Friday, August 29, 2008

Into the World--Chapter Two: The Layered Gospel Context

There are many ways to view the passage leading to, containing, and immediately follow in Pilate’s famous question. (John 18:1-19:16)

To begin, note that Jesus prompted Pilate’s question. In response to queries from Pilate—as to whether he was the King of the Jews and why he had been arrested—Jesus said, “My kingdom is not from this world. …” To that statement Pilate sensibly inquired, “So you are a king?” The text of the Gospel reads, “Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’” (John 18:36, 37)

Pilate’s “What is truth?” follows, and one can be forgiven, I hope, for thinking that it is a good question, given the immediate context. Indeed, it reeks irony that Jesus did not take the opportunity to testify about “the truth,” since he claimed that very thing as his life’s purpose. Nor can we simply excuse The Gospel According to John for Jesus’ silence following Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” on the grounds that Pilate chose to walk out on Jesus rather than wait for an answer. For as we have seen, Scripture’s seeming general silence in providing an answer to Pilate’s questions is—if anything—even more troubling, and that silence can not be so easily dismissed.

Earlier in Chapter 18 of the Gospel Jesus replies to questions from his arrestors about his ministry, saying, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in the synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me?” Having just been arrested, the point of Jesus’ comments is obvious. His arrestors should have known why they had arrested him. For making his comments, however, “one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face.” The larger context of Jesus’ arrest, then, provides a vivid rationale for any reticence he displayed. (John 18:19-24) Furthermore, it seems to indicate that the answers we seek will be recorded elsewhere, if we only look—though that rings false with reference to the crucial question at hand.

But a further layer of context again places the exchange in a different light. We return to the enigmatic remarks made after Pilate asked Jesus, “So you are a king?” First Jesus said, “You say that I am a king.” (John 18:37) The reply seems evasive, since Jesus prompted the question. Now an evasive reply can be an attempt to avoid truth, in which case it can be seen as a form of dishonesty, the opposite of truth. The text, however, does not support that interpretation. Jesus’ comment about his kingdom was that it “is not from this world.” (John 18:36) Thus, the words rebut the intended thrust of the accusation, which the accusers pressed against Pilate later in the text: “‘… Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.’”1 (John 19:12)

Further, the remark indicates that Jesus did not advance the claim to be a king, an important point, if he was to be seen as a threat to the emperor. Rather, his accusers advanced the claim. Given this fuller context, then, the implication is that Jesus would not have come to the attention of Pilate as a rival of Rome, because he was not advancing a claim to kingship in a way that would threaten the emperor. From this perspective, the correct move for a person seeking jurisprudence would have been to see whether the accusers in turn had credible evidence to rebut Jesus’ words. That was the business at hand, and Pilate chose—instead—to ask the famous question. So now it is Pilate who seems evasive. Does this observation excuse Jesus once again, and at a deeper level of textual analysis? We must sort through the many layers of point and counterpoint embedded in the text before rendering our judgment.

Adding the next layer, since Jesus prompted the question, fairness to Pilate (as a character in the text) requires us to ask whether he had any justification for turning from the judicial question at hand to a philosophical one. Again, Jesus said, “For this I was born; and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37) A miniature philosophy lesson will be helpful here.

“Truth” is a common noun. It shares that status with a great many other words, such as “dog” and “circle.” And as the words “dog” and “circle” have clear applications to objects of reference most of the time, so does “truth.” Accordingly, to ask what the truth is in a particular instance—say, whether it is true that Spot is a dog for someone familiar with a particular barking, tail-wagging companion named “Spot”—is almost always a matter beneath serious consideration. But as an educated man, Pilate may well have known philosophy, or perhaps been influenced by the opinions of persons who did. And for a philosopher in Pilate’s day, the conceptual standing of a common noun—especially one as near to the heart of philosophy as “truth”—will have been an important point to consider.

Plato’s “doctrine of recollection” was (and may still be) the most famous account of how we are able to understand the meaning of common nouns—such as “truth,” “dog,” or “circle.”2 It held that human souls identify kinds of objects in this world by a recalling their ideal forms. Plato assumed that the human soul is eternal and became familiar with the “ideal forms” of objects in an eternal realm beyond this world. Basically, objects in our world are imperfect copies of their eternal forms, and we “recall” the eternal forms so that they can serve as exemplars for the purpose of making judgments about objects in our world. Plato’s Meno provides a rationale for this view. And it informs his famous “allegory of the cave” from The Republic.

This aspect of Platonism influenced Western thought so heavily that through the Middle Ages to be a realist meant to believe in the reality of these eternal forms, in one philosophical or religious version or another. More significantly, this view influenced the early Christian Church heavily too. For one thing, it contributed to the philosophical perspective behind Gnosticism, Christianity’s first “heresy.”3 In part, Gnosticism arose within Christianity because one cannot believe both that objects in this world are imperfect copies of eternal forms from beyond this world and that Jesus was God incarnate who really came “into the world.” Nevertheless, it is plain that the Platonic view bears on the remarks that prompted Pilate’s question. Did Jesus mean to say that he came into the world to bear testimony to eternal truth in a way that could be compared with the teaching of philosophical schools with which Pilate may well have been familiar? If so, Jesus—not Pilate—shifted the focus from jurisprudence to philosophy.

Furthermore, it is clear that Pilate was not friendly toward those who had arrested Jesus, and the text also makes it clear that he saw no substance in the charge brought by the accusers. It seems possible, then, that he hoped to have an erudite conversation with Jesus; that he hoped to find in Jesus a fellow sophisticate with whom he could strike an understanding against the accusers. On this supposition, had the accusers complained to Rome that Pilate did not crucify this man who set himself against the emperor, Pilate could have produced a cultured, urbane man who was too much of a sophist to be a leader of zealots. Of course this is only a speculation, albeit one that the text leaves open. On the other hand Pilate may have scorned Jesus and his comments along with the accusers, just as Nietzsche claimed (though with unjustified confidence). One cannot say more on the point, since the text does not intimate Pilate’s thoughts to us.

Yet the text suggests a further indication of Jesus’ thoughts. A feature of his statement should jump out at us: the word “the.” Use of the definite article (in contrast to the indefinite article, “a,” or a usage which excludes the use of an article) indicates that what follows “the” is understood. The question that should animate us, then, is “Was there a definite truth that Jesus could presume that Pilate would understand him to mean?” We find a possibility by viewing yet another facet of the context surrounding the famous question. The accusers arrested Jesus not as a threat to the emperor, but as a man whom they claimed violated Jewish religious law. In trying to release Jesus, Pilate was confronted with the fact that the accusers were intent on seeking Jesus’ death: “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.” (John 19:7)

(In passing we can note the slipshod deal that the accusers were trying to force on Pilate—to find Jesus guilty according to Roman law so that they could have him crucified for breaking a Jewish religious law.)

Accordingly, the possibility that Jesus might have expected Pilate to know is that his claim to be the Son of God would explain his relationship to “the truth.” This contextual layer raises an especially strong point of view because it merges the philosophical aspects of the text with the actual charge for which Jesus’ accusers wanted him put to death.

The charge, “he has claimed to be the Son of God,” animated the accusers. It also informed the comment that prompted Pilate’s question, “For this…I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” In Platonic terms we would interpret Jesus’ coming “into the world” to mean this: The eternal, exemplary Son of God came into the world to give us direct testimony to “the truth” about God.

Is this the definitive perspective on the exchange, or is it just one more layer of context? The Prologue of The Gospel answers that question explicitly:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came in to being. …grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:1-3; 17, 18)

“Word” in this text is a translation of “Logos,” which to the Ancient Greeks and Romans meant the divine ordering principle of the world.4 The Prologue sets the context of Pilate’s interaction with Jesus in the broadest possible sense, then, and not only for interpreting the text of the Gospel itself, but for interpreting the text’s theological and philosophical implications. Accordingly, we can be sure that we are to read the philosophical implications into the text of Jesus’ dialog with Pilate. “The truth” that Jesus illumines, according to the full context of The Gospel According to John, is undoubtedly the truth about God.

Yet in a sense the problem of interpreting the text just got far more difficult. For “the truth” about God does not look at all like what we expect the truth about God to be. “Here is the man!” said Pilate, bringing Jesus out for the accusers to see. “Crucify him! Crucify him!” they cried. (John 19:5, 6) To be subject to human judgment and condemnation could not be further from God conceived as the “Supreme Being,” or as the “Almighty,” or as “Lord,” or as the Being “than whom none greater can be conceived,” much less as divine “Word”—the “Logos”—the divine ordering principle of the world. The view of God that the text of The Gospel According to John opens to the reader, then, is God as Supreme Irony, not God as Supreme Being. If one seeks to understand “the truth” about God through Jesus, what does one make of that?

The central point must become this, for there is no other way out if there is to be any hope of an answer: We must ascribe the irony to ourselves, not the text. Why? Because the truth about God in the Gospel is represented by a man about to be crucified! And if we give that representation hypothetical status as “the truth” about God for the purposes of trying to understand it, we are left to assume that it is our view of God that produces the irony, not the text itself, which again, ex hypothesi, depicts the truth. In short, we create the Supreme Irony by our false view of God, or there is no coherent way to view the text as representing the truth about God.

This possibility puts a central aspect of Christian faith in interesting light. “Belief” in Jesus—as has been proclaimed throughout the world for two millennia—is necessary for salvation according to Christian Scripture. Apparently, then, the point of belief in Jesus is to correct our false view of God, the false view that presumably produces the Supreme Irony. That, accordingly, must be the reason why Scripture holds that belief in Jesus is essential for salvation: Belief that Jesus is the divine Logos, the Word of God, would provide the correct view of God to those who believe.

On this hypothesis, the main thrust of the message is to reform our false view of God by giving us Jesus’ testimony to the truth. But this immediately confronts us with a challenge: Jesus—God incarnate, “Christ,” famous teacher, blameless man—standing before a judge deciding whether to have him killed, remained silent in order to testify to the truth about God. And here the irony certainly is embedded in the text as a glaring challenge to the reader. (To make sense of the text, one must act on the assumption that the text does make sense, meaning that we must now “push back” on the view that the text commits a monumental faux pas—metaphorically, at least—by Jesus’ silence.) We address that irony by asking how Jesus’ silence at that crucial moment depicts divinity. We will not press that question yet, but it will, of course, form the centerpiece of the grand perspective to be gained—the mountain’s peak whose successive levels we are forming by adding contextual layers to our understanding of the core text.

It would have been a cheap trick to begin by quoting the Prologue of The Gospel According to John in order to say that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh according to the text, and therefore, his silence in the face of Pilate’s question is the de facto expressed “testimony” of the Word of God. But having examined the faceted context surrounding Pilate’s famous question, we are led back to that very assertion. It is as though the Prologue was placed at the head of the text of the Gospel to make sure that we don’t miss its central point, the crux of Christian faith, that the Supreme Being came into the world as the Supreme Irony to teach us the truth about God.

1. A king whose kingdom is not of this world does not set himself against an emperor whose reign is of this world.
2. For a good overview see Frederick Copleston’s chapter on Plato’s doctrine of forms in Volume I of his A History of Philosophy (Image, 1962).
3. For a good overview see the second chapter of Paul Tillich’s A History of Christian Thought (Simon and Schuster, 1967).
4. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Ed., 1996.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Face of Belief

"...the prestige of our what makes the spark shoot up from them and light up our sleeping magazines of faith." (William James in The Will to Believe, p. 9--emphasis James'.)

It is striking that that sentence is found in an essay frequently included in philosophy of religion texts. And yet it expresses a frank sociological fact: It is difficult to maintain an independent mind when the crowd you run with sees you don't fit in. In this two-week span in which the American Democratic and Republican conventions take center stage so often in the media, I will assume that no elaboration is needed--James was clearly correct to assert that a person's social context is a big factor in determining what particular options that "light up" as candidates for faith.

An objection to this might be that science and philosophy curry skepticism toward opinions from all angles, thus insuring that its faith is "pure." But the counter-objection would be that such a faith only gives prestige to insights that can be rendered true of false through science and philosophy. Whether that point of view sets up a vicious or virtuous circle is itself a matter of faith.

My take on this question has been to point out that the basic values that a person lives by are not subject to inclusion in the reductive processes of science and some forms of philosophy. But recently I have been reading Gabriel Marcel's 1949 Gifford Lecture, The Mystery of Being.

I'll quote Marcel on this topic. "But each one of us can ask himself...'What do I live by?' And this is not a matter so much of some final purpose to which life may be directed as of the mental fuel that keeps a life alight from day to day. For there are...desperate creatures who waste away, consuming themselves like lamps without oil." (p. 82)

Here I should note that I have not had so much trouble picking my way through dense writing since first encountering Kant's first Critique 30 years ago. And by a stroke of luck I have a memory to highlight that first encounter: My rhetoric professor at the University of Northern Colorado handed back a paper that I wrote trying to vindicate faith using Kant's categories with this note written boldly across the front: "This is unreadable!" With that memory serving as a caution to me, I will be careful not to jump to an explanation of Marcel's point of view.

I will, however, cite an interesting theme of his The Mystery of Being. It is inter-subjectivity that pulls us out of "vicious philosophizing," to use his term. (p. 54) The perspective Marcel's work gives us, then, will address--though how well is uncertain--the question of whether science, when reductive, sets up a vicious or virtuous circle. But just as interesting to me is that his use of inter-subjectivity will also address James' seemingly unfortunate fact of human nature--that the crowd we hang with prejudices our beliefs--with a compensating solution: It is through identifying with other persons that I can avoid the "vicious philosophizing" that can accompany even the most scrupulous search for truth. Perhaps it is the way we look at our fellow human beings that puts the right "face" on our beliefs. It is at least worth looking into.

I'll get back to you on this, when my summation is readable! For now I hope that Into the World is proving to be both readable and worth reading as a side light on this theme.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Into the World--Chapter One: Nietzsche's Challenge

“‘For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate Asked him, ‘What is truth?’”

Is there a graver, more searching challenge to Christian faith than the one posed by Nietzsche concerning the exchange (quoted above) between Jesus and Pilate in Chapter 18 of The Gospel According to John? About Pilate’s famous question Nietzsche wrote that it is the “annihilation” of the New Testament.1 Reduced to its components, the exchange contains (1) Jesus’ portentous claim to have come “into the world to testify to the truth” followed by (2) Pilate’s request for Jesus to testify to the meaning of truth; then (3) silence.
Walking in on such an exchange—as posed here—one would likely suspect that it had exposed a charlatan. Occurring in a book written to support the portentous claim (John 20: 30-31), one may well suspect that the text commits a monumental faux pas. Did this seemingly scandalous silence motivate Nietzsche’s notorious comment on the exchange in
The Antichrist: “The noble scorn of a Roman confronted with an impudent abuse of the word ‘truth,’ has enriched the New Testament with the only saying that has value—one which is its criticism, even its annihilation, ‘What is truth?’”2
There is a problem with pinning Nietzsche’s comment to the seeming faux pas. Pilate “does not wait for an answer,”3 a view the Phillips translation makes explicit: “…Pilate retorted, ‘What is truth?’ and went straight out…”4 That simple addition turns a scene in which Jesus looks like a charlatan into one in which Pilate looks impatient and imperious before a man the text identifies as the divine Logos. (Talk about “impudence!”) Moreover, if those who belong to the truth listen to Jesus’ voice, Pilate enacted judgment on himself by not waiting for Jesus’ reply. There can be no doubt that the author of The Gospel According to John intended to convey the irony of Jesus’ judge bringing judgment on himself as he judged Jesus: As we will see, this and other ironies are used throughout the Johaninne passion narrative to maintain a consistent portrayal of Jesus as the divine Logos.5
But this second pass also proves misleading. A gifted philologist, Nietzsche would have been unlikely to have overlooked the intended irony. Thus, it makes sense to look for other grounds specific to his disdain of Jesus’ grand claim—grounds that align him with the scornful attitude toward an “impudent abuse of the word ‘truth’” that he assigns to Pilate. In Concerning Truth and Falsehood in an Extramoral Sense Nietzsche identifies precisely the needed grounds.

Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions, worn out metaphors now impotent to stir the senses, coins which have lost their faces and are considered now as metal rather than currency.6

The application is clear. If truths are illusions, the Jesus of The Gospel According to John was deluded. Thus, for those who share Nietzsche’s point of view, the Johannine narrative still commits a monumental faux pas: The grand claim becomes an artifact of a philosophical naivete that makes Jesus once again look like a charlatan. But this time Pilate’s failure to listen has no bearing on the appraisal. Moreover, the Gospel commits the same faux pas elsewhere. (John. 1: 9; 14: 6) Yet Scripture seems silent throughout about what the claim means, unless one accepts the Prologue of the Gospel as a contextual explanation, that Jesus is the divine Logos. (John 1: 1-18) For a modern skeptic, however, that contextual “explanation” only makes things worse.
Before noting why, some likely rhetorical gambits should be noted and disposed of. First, asking whether Nietzsche’s view that “Truths are illusions” is truer than Jesus’ claim to have come “into the world to testify to the truth,” and second, asking whether a statement attributed to the divine Logos might be taken as seriously as Nietzsche’s opinion. A brief consideration of what Nietzsche meant shows that such comments miss the point.
Nietzsche disparaged metaphysical truths—views of truth that attempt to connect it to realities beyond the mundane world, such as the realm of Platonic ideas or, more directly to the portentous claim that inspired Pilate’s famous question, the divine Logos. In the same breath it is important to note that he did not deny ordinary truths of a kind that everyone is familiar with. For example, that a whole is equal to the sum of its parts or that it is true for me now that I am writing these words on Monday, January 28, 2008. Being a truth of reason and a matter of fact, respectively, such mundane “truths” require no grounding outside of human experience to understand.7 Accordingly, what Nietzsche denied is that there is any kind of truth grounded in a deeper or higher or more enlightened perspective than is available to human beings who are investigating this world. Bluntly, he denied that there is any grand truth that requires a divine Logos to come “into the world” to reveal it. That is the rationale behind Nietzsche’s venomous comment.
Though I do not share Nietzsche’s view of truth, I do think that his challenge to the meaningfulness of Jesus’ grand “truth claim” is crucial. For if a man speaks of having come “into the world to testify to the truth,” an explanation is needed, and no amount of ironic plot intervention can alter that. Admittedly, that Pilate walked out on Jesus before he could respond may have prevented Jesus, at that juncture in the narrative, from testifying to the truth. Nevertheless, the Gospel purportedly records Jesus’ teachings, and that makes it extremely odd that if his stated life purpose was to come “into the world to testify to the truth,” that the truth to which he came to testify is nowhere directly explained. The point can be stated simply. Jesus’ grand claim sounds philosophical, but philosophical explanations are nowhere to be found in the New Testament.
Nor will it work to say that the author of John did not intend to make a philosophical point with Jesus’ words. Written at a time when Stoicism and Neo-Platonism would have leant considerable prestige to Jesus’ claim, the Gospel could have used it to good effect. But the intervening 2,000 years have exposed—even burlesqued—grand metaphysical claims as empty in the eyes of many intellectuals. For many today it is science which informs our “higher” understanding of truth, and science borrows no meanings from religion or metaphysical speculation.8 In short, a modern intellectual might well be expected to respond to Jesus’ claim just as the Phillips translation depicts Pilate to have done. Again, “…Pilate retorted, ‘What is truth?’ and went straight out…” Nietzsche was clearly correct in this sense: The scene of the exchange between Jesus and Pilate can be seen to depict the same dismissive attitude toward religious and metaphysical claims that one expects from many intellectuals today.
In a sense we have arrived again where our first reading left us: Jesus’ portentous claim followed by Pilate’s question followed by a silence which suggests a charlatan. Only now we understand the “silence” as a historically-rendered void that a metaphysically-informed religious meaning used to fill. For in spite of the fact that the text presents us with an exculpatory irony in Pilate’s failure to listen to Jesus, the culpability remains at a deeper level: Nowhere does Scripture explain Jesus’ grand metaphysical and religious claim to have come into the world to testify to the truth, at least in a way that will satisfy many Post-Enlightenment intellectuals. In that case Scripture’s culpable silence in response to Pilate’s famous question can be seen to remain, and Jesus as the divine Logos who came “into the world to testify to the truth” remains the object of that culpability for that silence. Thus, the famous exchange between Pilate and Jesus can still be viewed as a scene that depicts a monumental faux pas by way of Jesus’ silence, because it can be seen to function as a metaphor for a wider Scriptural silence.
Or does it? In fact, the purpose of this little book is to accept Nietzsche’s challenge and show that Scripture does respond. The purpose of this introduction, then, is to frame a skeptical point of view to which Scripture provides the counterpoint. In stark contradistinction to Nietzsche’s perspective on the exchange, Into the World shows that a careful examination of the Gospel text, in light of a full biblical context, reveals not only an answer to Pilate’s famous question, but to what William James called “the radical question of life.”9 Ironically, the “answer” is embedded in the very passion narrative from which the exchange with Pilate is taken. As shall come to light, to speak of Jesus as the truth is to say that the passion narrative portrays the answer to the core question of what it means to be a human being. That is, Scripture presents Jesus as the true revelation of ourselves to ourselves.10

1. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, Passage 46, tr. Walter Kaufmann, in The Portable

Nietzsche, (Penguin Books, New York, 1982) p. 627.
2. Ibid.
3. R. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1983) p. 142.
(I would have missed this point without Dr. Culpepper’s help.)
4. The New Testament in Modern English, tr. J. B. Phillips, (Copyright © The Macmillan Company 1952, 1957).
5. Chapters Six and Seven.
6. Friedrich Nietzsche, tr. Arthur C. Danto, in Arthur C. Danto, Nietzsche as Philosopher,
(Columbia University Press, New York, 1965) p. 39.
7. “Truths of reason” and “matters of fact” derive from the famous passage that ends David Hume’s An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Charles W. Hendel (Macmillian Publishing Company, New York, 1989): “If we take in our hand any volume—of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance—let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” (p. 173)
8. Chapter 6 of Kenneth R. Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God contains a good discussion of scientific reductionism as it is held by some notable scientists today and pitted against religious belief. (HarperCollins, New York, 1999).
9. William James, “The Sentiment of Rationality,” in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in

Popular Philosophy, (Dover, New York, 1956) p. 103.
10. Obviously Christians will argue against a reductive view of truth (for instance, see But Is It All True? The Bible and the Question of Truth, ed. Alan G. Padgett and Patrick R. Keifert, (William B. Eerdmann’s Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 2006)). Into the World takes a different tack: to show how the Christian gospel can meaningfully be called “the truth.” from within a reductive standpoint.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Why "Cut the Crap"?

"Cut the crap." I have never heard the phrase without an accompanying intonation of anger or frustration directed at one's conversation partner. "Crap," after all, is not a compliment or a term of endearment.

That said, I have heard the phrase used to confront dissembling and equivocation, and to good effect. It's a speech act; a confrontation to expose or challenge scam or pretense.

With Into the World I would like to confront religious anti-intellectualism, secular anti-religious intellectualism, and the dominant non-intellectualism of mainstream culture. In all likelihood that makes Into the World foolhardy. A verbal version of tilting at wind mills. A message without a sympathetic audience. An exercise in futility.

Does that sound like a frustrating predicament for me? Yea. But it might just be an appropriate description of a malaise at the core of our culture too. And if it is, then maybe it's time that someone sounds a challenge.

That's my take. And I think that you'll agree, with Nietzsche's help, Into the World will cut through a whole lot of--um--yea, "crap" is the right word.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Into the World--Abstract and Prologue


Abstract and Prologue

Chapter One: Nietzsche’s Challenge
Chapter Two: The Layered Gospel Context
Chapter Three: Today’s Warring Intellectual Context
Chapter Four: A Perpetual Warring Intellectual Context
Chapter Five: A Primer—The Bible’s Broadest Theme
Chapter Six: The Voice of Conscience
Chapter Seven: The Voice of God as the Passion Event
Chapter Eight: Tillich’s Challenge

Chapter Nine: Hypothesizing the Cross as Supreme Answer
Chapter Ten: A Challenge from Enlightened Self-Interest
Chapter Eleven: A Challenge from Kantian Autonomy
Chapter Twelve: The View from James’ Radical Question
Chapter Thirteen: The View from Sartre’s Bad Faith
Chapter Fourteen: Kierkegaard’s Challenge to Intelligibility


Concerning Pilate’s famous question, “What is truth?” Scripture as a whole is silent at a philosophical level.That categorical silence seems scandalous, since Jesus’ metaphysical claim to have come “into the world to testify to the truth” prompted the question. Analysis of the full biblical context, however, reveals the opposite: The passion story does in fact portray an answer to Pilate’s question, as well as to what William James called “the radical question of life.” Part One focuses mainly on the biblical context. Part Two provides a conceptual context to frame the biblical.

At the base of the highest mountain in Colorado there used to be a notebook in which hikers put their names and times of departure for the peak. It also had a comment section where, the day that I entered my name in the book, a wit had scribed “Too steep!” This book started out as an attempt to write an intellectually sound account of Christian faith for my son, one that I hoped would not be too difficult. I soon realized, however, that “intellectually sound” and “difficult” tend to go together in the same way that “mountain” and “steep” do. I, at least, could not produce a compelling view of faith without requiring my reader to surmount some difficulties. In place of an easy account of Christian faith, I can only hope to substitute one that will provide intellectual adventure and mind-expanding vistas for the reader. To reach the point where faith can be seen to play its defining role in human life, I think, is a summit worthy of some effort.

But be advised: A faith that does not engage doubt does not engage humanity’s core existential question, namely, “Is there a best or right way to understand our humanity?” In coming to see that faith plays a defining role in human life, it will become clear that the polemical line between faith and skepticism runs right through the human heart, rendering any one-sided view of faith meaningless without its counterpart: there can be no mountain without an accompanying lowland. That is, the point of faith—its “peak”—emerges from doubt. Those who treat doubt as the opposite of faith, instead of its origin, will not see faith’s core meaning.

Upon hearing me explain that I decided not to go to seminary because I had too many unresolved questions, a pastor friend recently replied, “I was too smart to get tangled up with those questions.” We both let the foot-in-mouth remark pass, as was appropriate in friendly conversation. Yet it illustrates an all too common attitude that this little book seeks to challenge and set right: that faith and skepticism are antonyms. This little monograph confronts Christian anti-intellectualism by illustrating that skepticism at its greatest depth leads to an understanding of faith at its greatest height. Accordingly, I have placed the most trenchant criticism of Christian faith that I know of at the beginning of this little book: Nietzsche’s comment on the exchange between Jesus and Pilate in The Gospel According to John—the exchange which led to Pilate’s famous question, “What is truth?”

Enjoy the climb.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Pure Metaponderance: A Public Invitation to Justine, Carl, and Marcus

"The ordinary man needs philosophy because the claims of pleasure tempt him to become a self-deceiver and to argue sophistically against what appear to be the harsh demands of morality." The writer is H. J. Paton, and he is engaged in an analysis of Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, which serves as an introduction to his translation of the work. (p. 23) Kant's basic point, in Paton's estimation, is that we "ordinary" humans tend to be uncritical of our self-serving motivations. And if we generalize Kant's perspective--that people tend to "argue...against the harsh demands of morality"--we should not be surprised to discover that a person's motivations are "impure."

[Note: All readers are welcome, but the post title explicitly invites Justine, Carl, and Marcus to this blog. So here I will try to tailor my words to them as young people with little background in philosophy. Accordingly, I here avoid Kantian subtleties and focus on their practical importance. But I will return to the Groundwork in later posts to cover some of its subtle but crucial points, since the Groundwork is a key historical text for understanding the point of view that I hope to represent in this blog.]

In a moral context "impure" usually has a sexual meaning, and if not that, it refers to vested interests playing a role in what what should be "purely" moral considerations. It is the second focus on keeping moral considerations free of external motives that Kant has in mind. But he gave it a particularly strong emphasis. For Kant there is only one "pure" motive in morality and ethics: It is to "Act only on that maxim...which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." (p. 88--Emphasis is Kant's.) That "maxim," strenuously applied, removes all particular points of view in favor of a single, universally valid, moral framework. It is the one motivation that assures the person engaged in moral calculation that her point of view is not biased in favor of those motivations that cater to her self-interest. And it is precisely the need to avoid the self-deception brought in by points of view that are not purely moral that Kant thought made a philosophical critique of moral perspectives necessary: We need to guard our intellectual purity in order to protect our moral purity.

I intend to challenge that point in the future, but for now we can use it to ask an important question. Can a person who has not "purified" her point of view, as described, be viewed as trustworthy, even to herself or himself? I would go further isn't Kant's point crucial for anyone who wants to avoid the moral self-deception that can infect our moral perspectives? Clearly that is a possibility that needs to be taken seriously.

Yesterday as I thought about inviting Justine, Marcus, and Carl to read my blog, I listened to a National Public Radio story about a camp for young free thinkers called Camp Inquiry. I was amazed to here the usual stereotypes pedaled about traditional religious believers being uncritical in their beliefs and critical thinkers being opposed to "uncritical" religious beliefs. In light of the present thoughts, that is particularly unsettling. For if Kant was right about intellectual purity being the basis for moral purity, and if religious faith is pitted against critical thinking, then faith is not only a mistake from the standpoint of intellectual honesty, but it is inherently dangerous as a road block to the critical thinking that underlies moral purity! Wow! That's a huge accusation.

Yet Kant concludes the Groundwork with, "...while we do not comprehend the...necessity of the moral imperitive, we do comprehend its incomprehensibility." (p. 131, emphasis is Kant's) Now I said that i would not get into the subtleties of Kant's view. So just consider this: Ironically, in Kant's mind, the quote just cited that makes faith the basis of morals. And it turns the accusation just given on its head: Critical inquiry--in at least one area, and arguably the most important--explains the need for faith, rather than undermines it.

As young people who take your faith seriously, I think that it is critical to know that it should be seen as the culmination of critical inquiry, rather than a road block to it--as the stereotype so often leads one to believe. And if you have not taken your faith seriously enough to understand that, do you expect those you talk to about your faith to take you seriously? Especially when you will be reinforcing the stereotype, rather than challenging it?

Nearly thirty years ago I decided not to go to seminary, because I did not have answers to important questions that I needed to confront, just to be intellectually honest. Heading down the path of inquiry has been an adventure for me. I invite you to partake in that adventure by reading the posts comprising Into the World, which will follow at a rate of one per week over the next four months.

I do not claim to have all the answers, but I do claim to have some really good questions that put faith in a pretty good light. And all three of you are bright enough to take these first steps that I can guide you through and go well beyond them, if that ever becomes your goal.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Day Trip Thought Experiment

I love Duluth. Gateway to the world's largest lake (by surface area) and the famed "North Shore" of Minnesota. Home to the longest freshwater stretch of beach on Earth. Scene of both human and natural activities on a Titanic scale, with much of the city forming a huge amphitheater around the harbor, as if the landscape had contrived to say, "Look at me and be amazed!" And on a more personal note, searching the shore for its best skipping stones and flinging them out onto the water in my lifelong quest to turn rock skipping into an art form--well, for me leisure activities don't get any better than that. I'm a kid among kids with my family there.

How, then, did it come to pass that Duluth took second place to the drive there yesterday? Simple. I was delighted beyond expressing to have had such an engaging and intelligent conversation with my family on the way up. The conversation culminated in a thought experiment about, of all things, the first Christian martyrdom. (I know, it's a bit weird to describe a discussion about that as delightful beyond expression--but the source of the delight was to have a great discussion with my family.) To the thought experiment.

Imagine being there with Stephen calling out that he sees "the heavens opened, and the Son of man sitting at the right hand of God"? (Acts 7:56--And just pretend that Stephen and the other First Century Jewish people around you are speaking English.) The context of Stephen's claim is that he had been appointed a leader in the early Church, became well known for confounding those he argued with in public about the Church's message, and had that very thing get him arrested and accused of blasphemy.

Up to this point his story parallels the passion story. But before his accusers--instead of remaining silent like a lamb about to be slaughtered, as with the gospel portrayal of Jesus--Stephen takes the opposite tack. At length he recounts examples from Hebrew Scripture where the Jewish people did not listen to the prophetic voice of those who spoke for God.

Conceptually, Stephen's defense makes great sense. If God's people have failed so many times in the past to understand the plain will of God, perhaps those who have brought the charges against him for blasphemy are doing the same. Sounds good, in the abstract. But in the concrete situation of facing people accusing him of blasphemy, accusing them in return of enacting one more instance in a long line of corrupt and incompetent judgments, well, that's a bit like throwing a bomb on a hot fire.

And it went off. That is, Stephen got stoned to death and "on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered..." (Acts 8:1)

In discussing this scene we noted a complete lack of trust on both sides paired with emotionally charged, contradictory points of view. One side viewed the other as a blaspheming purveyor of lies while the other side in turn viewed its opponent as an incompetent, corrupt judges about the charge in question. If you are wondering where the cooler heads were in this matter, apparently there were none.

This story got me thinking, because it is my hope to prompt discussion about alternative points of view about religion and philosophy in my posts--the "big ideas" in a phrase borrowed from the Templeton Foundation's series. And it seems that we could set up a dilemma of sorts that would make my hope seem naive. On the one hand there are questions that people care about deeply because they support the values and assumptions that they live by. Those are the big and important and interesting questions. But they are also emotionally charged, potentially explosive even, and it might well be unrealistic to expect a cordial, enlightening "conversation" to be had about them. On the other end of the spectrum there is small talk--the topics that fill most of our interaction with other people during the course of the day. You know, the weather, the local sports teams, the price of gas, and the like.

So we drove we discussed how the dilemma of choosing between big but potentially explosive versus boring but safe conversations might be foiled. And on the way to Duluth we came up with this--helpful, I think--insight: Before asking one of the big questions, one ought to ask whether our conversation partner would mind considering the opposite point of view. If they say no, you have avoided a possible "explosion." If they say yes, you have gained a partner in what will possibly be a great conversation. And that is precisely what my family and I discovered on our way to Duluth, because as we discussed religious points of view we did not agree about everything. Yet we had a wonderful conversation--including thoughts about how credible Stephen's "defense" and his claim to see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of God were.

For my part, if I were at the scene of Stephen's trial, I'd call out, "First ask them whether they are willing to consider your point of view!" And what I'd really like to know is whether the Son of man was shaking his head with incredulity in Stephen's vision. But then again, perhaps my little insight doesn't apply at a blasphemy trial... I do hope that we can avoid that.