Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Corpse of Objectivity--Second Etude on Marcel

Before diving into the topic of this post, I would like to begin with what at once seems to be a diversion and yet is an inescapable entailment of Marcel's investigations: the significance and relevance of ordinary experience for understanding religious and philosophical ideas. What I mean is that we expect philosophy and theology to pose questions and answers to life's big questions. And big philosophical and religious systems rise. To illustrate just stating the names of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas, Descartes...and why belabor the obvious by adding names? By sheer contrast it is difficult, at first, to understand Marcel precisely because what he writes about seems not to even be tangential to the Western canon. Where's the relevance? What Marcel does is focus on quotidian things--family relationships, what it means to say something is ours, how one thinks about oneself--and uses those "things" to help us see that philosophy, and more broadly objective thought, cannot grasp even the quotidian experiences of life (let alone the big questions?--I don't know how he would answer, because he doesn't address them, but the bearing of his musings seem to imply that critique). To use a quote cited in the first Marcel post, he shows that "[One's life]...refuses to tally with itself." (167)

For convenience I'm going to do something very un-Marcel like: I'm going to isolate this theme in his thought and label it, as "the self-elusive life force" (SELF) at the core of human consciousness.

In Marcel's words, "...there is this kernel that I feel to be there at the centre; and this kernel is nothing other than the experience--an experience which of its very nature cannot be formulated in intellectual terms--by which my body is mine." (97) In context Marcel was considering what it means to own something.

The clearest example of this "SELF" in The Mystery of Being comes from Chapter VIII, entitled "My Life." There Marcel notes, "My life presents itself to reflection as something whose essential nature is that it can be related as a story..." (154) And, "From...this one might be tempted to draw a very simple...conclusion: that the only thing that can give me an exact idea of what my life has been like will be a [very detailed] diary..." (156) But, "As I re-read it...[my diary] produces a chaotic impression;...has my life really been this chaos? If it has, there is nothing more to say; life and diary are both rubbish dumps. Or at least I am in danger of thinking so; but at the same time I feel a kind of inner certainty that I cannot really have lived such a shoddy...purposeless life. life now that it is no longer being lived [in reflection on the diary entries], has been changed by magic into its own corpse--into a record which no more resembles the life I did lead than a corpse resembles a vigorous, handsome living body." (158)

To capture what has happened to make one's record of one's life seem corpse-like, Marcel grasps another metaphor: "...have I really good grounds for thinking that there remains no more of my life now than there remains of a burnt-out firework...?" (158)

Clearly, the self-elusive life force (SELF) is not captured in the account of one's life. The drive, the life, that lead oneself to do the acts recorded in one's story or diary is the very thing that cannot be captured in recounting the acts. It is the SELF which needs to be represented in the diary, the story, and it is precisely the SELF that is needed to understand the otherwise corpse-like account of one's acts--an account that has the value of burnt-out fireworks.

But any objective account of one's life will necessarily leave out the animating life force that gave purpose and meaning to the acts that can seem so lifeless in retrospect. But that is inevitable. For if one cannot capture one's SELF, one cannot capture a record of oneself.

I will be musing on this aspect of Marcel's thought for some time. But mostly I will be thinking about this: He uses concrete examples taken from life experience to challenge the view that life can be objectively represented in a way that we find satisfying. In contrast to this, we see neuroscience advancing in ways that will have us in better position as we go forward to understand the biology of consciousness. Of that I have little doubt, even as a distant amateur observer. Will SELF survive? I think so, since one's motivations--those interests and desires that motivate us--must be experienced from within the framework of the subject. And that means that SELF puts the self out of the reach of science.

In the next and last Marcel post (taken from Vol. I of The Mystery of Being--I antici8pate more at a later date from Vol. II) we will consider this quote: "The truth seems to be that...there is no middle ground between the subhuman and the superhuman." (166) That is a statement rife with interest from a theological perspective...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Into to World--Chapter Six: The Voice of Conscience

We do not yet appreciate the full irony of Jesus’ silence following Pilate’s question. The comment that directly inspired it was, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37) The set-up was perfect. All that Jesus needed to do was to answer Pilate’s question, and he would have given Pilate—and through Scripture countless others—a chance to listen to the purported truth. Instead he chose silence. Does that mean that he provided no answer? Not necessarily.

That would depend on what Jesus meant by “my voice.” If we were to take his words literally, only those who could literally have heard his voice while he lived in Palestine for about the first thirty years C.E. had a chance to listen to, and hence belong to, the truth. Clearly that is false by any reasonable interpretation of the text.

Did Jesus then mean “listen” in the sense of “are willing to take the words of Scripture to heart,” then? That is an improvement over the clearly false sense just considered. Yet this interpretation also suffers from a form of the same defect. As one must be in earshot of Jesus to have a chance to belong to the truth in the first case, here one must either read the Bible for oneself or be within earshot of someone else who is reciting it out loud to belong to the truth. But that interpretation is incompatible with belonging to the truth being the condition of listening to Jesus’ voice. For if the condition of belonging to the truth must be in place for a person to listen to Jesus’ voice, reading or hearing Jesus’ words themselves does not prompt the listening that marks the presence of truth in the person’s life. Thus, belonging to “the truth”—by dint of being a pre-condition of listening to Jesus’ voice—does not equate with acquiescing in hearing or reading the words of Scripture. Set that aside, then.

` Let’s return to the observation that Jesus chose silence at the very point when his silence was most ironic. What if Pilate already knew the truth to which Jesus referred? What if he was already struggling with whether or not to “listen” to Jesus’ voice? What if that was precisely what was going through Pilate’s mind at the very moment Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice”? That, I will argue, is precisely what the text suggests.

The point at which the accusers brought Jesus before Pilate provides several telling observations. First, the accusers would not enter the Praetorium—Pilate’s residence and the Roman headquarters—“…so as to avoid ritual defilement…” (John 18:28) The implication for Pilate could only be insulting. Adding to the insult, the circumstance forced Pilate to accommodate the accusers in order to hear their case. The circumstance would have been annoying to the Roman Governor in the least.

Second, when Pilate asked about the accusation, the accusers said, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” (John 18:30) In effect, “Do our bidding, and don’t bother with questions.” Pilate balked at the suggestion, saying “Take him yourselves, and judge him according to your law.” (John 18: 31) But in response the accusers stated that they had brought Jesus to him because they could not put him to death. The implication, again, is insulting—this time in the extreme—that the accusers wanted Pilate to condemn a man to death without conducting an inquiry into the case! To anyone with any moral sensibility, the request was unconscionable and offensive.

Yet Pilate played along with it. That is the overriding situation in Pilate’s mind, unless he was a very stupid or a very evil man, and the text indicates the opposite, that he was very much aware of the significance of his circumstance. Having repeatedly—three times—announced that he found no case against Jesus, Pilate is told that Jesus must die according to Jewish law, because “he has claimed to be the Son of God.” (John 19:7) The following paragraph reads, “Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever.” The text thus clearly indicates that Pilate understood and was disturbed by the situation facing him. (John 19:8)

We have noted the reason that Pilate felt compelled to go along with the accusers: the charge that Jesus claimed to be the King of the Jews. And we have seen how Jesus responded to the charge, saying that “My kingdom is not of this world,” thereby indicating that his kingship did not constitute a challenge to Rome’s authority. (John 18:36) It was at this juncture that we noted the clear responsibility of a person seeking jurisprudence in the case against Jesus: to determine whether the accusers could rebut Jesus’ statement. Pilate’s famous question followed instead, albeit with the clear justification noted.

How do these considerations affect the possibility that Pilate was struggling with the truth that Jesus referred to at the very moment that he asked his famous question? Reducing the situation that Pilate faced to its barest possible expression, he proclaimed Jesus to be innocent but had to endanger himself to set him free; thus, self-interest and justice were opposed in his mind. And he appears to have understood this very well by the fact that he tried to avoid the bind in several ways. 1. He tried to reject the case: “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” (John 18:31) 2. At least two, and the text seems to indicate several times more, he tried to get the accusers to accept that he found no case against Jesus. (John 18:38, 19:4, and 19:12) 3. He reminded the accusers of the custom of releasing a prisoner for the Passover and tried to get them to agree to have it be Jesus who was released. (John 18:39, 40) And 4. He tried reasoning with Jesus, saying, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” (John 19:10) But Jesus gave Pilate no help out of the bind, and the accusers reiterated its source: “If you release this man you are no friend of the emperor.” (John 19:12)

Thus Pilate was forced to choose between sentencing an innocent man to death and calling his allegiance to Rome into question, thereby endangering his position as its procurator. Pilate could not bring himself to do the right thing morally and legally at the cost of putting his position in danger. When he weighed his self-interest against saving an innocent man’s life, the innocent man’s life was forfeited. To anyone with a conscience, its voice would be speaking loudly indeed in such a circumstance! In fact, all indications from the text are that Pilate’s conscience was shouting. But Pilate did not listen to the voice of conscience, and that at the very time that Jesus told him that he had come into the world to bear witness to the truth and that those who are of the truth listen to his voice. What do we make of that? Can Jesus’ voice be understood to be the voice of conscience, thus reversing our judgment that he did not speak in reply to Pilate’s question?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Into the World--Chapter Five: The Bible's Broadest Theme

The goal here is to understand the biblical story of the fall as it relates to the message of the cross, not to form or critique a sectarian view of the story’s origin. Many other books do that sort of analysis. Recall the exchange with Richard Dawkins in which Ken Miller said “I regard Genesis as a spiritual truth,” and then proceeded to give a brief rationalization for why Scripture was not written like science.1 The Discovery article described Dawkins, in response, as almost levitating “out of his seat with indignation.”2 It is time to examine a foundational part of the “spiritual meaning” to be found in Genesis, and having done the examination, to judge whether Dawkins’ indignation was warranted.

The first three chapters of the Bible are among the most famous, covering the two creation stories followed immediately by the story of “the fall.” Having created the world, the story tells us that God set Adam in charge of the Garden of Eden with only one prohibition: “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (Genesis 2:16-17) In the story God brings all the animals that he has created to Adam to be named. While performing the task it becomes clear to Adam that he needs a partner, and God creates Eve to be Adam’s by taking flesh from his side. According to the story, the first couple were “naked, and were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25)

Into this primal picture of innocence creeps a Serpent who asks Eve for clarification about the prohibition. The Serpent then contradicts God’s warning, saying, “You will not die…” (Genesis 3:4) The contradictory statement, of course, sets up a choice, whether to believe God or the Serpent. To bolster his chances of winning her trust, the Serpent casts doubt on God’s motive for the prohibition. “…God knows that when you eat of [the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] …you will be like God.” (Genesis 3:5) The story goes on to tell us that Eve saw that the tree was beautiful, had fruit that looked good to eat, and—if the Serpent was to be believed—made one wise. Thus, by casting doubt on God’s motive for the prohibition, advancing the possibility of becoming godlike by breaking it, and appealing to the tree’s desirability, the Serpent gained Eve’s trust, and through her Adam’s too.

As long as Adam and Eve could assume that any good thing should be made available to them, God is automatically suspect for keeping an apparent good from them. Armed with that assumption, the Serpent’s words are free to do their work. God does not want me to have a good thing that is clearly available; so, apparently, God does not want what is good for me. At that point disregarding God’s prohibition and trusting the Serpent makes sense.

But does the assumption make sense when questioned? Doesn’t the assumption that any good thing should be made available to me fly in the face of the fact that others have good things that I have no right to take? Isn’t being friends with other persons incompatible with a boundless prerogative to pursue self-interest? Clearly these considerations are the case; just as clearly the operating assumption, which on the face of it seemed reasonable, turns out to be false in the context of a caring, trusting relationship. In fact, friendship can sometimes only be maintained at great personal cost. Returning to The Gospel According to John for commentary, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) On that almost tautologically true view, the greater a friendship is the greater the willingness of a friend is to make sacrifices for the friendship. Thus, friendship puts at least some limit on the pursuit of self-interest—to cite the most pertinent instance, not stealing from persons who are my friends, as Adam and Eve surely should have understood. And a person who does not understand that does not have the capacity to be a friend.

Accordingly, the story of the fall ends with a visit from God in the garden; followed by the revelation of Adam and Eve’s theft; and then this: “[God] drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed…a sword… to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:24) Dramatically, emphatically, friendship with God ended.

What does one make of this story? In a search for the source of an intellectual conversion to a false view of God, it certainly stands out. It would constitute a clear and decisive origin in Scripture for the false conceptual conversion, if it can be agreed that it is so. And it clearly colors all of Scripture to follow; for never again in the Bible is humankind pictured in a caring, trusting relationship with God. But does the story of the fall produce a view of God contrary to the Supreme Irony? If so, the desiderata noted at the end of the last chapter will have been met.

In fact, the basic elements of the story of the fall do form a foil to the Supreme Irony. First, whereas the Serpent brings to the fore what God will not give to humanity, the message of the cross, when we look to the most famous portion of the text of The Gospel According to John, is that there is nothing so precious that God will not give it for the sake of humanity: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes…” (John 3:16) Second, that which God withholds from humanity in the Genesis story forms the basis for the seed of doubt that the Serpent uses to call God’s words into question. By contrast, in the message of God on the cross, that which God does not spare for the sake of humanity—his Son—forms the basis of Christian faith in God. And third, whereas Scripture tells us that believing the Serpent’s account of God lead to death, believing “the message of the cross” brings eternal life: “…so that everyone who believes…may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) It surely appears to be the case that to believe the message of the cross is to believe in a view of God that foils the view that the Serpent preached to Eve in the garden.3

More interestingly, when in the Genesis story the first humans chose to act on the temptation to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they chose to put self-interest above their friendship with God as evidenced by (1) that they chose not to trust God, (2) that they chose to violate God’s prohibition, (3) that they did so rather than protect their relationship with God, and (4) that they implicitly chose to believe that God did not have their best interest in mind. By acting to pursue what they believed to be in their best interest, then, Adam and Eve broke their relationship with God; they chose self-interest over preserving their relationship with God. The image of the first humans hiding from God at the end of the story of the fall depicts their awareness of the implications of their choice.

Most interestingly, if we allow the message of the cross to be used as a commentary on the fall, by placing their perceived interests above their friendship with God, Adam and Eve became ungodly. For to be godly in Christian terms means becoming like Jesus who, in the words of an early hymn that Paul quotes, “emptied himself” in order to obediently convey divine love to humanity,

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form
of God,
did not regard equality with
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking on the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the
point of death—
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)

The contrast is unmistakable. Humanity takes from God with the hope of becoming like God, whereas godliness is emulated by giving. The message of the cross—the Supreme Irony as Supreme Being—corrects that error by enacting the Supreme Gift and making faith in it the crucial aspect of authentic faith. It could not be clearer: The message of the cross corrects the serpent’s message at the fall.

Moreover, this view comports with the core Christian view of God as love. For love is a transitive concept and so can only be realized in a relationship. Adam and Eve broke their relationship with God when they placed self-interest over remaining true to the relationship. In doing so they became antithetical to what it means to be godlike, as expressed by Christian Scripture.

In short, for a human being to be godlike—from the perspective of Christian faith—means to be like Jesus, and to be like Jesus means to be willing to sacrifice oneself for the sake of one’s love for others. Hence, loving self-sacrifice for one’s friends versus self-seeking sacrifice of the trust integral to one’s relationships are the contrary views which emerge when we juxtapose the Genesis story with the message of the cross—the message that Paul calls foolishness from the side of “the world’s wisdom.”

And clearly there is much to the contrast beyond the scriptural text. For if one asks whether self-interest or loyalty in human relationships ought to serve as the primary motivation when those two domains of human value come into conflict, the question tears the human psyche in two. What is humanity, at bottom, a mass of self-seeking individuals, or a mass of individuals willing to sacrifice self-interest when necessary to preserve the integrity of the web of relationships that comprises human society? If I give up what I value most, I am a fool. The question is, “Which choice will define foolishness for me?” The answer is determined by what I choose as my primary source of motivation, and that choice informs the core of Christian faith and belief.

The message of God on the cross—the Supreme Irony as Supreme Being—clearly has its foil in the story of the fall. Thus, for Christian Scripture to be understood as literature in the most basic sense, the Supreme Irony of God on the cross as a corrective to the Genesis fall must be understood. At the most basic level, the message of the cross serves as the moral complement to the story of the fall, and that complementary nexus informs the Christian Bible’s overarching message and comprises its broadest unifying theme. One cannot be said to understand the Christian Bible on its most basic level without understanding that nexus of meaning. To approach the Christian Bible as literature and fail to see that nexus as its unifying theme is to fail to understand the Christian Bible.

That theme sets up a point of view that comports fully with Ken Miller’s view that Genesis should be regarded as a story that expresses a spiritual truth as opposed to a scientific truth. It seems reasonable that one should judge literature by the value of what it says, as opposed to what it does not say. What the Genesis story does say contributes fundamentally to understanding the Christian Bible’s core meaning. If one returns to attitudes expressed toward the Bible by the likes of Hitchens and Dawkins, it is clear that their remarks fail to comprehend this most basic level of scriptural meaning: “But what does that mean!?”3 It is a telling question.

1. Quoted in Stephen S. Hall, “Darwin’s Rottweiler,” Discover, Vol. 26 No. 9, September 2005 (
2. Ibid.
3. Scholars now understand the interpretive methods used by New Testament writers in expositing the meaning of Jesus’ life through the lens of Jewish Scripture. For a non-technical historical overview of the methods see Karen Armstrong’s The Bible a Biography (Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2007). My aim here is to identify the central interpretive lens, and thereby get to the core meaning of Christian faith. There is no historical reason—that I know of—to think that the first Christians imposed this interpretation on Jesus’ crucifixion: Its “fit” can just as well explain the interpretation.
4. Hall, ibid.

The Rational Animal Takes Another Hit

I just got a call from a telemarketer saying that she was making a courtesy call.

Curious, I asked, "In what sense does your call extend a courtesy to me?"

She hung up, but not without extending to me the courtesy of a good laugh.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Is Scientific Hegemony Coherent?

[I just posted the following on the Templeton Foundation's discussion area to the question, "Does Science make Belief in God Obsolete?" Since it stems from the last post, I thought I'd include it here.]

Not everyone thinks that the idea of a coming scientific hegemony is even coherent, let alone likely. Consider two challenges.

First, the plot summary of Gabriel Marcel’s L’ Homme de Dieu (I further compress Marcel’s summary from his 1949 Gifford Lecture in The Mystery of Being, Vol. I, p. 153.): A young pastor overcomes enervating self-doubt after discovering that his wife has had an affair when he finds the strength to forgive her. Later the man with whom the wife had the affair returns, is dying, and wants to see the child who was born out of the affair. The husband grants a visit. But the wife interprets the grant as “a professional gesture” that shows he has no “real, human love” for her, since she believes that would preclude the grant. “…she…infects her husband with her doubts,” and he returns to his enervating self-doubt.

Is there any reason to suppose that a complete scientific account of a man’s mental states in such a situation might remove his self-doubt by replacing it with an indubitable scientific account by which mental states are translated into brain states, as if the man were suffering because he lacked scientific understanding? In point of fact the man is in an existential crisis, and science offers no help because it is irrelevant.

And second, is the grand evolutionary narrative likely to answer questions concerning how human values and morals are to be ordered, as though the naturalistic fallacy just needs a few more facts to be overwhelmed by the logic of science? If so, the facts must be nicely behaved to fit the needs of scientists cum moral philosophers. How thoughtful of my Viking and Saxon forebears to have stabbed and clubbed their way to victory with biological imperatives productive of such moral clarity!

It’s a fine thought, but not credible. In fact, my light is on both because electrons are jumping orbit in the filament and because I want to read. The later, teleological explanation has not been part of science since Aristotle lost favor. That they will be subsumed by future science is easily burlesqued.

Marcel was right. Faith, not science, operates in the sphere of ontological mystery—the sphere of human life and experience. Science became successful when it gave up trying to subsume the side of life where faith operates. With a smile I ask, is science about to make science obsolete?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Relating to Mystery--First Etude on Marcel

A mystery understood is a mystery eliminated. Therefore, if human life is lived inside a background of mystery, as Gabriel Marcel's The Mystery of Being, Volume One: Reflection and Mystery, suggests, we live within a mystery that cannot be eliminated. (tr. G. S. Fraser (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press 2001) Yet it is a background that cannot be ignored. Our lives are defined at the same level as we confront the mystery of being.

But how does one prove that this is so? Clearly one cannot define the mystery and thereby see that it is in a separate category from all the kinds of thing that we know or might know some day. That would be to absurdly attempt to understand something with the goal in mind of showing that it cannot be understood. The suggested jest is as old as philosophy: consider the parody of Socrates in Aristophanes' Clouds. "...Aristophanes...has introduced a man, whom he calls Socrates, going about and...talking a deal of nonsense..." (Plato's Apology, Jowett tr.)

Marcel avoids this parody in a clever way--as did Socrates, albeit in a different way than Marcel: Socratic wisdom is to know that one is not wise. For Marcel the strategy is to do "philosophical reconnoitring." (140) The idea is to take note of situations in which a person comes up against the mystery of being, and thereby to plot one's relationship to mystery. In fact, Marcel compares his philosophical reconnoitring to getting to know a town with which you are unfamiliar. One just goes out to see what is there and how the town is laid out. (140-1) In the case of the mystery of being, one can at least discover the various ways that one comes to confront it. For Marcel these are called "acts of recognition." (139) As a consequence Marcel produces not a philosophical system, but a philosophical map. (vii)

(In passing it is interesting to note that Marcel used the term "philosophical investigation" to describe his method in work copyrighted in 1950. (5) Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations were not published or copyrighted till 1953. Both Wittgenstein and Marcel created more of a map with their philosophy than anything else--with Marcel locating the presence of mystery in human life and Wittgenstein locating the varieties and limits of meaning in his. I do not know whether Marcel's use of the term derives from Wittgenstein whether directly or indirectly, as Wittgenstein's thoughts in his Investigations had circulated years before their publication...)

Marcel's philosophical reconnoitring is exceedingly clever, as the following plot from his play, L' Homme de Deiu, illustrates. But you need to go beyond the surface facts to the meanings they have in the characters' lives to appreciate Marcel's clever plot. And he has a name for this act of coming to understand the meanings beneath the surface meanings we encounter in our lives: "secondary reflection." (83)

Here are the surface facts of the plot:

1. A kind man is a pastor in a Paris slum.
2. Before his placement in Paris, he had encountered a crisis of faith as a young clergyman in a mountain village--doubting God, his calling to the ministry, is strength to carry out his ministry, etc.
3. His wife had an affair and their only child was born as a result of the affair.
4. In forgiving his wife the pastor makes peace with his self-doubt and religious faith, making it possible for him to serve in the ministry with great effectiveness.
5. The man with whom the pastor's wife had an affair returns, but is dying.
6. The dying man wants to see the couple's girl, whom he knows he illegitimately fathered.
7. The pastor understands the man's need, and grants his request.
8. But the pastor's wife takes the grant to be evidence that the pastor's forgiveness was a professional act, not a personal one (how could such a painful personal act be done?).
9. The pastor becomes infected with his wife's view, and returns to the doubts that troubled him early in his ministry:

"...he no longer knows what he thinks about his act of forgiveness, nor, consequently, what he thinks about himself." (153)

Employing "secondary reflection" we see that the facts are ambiguous--the character's life is ambiguous. His sense of self is not clarified by his personal history. It is his personal history that contains the ambiguity. A vertigo comprised of self-psycho-socio-philosophical-religious doubt results, and as a consequence the man's ability to act with energy and clarity is lost. For his subjective center, his "sense of self," is lost. And it is lost because his life has conspired to confronted him with the riddle of its meaning for him.

Socrates actively sought a wise man and found none; the pastor's life confounded him by confronting him with the question of life's meaning when the possibility of locating that meaning within one's life is impossible.

Today one expects someone to chime in that someday science will understand it all. But just consider how absurd that thought is:

If science someday can explain how every thought and act and situation comes to be in a person's life, including the arising of human consciousness in all of its scope and detail, potential or actual, what it it will have given us is a much more detailed account of the situation outlined above in the plot summary But it will not have answered the question the situation itself poses: How does one establish a coherent sense of self by which to act when a clear understanding of one's life situation leads to confusion, not clarity? That is the situation we are in. (Or are we to suppose that evolution's macro-story guarantees a stable and meaningful life situation for creatures such as us? "Natural history" tells us the exact opposite--that is, on a human level it creates the same "fact-based" vertigo that the pastor's tale does in that particular narrative.)

Clearly questions arise on a human level that science cannot answer--call that human level the level of "philosophical investigation" with Marcel--despite the fact that those questions influence our actions in the world that science investigates. It seems that Kant was correct to place the acting self in the "noumenal" realm--the realm beyond human understanding.

But--and here we return to Marcel's overarching point--philosophy as Marcel and Wittgenstein practiced it can only locate the areas where human values and faiths supply the directions that give direction to our lives on a human level. And it was Marcel's genius in the plot structure of L' Homme de Deiu to drive that very point home with clarity: If the origin of human faith and value is reduced to the facts that history or science can give us, the life direction that a person's faith and value supply are lost. In Marcel's words, "My life...refuses to tally with itself." (167)

In addition to what can be tallied, there is the value that gives direction and meaning to our lives, a meaning and direction that is lost to analysis. That source must be located outside of the facts of our lives, which are the source of the confusion. (The next post will be "The Corpse of Objectivity--Second Etude on Marcel." There I will continue in this line of thought.)
The values and meanings that animate us as human beings must be located in the mystery of being, or literally nowhere, and the mystery of being is real, leaving the possibility of and the need for faith open--the closing of which Marcel calls "vicious philosophizing." (54)

This has been an "etude," a playing with and an elaboration of Marcel's ideas. I will be thinking about his views for a long time, I'm afraid. The one thing that I can say about those views with confidence is that they are worth the time it will take to sort them out.

Here is the vision that Marcel projects for his thought:

"It may be...that this process of reflective self-clarification cannot be pushed to the last extreme; it may be...that reflection, interrogating itself...will be led to acknowledge that that it inevitably bases itself on something that is not itself..." (38)

If so, our thought is based in mystery and points beyond itself.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Into the World--Chapter Four: A Perpetual Warring Intellectual Context

If the Apostle Paul is to be understood, it is the Supreme Irony of God incarnate being tried and crucified—“the message about the cross,” Paul calls it—that conveys “the power” of the gospel message. (I Corinthians 1:18)

"…Christ…[sent me] to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. For it is written,
'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.'" (I Corinthians 1:17-19)

Let’s take Paul’s words to heart and see where it leads us. Jesus’ silence before Pilate following the famous question, then, was the Word of God incarnate—literally. For by his silence Jesus accepted the fate of the Supreme Irony that depicts the truth about God, as we observed earlier, and according to Paul’s words here, that fate—the cross—carries the power of God. But the I Corinthians text goes further. It tells us that the gospel thwarts discernment and destroys the wisdom of the wise. In fact, Paul wrote that wrapping the gospel in “eloquent wisdom” would empty it of its power. To be sure, in one sense that does explain Jesus’ silence before Pilate—for him to have unleashed divine eloquence before Pilate would have emptied the act that depicts the truth about God of its power. Moreover, it would likely have prevented it from happening at all.

Yet in another sense, we are left with an empty explanation. In fact it begs for the incredulous response Richard Dawkins gave to Ken Miller’s account of how Genesis conveys spiritual truth: “But what does that mean?!” To be sure, if eloquent wisdom renders the Gospel powerless, it would seem that Christopher Hitchens’ view that “faith is the negation of the intellect” is all that is left. Is embarrassment in the face of intellectual challenge the truth about Christianity, then?

Clearly no sense can be made, from the present standpoint, in response to those questions. But then the very point at hand is that one ought not try to make sense of the Gospel by way of what Paul goes on to call “the wisdom of the world.” (I Corinthians 1:20) In fact, Paul makes the point even more trenchantly: “…God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.” (I Corinthians 1:21) One purpose of the Gospel, then, is to confront the wisdom of the world—but with what, intellectual suicide?

Fortunately Paul provides the answer. The point of the Gospel is to confront the wisdom of the world with “…Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God…” (I Corinthians 1:30) We are left to understand this; the irony of God incarnate standing before a judge about to sentence him to death on a cross is not to be resolved from the standpoint of the wisdom of the world. Rather, the point of the Supreme Irony—God incarnate crucified—is to force a choice between worldly wisdom on the one hand and godly wisdom on the other. And very revealingly, that is precisely what we must expect to be true, if we are to make sense of the Supreme Irony as the Supreme Being. For as noted above, if we are to do so, we must reform our view of God. In other words, the message of the cross—foolishness from “the world’s” perspective—forces a capitulation in the way a person sees God, for the person who believes. One can have worldly wisdom and view the message of the cross as foolishness. Or one can have godly wisdom and view the wisdom of the world as foolishness. That is Paul’s claim, and it is tailor-made to make sense of “the Supreme Irony” of God incarnate crucified.

We must see whether, in fact, it is possible to make sense of the message of the cross as representing “wisdom from God”—“the truth,” presumably, that Jesus referred to in the exchange with Pilate. To discover that “sense,” we return to an earlier point, that the cause of the Supreme Irony of the gospel must be our false view of God.

A primer in basic biblical theology will form the next contextual layer. If a false view of God creates the Supreme Irony, where did the false view come from? It would be ideal if the false view were to have a clear and decisive origin in Scripture. For then we could form a definitive scriptural overview. It would be compelling if that clear and decisive origin were to produce a conceptual conversion contrary to the Supreme Irony. For then we could place the origin directly in position as the foil to the message of the cross. And it would be conclusive from the standpoint of interpreting Christian Scripture if the origin of the false view colored the whole of Scripture by influencing all human interaction with God depicted in the Bible. For if such a conceptual antecedent to the Gospel story is present in Scripture, then we will not be left wondering why Paul insists that the cross, in effect, contradict the wisdom of the world: The cross would be the corrective to a prior conceptual conversion to a false view of God that Scripture portrays as influencing all human interaction with God. It is precisely these desiderata that we will find in the story of “the fall” in the next chapter, where the miniature lesson in biblical theology is found.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Marcel's New Species of Mystery

The locus classicus for metaphysical conundrum as a species of mystery is Kant's antinomies. The locus classicus for existential vertigo as a species of mystery is Kierkegaard's "Truth is Subjectivity." Now I have third species, and--I think--loci, from the pen of Gabriel Marcel: "My life infinitely transcends my possible conscious grasp of my life at any given moment; fundamentally and essentially it refuses to tally with itself..." (Mystery of Being, p. 167) To metaphysical conundrum and existential vertigo we must add..., well, what?

I'll take a stab here: The elusive center of experience.

Marcel was a Socratic Christian thinker. But it was with human experience rather than human persons that he conducted his inquiry. And as Socrates famously was wise only in knowing that he was not, so Marcel's inquiries into human experience yield insight only if we are willing to admit--with Marcel--that no view of human experience is adequate or final...

I invite you to consider various perspectives on the essential elusiveness of aspects of human experience in Marcel's thought. I will strive to give you the flavor of his thinking, without falling into the trap of trying to "nail down"--objectify--what cannot be nailed down. In his words, " is around a series of acts of recognition that the body of thought I am striving to present to you is gradually building itself up..." (p. 139)

How does one build what cannot be nailed down? Well, that's a question that gets to the heart of why it is difficult to understand the man. But could his view be credible--that "life infinitely transcends my possible conscious grasp of [it]?"--if his exposition were easy?

My "takes" on Marcel's The Mystery of Being will alternate with Into the World on a weekly basis for a month or so.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Into the World--Chapter Three: Today's Warring Intellectual Context

Jesus’ claim that he came into the world to testify to the truth implies a domain of truth beyond the world. The Prologue of The Gospel According to John says that the Godhead itself is that “realm” and that Jesus is to be identified with the Godhead. Now that is a large claim. We can get a better view of the present intellectual climate toward such claims by considering the following exchanges about the possibility of a transcendent realm.

The British magazine Prospect bestowed the title of England’s leading public intellectual on Richard Dawkins in 2004, and Dawkins may be the most famous atheist in the world today. He is also famously vehement in his unbelief. According to an article in Discover magazine, verbal jousting broke out between Dawkins and Brown University professor Ken Miller during a symposium at the New York Institute for the Humanities. Dawkins prompted the jousting when he challenged the legitimacy of Miller’s traditional Christian beliefs.1

One might well be surprised that two eminent scientists who both believe that evolution provides the sole scientific basis for teaching natural history in the life sciences would come to loggerheads over religious belief. Haven’t many scientists and religious authorities been telling us for years that science and religion answer different questions and so do not conflict? In fact, Ken Miller, author of Finding Darwin’s God, is one of the scientists who have been telling us that: “I will persist in saying that religion for me, and for many other people, answers questions that are beyond the realm of science,” he told Dawkins.2 And he added, “I regard Genesis as a spiritual truth. And I also think that Genesis was written in a language that would explain God that was relevant to the people living at the time. I cannot imagine…Moses coming down from the Mount and talking about DNA, RNA, and punctuated equilibrium. …”3

According to the Discovery article, “Dawkins, at the far end of the table, almost levitated out of his seat with indignation. ‘But what does that mean?’ he demanded, voice rising. The audience rewarded his indignation with combustive applause.”4

It seems that “positivism,” the notion that there is nothing cognitively meaningful to be said beyond the realm of science, resonated with the audience—despite the fact that the notion fails by its own criterion (positivism is a philosophical view, not a scientific one). Nevertheless, Dawkins did pose a worthy challenge, best stated in question form: If religion does not supply meanings that can be understood within a scientific framework, within what meaningful framework are we to judge its statements for veracity? Bluntly, how can Jesus meaningfully be “the truth” for a Christian like Miller?

So we are back to the big question. And it poses the critical challenge to a religious person who wants to affirm a truth outside of science’s purview. Thus—without endorsing the “combustive” applause Dawkins’ query received, which suggested a prejudiced crowd—a fair-minded critique of the exchange will acknowledge that Dawkins’ challenge requires a good answer.

We can deepen the question by looking to another forum comprised of intellectuals who were considering—among other topics—the roles of religion and science in the public square. The forum, sponsored by the on-line magazine The Nation to discuss “The Future of the Public Intellectual,” included comments similar in substance and tone to those exchanged between Dawkins and Miller. According to Yale University professor Stephen Carter, “There’s a tendency sometimes to have an uneasy equation that there is serious intellectual activity over here, and religion over there, and these are, in some sense, at war. That people of deep faith are plainly anti-intellectual and serious intellectuals are plainly antireligious bigots—they’re two very serious stereotypes held by very large numbers of people. I’m quite unembarrassed and enthusiastic about identifying myself as a Christian and also as an intellectual… …[though] there are certain prejudices on campus suggesting that is not a possible thing to be or, at least, not a particularly useful combination of labels. … And yet, I think that the tradition of the contribution to a public-intellectual life by those making explicitly religious arguments has been important…”5

As if to confirm the sense of war between science and religion that Stephen Carter noted, columnist for The Nation and forum participant Christopher Hitchens proposed, “The first [task for the public intellectual], I think, in direct opposition to Professor Carter, …[is] to replace the rubbishy and discredited notions of faith with scrutiny…”6 Hitchens went on to say that “This is a time when one page, one paragraph, of Hawking is more awe-inspiring, to say nothing of being more instructive, than the whole of Genesis… Yet we’re still used to [religious] babble.”7 Then, quite interestingly in this context, Hitchens said, “…I think the onus is on us [as public intellectuals] to find a language that moves us beyond faith, because faith is the negation of the intellect…”8

Note the clashing claims about religion made by Hitchens in this forum and Miller in the previous one. Here Hitchens claims that the role of the intellectual—as epitomized by the scientist Stephen Hawking in his estimation—is to take us beyond the anti-intellectualism of religious “babble.” Miller, by contrast, believes that religion answers questions that take us beyond the realm of science.

Yet another exchange will help us focus on the kind of answer needed to make a responsible choice between these conflicting views. Celebrated British television personality, David Frost, used to host a show on which he interviewed famous intellectuals. During the interviews he would sound those who were atheists on the reasons for their unbelief. In an address to The National Press Club in the United States, he told the following story as his “most embarrassing moment.”

Famed atheist and science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, had rebutted all of Frost’s attempts to gain a concession for theism out of him. In a last ditch attempt to get one Frost implored, “But isn’t it possible that there is something out there that we just don’t know about?”9

Asimov replied, “Yes, but then we just don’t know about it.”10

The moral of the story is that it’s a bad idea to stake one’s belief in God on an empty claim. To the point at hand, if Miller’s contention that religion answers questions beyond the realm of science cannot be given some substantive grounding, his view is no better than Frost’s—and Jesus’ claim to have come into the world to testify to the truth is empty. We would be forced to agree with Nietzsche that Pilate’s famous question is the only saying that has value in the New Testament.


1. Stephen S. Hall, “Darwin’s Rottweiler,” Discover, Vol. 26 No. 9, September 2005, p. 55 (
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid, p. 56.
4. Ibid.
5. Quoted in “The Future of the Public Intellectual: A Forum” in The Nation, February 12, 2001 (
6 .Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. David Frost in a National Press Club address from March, 1990 (as recalled by the author, who heard the address over National Public Radio: no recording of the address is available).
10 .Ibid. Asimov was quoted by Frost.

Monday, September 1, 2008

A Musing On Faith, Doubt, and Confidence

In the Prologue to Into the World I stated that faith implies the possibility of doubt in the same way that a mountain implies an accompanying lowland. And in comments to my son and--in blog comments--to Jason last week, I made the point that "...if faith can be taken for granted as true, then it can hardly be the life-changing [decision] that Christians think it to be." Since this seems obvious, we can move right to the well know Hebrews 11 definition of faith, and confront some heavy-duty cognitive dissonance, if not outright contradiction: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen." (Hebrews 11:1, NRSV) And let us note right away that this definition has more to do with "confidence" than "doubt." In fact, clearly the etymology of "confidence" stems from this contrasting, biblical view.

How, then, might a Christian reconcile faith's obvious relationship to doubt with its clear relationship to confidence?

I want to float the idea that faith closes the "ought-is" gap, and in doing so reconciles doubt with confidence in the experience of persons of authentic faith. (This will be neither a careful nor a nuanced statement; just a musing on a possible insight that might interest you.)

The "naturalistic fallacy" confuses ought and is. (I note that first to quell fear that I'm up to "that.") Separate from the naturalistic fallacy is the question of whether or not human moral sensibility, "conscience," hints at a wider scope of reality than our senses can take in. This question is separate from the naturalistic fallacy for the--I should think obvious enough!--reason that it is a question.

It is common knowledge that what our senses tell us about the world very frequently do not square with what conscience indicates ought to be the case. Consequently, the question of where moral authority comes from pops right up. And in a blog that explicitly exists to--among other things--point out those areas where science cannot answer questions that arise within human life, it is worth noting that the deontological question--Where does moral obligation come from?--cannot be answered scientifically without committing the naturalistic fallacy.

The best that science can do is to argue that societies that encourage people to behave conscientiously are better adapted to survival, thereby narrowing the gap between ought and is. But all one need to do refute this is note that WWII might well have turned out differently, and that the "war on terror" might not turn out the way people of general good will hope, and so forth. For if the connection between ought and is is contingent, then it will fail precisely when it is needed most: that is, when the outcome one ought to act to bring about is most in doubt. Into the World has a chapter dealing with this, so I need not say more here (Chapter 9, unless I add a chapter replying to Paul Tillich's argument against faith being reduced to ethical commitment, in which case there will be two chapters relevant to this topic: numbers 8 and 10--and by the way, I will not oppose Tillich's argument, if I address it, but will argue that he needed to account for an ambiguity in his analysis, and one which leaves the door open for my position as related in Into the World and, possibly, supplemented with the position noted below).

It is possible, however, to take the intimations of conscience as evidence for a call to a higher way of life, one acknowledged not to be supported by experiences in this world, but promised by faith. It is a supposition that seems very close to the words that Mark puts in Jesus' mouth at the very inception of his public ministry: "...the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news." (1:15, NRSV) And the important thing to note here is that it is this supposition which addresses the "ought-is" gap. In fact, it requires the gap: one cannot repent unless there is a gap one needs to redress between what one ought to do and be and what one is. And it promises that the gap will be closed (implicitly): "...the kingdom of God has come near..."

There will be no attempt to deal with subtleties now, so let's get right to how this "supposition" can fuse--as opposed to confuse--faith and confidence without eliminating doubt as a necessary background component of faith. Fortunately the connection is relatively easy to make.

By taking conscience as an intimation of a wider reality than is empirically supportable and committing oneself to living in light of that belief, not only is the ought-is gap closed (by faith), but a person authentically engaging faith in that sense will experience the relief of having that gap closed. Life as it ought to be lived will no longer conflict with life as it is experienced when the view that faith opens to the believer is adopted and acted on. (This is simplistic, but good enough for a first take.)

Might this first take help answer this post's question: "How...might a Christian reconcile faith's obvious relationship to doubt with its clear relationship to confidence?" Part of the answer might well be that "Faith can close the ought-is gap and so help produce an experience of faith that trades cognitive dissonance for an experienced cognitive resonance that results from faith."

Is it the case that faith can address that cognitive dissonance and science cannot? Frank analysis seems to indicate that. And the experience of many believers seems to support it.

In a last comment here, I would like to note that for several years the one thing that kept me from giving up my faith was the knowledge that people who are and were incontestably better human beings than I am, people I know and knew, were and are people whose lives are and were inspired by faith. That is, the possibility that faith opens up was a reality that I could see in the lives of people I have known. That is, I have seen faith as a life-changing decision, exactly as it is supposed to be. And the opposite is also true, but all that faith requires is the possibility. In fact it cannot be more than a possibility, since it also requires doubt.

(BTW: While thinking this through, I realized that this frame of reference opens up a new way to address one of the biggest challenges in today's church. I'll leave you with that vague "promise" of posts to come!)