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

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Fair Questions: Can people who lived prior to the incarnation of Christ be saved?

One of my friends asked me to answer the following question, a question which, although I phrased it somewhat differently, I struggled with myself while getting my first university degree.

"How might we reconcile the belief of Jesus being the only way to reach God with the Revelation 7:9 idea of there being God-followers "from every nation, tribe, people and language"? We certainly know that of the many nations, tribes, peoples, and languages that have existed over the last thousands of years, many have never heard the name of Jesus--or, before that, YHVH. And yet there must be some from these tribes who have followed God, for them to be present before the Throne as white-robed worshippers. How then, in a practical sense, is this possible?

In the Bible there are examples of those who had some sort of relationship with God, though perhaps not knowing fully who He was, such as Balaam, and others such as Abraham who specifically heard His calling outside of the religious establishments of the day. Should we assume that all people groups will have had at least one such person? Or what of the illustration of C.S. Lewis’ Emeth (from The Last Battle), who worshipped Tash by name but Aslan by belief and deed? Could such a thing be possible? It does at least seem to me that there must be some way in which one can be saved by the blood of Jesus, even without perhaps knowing him by name."

There are a number of different possible answers to this question.  One fairly typical Protestant answer from Sacred Scripture is that they could be saved by grace through faith just as Abraham was in the Old Testament.  In essence, this answer asserts that their faith is what justifies them before God just as it did for Abraham or for us today.  This view suggests that the kernel of the Gospel message was already present in the sacred tradition and scripture of the Israelites, which is how they could have faith in Christ and be saved despite not knowing the name of Jesus of Nazareth.

While the Catholic perspective would certainly agree that the Gospel message was often prefigured in the scared tradition and scripture of the Israelites, the explanations are generally different because the Catholic Church does not teach the doctrine of Sola Fide (faith alone).

One fairly typical Catholic explanation from a fellow former Protestant is that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross transcends time, which is why the forgiveness of sins is available before and after Christ's death.  This view suggests that it makes sense that for a God who transcends time, when He becomes man and makes the ultimate sacrifice while bearing the weight of our sins, His sacrifice also transcends time.  In essence, the God who exists in the fullness of time makes His sacrifice in the fullness of time, pervading all of time with its effects.

The Catholic explanation for all this often invokes the Biblical language of debts, understanding that God forgives our debts to Him when we repent and return to obedience to His commandments.  And because the debt has been satisfied for all time by Christ's sacrifice on the cross, the forgiveness of the debt is available for all time for those who repent.  This language of debts is not the language I prefer, but it was nonetheless the language used by Christ in the Gospels, both in parable form and in the Our Father, that famous time when Jesus taught his Apostles how to pray.

From both the Protestant and Catholic understandings, it is fairly clear that Abraham could be saved in the Christian sense, whether that sense is Protestant or Catholic.  Understanding the circumstances of Abraham can help us to see how God might bring about the salvation of others who have never heard the name of Jesus.  Abraham did not know the name of Yahweh or the name of Jesus; both names were revealed after the life of Abraham.

Nonetheless, Abraham did repent and turn toward the Lord in the way that he could do so, having faith in the Lord, a faith which was not diminished because of his limited theological understanding.  This makes a great deal of sense, given the general Christian perspective that children who lack theological understanding and may not be able to understand the name of Jesus can still be saved.

Given this, it certainly seems that, at least under certain circumstances, people do not need to have faith in God as named in the Judeo-Christian tradition in order to be saved.  Which leads us to the question of whether all people might be saved, the contentious question of universal salvation, but that is a question for another time.  For now, it is fairly apparent that for a Christian of either the ancient churches or of the post-Reformation churches, it is the case that people who lived before Christ can be saved, and there is an explanation that fits the evidence of Sacred Scripture.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Love it to Death: The Love in Truth

It is said that, "In wine there is truth."  This does have a certain amount of truth to it; when under the influence of alcohol, a person's inhibitions are often lowered, for good or ill.  In this state, the one who speaks will often say things that they would normally be reluctant to say because of the risk involved.  In certain cultures, drinking strong alcoholic beverages was a means of discovering what people really think and feel.

In those cultures, it was understood that when people can ignore the risks of speaking their mind, the result is genuine honesty.  What was important was ensuring honesty, whether the speaker's honesty was comfortable for them or not; they valued honesty so highly that they were willing to risk hearing something profoundly uncomfortable.  In those cultures, honesty was often a matter of life and death, the lives of their friends and families depending on the sharing of information, no matter how unappealing.

Even today, there are many places in the world in which honesty is a matter of life and death, but in the United States and many other post-industrial Western nations, honesty is rarely a matter of life and death.  Speaking the truth as we see it in genuine honesty always requires that we as the speaker take a risk; the nature of this risk can range from a mild rebuke to banishment from social groups to death by the mob or the state, depending on the society in which we live.  Avoiding this risk means that we often (at best) attempt to do honesty the easy way.

It is easy to begin to value honesty less and less in practice when the consequences of dishonesty become gradually less severe, perhaps to disappear entirely.  It becomes easier to omit part of what we want to say to another person because they might be offended.  It becomes easier to use comforting platitudes as a substitute for honest remarks.  It becomes easier to remain silent when others are doing something to harm themselves, to "support" them as they cut themselves because it helps them cope with life.

What is worse is that we can often reward dishonesty, providing an incentive against honesty in the sense that we give our friendship to those who refuse to share with us difficult truths about ourselves as they see them, taking that friendship away from those who are willing to take the risk of sharing with us difficult truths about ourselves as they see them.  It is easy to shut out those voices that tell us anything other than the sweet, seductive lie that we are perfect just the way we are and need not change one bit.

After believing that lie about our own impeccability, it is also easy to feel free to go on a crusade to spread the truth as we see it, but still only in the easy ways.  It is easier to proclaim the truth as we see it without admitting how many years and how much effort was required for us to find that truth, presenting our answers as the obvious answers.  It is easier to omit our struggles and doubts as we present the truth as we see it in terse sentences and harsh tones.  It is easier to spend our time delivering harsh truths to others while leaving little time for accepting the harsh truths about ourselves.

These forms of easy honesty have little to do with truth; they are honesty only in the sense that we are not telling an outrageous lie, but rather allowing the truth in our hearts to die because we are too fearful of taking the risk required for genuine honesty.  This easy honesty, based on falsehood and fear, is not an honesty worth offering to those we love.

The honesty worth offering to those we love is a very different kind of honesty, a fearless honesty based on truth.  This honesty is a difficult honesty; it requires us to be honest with ourselves, to reject the lie that we are impeccable and that others are always in need of our rapid correction by way of the harsh truth as we see it.  It requires the difficult admission that the work of finding the truth is long and arduous, that we endured many struggles and doubts along the way.

It is difficult to accept these truths about ourselves.  It is difficult to accept the truth that we have failed to be honest with others by omitting necessary truths, not out of love, but out of fear that we might lose their approval.  It is difficult to accept the truth that we have spoken comforting platitudes rather than honest remarks, not out of love, but because we did not want to take the risk that comes along with love.  It is difficult to admit that we have, many times, not been honest with someone who was harming themselves, not out of love, but because they will respond more pleasantly to us if we remain silent about the matter.

It is difficult to accept that we may have punished honesty with ostracism, removing from our lives those who loved us enough to take the risk to speak the truth as they see it.  It is difficult to accept that we may be retaining our friends not on the basis of the strength of their love for us, but rather on the strength of their desire to keep us in their lives regardless of what harm we might do to ourselves.

What we need is not a friend who is never sufficiently honest to risk making a statement which will offend someone, but rather a society in which we all love one another sufficiently to reach out in love and speak a truth that may save a person from a life of unhappiness.  We need to listen to the harsh truths spoken to us, accepting them in the light of love as being worthy of serious consideration because of the risk the speaker is taking to bring them forward.  Our friend's love may be hidden under the blanket of anger concealing their hurt, but it is generally those who care deeply who are willing to risk losing our friendship to have a chance at bettering our lives.

This is not to say that there are no genuinely hurtful statements, but to affirm that we should not respond out of that hurt, instead responding in a loving way that transcends our pain.  This is not to say that we must agree with them, but to affirm that we must receive their harsh truths in the same spirit of love and openness with which we expect them to receive our harsh truths.  This is not to say that we need to endorse our friend's anger, but to affirm that we should understand that the anger usually stems from their fear that we might be gravely wounded by our choices.

What parent has not once spoken in a harsh tone to a child about to run in front of a moving car or burn themselves on a hot pan?  What friend has never strongly advised another friend to avoid dating someone who was a bad match for them?  When we have done these things, did we not speak out in a spirit of love?

Speaking the truth is best done in the spirit of love, a humble disposition which acknowledges that the greatest truth to be found is the truth found in love, and that the greatest truth to be spoken is the truth spoken in love.  If we would give the gift of the difficult honesty which is worth offering to those we love, then we must be willing to accept the gift of difficult honesty offered to us by others.  If we would have others speak truth to us in a spirit of love, then we must love to death the fear which prevents us from speaking the truth to them in love.

We must put the love in truth by our willingness to accept the risk of losing a friend for the sake of accomplishing their good, by offering those we love the difficult honesty which admits our own weaknesses as we help them with their weaknesses, and by accepting their difficult honesty as an act of love.  It is thus that our truth becomes truth in the fullest sense; only the truest love can show us that the Truth requires us to set aside our fear and sacrifice our comfort for the greater good of others. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

In Denial: Nietzsche's Anti-Semitism

As I have mentioned before, I really enjoy reading Nietzsche's works, not because I agree with him, but because he is disagreeable in the most entertaining and enjoyable way.  It may be true that everybody is a critic, but it is most assuredly true that Nietzsche was a critic of everybody.  Nietzsche refined into a devastating art the practice of writing a biting denial of the philosophies, feelings, and works of others.

Given his propensity for harsh criticism of anything which came into view, it is easy to take quotations from his works in order to substantiate a proposal that he hated any group of people he had ever heard of.  The English, for example:

"They are no philosophical race, these Englishmen: Bacon signifies an attack on the philosophical spirit; Hobbes, Hume, and Locke a debasement and lowering of the value of the concept of 'philosophy' for more than a century."

This passage from Beyond Good and Evil continues on to shift the criticism of the English on to the topic of religion, a topic much discussed by Nietzsche in rather mixed terms with mostly negative conclusions.

"It is characteristic of such an unphilosophical race that it clings firmly to Christianity: they need its discipline to become 'moralized' and somewhat humanized.  The English, being gloomier, more sensual, stronger in will, and more brutal than the Germans, are precisely for that reason more vulgar, also more pious than the Germans: they stand more in need of Christianity.  For more sensitive nostrils even this English Christianity still has a typically English odor of spleen and alcoholic dissipation against which it is needed  for good reasons as a remedy--the subtler poison against the coarser: a subtler poison is indeed for clumsy peoples some progress, a step toward spiritualization.  English clumsiness and peasant seriousness is still disguised most tolerably--or rather elucidated and reinterpreted--by the language of Christian gestures and by prayers and singing of psalms.  And for those brutes and sots and rakes who formerly learned how to grunt morally under the sway of Methodism and more recently again as a 'Salvation Army', a penitential spasm may really be the relatively highest achievement of 'humanity' to which they can be raised: that much may be conceded in all fairness."

The irony seen in hindsight here is of course that England on the whole has rather stopped clinging to Christianity, though it could not be fairly said that the English have gotten any more philosophical in the sense which Nietzsche would have lauded.  Nietzsche goes on to bemoan the English lack of music.  It makes one wonder what criticism he might have leveled at The Beatles.

Much in the same way that I have just painted a picture of Nietzsche as anti-English while neglecting to mention his many criticisms of his folk, the Germans, a German named Richard Oehler who was a great supporter of National Socialism and the Nazi project in Germany painted a picture of Nietzsche as anti-Semitic.

And because even Nietzsche's compliments are caustic, it is easy enough to paint such a picture with careful editing and selective quoting from Beyond Good and Evil.  For example, immediately after calling anti-Semitism "stupid" Nietzsche pens the following passage:

"I have not met a German yet who was well disposed toward the Jews; and however unconditionally all the cautious and politically-minded repudiated real anti-Semitism, even this caution and policy are not directed against this species of feeling itself but only against its dangerous immoderation, especially against the insipid and shameful expression of this immoderate feeling--about this, one should not deceive oneself.  That Germany has amply enough Jews, that the German stomach, the German blood has trouble (and will still have trouble for a long time) digesting even this quantum of 'Jew'--as the Italians, French, and English have done, having a stronger digestive system--that is the clear testimony and language of a general instinct to which one must listen, in accordance with which one must act."

This sounds oddly anti-Semitic coming from a guy who just called anti-Semitism stupid, at least until it becomes clear from the very next passage that he is explaining the anti-Semitic sentiment among his fellow Germans in order to pillory it with his usual panache.

"Admit no more new Jews!  And especially close the doors to the east (also to Austria)!" thus commands the instinct of a people whose type is still weak and indefinite, so it could easily be blurred or extinguished by a stronger race.  The Jews, however, are beyond any doubt the strongest, toughest, and purest race now living in Europe; they know how to prevail even under the worst conditions (even better than under favorable conditions), by means of virtues that today one would like to mark as vices--thanks above all to a resolute faith that need not be ashamed before "modern ideas"; they change, when they change, always only as the Russian Empire makes its conquests--being an empire that has time and is not of yesterday--namely, according to the principle, "as slowly as possible."

While Nietzsche may think the Jewish and Christian religions a vice and a poison, it is fairly clear that he has a serious admiration for the perseverance of the Jews in Europe.  He goes on to explicitly deny the view of many Nazis and Nazi sympathizers that there is a conspiracy by Jews to rule the world.

"That the Jews, if they wanted it--or if they were forced into it, which seems to be what the anti-Semites want--could even now have preponderance, indeed quite literally mastery over Europe, that is certain; that they are not working  and planning for that is equally certain."

Not only is Nietzsche denying that the Germans are the master race, he is also denying the validity of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories by pointing out that the Jews are the superior race and that if they had wanted to rule Europe, they could have already accomplished it.  So what does Nietzsche think the Jews in Europe want?

"Meanwhile they want and wish rather, even with some importunity, to be absorbed and assimilated by Europe; they long to be fixed, permitted, respected somewhere at long last, putting an end to the nomads' life, to the 'Wandering Jew'; and this bent and impulse (which may even express an attenuation of the Jewish instincts) should be noted well and accommodated: to that end it might be useful and fair to expel the anti-Semitic screamers from the country."

In the end, Nietzsche is not so much anti-Semitic as he is anti-anti-Semitic; rather than proposing to get rid of the Jews, he proposed to get rid of the vocal anti-Semites by government fiat.  Nietzsche is very serious in his denial of any validity to anti-Semitism.  Despite the attempts of some to associate him with the Nazi project, he is fundamentally opposed to the presuppositions of Nazi propaganda about the Jews.

Nietzsche's Asceticism - Nietzsche's Anti-Semitism - Nietzsche's Skepticism

Note:  The above image is part of the cover of my copy of Nietzsche's collected works.  See my Sources page for more information about which translation I used.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Love it to Death: The Truth in Love

There is real truth in the proverb, "Love is blind."  When we are in love with someone, it is easy to be blind to the fact that we do not share the same core values required for a relationship to work well.

When we are in love with someone, it is easy to be blind to the fact that attempting to have a relationship with them is not a smart risk to take, that it is likely to lead us to heartbreak.  I know very well what it feels like to be in love, spinning about on the hormone-filled roller coaster, blinded by the biochemical cocktail much beloved by evolution for its ability to prompt us to make our mating decisions quickly by ignoring the risks and weighting the rewards highly.

This blind love is the love of chemistry, the love of warm and fuzzy feelings which inevitably fade, the love of bad poetry which merely expels emotional waste.  This blind love involves thinking only of a person's best qualities and ignoring their faults.  This blind love leads us to be unfaithful to our beloved when we are attracted to someone new.  This blind love keeps us from seeing what is true because it fills our vision so completely with what we desire.

This blind love is thus a love which leads us to falsehood, a love which refuses to allow the truth of reality or morality get in its way as it barrels toward its goal of fulfilling a transient desire.  This blind love is amore, a love which is not enough to provide the meaning we need in our lives.  An incomplete love which on its own can only satisfy temporary appetites, that's amore.  An engine without a chassis, which produces heat and waste, but cannot carry you to a worthwhile destination, that's amore.

We need the chassis as well, something which can provide the meaning in our lives, something more substantial which can accomplish much more than satisfying temporary appetites.  We need a love which leads us to truth, a love that embraces the truth of reality and morality so as to fulfill our need for radical transformation, our need to make ourselves anew in light of the highest ideals so that we can live our lives to the fullest.

This love is the love of the will which transcends chemistry and orders our chemistry toward the good of our beloved.  This love is the love that keeps us committed to our beloved even in those moments when the warm fuzzy feelings have hardened into a cold rage.  This love is the love of great poetry, poetry in the deeper sense which moves us to participate in the sacred act of creation.

This love involves remembering our own faults when thinking of the faults of our beloved so that we do not become self-righteous while being intentionally grateful for their best qualities.  This love leads us to be faithful to our beloved no matter how many times we are attracted to someone new.  This love allows us to see what is most true because it empties our vision of the selfish desires which prevent us from seeing the real needs of others.

This true love is caritas, the highest virtue and the deepest love exemplified by Christ in his sacrifice on the cross.  It is the love that allows us to see another person as we see ourselves, understanding that their mistakes and weaknesses do not define them and that they are of immense intrinsic value just as we are.  It is the antidote to the blind love which leads us to be blind to the faults of others just as we are blind to our own faults.  Whereas amore is an application of our false view of ourselves onto how we view others, caritas is an application of a true view of ourselves onto how we view others.

In caritas, we see that our lives and our talents are a gift for which to be profoundly grateful, also seeing that this is true of all other persons, being grateful for the unique gift of their lives to all those who encounter them.  In caritas, we see that our fellow human being is an imago dei just as we are an imago dei, treating them with the love with which would wish to be treated because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  In caritas, we see others as God sees us; we see the person God created them to be in all their wondrous potential, compassionately helping them to realize that wondrous potential rather than dwelling on their faults which will fade away.

In caritas, the small promise of amore is fulfilled beyond the lover's wildest expectations, showing them in the powerful light of truth that their beloved is a gift far more valuable than they could ever see in the weak light of mere desire.  In caritas, we love to death the blindness which afflicts the lover who knows only amore, opening our eyes to what is good, true, and beautiful in all people.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Fair Questions: Does Buddhism have indulgences?

A while back, one of the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries I follow on Facebook posted about an opportunity to earn lots of merit.

The following are the details of the event:

"Event (Buddha's Great Miracles): Tsog offering

Time: Thursday, March 5th at 7pm

Location: Gaden KhachoeShing monastery

On full moon day of 1st lunar month (Sunday, March 16th) is celebrated as Great Miracles day. On this Buddha perform great miracles and all merits accumulated on this day is increase 100,000 times."

One of my friends observed that this sounded like Roman Catholic indulgences, and suggested that they were essentially the same thing.  I was willing to admit there were some strong similarities, but I wasn't quite sure that I could conclude that they were quite that alike.  Accordingly, I decided to look at the available evidence and see whether or not I could conclude that Buddhism has indulgences.

For the sake of comparison, we can first define Roman Catholic indulgences and then look at the evidence of Buddhist teaching and practice to see if the Buddhist understanding of the transference of merit aligns with Roman Catholic teaching and practice as it concerns indulgences.  Both practices rest on a concept rendered in English as "merit" and indicate that it is possible for that merit to be used for helping others.

Merit & Indulgences

In Roman Catholic teaching, merit is a property of morally good actions which earns for the one performing the actions a reward of some sort.  Merit in principle belongs the person who performed the good works, and it cannot be transferred to anyone else, as noted in the Catholic Encyclopedia:

"(c) Owing to the peculiar relation between and material identity of merit and satisfaction in the present economy of salvation, a twofold value must in general be distinguished in every good work: the meritorious and the satisfactory value. But each preserves its distinctive character, theoretically by the difference in concepts, and practically in this, that the value of merit as such, consisting in the increase of grace and of heavenly glory, is purely personal and is not applicable to others, while the satisfactory value may be detached from the meriting agent and applied to others. The possibility of this transfer rests on the fact that the residual punishments for sin are in the nature of a debt, which may be legitimately paid to the creditor and thereby cancelled not only by the debtor himself but also by a friend of the debtor. This consideration is important for the proper understanding of the usefulness of suffrages for the souls in purgatory (cf. Council of Trent, Sess. XXV, Decret. de purgat., in Denzinger, n. 983). When one wishes to aid the suffering souls, one cannot apply to them the purely meritorious quality of his work, because the increase of grace and glory accrues only to the agent who merits. But it has pleased the Divine wisdom and mercy to accept the satisfactory quality of one's work under certain circumstances as an equivalent of the temporal punishment still to be endured by the faithful departed, just as if the latter had themselves performed the work."

However, the satisfaction of the debt we owe God (gained from the same good works which produce merit for us) can be applied to others because God allows us to help each other pay our debts to Him, specifically the debt of the punishment we face due to our sinful acts in this temporal existence.

Thus we can help the souls in Purgatory by offering the satisfaction we gain along with our merit to God in order that He might cancel part of the temporal punishment which due to them.  And not only can we help the souls in Purgatory draw closer to the Beatific Vision, but we too can be helped by satisfaction associated with the merits of Christ and the Saints so that God would see fit to cancel part of the temporal punishment we face for our sins.

"An indulgence is the extra-sacramental remission of the temporal punishment due, in God's justice, to sin that has been forgiven, which remission is granted by the Church in the exercise of the power of the keys, through the application of the superabundant merits of Christ and of the saints, and for some just and reasonable motive. Regarding this definition, the following points are to be noted: "

The numerous qualifications and distinctions are available in the linked article, but the basic point is that when we do good works, we can positively impact those who are in another life as well as those in our own lives, and the satisfaction from the merits of those in Heaven can positively impact us.

So is that true in Buddhism as well?

Transference of Merit

The Tibetan Buddhist understanding of merit is quite explicitly not the same as the Roman Catholic understanding of merit.

"First of all, karma is talking about what is the result of acting constructively, and what is the result of acting destructively. It is talking about behavioral cause and effect. We do use expressions like “laws of physics.” These are physical things: there is no justice involved with objects following the laws of physics. Even among the Chinese, where laws are just part of the universe, the idea of justice is still there. Here in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, however, we are talking about a system that makes sense, but is not based on justice or fairness. It is just what is."

It is made very clear that while in Western thought, merit is inextricably bound up with notions of justice (specifically the justice of God in Roman Catholic teaching), and such is not the case in the Buddhist understanding of merit.

"Positive potential is Verdienst or merit: the potential for happiness to arise. To “build up” is not as though we are collecting points. It is not as though we have earned it either, like building up evidence in a legal case so that, as a result, you are going to be released. It is not like that. A more helpful to way to conceptualize it, I think, is that we strengthen the network of our positive potentials. Because we have a basic network that is part of our Buddha-nature, we are strengthening it so that it can function better."

The Buddhist understanding of merit involves no corresponding satisfaction for a debt owed to a divine being, despite the presence of plenty of divine beings in Buddhist cosmology.  And for the Buddhist of the traditions which practice the transference of merit, we can very directly and simply transfer merit we have accrued to others, whether they are with us on this plane of existence or not, as we can see from reading the following passages from the BuddhaSasana website.

"The method for transferring merits is quite simple. First some good deeds are performed. The doer of the good deeds has merely to wish that the merit he has gained accrues to someone in particular, or to 'all beings'. This wish can be purely mental or it can accompanied by an expression of words."

And just as in Roman Catholic teaching, we see that those on a higher plane of existence can positively impact those on a lower plane of existence because of their good works.

"Those who did not harm others and who performed many good deeds during their life time, will certainly have the chance to be reborn in a happy place. Such persons do not required the help of living relatives. However, those who have no chance to be reborn in a happy abode are always waiting to receive merits from their living relatives to offset their deficiency and to enable them to be born in a happy abode."

So to return to the original issue, which was the multiplication of merits on the Day of Miracles, we see that on this day the Buddha performed numerous marvelous acts which lead to the liberation of many.  This multiplication of merits certainly strongly resembles the Roman Catholic practice of attaching indulgences to special events, which can make it appear that they are the same in essence.


So does Buddhism have indulgences?

Both Buddhism and Roman Catholicism share a belief that those on these and other planes of existence can positively impact others who are on different planes of existence, and that this is accomplished by good works.  Both also teach that our good works are productive for reaching our final goal.  They do not agree on our final goal.  Nor do they agree on the cosmology in which beings positively impact other beings.  Nor do they share an equivalent understanding of merit, and disagree on the question of whether or not merit can be transferred to another being.

In the end, I don't think it's correct to claim that Buddhism has indulgences because there are very fundamental and significant differences between Roman Catholic indulgences and the transference of merit in Buddhism.  That said, I can certainly see why people would think that Buddhism has indulgences based on the very real similarities between indulgences and the transference of merit.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Other Side: Christian Evolution and Scientific Scripture

Please listen to the podcast version of this post or read the written version below.

One of the more common areas of dispute between scientific realists and Biblical literalists is of course on the topic of the origin of human life.  The two groups understandably cannot agree on much at all, but on one point they tend to see eye to eye more often than not; a person must agree with evolution as the authoritative narrative for human origins or reject it completely.  The ground outside of their positions is frequently seen by them as untenable, harboring a morass of horribly mismatched worldviews which are profoundly incoherent.

As someone who stands in a very sparsely inhabited portion of that ground, I would like to explain why I chose this stand.  I am a devout Christian and I accept the findings of evolutionary biology, a position which is more common currently than it was previously in the United States where a literal reading of the Bible became widely popular in the last couple of centuries.  I also have very uncommon reasons for holding this position, though my motivations for doing so are nothing unusual.  I seek to build an increasingly evidence-based worldview that is not predicated on either the reckless a priori exclusion of the possibility of supernatural agencies or the reckless a priori assumption that everything has an immediate and simplistic supernatural cause.

When I claim that I am on a very sparsely inhabited portion of the ground between the two, it means that I have over the course of the past decade examined and rejected many different perspectives on the accounts of the origins of the earth and of humanity.  So what are the options available to me, and why have I rejected the common options?

Scientific Realism

Scientific realists, as previously discussed, take the claims of scientific disciplines as generally true in an ontological sense.  So when that is applied to biological evolution, they accept it as the correct narrative explanation of human origins, often to the exclusion of other narratives with different purposes and approaches.  As an instrumentalist with regard to science, I don't take scientific theories to provide us with any sort of ontological truth about what things really are, but I do agree that the evidence for biological evolution having been going on for many millennia is fairly strong and the theoretical framework being used is coherent.  I also agree that the geological evidence strongly suggests that we're on a very old planet rather than a very young planet.

All that said, I still have reasons to be uncertain about scientific claims made about events in the distant past.  One is that we have no way to travel back in time and make sure that our dating methods remain accurate that far into the distant past, so we can't properly calibrate our measurements and ensure that our rational inferences hold true even into the distant past.  The other is a sample problem; in many cases, either we have very limited samples of evidence for human evolution in the distant past or it's difficult to be sure that our samples are not contaminated (or both), which leaves me leery of drawing bold conclusions from that evidence.   Does this mean that I'm open to the possibility that the earth is actually quite young?  Yes, but what is the evidence for that?

Young Earth Creationism

Biblical literalists often take the Young Earth Creationist (hereinafter referred to as YEC) perspective, believing that the Genesis account of God creating the world features a week with approximately 24-hour days.  Young earth creationists throughout history have tried to calculate the age of the earth based on the Torah and/or Septuagint, their results varying considerably, sometimes by many thousands of years.  The first problem I have with this view is that it attempts to impose modern literary forms in the context of modern philosophical views onto an ancient text written by people with ancient philosophical views.  And in the case of creationists who were doing their calculations long before the scientific revolution, they usually had an unhealthy tendency to believe that the text of the Torah or Septuagint could provide them with an accurate date for creation when neither the Torah nor the Septuagint nor their authors claim to be able to do any such thing.  And the only ancient tradition of using the texts in such a way comes from a few folks who had an interest in esoteric questions and no other way to decide the question of how old our planet is than to appeal to Sacred Scripture.  Apparently, just admitting we don't know and admitting that Sacred Scripture never even tries to answer the question is not good enough for them.

The second problem I have with this view is that in addition to being a product of poor literary analysis, it often gets its support from psuedo-science.  The basic job of the creation scientist is to find evidence that supports Young Earth Creationism.  The basic job of the geologist or biologist is to collect data or design experiments which can disprove a hypothesis or component of existing scientific theory.  In essence, creation science is an exercise in confirmation bias, while science has structures in place to mitigate the effects of confirmation bias so that we don't just set out to prove whatever we want to be true.  The problem with setting out to prove whatever you want to be true is that you will accept evidence that supports your conclusion and deny the validity of evidence which does not support your conclusion.  This approach isn't designed to help you find truth, but it is designed to reinforce whatever you currently believe, and that's exactly what creation science does.  In the end, the YEC perspective is generally a result of ignoring good practice in both literary analysis and scientific inquiry in favor of acquiring a certain and precise answer to a question that the authors of the Torah and Septuagint never bothered to answer outright.

Old Earth Creationism

Old Earth Creationists (hereinafter referred to as OECs) try to reconcile the scientific evidence from geology, archaeology, and biology for a much older earth than what the YEC view would allow with the Genesis account of the origins of the earth and of humans.  Like the YEC view, the problem I have with this view is that it attempts to impose modern literary forms in the context of modern philosophical views onto an ancient text written by people with ancient philosophical views; it reads the Genesis account as a crude allegory that corresponds to contemporary scientific theory about the origins of our planet and humanity, a crude allegory of the sort that the folks who passed down the oral tradition that was eventually written down in Genesis would likely find to be baffling and missing the point because it makes assumptions quite different from the assumptions they were making.

Gap Theory

Proponents of Gap Theory suggest that there is an indeterminate gap of time between the events of the first and second verse of Genesis. 

"1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters."

While they do, like YECs, agree that the earth was created in 24-hour days, YECs strongly disagree with the Gap Theory.  I also disagree with it, though for essentially the same reason that I disagree with the YEC perspective: it's a product of ignoring good practice in literary analysis.  It's certainly not so easily falsifiable as the YEC perspective because it takes into account the extensive evidence for an old earth, but a lack of falsifiability doesn't gain a proposition much credence.  Russell's teapot demonstrates that quite nicely.

Omphalos Hypothesis

The Omphalos hypothesis is one of the more interesting attempts to reconcile the evidence of an old earth with the Genesis account.  On this view, the earth was created very recently, but it was created to appear as if it were very old.  This resolves the apparent disjunction between the evidence of an old earth and a Biblical literalist account of creation.  Setting aside the aforementioned problem of not using a good approach to literary analysis, there are two problems faced by those who take this view.

The first is a problem related to science.  Assuming this view is correct, then we have no reason to think that natural science leads to correct conclusions about the world.  And if it's the case that natural science cannot help us determine the age of the earth, then why do we need a hypothesis to help us reconcile the evidence of natural science with the Genesis account?  If it's true, then we really don't need to worry about what natural science concludes on the subject at all.  If it's true, then it's useless as a means of resolving the difficulty of reconciling the Genesis account with scientific evidence.

The second problem is a theological problem.  If it's the case that God created an earth such that all the evidence pointed to it being an old planet, and then gave us the rational faculties necessary for natural scientific inquiry, then why on earth did God do that?  Is God lying to us?

Theistic Evolution

Theistic evolution is a view taken by some folks who, like OECs, want to reconcile the scientific evidence with Biblical theology.  In this view, biological evolution was a process used by God to bring about the existence of humanity and many other parts of creation.  It is not uncommon for folks who subscribe to theistic evolution to take also the OEC perspective on geology and archaeology (or at least something similar).  Beyond potentially facing the difficulties faced by OECs with regard to understanding the Bible, the theistic evolution perspective runs headlong into a thorny theological problem.  If it's the case that God guided evolution, then why is an omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent God guiding the process in such a way as to be full of so much death and suffering?  Evolution is extremely messy in dealing with anyone who can't survive on their own under harsh circumstances; what's happening to those people dying and being maimed all the time?  Why would God cause that?  Is God hateful?


Where does all this leave me?

I could take a theistic evolution position on the subject of human origins because I have a coherent solution to the Problem of Evil, but I would not be able to take the OEC, Gap Theory, or Omphalos hypothesis positions along with it to reconcile geological and archaeological science with the Genesis account because I am not willing to do what I see as abusing Scripture to contort it into an unnatural shape which would fit with contemporary views.

I face essentially the same difficulty if I embrace the theological perspective of Christos Yannaras regarding the Fall and its relationship to the human experience of death and suffering.  It resolves the Problem of Evil and allows me to embrace theistic evolution, but does not touch the question of the age of the earth.

There is a way I might solve that problem, specifically by observing that the Genesis account does not posit an age for the earth, and thus there is no particular conflict between the claims of Sacred Scripture and the claims of modern science.  Obviously, there is a tension between the two accounts because they are completely different approaches to understanding human origins.  Modern science attempts to discern how we arrived at the current state of affairs while staying within the limits of its methodology.  The creation narratives in Genesis are fairly obviously attempting to discern the meaning of the human experience within a universe inhabited by a God who created us while reaffirming their belief in God as creator and taking into account commonly understood events like the Great Flood.

In the end, my answer to the questions about the age of the earth and the veracity of evolutionary theory is: I don't know.  Which is to say that on these topics, as with many topics, I do not believe we have certainty about our conclusions on the matter.  But what I do believe is that the evidence for an old earth and evolutionary theory are fairly strong.  I am content to accept the scientific evidence as it is and accept the theology of the Catholic Church as it is without engaging in a futile attempt to revise the scientific evidence to suit my theology or revise my theology to suit the scientific evidence.

I understand the appeal of trying to find a neat and tidy way to resolve the tension between the creation narratives in Genesis and the scientific evidence of an old earth and human evolution.  Perhaps some day such a neat and tidy solution will be found, and that would be wonderful if it is. That said, I do not need to follow the path of my contemporaries and create a Christian evolution or evolve Sacred Scripture into Scientific Scripture.