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

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Love it to Death: Misunderstanding Atheism

Recently on CNN's Belief Blog, Daniel Burke posted a piece about the experiences of atheists who live in the part of the United States known as the Bible Belt.  As one might expect (at least I did as someone who grew up in the South), being known as an atheist was often not an easy thing in small communities where everyone knows each other and there is very little exposure to different worldviews or cultures.  Because most folks don't understand atheism, it's not uncommon for them to have very negative reactions to it, ranging from incredulity to accusations of Satanism to harassment.

I was fortunate to have grown up in a city in which I was exposed to many different cultures and worldviews.  I had friends who were Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics, and atheists.  This has allowed me to comfortably navigate various religious perspectives with little trouble because I already understood a couple of very important facts: most people are people of good will regardless of their views on religion and most people are willing to dialogue about religion at least to some extent.

I find that when it comes to Christians who are attempting to engage atheists in some way, the encounter is typically not very productive.  As I've explained before, that is why I don't like to argue with atheists or Christians.  By and large these encounters are not productive because of a lack of understanding on the part of least one of the parties.  This of course is not unique to interactions between atheists and Christians; human beings in general are pretty terrible at philosophical dialogue and even worse at it when it involves their views on religion.  That's why we end up with silly and serious discussions about who is more logical or about whether atheism or theism takes more faith, for example, discussions which aren't even getting at the core issues where there is disagreement between Christians and atheists.

So what can we do to foster a higher quality of engagement with atheists as Christians?  The first step is to understand where they are coming from.  I don't mean that every Christian needs to try to be an atheist for a while as one pastor did fairly recently, but that we should at least listen to their story and try to follow their reasoning.  We should invite them to friendship and a productive dialogue, an invitation which cannot be extended if we have closed the door on understanding.  We should be thankful for their presence in our lives and let them know that we appreciate their gifts.  In discussion forums, whether in person or online, we should remain civil and refrain from attacking the person even as we strongly disagree and critique each other's arguments.

There is a growing sense of a great conflict brewing between Christianity and atheism in the United States, particularly as certain demographic shifts occur which generate an increase in the number of atheists relative to the general population.  Certainly, there is some degree of widespread conflict in online discussion forums driven in part by a lack of a full sense of a person's humanity when interacting with their words on a screen and maybe a bad picture.  Certainly, we want to reduce this conflict to the extent that it is unhealthy.

I don't think that the solution to this conflict is to "win" the argument (as if there were such a thing in most cases).  Most people don't change their views because they accepted an argument which effectively countered them, but because they were drawn to a life that has something authentic and loving to give.  Accordingly, I tend to think that the best solution to the conflict between Christians and atheists is to love it to death, or at least not fan the flames of that conflict through misunderstanding and accusations. 

At worst, our lives will be better because we have better relationships and a deeper understanding of others after engaging in fruitful dialogue.  Who knows, we might even end the "War on Christmas" silliness that goes on each year.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Fair Questions: Do I Have a Philosophical Religion?

One of my friends recently shared an article with me which reviewed Carlos Fraenkel's "Philosophical Religions" and explained a few of its key points.  The book seems to be quite interesting and I recommend reading the article, but the question that I seek to answer here is whether I subscribe to a philosophical religion or an anti-philosophical religion in terms of my personal views.

The article ascribes a series of characteristics to philosophical religion, which I will examine to see if they accord with my views.  Summed up simply, the characteristics of philosophical religion are described as follows:

1.  Underneath the externals of various religious traditions, there is a shared ethical core and philosophical truth.

2.  Religious truth should be understood in an allegorical sense rather than a literal sense.

3.  This allegorical understanding is for the philosopher seeking deeper truth, and the more literal understanding for educating the pious in the ways of virtue.

4.  We should strive for a symphônia of philosophy and religion which allows us to see that God and Reason are in accord with one another.

I quite agree with the fourth characteristic of the perspective of the proponent of philosophical religion.  I certainly strive to achieve a compatibility between my philosophical views and my religion, forming a coherent worldview by integrating them.  On a deeper level, I would suggest that the ways in which sincere religious practice helps us to rid ourselves of unhealthy attachments in this life allows us room to exercise reason more fully because our reason is no longer merely engaged in justifying our own whims before all else, but is engaged in serving the good of all and finding truth without being self-serving.  Asceticism in particular helps us turn our reason to the service of becoming better people in a moral sense rather than merely rationalizing our current behaviors as being morally good or good enough.  As Benedict XVI put it admirably in his encyclical Spe Salvi:

"Yes indeed, reason is God's great gift to man, and the victory of reason over unreason is also a goal of the Christian life. But when does reason truly triumph? When it is detached from God? When it has become blind to God? Is the reason behind action and capacity for action the whole of reason? If progress, in order to be progress, needs moral growth on the part of humanity, then the reason behind action and capacity for action is likewise urgently in need of integration through reason's openness to the saving forces of faith, to the differentiation between good and evil. Only thus does reason become truly human. It becomes human only if it is capable of directing the will along the right path, and it is capable of this only if it looks beyond itself. Otherwise, man's situation, in view of the imbalance between his material capacity and the lack of judgement in his heart, becomes a threat for him and for creation."

As for the second and third characteristics of philosophical religion, I tend to think that allegorical and literal truth are not mutually exclusive and that the truths of religion need not be divided into a higher and lower realms, though I will admit that our understanding of religious truth in its various forms does indeed develop as we grow throughout our lives.  Like Origen, I see the literal and allegorical senses as important parts of the whole of truth; I see them as part of a complex and layered tapestry of truth, a tapestry of such immensity that I cannot see the end.

With regard to the first characteristic of philosophical religion, I have studied the various religions of the world in too much depth to agree that there is a shared philosophical truth which is universal to religions.  Within Christianity, we would be justified in saying that there is a shared philosophical truth among the Catholic and Orthodox churches.  Within Buddhism, we would be justified in saying that there is a shared philosophical truth among the Theravada and Mahayana traditions. 

If we were to claim that there is a shared philosophical truth between the Orthodox Christian tradition and Theravada Buddhism, we would be on much less solid ground.  While there are some important points of convergence, the core of the religions are quite different even as many of the practices with regard to prayer, work, asceticism, and morality are quite similar.  If we were to compare Christianity with Judaism and Islam, then there is obviously a shared core to a greater extent than between Christianity and Buddhism, but it is nonetheless only a small shared core and the extent of the shared core among those three religions does not justify a broader claim that religions in general have a universal shared core of philosophical truth.

The only way to get to a shared core of philosophical truth among religions in general is to engage in a destructive reductionist approach to their philosophies, an approach I am unwilling to take even with religions which are not my own.  In the end, I can't honestly claim that I agree with the tenets of philosophical religion wholesale, but it is a perspective not without some merit within a limited scope.

Fair Questions: Are LaVeyan Satanists Actually Satanists?

Yesterday in a discussion hosted by one of my friends regarding some comments made by Alex Jones regarding the connection between atheism and Satanism, one interlocutor claimed that LaVeyan Satanists really just need to stop using the term Satanist and find another term because they do not actually worship Satan.

I haven't done the research myself to check Alex Jones' claim that atheist "higher ups" (when did atheists get an official hierarchy?) are actually devil-worshipers, and frankly I don't think that he has any real credibility, so I'm disinclined to believe him.  But for the sake of argument, let's assume that these atheist "higher ups" he was researching were members of the Church of Satan or affiliated with organizations that worked with the Church of Satan.  Even if we grant this dubious assumption, we really can't conclude that the atheists he was researching actually worship Satan as he claims.  If we look at the official Church of Satan website linked to above, it's quite obvious that they reject theism as traditionally understood in the world's ancient religious traditions.

"Since the Satanist understands that all Gods are fiction, instead of bending a knee in worship to—or seeking friendship or unity with—such mythical entities, he places himself at the center of his own subjective universe as his own highest value. "

The explicit belief of the Church of Satan is that traditional conceptions of God are not real, that they are mere fictions arising from a serious misunderstanding of our nature as carnal beings and an incorrect interpretation of the dissonance we experience between our desires and our socially constructed altruism.  They are indeed atheists in the strict sense, and they are not worshiping some sort of fallen angelic being who happens to be experiencing species dysphoria, despite what some of the images on their website might suggest to those inclined to see devil worship in every shadow.

"We Satanists are thus our own “Gods,” and as beneficent “deities” we can offer love to those who deserve it and deliver our wrath (within reasonable limits) upon those who seek to cause us—or that which we cherish—harm."

It seems to be that the only deity recognized by the Church of Satan is the deity of self, that what is central to the member of the Church of Satan is the fulfillment of his or her own desires.

"To us, Satan is the symbol that best suits the nature of we who are carnal by birth—people who feel no battles raging between our thoughts and feelings, we who do not embrace the concept of a soul imprisoned in a body. He represents pride, liberty, and individualism—qualities often defined as Evil by those who worship external deities, who feel there is a war between their minds and emotions. "

The Church of Satan rejects the is/ought distinction of objective morality; it eschews the belief that there are moral standards contrary to our desires which we ought to internalize and give assent.  It sees our natural desires as good and the self-serving reasoning we use to justify acting on them as the  appropriate boundary for our behavior.

To an ascetic like me, this seems to be utter nonsense, of course.  I view our self-serving reason as enabling unhealthily selfish desires rather than providing any meaningful boundary for them.  I accept the evidence of human experience which suggests that some of our naturally desired behaviors are in fact objectively wrong to act upon whether from a consequentialist or deontological standpoint.

From my point of view, LaVeyan Satanists get Satan exactly right even while not explicitly deifying him; Satan fosters a spirit of pride, liberty, and individualism.  Pride in the sense of unhealthy self-regard, liberty in the sense of license to do to others what one would not want done to you, and individualism at the expense of healthy community and family life.  The Church of Satan proposes that individuals model themselves after Satan and simultaneously recognize themselves as "deities" in the sense that they are the ultimate arbiter of their own behavior and have no external standard by which to measure that behavior aside from the force of other individuals as they respond to that behavior.

In light of this, I tend to agree with LaVeyan Satanists that the label of Satanist is entirely appropriate for members of the Church of Satan.  We seek to become what we love and admire, and the Church of Satan strives to have their members love and admire their own egotistical desires while shaping them in the values of Satan, thus becoming more Satanic in the most substantial sense.  I don't think a lack of worshiping Satan as an external fallen angelic being at all reduces the legitimacy of their claim to espousing authentic Satanism.  I may strongly disagree with their views on many issues, but I have to admit that they have the right label for those views.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Church of Reason

Human thought processes are quite old.  And even of old some human beings realized that their thought processes were rather messy and could stand to be cleaned up a bit.  In many places, at many times in the course of human development, there have been attempts to clean up human thought, to eliminate some obvious perceptual or cognitive errors and help us to be somewhat more likely to arrive at accurate conclusions about our world.  The varied philosophical schools of ancient India and Greece are examples of this sort of human striving for clarity.

There's an obvious survival advantage in being able to more accurately view the state of affairs around you, to be able to think through a problem with clarity.  The perception of this survival advantage and this striving for clarity and precision of thought probably has roots older than our recorded history tells us.  For some humans throughout history, reason had a place in their toolbox that held many tools for understanding the world, including such tools as intuition, instinct, traditions, and empirical investigation.  Some of them preferred to rely on mental shortcuts like intuition and instinct and tradition for navigating their daily lives and reserved reason for use when pondering esoteric topics or working through a problem which was not time-sensitive and/or highly complex.  For others, reason was applied much more broadly, supplanting the use of mental shortcuts and sometimes even empirical investigation.

The broad application of reason came to a crest in Western culture during the Age of Reason, and it did so at a time when empirical investigation was also increasing during what is known as the Scientific Revolution.  One of the philosophical movements during the Age of Reason was rationalism, a view that held up human reason as the source of knowledge and as a means of justifying beliefs.  Even among those who who were not rationalists, rationality (which is often viewed as a means of problem-solving or a set of qualities relating to a person's thought process) was more and more highly prized, particularly among those fortunate enough to be educated.

Rationality began to be viewed in certain circles as an antidote to religion as well as an alternative to it, providing a reliable means of ascertaining the truth or falsity of propositions regarding both ourselves and the world.  The emphasis on rationality was not just something which existed in anti-religious circles, it also existed in religious circles to varying degrees (e.g. Scholasticism).  The strong sort of rationalism which assumes that our reasoned conclusions obtain in an ontological sense or assumes that reason is coextensive with reality was a view which took its place among both religious and non-religious intellectuals (though one might wonder if rationalism had not become their religion).

The broad application of reason is rising to a crest yet again in Western culture, particularly among the young who have been raised to view the world through the lens of scientific narratives and to value academic tools and methods for acquiring knowledge.  There are a growing number of people in this demographic who describe themselves as secular humanists, freethinkers, atheists, and agnostics.  Even among those who still accept supernatural claims and/or describe themselves as having a religion, many of them reject the idea of organized religion because of what they see as irrational beliefs or practices within that religious group.

Once again, rationality is increasingly viewed as an antidote to religion among those demographics and religion is often seen as an outdated mode of thinking that just causes conflict, setting aside of course that the historical and contemporary examples we have of secular regimes provide strong evidence that eliminating religion does not end human conflicts at all.  In their view, religion is one of the big problems we have in the world and reason is the solution to our problems.  From their perspective, it is a fundamental dogma that truth is found by the light of human reason and that the light of human reason is not compatible with religion because religion is inherently irrational.

For them, not only is rationality the means by which we may find truth, behaving rationally will solve our problems with our social structures, with our economic systems, and with our political systems.  It strongly reminds me of the views of some folks that if we just all have nice feelings for each other, we could totally fix everything, man.  The problem with both of these views is that they both assume an anthropology which is far from being supported by the evidence of human existence in that we commit cognitive errors quite routinely and often have very natural negative emotions which are largely out of our immediate control.

The notion of rationality as a panacea for human evil is just as irrational as the notion of feelings of love as a panacea for human evil and may even be less practical.  Perhaps if we used our rationality to find ways to be more genuinely loving in our own behaviors, we might start to be effective against human evil.

But regardless of the evidence, the strong sort of rationalism which holds up human reason as a means of acquiring truth will continue to hold on to its dogmas.  The dogmas of rationalism will be the underpinning of the doctrines of the unacknowledged church of Reason, the codified worship of our own frail intellects.  Many will praise the idol of their own cognition, blinding themselves to the depth of its limitations while they rationalize whatever behaviors are most convenient for them through the process of rational argument.

Rational argument done well does not produce an end to rational argument and a settling of belief into dogmas. Rational argument should unsettle, challenge, and provoke those who are most self-assured in their beliefs.  It should do so even and perhaps especially in the case of rationalism and the growing Church of Reason.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Unfair Questions: Do women reason?

I recently had a discussion during which the idea that women reason in a logical fashion was scoffed at, and not without reason.  This discussion had involved what would be considered thoroughly illogical leaping to conclusions from an Aristotelian logical standpoint.

We are probably all familiar with the trope of, "Are you saying I'm fat?"  In this trope, a woman suggests that a comment made by someone else which did not state that she was fat was indeed stating that she was fat.  Another example might be a case in which someone tells a woman that she looks very nice today and she concludes that they don't think she looks nice most of the time.  Of course, the person may find her very attractive every day and simply believe that she looks even prettier on that particular day for whatever reason. 

There is no logical (or even empirical) necessity to the conclusion that the person does not think she looks nice most of the time.  This is a distinctly different reasoning process than classical logical reasoning in either the formal or informal sense and we would probably dismiss it as fallacious in a formal philosophical context. 

It is fairly widely recognized that on average men and women use disparate thought processes to make decisions about mate selection, sexual activity, and a variety of other activities.  There is even a set of memes which make fun of various stereotypical thought processes found in men and women.  And it is certainly appropriate to have those memes for both men and women; as human beings we all make cognitive errors, and our sex often influences the specific sorts of cognitive errors we are likely to make.

None of this is to suggest that there are not women who think more like the average man and men who think more like the average woman.  Our behavioral traits exist on a spectrum and there will always be extreme outliers on the bell curves.  And even within the average, men and women can learn to think more like the opposite sex with experience and practice.  This is what should happen if we have healthy relationships with one another and attempt to deeply understand each other.

And either men or women can be trained enough in classical logic to use the kind of deductive and inductive reasoning which we would recognize as being valid, so we could not conclude that women are incapable of reason.  Women reason quite effectively, though on average their goal in reasoning is somewhat different from the goal we would have in reasoning in a formal philosophical context.

Given what we know from evolutionary biology and psychology, it certainly makes sense that women would on average have a different goal in mind when reasoning because men and women have adopted somewhat different survival strategies in response to the biological differences between men and women.  For women who are likely to be even more heavily dependent than men are on the tribe to protect them during periods of reduced physical capacity or incapacitation (as a normal function of biology), it would be vitally important to their survival to monitor the relative strengths of the various relationships they had developed with members of the tribe who provided that protection and assistance.

A great way to monitor the strengths of those relationships is to communicate an insecurity about how the other person views them, allowing the other person a chance to either affirm their regard for her or to agree that their perception of her is not as positive as she would like.  And because it is much more costly to be wrong about having a strong relationship she can count on than it is to be wrong about having a weak relationship she cannot count on, it is quite rational from a risk aversion standpoint for the default assumption to be that the relationship is not as strong as she would like.

While the sort of reasoning which many make fun of as "woman logic" or "female logic" might not be a correct method for assessing the truth or falsity of any given individual proposition, it is a useful heuristic tool for managing risk with regard to the relationships upon which she relies for survival and quality of life for her and any dependents.  Women on average may seem more insecure than men, but they have to deal with greater risks than men from a biological standpoint and it makes complete sense for their risk management strategy to account for that by taking greater measures to mitigate the likely effects of those risks.

I am generally of the opinion that women are quite good at the sort of reasoning they need for survival, just as men are quite good at the sort of reasoning they need for survival.  And because we all make typical human cognitive errors, I have serious doubts that we would be justified in concluding that the reasoning of women is impaired in any important sense on average relative to the reasoning capacity of men.

The Protestant Intuition: Necessity & Tradition

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.

In one conversation I had with a friend regarding prayer and Mary the mother of Jesus, it was proposed to me as obvious that if I was directly in communication with Jesus,  I would not want to also petition Mary.  I don't think that this is obvious at all, and that there is an obvious cognate in human family life which cuts against the idea.

Let's suppose that I am married.  Obviously, my primary relationship is going to be with my wife.  I will look to her before all others and want to cultivate a special and deeper relationship with her than with others.  Nonetheless, I would also want to include her parents and siblings and friends in our life together.  While there might be times during which I need to communicate with her alone, under many circumstances I would also be communicating with her family and friends in her presence; we would engage in a dialogue of love, deepening our love of one another as a whole family.  In a similar fashion, we would not exclude Mary and Joseph from our dialogue of love simply because they are not Jesus and it's not necessary to communicate with anyone beside Him.

 It was also proposed to me that it was not necessary to confess my sins to a priest, and I quite agree that it is not necessary to confess my sins to a priest, just as I would agree that it is not necessary to communicate with anyone beside Jesus.  I would also suggest that it is not necessary to have beautiful churches which raise our minds to heavenly things, that it is not necessary to have monasteries or abbeys, that it is not necessary to build hospitals and food pantries.

There is an intuition typical to Protestants (I know because I was one) that in matters of faith we should eschew what is not strictly necessary. I understand that intuition, but I no longer share it. After all, it's not necessary to go to church, right? When I was a Protestant, I did not go to church because it was necessary. I went because it was good for me. I went because it was an exercise of faith that strengthened me in faith. I went because I wanted to share my faith with others. If I only did or believed what was necessary, I would have missed a great many blessings in my life. That's ultimately why the "it's not necessary" argument isn't compelling to me.

I would suggest that our standard for deciding whether or not we perform an act as part of our Christian life should not be to answer the question of whether or not the act is necessary, but to answer the question of whether or not the act is good.  Is the act good for our communion with Christ or his Church?  That of course still leaves plenty of room for disagreement, but at least we could begin the dialogue by asking the right question together.

Disagreement has been a constant issue within the Church from the time of the Apostles into the time of the early Church fathers continuing into the next millennium.  As the Church developed in the world, formal processes for handling disagreement were needed to maintain the unity of the faith, and the Church used appeals to the regional Patriarch and Ecumenical Councils for this purpose.  The bishops who succeeded the Apostles used careful study of Sacred Scripture as well as the portions of oral tradition which were not recorded in Sacred Scripture to help them define the content of the faith in more detail and precision.

 Sometimes, disagreements arose because a practice was neither supported nor refuted by Scripture and another means of determining whether or not a practice is coherent with an authentic Christianity which is true to Christ's teachings was needed.  Here the existing tradition of the Church (comprised of its theology, canons, and pious beliefs) was used to inform the decision as to whether or not to adopt the practice.

Some Protestants reject the idea that Church tradition ought to be used to make these decisions, instead relying on the light of reason (assuming the axioms granted them by Scripture) to help them in deciding on practices about which there is disagreement.  Where the available evidence doesn't lead in either direction, we need to use the individual reason which results in hundreds of Christian denominations only if we assume that what the early Church tells us is not evidence or is evidence of lying. And if the testimony of the early Church is not evidence or is evidence of lying, then we have no reason to trust Sacred Scripture, given that the early Church formed the constituent texts of the New Testament.

A rejection of Sacred Tradition is also a rejection of the reliability of Sacred Scripture because the scriptures are primarily comprised of the recorded oral tradition of the early Church and the books which were included in Sacred Scripture were decided upon by the bishops of the early Church.  If Sacred Tradition is not trustworthy, then we have no reason to believe that we can trust the Sacred Scripture produced by that tradition.  Without authentic Christian tradition, we not only have no authoritative way to settle disagreements, but we do not even have authoritative Sacred Scripture over which we can argue using our reason.

Some might object and claim that trusting the early Church implies that Tradition is greater than Scripture, but this conclusion does not follow from the premise unless we accept the false dichotomy which presents Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture as completely distinct from one another rather than as an integrated pair in dialogue and development with the world and with each other.

At most, I suspect that trusting the tradition of the early Church might imply that the tradition of the early Church is greater than a private contemporary interpretation of Scripture divorced from that tradition. But that proposition doesn't trouble me; I fully admit that the early Church, being closer to the language and cultures of the time as well as the persons involved in the events recounted, is likely to have a better sense of the kernel of the faith than I would as a Christian living in the modern era with no direct contact with the Apostles or their disciples.

An acceptance of a strong role for Tradition is indeed a necessity if we are to take the Christian worldview seriously at all.  And while Tradition is a necessity, Scripture is very good and we ought not to exclude it on the basis that it is not strictly necessary.  After all, we know that Scripture is good because our authentic Christian Tradition produced it and protected it.

For more on Protestant Intuitions and why I have given them up, see part 3 of this series here.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Fair Questions: Is Feminism Compatible with Buddhism?

It is a popular view in certain Western intellectual circles that Buddhism is more radically egalitarian than other religions and thus more compatible with contemporary radically egalitarian ideals and the strong valuation of pluralistic societies.  As with many popular views on religion and specifically Eastern religions, they are perspectives which encounter serious difficulties when we begin trying to reconcile them with the facts.  So let's address the question of whether or not Buddhism and feminism are compatible, and to what extent they might be compatible if they are in fact compatible.

There are some things which might be indications of the sort of radically egalitarian ideals with which we tend to identify in contemporary culture.  First, the Buddha did not seem to take seriously the claims of the Brahmins that they were superior and destroys their arguments to the contrary quite thoroughly within the intellectual framework of the time.  Second, the Buddha did not set up a hierarchy among the monks of the Sangha.  Third, the Buddha permitted the establishment of an order of nuns following his teachings, albeit somewhat reluctantly after some persuasion on the part of those who wished to follow his Eightfold Path.

Given these items, let's consider what feminism is and how coherent it would be with Buddhism.  Our first look at feminism should start with a definition of it, specifically that feminism is a belief in the equality of the sexes and an advocacy for a recognizance of that equality in our human social structures.  Obviously, there is significant disagreement between and among first, second, and third wave feminists regarding the precise meaning of equality and how the recognizance of it in human social structures should be implemented.  Accordingly, we need to consider more specific claims regarding equality and human social structures to see if Buddhism might be compatible with those particular perspectives.

Some feminists reject the notion of women being obedient or submissive in the household, and the feminists who do so are probably not going to be able to reconcile their perspectives with the teachings of the Buddha.  For example, let's consider an excerpt from one passage from a discourse of the Buddha on the woman of the home.

"Visakha, when a woman possesses four qualities she is heading for victory in the present world and is successful in this world.  What four?  Here, Visakha, a woman is capable at her work; she manages her domestic help; she behaves in a way that is agreeable to her husband; and she safeguards his earnings.  ...  And how does a woman behave in a way that is agreeable to her husband?  Here, Visakha, a woman would not commit any misdeed that her husband would consider disagreeable, even at the cost of her life."

There are other passages which indicate that the Buddha viewed the role of the wife in the household as the more submissive and obedient role, but this particular passage is quite stark and makes it very clear that certain forms of feminism are not compatible with Buddhism.

This of course begs the question: what forms of feminism might be compatible with Buddhism?

It's certainly possible that feminists who are simply advocating equal rights under the law (e.g. voting rights) could have a perspective compatible with the teachings of the Buddha.  The Buddha did not advocate for changes to the political structures of the day, probably because he was more interested in helping people get to the other shore, as I've mentioned previously.  What he did advocate was behavior on the part of political leaders that was in agreement with the eternal moral law.  Specifically, the ideal ruler extended his protection to all as we see in the below passage.

"In this case, the wheel-turning monarch, the just and righteous king, relying on the Dhamma, esteeming and respecting it, with the Dhamma as his standard, banner, and sovereign, provides lawful protection, shelter, and safety for his own dependents.  He provides lawful protection, shelter, and safety for the khattiyas attending on him; for his army, for the Brahmins and householders, for the inhabitants of town and countryside, for ascetics and brahmins, for the beasts and birds."

There are certainly hints here of a certain kind of equality under the law, albeit within a distinctly patriarchal framework.  Ultimately, it is possible to reconcile certain kinds of feminist ideals with Buddhism, but not possible to reconcile other feminist ideals with the Buddha's teachings.  The answer to the question of whether feminism is compatible with Buddhism very much depends on what sort of feminism one agrees with.


Sunday, May 11, 2014

Love it to Death: Schism in the Church

The Great Schism from which followed the contemporary divisions between the Catholic and Orthodox churches was a tragedy then and now.  The Great Schism known as the Protestant Reformation was an even greater tragedy then and a tragedy of immense proportions now.  While these schisms are notable, the Church is ever breaking as individuals make the choice to stand by her or leave her.  Even today there are schisms chipping away at Church unity.

The contemporary schism does not yet have a name, but we can certainly see it working as people have left the Church over the sex abuse scandals and others have left because they cannot reconcile their belief in the moral goodness of homosexual acts with the Church teaching that proposes that they are intrinsically disordered.  Yet others have left the Church because of those who turned the liturgy into a mediocre consumer product after Vatican II and the Mass promulgated by Pope Paul VI.  Despite those who leave, many cling to their affection for the Church and see themselves as loyal to the Church despite their disagreements with her.

And I truly believe that they are loyal to the Church insofar as they understand who and what the Church is.  Many of them are primarily loyal to the Church they know, often a Church whose true teachings as they see it reflect their priorities, politics, and even pathologies.  The common thread among those in schism with the Church is that they have imposed their limited understanding of Church teaching on her and have claimed that understanding as the One True Catholic Faith, ensuring that they see many others within the Church as heretics who persist in believing something other than the Catholic faith or at least viewing them as children who need their help to see the light rather than viewing them as brothers and sisters in Christ.

The disease is the idea that we as individuals have the right answers and that the Church needs to recognize that we have the right answers; the root of the problem is believing that we do not need to deepen our understanding of the Church, but that she needs to bow to our wisdom.  Instead of recognizing Christ as the bridegroom, we so often place ourselves in that role and play it poorly by trying to browbeat the members of the Church into agreeing with us, practicing something quite different from the servant leadership of Christ in our relationship with her.  I have been guilty of this myself, particularly when I was a younger man, and it seriously hampered my growth in relationship with the Church.  I failed to recognize her wisdom and insisted on my own limited understanding as the arbiter of truth out of youthful pride, not seeing it at the time because my pride blinded me to it.

One of the most pernicious symptoms of this disease is the insistence that if everyone in the Church were simply to do what we wanted them to, then many of the problems would be solved and we would all just be Christians in unity.  This is of course not true because we do not have a full understanding of truth and we are unlikely to see all the correct solutions.  The other fundamental problem with this mentality is that it often does not recognize the legitimate diversity in the Church with the various liturgical rites, devotions, and understandings of doctrine.

My understanding of Catholic doctrine is better than it was last year and it was better then than it had been the year before.  I was no more a heretic last year than I was this year, because in both cases I agreed with all that the Church proclaims, teaches, and believes to be true.  But my understanding is certainly deeper and richer, just as an adult's understanding of physics is deeper and richer than a child's.  The Church's teachings provide a place to enter the Christian life for rationalists and empiricists, mystics and ascetics, and craftsmen and academics.

The Church is home to progressives and conservatives, to the introverted and extroverted, to those who emphasize her grand traditions and those who emphasize her solidarity with the poor and vulnerable. The Church welcomes all who come to her even when they come to her by very different roads. The important thing is not that everyone walk the path we walk, but that we all end up at the same destination, a destination large enough to hold us all if we but rid ourselves of the boulders of pride we push before us.

The solution to discord and disagreement in the Church is healing, and we are healed of the discord and disagreement when we love to death the pride that keeps us from reaching out to learn from our brothers and sisters.  We are healed of our pride when we allow ourselves to learn from those whom we would rather teach and recognize that we are profoundly limited in our own understanding, always leaving open the possibility that we may become more through an awareness that we are often less than we imagine ourselves to be.

The Church will only be united when we emulate Christ so as to be united to Him, and through Him to one another until we meet as brothers and sisters in charity.   I look forward to meeting you all at the destination as He wills it.  May we retain our hope for reunion as the Church is renewed by our love for each other.

The schisms we face will not end when someone wins the theological arguments or gets everyone to agree with their understanding of Church history and teaching.  The Great Schism will not end because all the Patriarchs agree to recognize their brother bishops all over the world.  Schism will be ended when we as a whole people become one body.  If you would have the schism ended, you must love it to death, and do so together with your brothers and sisters in Christ.