should mention that the concept of 'dynamic intellect' does not occur in the MoQ, which in my opinion is a major reason that it fails as a metaphysics, but that's another story. Pirsig applied the words to Quality: dynamic quality and static quality, with the idea that dynamic quality is the undefinable creative whatever (force? power?) that leaves in its wake static quality. Hence, I am using the words in the same way: dynamic intellect is creative, while our understanding of the created is static intellect. But they cannot really be divided, in the sense that they are mutually dependent, but that is getting ahead of the story.

The story begins, and never gets past, the intellectual confrontation with mystery. Mystery is that which is real, but can never be captured by static intellect, which is to say, can never be understood. Idolatry and heresy consist largely of replacing the mystery with something understandable (a practice that is not restricted to religious mysteries). But if there is no possibility of understanding, why pursue the matter with intellect? In fact, many mystics, and writers on mysticism, enjoin just that -- better to drop it and take the path of Love, for example. Well, that is an option, no question, and I make no claim that one should pursue it intellectually. But for those who choose to do so...

Goethe said: "One is only truly thinking when that which one thinks cannot be thought through", and that's the kind of thinking we are talking about. The path of Reason is one of purifying one's intellect. Hence, both Plotinus and Wolff recommend as therapy the study of philosophy and mathematics. It is not that one will find in either discipline the answers to mysteries, but that both serve as discipline in purifying one's intellect. One thing to note in philosophy, though, is that certain issues constantly recur without resolution (which is to say that resolving them leads to bad philosophy): free will and determinism, the one and the many, being and becoming, and so on. The path of Reason, however, has a tool that consists of holding these oppositions in tension without resolving them. It has various names. Cusa called it the 'coincidence of opposites', which I think as a name does not work well. Coleridge called it 'polar logic'. Nishida Kitaro called it the logic of contradictory identity, along with various variations like 'self-contradictory identity'. I shall adopt this but with one change, thanks to a remark of Barfield's in his discussion of Coleridge, and that is to substitute the word 'contrafactory' for 'contradictory'. Hence: the logic of contrafactory identity, or LCI. The reason for the substitution is that the logic does not just apply to a situation where two words are needed that contradict each other, but that in emphasizing one word, the need for the other is made. This situation has been admirably expressed by Wolff:

While in the State [of High Indifference, as he called it], I was particularly impressed with the fact that the logical principle of contradiction had no relevancy. It would not be correct to say that this principle was violated, but rather, that it had no application. For to isolate any phase of the State was to be immediately aware of the opposite phase as the necessary complementary part of the first. Thus the attempt of self-conscious thought to isolate anything resulted in the immediate initiation of a sort of flow in the very essence of consciousness itself, so that the nascent isolation was transformed into its opposite as co-partner in a timeless reality....It seemed to be the real underlying fact of all consciousness of all creatures. [Franklin Merrell-Wolff, Experience and Philosophy, p.286]

It is that "sort of flow" and "transform[ing] into its opposite" that I mean to get at with the word 'contrafactory'. What this says about consciousness in particular is also to be looked into, briefly below, but I hope in more detail in another post.

Nishida's logic of contradictory identity was a contemporary version of something that has long existed in Buddhist philosophy, stemming from Nagarjuna, and codified into what is called the tetralemma. It is invoked when one is confronted with one of these perennial philosophical puzzles, like "does the self exist". What the Buddhist logician does is refute the following four possibilities: (1) the self exists, (2) the self does not exist, (3) the self both exists and does not exist, and (4) the self neither exists nor does not exist.

Now the actual refutations are carried out using familiar Aristotelian logic: one assumes (1) and deduces a contradiction, then one assumes (2) which also produces a contradiction. Now at this point, I believe I am veering off from the original Nagarjunic approach (though perhaps not Nishida's -- I'm just not sure). For as far as I can tell, (3) is considered to be refuted simply because it violates the law of contradiction, and (4) because it violates the law of the excluded middle. One reason for veering off is that nowadays we have quantum mechanics to consider: is an object in a superposition of states an existing somewhat that violates the principle of contradiction and/or the law of the excluded middle? I think there is an interesting question here, but tangential. But sticking to questions like the existence of the self, I see (3) and (4) as having more to them. Now (3) may just be an acknowledgment that we cannot think what it means to both exist and not exist, but (4) I see as a commandment: thou shalt not stop asking the question. This, by the way, is in defiance of the pragmatist, who says: it is a question that is not worth pursuing. Or more accurately, it is in defiance of the nominalist pragmatist, who believes that words are simply human inventions, and if there are areas where the application of a particular word (like 'self') gets problematic, just back off from those areas. In contrast, the path of Reason says "don't stop the question", because the mystery is real and can't be ignored -- in this case, without the word 'self' how can one say that it must -- in some mysterious sense -- die, as most mystics are wont to say?

There is more to say, of course, but for now I want to conclude by referring back to the Wolff quote, in which he is talking about noetic experience while in a mystical state of consciousness. It ends with "It [the flow from one state to its opposite] seemed to be the real underlying fact of all consciousness of all creatures." What this indicates to me -- and I'll grant that I am speculating here -- is that the LCI is not just a way for fallible human intellects to confront mystery, but is "in fact" what consciousness is. (The scare quotes are -- as usual -- needed because this is of course not some fact lying around to be observed.) That is, what Wolff seems to be saying is that consciousness "works" by contrafactory identity. And it is possible that one can say the same about dynamic/static intellect.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Argument for the Reality of Eternity

In response to a student who complained that he didn't understand quantum mechanics, Von Neumann is supposed to have answered: nobody understands it. You just get used to it. Of course, quantum physicists have a set of mathematical tools that -- though they do not allow one to visualize what is going on in the subatomic world, at least allow one to make predictions that coincide with measurements -- and so they have something to work with which helps in "getting used to it".

Believers, in response to arguments against religion from non-believers, claim that such arguments do not take mystical reality into account -- that God, or more generally, the transcendent, is real, but ordinary language is incapable of dealing with it. The non-believer responds with charges of obscurantism, that the believer is evading the issue by taking refuge in nonsense.

But there are two issues here. The first is whether or not there is anything that is real but where all attempts at description -- staying within the confines of common sense language and Aristotelian logic -- fail. The second is what we do about it. I would argue, first, that the subatomic world is such a reality, though that alone does not grant license to the believer to believe (in God or whatever). To the objection that there is a mathematical language (which of course obeys Aristotelian logic -- the laws of identity, contradiction, and the excluded middle) for quantum physics, I repeat that this language does not describe the reality -- it just allows the physicist to make predictions. Hence there are a multitude of interpretations of that world, all of which are metaphysical positions, not scientific.

But, secondly, I would argue that there is an even more obvious reality that qualifies, namely plain, ordinary, everyday consciousness. The reason it qualifies is that the "now" is not an instant -- a point on time's continuum, but instead is extended over a small stretch of time (and space). Because the now is extended, I don't see any way that it could emerge from a strictly spatiotemporal process. In a spatiotemporal process every event is separated in time and/or space from every other event. Consciousness, on the other hand, puts together zillions of these separated events to form the "now". Within the "now" is the experience of time passing, but how is that possible? Consciousness somehow connects those zillions of events into one flowing whole, while within a strictly spatiotemporal process there is no way for events to aggregate as experience of anything larger than a single event. As I see it, this means that consciousness transcends time (and space), and so cannot itself be a consequence of a spatiotemporal process.

Granted, the argument in the preceding paragraph is no more than arm-waving. But there is enough of a mystery to consciousness that it leads a diehard materialist like Colin McGinn to assert that he doesn't expect there ever to be an explanation of consciousness, and another (David Chalmers) to hypothesize what he calls "naturalist dualism" to account for consciousness. What I propose instead is to assert the reality of the non-spatiotemporal (which in theological language is called the eternal -- not to be confused with time everlasting). What if the reason that quantum reality defies comprehension is that it too is non-spatiotemporal? That would "explain" how an unobserved electron could be in a superposition of states, that the position/momentum uncertainty is there simply because -- unobserved -- quantum particles are simply not at definite spatiotemporal locations, because at that level there is no space and time. And, of course, it would "account for" the non-locality observed in the Aspect experiments. But note that I put the words "explain" and "account for" in scare quotes, because appealing to non-spatiotemporal reality is not an understandable answer. But the point is that if one buys into this line of argumentation, then one should not expect one. Yet something definite has been argued for: that there is a reality for which our ordinary language fails.

What clinches the argument for me -- and is the reason I became religious -- is that mystics have been saying for millenia that fundamental reality is not spatiotemporal. And they have said so, or so they claim, by virtue of knowledge (of "experiencing" non-spatiotemporal reality), not by metaphysical guesswork. Should we believe them? Given the argumentation above I have no problem believing them. But it should be pointed out that mystics also say something else, that just arguing from consciousness and/or quantum physics does not, and that is that the eternal is not merely real, but also Good, and that it is possible to realize that Goodness. It is that addition that turns all this from metaphysical speculation to religion.

This, then, is my answer to the first issue: there is a reality that defies common sense language, and why it must be dealt with. Still to come: how to forge a language to deal with it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Pragmatic Religion

Pragmatists will point out that they consider many things to be true, but deny that there is likely to be one sufficient theory of truth. Instead, there are varieties of scientific truth, artistic truth, historical truth, etc., and each has its own ways of establishing themselves. There is, then, no overarching method or criterion for all truths, but if one is a scientist, say, then there are ways of working that are better than others in leading one to new scientific truths.

I add to that list of varieties of truth what I call salvific truth, and it has its own criterion: the truth will make you free of sin and death. (I'll set aside for now what being "free of death" might mean.) Thus, a point of doctrine X is salvifically true if by believing in it, one is helped on one's way to salvation. Some things that follow:

- First, I am being more flexible than the Athanasian Creed, which held that to be saved one must believe the items in the creed. I would counter that claim by saying that I think the Buddha became free of sin and death, yet couldn't have believed in the Resurrection.

- Second, the logic of the criterion does not require X to be itself true in some objective sense. Suppose, for example, that the Virgin Birth was not historically true. Yet, in believing it, one might have been helped in believing in the power of Jesus to save. On the other hand, if one has no need of believing in the VB in order to be convinced of Jesus' power to save, then the question of the truth of the VB becomes irrelevant.

What these two points indicate is that salvific truth varies from culture to culture, epoch to epoch, and person to person. Yet that does not mean that anything goes. For there is a test to be made, and that is whether believing in X or Y has actually helped anyone on their way to becoming free of sin. Unfortunately, that doesn't help, since -- from the non-saved perspective -- how can we know? Of course, one way to approach this thorny issue is to think that one is saved simply by declaring that, say, Jesus is Lord. And I think this is how early official Christianity had to deal with this issue, due to its denial of reincarnation and universalism. But nowadays that sounds too arbitrary -- one is not inclined to believe in a God that orders things in that way. Another way is to claim that everyone is always already saved, and we just don't know it. This might be true in some ultimate sense, but seems to me to be irrelevant. For I can't see any practical difference between "not saved" and "not knowing that one is safe". Just change the criterion to "knowing the truth will make you free of sin", since the problem is one's propensity to sin. So, given that we have no mechanical way of applying the criterion, what do we do?

What, I think, we need to do, and what seems to me to be missing in most discussions of Christian doctrine, from a pragmatic standpoint, is ask the question of how a salvific truth works. I don't mean by this that one should expect to find some formula, the following of which leads to salvation. It is rather a matter of thinking about what revelation has to tell us about ourselves and reality in general (metaphysics) , to get some idea of why we are obstructed by false beliefs. That is, I think that salvific truths work more through negating than through positing. As various people have pointed out (I learned it from Robert Magliola's Derrida on the Mend) a heresy is substituting something understandable for that which must be maintained as a mystery. We can't understand how Jesus could be fully divine and fully human, but we can understand that he could be not fully divine, or not fully human, and in so understanding we fall into error. Hence, to believe in a salvific truth -- and to think about it -- is to face mystery on its own terms, not on what we as sinners substitute for it. What we are doing, then, is learning to think in a new way. As Coleridge put it, it is making a distinction between Reason and Understanding. Only the former works creatively.

(I'll have more to say about this in future posts.)

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Religious Philosophy

"Religious philosophy" is what I put down as my "interests" in my profile. It is not "philosophy of religion". The term is a generalization of "Christian philosophy" (as used in the opening chapter of Gilson's The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy), or "Buddhist philosophy", etc. That is, it is philosophizing from a religious perspective, or "faith seeking understanding". But, it may be objected, there can be no such thing as a general religious philosophy, since the faith of one religion is different from that of another. To this I respond that I think of myself as religious, but since I am not a practitioner of one or the other of these more or less established faiths, I have no choice but to, in effect, define my own religion, though of course drawing on the wisdom of the established faiths. As I see it, this is one way of responding to the problem raised, for example, in Peter Berger's The Heretical Imperative. We live in pluralist society, and if I am unable to bring myself to, say, choosing some Christian denomination, or some Oriental tradition, then this is the only way forward for me -- given that I reject the agnostic option.

William James characterized religion (in Varieties of Religious Experience) as (my paraphrase)
1. Acknowledging that there is something fundamentally wrong with me, and
2. Seeing the fix for that wrongness in reconnecting to something transcendent.

What I shall be doing in these posts is taking that characterization as a definition of religion. (By "definition", by the way, I only mean to indicate that when I define X, that this is how I shall be using the word 'X'. Others may use it in other ways, which is ok as long as one is aware of the different usages.) And what I see myself as doing is carrying out a religious experiment. Could it be that -- now that modernism is failing, yet there are good reasons to not fall back into a pre-modern monocultural form of religious practice, that the time for "being a Christian (or whatever) is passing? To be clear, I do not think it is wrong to belong to a religious tradition (on the other hand, I do think it is wrong to be without religion altogether), so the experiment is to see if being religious without signing up for a particular tradition works out. Not that I expect anything conclusive to come of it.

Initial orientation

I don't know what the author of the song "Church of Logic Sin and Love" (by The Men) meant by it. I've just borrowed the three words, since they serve as central figures around which I can discuss what I think religion is about.

Love: There won't be much if anything on this topic, not because it isn't supremely important -- just that I have nothing new or unusual to say about it.

Sin: In my view, religion isn't religion unless it acknowledges Original Sin, or something similar. In Hinduism there is Maya, in Buddhism, Ignorance. Granted, I don't think the Christian tradition of Original Sin as being "disobedience" plays well any more, nevertheless, I accept the notion that there is something fundamentally wrong with us, and it has to do with being out of touch with the transcendent. They are most out of touch who deny the reality of the transcendent.

Logic: In this blog, the word "logic" should be treated as the adjectival form of the word "Logos", as in: By [the Logos] was everything made that was made. Logic, then, becomes a means to Logos. The usual meaning of the term, which I shall identify as Aristotelian logic, is what you get when you restrict one's thinking to the sense perceptible (the spatiotemporal). It is of little value when directed at the mental, or the transcendent. But (see Sin), attempts at creating a logic that is of value in these areas is fraught with peril. Which is why the apophatic tradition exists. I think, though, that something can be done that is more positive.