Thursday, October 30, 2008

Chapter Eleven: A Challenge from Kantian Autonomy

It is another doctrine of secular faith that religion is a fifth wheel when it comes to morality. Various points of view contribute to this doctrine, including the following one championed by Immanual Kant. I can see myself as essentially committed to moral values, this view holds, and so make fidelity to myself the basis of my moral commitments. Commitment to self, thus, replaces commitment to a religious tradition and its moral framework. By thus creating a sense of identity between myself and my moral perspective, the dilemma—between a primary commitment to self-interest on the one hand and a primary commitment to one’s moral obligations, or “conscience,” on the other hand—disappears.

Twentieth Century ethicist, John Rawls, explains his Kantian point of view this way: “Properly understood…the desire to act justly derives in part from the desire to express most fully what we are or can be, namely, free and equal rational beings with a liberty to choose.”1 The philosophical rationale behind Kant’s view is this. We are most free when we are motivated by our moral perspectives in that it is our ability to understand and act on a moral framework that provides a framework that does not constrict our freedom—that is, a framework not embedded in the web of cause and effect that controls nature. Thus, from a Kantian perspective, acting on a desire “to express most fully what we are or can be” means acting in accord with a moral point of view.2 Consequently Rawl’s Kantian view, it seems, eliminates the dilemma behind the supreme question: For a Kantian moralist, a proper view of oneself does not conflict with one’s moral commitments generally.

Reality, however, does not bend to definitions so easily. Consider that Nietzsche had a very different view on how best to express our human nature most freely and fully: “…convictions are prisons…” he said.3 He goes on to note that the crucial difference between a “great spirit” and a person invested in a moral commitment consists in the “great spirit” having the strength to set aside outside standards of conduct. By setting aside any moral framework as binding, Nietzsche held that a great spirit “knows himself sovereign.”4 Thus, Kantian freedom is a Nietzschian prison.

We bring the point to bear on our dilemma by asking whether either the Kantian or the Nietzschian perspective can be seen as more fundamental. (If one is more fundamental than the other, it subsumes the other and the dilemma behind the supreme question with it.) Rawls notes that “…Kant [spoke] of the failure to act on the moral law as giving rise to shame….” and states that “Such actions strike at our self-respect.”5 He thereby stakes the same ground as did Nietzsche. In fact Nietzsche famously defined humanity by this very ground: “To him who has knowledge, man…is the animal with red cheeks. How did this come about? It is because man has had to be ashamed too often.”6 Thus, Kantian and Nietzschian perspectives agree on the fundamental importance of a person’s reaction to the authoritative standing of moral frameworks. Consequently, neither can claim the deeper insight. But they disagree radically on what the response should be. Unless the perspectives are defective, a radical disagreement on a fundamental point expresses an exclusive dilemma.

On inspection, then, we find that the Kantian attempt to identify one’s sense of self with one’s moral perspective does not define the dilemma away. In fact, it reveals the fundamental place the dilemma holds in human life: a clear thinking person will understand the need to choose between believing that we give best and fullest expression to human nature by fidelity to moral frameworks or independence from them. For what it means to be a free human being fully expressing human nature depends on how one chooses to believe. The implication is that the dilemma does lie at the foundation of human nature, and so the meaning of “proper view of self” depends on making the choice that determines which horn of the dilemma defines “propriety” in relation to one’s primary commitments. What we see, then, by examining Kant’s view in light of Nietzsche’s radical challenge to it is that the dilemma behind the supreme question does express a radical choice at the foundation of what it means to be a human being. Not elimination of, but reinforcement of the supreme question comes by way of a close evaluation of the Kantian point of view.

Moreover, it was Nietzsche’s opinion that Kant “was on the same path as the Christian.”7 I agree, because any application of the Kantian perspective will depend on giving a moral authority to conscience that cannot be located in nature generally, and human nature more specifically, and that constitutes a de facto religious faith perspective.

1. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Revised Edition, (The Belknap Press, Cambridge, 1999) p. 225.
2. Ibid, pp. 221-227.
3. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, in The Portable Nietzsche, tr. and ed. Walter Kaufmann (Penguin Books, New York, 1954) p. 638.
4. Ibid.
5. Rawls, p. 225.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Greenspan's Mistaken Faith in Self-Interest

Given today's post of the chapter on self-interest as a challenge to Into the World's hypothesis, I couldn't resist noting Alan Greenspan's widely reported testimony before the US Congress the other day.

"I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interest of organizations...were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders..."

Later he noted that "As much as I would prefer it otherwise...I see no choice but to require that all securitisers retain a meaningful part in the securities they issue."

In retrospect it is easy to see that the current financial crisis is the result of the entire system acting on a giant Ponzi scheme. I'll leave the analysis to the experts, but it seems that the assumption that the housing market would continue to rise at a rate far outstripping wage increases was the critical piece in the delusion so many of us bought into. However, the view that self-interest can be the guiding moral light in economics and elsewhere seems to be to blame too.

Check out Mike Wallace's 1959 interview of Ayn Rand for some telling commentary:

Chapter Ten: A Challenge from Enlightened Self-Interest

Having examined the message of the cross from within the context of Scripture’s widest theme, we arrived at the following contrast:

"…if one asks whether self-interest or loyalty in human relationships ought to serve as the primary motivation when those two basic 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, at bottom, “Which fool am I to be?” 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. "(p. 27)

This ties directly into the view with which we ended the first section: The essential and central role of sacrifice in leading a conscientious life expresses the truth represented by the message of the cross. Biblically, the tie is accomplished by the Judeo-Christian view that humanity is created in the image of God: If we are made in God’s image, then a false view of God gives us a false view of ourselves. The faith perspective derived from the theory of the supreme question, which we are considering, is that the way to correct our false view of ourselves is to correct our false view of God by embracing the message of the cross—Jesus as God sacrificed for love of humanity—as the truth about God. But subtracting the biblical context out of the question, we must ask whether it is true that a willingness to sacrifice oneself for love of others, if necessary, constitutes a crucial determining factor for a person leading a conscientious life.

It is time to examine the dilemma behind this question critically and philosophically. We can begin by asking whether it is really true that the question of “whether self-interest or loyalty in human relationships ought to serve as the primary motivation…” tears the human psyche in two when those domains of human value conflict. If so, there ought to be an awareness of the dilemma that does not depend on enunciating the claims of the supreme question as derived from Scripture.

In fact, there is a general awareness of the dilemma, and the most common approach to it is to try to dismiss it. The formalized philosophical attempts to do so fall under the heading “ethical egoism.” A popularized expression of ethical egoism has become a doctrine of secular faith; that clever persons can always find a way to avoid the pitfalls that align one’s scruples against one’s self-interest. The idea goes by the name, “enlightened self-interest.”

Phrased a bit more formally, “enlightened self-interest” implies that there is a middle ground between self-interest on the one hand and one’s loyalty to the welfare of others on the other hand. (Actually, ethical egoism goes beyond that, but for brevity’s sake we will consider just the minimal position needed to establish it.) That middle ground would render the supreme question superfluous—or at least superfluous for those clever enough to find their way to this enlightened middle ground.

Let’s consider how that middle ground might be constituted. Imagine a society in which everyone is fully committed to “the requirements of conscience (or “playing by the rules,” or “commitment to others’ welfare,” etc., since we are dealing with a broad, background question at this point). If the benefits of living in that society were always found to outweigh any sacrifices required of anyone in order to maintain that total commitment, surely that would constitute a middle ground, and on a grand societal level too! Yet just as surely there is no society so ideal that everyone can be shown to be fully committed to, fully capable of realizing her commitments to, and fully able to benefit from her commitment to these moral desiderata. We can simply dismiss this possibility as unrealistic.

But is the standard unnecessarily high? Perhaps self-interest, properly conceived, can provide us with a middle ground without requiring a morally perfect society. Try a much lower standard. If a society (1) benefits in a general way when its members are committed to following all the rules; if (2) the benefits of doing so extend to nearly everyone; if (3) exceptions where sacrifices are required to maintain the commitment are rare and not known in advance; and if (4) the society is committed to remedying any inequities which appear for any of its members, the situation would be analogous to a fairly administered lottery in which nearly everyone wins and few pay the price without gaining the prize. It would be in everyone’s self-interest—from the perspective of one’s initial choice to do so—to take part in that “lottery,” even though a few would probably become losers for doing so. There are societies, I believe, that make credible attempts to be morally propitious in this less-than-perfect way.

Granting that, however, does not provide a middle ground from which enlightened self-interest can overthrow the dilemma behind the supreme question. For a primary commitment to the equal moral standing of all persons requires that we be willing to sacrifice self-interest (as one’s primary commitment) to it. The problem for the advocate of enlightened self-interest goes beyond the fact that such a commitment is contingent upon the actual decisions of persons who can choose not to uphold their commitment, and far beyond the fact that there is no ideal society that can guarantee that a moral commitment will benefit all individuals in every case. The core problem is that if we use self-interest to justify making our moral commitments, we can also use it to justify breaking them. Accordingly, enlightened self-interest, conceived as a secular doctrine challenging the dilemma behind the supreme question, does not even address the core existential predicament that the supreme question poses.

Clearly, whenever possible it is “enlightened” to seek a middle ground between self-interest and one’s commitment to the welfare of others. But if one goes further and uses the idea of enlightened self-interest in doctrinaire fashion, it has no relevance to the question at hand.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Some Interpretive Wisdom from Augustine

Augustine made this comment in Book V, Chapter 5, of his Confessions:

"...whenever I come across any Christian brother, whoever he may be, who is ignorant of...sciences and has mistaken views on them, I can listen to him patiently enough as he delivers his opinions. ... But it does do him harm if he imagines that this scientific knowledge is an integral part of the structure of the doctrine of piety, and then has the audacity to make overconfident assertions on subjects of which he knows nothing." (The Confessions of St. Augustine, tr. Rex Warner (The New American Library, Inc., New York, 1963) p. 95.)

In context Augustine had just explained that he had given up his Manichaean faith precisely because the Manichaeans claimed knowledge that did not square with the best "scientific" thinking of his day. It's a pregnant point for Christians today. But it is not the important one.

The really important point is that something that is not "science" must be the real subject of Scripture. Augustine calls this real subject "the way, which is thy word." (p. 93) He encapsulates it in this wonderful aphorism: "They do not know this way, the way to descend from themselves to Him, and by him to ascend to Him." (p. 93)

Avoiding the error of ascribing scientific readings to Scripture should not be much of a challenge. But giving substance to the point of Christian revelation, "the way," can be. I will not elaborate here on the way, since doing so is my ongoing goal in Into the World.

Another comment on interpretation from Augustine, this time on the "narrow measure of speech" (p. 309) found in much Scripture, by which he means this. By humble language Scripture protects against foolish interpretations, even by those who are foolish enough to think of God as acting in a gross material way:

Such people are...feeble little creatures, but by this humble kind of language their weakness is protected and nourished as by a mother's breast, and so there is built up in them a healthy faith in which they have a hold for a certainty that God made all the natures which, all around them in wonderful variety, their senses look upon. (p. 309)

This is an interesting quote to juxtapose with the quote about the Manichaeans falsely ascribing scientific views to their Scripture. Apparently Augustine believed that it did no harm for unlearned people to understand Scripture literally, and that for ease of understanding "the way," Scripture's humble language was like a "mother's milk" for babes in understanding. The danger is for babes in understanding to mistake their naivete for the final word on Scriptural interpretation.

Here's a last quote to explain what Augustine sees as the best middle ground between seeing Scripture in a simplistic way and in a way that reads all of human learning into it.

...if I had been Moses [writing about God's creation of the world]...I should have wished to be granted to me such a power of expresion and such stylistic abilities that those
who cannot yet understand how God creates would...not reject my words as being beyond their capacity, and that those who already have understanding would find in the few words of your servant every true opinion which they had reached themselves in their own thinking... (p.308)

Of course, if science is not "an integral part of the structure of the doctrine of piety" as Augustine believed (quoted above), then his view just expressed would hold most directly for "the way," which is Scripture's "true" message, in his view.

I wanted to share these few thoughts since that is what I discovered in writing Into the World; that is, I discovered that Scriptures simple, even humble, narrative expressed "every true opinion which [I] had reached" myself, and that other true opinions "should be discoverable in these same words..." (p. 308) Frankly

It is sad that Christianity has become a modern Manichaeanism in the eyes of modern Augustines precisely because St. Augustine's 1,600-year-old wisdom has been ignored.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Chapter Nine: Hypothesizing the Cross as Supreme Answer

Walter Kaufmann wrote in his Critique of Philosophy and Religion, “If a man accepts a religious proposition as true, it is hardly ever after having first considered it as a hypothesis…[for which he] found compelling evidence through an impartial inquiry.”1 Kaufmann had the following point in mind:

Few religious people have studied comparative religion, and hardly any have attained their beliefs as a result of such study: yet this would be de rigeur if the religious person’s attitude toward the religious propositions he believes were at all similar to the historian’s or the scientist’s…”2

Surely Kaufmann was correct in asserting that few religious persons study comparative religion in order to discover which (if any) religious claims are most compelling. Nevertheless, it does not follow that that course of action should “be de rigeur” for religious persons. The problem with the statement is that it is intended as a criticism of religion that religious persons’ attitudes toward their beliefs are, usually, very different from scholars’ attitudes towards their beliefs. But if the point of view produced by the examination of our text to this point is at all accurate, we see that it is essential to Christian belief—and I do not attempt to speak for other religions—to provoke a change in the way a person understands wisdom. Accordingly, it is a crucial misunderstanding to cite the difference in how scholars and (most) religious persons attain their beliefs as a criticism of, at least, Christian belief. For any criticism of how Christians ideally attain their belief must begin by taking into account the goal of “the message of the cross,” not to proceed with scholarly inquiry as though beliefs about Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ are of the same species and so can be approached with similar kinds of analysis. Soren Kierkegaard gave a name to that mistake: “counterfeit earnestness.”3 By it he meant appearing to consider faith when in reality the question of faith has been set aside in favor of doing historical or philosophical research.

The point is especially critical with our focal text, since the implied reference of “the truth,” given the full context of The Gospel According to John, is the truth “about God.” For God is neither an object in the world in any ordinary sense of the terms, nor is God an object of impartial inquiry, if known through faith. In fact, when Christian Scripture is understood from within its most basic thematic perspective, its goal is to convert a person to a Christian point of view, the very power of which is lost, the Apostle Paul tells us, if it is approached as an element of “worldly wisdom.” In that light, holding up impartial inquiry as the means by which belief in the message of the cross is to be approached is to completely miss the intended impact of the Christian message.

Yet in saying that, the same questions that have been preoccupying us emerge once again, and with renewed force: “What does that mean?!” and consequently, “What is truth?” if this is so? Bluntly, to insist that Christian faith transforms a person’s worldview does not excuse Christians from producing a coherent account of what truth means from their perspective. To that we turn.

If Jesus’ silence before Pilate following his famous question is Christianity’s most famous silence, second in line would be the silence of St. Thomas following mass on the day of the feast of St. Nicholas in 1273. In Josef Pieper’s book titled The Silence of St. Thomas, he wrote, “…as Thomas turned back to his work after Holy Mass, he was strangely altered. He remained steadily silent; he did not write; he dictated nothing. He laid aside the Summa Theologica…”4 Thomas’ great Summa was not only his magnum opus, it was and may still be the most ambitious work ever attempted in Christian philosophical theology. And so we confront a remarkable fact. One of the greatest minds in the history of Western thought abruptly gave up the culmination of his life’s work when he was given a perspective from which to compare its value against that of revelation.

Quoting from the acts of Thomas’ canonization report, Pieper cites the words of Thomas himself. (Thomas’ words here were recalled by his friend and secretary, Reginald.) “All that I have written seems to me [to be] nothing but straw…compared to what I have seen, and what has been revealed to me.”5 Recall Christopher Hitchens’ view that the role of the public intellectual is to take us beyond the anti-intellectualism of religious “babble.” In contrast to Hitchens’ view, St. Thomas indicated that his greatest intellectual achievement, arguably the greatest intellectual achievement of the Medieval Period, was “as straw” compared to the revelation of God that he had experienced.

The contrast provides a good example of how Christian faith forces a basic choice about how human beliefs are oriented. Whereas Hitchens sees expressions of faith in revealed religion as “rubbish” that should be discarded in favor of scientific understanding, St. Thomas saw the height of human intellectual achievement—philosophical theology was the highest form of “science” in his day—as “straw” when compared to revelation. Thus, the Christian faith’s second most famous silence stands as a direct counterclaim to the positivistic view that human intellectual achievement eclipses revelation. And yet, again, “What does that mean?!”

If religious faith based on revelation is to be meaningful and compelling, it must have a meaningful and compelling source, and that presents an interesting challenge to anyone who has not experienced a revelation on the order of the one that Thomas claimed to have had. The problem can be succinctly stated. If religion proposes a transcendent truth for one’s belief, how can that proposition be meaningful for someone whose experience lies entirely this side of the transcendent? In fact, how can transcendent truth even be written or spoken about? On its face, the very idea of uttering a meaningful transcendent truth seems incoherent. With that in mind, Thomas’ despair that his life work was but “straw” in comparison to what was revealed to him seems to provide a compelling example of the futility of trying to grasp transcendent truth. This, however, is not a view that a Christian can accept. It seemingly supports Richard Dawkins’ view that no meaningful response can be given to how revelation answers questions beyond the realm of science.

But what if Christian belief does not and cannot have an intellectual preamble, when that is understood as a cogent rationale for why a person should believe? And what if Christian unbelief does not and cannot have an intellectual preamble, if that is understood as a cogent explanation of why a person should not believe? What if, instead, the message of the cross confronts humanity with one claim on how a person ought to live, and human nature itself incorporates an exclusive alternative claim? If so, one can meaningfully engage Christian belief by faith, and one can meaningfully reject faith, but no alternative apart from engaging faith or not is available. We would have, in facing the question of engaging faith or not, a true dilemma in the form of a supreme question, a question the answer to which determines what it means to be a human being, in the most basic sense. That, I shall argue, is the correct point of view for understanding Christian belief. It is a point of view that sees faith as one of only two possible core expressions of human nature.

We must examine that claim in the following chapters. But in closing this chapter two further observations should be made. First, the theory of Christian faith as the supreme question would explain why Christians—and again, I write as a Christian and cannot speak for persons who hold faiths deriving from other traditions—do not typically examine their faith the way scholars examine proposed beliefs in their disciplines. In fact, the hypothesis of the supreme question makes the question of Christian faith into a pure existential question, not a scholarly one. That answers Kaufmann’s criticism with which we began this chapter, and so explains the enigma that Christians assert the highest importance to their belief and yet typically forego rigorous research into its truth or falsity. The meaning of Christian faith would be found in its proposing that the central question and concern of human life is to be found in the message of the cross.

Thus, a further clarification must be made on the basis of our hypothesis. No intellectual preamble can be used to make the Supreme Answer less than an expression of faith; yet for it to be an “authentic” expression of faith, it must be a response to a true existential predicament. Consequently, it must be the case that Christian faith stands upon a fissure at the core of human nature, and one that cannot be repaired, except by faith. And that, it turns out is something that we can, and will, check for veracity.

And yet, if Christian faith demonstrably addresses such an exclusive existential dilemma, the theory of the supreme question provides an explanation of Christian faith as it is actually believed and experienced by Christians. Whether that in turn provides a meta-rationale for faith is itself a question of faith, and thus does not contradict the view that there can be no intellectual preamble to faith. However, faith in the meaning delivered to humanity through the message of the cross must present a coherent resolution to the proposed existential predicament inherent in human nature. In effect, to engage faith in the message of the cross is to see it as the Supreme Answer.

To draw out the lineaments of this “theory of the supreme question,” five ways of approaching it, taken from philosophical theology literature, widely construed, follow. Each perspective contributes to the theory, when understood by means of it, despite the fact that, on the surface, each poses a challenge to it.

1. Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1990) p. 105-6.
2. Ibid, p. 106.
3. Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments. Tr. David Swenson, (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1936) p. 87.
4. Josef Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas (St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, 1999) p. 39.
5. Ibid, p.40.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Into the World--Chapter Eight: Tillich's Challenge

Paul Tillich wrote, “A word is spoken to someone; the ‘inner word’ is the awareness of what is already present and does not need to be said.”1 He connects that comment to the voice of God as conscience, noting that as an historic fact, the inner word has been “more and more identified with the logical and ethical norms which constitute the rational structure of mind and reality. The voice of revelation was replaced by the voice of our moral conscience, reminding us of what we already know.”2 In short, an “inner word” communicates nothing if it duplicates the “ethical norms” which inform “the voice of our moral conscience.” Since I have argued that the hypothesis that The Gospel According to John portrays the divine Logos as “speaking” to Pilate through Pilate’s conscience at the very moment that Pilate asks his famous question, Tillich’s view clearly needs to be incorporated into our understanding of the Gospel narrative.

In fact, I concede that the trial scene does not inform conscience in any critical way at the level of ordinary analysis, by which I mean this. Anyone Pilate judged to be innocent but for whom stating their innocence could have harmed Pilate’s standing as the Roman Governor would have put him in substantially the same position as did Jesus’ case. Yet there is another sense in which the scene changes everything. For since John’s Jesus claimed to be, in effect, the king of truth giving testimony to the truth, we cannot interpret the meaning of his words at the level of ordinary analysis. We must seek an extraordinary meaning.

The weak part of Tillich’s statements about the inner word is the opening assertion that “A word is spoken to someone…”3 In fact, that is often false, since language functions apart from communication between persons. At this very moment I am using language to clarify and make explicit my thoughts on this very subject, and my use of language to do so does not depend on having a reader or hearer for my words. When we add that Tillich wrote about a revelation that has come into the world, however, his point is inescapable with respect to the present impasse. For that something new has come “into the world,” something that reveals “the truth” about this world, is impossible to claim unless that truth can be judged to be true with respect to this world. But in that case an examination of this world should reveal that truth without Jesus’ help; and more importantly, without requiring belief in him (unless belief is Jesus is equated with belief in the truth he reveals). This is a real conundrum in addressing the meaning of the text. Without a solution it becomes impossible to see how Jesus testimony (John 18: 37 ) can be seen as in any way necessary to understanding the truth, let alone Jesus being identified with it (John 14: 6).

The solution comes in two parts, with the easy part first. Anyone who has experiences that someone else has not had can inform the inexperienced person about the “truth” regarding the wider experience. Jesus’ parables explaining what the kingdom of heaven is like all fit that mode of explanation. It is a mode that depends on an analogy between the wider experience of the person doing the explaining and the narrower experience of the person listening to the explanation. Since our focal text begins with Jesus’ claim that “My kingdom is not from this world…” this easy part of the explanation fits our text precisely.

The harder part is to understand how Jesus can testify to “the truth” (John 18: 37) or be “the truth” (John 14: 6) in a meaningful way. For instead of setting up an analogy between his wider truth and his hearers’ narrower experience, Jesus’ words claim something far grander for which there seemingly can be no analogy in his hearers’ experience: “Truth” itself. Granted, the “Logos” claim from John’s Prologue does make a fittingly grand claim on Jesus’ behalf, but in that case Platonism and Stoicism have already “revealed” the truth that Jesus claimed for himself and his testimony, and he did not need to come into the world. Furthermore, we have already seen that the metaphysical luster that those philosophical schools may have lent the Johannine text has faded. A suitable meaning particular to our text is, therefore, needed.

If we press the view that the voice of conscience is Jesus’ voice in the Johannine text, we gain the possibility that Jesus’ words inform the true meaning of conscience. In that case we must have default false meanings in place to which Jesus’ life and words bring the truth—at least to those who listen to him and understand the meaning of his life. What might that truth to which Jesus’ life testifies be, and just as importantly, what are the default false meanings against which Jesus’ life exemplifies living in accord with conscience?

The answer is that Jesus’ life and words bring clarity to an almost hopelessly ambiguous word: “good.” First, consider the extraordinary ambiguity. Different peoples define “good” differently. Different people within different people groups define good differently. Different contexts imply a sense of “good” particular to them, thus multiplying the possible sense of “good” indefinitely, both for individuals and groups. There is “good” as an ideal, and there is “good” as a practical goal which takes into account the extent to which it is possible to realize an ideal good. There are overarching ideas of goodness, and there goods that are contingent, and there is disagreement about which is which. In consequence just about anyone can create a sense in which their idea of good couples with their life in a way that endorses just about any behavior.

In Plato’s Euthryphro Socrate’s asks, “...whether the beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved...?”4 One may be forgiven, perhaps, for asking which gods, and whose idea of holiness, and why should I give credence to any possible answer that does not suit me? In default of a really good answer, one’s idea of goodness has not just a wax nose, but a wax head and neck and torso and limbs.

A person who is not taken by the strength of moral skepticism has never considered it carefully. In a world where not just differing ideals struggle for supremacy, but life itself is the ongoing record of who has won, perhaps it is best to admit that there must be winners and losers and to view the deeper moral questions as a luxury that must be set aside precisely when the questions become tough.

If so, Pilate was right to condemn an innocent man to death rather than to allow his loyalty to Rome to be put in question. If so, the religious leaders were right to arrest Jesus as a threat not only to their authority but to the delicate peace that preserved their nation. If so, the crowd was right to celebrate Jesus when he appeared to be a credible “messiah,” and then to turn on him when he failed to fulfill their hopes. In short, it is entirely defensible to put one’s self-interest over abstract moral principles: One can always weigh the greater good in terms of self-interest. If an innocent man is blamed, condemned, killed, one cannot always make everything right, and ought not to be expected to sacrifice the concrete, actual goods that make one’s life worth living for an abstraction one can live without. On this view, a person does not solve the problem of moral ambiguity. One decides for oneself what is best for oneself using one’s own criteria.

What, then, is the alternative? The only way to find moral clarity is to decide not to tie one’s moral perspective to oneself, or to any other limited perspective, but to commit oneself to the abstract idea that everyone should be treated with the same respect. On this view one must be willing to sacrifice self-interest to one’s commitment to the equal dignity of all people. In the words of The Gospel According to John, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away…” (John 10: 11, 12)

Hidden in a children’s story is a sophisticated realism about moral commitment. For some, moral ideals represent contingent goods that can be abandoned when it doesn’t pay to “stay on.” These are the “hired hands,” and their moral perspective is literally self-justified. Others are committed—at least as an ideal—to loving others with their lives without respect to self-interest. Such is the good shepherd. And of course the narrative of the trial and crucifixion is precisely the depiction of Jesus as the good shepherd who lays down his life for “the sheep.”

What, then, does the narrative offer us as “revelation”? It offers us the revelation that conscience clarified by a commitment to love others as we love ourselves is rooted in a reality deeper than the confusing moral ambiguities that we encounter in this world. It is a revelation that requires that greater reality to come into our world in order to give testimony to it, as the facts of this world will not support such a faith, unless one has faith that Jesus came into the world to testify to the truth: hence the Christian insistence on the central importance of belief in Jesus the Christ, and that answers Paul Tillich’s objection.

If we see conscience as crucial to what it means to be human, we are left with this observation made by Gabriel Marcel:

There is no shared ground on which common sense and the hero or martyr could meet; they are like two axes that can never intersect. In itself, sacrifice seems madness; but a deeper reflection…enables us…to recognize and to approve it as a worthy madness. We understand that if a man were to shirk from such a madness, he would be falling below himself. The truth seems to be that…there is no middle ground between the subhuman and the superhuman.5

John’s Gospel presents that choice to us as one of belief or disbelief in Jesus, the Word of God, the Son of God, the divine Logos, come into the world to testify to the truth. In Part Two we consider philosophical challenges to the authenticity of this core human existential dilemma.

1. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. I (The University of Chicago Press, 1973) p. 125.
2. Ibid
., p. 126.
3. Ibid
., p. 125.
4. The Works of Plato, Jowett tr., (The Modern Library, New York, 1956) p. 46.
5. Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, Vol. I: Reflection and Mystery (St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, 2001) p. 166.

About the Promised Marcel Post

Just a quick note to let you know what has happened to the promised (in "The Corpse of Objectivity") post on Gabriel Marcel's statement from The Mystery of Being that "The truth seems to be that...there is no middle ground between the subhuman and the superhuman." (166)

In working on the chapter I am adding to Into the World, I discovered that it dovetails precisely with Marcel's quote. I was delighted to see that happen. So just read the next chapter of Into the World to see the quote explained, from my frame of reference. I will add another, separate, post on Marcel.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Into the World--Chapter Seven: The Voice of God

St. Thomas Aquinas taught that with Scripture “the things signified by the words also have a signification.”1 And, “That signification whereby things signified by the words also have a signification is called the spiritual sense…”2 But Scripture tells us that Jesus was God’s self-expression, the divine Logos, given human form. (John 1:1-18) Applying St. Thomas’ view of Scriptural meaning to Jesus, then, we get a quadruple significance: (1) the words of Scripture, (2) their spiritual meaning, (3) the life of Jesus, and (4) the spiritual significance of Jesus’ life. Using this demarcation, it is the spiritual significance of Jesus’ life that we are considering. What, precisely, is that significance?

Naturally one expects the Logos to appear as a symbol of divine mastery and power. And again, given that assumption, the message of the cross contradicts expectations. We have already seen that the message of the cross forms a foil to our—ex hypothesi—false view of God which has its scriptural origin in the story of the fall, and we now consider whether the voice of conscience may act as Jesus’ voice in a way that supplies the answer to the enigma of Jesus’ silence in the face of Pilate’s famous question. These perspectives, however, cannot eliminate the need for language to preserve its meaning when applied to Jesus as the divine Logos.

So once again we confront the challenge that this controlling principle of the universe in human form certainly does not seem to be in control—being sentenced to death by hanging on a cross. Yet to be the divine ordering principle of the universe, Jesus must nevertheless express God’s will and be in control. Nothing less preserves the meaning of the terms used to describe Jesus in the Gospel. How are we to surmount this difficulty?

Frankly, either there is a rationale for Jesus’ silent acceptance on his way to the cross, a rationale that allows us to maintain that he was in control despite appearances to the contrary, or no sense can be made of the claim that the message of the cross depicts the divine Logos, the divine controlling principle of the universe. An honest approach to the text demands nothing less, and no spiritual sense can be derived from a text that makes no primary sense. What, then, is the rationale for claiming that God expressed his control in the events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion?

The textual rationale is manifold. For one thing, it contains this exchange: “Pilate …said to him, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and power to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him. ‘You would have no power over me, unless it had been given you from above…’” (John 19:10, 11) The first and most direct evidence in the text, then, is Jesus’ assertion that Pilate’s power to crucify him was God given.

Second, we have the claims, some of them already noted, that Jesus willingly participated in the events that led to his crucifixion. Examples include stopping Peter’s attempt to prevent his arrest, calling the impending events leading to the crucifixion “the cup that the Father has given me,” and the very silence before Pilate that we are considering, since answering Pilate’s questions compellingly would likely have prevented the crucifixion. (John 18:10, 11, and 19:10) Moreover, the entire narrative of the crucifixion story in the second half of the 19th Chapter of The Gospel According to John proceeds so that the writer can repeatedly claim, “These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled…” (John 19:24, 28, 36, 37) Accordingly, the second rationale from the text is that the story portrays the crucifixion as the manifest will of God the Father for his Son.

Third, the text preserves a domain in which God’s will is manifest. In Pilate we have a man who must confront the cost of doing the right thing; he stated, “I find no case against [Jesus.]” (John 19:4) And yet he failed to do the right thing: “…he handed [Jesus] over to be crucified.” (John 19:16) And as we have already noted, under the circumstance Pilate would have had to have been a very stupid or a very bad man for his conscience to have remained silent. Since we can be sure from the text that he is not to be perceived as either, the only reasonable alternative is that he was troubled by what he was compelled to do. In fact, as noted earlier, the text directly states at one point that Pilate was afraid. (John 19:8) Clearly, the narrative paints Pilate as fully aware of the unconscionable nature of his acquiescence in Jesus’ death. We know, then, that Pilate would have been dealing with the voice of conscience at precisely the time that Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37) It has become difficult to avoid the conclusion that Jesus, as depicted in the narrative, used the opportunity of Pilate’s moral dilemma to impress on him that to do the right thing—to listen to the voice of conscience—was to listen to his voice.

Of course, it strains credibility for a man under the duress of arrest and false accusations and beatings and the threat of crucifixion to have maintained the presence of mind to focus on the fact that Pilate would be in the clutch of a moral dilemma, and to understand that the moral dilemma would press the voice of conscience upon Pilate in a way that would coincide with Jesus’ mission to bear witness to the truth about God, and to understand that the trial scene would coalesce precisely as needed to set up Scripture’s broadest and most central theme, and—thus to express the truth about God; in fact, it strains credibility to the breaking point, unless one has faith that Jesus was the divine Logos, the Son of God incarnate; the very claim which got him crucified.

Very cleverly the Gospel sets up the same choice for the reader that Pilate faced when he heard Jesus’ claim to have come into the world to bear witness to the truth: What to make of the claim that Jesus is the Logos, the eternal Son of God incarnate? (I assume here, of course, that Pilate would not have had Jesus crucified, if he had believed that Jesus was the Son of God. Thus, the question of belief in Jesus’ claim to have come into the world to bear witness to the truth about God would have been inherent in Pilate’s decision.) The virtuosity of the text here unfolds from its simple prose like a tulip from a humble bulb.

So what does one make of Jesus’ claim to bear witness to the truth about God? We have noted that it comprises a Supreme Irony. We have seen that placing the message of the cross beside the story of the fall adds tremendous depth to the claim’s meaning. And we are now able to consider how, given this fully informed context, the claim forces a choice between Paul’s “Godly wisdom” on the one hand and “worldly wisdom” on the other: the Serpent’s view from the fall, or the message of the cross. Furthermore, the text confronts the problem of how to make sense of the divine Logos about to be crucified, and it does so in a way that places the question of whether conscience can be interpreted as the voice of God directly in the reader’s lap. One can choose to make sense of the scene, because one can choose to believe that Jesus intentionally subjected himself to the trial and crucifixion in order to portray the truth about God. And that means one can choose to believe that God was in control, that the Logos—the divine controlling principle of the universe—was working out his will in the events that led to Jesus’ crucifixion, with the full force of the Supreme Irony that that entails reverberating in a conscientious reader’s mind. A prodigious intelligence works its way through the words of our Gospel text.

Returning to the opening question of this chapter—“What is the spiritual significance of Jesus’ life?”—we see that it is a question that cannot be separated from Jesus’ death, since he chose to sacrifice his life. We also see that it is a question that the text of the Gospel strongly suggests is inseparable from the voice of conscience. Putting those pieces together, we can hypothesize that sacrifice—here the divine sacrifice portrayed in “the message of the cross”—has a central and essential role in forming the voice of conscience. Further, the voice of conscience certainly made itself heard in Pilate’s mind as the dialog with Jesus played out, in accord with a full understanding of the text, as we have seen. To arrive at a fully formed hypothesis the following must be added. When Jesus spoke the words that prompted Pilate’s famous question, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” the truth to which he referred was this: The voice of conscience is Jesus’ voice and those who listen to his voice will understand that the central and essential role of sacrifice as portrayed by the message of the cross represents the truth about God. (John 18:37)

1. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, I, 10.
2. Ibid.