Quotation

He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Living on the Mountain: Tough Love

When visiting the grave of my grandfather this past weekend, I remembered his funeral and how all those who came to mourn his passing or pay their respects were deeply impressed by his authentic love, a love that pervaded his life and brought even those who would not normally be inclined to spend any time near my family out to join us in laying him to rest on the mountainside.

Those of us who were his grandchildren were able to experience his love with only a little of his toughness to leaven it, but my mother and her siblings definitely knew that his love was a tough love along with the tough love of my grandmother.  He was not quick to punish when a rule was broken, but his punishment was firm when it occurred.  And his children knew that their punishments were not for his benefit, but for their benefit.  Those children would need to navigate a world of harsh and sometimes unpredictable consequences for their mistakes.  Those children would need to build good habits and avoid unhealthy habits to be successful in navigating that world day by day.  Setting the boundaries to teach them those good habits was tough on them, and yet it was the toughness of a love that would see them grow and fly free some day.

For all our contemporary Western world's insistence that love does not set up laws and punishments, my grandfather's example demonstrates amply that love does indeed require laws.  He was not a loving person because he had rejected laws or because he had risen above them.  He was a loving person because he had learned to keep the laws of the God he loved with all his strength.  Like the mountain's rough edges are smoothed down over time by the rushing river, his rough edges were worn down by obeying the law designed by a God of love to teach us to put love first and to push away the transient desires of the ego so that we can do so.

In the last decade I have learned the toughness of love for myself through poverty, career changes, romance, and friendship.  I have learned that a healthy life requires loving relationships, that loving relationships require a capacity to leave ego in the backseat rather than letting it do the driving, and that obedience to a law external to ourselves is how we learn to leave the ego in the backseat.  My rough edges have increasingly been worn down in the process of learning to move my ego out of the way so that loving relationships can grow.

My friends sometimes find it difficult to understand how I live by so many laws, but my reason for doing so is that it is the best way to develop the capacity for love.  And I truly want to love to the fullest, finding that love through the tough love which my grandfather passed down to me through my mother, a love my grandfather found as he fulfilled the law of God in his life.  May we all fulfill the law of God by letting it smooth down our rough edges so that we can enter fully into His loving embrace and embrace with that same love all those who are loved by God.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Fair Questions: Does religion cause more harm than good? Part III

Over at the occasionally insightful Salon, Valerie Tarico posts a set of 6 reasons to justify the notion that religion does more harm than good.  I would like to examine these reasons and attempt to sort out the extent to which they might support the claim that religion does more harm than good.

In the course of this analysis, I will approach the claims as an empiricist with a scientific worldview so as not to prejudice my conclusions.  For the convenience of the reader, I will perform my analysis in parts, taking two of the author's claims at a time.

5.  Religion teaches helplessness.

The author provides some cultural proverbs as evidence of this claim rather than citing specific sacred texts, but there is certainly a wealth of evidence in various sacred texts that could be used to support her view.  Islam has a very strong focus on submission to Allah, Buddhism is a great example of a religion singularly focused on a resigned acceptance of the reality of suffering via detachment, Christianity has a long tradition of surrendering to God's will, and Taoism is deeply embedded with a mentality of understanding one's place rather than trying to force our way out of it.  I could add to this list at length, but why bother?

The first problem with the author's association of religion with fatalistic resignation is of course that there are non-religious viewpoints that are also deeply fatalistic and today often stem from a scientific worldview which accepts determinism.  The vague appeals to the nature of the universe or to science so common in my generation (perhaps invoking a specific branch of the natural sciences) are hardly any less a sign of resigned helplessness than the proverbs mentioned by the author.  Fatalistic helplessness and resignation are general human responses to a level of survival pressure that taxes our resources beyond what we believe we can handle.  Most of us have been there at some point, and my guess is that for most of us it was driven by the difficulties of daily life rather than a desire for a martyr's crown.

The second problem with this claim is much the same as the problem with her other claims.  The author may recognize a Biblical Christian notion that with faith the size of a mustard seed, we can purportedly move mountains.  This seems like the opposite of teaching helplessness; it actually seems downright empowering.  Also, religions frequently make claims that we are far from helpless.  Buddhism teaches us that we can end all our own suffering through eliminating unhealthy attachments, and that seems to assume that we are able to help ourselves immensely.  Islam expects its adherents to attend to the needs of the widow and the orphan, which seems to assume that not everyone is helpless.  Taoism expects us to be active participants in our own lives, albeit in such a way that we are in harmony with our own nature and the nature of the world in which we live.  On the whole, the evidence doesn't support the claim that "religion teaches helplessness."

But might it support the claim that "religions sometimes teach helplessness and sometimes teach us to stand on our own"?  Sure.  There are enough examples of folks relying on faith healers and refusing medical treatment in favor of waiting for a miracle to support that much more modest claim. 

The author also makes reference to ignoring structural problems in favor of kindness within a more limited sphere.  This does sometimes happen with religious adherents, but it is not a general problem.  If it were, we could not make sense of the existence of a massive set of government-funded social welfare programs at the local, state, and federal level in the United States.  Those programs got voted in by a bunch of religious people and are supported by an overwhelmingly religious constituency today.  This might seem like a coincidence if there were no religious organizations teaching that we need to engage in structural change, but as it turns out there are indeed such teachings.  As any reader of that article can see, Christianity has a long tradition of critiquing existing unjust power structures and seeking remedies for the poor and vulnerable.  In the Pali canon, the Buddha provided a vision of the wheel-turning monarch to his disciples so that they could identify just and unjust power structures as well.  And speaking of power structures...

6.  Religion seeks power.

What I found particularly spectacular about this claim is that the author did not bother to provide the slightest bit of evidence for something that is apparently so obvious that it does not require evidence.  Once again, I can help.  Pope Innocent the 10th is a great example of the leader of a religious institution seeking power.  The powerful Evangelical Christian influence on major elections in the United States seems to be waning quickly, but it was quite potent for a while.  A survey of various Buddhist Councils helps us understand how integrated Buddhism was in the political life of various countries into which it entered, and Buddhism does not shy away from enjoying the official recognition that comes from being the State religion.  I could go on and on about the relationship between religion and politics, but why bother?

The reader may recall from the preceding paragraphs that these same religions often find themselves in a position of critiquing unjust power structures.  The reader may also recall that in the first installment of this series, we discussed the U.S.S.R. and China and North Korea as examples of power-hogging secular governments.  If it is religion that seeks power, then should we conclude that socialism and communism and totalitarianism are religions?  Or should we conclude that the seeking of power has a cause which is independent of religion?

It doesn't take a specialist in evolutionary psychology to see that people in positions of power typically have greater access to resources and that we instinctively seek to acquire resources without stopping ourselves in much the same way that we consume resources without stopping ourselves, as mentioned before.  We might give away wealth that we don't need (e.g. Bill Gates or Warren Buffett or Oprah), but we human beings find it difficult to give away resources wholesale, which is why Franciscan friaries and Rinzai monasteries which require a radical rejection of worldly goods and power are not actually that popular in societies in which resources are plentiful.  They are more likely to be popular in societies in which poverty is the norm.

7.  Conclusions

In the end, the author never really provides us with an answer to the question of whether or not religion does more harm than good.  In part, this is because the author never stipulates a coherent definition of "good" or "harm" by which we could adjudicate that claim.  I look forward to someone proposing such a definition so that we could take a serious look at the evidence as a whole rather than choosing the evidence that suits us.  Then we could actually have an answer, though it would only be an answer within a particular moral framework and might not be agreeable to everyone.

The author is correct in her general observation that there is a fairly strong (though not 1:1) correlation between religious adherence and survival pressure, but it is far from clear what conclusions we might draw from that within a scientific worldview.  Do we draw the conclusion we only need religion for survival, and once our survival pressure is gone we can do without it?  If so, then does that mean that we are justified in religious belief when living in environments that are difficult or hostile to us?  Would that mean that it would make sense for people who go from conditions of wealth and ease to conditions of poverty and strife to become religious during that process?  Do we give the anti-scientific nonsense of a religious person a pass because life is hard for them and they need it in order to cope?

Despite the subtitle indicating that it was hard to argue with some of the author's points, it was not at all difficult to argue with any of these points. I find it difficult to imagine how it would be difficult to do so for anyone who has studied the world's religions in any depth or studied human evolution and cognition in any depth.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Fair Questions: Does religion cause more harm than good? Part II

Over at the occasionally insightful Salon, Valerie Tarico posts a set of 6 reasons to justify the notion that religion does more harm than good.  I would like to examine these reasons and attempt to sort out the extent to which they might support the claim that religion does more harm than good.

In the course of this analysis, I will approach the claims as an empiricist with a scientific worldview so as not to prejudice my conclusions.  For the convenience of the reader, I will perform my analysis in parts, taking two of the author's claims at a time.

3.  Religion makes a virtue out of faith.

The author really doesn't provide any evidence for this claim beyond the anecdotal, but I will help because I'm a swell guy like that. The Catholic Church holds very specifically to the idea that faith (along with hope and charity) is a virtue of great importance, specifically faith in the Christian conception of God. This claim has (yet again) the same problem as previous claims made by the author; the evidence isn't strong enough to support her general conclusion.  Let's take for example the Buddhist religion (a religion to which I seriously considered converting ten years ago).  The below quote from the discourses of the Buddha in the Pali Canon illustrates the problem with the author's claim that religion in general teaches its adherents to trust authorities rather than trusting their own thinking.

"Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of texts, by logic, by inferential reasoning, by reasoned cogitation, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of the speaker, or because you think, 'The ascetic is our teacher.'  But when you know for yourselves, 'These things are unwholesome; these things are blameable; these things are censured by the wise; these things, if undertaken and practiced, lead to harm and suffering.' then you should decide to abandon them."

This portion of the Buddha's discourses is perhaps why some have claimed that Buddhism is an atheistic philosophy rather than a religion, but the evidence is strongly against that view, what with the Buddha's references to deities and demons along with heavenly and hellish dimensions in his discourses.  So we know that not all religions train their adherents to trust authority rather than their own minds, but could the author retreat to the view that Christianity trains its adherents in such a way?  Well, that would a difficult argument to make in light of the diversity of Christian views in the United States, which seems to be the only place the author has any limited experience with religion.

Most American Christians who belong to one of the hundreds of post-Reformation era forms of Christianity have a "subjective and individualistic version" of the doctrine of sola scriptura, which is the idea that the Bible alone is the rule of the Christian faith.  And that statement was made by a Reformed Christian who believes the doctrine of sola scriptura, lest the reader think that it was a prejudiced remark.  He is exactly right that most U.S. Christians have a subjective and individualistic understanding of the Bible, choosing to trust their own thinking rather than trusting an external authority to tell them what the passages of the Bible mean.  Given this, the author should perhaps have more sympathy with religious folks who take those Iron Age views by virtue of trusting their own thinking.

But could the author fall back to the position that ancient Christian Churches such as the Catholic, Coptic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox churches train their adherents to trust authority rather than their own thinking?  Yes, at least on matters of pertinence to the Christian faith.  On other matters like physics and biological evolution, the adherent is taught to respect the natural sciences as an authority.  Even in the much-cited case of Galileo Galilei, Pope Urban was actually a patron to Galileo who provided him with funding for his scientific endeavors until he wrote a book that made the Pope look like the idiot in his dialogue.  The Catholic Church has since come to accept the modern view of cosmology that is neither geocentric or heliocentric, and many Catholic clergy have been active in the natural sciences since there were natural sciences.  So it would be difficult to even make the broad claim that the ancient Christian churches teach a general trust of authority rather than a trust in one's own thinking.

But could the author fall back to the position that at least with regard to theology and morality, the ancient Christian churches teach their adherents to trust the authority of the church rather than their own thinking?  Yes.  And this may or may not be a problem.  The fallacy of the argument from authority is only a fallacy when we appeal to an authority without the necessary expertise to advise us on the issue at hand.  Which means that in order to decide whether or not the ancient Christian churches are actually experts on theology and morality and their adherents should trust them, we would have to have a means of determining what it means to be an expert on theology and morality.

And how would we even do that when we can't trust our own thinking?  As famous skeptic Michael Shermer has noted many times and continues to bring forward today, we human beings are notoriously bad at the whole thinking thing, which is why conspiracy theories that require ignoring evidence and assuming that large swaths of humanity are both extremely competent and extremely malicious are still popular across party lines and demographic groups.  Even 23% of people with post-graduate degrees are prone to these cognitive errors, which suggests that academic training alone isn't a reliable cure for our normal human cognitive problems.  And there's nothing new or interesting about conspiracy theories about religious groups we are predisposed to dislike.  Which brings me to the next point...

4.  Religion diverts generous impulses and good intentions.

The author is very correct that sometimes religious organizations and religiously motivated charities do enrich their leaders rather than spending their money on more useful projects.  That is very true and quite a shame when it happens. It has happened with lots of religious organizations at various times.  This claim is true, but misleading because of what it omits.  This problem is not unique to those with religious motivations.

While some might think that it is indicative of a problem with religion that a large majority of the scandals around charities come from religious people or explicitly religious charities, that is exactly what we should expect when the vast majority of people are religious.  The most plausible explanation for the fact that the majority of charitable misconduct comes from folks with a religious affiliation (in light of the fact that these problems are not exclusive to religious persons) is simply that human beings find it very easy to spend a lot of money on themselves when they have the opportunity.

This is related to a common behavioral problem with human beings, which is that we consume more resources in proportion to the availability of those resources.  And this makes perfect sense in light of our evolution under harsh survival pressure, circumstances under which the smart play is to consume as much of a resource as you can while it is available because resources are very scarce and one does not know when that resource might be available in the future.

The author's more specific claims have a somewhat different problem, which is that she assumes that there is an inherent conflict between the behaviors of those who care for another person out of religious motivations and the behaviors that are actually helpful to that person.  This might or might not be the case, and we would need an objective morality by which to measure a person's actions in order to adjudicate that claim.

Stay tuned for an examination of the 5th and 6th claims.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Fair Questions: Does religion cause more harm than good? Part I

Over at the occasionally insightful Salon, Valerie Tarico posts a set of 6 reasons to justify the notion that religion does more harm than good.  I would like to examine these reasons and attempt to sort out the extent to which they might support the claim that religion does more harm than good.

In the course of this analysis, I will approach the claims as an empiricist with a scientific worldview so as not to prejudice my conclusions.  For the convenience of the reader, I will perform my analysis in parts, taking two of the author's claims at a time.

1.  Religion promotes tribalism.

The author cites verses from the Bible and the Koran to substantiate this claim.  And those verses do indeed indicate a mentality of tribalism.  That said, the first difficulty with this claim is that the evidence provided is simply insufficient to substantiate a general claim about religion.  It might substantiate a claim that, "Christianity and Islam promote tribalism."  Even that may be a stretch, because there are also verses in the Bible ("Love your enemy...") and the Koran ("...and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbor, the neighbor farther away, the companion at your side, the traveler, and those whom your right hands possess.") which support an imperative to reach across tribal boundaries that might otherwise normally restrict the kindness of an "Iron Age" person.  In the end, the strongest claim that might be supported by the evidence offered by the author is the claim that, "Christianity and Islam promote tribalism in some cases and promote crossing tribal lines in other cases."

But to be fair, is it possible that we could make the claim inclusive of more religions?  Certainly. We could add other religions to the list and selectively quote their sacred texts as well.  The difficulty is that finding an example of tribalism in the Tao Te Ching would be far more difficult than finding one in the Koran.  Some religious texts have more tribal elements than others, and some have strong elements of universalism.  This makes it impossible to make the case that tribalism is a feature that is common to religions in general.

And even if we could find evidence to support the claim the religions, without exception, promote tribalism, then we face the problem of explaining the tribalism so obviously present in other areas of human life.  Why do we have extremely tribal and polarized political parties who consistently harangue the other party?  Why do we see the development of similar fault lines in secular governments (e.g. the U.S.S.R. and China and North Korea) in which there is one party that oppresses everyone else who isn't aligned with the party?  Why do our schools have cliques and our workplaces have in-groups and out-groups?  Why do our families often undergo division into people loyal to one family member and people loyal to another family member?

There's a very simple reason for this.  We evolved as pack animals, and we think in terms of friends and foes because that is a very functional way for a pack animal to operate when their survival depends on having reliable pack members to ensure their survival.  Tribalism isn't a function of religion.  It's a function of being human.

2. Religion anchors believers to the Iron Age. 

Granting the assumption that the author's moral intuitions are correct, there are nonetheless serious issues with this claim.  Once again, the author doesn't provide evidence sufficient to substantiate the claim that religion in general anchors people to the Iron Age and only focuses on a small subset of religions.  Scientology is about as far from an Iron Age religion as one could get, and it exhibits many attributes the author seems to find so troubling in those Iron Age religions, such as the reckless acquisition of wealth, a deep-seated need for control over its adherents, and wacky beliefs without good evidence for them.  The general claim that religion anchors believers to the Iron Age is dead on arrival.

This issue is compounded by the author's invocation of the Golden Rule, a rule that came out of a religion which (according to the author) is anchored to the Iron Age.  If this most excellent rule came out of the mentalities of some guy anchored to an Iron Age culture, a guy who upheld the capricious laws of the Torah, then why would we trust it?  Shouldn't we be suspicious of moral claims made by a guy like that?

That said, would we be justified in making the much more modest claim that "Judaism, Christianity, and Islam anchor their believers to the Iron Age?"  The author focused on those religions, so let's examine them.  Given that there are millions of contemporary Jews, Christians, and Muslims who oppose violence, superstition, misogyny, racism, and willful ignorance...well, it's difficult to take seriously the idea that those religions keep everyone in the Iron Age.  At best, we might be justified in claiming that, "People who want to anchored to the Iron Age can use a subset of religions to anchor themselves to the Iron Age."

The author makes the point that believers can easily find validation for their bad behavior.  So what?  What's surprising about people employing normal human confirmation bias to find evidence for their position anywhere they can while conveniently ignoring evidence that might counter their position?  If we are reading the author's article on religion to which I am responding, then we can see that this particular human trait is alive and well today.  The article is a great example of it.

What actually anchors us to the mentalities of the Iron Age is the fact that our brains are basically the same as our Iron Age forebears.  We are subject to the same in-group bias, confirmation bias, and agency over-detection that we see so clearly in the behavior of our ancestors.  Today we have widespread belief in clearly false conspiracy theories, irrational ideological allegiances, and a fascination with New Age occult practices.  Our cognitive errors are no more infrequent than the cognitive errors of our ancestors, though they may lead us to somewhat different incorrect conclusions.

Stay tuned for an examination of the 3rd and 4th claims.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Fair Questions: What is heresy?

These are many ways of defining heresy, though for an orthodox Catholic like me, the definition is somewhat more precise in the context of my religion.  The Catholic Encyclopedia Online has an excellent article on heresy that provides a comprehensive view full of important distinctions.  It also notes that many heretical Christian beliefs are named after the folks who originated or popularized them, such as the Arian, Montanist, Pelagian, or Valentinian Gnostic heresies.  While these are useful and important ways of understanding heresy, the simple straightforward definition of heresy is that it is a persistent belief in a doctrine contrary to a defined truth of the Christian faith.

It is worth mentioning that, under this definition, having doubts is not heresy.  And there is a spectrum along which we can exist without falling into heresy (though we might be on the road toward heresy while on this spectrum).  It is certainly possible to hold opinions whose logical consequences are incoherent with a truth of the Christian faith (or several truths thereof) without understanding that incoherence or having the ability to recognize it.  Heresy is an intentional thing, and we cannot be heretics without the intention to believe something contrary to the faith, though we can certainly be heretics without understanding that we are heretics.

One thing that can be learned from a historical study of heresy is that most people who choose a heretical position do so with the best of intentions and often firmly believe that their heretical belief is perfectly coherent with the truth of the Christian faith.  They are generally not malicious and can even be quite virtuous in many respects.  While heretics share a denial of a truth of the Christian faith and a belief in their adherence to the truth of the faith, they can differ significantly as to how they arrive at a doctrine contrary to the faith.

There are two common paths taken to the citadel of heresy, and these paths should be familiar to the Christian reader from Sacred Scripture.

"Deuteronomy 4:2 Do not add to what I command you and do not take away from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you."

Additive Christianity


We begin down the first path toward heresy when we take the position that Christianity in its fullness is not sufficient, that we need something more than mere Christianity.  This is the path taken by the various Gnostic sects who believed that there was a higher truth beyond the existing early Christian worldview, a truth available to those with special knowledge of the esoteric.  This is also the path of the Hermeticists, the 16th century astrologer and philosopher Giordano Bruno of recently renewed fame being one example of this search of the esoteric Egyptian beliefs for a higher truth.  This path is the one walked by those who are popularly called Mormons, followers of Joseph Smith who brought what he believed was a new revelation of the truth of Christianity to the United States in the 19th century and tacked on a bunch of new texts to the existing Bible.

Even today, there are certainly examples of people who take this well-worn path toward heresy.  Some folks have reached the conclusion that we need some of the insights of Buddhism in Christianity to round it out, that we can create a worthwhile syncretistic religion by combining what we see as the best of both traditions, an approach often taken by the Gnostics who existed alongside the Christian communities of antiquity.  Perhaps one might believe that Christianity would be better if it were to involve the increasingly popular practice of yoga or the little known Jain monastic disciplines.   Perhaps one might seek to merge Christian beliefs with various Native American cosmologies or theological positions.  This is an additive Christianity, a process of tacking on systems of thought incoherent with Christianity and calling it Christianity, but a better Christianity with a higher knowledge or a deeper understanding.

Reductive Christianity


We begin down the second path toward heresy when we take the position that Christianity in its fullness is not necessary, that we can remove some of the parts we find uncomfortable for philosophical or emotional reasons and have a purer Christianity.  This is the path taken by Arius and others, to deny that Christ is consubstantial with God the Father because he could not reason his way to the traditional Christian view of the Sonship of Christ.  This is also the path of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformers who followed after him, whether it was taken by removing books from Sacred Scripture to suit his theology as Martin Luther did or by adopting the three Solas (Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura) so as to exclude the role of the Christian tradition that had formed the scriptures and provided the concepts of grace and faith used by the Reformers.  This path is the one walked by those who were popularly called Shakers, a branch from the Quakers founded by George Fox in the 17th century, Christians who quite seriously took away sex from Christianity, practicing abstinence in a heroic fashion that lead to the collapse of many of their communities.

Even today, we see this path being taken quite often as more and more people describe themselves as Christians without a church or spiritual without a religion, taking more and more away from Christianity until it is unrecognizable as having anything to do with Christ because it is fully compatible with contemporary values, values which are often mutually exclusive with the values of Jesus in the Gospel.  This subjecting of the faith to the limitations of the reasoning capacity of the individual often leads to a philosophical religion and can even take us further down the path to universalism, an increasingly prominent view among my contemporaries which suggests that all will be saved, making all religions equally valid in their view.  This is a reductive Christianity, a process of taking away from the deposit of the Christian faith until it suits our preferences and priorities and still calling it Christianity, but a better Christianity without all those troublesome parts that challenge our sensibilities.

Customized Christianity


In many cases today, we are tempted to walk both paths toward the citadel of heresy, adding to Christianity what we find valuable in other religious traditions and in secular contemporary values while at the same time taking away or downplaying those parts of Christianity that are counter-cultural and seen as unenlightened and irrational.  The result is a customized Christianity, a Christianity which has been reshaped in the image of the individual who has fashioned it to meet their individual preferences.

It is an additive Christianity in that they have added their own preferences to it and fashioned it in their own image, and it is a reductive Christianity in that they have taken away the parts of Christ's message that challenge them, leaving only the platitudes that comfort them without asking them to grow.  It is a Christianity which at a certain point is no longer Christianity and can only be properly described as a religion of the individual's own making, a Selfianity in which Christ has been pushed out to make room for the Self as the final arbiter of truth.

This is where heresy ultimately leads; in denying a truth of the faith, that faith is made incoherent and thus there is less reason to accept it along with more reason to reject it.  In heresy we unravel a thread in the seamless garment of the Christian worldview, gradually tearing away the garment to reveal a Christ without the garment he made for himself and finding a Christ whose teachings are unacceptable to our egos, a Christ from whom we then walk away alongside the rich man of the Gospel so that we can embrace a new religion constructed of our own preferences and pathologies, perhaps remembering fondly a Christ we could not quite accept and perhaps being disappointed by Christ being so unenlightened and irrational.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Juvenile Anthropology: Abandoning the Good

In many discussions with my contemporaries, it is argued that a thing should be permitted because it is not explicitly prohibited.  Others take it a step further and propose that what is not explicitly prohibited is not only permitted, but acceptable.  Others take it even further and suggest that all is permitted, that any act by a moral actor is good.  This last view is not a view that is generally taken seriously, perhaps because we often intuitively understand that if any act we choose is good, then the distinction between good and evil is a moot point in practice.

But the previous views are taken seriously, and that is why they are worth addressing.  The first argument is problematic because it assumes that there are no principled ways we might evaluate the moral quality of an act when there is no existing prohibition on it.  Prior to the detonation of the first atomic bomb, there was no prohibition on detonating an atomic bomb.  Does this mean that we had no principled way to determine whether or not we ought to detonate an atomic bomb, that we should simply permit it in the absence of an existing prohibition?  Most of us would be extremely reluctant to apply this sort of moral reasoning to a historical case, so why would we use it today?  Why would we not apply existing moral principles from some deontological or consequentialist framework in order to determine whether it should be permitted or prohibited?  Usually, the answer is, "Because I want to do it!"  I'll leave it to the reader to decide whether or not that's a convincing answer.

The second argument is problematic as well because it assumes that what is permitted is acceptable.  People are permitted to make horrifyingly hateful statements about their fellow human beings in the United States.  People are permitted to call others stupid, to belittle them, to make false statements about them.  And yet who would claim that this sort of bullying is acceptable simply because it is permitted?  Who would propose that these are morally good acts?  Usually the people performing those acts, "Because I want to do it!"

The deeper problem with both of these views is that they come out of a juvenile anthropology, an understanding of what it means to be human that assumes that the best mode in which we can exist as humans is the one in which we don't do bad things, rude things, harmful things.  All of which is to say that we should avoid being a "bad person".  This is not necessarily a bad goal, but it is only the beginning of moral development.  As a child, my moral goal was to not be a bad person.  I sought to avoid the painful consequences of my decisions.  As a youth, my moral goal was to be a good person.  I sought the rewards of acceptable behavior.  As an adult, my moral goal is to be a person of the highest virtue, to turn away from both what is evil and from what is merely acceptable toward what is most excellent, what is most true, and what is most beautiful.

Many of us have taken a view of morality that is suitable for children and paraded it around as if it were the ideal, a vision of a mature morality.  This provides a model of morality for our children that affirms their existing childlike morality that is completely appropriate for a child and never calls them to develop beyond it as they grow toward adulthood.  Many of us have let our children stagnate in what Kohlberg called a pre-conventional morality, seeking to avoid punishment and gain pleasurable rewards.  In doing so, we create a generation of adults who are functioning at the same moral level as a child in most respects.  This should sound very familiar to anyone currently working with university students in the United States, which I currently do.

We should want to give them something greater than a life in which the only meaning or purpose they can have is the one they share with an earthworm.  We owe it to our children to offer them something better than existing in the childlike state of fearing punishment and seeking pleasure, adrift in a sea of desires on a world of moral twilight with no moral compass by which to navigate.  We should be willing to lead them to the universal moral principles characteristic of a mature morality, the rules of love that will take them into a happiness much deeper and wider than anything they have yet known.

Instead of abandoning the good in favor of what is acceptable, permitted, or not prohibited, we can embrace the highest good and lead those we love to grow toward that good so that they can have what is indeed the good life, a life guided by principles rather than mere response to stimuli.  We can show others the path to what is the greatest good, the most profound truth, and the best beauty so that they can have more than what is merely acceptable, permitted, or not prohibited.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Juvenile Anthropology: Terminating the Future

Every society has an anthropology, by which I mean a cultural understanding of what it is to be human and what the implications of human nature are upon our moral obligations.  There is currently in post-industrial Western countries a crisis of anthropology as the traditional anthropology tries to survive the arrival of the contemporary anthropology.   I know this all too well as someone who previously held to a juvenile anthropology.

In these countries, the traditional anthropology is the Christian anthropology.  In the Christian anthropology, we are children of God, inherently worthwhile as persons.  In the Christian anthropology, human life is a precious gift to be preserved and the natural world is a gift to cherish as careful stewards of it.  In the Christian anthropology, sex is a gift to be used wisely and carefully.  In the Christian anthropology, suffering is informative and educative, a process that tells us what is causing us harm and showing us where we need to grow.  In the Christian anthropology, men and women are complementary to one another and a mutual gift to one another.  In the Christian anthropology, our highest purpose is altruistic.  In the Christian anthropology, human being are frail-minded and foolish, a view supported by modern cognitive science that has found us making myriad cognitive errors in the normal course of daily life.  In the Christian anthropology, we are unable to perceive many important things about our world, a view compatible with what science has revealed about the limitations of our perceptual mechanisms.

In the juvenile anthropology, we are inherently worthwhile as persons...just because.  Except in cases in which we don't feel pain.  Or aren't sufficiently cognitively developed.  Or in cases in which we feel lots of pain and little pleasure, so why bother living?  In the juvenile anthropology, human life is an accident to be enjoyed while it lasts with what pleasures are available to us and the natural world is either a resource to be exploited while it lasts or a source of beauty to be preserved as it was when we found it.  In the juvenile anthropology, sex is a right to be enjoyed liberally and in whatever way we prefer to have it.  In the juvenile anthropology, suffering is immoral because we don't like it, and we should make it stop.  In the juvenile anthropology, men and women are enjoyable to each other as bodies to delight in, a source of an emotional and physiological high until the next body is found.  In the juvenile anthropology, our highest purpose is hedonistic (and of the Cyrenaic variety).  In the juvenile anthropology, human beings are strong-minded and rational, but only if they agree with us.  The rest of them are idiots.  In the juvenile anthropology, what we perceive is all there is and it is deeply important, though not quite as important as our opinions.

The Christian anthropology may have problems for those who don't accept its particular theology or cosmology, but when the label of Christian is taken away and the historical baggage of the behavior of Christians is dropped, it is still a mature anthropology that understands human weakness and calls us to lives of deeper happiness.  It's an anthropology developed by adults who have a depth of human experience.

Contemporary anthropology by and large sounds like the viewpoint of a spoiled adolescent.  It is cynical, selfish in the most unhealthy ways, and deeply incoherent.  It is juvenile, exemplary of the worst of youthful behavior and tendencies with none of the positive qualities of youth.  Ironically in light of its obsession with youth, our culture has adopted a juvenile anthropology that is quite ancient.  It is the same juvenile anthropology that lead to the widespread practice of infanticide in ancient Rome.  After all, sex is a right to be enjoyed liberally, but the juvenile don't need to deal with those pesky natural consequences of their behavior.

The mature Christian anthropology of our mystics and ascetics and Saints is under fire from an anthropology that takes the view of a teenager who just doesn't understand why he can't do just anything his whims would lead him to do because he sees himself as his own final authority. This juvenile anthropology ignores the scientific understanding of our cognitive and perceptual limitations just as strongly as it denies the understanding gained through mature sacrifice and self-denial. It will cause a grave failure in human progress if we adopt this juvenile anthropology because it will prevent us from understanding ourselves well enough to grow and adapt in the face of new problems.

In an increasingly globalized and densely populated world, we need altruistic and mature individuals who understand their own limitations in such a way that they can empathize with the weakness of others and solve problem cooperatively rather than refusing to work with others because they aren't smart enough or strong enough or likable enough. Those who hold to a juvenile understanding of their own human nature will not be able to help us move into a future in which those qualities are need because they will be stuck in adolescent mentalities, stagnating in the worst nonsense of youth while not utilizing the great passion of youth to drive us into a brighter future. 

The future created by eternal whiny teenagers will be a future full of the silliest schoolyard antics and egoism, a future in which children die because the parents miss their fun times, a future which is now. By killing those who could make that future better and raising children who do not understand how to respect the appropriate boundaries of human society, we create a future impoverished of virtue, lacking in empathy, and bereft of the great depths of love we can reach through self-denial.  The juvenile anthropology, for all of its youthful qualities, will terminate a worthwhile future of love and compassion before it begins in favor of an ephemeral present feeling which always fails to satisfy our deepest longings. 

It will do this because those who have a juvenile anthropology have never known the deeper substantial joy that comes from a life guided by a mature love and compassion.  They may never be able to experience a future they have been told is a myth as they wallow in a present reality shaped by the myth of the triumph of human reason, the myth of the ascendancy of fleeting feelings as the measure of a good life, and the myth of the self as the final arbiter of truth.  If we want to reach a worthwhile future, we will need to abandon the myths of an anthropology of the youthful dead disengaged from the world and build up an anthropology of the grateful, joyous living people who light up the future of the world before us.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Other Side: Reactionary Religion

In the past, I had what could be accurately (though not pejoratively) described as a reactionary religion.  In this context, what I mean is not the typical jab at conservatives or traditionalists which is used to dismiss their views as opposed to any progress.  Typical reactionary thinking involves rationalizing one's visceral negative reaction to things or ideas outside of one's scope of experience or diametrically opposed to one's values.  Instead of taking a step back and evaluating the evidence for and against the other views, the reactionary tendency is to circle the wagons and fight the other, clinging tightly to their existing beliefs.  It's a response that makes perfect sense in light of evolutionary psychology, but I would suggest that it often becomes extremely unhealthy for us.

When people use the term reactionary, they are typically referring to the conservative, the traditionalist, or the fascist.  They tend to assume a definition of a reactionary as someone who values order and stability over permissiveness and diversity.  And I think that they are indeed often reactionaries, upset by the novelty of new social reforms and the disorder that comes from disassembling existing institutions so that grand reforms can be implemented and whatever is deemed progress that day can be achieved.

But these are not the only reactionaries in our midst.  Those who think of themselves as progressives, liberals, or socialists are often reactionary as well; they are frequently reacting with the same visceral negative reaction to the established order and the ancient practices that stand in the way of their utopian vision of what human societies ought to be.  Where the conservative, traditionalist, authoritarian, and fascist circle the wagons to exclude those who do not adhere to the established order, the progressive, the liberal, and the socialist circle the wagons to exclude those who do not seek to implement their favored programs and grand reforms.

After these wagons have been circled, it might seem that our reactionary tribalism might be complete, but these are still others who remain outside those circles.  The centrists, the libertarians, and the various others are frequently reactionaries as well.  The libertarians are often reactionary against authority, the centrists against what they see as the extremes of other committed individuals, and so on.  Because we all have visceral negative reactions to things that have wounded us, the problem of reactionary religion can easily become a problem for any of us.

And what is the problem with a religious perspective that is a reaction to the old, the new, the extremes, the authorities, et cetera?  Fundamentally, the difficulty with a religion that exists in reaction to something else is that in imposing our own insecurities and pathologies on a religion we should be embracing so as to grind away those insecurities and pathologies on the rock of loving kindness, we defeat the great benefit of having a religion, denying ourselves the fruits of the very thing we would like to think that we are cultivating.

A reactionary religion puts up a wall of our insecurities and pathologies around us, enshrining them in the cloak of the holiness we should be seeking to wear, a cloak we cannot wear until we have taken off those insecurities and pathologies so that we have room in our lives to act with the loving kindness we need to weave into the cloak of holiness.  In order to embrace a religion in such a way that it leads us to lives of holiness, we must make our religion an affirmation of the good rather than a negation of those things that have wounded us. 

Our practice of a religion must move away from a gut-wrenching "No!" to what has wounded us and move toward a serene "Yes!" to what will heal us of those wounds so that we can reach out to those who have wounded us and help them to heal as well.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Other Side: The Philosopher Pig's Dilemma

I was recently reading a piece from Sam Harris entitled, "I'm Not the Sexist Pig You're Looking For" in which he describes an encounter with someone determined to see his remarks as bigotry and unwilling to grant that he might simply be operating out of a different and legitimate mode of dealing with issues of gender.

I have had very similar encounters, and not just on the topic of gender or sex, but on any topic that has emotional gravity, and with both men and women.  I like that Sam Harris doesn't just blame feminism for the problem like plenty of others do, probably because he is a feminist and understands the problems with how we treat women individually and as a society.  So why would a man who has previously pointed out those problems and shaped his political beliefs around what would be empowering for women be on the receiving end of an accusation of anti-woman bigotry?

As I've mentioned before, men and women tend to reason differently on average because of how we have needed to evaluate risk for the sake of our survival.  These are trends driven by the somewhat different physiological characteristics of men and women and how human beings have adapted to surviving with those differences over the course of millenia.  It's really not a matter of men being stupid or women being stupid.  We're just employing somewhat different risk management heuristics in many cases, though we can and should certainly learn about other approaches.

But telling someone that, much like Sam Harris explaining that he was talking about general tendencies and facts rather than outlandishly suggesting that men couldn't be just as nurturing as women or that women can't think just as critically as men (the straw men his interlocutor allegedly used), simply isn't persuasive or helpful.  Why? 

Most people really aren't that interested in critically examining every proposition.  They are more interested in knowing who their allies are and who their enemies are; particularly when it comes to an issue of emotional significance, we are very likely to pay close attention to which people are on "our side" and which people are on "the other side" for what are perhaps obvious reasons when we understand that our survival has long depended on knowing friend from foe.

What happened in this case is that someone let Sam Harris know that she believed he was on "the other side" when he ought to be on "our side".  And when this situation is brought to his attention, he has two options from the interlocutor's standpoint.  He can apologize and come over to "our side" by submitting himself to her judgment that he's got all this unexamined bigotry or he can do absolutely anything else and ratify her view that he is an unknowing enemy of all things good and feminist.

The first option is unlikely to be the choice of a guy who spends a lot of time in self-examination and bias self-checks who probably really does have a bias in favor of women's empowerment as far as I can tell.  Which leaves him to do something other than the first option and cement himself in her eyes as an enemy.  As one of my young friends observed, "There's no way to win."  If winning means being seen as a friend rather than a foe, then he's absolutely correct.  When the options are to accept a lie about one's self and make a false apology or to stick with the truth and gain an enemy, you aren't going to have it all.

It might seem unfair to lump people into categories in which either they are either with us or against us, and maybe it is, but it's also quite sensible as an approach to managing risk with regard to relationships with other human beings.  It is much safer to assume that someone who seems unaffected and cool towards us (or our concerns) is hostile than it is to assume that the person is a friend.  We lose a great deal if we are wrong about them being a friend, and we have very little certainty about what we might gain if they are in fact a friend.

Of course, my defense of her behavior as an exercise in perfectly normal human rational risk management doesn't sound sufficiently warm and friendly, so I would probably get put in "the other side" category pretty promptly right along with Sam Harris despite my strong disagreements with him.  And maybe that is fair.  After all, my purpose here was to explore the truth of the situation rather than to make friends.  So why should I be surprised when it doesn't make friends? 

I'm not surprised at all that it doesn't make friends, but I can understand why it might be cause for Sam Harris to be disappointed that it breaks down the understanding that he wants very much to cultivate.  There will always be a disjunction created when those whose primary concern is finding truth and those whose primary concern is finding out who cares about them very strongly find themselves trying to use those very different approaches to communicate with each other.

I hope that some day the latter can understand that a sexist pig is not at all the same as a philosopher pig and that those of us who are in the former group can understand that it's a legitimate choice to care more about determining who our friends are than about pondering the mysteries of the universe when they have more immediately pressing issues to address in their lives.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Juvenile Anthropology: Euthanizing Truth

I've been considering over the past few months what I see as one of the major prevailing problems with contemporary cultural thought and political discourse, namely that many of my contemporaries (whether older or younger in age) have an understanding of what it is to be human that is profoundly impoverished and astoundingly incoherent with the facts available to us through scientific study specifically and empirical observation generally.

Today I was looking through the latest posts from bloggers I follow and stumbled upon a quite enjoyable and scathing critique of a film critic expressing his mixed feelings about what he describes as the Death of Adulthood in American Culture.  After reading A.O. Scott's article, I am left feeling that he has correctly identified a problem while misidentifying the evidence for it and diagnosing the cause incorrectly.

In particular, I tend to agree with the always entertaining author at The Belle Jar that the piece has the following problems:

  1. The author proposed no useful or coherent definition of adulthood.  His understanding of adulthood seems to be best exemplified by the most superficial aspects of human behavior like what styles of clothing we wear or whether or not we purchase books from the young adult fiction section of Barnes & Noble.  Despite the fact that my book purchases run heavily to the very philosophical and intellectual side and my clothing choices are well in line with plain old "adult" attire for a 50 year old man despite the fact that I've recently turned 30 years old, I have no sense that my choices in these areas are indicative of my adulthood so much as my practical desire to find clothing easily.  Or perhaps that my rebellious bent has typically been to change myself radically internally rather than in an external fashion.
  2. The author suggested that "the patriarchy" was dead, which I can only assume is predicated on an understanding of patriarchy that most contemporary feminist writers do not share.  From what I can glean from The Belle Jar and many other feminist publications, their understanding is that patriarchy will exist until there are no longer any disciplines or types of leadership roles in which alpha males are the majority and no longer any areas of life in which men on average have more power than women.  So once we have moved beyond our biology and stopped being a primate species in which males and females tend to employ very different risk management strategies, patriarchy as understood by many contemporary feminists might be rightly declared dead.  But we're a long way from that reality.
  3. The author asks us to look at cultural feminism as a cause of the death of adulthood and a move toward continuing our youthful hobbies and fandoms in spite of our increasing age, correlating this with the freer societies born of a rebellious spirit of the age that sought to tear down the old social structures with very little thought about how to replace those structures beyond, "Let's all be nice to each other, dude."  It's a disturbingly common move to blame current negative societal trends on feminism, and typically this move is a failure to properly distinguish correlation from causation aggravated by the fact that feminism is a convenient scapegoat because it is one of the rallying cries for those who imagine themselves to be radically in contradiction of the dominant culture, a culture that has not actually been dominant since the generation of their aged parents or grandparents.

As much as I sympathize with A.O. Scott's general sense that we are losing something important and useful in our grand American cultural shift while gaining other important things, I think that he has missed the mark entirely in understanding the cause of and evidence for the loss.  This is likely because he shares the values of those who propose a juvenile anthropology and seek to support us in living down to the standard of being man-babies who fill the space in our lives with leisure because advertising executives have thoroughly convinced us that it's the best thing for us, far better than that nonsense about creating a loving household or raising virtuous human beings into adulthood or selflessly doing good work for the poor and vulnerable.  He strongly sympathizes with a desire to tear down the old order and leave an unhealthy vacuum in its place, but recognizes the problems that inevitably result from doing just that when he writes:

"The elevation of every individual’s inarguable likes and dislikes over formal critical discourse, the unassailable ascendancy of the fan, has made children of us all. We have our favorite toys, books, movies, video games, songs, and we are as apt to turn to them for comfort as for challenge or enlightenment."

The difficulty here is that he does not understand the connection between his own juvenile anthropology which proposes that social order does not require authority (as it does in fact for most individuals) and the inevitable result of applying it to human societies as described above.  And it's even worse than what he describes. Every individual's inarguable likes and dislikes are not simply elevated over formal critical discourse; they are taken to be valid as a form of critical discourse.  The two quite different things are conflated so that there is no longer any such thing as formal critical discourse.  The content of the phrase is supplanted by a mewling egotistical cry to not go around challenging the person so that they can wallow in their mediocrity.  Formal critical discourse is re-imagined as a process of validating the existing opinions and behaviors of everyone we engage in intellectual discussion; it becomes the vehicle by which we enforce the non-existence of the truth we had previously sought by using formal critical discourse as a method.

In a delicious bit of irony, our youth-obsessed commercialized culture of reckless agreeableness helps us quite compassionately put to death the very thing we so often claim to have an interest in finding: the truth that is out there waiting for us to find it with the help of our fellow human beings.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Fair Questions: How Did Religion Help Us Survive?

For some who take an evolutionary perspective on humanity while at the same time taking a rather dim view of religion, it can seem strange that religion would persist with the strength with which it has persisted in human social groups.  After all, the fact that our brains appear to be "wired" to believe in strange agencies external to ourselves doesn't get us to religion, though it might get us to various conspiracy theories.

So our biology would certainly appear to explain our tendency toward conspiracy theories about lizard people, evil spirits, or the Illuminati and so on.  But what explains, from an evolutionary standpoint, the social institution of religion, whether at a tribal level or the level of an international empire?  We could appeal to the notion that religion provides shared values which can unite otherwise disparate social groups and thereby shore up the sorts of bonds that allow these groups to maintain the shared identity necessary for seeing themselves as part of the same group and functioning as such to maintain the integrity of the group against outside forces competing for their resources.  This might explain emperor worship in various places throughout history.

And that's really not a bad explanation, as far as it goes.  But what explains the complex eschatological theology and assigning all sorts of superlative attributes to deities?  Those don't seem necessary to social coherence.  We might suggest that it is a comfort to people who are suffering and grieving to think that a superlatively important being cares about their problems and is looking out for them in some fashion, perhaps sending them to a pleasant afterlife.  This too, has its limits, quite aside from the fact that far from all religions have deities with superlative attributes. 

If it were merely a matter of psychological comfort that allows us to continue to function under pressure, then why would we have horrifying hell dimensions as a standard part of religious eschatology?  It might make sense as a psychological comfort if it were exclusively used as a tool to tell ourselves that those evil people will get what was coming to them, but we often find that people are afraid of going to those hell dimensions themselves.  Doesn't that put them under more psychological pressure and potentially impair their chances at survival?  Wouldn't we expect that such a damaging thing would have been naturally selected out of human religious belief long ago?

It seems to me that if we are going to account for the existence of religion as an evolutionary phenomenon in all its variety, then we need to find another piece of the puzzle.  I would like to propose a possible candidate for that piece, keeping in mind that I am not an expert in the fields of evolutionary psychology, anthropology, et cetera.

Altruistic behavior is key to the survival of human social groups, particularly altruistic behavior in which an individual makes a sacrifice which is costly to themselves for the benefit of the group.  We might think that this in-group altruism would be fostered by religion and thereby support the survival of the group.  There are a couple of problems with applying this idea in a simplistic, straightforward manner. 

First, not all religions are altruistic in their moral outlook, and some are far from it.  But these religions (or aspects of a religion that is only somewhat altruistic) might be explained by reference to social coherence and psychological comfort, so this is not necessarily a large problem.  Second, not all religious moral outlooks are limited to altruism with regard to the in-group.  Many of us are probably familiar with the prescription of Jesus of Nazareth that we love our enemies, and this extends an altruistic moral outlook beyond the in-group, making it difficult to completely limit the effect of religion to the obvious in-group survival imperative (though we might argue that it merely broadens it to the survival of the species). 

The ability of religion to foster altruism might be helpful for survival in some cases, but it does not seem that it is an inherent function of religion across the board.  So what could be an inherent function of religion which is plausible as an aid to survival and not idiosyncratic to a subset of religions?  I would suggest that under harsh survival pressure, the most valuable way in which religion would contribute to survival in addition to previously discussed factors is by providing an extraordinary motivation.

This extraordinary motivation could be a number of things within the religion.  Perhaps some would be driven by a fear of a terrible, torturous afterlife to act in the perceived interest of the group.  Perhaps others with a somewhat more positive moral outlook would be driven to act in the perceived interest in the group because they wanted a pleasant afterlife.  Perhaps the more mature individuals would find themselves in possession of a genuine regard for their fellow group members because of their acceptance of religious values and that would provide their extraordinary motivation for acting in the perceived interest of the group.  Perhaps their extraordinary motivation would be grounded in something more like a mystical relationship with the divine or philosophical truth.

Regardless of the quality of their moral development, people can find an extraordinary motivation in a religion, something that can drive them to act when it is difficult to act or to lay down their lives when it is difficult to lay down and die.  The survival value of an extraordinary motivation is fairly clear from the human experience and from history; motivation has helped to turn the course of personal and communal history many times.  When under high survival pressure, it is incredibly useful for a human being to have an extraordinary motivation to keep them from crumbling into debilitating depression or fatalistic battle weariness.  An extraordinary motivation can keep us fighting for our survival long after our reason has told us that the cause is lost, that we should give up and die.  An extraordinary motivation can keep someone like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. going against overwhelming odds and constant stress.

I am not inclined to argue that extraordinary motivations can only come out of religious conviction, but I would suggest that successful religions are structured in such a way that it is easy for most people to find an extraordinary motivation in them, and that having a set of extraordinary motivations readily available to people would be and has been quite valuable to human survival.  People do often need some great sense of motivation upon which they can hang firmly to carry on under difficult circumstances.

There are of course times when this extraordinary motivation can be a problem for human survival, and not just because it might be a motivation that leads then to commit terrible acts of violence against other human social groups.  Sometimes an individual or subset of a group will have pathologies which lead them to turn against members of the larger group and commit terrible acts of violence against people they might be expected to see as part of their in-group. 

As with many other strategies for survival, there are times when it can become counter-productive.  We see the same phenomenon with other traits such as aggressiveness; it is a trait that is incredibly useful in saving the group in some circumstances and can get them all killed under other circumstances.  This does not mean that it is not valuable to our survival on the whole, but it does mean that it is a survival strategy that comes with attendant risks, as they all do.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Love it to Death: The Rules of Love

In the ongoing dispute between Catholics who want to follow all of the documented liturgical norms to the letter and those who think that the best liturgical tradition is the one they fabricated out of their own preferences, it is often difficult to find the love.  It often seems to be a battle between those who want to stodgily remain faithful to the liturgical traditions of their forebears and those who want to stodgily remain faithful to the liturgical traditions of their contemporaries.  

Their love often appears to be a love of rules, an adherence to those structures they genuinely believe are best at providing a healthy spirituality, whatever they believe healthy spirituality to be.  Instead of being an expression of divine love, liturgy is reduced to a mechanism which manufactures a spiritual experience of the kind seen by its purveyors as ideal.  Sadly, it is generally not seen as ideal because it is in fact ideal (though it may be), but because it suits the pathologies of the persons proposing it as a mechanism for the effective delivery of spirituality.

This is of course precisely what liturgy is to help remove us from; it is intended to pull us out of our daily exercise of our pathologies and into real intimacy with the divine.  It should help us overcome those very pathologies which we often seek to impose on it by tweaking the liturgical forms to fit our juvenile anthropology or returning to an ancient practice which we idealize out of an amnesiac sort of nostalgia.

That said, I do not propose that we dispense with rules in the liturgy; liturgy could not serve its purpose without the rules and the formality that tend to be associated heavily with traditional liturgical practice in Christianity.  Some propose that, "It's about relationship, not about rules."  Or they object to the formality of liturgy as a blockade to a feeling of family or intimacy; they would prefer the casual atmosphere of their family gatherings which reflects contemporary culture's preference for casualness.

Despite our cultural intuitions to the contrary, formality of expression is actually a great way to help people build relationships. It reminds us that the other person is not our possession or a product to be modified to our liking. A diligent practice of formality keeps us in the mindset that they are special and require us to take care in how we approach them and communicate with them. It provides a set of shared expectations that reduce the stress of communication and companionship.  

Formality is a way of structuring the language of love in our relationships so that it is ordered toward our mutual benefit.  Ancient cultures often understood this better than we do today in the West, and they would probably be appalled at how our lack of formality produces more selfish and less respectful relationships.  Just as adherence to formality forces us to consider something beyond our own immediate preferences, a lack of formality allows our whims to come to the fore and dominate our expressions, gently pulling us into a narcissistic way of approaching our relationships.

It may initially seem strange that rules would be so valuable to relationships, but we all know it to be true on a quite visceral level.  All of us have been upset with the way another person has treated us at some point and desired to set rules that would prevent that treatment in the future.  Maybe their behavior left us feeling unloved.  Maybe we felt devalued as a person.  Maybe we felt disrespected by their behavior.  Whatever the behavior, we have an intuition that we need to have boundaries in our relationships so that we feel loved, valued, and respected by others.

Whether the rule is that we greet those we love with a kiss, a hug, or a handshake, the fundamental truth remains the same; the rules of our relationships are what help us to effectively communicate to one another our deep love and respect for each person.  A lack of rules does precisely the opposite; it communicates to others that our personal predilections of the moment are more valuable to us than the relationship we share with others, that our needs come before theirs rather than being in balance with them.  When we choose to follow the rules of love, we choose in each instance, over and over, to move gradually beyond valuing our mere passing desires toward valuing the relationship which fulfills our deep and lasting desires of the heart.

 The rules and formalities of the liturgy are important precisely because they pull us out of our narcissism by helping us to choose to do what demonstrates how strongly we value the relationship we have with the divine.  The rules of the liturgy are the rules of love which help us to transcend a relationship that seeks our benefit by providing us with a path to seeking the benefit of a loving relationship with the Lord in which all of us benefit from His grace and mercy.

When we follow the rules of love, we love to death our egotistical desires which would deprive us of a life worth living by making hollow and empty those substantial relationships which fill our lives with lasting joy and peace, the relationships which help us to let go of our pathologies that keep us from growing in true intimacy with one another and especially with the God who loved us unto death.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Love it to Death: The Love of Rules

In the cold war over liturgical praxis and theology in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, there tend to be battles between those who wish to assiduously follow all the documented liturgical norms and those who think that those norms can be changed as it suits their personal pathologies and preferences.  I have already explained the problems with taking the latter view, and now I would like to address the former view.

There is a parish in a nearby city that is known for their excellent liturgical practice, and they offer a variety of liturgies within the Roman Rite, including the Mass of Paul VI, the Tridentine Mass, and the Anglican Use of the rite.  These are all very well done in form and reverent in spirit.  I remember being there a few years ago attending the Tridentine Mass, and the priest giving a homily on Pharisaism after reading the Gospel, which features Jesus pointing out the willingness of the Pharisees to hold themselves up as the righteous ones because they follow the rules while disregarding the righteousness of those who sacrifice truly and understand their own weakness before God.

The priest pointed out that pharisaical behavior was always something to be guarded against in traditional communities such as theirs, that it was the behavior contrary to the Gospel that was mostly likely to be fallen into by those who like to make very sure that they follow the liturgical norms and the many other rules of the faith.  In traditional communities, people are more likely to be vocal about Church teaching and discipline and keen to hold others accountable to that teaching and discipline.  This can be a very good and healthy thing for those communities so long as they understand the risk of slipping into the pharisaical mindset.

After all, the rules of our religion exist to help foster a healthy relationship with our Lord, so there is much good to be found in following the rules.  We just have to make sure that when we love, we look beyond the rules to the Lord, loving Him rather than fixating on the rules themselves.  And this fixation on the rules is indeed a serious pathology and a problem among Traditionalists, particularly among sedevacantists and schismatics.  They let the modernist tendency to chafe at the rules and dispense with the rules when convenient push them into taking a position of defending the standard application of the rules even where there are legitimate pastoral reasons to apply them in a non-standard way.

Where the progressives with regard to the liturgy are often reactionaries against what is ancient and venerable, traditionalists are often reactionaries against the progressive tendency to relax the rules for their convenience, thereby defeating the very purpose of the rules.  Traditionalists correctly identify the grave problem with the progressive praxis and pathology, and in opposing it allow their fear for the Church to push them into the waiting arms of Pharisaism, that ancient enemy of Christ.  They stand behind the rules, holding them up as firmly as they can, afraid that any relaxation of those rules will lead to a furthering of the destructive tendencies that rampaged through the Church in the Vatican II era.

I understand their desire to hold fast to tradition and I sympathize with their fears, but I recognize that their strategy of reiterating the rules firmly at those who feel free to dispense with them for their own convenience is a strategy doomed to failure.  Informing those who are skeptical of rules about those rules will have precisely the opposite effect from what is needed; they will not be persuaded of the value of rules by an appeal to the rules or an appeal to the rules of reason.  They have rejected those things out of hand under the contemporary intuition that rules are oppressive.

They will only be persuaded by our love of Christ, shown in our devotion to the Lord and our love of the poor.  The only strategy that will work to bring them to understand the value of the rules is to show them what following those rules has done for us, that the rules help keep us centered on the love of God who loved us unto death.  They will begin to value the rules when we show them by our lives that those rules help separate us from the unhealthy desires that stand between us and living the Gospel.

Ending the modern abuse of the liturgy becomes possible only when we love it to death.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Protestant Intuition: Scripture and Reason

In this follow-up to a previous post on some basic intuitions of Protestant thought, I will be examining some additional intuitions with which I was brought up and have now rejected.

There are many questions related to Scripture which Protestants are very good at addressing.  I know that because I grew up in a Bible-believing family.  I know because I read the entire Bible from cover to cover in 3rd grade and again as a teenager.  I know because I attended many Bible studies and Sunday school Bible challenges both as a child and as an adult.

There is, however, a question related to Scripture that Protestants tend not to be very good at addressing:  How did we get it?

The answer to that question is lengthy and involved.  We get what we call the Old Testament from the Tanakh, a collection of different kinds of books that were eventually written down after being passed down (sometimes for centuries) as oral tradition among the Jews.  This is what Jesus and his disciples would have recognized as Scripture.  This is what Paul of epistolary fame was trained by Rabbinic scholars to understand thoroughly.

The New Testament currently accepted by most Protestant and other post-Reformation Christian communities came about very gradually.  There were written mentions of collections of scriptures within the first few hundred years after the death of Christ.  Ancient Christian traditions often have slightly different canons, meaning that there are slightly different books included in their Bible.  General consensus did not come about until the 4th and 5th centuries regarding the books to be included in the New Testament.  The canon in Western Christianity remained largely settled until Martin Luther and the eve of the Reformation.

After the Reformation, the Council of Trent finally set out very explicitly what was included in the canon of Scripture as a reaction to the disputes about Scripture at the time, disputes which had assumed critical importance as Sola Scriptura became the popular teaching of the Reformers.

Sola Scriptura was the default assumption of most of my family I got to visit regularly as a child.  This was an assumption that was never questioned or discussed.  Everyone just had the intuition that Scripture was authoritative and that we would look to it alone for answers to questions about living the Christian life.

Having studied enough history to know that the Christian life was well established before Sacred Scripture was written (much less compiled), I have since rejected that intuition.  After all, without the personal encounter with the Risen Lord transmitted to us via the oral tradition of the Apostles and their successors, we would not have Sacred Scripture.  The Church could and did survive without Scripture; it could not have survived without the living tradition that developed Scripture.

So when we interpret Scripture, what shall we use as a hermeneutic to ascertain its meaning?  The Protestant intuition (to which I used to hold unexamined) is that we can use the light of human reason given to us by God to find the truth in Scripture.

This seems odd in light of the historical reality that Scripture developed out of Christian tradition.  It would be more natural to look at the tradition that gave birth to Scripture as a means of understanding it.  If you want to understand the meaning of a text, then you consult its author(s) if at all possible.  You consult their descendants and the institutions dedicated to the author if directly contacting the author(s) is not possible.

Human reason is not enough by itself to ascertain the intent of the author and never has been.  We humans have known this for millennia, though it has at times been conveniently forgotten.  As a student of literature, I now find it baffling that any serious scholar would attempt to find the intended meaning of a text based solely on its grammar and some rough historical context.  I know from extensive practice that it is not reliable at all as a method and often produces highly inaccurate conclusions.

I can't help but reject a view that divorces the intent of the author(s) from the meaning of the text so that we can then supplant that intended meaning with whatever strikes us as sensible.  As this is the starting point of Martin Luther's Protestant project, I am only left with the choice to abandon it and search for an authentic and ancient hermeneutic that retains the intent of the author(s) as determinative of its meaning.

For more on Protestant Intuitions and why I have given them up, see part 4 of this series here.




Note:  Above is a picture of Martin Luther's edited Bible translated into German.