Saturday, December 20, 2008
RE: Whole Series
Tracy Witha (09/19) claims that religious faith helps answer existential questions that science cannot. This is not true. There are in fact two very different kinds of existential questions, at least as I know them: the metaphysical ones and the ones arising from some form of psychological misery. Metaphysical questions exist in two varieties, those that are trivially absurd and those which we don't quite understand, let alone try to answer, and are likely absurd too. Both sorts we can ignore here unless someone gives an example worthy of consideration.
The second sort of existential questions, those that arise from some form of psychological misery, e.g., a medical condition, inadaptability to social intercourse, a serious conflict with somebody else. etc., most likely would not arise if not for the underlying misery. Hence, they would disappear if scientific progress could remedy the underlying condition. Though we are trying, it is true that we are not very good at it yet, but we can also note that science already remedies many cases of physical distress, something no religion does, which are also cause for psychological misery and hence a source of existential questions. Hence, science demonstrably does what Tracy Witham says it could not.
RE: Whole Series
In considering Eugene Bucamp's comments of 12/16, I am led to the view that science (and research more generally) cannot answer an existential question. Two examples: 1. A young person wonders whether her life would be more productive of good if she became a teacher or an MD. In this case, a battery of tests and multiple research projects would be telling. Consequently, the question is instrumental; it asks how to achieve a goal, and science can help. 2. A young person wonders whether she should become a teacher to use her life to help others or become an actor to fulfill a personal passion. In this case, the question is existential because it asks what her life is to be about. It involves a choice between two values competing for primacy in her life, and science must wait till the choice is made to be of service.
It is obvious that the Ten Commandments, for instance, seek to tie a person's sense of what life is about to love of God and God's law, or as rendered in the New Testament, love of God and "neighbor," which is seen as fulfilling the law. Now one can clearly and truly speak of one's foundational value system as one's "God." This is apparent even in the atheistic writings of Sartre, for instance.
In that case, "God" remains relevant even for atheists, at least to the extent that they live according to well-formed value systems, systems that can be informed but not determined by science. Science cannot make "God" obsolete in this sense. In fact, "God" remains the most relevant question a person can ask, in this particular meaning of the term. Since the Foundation's Big Question HERE concerns God's continued relevance, not existence, this view carries the day.
Monday, December 15, 2008
As indicated in an earlier remark, I view the "conversation" as a pastiche of opinions rather than a true conversation. And as was also indicated earlier, that alone has value, as the pastiche forms a pretty good view of the range of opinion on the subject. But did the dialog actually move "the big question" forward? On that question, the answer has to be no.
An example from my experience will be helpful. As readers will know, I offered an argument to the effect that religion offers existential guidance of a form that science does not and cannot (see Reaction #1). A telling and interesting way to challenge my argument would have been to note that unless religion--"God" for purposes of this post--is the only game around for informing existential questions, that my argument does not put "God" on very strong ground. In fact the very reason that Tillich's theology is next in line for posts here on Metaponderance is that Tillich's view of faith as "ultimate concern" makes that very point. But I digress. Here's how the "conversation" in the comments concluded on the thread my argument started:
RE: Whole Series
Walter W. Lee
Regarding John Cozijn's comment of (09/19): I submit a scientific theory: the inescapable basis for human values is the survivability of the species.
Observation on Mr. Lee's comment:
"Existentialism" is infamously difficult to define, but the reason is straightforward. In all of its forms it stresses the need for existing individuals to determine the meaning and values that guide them. Therefore the one way that a person can respond to a premise that claims that science cannot give human being existential guidance and completely miss the mark is to posit "survivability" as science's answer. ("Existence," in effect, cannot be the answer to an existential question. But the response does make me smile.)
Since I will assume for discussion here that the commentators on the Templeton exchange are bright and well intentioned, I must conclude that Mr. Lee has never taken the possibility that the opposing side has anything worthy of careful consideration to say. Which is to say that, at least where my comments are concerned, only the appearance of a conversation took place--and an appearance that is easily dispelled by careful consideration.
The final comment in the thread I started is worth noting, for the suggestion it provides on just what level the "conversation" was taking place.
RE: Whole Series
Walter W. Lee (09/22) theorizes that the basis for human values is the survivability of the species. I agree, but I would add to that the survivability of the culture. The ongoing discussion on this page is testimony to that. This forum has become one of many battlegrounds where the God culture and the science culture struggle for supremacy. The survival of science is not in doubt. At this point I think that the culture of God just wants to coexist.
Observation on Mr. King's comment:
Here, as before, the fact that the comment has not even addressed the relevant premise has not dawned on the responder. And making "culture" rather than the individual the focus of the question does not change the fact. What the response does do is depict what Mr. King thinks the real point of the discussion is: that "the God culture and the science culture struggle for supremacy."
It is alternatively sad or absurd--and hence funny--that a supposed "exchange" of ideas is interpreted in a way that makes the ideas beside the point--it's a power struggle--and that does not take the suggestion of the person to whom one "exchanges" an opinion with seriously enough to even engage the opinion--making the word "conversation" a misnomer here. On that count, I can note that clearly my jumping into the fray in the comments to this Big Question was a waste of time.
Simply put, Mr. King's comment, at least, shows that he doesn't think there is a richer and more interesting debate to be had than that which we see daily in the so-called "culture wars."
I conclude with two observations that are at odds with each other. First, there is a real need for respectful inquiry on both sides. If there is no need for that, there is no point to the question. I believe there is a big need. Thus, the "culture war' mentality needs to be lost. And second, there may be little real hope for that any time soon. In my small way, nevertheless, I will try to contribute to a more rewarding approach to the question.
And that "try" will take the form of some basic ideas taken from Paul Tillich's thought that I think advance the conversation in a positive way, for those willing to seriously engage those ideas.
Note: This will be 2008's last post. What we call "the holidays" are in fact a very busy time of year for me, as they are for so many of us! Since it is important to give a good effort in representing Tillich's thoughts, I think it is wise to wait till there is time to do a proper job...
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
Friday, December 12, 2008
"Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control": if those traits are to characterize a Christian, then it would appear that the charge of hypocrisy is correct. Should I have let the disparaging and prejudiced comments go unchallenged? One response is that if I had to say unkind things in order to address my interlocutor, that a person committed to kindness, love, peace, patience, etc. would forgo comment. But if so, whenever "the truth hurts" Christians should avoid it in discourse with others. Whether that is always or ever true is a hard question--one that cannot be dealt with flippantly--and it threw me. Moreover, it may well have led to one (the?) reason that my comment in response was not published: It was a tepid response (I have no record of it).
A variety of questions need to be asked. To begin, is hypocrisy "the worst of New Testament sins"? A superficial reading of the NT might seem to indicate that, since Jesus railed against the religious authorities of his place and time for exhibiting it. And yet in every case that I can think of the evident motive for the railing is an oppressive use of religion to benefit religious authorities at the expense of the people they were to serve. Thus a self-serving attitude replacing the law of love is the source of Jesus' outbursts. The hypocrisy is manifest in holding the people to the letter of the law when the authorities let themselves off the hook. Thus Jesus' examples of a sheep falling into a well, David raiding the Temple, and deliberate healing on the sabbath, all contravene religious law as a barrier to the underlying law of love. (Matt. 12, et al) It is not hypocrisy, per se, but hypocrisy in the service of selfish , loveless religiosity that Jesus opposed, and so vituperatively!
In that case, harsh words from Christians can be appropriate when they serve the law of love.
But was that the case in my criticism of Mr. Cozijn's statements? If only it were the law of truth and not the law of love, I would be exonerated! But what The Sermon on the Mount tells us to "let shine" is "good works."
Luther famously opened the "hard nuts" of scripture by "throwing them on the rock of grace." Today the hard questions that scripture presents us with should, I think, be thrown against the rock of love.
Interpreting the New Testament today requires a thoughtful person to choose between faithfulness to the literal words of the text and faithfulness to the example that Jesus set. Jesus was kind to so-called "sinners," but he railed against religious hypocrites. No one is faithful to the bulk of scriptural laws and prohibitions. Therefore, to choose the horn of the dilemma "faithful to the text of scripture or the example of Jesus" that aligns us with the letter of the law rather than Jesus' example of loving inclusiveness makes us the kind of people that made Jesus mad--pure and simple.
[For interesting commentary on this go to Richard Beck's Experimental Theology blog and read his posts on Daniel Friedman's To Kill and Take Possession: Friedman's book makes the argument that moral progress can be traced in scripture. If so, for Christians it must be the example of Jesus in the context of their culture that is relevant. That is the crucial question today's Christians must face, and the answer is clear...]
If I set a trap for Mr. Cozijn that exposed his prejudiced opinion of the Church, perhaps he will forgive me if I concede that he caught me in a trap too. I thank him for that.
One last post remains on my experience reading and commenting on the Templeton Foundations' Big Question ofthe continued relevance of "God."
Sunday, December 7, 2008
In following posts I will consider, from a wider perspective, the wisdom of engaging in this exchange in the first place. And I will also respond to the purely rhetorical points Mr. Cozijn made. But my response to the substance of his comments follows, as that is basic to understanding the rest.
Response to the substance of Mr. Cozijn's comments from his 09/21/08 response to my challenge of 09/19/08:
Mr. Cozijn writes,
"My starting point, as per my first post in this thread, is that the God discussed here has virtually nothing in common with the religious beliefs and practices of actual believers, including 'educated, intelligent people.' To take Tillich as an example, his entire 'method of correlation' requires the acceptance of Christian revelation as a fact. To quote: 'The Christian message provides the answers to the questions implied in human existence. These answers are contained in the revelatory events on which Christianity is based...'"
I respond that Mr. Cozijn clearly thinks that Tillich correlated the supposed historical facts of Christian Scripture with "the answers to questions implied in human existence." In making this claim he is trying to accomplish two things. First, to reconnect the exchange to his starting point, and second, to take up my challenge (09/19/08) to give an expert abstract of a central position of Tillich's or Kant's, "and explain why they deserve his mocking."
But Tillich did not correlate supposed historical events with existential questions. In fact, he denied the possibility of doing so:
"The truth of faith cannot be made dependent on the historical truth of the stories...in which faith has expressed itself. It is a disastrous distortion of the meaning of faith to identify it with...belief in the historical validity of the Biblical stories." (Dynamics of Faith, p. 87)
How, then, do the stories impact Christian belief?
"All [historical] questions must be decided, in terms of more or less probability, by historical research. They are questions of historical truth, not of the truth of faith. Faith can say that something of ultimate concern has happened in history because the question of the ultimate in being and meaning is involved." (p. 88)
What, then, are the actual correlates of Tillich's theology? He "makes the correlation of existence and the Christ [his theology's] central theme." (Systematic Theology, Vol I, p. 19) It is, then, the symbol of the Christ and its relation to human existence that must be understood to represent the gist of Tillich's theology.
Mr. Cozijn did not only miss-state the correlates that he ventured to explain, he got them backwards, as the remainder of his comments--as they relate to Tillich--confirm. In fact, it would be nearly impossible to venture a coherent point of view about Tillich's theology and state it more incorrectly.
I admit to having set a trap for Mr. Cozijn, knowing that if he took up my challenge, it would be very unlikely that he would succeed in making an "expert abstract" of one of Tillich's (or Kant's) views, let alone critiquing it successfully. My "gotcha" approach may not have been nice, but it could not have been more successful in eliciting the truth of my complaint: Mr. Cozijn clearly "feels free to demean...people he does not understand."
Enough said on this aspect of his response!
What about his objection to "...this kind of high-minded theism which deliberately obscures its relationship to the myths fervently held by the real people--educated or not--who populate the pews...of this muddled world"?
Again, he could not have got "this kind of high-minded theism" more wrong: For Tillich, "Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man's ultimate concern." (Dynamics of Faith, p. 1--opening statement.) It is almost painful to note that the entire project of Tillich's theology is the opposite of what Cozijn claims: to "deliberately make plain" the relationship of the biblical stories to the beliefs "fervently held by the real people--educated or not--who populate the pews..."
Finally, in response to Mr. Cozijn's complaint that I "upbraid" him for insulting people, I simply ask, how can I depict his wildly irresponsible remarks in a positive light? Should his extraordinarily inaccurate remarks have been allowed to stand unchallenged? One would think not!
Yet, I take the question seriously, and will address it in the next post. Was the Templeton Foundation right to post his derogatory comments based on a prejudice never backed up by serious inquiry, and then not to post my response? There are two practical problems with their allowing a response, which makes it defensible for them not to have done so. And so this deserves further exploration.
But as an outgoing comment, I would like to note that Mr. Cozijn is a formidable polemicist, and if only he knew what he was talking about, I'm quite sure he would make a good conversation partner for a person seriously looking for the truth about the ideas on which we disagree. Alas!
Friday, December 5, 2008
I observed that in the Templeton Big Question, Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete? that no one--none of the featured contributers nor anyone who commented on the contributions--offered an explicit rationale for the opinion that science cannot supersede religion. So I did in a comment on 9/19: "If faith provides a framework for answering existential questions and science cannot, then science cannot supersede religion." I then offered the Shema, The Eightfold Path, and the Great Commandments as evidence that it is of the essence of religion to provide existential guidance and threw out the naturalistic fallacy as a reason to think that science cannot.
Responding to my argument John Cozijn conceded that values and ethics do not arise from science, and then went on to ask, "But what makes anyone think that religion has anything to contribute?" and then claim: "The entire history of the Church would seem [to be] eloquent testimony that religion provides no special insight..." As you will read, I jumped on that claim and challenged Mr. Cozijn.
Before reading my challenge and Mr. Cozijn's response, it will be instructive to know that there is a 2,000 character limit to comments at the Templeton site, making any detailed argumentation next to impossible. In fact, the contributors were also given scant space for their opinions. So the entire Templeton project could be viewed as little more than--as noted in the first reaction--a pastiche of opinions--albeit notable ones. And that alone has value.
RE: Whole Series
John Cozijn's (09/19) words show that he feels free to demean and insult people he doesn't understand. The pity is that he asked a good question: "What makes anyone think that religion has anything to offer?" It deserves a good response. But he quickly--between insults--asserts that "The entire history of the Church would seem eloquent testimony that religion provides no special insight into moral problems or any other dilemmas." That's a big claim. Then he must have really done his homework!
Since I have great respect for Paul Tillich's theology, perhaps he will disabuse me of the view that Tillich's use of ultimate concern and false ultimacy successfully re-interprets religious faith for educated, intelligent people, and that it offers the key to solving humanity's central moral dilemma. Or perhaps, since I originally brought up the problem of existential crisis, he would rather explain why existential estrangement isn't a good modern re-interpretation of the concept of sin, one that both secular and religious persons can learn from and respect. Perhaps he spent more time in philosophy. How about a critique of Kant's assertion that the only unqualified good is a good will and its relationship to the central theme of his Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone--followed, of course, by an explanation of why Kant or any neo-Kantian religious thinker is such a rube that she or he deserves only ridicule?
So, can Mr. Conijn give us an expert abstract of any of these concepts and explain why they deserve his mocking? His big claim implies that he can. My suspicion is that his "argument" has much in common with the straw man it attacks.
RE: Whole Series
Tracy Witham upbraids me for insulting people "I don't understand" and insinuates I haven't done my "homework," etc. Well, let us not waste time feigning outrage at the polemical tactics of those with whom we disagree lest we be accused of that worst of New Testament sins: hypocrisy. My starting point, as per my first post in this thread, is that the God discussed here has virtually nothing in common with the religious beliefs and practices of actual believers, including "educated, intelligent people." To take Tillich as an example, his entire "method of correlation" requires the acceptance of Christian revelation as a fact. To quote: "The Christian message provides the answers to the questions implied in human existence. These answers are contained in the revelatory events on which Christianity is based ..."
However, the historicity of these "events" is itself entirely based on the implausible and contradictory narratives contained in the extended press release we now call the New Testament (and its rather troubled relationship to a diverse set of ancient Jewish texts we know as the Old Testament). Now if the test of historicity fails, so does Tillich's entire project. This is an empirical question, and it seems to me that in these "highbrow" discussions people go to great lengths to disguise their necessary adherence to dogmas of talking snakes, virgin births, assorted miracles, bodily resurrections, and other Iron Age nonsense. Instead we are treated to meaningless abstractions such as "God is Love" or vacuous philosophising that purposefully disguises its preposterous premises. I actually have no problem with Deism (since it implies no empirical claims at all), but I do object to this kind of high-minded theism which deliberately obscures its relationship to the myths fervently held by the real people--educated or not--who populate the pews and prayer mats of this muddled world.
Note: My response to Mr. Cozijn was not posted in the Templeton comments. I have a couple of hunches why that I will offer in the next post, along with a response to Mr. Cozijn.
Monday, December 1, 2008
Philosopher Mary Midgley came the closest of all the contributers to expressing that view. "Belief--or disbelief--in God is not a scientific opinion... It is an element in something larger and more puzzling...the set of background assumptions by which we make sense of the world as a whole." (See the Templeton site for her entire comment.)
That said, I thought something was missing in the series and contributions: an explicit rationale for the opinion that science cannot supersede religious belief in God. So I had the temerity to offer one in the comments to the contributors' articles. There are some interesting lessons to be learned from the reaction that I got from others who jumped on my comments. So I thought that I'd share the experience with you, starting with the comment that put some rather nasty responses in motion.
RE: Whole Series
Jack King (09/17) concedes that science cannot address the existential doubt in Marcel's play (see my 9/15 comment). Perhaps it will help to make the underlying argument explicit: If faith provides a framework for answering existential questions and science cannot, then science cannot supersede religion. The core of the great religions expressly provide that framework (the Shema, the Eightfold Path, The Great Commandments, etc.).
The Marcel plot was a specific example to illustrate how it can be that a person must choose a meaning in response to a situation that cannot be better understood "scientifically," and where faith provides the only helpful way out. Then I pointed out that the facts of natural history are also beset with opportunity for existential doubt, and that more facts are not likely to change the need for faith--and just think of faith here as "belief where doubt is possible," to use William James's definition--in making up one's mind.
Last, I used the naturalistic fallacy to point out that the understanding of the world that science gives us cannot be turned into the moral and value systems that people use to make decisions. My conclusion follows: science cannot supersede religion. In reply to Mr. King's counterpoints, "science" does not "apply" itself; human beings working as scientists do. Science does not accomplish the greater good. People decide to use science to do good.
To drive the point home that science is contingent on the non-scientific value systems of its practitioners, I ask, will science still contribute to the greater good if a scientist gives atomic bomb technology to terrorists? Is that a terrible thought? Yes. Is that judgment scientific? No. Would the terrorist share it? No. Could the scientist be a terrorist? Yes. Mr. King should consider whether "science" has become his "god." If so, my faith says he can upgrade for free.
RE: Whole Series
Values and ethics are not derivable from science--that would indeed be the worst kind of scientism. But what makes anyone think that religion has anything to contribute? Fall of man via a trick played by a talking snake, followed by a blood sacrifice that "saves" humanity from this Original Sin? Puh--lease!
Why is a prelate more qualified to offer "moral guidance" than a plumber? The entire history of the Church would seem eloquent testimony that religion provides no special insight into moral problems or any other human dilemmas. And given that science has effectively overthrown its entire ontology, the pronouncements religion does make on such questions are invariably wrapped up in layers of obfuscating mumbo-jumbo.
This of course is the fundamental problem with Steve Gould's position of "non-overlapping magisteria," or NOMA, which just hands over the entire sphere of morality to "religion." The reality is that the world does not need men in dresses to pontificate or evangelical conmen to command others "how to live." Religion in the 21st century is surplus to requirements. We are on our own, so let's just grow up and start taking responsibility for our ethical and personal choices based on the best information about the world we can get (which is where science comes in).
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
We can now see that divine sacrifice on our behalf affirms the radical question of life that, ultimately, reality is moral. The message of the cross, by depicting that affirmation, becomes the proper object of human faith. The Gospel According to John calls the message of Jesus’ life and death “the light of men.” (John 1:4) We have identified that light with conscience, and connected the light of conscience to faith that God will vindicate the person who seeks to live in its light.
Of course, these last statements are statements of faith. But we now understand that no neutral position is possible with respect to the supreme question, and a person who does not understand that does not understand the first thing about faith, that it begins with a decision. For the supreme question is posed to the naked human psyche, with not even a conceptual fig leaf in place to divert one’s gaze from the naked fact that one must choose.
A man who farms near a university that is famous for the study of agriculture likes to tell this story. He hosts students from the university on tours of his farm, and on those tours students frequently ask questions such as, “What’s growing in that field?” and, “What’s that over there?”
“Beans,” he says, and “Planter.”
As a person can study agriculture without learning the first thing about it from the perspective of a farmer, so a person can study theology without learning the first thing about it from the perspective of a person of faith. Consider a Christian who goes to church on Sunday and is told of her need for faith in God’s gracious sacrifice for her. Somehow that message strikes a chord in her heart. Somehow that message addresses troubling practical dilemmas that arise in her life. Somehow the sacrament of communion cuts to the very core of her being, and she strives to live in accord with the message. Her will has engaged the message, and the message has engaged her will. That is the first and most important thing about her faith. Her faith is not supported by any formal rationale, and she knows that. But her faith is vital, because it moves her feelings and motivates her actions. She believes that she is a better person for having faith.
A student of theology may look to wrap these first things of faith in a rationale, and so provide clothes to cover this naked faith. But by doing so, he makes them last things, conclusions, and he thereby treats faith as though it is a mistake, or at best, a stand-in for understanding. The implication is that the truth about God did not need to come into the world. From the standpoint of faith, however, we should not expect to discover the truth about it by means of science or philosophy, or even theology, any more than we should expect to discover the meaning of an author’s text by placing it in test tubes. For the answer we seek requires a higher order than nature; consequently, anything that we can discover by means of answering lesser questions is necessarily not what seek in asking the supreme question. Christian Scripture tells us that Jesus was God incarnate, the divine Logos of creation given human flesh, who in a supreme irony died for us. That message poses itself to us as creatures, putatively, by divine inspiration. Thus, we must hear it as creatures listening to the voice of God speaking to our core existential question, not as scientists or scholars.
We have considered the spiritual meaning of Jesus’ life on the supposition that he was God incarnate. All that we can know is that the message of the cross answers the deepest question that we face as free, morally sensitive beings. In other words, all that we can know, apart from faith, is that we are considering the right answer to the right question. To call the answer the truth, however, is a choice, not a conclusion: and a naked choice, one that cannot be clothed in conclusions derived from this world’s wisdom. But there is a much better way to say this: “Truly, I tell you, whoever does not receive the
Kierkegaard once wrote that it would be good enough for the purposes of faith “If the contemporary generation [with Jesus] had left nothing behind them but these words: ‘We have believed that…God appeared among us in the humble figure of a servant, that he lived and taught in our community, and finally died… …this nota bene on a page of universal history…would be sufficient to afford an occasion [for faith] for a successor, and the most voluminous account can in all eternity do nothing more.”1 I agree, in that faith is a permanent possibility for all human beings; for it is the resolution of a dilemma at the core of human nature, as I hope has been shown. It must be added to Kierkegaard’s nota bene, however, that divine sacrifice for the sake of humanity is needed. For it is the question of whether to sacrifice one’s self-interest in order to do the right thing for the sake of others, when necessary, that underlies the supreme question, the radical question of life. In biblical language, it is “the message of the cross” that answers that radical question of life by depicting divine sacrifice for the sake of humanity. And so the message of the cross becomes the object of faith for a righteous belief, a belief fit for a humanity that accepts the call to a higher way of life.
Jesus is said to have used parables to describe the impact of having faith that one has “found” this higher way. Here is one.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. (Matthew 13:44)
Returning a last time to the story of Jesus’ trial, it presents an ideal microcosm in which to examine the essential teaching of Christian faith. Jesus prompted Pilate’s famous question—“What is truth?”—by saying, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” The famous question followed, and then Jesus’ silence, a silence made suspect by his statement. And yet the suspicion grows out of a preliminary, a superficial understanding of the passage. Having examined the context surrounding it in some depth—both scripturally and conceptually—we now understand that Jesus could not have answered the question and remained true to his purpose. For to have done so would have removed the pressure from Pilate of deciding the supreme question, thereby contravening Scripture’s main theme in application to his life, and averting Jesus’ mission as the Word of God made flesh in depicting that theme to us through Scripture.
It all comes together in that scene. Consequently, we have now answered the overarching question that constituted the conceptual peak that we have wanted to climb: We now see why Jesus’ silence in the face of Pilate’s famous question depicts his divinity. He had to silently accept his condemnation and crucifixion in order to enact the supreme sacrifice in answer to the supreme question.
In closing we should note that the text converges on the reader also. It does so in that the reader along with Pilate is left to judge the truth of Jesus’ claim. Astoundingly, the reader, like Pilate, is allowed to enact the supreme irony of the trial by making a judgment about Jesus. But then, again, this too is a statement of faith.
Nevertheless, whether or not one chooses faith, the point of view from the literary summit in The Gospel According to John is truly a revelation. For it strips human life of all pretensions, uncovering a choice at the core of our humanity.
“Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man!’”
1. Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, Tr. David F. Swenson (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1936) p. 87.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Earlier this fall I got into an exchange with a couple of other persons commenting on the Templeton Foundation's last big question, "Does science make belief in God obsolete?" I think there are some interesting things to learn by thinking about both the Templeton Foundation's contributors' and the comments about the contributions--including mine.
In thinking about what can be learned, I realized that my thoughts merge pretty well with Paul Tillich's views, especially in Vol. II of of his Systematic Theology. So that's where we're going: a few posts on the Templeton Foundation's big question, "Does science make belief in God obsolete?" followed by some thoughts by Paul Tillich that I think are especially apt.
Last comment. As I did following the first run of Into the World (kindly hosted on Richard Beck's wonderful Experimental Theology blog) I am happy to offer any interested reader a copy of my little work. Just email me at RowAhead@charter.net and put "Into the World copy" in the title line.
Friday, November 21, 2008
There is a story in Genesis as confounding as anything ever written. It tells of Abraham, “the father of faith,” taking his son, Isaac, to a mountain in Moriah to sacrifice him. And Abraham did this at God’s direction—though at the last possible moment the story tells us that God sent an angel to stop Abraham, and provided a replacement sacrifice. (Genesis 22:1-19) Below we read Soren Kierkegaard’s attitude toward the narrative.
[Lazy people] want to understand the story. [For their sake a speaker might make] it a commonplace: ‘His greatness was that he so loved God that he was willing to offer him the best he had.’ … [The speaker thereby] interchange[s] the words “Isaac” and “best.” Everything goes excellently. Should someone in the audience be suffering from insomnia, however, there is likely to be the most appalling, most profound, tragic-comic misunderstanding. He goes home; he wants to do just like Abraham; for [his] son is certainly the best thing he has. Should that speaker hear word of this, he might go to the man…and shout: ‘Loathsome man, dregs of society, what has so possessed you that you wanted to murder your own son?’”1
Kierkegaard interprets the story as a reductio ad absurdum because of the paradox that the story foists upon religious persons: that they must admire Abraham for his faith while abhoring the terrible deed that demonstrated his faith.2 Since it seems that “the Father of faith” presents us with an unintelligible example, it is reasonable to suspect that it is because faith itself is unintelligible.
I will play a Kierkegaardian fool, and begin trying to remove the paradox at the core of the story by putting it into context (Genesis, Chapters 12-22). It begins with the Lord God visiting Abram in the
I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
Following this promise Abram went to
“Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:1-6)
There is much one can note here, but note especially the odd last sentence: Abram “…believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Perhaps the oddity itself, if understood, will provide a means to understand the story of Abraham and Isaac (God changed Abram’s name to Abraham—meaning “seed”—after promising him that his descendants would be as the stars of the sky). The oddity stems from this. Beliefs are true or false, and we might “reckon a person to be knowledgeable” for having true beliefs in a subject about which truths are not generally known. Righteousness, however, is not typically identified with having true beliefs. For instance, a child who gets 100% on a difficult test in school is not thereby “reckoned to be” especially virtuous. Simply put, we do not conflate righteousness with perspicuity. Why then the seeming conflation in the Abrahamic covenant?
If we are to understand the story, we need a conceptual context to support the narrative one. Let’s begin by first explicitly removing any connection between being virtuous and having true beliefs. Consider a person who is not convinced that striving for moral ideals of any kind—such as honesty, courage, charity, temperance, loyalty, and so forth—is worthwhile. In her opinion a moral ideal is worth pursuing precisely to the extent that doing so produces results that she wants, and she determines what she wants by what she perceives or defines her self-interest to be in any given circumstance. Whether she is wise or shortsighted, knowledgeable or naïve, successful or unsuccessful in procuring what she wants does not factor in here. What matters is that, for her, every choice can be viewed as a transaction from which she wants to get the best possible deal for herself. That, in Sartre’s scheme, constitutes her “life project.”
Clearly a person who strives for traditional moral ideals can object that this person’s selfish means of deciding what is best leaves out considerations that many—perhaps most—persons think should be considered; but the objection will have no weight from her point of view, since the additional considerations that she leaves out are those taken from a perspective in which she does not believe. In fact, from her point of view, to pursue a moral ideal in which she does not believe would literally be unreasonable: For in that she does not “believe in” moral ideals in the sense of believing that they are worth pursuing per se, she can have no reason to strive to attain them, per se.
Furthermore, it is clearly the idea that there is something worth sacrificing for—something beyond her self-interest, as she understands it—that she rejects. And that is the key to the answer we seek. Since a moral person will judge another person to be righteous or not precisely by whether their actions are motivated by moral ends, we can see that beliefs about whether pursuing moral ideals are worthwhile are, in fact, instances of beliefs which can be described, crucially, as righteous or not. That is, they can be judged righteous or not from a point of view which questions whether it is worthwhile to pursue moral ideals per se. “Righteousness,” in fact, depends on belief in this sense: Again, there can be no point in pursuing righteousness on the supposition that one does not believe that it is worthwhile to do so.
If we go on to apply this finding to the wider view that we have been considering, we see that the amoral calculator described represents the antithesis of the message of the cross: For she responds precisely to the kind of rationale that the Serpent used to tempt Eve and Adam in the Genesis story of the fall, as discussed earlier. But to form the connection to the story of Abraham and Isaac, we need to confirm that belief in God can be tantamount to righteousness, construed as belief that moral ideals are worth striving for, even when personal sacrifice is involved.
Recall that that we found the doctrine of enlightened self-interest to be false for several reasons, the core reason being that if we use self-interest to justify making our moral commitments, we can also use it to justify breaking them. (And of course the reverse is also true for the proponent of self-interest: The core problem with stipulating that moral ideals determine the extent of one’s commitment to self-interest is that if we use moral ideals to justify making our commitments to self-interest, we can also use them to justify breaking them.) Therefore, to set up a reasonable response to whether or not making moral commitments is worthwhile, it is necessary to decide whether or not one believes that it is worth making sacrifices for the sake of moral ideals when they conflict with self-interest as defined by each individual’s foundational hopes and desires.
But we have an added challenge to consider in relation to our theory. For since the supreme question sets self-interest against moral ideals in deciding which is to form one’s primary life commitment, a further challenge looms. We must know to whom the “worth” of one’s actions is to accrue, if not to self. (Abraham was concerned with his life being a vessel capable of holding God’s great blessing. To be true to the story, faith must include the idea that a person who acts on moral faith will be vindicated by God. Thus, the willing self-sacrifice implied here is not the final word. In fact the path of self-sacrifice is chosen with the view in mind that God will later vindicate the person who does what is right.)3 Fortunately, that question is easy to answer: moral ideals (almost always) can be seen to benefit human society on some level. Thus, a person is honest in dealing with others. Likewise, a person is loyal in dealing with others; a person is fair, primarily, in dealing with others, and so forth. It is reasonable to assume, then, that it is to these “others” of human society that the benefits of pursuing moral ideals will accrue, when they conflict with self-interest. By extension it seems to have been correct to see the supreme question as involving a social context, with friendship with God constituting the social context that Adam and Eve sacrificed to self-interest in the fall.
However, we have also seen that it is unreasonable to expect human society to achieve perfection in the sense that everyone in society can always be expected to benefit from pursuing its moral ideals. Additionally, there is the problem of having commitments to moral desiderata being contingent on the acts of free persons who can break their commitments. And for our moral doubter, as we have seen, there is no reason to choose the horn of the supreme question that expresses faith, making faith literally unreasonable. Thus, “belief” in moral ideals—if that means conviction that acting in accord with them will lead to what is best for a person—is naïve from the perspective of self-interest. It is the moral doubter who is well informed. What the advocate of self-interest needs is an object of faith that makes it credible for her to believe it is worth pursuing moral ideals—that the willingness to sacrifice for others now will be rewarded in the long run. The supreme question posits just that option as an object of faith. The message of the cross depicts that, despite appearances to the contrary, God will vindicate the person whose faith is such that it can be reckoned as righteousness. In fact, the irony of the message of the cross stems precisely from the need to overcome the appearance that pursuing righteousness is not worthwhile from the perspective of self-interest.
By means of this conceptual context, we see the gospel accounts of Jesus announcing “the
This consideration brings us full circle with the story of Jesus’ trial. For it was as king of the
Returning to the story of Abraham and Isaac with this larger conceptual context in hand, we are ready to meet Kierkegaard’s challenge. For we now have a perspective from which beliefs are meaningfully described as “righteous,” and that perspective fits the larger biblical context. All we need is the supposition that Abraham grasped the need to have faith that God could be trusted to vindicate moral choices, despite appearances that often indicate the contrary. Then he would have known that to demonstrate a belief that making sacrifices for “righteousness” sake is his primary commitment that faith in God is essential. With apologies to Kierkegaard, to serve as an exemplar of faith, he needed to sacrifice the “best” that he had to God in faith that God could be trusted to vindicate his trust. Since it is clear that Isaac was Abraham’s “best,” the rest follows: Abraham had to be willing to sacrifice Isaac in order to serve as an exemplar of faith.
Anything less than Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac would have demonstrated an unwillingness to represent a commitment to righteous faith as we now understand it, as the primary commitment in his life. The logic of the supreme question is uncompromising; righteous faith can only be demonstrated by a willingness to sacrifice to do what is right. No willingness to sacrifice means one has no faith. And faith in God as the ground of faith that it is worthwhile to pursue our moral ideals even in the face of all appearances to the contrary is tied to a willingness to sacrifice all for the sake of faith in God. Thus, no willingness to sacrifice all for God means one has no faith in God in the needed sense: that God is the Supreme—the ultimate—Being, and hence the supreme and ultimate good. “The best,” to use Kierkegaard’s phrase.
Clearly, the message of the cross depicts divine reciprocity on this core requirement by which Abraham is credited as the father of faith. The divine reciprocity confirms beyond a reasonable doubt that the theory of the supreme question is correct, for it underscores the message, giving it the ultimate endorsement and commitment. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, God supplied a ram as a substitute for Abraham’s most cherished attachment to this world—his only son. In the message of the cross God supplied his only Son as a substitute for our most cherished attachments to this world—whatever those attachments might be. In both stories God supplies the sacrifice. In both stories the one who believes is “reckoned righteous” by God as a result of belief. Clearly we are to understand that we too would need to be like Abraham, if it were not for God’s grace. Surely we too are to understand that it is not just the provision of the sacrifice for us, but the provision of the sacrifice for us “while we were yet sinners,” that is, while we are unable to sacrifice in the manner that the unyielding logic of the supreme question demands. Thus, according to the full message of the cross—the gospel message, the good news—mercy extends beyond grace. What is required is an acknowledgement of the truth of the designation “sinner,” that we cannot do as Abraham did, and as God did in the context of the message of the cross.
Given this view—the view of Christian theology where mercy extends grace to humanity—Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac would then only be required so that he could serve as the exemplar of faith. And that, of course, is what Abraham is, contra Kierkegaard. Abraham’s example does make sense. He, as the “Father of faith,” is a fitting exemplar. And yet the story still stupefies us in another respect, making Kierkegaard’s following comment about Abraham especially apt: “…in a way all that I can learn from Abraham is to be amazed.”4 Christians must agree. For to fail to be amazed would be to fail to see that faith and grace must go together: for faith requires too much of us.
1. Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Tr. Alastair Hannay (Penguin Books, New York, 1985) pp. 58-59.
2. Ibid, pp. 108, 144. Kierkegaard believed that there is an absolute duty that each person owes to God, a duty that paradoxically trumps even moral obligations, which we usually take to be both universally binding and derived from God (whether directly or ultimately). He interpreted the story of Abraham and Isaac as requiring that paradoxical duty in order to “explain” Abraham’s terrifying willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s direction. Two responses need to be made. First, a paradox really explains nothing. And second, it is therefore correct to state that Kierkegaard believed that faith is—in the final analysis—unintelligible.
3. I believe that Scripture indicates that the reward of moral faith—expressed by a willingness to sacrifice to do what is right, and given ultimate expression by the message of the cross—is fellowship with God. I base this opinion of the fact that through self-seeking sin humanity’s relationship with God was lost. (Genesis 3:22-24) It is fitting, then, that through self-sacrificial righteousness one finds the way back to a relationship with God. The opposite of a temptation would be an obligation: something one does not really want to do, but which is required morally. The message of the cross, in that light, makes the antithesis to temptation—moral obligation—the way back to God. This need not, and does not, require that a person believes that in the end they are acting against self-interest by doing what is clearly self-sacrificial in the short run. This explains the ambiguity in the text, which is left in it to make it more readable.
4. Fear and Trembling, p. 66
Sunday, November 16, 2008
Another perspective by which we can gain a better view of the supreme question comes from Jean-Paul Sartre, who defined existentialism in opposition to theism. Sartre thought of Christian faith as a form of “bad faith.” To understand that view, a short primer is needed.
By “bad faith” Sartre meant thinking in a way that allows us to lie to ourselves, most especially to obscure our responsibility.1 But since a lie is an intentional act, the deception integral to any lie, it seems, is impossible when the liar and the person who is lied to are one and the same.
Sartre resolves this incongruity by tracing bad faith to fundamental ambiguities at the core nature of human nature.2 These ambiguities make it possible for us become our own dupe—when doing so expresses our fundamental wish. As you shall see, the ambiguities create subterfuge, which we enlist to obscure the fact that we are lying to ourselves; a subterfuge that we can ignore because it is so deeply ingrained in human nature.
To make sense of this, we need to understand how Sartre thought that the ambiguities at the core of our being are enlisted to create the needed subterfuge. The primary ambiguity is tied to our very beings as human beings. On one hand, we can be described and explained in much the same way as can any ordinary object. For our pasts are determined, making us fixed objects in that sense.3 But on the other hand we are free with respect to our futures, since as human beings our futures await our determination.4 A simple example will show how this primary ambiguity at the core of human nature can be used to obscure our responsibility as free beings.
Consider a man who beats his wife. If he cites a cruel and depraved upbringing by way of exonerating himself while insisting that we take into account that he loves his wife and intends to be a good husband in the future, he employs both aspects of the ambiguity. For in his appeal this man incorporates both his personal history, which is fixed, and his resolve to be a better person in the future, with respect to which he is free. Both serve as means to deflect his responsibility for his moral failure. Sartre calls this strategy of playing on our core double nature in this way a “nihilating ambiguity” with respect to human responsibility.5 It engenders the most basic form of bad faith.
Sartre describes a second core ambiguity in our natures as a “perpetually disintegrating synthesis.”6 This ambiguity plays off of our dual responsibility for ourselves and for other persons: “The equal dignity of being, possessed by my being-for-others and by my being-for-myself permits…a perpetual game of escape from the for-itself to the for-others and from the for-others to the for-itself.”7 Again, a simple example will help. Say that for health reasons I ought to quit smoking, but I don’t want to face that responsibility to myself. I can escape it by finding a responsibility to others to displace it. I thus make use of the “perpetually disintegrating synthesis” as follows: I reason that I ought to put off quitting in order to socialize over dinner with some friends who smoke—after all, it would be selfish to call attention to myself in a way that could spoil the friendly gathering.
Such cases do not really succeed in fooling us, Sartre would say. On some level we understand that we are lying to ourselves in order to avoid responsibility for making decisions that we ought to make but want to avoid.8 Yet the subterfuge succeeds in taking the focus off our responsibility. In Sartre’s words, “The goal of bad faith…is to put oneself out of reach; it is an escape.”9 And since Sartre sees human reality as defined by the choices that we freely make, it is most centrally responsibility for our free choices that bad faith provides an escape from.
By contrast Sartre advocated living with an awareness of one’s responsibility for one’s own life, beginning with the “projects” that give our lives meaning and so inform our values.10 For us the striking thing will be the analogy Sartre sets up between being an authentic human being and striving to be God. A human being is responsible for creating his life’s meaning as God is responsible for creating the world. In Sartre’s words, “To be man means to reach toward being God.”11 In other words, to be fully authentic means to engage the world as fully as is possible as a free agent. Armed with that view, a fully “authentic” human being would have no need for God. Indeed, in Sartre’s words, “[atheistic existentialism] declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing.”12 For from that perspective, one cannot both be authentically human and relinquish one’s freedom to God.
Certainly Sartre’s contention that “To be man means to reach toward being God” puts the story of the fall into a dramatically different light.13 In that light the Serpent was right to claim that by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that Adam and Eve would become like God: they did become more godlike by expanding the scope of their freedom and responsibility. We must examine that view more closely.
For Sartre, anything placed in the way of our responsibility for our free choices constitutes bad faith. Accordingly, placing one’s faith in God, in the sense of trusting an authority that contracts the legitimate scope of human free will, expresses bad faith. So too relinquishing responsibility for my life choices to any external authority constitutes bad faith, whether one sacrifices one’s authority to one’s State, one’s political party, one’s cultural mores, one’s social clique, etc., the result is bad faith. The meaning of “To be man means to reach toward being God,” then, is that to be authentically human is to be the highest possible authority for constituting the values, meanings, and choices that define my life.14 In that sense, “…even if God did exist, that would change nothing.”15 Given Sartre’s guiding principle of authenticity, his view is correct.
Yet Sartre’s view is correct only as far as it goes, and it is incomplete. When completed his analysis returns us to the supreme question. Recall the ambiguities found at the core of human nature which we considered earlier: (1) our dual descriptions in terms of being free agents and determined objects, and (2) our equal moral responsibility to ourselves and others.
Recall also that it is our life projects that order our lives’ meanings and values. Thus, it is to the extent one chooses a coherent life project that Sartre’s view, in theory, can be implemented coherently in a person’s life. With respect to the first core ambiguity, Sartre’s existentialist philosophy is theoretically coherent: He states, “…we will discover the individual person in the initial project which constitutes him.”16 With reference to this first core ambiguity, Sartre defines humanity by way of freedom. In that fundamental sense Sartre’s philosophy is clearly coherent, albeit entirely abstract.
Relative to the second core ambiguity, however, Sartre offers no clarifying perspective. That is ironic. For resolving the ambiguity following upon one’s dual and equal moral responsibility to oneself and others is essential to forming a coherent life project. That is precisely what the supreme question confronts humanity with—the chance to make the choice which resolves that core ambiguity.
Again, from the perspective of Sartre’s atheistic existentialism, the Serpent was correct: One becomes godlike by rejecting outside restrictions on one’s freedom (even if they purportedly originate with God). But from the perspective of Christian existentialism, one becomes godlike by submitting to the greater good of choosing love for others over self-interest as the “initial project which constitutes” the individual.17 Expressed by means of the Bible’s overarching theme, the choice is between the Serpent’s view from the fall or Jesus’ view from the cross, the exclusive alternatives of the supreme question.
One cannot avoid the supreme question by admonishing each person to be “a being which is compelled to decide the meaning of being…”18 Leaving the meaning of being in the abstract—that “…man is freedom”—fails to confront the fact that we do not live in the abstract.19 In the concrete reality of human life, the supreme question confronts us with a choice that decides one’s defining “initial project,” a necessary act of human freedom, if one is to avoid the conclusion that there is a core expression of bad faith entrenched in human being itself. For apart from making the decision inherent in the supreme question, one cannot establish a coherent core meaning for human life as the first act of human freedom, and Sartre’s atheistic existentialism becomes an exercise in the bad faith that it seeks to exorcise: It supplies a subterfuge in the form of an ambiguity between freedom as conceived in the abstract and freedom as put to use choosing one’s initial life project in the concrete dilemma posed by the supreme question. In Sartre’s words, “The best way to conceive of the fundamental project of human reality is to say that man is the being whose project is to be God.”20 By switching to the abstraction when the concrete is at hand, the same disintegrating synthesis found in application to this second of the core ambiguities that we looked at applies here. In fact, we leave our being in a state of disintegration relative to the second ambiguity precisely because we fail to choose between the two competing alternatives for our primary human project of becoming like God—that is, like God as defined by the Serpent’s view from the fall or by the message of the cross. And that confirms our theory.
CHAPTER TWELVE NOTES
1. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Bad Faith,” in Essays in Existentialism, Ed. Wade Baskin (The Citadel Press, Secaucus, 1965) p. 150.
2. Ibid, pp. 160-164.
3. Ibid, p. 164.
5. Ibid, p. 165.
7. Ibid.8. Ibid, p. 151.
9. Ibid, p. 177.
10. Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Desire to Be God,” in Essays in Existentialism, p. 70.
11. Ibid, pp. 70-71.
12. Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Humanism of Existentialism,” in Essays in Existentialism, p. 62.
13. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Freedom and Responsibility,” in Essays in Existentialism, p. 67.
15. “The Humanism of Existentialism,” p. 62.
16. “The Desire to Be God,” p. 70.
18. “Freedom and Responsibility,” p. 68.
19. “The Humanism of Existentialism,” p. 41.
20. “The Desire to Be God,” p. 70.
Friday, November 14, 2008
My step-sister has end-stage cancer. She still hopes for a miracle cure, as do
Is my faith to be a hope that somehow the doctors got the diagnosis wrong? Clearly that would be a perversion of faith. To me it seems essential to faith that it be an expression, at least of the possibility, of there being more to human existence than we can see or know. My faith does not take the givens of what we can know and contradict them, on this view. It places them in a larger context.
The question then confronts me, if faith expresses a conviction that there is more to life than I can see or know, where does it come from? I think that it comes from the conviction of good people in trying times that it is the good that they can see and know that connects them to what they cannot see and know. The imperative of a good will dictates the content of one’s ontology. Whatever one thinks of Luther and Lutheranism, one sees that view of faith clearly in his—some think apocryphal—“Here I stand, I can do no other.” No matter what the actual words were, clearly the existential “ought” in Luther's life became more real to him than any visible existential “is.” To me that is what faith means, or at least what it ought to mean. And that is why it can and does exist in the midst of great countervailing facts: Quite simply, it transcends them.
The wager of faith, to speak crudely, is that not only is there more to human existence than we can know, but that that “more” can be understood by faith as an expression of what life requires of a good person. If life has a larger meaning than we can understand—at least if it has one worth knowing—that is it. And just so, if we are invited to live as members of the kingdom of heaven, we must be guided by our best motives as we remain open to a reality greater than our understanding.
But why would anyone choose to believe in something beyond their understanding? The question implies a misunderstanding. One does not choose to act on insufficient evidence. Rather, one chooses to interpret insufficient evidence in light of one’s best motives and hopes. What else is one to do? It is when we encounter an existential crisis, then, that faith comes to light. And the reality of the existential crisis speaks louder than any proof or evidence, because it speaks for the human heart. I believe that William James nailed the idea when he wrote, “…to refuse to cultivate a feeling of security would be to do violence to a tendency in one’s emotional life which might well be respected a prophetic.” (Preface to The Meaning of Truth)
I, for one, can do no other tomorrow. I will express my fondest hope to my step-sister that our family’s love for her—with all the hope that that entails—can and should inform our belief. Is that intellectual courage, or cowardice? I say neither, for once again the question implies a misunderstanding. Faith transcends that question, and for those who have it, its possibility entails its necessity.
Saturday, November 8, 2008
“the radical question of life—the question of whether this be at bottom a moral or an unmoral universe…”1
William James never explained why he dubbed the question “whether this be at bottom” a moral universe “the radical question of life.”1 But my suspicion is that he viewed it as obvious to the point of needing none. Nevertheless, leaving it unexamined will not do for our purposes.
My Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary tells me that existentialism is “…a philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centered on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for his acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad.”
The theory of the supreme question clearly conforms to the dictionary definition of existentialism. For it describes a plight that must be confronted individually in that it follows on each individual’s freedom to fundamentally define herself with respect to her moral commitments. And, as such, it describes a responsibility that no one other than each individual person can assume. Also, the absence of any intellectual preamble to faith as conceived through the theory of the supreme question makes it “an act of free will without any certain knowledge.”
William James’ radical question of life also meets that basic definition of existentialism. Some context will help make that plain. James famously analyzed the question of how to proceed when confronted with a genuine dilemma, where “genuine dilemma” presents us with options that must be decided as “an act of free will without any certain knowledge.” The essay that made his analysis famous is “The Will to Believe.” However, it is fraught with opportunities for misunderstanding, if not paired with concepts taken from other writings. Accordingly, a short primer on James’ thought is in order to provide the needed context.
James defined faith as “belief in something concerning which doubt is still possible.”2 In accord with that definition he believed that faith could be philosophy made clear of its options in light of its limitations, writing that some theologies “are the most sustained efforts man’s intellect has ever made to keep living on that subtle edge of things where speech and thought expire.”3 He developed that line of thought mainly in his popular essays, several of which can be called, in his play on words, a “justification of faith.”4 The line of thought points us in the direction of what he called the “radical question of life”—a question that we shall see is clearly connected to the supreme question.5
In “The Will to Believe” James stated the thesis as follows: “Our passional natures not only may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds…”6 But an option may be “live” in the Jamesian lexicon, and thereby help establish its status as “genuine,” by merely meeting broad cultural presumptions about what beliefs are respectable options for a person’s allegiance.7 James endorsed this lax view to adhere to the reality, as he saw it, that “…for us, not insight, but the prestige of opinions is…” the passional interest that matters most often to most persons.8 But not only will a careful thinker scorn soapstone such as that as a basis for understanding faith, it positively will not help us advance to a better understanding of the supreme question.
To serve as a worthy philosophical base, the genuine option in question must first pass muster as one “that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds.”9 It is to accord with that view that an earlier position was stated in this work: “No intellectual preamble can be used to make the supreme question less than an expression of faith.” That includes any calculation of the political value of making one choice over another. In fact, what one means by “value” here depends on the choice one makes regarding the supreme question—assuming the theory proves true—and thus could not apply, even if we wanted to endorse James’ lax view. Call the stricter view needed for our purposes a “philosophically genuine option” to separate it from James’ laxer general view.
With that in mind, James’ view does have much to recommend it for our purposes. To see how it illumines the very question that we are trying to understand, it will help to see that it is on the most fundamental level that James saw his idea play out. For instance, he threw a skid load of clear candidates for what one can call philosophically genuine options into “The Will to Believe.”
The world is rational through and through,--its existence is an ultimate brute fact; there is a personal God,--a personal God in inconceivable; there is an extra-mental physical world immediately known,--the mind can only know its ideas; a moral imperative exists,--obligation is only the resultant of desires, etc.10
We find his best example, however, in The Principles of Psychology. There one reads that he was committed to a free will perspective. But his commitment was made in the face of an unblinking acknowledgment that the deterministic hypothesis is just as compelling from a strictly intellectual standpoint. The following quote illustrates the gist of the option as James framed it.
The most that any argument can do for determinism is to make it a clear and seductive conception, which a man is foolish not to espouse, so long as he stands by the great scientific postulate that the world must be one unbroken fact, and that prediction of all things without exception must be ideally, even if not actually, possible. It is a moral postulate about the Universe, the postulate that what ought to be can be, and that bad acts cannot be fated, but that good ones must be possible in their place, which would lead one to espouse the contrary view. But when scientific and moral postulates war thus with each other and objective proof is not to be had, the only course is voluntary choice, for skepticism itself, if systematic, is also a choice. If, meanwhile, the will be undetermined, it would seem only fitting that the belief in its indeterminism should be voluntarily chosen from amongst other possible beliefs.11
Commenting on this dilemma, James wrote, “Will you or won’t you have it so is the most probing question we are ever asked… We answer by consents or non-consents and not by words. What wonder that these dumb responses should seem our deepest organs of communication with the nature of things!”12 Here, then, is a clear example of philosophy made clear of its options in light of its limitations, and faith is philosophically rigorous in such a case precisely because it is “living on that subtle edge…where speech and though expire.”13 (In passing we can note that if James was correct with this view, we have another sort of explanation for Jesus’ silence: His “dumb response” would constitute the “deepest organ of communication” in representing the Supreme Answer.)
Yet the present example is not the best example of a philosophically genuine option, if best means most profound. James saved his superlative status for “the radical question of life—the question of whether this be at bottom a moral or an immoral universe.”14 For the radical question addresses the moral assumptions attendant to having free will. First, assuming free will, to what extent is the possibility of having a moral perspective relevant to the world? For, if our universe is not fundamentally amenable to moral perspectives, amoral perspectives are the deepest and most crucial ones. In such a world, free will and the moral responsibility that goes with it are ultimately subject to the dictates of a world which does not honor moral striving. The question of free will and the moral perspectives that follow upon it, then, point in the direction of James’ “radical question of life…”
A nexus of questions determine which meaning we ascribe to our humanity. If we are free and morally aware, we are responsible for our choices in light of our moral perspectives. So, are we free and morally aware? If so, we can be held responsible as moral beings to the extent that our moral perspectives are amenable with the deepest and most crucial considerations relevant at any point in time. So, do our moral insights form the deepest and most crucial of considerations? If so, we ought to sacrifice other values to our moral values. So, is it worth sacrificing other values to our moral values?
Here we see the need for the example Jesus set forth at his trial. Jesus as God choosing the paradigmatic example of sacrifice answers all of these questions; the message of the cross as “the truth” means that the answer to James’ “radical question of life” is “Yes!” And it means that we answer all other questions concerning our primary values as human beings from the perspective of that “Yes!” the truth purportedly represented by the message of the cross. For the message of the cross becomes the deepest and most crucial consideration for us as human beings by virtue of the status of Jesus’ example as a divine revelation about the meaning of our humanity and the nature of Supreme Being.
In Pilate’s deliberations we see a man depicting how these questions work their way into our lives. Clearly, he decided that the perspective of conscience in Jesus’ trial was not the deepest and most crucial one. Instead he chose to protect his self-interest as determined by whether or not his allegiance to
By way of contrast, Jesus’ willing sacrifice in depiction of the truth about God serves as a resounding Yes! to the radical question of life. And so we see that, from William James’ perspective, it is right for Christians to claim that Jesus is the truth. For he represents the deepest, most radical truth possible for human beings as human beings, when that truth is approached through the meaning of the message of the cross. And the message of the cross—God’s paradigmatic sacrificing of himself for the sake of humanity—tells us that, at bottom, the moral considerations that anchor our nature as free moral agents are the deepest and most crucial ones. Hence, they are worth the sacrifices that will sometimes go along with choosing them. In that way, then, the message of the cross serves as a “Yes!” both to the supreme question and to James’ “radical question of life.”
1. William James, “The Sentiment of Rationality,” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (Dover, New York, 1956) p. 103.
2. Ibid, p. 90.
3. William James, “Reflex Action and Theism,” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, (Dover, New York, 1956) p. 122.
4. William James, “The Will to Believe,” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (Dover, New York, 1956) p. 3.
5. “The Sentiment of Rationality,” p. 103.
6. “The Will to Believe,” p. 11.
7. Ibid, p. 3.
8. Ibid, p. 11.
10. Ibid, p. 16.
11. William James, The Principles of Psychology, Volume 2 (Dover, New York, 1950) p. 573.
12. Ibid, p. 579.
13. “Reflex Action and Theism,” p. 122.
14. “The Sentiment of Rationality,” p. 90.