Posts filed under ‘Christianity (general)’
A couple of days ago, I talked about Paul Ricoeur’s concept of the second naïveté—a “post-critical” stage—and ended by taking a very broad-brush approach to see the pre-critical, the critical, and the post-critical as historical stages of the Christian West, the pre-critical being the general Christian consensus prior to Modernity, the critical being the reductionism that marked Modernity, and the post-critical being the Zeitgeist of post-modernism.
Sticking to the broad brush, Kelton Cobb seems to argue in his Guide to Theology and Popular Culture that there has been a general cultural shift away from the critical period of Modernity toward a kind of second naïveté. He takes as an example the humorous (sometimes crudely so) but thought-provoking movie Dogma, which came out in 1999 and features two angels, Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck), who “have been whiling away the last 4,000 years in Wisconsin, where they were banished by God following a small act of rebellion in the wake of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. … Loki had misgivings about the destruction of Sodom, and quietly raised the question with Bartleby about how it is that a loving God could be so full of wrath. Commiserating with each other, the two got drunk and gave God the finger. As punishment they were banished to Wisconsin, where they were to remain until the end of time itself, when they will be destroyed.”
Finally, however, they find “a window of opportunity—to flee Wisconsin, escape their pending destruction, and ‘go home’ to the God who rejected them.”
Cobb finds the fact that the two suffering angels desire to “go home” at all very worthy of note, because they long to “return to bask in the divine presence of the One whose justice they doubt and whose judgment of them had been their undoing. After 4,000 years of stewing on God’s wrath and their own rejection, they want back in. … The story seems to concur with the idea that even a God whose exercise of justice is faulty is worthy of the longing of creatures who scramble to return to the divine presence. This is different from an earlier generation that, as William James observed, so objected to the image of a wrathful God that they either exorcised this attribute from God’s countenance or abandoned their belief in God altogether. Like Tolstoy and Bunyan, Loki and Bartleby have undergone the depths of despair, suffered the dark flank of God, and come out the other side through a second birth.”
In other words, Ricoeur would say that they had reached a second naïveté.
Cobb goes on to talk about Ricoeur having described the present as a “period of mourning for the gods who have died,” an in-between stage “in which the ancient gods of morality have died of obsolescence and exhaustion. An essential theological task demanded in this period of mourning, he goes on to suggest, is a long recuperative wandering, a detour through the texts of our culture.”
Personally, though, I think Cobb takes the movie a bit too seriously, even if the thoughts he pegs on it might be valid.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been discussing Virgil’s epic poem about the legendary events that eventually led to the founding of Rome, drawing some parallels to the founding of the United States. I had asked why it is that we as humans seem to have the need to create mythological and semi-mythological pasts for the group to which we belong.
Now I would like to ask a second question: Why is it that we feel that the founders of our group should continue to determine the present, even after several centuries have gone by and times might have changed radically?
Again, if anyone doubts that we do this, just look at some of the debates within American society. Whether it is the right to bear arms or the question of the place of religion in society, most sides of these debates seem to agree that what the Founding Fathers thought and intended should continue to—at least to an extent—determine our actions today.
Many Christians are at pains to point out how religious the Founding Fathers were, and many others are at pains to point out how secular the Founding Fathers were, but there is a common assumption that underlies both of these positions, namely that what the Founding Fathers thought should in some sense still define American society today. If the Founding Fathers were mostly Christians, then this is meant to show that the United States is at its heart a “Christian nation,” and, in order to stay true to itself, it needs to retain that Christian identity. If, on the other hand, the Founding Fathers were highly critical of Christianity, then a secular spirit ought to pervade American society.
Both sides want to call Americans back to what they truly are, suggesting that the United States cannot remain to be the United States if it does not stay true to what the Founding Fathers thought. Never mind that Deism, which influenced many of the Founding Fathers, was a fashion of the time and has since gone mostly out of fashion. No, the religion or lack thereof of the Founding Fathers is still felt to be relevant today and is hotly debated. Why?
This idea of appealing to the Founding Fathers in support of one’s own view is not new. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas had very different views on slavery, but they both agreed that the Founding Fathers should have a say in the matter. The only problem was that they had not said anything official about it, and so Lincoln tried to prove that the Founding Fathers were really, in their heart of hearts, against slavery, and his opponents attempted to prove the opposite.
Similarly, in Virgil’s Aeneid there is a notion that Aeneas should encapsulate Roman values and virtues, that he is a prototypical Roman, and that this “spirit” of Rome ought to transcend the ages. Something similar might be going on with Americans in relation to their Founding Fathers. There is a sense of an American identity, of American values, of a “spirit” that transcends generations and needs to be retained in order for America to remain America.
All right, my kids are calling me to play with them. As always, feel free to disagree.
If I may indulge in autobiographical reminiscences for one post, my recent musings on Aristotle and his idea of substance have reminded me of one of my early writing attempts. Several years ago, before knowing hardly anything about Aristotle, I wrote a story that I called "One Day, Two Tales." In it, I imagined a person living the same day twice, except with two very different worldviews. One time he is a Christian, the other time he is an Atheist.
Now I did not try to portray how real Christians and real Atheists view and live their lives, but how a person would view his experiences if he were completely consistent with his worldview—if, so to speak, he did not have any human feelings beyond what his worldview dictated to him.
The result was basically the issue of essence and change. As a Christian, the protagonist wakes up in the morning, turns over in bed, and contemplates his still sleeping wife. What he sees there is an eternal being, the image of God clothed in imperfect human form, and what he is married to is this eternal essence. The essence is what is really important, even when his wife starts losing her beauty and maybe one day also her wits.
In contrast, when the protagonist is an Atheist, he looks at his wife and contemplates that he has chained himself to a river. There is no eternal essence buried somewhere underneath the outer layers that make up his wife; the layers are what his wife is. He comes to the conclusion that, actually, he is not married to her at all, because there is no "her" that he could be married to. His marriage vows of always being faithful to her were nonsensical babble, because the person she was back then is not the same person lying next to him in bed right now, nor is the person in bed with him right now the same that will be in bed with him tonight. His wife is a composite being, constantly changing and slowly disintegrating into its more fundamental parts, and these more fundamental parts also constantly change and disintegrate again, and at the bottom of this process there is nothing but a big question mark. No God, no eternal substance. Nothing.
When I wrote this story, not only did I know very little about Aristotle, I also knew very little about Existentialism. Atheistic Existentialists said that “being comes before essence,” meaning that people find themselves thrown into existence and then must decide what kind of beings they want to be. An Existentialist might say: I agree, ultimately there might well be nothing. There is no eternal substance. But it is exactly this fact which, once we have embraced the existential burden thrust upon us, is so freeing. Our views and experiences do not have to be dictated by any eternal substance or lack thereof. I can freely choose to view myself and others as real individuals and live accordingly. An atheistic husband does not have to look at his wife and contemplate that he has chained himself to a river. He can choose to see her as his wife, his companion throughout the whole of life. Not because reality dictates this, but because this is the life he chooses for himself.
For Existentialists like Sartre, choosing life-long matrimony to one person is only bad if one does so primarily to conform to the social norm around you. Such behavior, Sartre called “bad faith,” by which he meant doing something not because you, yourself, freely choose to do so, but because you cave in to the pressures around you and wish to avoid the naked choice that existence throws on you.
For Christianity—or Aristotle, for that matter—essence comes before being; for Sartre, being comes before essence. For Christianity, “bad faith” would be not acting in accordance with what is true about you, God, and the universe; for Sartre, “bad faith” means not acting in accordance with your own free, completely non-determined choice.
Two very different approaches to life.
There and Back Again: The Goodness of Hobbiton in Contrast to the Lostness of Harry Potter’s Cupboard
The first Hobbit movie is finally in theaters. I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s a fitting time for some (I hope) meaningful thoughts on Bilbo’s (and Frodo’s) journey in comparison to Harry Potter’s journey into the world of wizards.
Let’s start with Harry.
On that day when Harry Potter’s wildest dreams came true and he discovered that he was a wizard, he did not in fact enter a better world. He soon learned that it was neither morally nor externally superior to the non-magical world he had grown up in.
School was just as (alternately) horrible, hard, boring and irrelevant as the worst schools in his old world. Some people were kind, some were mean, some even hated him. The fact that they were wizards made no difference. Magic was not much different to technology. (In fact, Harry found out that for Mr. Weasley, technology was as fascinating as magic was for him. It even seemed that Mr. Weasley was bored with Magic and highly interested in technology. When asked what his dearest ambition was, he answered, “To find out how aeroplanes stay up.”[i]) The governing bodies were infected with the cancer of corruption. The magic media was as gossipy as the magazines the Dursley’s were reading. And then there were those issues of racism and slavery that had not yet been dealt with.
No, the new world in which Harry Potter found himself was not better than his old world. It was equally corrupt, unfair, and evil. And in between the times that he managed to land himself in trouble, it was often even monotonous: “The fact was that living at the Headquarters of the anti-Voldemort movement was not nearly as interesting or exciting as Harry would have expected before he’d experienced it. […] On the very last day of the holidays Harry was sweeping up Hedwig’s owl droppings from the top of the wardrobe …”[ii]
And yet, Harry liked the wizarding world much better than the Muggle world. Why? He could not have possibly believed that it was a better world. That would have been nonsense. The improvement did not lie in the changed circumstances, but in the changed Harry, in who he was. In the Muggle world, Harry had been nothing. The Dursley’s had ignored him, treated him like a piece of dirt. In contrast, in the wizard world Harry was someone—someone really important.
Sure, he now had to face many dangers and obstacles. In many ways, life became harder for him than it had been at the Dursley’s. “Harry didn’t feel brave or quick-witted or any of it at the moment. If only the hat had mentioned a house for people who felt a bit queasy, that would have been the one for him.”[iii] But at least Harry was not nothing, and that made all the difference. Although in the wizarding world some people hated him, the media at times maligned him, scores of witches and wizards occasionally disbelieved him, and Voldemort was constantly out to murder him, yet at least he was not being stuffed in a dark cupboard and ignored.
There is probably nothing worse for a teenager—and, indeed, for a human being of any age—than to feel totally insignificant. “Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike.”[iv] People who feel that the world is indifferent to them often commit suicide. For the first eleven years of his life, Harry had felt insignificant; but in the wizard world, in spite of its many hitches, this had changed. Harry mattered. He mattered a great deal. “If he knew what he means to us!”[v] the house elf Dobby said about Harry. He meant something, a fact that was worth a thousand troubles.
This aspect of Harry Potter is entirely different to some (not all) other works of British Fantasy literature. Take J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, for instance. The subtitle of The Hobbit is There and Back Again. Bilbo embarks on a great adventure, and in this sense enters a different world; but in contrast to Harry, his sole identity does not lie in that world. He goes “There,” but he also comes “Back Again.” There could be no greater contrast between the beloved Hobbiton and the hated house of the Dursley’s. Bilbo’s home is “not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat.” No, it is “a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”[vi]
In contrast, Harry’s old home is exactly such a nasty hole: a cupboard under the staircase. Harry has no desire to go back to his old world. His sole identity lies in his role of defeating the evil Voldemort. In Tolkien, the characters also fight against evil, but their identity does not lie in the opposition to evil. Their identity lies in something good, in a world that is not corrupted by the Dark Shadow. They long to go back home when the adventure is over; Harry has no home to go back to. Hogwarts is his home. Once, when Dumbledore told him that Voldmort was “more attached to this school than he has ever been to a person” because “Hogwarts was where he had been happiest; the first and only place he had felt at home,” Harry felt uncomfortable, for “this was exactly how he felt about Hogwarts too.”[vii]
Now I am not saying that Harry never resents his role of being the Chosen Opponent of Voldemort; he does. The part he has to play is set with many difficulties, and he knows that he might fail and die. He does sometimes wish to be someone else. Yet, he has nothing better to go to. He has no “Hobbiton” that he will restore once the battle is over. Going back to the insignificance of the cupboard would be worse than dying.
In the first few books of the series, Harry’s heroism is his identity; in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s heroism is born out of necessity. He sincerely wishes that the whole story had not happened to him: “I wish it need not to have happened in my time.”[viii] Yes, “he wished bitterly that his fortune had left him in the quiet and beloved Shire.” In contrast, Harry does not at all wish that “his fortune had left him” in the cupboard. But in Middle Earth, all good inhabitants wish that the Shadow of Darkness had not grown and that they would not have to be heroes. “So do I,” Gandalf replies to Frodo, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”[ix]
If one draws a parallel to religious worldviews at this point, particular to my own Christian background, in Christianity one’s identity does not lie in the opposition to evil either, though Christians should undoubtedly oppose evil in this world. But their identity lies in the belief that they are created in the image of God, and they long for the day when this image is fully restored, when they do not have to oppose evil anymore. They have a “Hobbiton” that is their home, and there they shall go “Back Again.”
This is one reason why the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is so important. It shows Harry building up his own “Hobbiton,” so to speak. Sure, he will ever after be The-One-Who-Defeated-Voldemort, but, by founding his own family and remaining close to his friends, he has built up an identity in something good apart from his struggle against evil. He has found “pure” good.
The epilogue demonstrates that Harry is not a perpetual polemicist who only thrives by being against something but never learns to be for something. He is not like, say, the French activist Henri Guilbeaux, who became one of the most important anti-war voices in Europe during World War I but who, after the war, found nothing positive to support. He continued to quibble with anything he got involved in and eventually died in some secluded corner of Paris, mostly forgotten. Chances are this is the first time you have ever heard of him.
Not so Harry. He finds that the love of his family and friends offers him more significance and a more stable home than being the hero of Hogwarts. Of course such love makes for a much more ordinary life, but Harry does not mind. He’s had “enough trouble for a lifetime.”[x] He is not like Voldemort, who showed “contempt for anything that tied him to other people, anything that made him ordinary.” Harry does not have to be “different, separate, notorious.”[xi] Quite the contrary, he is most happy when all is well.
In my last post, I talked about Hippocrates, often referred to as the father of scientific medicine. Now to the modern scientific mind, it might seem strange that Hippocrates talks about astronomy in connection with health. The puzzle, however, is solved immediately once we realize that the ancients had no sharp distinction between astronomy and astrology.
For the authors whose writings we traditionally attribute to Hippocrates, one
very important aspect of diagnosing and curing a disease was to take the whole environment of a person into consideration, and that environment included the constellations of the stars. “One ought also to be guarded about the rising of
the stars,” writes Hippocrates in Part 11 of Airs, Waters, and Places, “especially
of the Dogstar, then of Arcturus, and then the setting of the Pleiades; for diseases are especially apt to prove critical in those days …”
And in Section III, Point 1 of Epidemics, he lists the stars as one of the very many aspects that were meant to form the diagnosis by the Hippocratic doctors:
“With regard to diseases, the circumstances from which we form a judgment of them are,—by attending to the general nature of all, and the peculiar nature of each individual,—to the disease, the patient, and the applications,—to the person who applies them, as that makes a difference for better or for worse,—to the whole constitution of the season, and particularly to the state of the heavens, and the nature of each country;—to the patient’s habits, regimen, and pursuits;—to his conversation, manners, taciturnity, thoughts, sleep, or absence of sleep, and sometimes his dreams, what and when they occur;—to his picking and scratching;—to his tears;—to the alvine discharges, urine, sputa, and vomitings; and to the changes of diseases from the one into the other;—to the deposits, whether of a deadly or critical character;—to the sweat, coldness, rigor, cough, sneezing, hiccup, respiration, eructation …”
Now if we find it curious that Hippocrates speaks of “the state of the heavens” in connection with health, we might find it equally curious that he does not speak of something much closer to home, namely the human soul. I only found Hippocrates speaking explicitly of souls in connection with politics. Under a monarchy, he says, he “souls” of the subjects are necessarily enslaved to the monarch (see Part 23 of Airs, Waters, and Places).
Why did Hippocrates connect souls with health, especially if we suppose that his understanding of soul was close to Aristotle’s, for whom it meant something closer to the “life essence” of living things, not the soul in the Christian sense. For Aristotle, the flower on my window sill has just as much of a soul as I have, just not a rational soul. It is a living thing, and therefore it has a life essence.
(By the way, the popularly understood Christian meaning of soul as the immortal essence of a human being is not the biblical meaning, either; neither the Hebrew Bible nor the New Testament have a concept of soul quite like later Christian theology which brought together Platonic ideas with biblical ones, creating a new conception of the soul. The writers of the New Testament believed primarily in the resurrection of the body, not in the immortality of the soul—the body being transformed into immortality rather than being the discardable container of immortality.)
I said we might find it curious that Hippocrates does not speak of people’s souls, the reason being that he is so big on restoring people’s overall balance in life as a key to achieving health. One would expect him to also stress the balance in people’s minds, in their psychological well-being: in a word, in their souls. But he doesn’t. Why not?
Perhaps the answer is the same why he does talk about the stars, since he has what we might call a “holistic” approach to medicine. He does not separate out a “life essence” from a person’s whole life, because he sees the life of a person as consisting of the whole human being integrated into his environment.
Or does anyone have a different explanation?
My new book is now ready to order at Amazon! If you’re still looking for a Christmas present for someone interested in Harry Potter, Fantasy, and Christianity, maybe this would be an idea:
After sharing the cover for my new book, here’s the back cover and the blurb. A link to order the book will follow soon.
Come and join Jacob Schriftman as he explores the world and worldview of J.K. Rowling’s Fantasy, drawing comparisons to Christian writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, as well as to explicitly non-Christian ones like Philip Pullman and H.G. Wells.
In the process of analysis, Schriftman deals both with literary and existential questions. Should Harry Potter be understood as a parody of our own society? How does Harry Potter treat serious issues? It is common for humans to ask, “Where do we come from? What can we know? What should we do? Do we have a purpose? And how do we approach death?” These questions are woven into Harry Potter, and some of the answers take a surprising turn.
A book that delights as much as it instructs, a challenge to fans and skeptics alike.”
As mentioned in my last post, I recently read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. It is certainly a worthwhile read, even if only for the many testimonies that James gathered for his work. I should add, however, that a large proportion of these testimonies comes from a Christian background, so the Varieties do not have quite as much variety as one might hope of such a work. Still, it should be praised for taking religious experiences seriously and not dismissing them out of hand only because they are religious.
Now on to the problems. James’ pragmatic approach to religious experience, which essentially says that one ought to judge the value of religious experiences solely by their fruit, raises many questions. As Richard Rorty has pointed out, it is not quite clear in James whether or not the actual existence of God/gods is relevant. At times, James talks as if it were of no consequence whatsoever whether or not there really is a spiritual realm beyond our perception. At other times, he seems to say that it matters a great deal.
For example, he says, “Abstractly, it would seem illogical to try to measure the worth of a religion’s fruits in merely human terms of value. How can you measure their worth without considering whether the God really exists who is supposed to inspire them? If he really exists, then all the conduct instituted by men to meet his wants must necessarily be a reasonable fruit of his religion—it would be unreasonable only in case he did not exist. If, for instance, you were to condemn a religion of human or animal sacrifices by virtue of your subjective sentiments, and if all the while a deity were really there demanding such sacrifices, you would be making a theoretical mistake by tacitly assuming that the deity must be non-existent; you would be setting up a theology of your own as much as if you were a scholastic philosopher.”
This is an important point. For instance, the Aztecs (in what is now Mexico) believed that the shedding of human blood and the sacrificing of human life were necessary to keep the cosmos running. Without continuous human sacrifice, the present age would come to an end. Now, as James rightly pointed out, it matters a great deal whether or not this belief is actually true. If it is true, then human sacrifices are necessary. Perhaps we might still consider it an evil, but a necessary evil. As the many wars even in our own time show, we are quite willing to sacrifice human life if we think it necessary for the protection or continuation of our society. And, since we tend to sanction and even sanctify whatever we deem necessary, we might even consider human sacrifice a noble institution. (For anyone who has a hard time imaging how people could ever consider human sacrifice a noble institution, I recommend the novel Aztec by Gary Jennings.)
Now in our modern democracies we tend to say, “You can have any religious belief whatsoever, but you still have to keep the law. If your religion induces you to act against the law, you will be punished like everyone else.” But such a separation between belief and practice is not completely honest. If the Aztec belief is true that human sacrifices are necessary to keep the cosmos running, then, to any morally-minded person, this cosmic reality ought to take precedence over any petty national laws. If the belief is true, it becomes a moral imperative to disobey the law and keep sacrificing humans.
Or, to use a more relevant example for us, take the belief in the existence of an immortal soul. If, as some firmly believe, an immortal soul is created at the moment of conception—or, alternatively, if a pre-existing soul unites itself with the human cells at the moment of conception—then we cannot simply consider the fertilized human egg a fertilized human egg. If this belief is true, then taking the morning-after pill would amount to separating a soul from its body. Our common word for that is murder. And if you truly believe that every woman who takes a morning-after pill is a murderess—and probably a mass-murderess at that—you might feel morally driven to take extreme measures to prevent such murder from taking place. Most people would not consider it morally reprehensible to kill a mass-murderer who is about to kill further victims, if his death is the only way to prevent more crimes. Granted, killing pregnant women would be of little point, since you would kill the baby with her, but targeting abortion clinics or the manufacturers or sellers of morning-after pills would be morally justifiable or even obligatory.
So, by making laws prohibiting such actions, governments are taking a clear stance on the truth or falsehood of certain religious beliefs. By telling the believers in Aztec theology and those who believe in the existence of an immortal soul, “You are not allowed to act out the logical conclusions of your beliefs,” governments are making the clear statement that those beliefs are not true. If they granted that these beliefs might be true, they would make appropriate allowances in the law—just in case Aztec believers really are saving the cosmos through human sacrifices and believers in an immortal soul really are preventing mass-murder.
Like James says, “To this extent, to the extent of disbelieving peremptorily in certain types of deity, I frankly confess that we must be theologians. If disbeliefs can be said to constitute a theology, then the prejudices, instincts, and common sense which I chose as our guides make theological partisans of us whenever they make certain beliefs abhorrent.”
But then, how do we decide which beliefs we reject outright and which beliefs we tolerate as possibly true? Only those who fit our own moral framework? But where does our moral framework come from? Our moral framework is to a large extent determined by the kind of presuppositions we have about the world. How can we judge religious claims by their fruit if tastes vary so significantly between different people? In that case, we are using a kind of reasoning that my two-year old daughter is fond of using at the moment, “I like bananas because … I like bananas.” My daughter has picked up from us older ones that she ought to, if possible, give a rational justification for her opinions, but in many cases the only rationale she is able to give is her own preference.
Does, then, the Jamesean maxim “Judge a religion by its fruit” simply boil down to “Judge a religion by whatever suits your taste?”
Well, in some passages James comes very close to saying so: “But such common-sense prejudices and instincts are themselves the fruit of an empirical evolution. Nothing is more striking than the secular alteration that goes on in the moral and religious tone of men, as their insight into nature and their social arrangements progressively develop. After an interval of a few generations the mental climate proves unfavorable to notions of the deity which at an earlier date were perfectly satisfactory: the older gods have fallen below the common secular level, and can no longer be believed in. Today a deity who should require bleeding sacrifices to placate him would be too sanguinary to be taken seriously. Even if powerful historical credentials were put forward in his favor, we would not look at them. Once, on the contrary, his cruel appetites were of themselves credentials. They positively recommended him to men’s imaginations in ages when such coarse signs of power were respected and no others could be understood. Such deities then were worshiped because such fruits were relished.”
To summarize: Sometimes it matters a great deal whether a religious belief is objectively true or not, because the belief determines whether certain actions are considered right or wrong. Judging religious beliefs merely by their fruit is insufficient, since people’s tastes change significantly throughout the ages. One might say, “Well, then, let’s not judge religious beliefs at all.” But that is not an option either, because we need to make laws to govern civilization, and some of those laws prohibit what would be the logical consequences of certain beliefs.
Would anyone like to contradict my conclusion? Did I misunderstand James?
I’ve been living in Ireland for a year and a half now, but only this week did I finally go see the Book of Kells at Trinity College in Dublin. They constantly change the pages on display. This was one of them on display while I was there. It shows John the Evangelist. The drawing is incredibly intricate.