Saturday, December 18, 2010

Seeing Bertrand Russell as Christian: Commentary on "The Grand Design"

The importance of THE GRAND DESIGN" does not derive from the finality of its point of view with respect to extirpating philosophical theology. It cannot be, since the point of view used to show that religious/theological/metaphysical/philosophical points of view are obsolete is--frankly--embarrassingly flawed. Nevertheless, it makes a landmark claim. And furthermore, that Hawking and Mlodinow have not argued their case well is not the same thing as saying that they do not have a good case to make. So how does a person go about trying to be fair to them and the point of view they wished to establish?

It occurred to me that Bertrand Russell had a more nuanced view of the question than Hawking and Mlodinow, which just might provide some insight into how to appraise THE GRAND DESIGN's big claim. Plus, we can have some fun with the fact that Russell seems to have made, in some sense, "a decision for Christ" near the end of his A HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY. The "decision" is couched in an amusing--and very clever--thought experiment in which Nietzsche and the Buddha argue their views for the Almighty. The quote is extensive:

If Buddha and Nietzsche were confronted, could either produce any argument that ought to appeal to the impartial listener? I am not thinking of political arguments. We can imagine them appearing before the Almighty, as in the first chapter of Job, and offering advice as to the sort of world He should create. What could either say?

Buddha would open the argument by speaking of the lepers, outcast and miserable; the poor, toiling with aching limbs and barely kept alive by scanty nourishment...and even the most successful haunted by the thought of failure and death. From all this load of sorrow...a way of salvation must be found, and salvation can only come through love.

Nietzsche, whom only Omnipotence could restrain from interrupting, would burst out...: "Good heavens, man, you must learn to be of tougher fiber. Why go about snivelling because trivial people suffer? ... Trivial people suffer trivially, great men suffer greatly, and great sufferings are not to be regretted, because they are noble. Your ideal is a purely negative one, absence of suffering, which can be securely accomplished by non-existence. I, on the other hand, have positive ideals: I admire Alcibiades, and the Emperor Fredrick II, and Napoleon. For the sake of such men, any misery is worth while. ..."

Buddha, who in the courts of Heaven has learned all history...replies with calm urbanity: "You are mistaken, Professor Nietzsche, in thinking my ideal is a purely negative one. True, it includes a negative element...but it has in addition quite as much that is positive as is to be found in your doctrine. ...I too have my heros: my successor Jesus, because he told men to love their enemies; the men who discovered how to master the forces of nature...; the medical men...; the poets and artists and musicians who have caught glimpses of the Divine Beatitude. Love and knowledge and delight in beauty are not negations..."

"All the same," Nietzsche replies, "your world would be insipid. ...what is more beautiful than the tiger, who owes his splendour to his fierceness? No, if the Lord should decide for your world, I fear we should all die of boredom."

"You might," Buddha replies, "because you love pain, and your love of life is a sham. ..."

For my part, I [Russell] agree with Buddha as I have imagined him.

So Bertrand Russell comes down on the side of Buddha and Jesus, as he understands them. What do we make of this "decision for Christ," partial and in need of much qualification though it be?!! I will admit to a perverse delight in framing Russell's view here in an Evangelical Christian category--but the question is entirely legitimate.

I began playing with the question after reading a post on Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity" at Experimental Theology. The question of what happens to Christian faith when emptied of metaphysical and religious elements dovetails precisely with the question of what one might say about a professed atheist who expresses agreement with arguably the core message of Christian faith. And that question also illustrates something important for anyone asking whether a positivistic doctrine such as Hawking and Mlodinow's "model-dependent realism" can really be used to limit the scope of one's (meaningful) beliefs.

Let's look at how Russell framed his own approach in order to get some commentary on these dovetailing questions. Immediately following the statement of agreement "with Buddha [and by implication the Jesus the Buddha admires in Russell's dialog] as [Russell] imagined him" Russell went on to say:

But I do not know how to prove that he is right... I dislike Nietzsche because he likes the contemplation of pain, because he makes conceit a duty, because the men he admires most are conquerors, whose glory is cleverness in causing men to die. But I think that the ultimate argument against his philosophy, as against any unpleasant but internally self-consistent ethic, lies not in appeal to facts, but in an appeal to the emotions. Nietzsche despises universal love; I feel it the motive power to all that I desire as regards the world." (773-4)

That Russell felt universal love to be "the motive power to all that [he] desire[d] as regards the world" makes the question of whether he can be considered Christian more than a framing of his words to fit some technicality of Christian faith. The words just quoted describe precisely what ought to be the motive of anyone who believes that God is love and that the great commandments of the faith are to love God and neighbor. What other motive could capture the core Christian view of how one ought to live better than Russell's?

I suppose that the basic point to the question of whether, and if so in what sense, Bertrand Russell can be considered Christian is this: It is clearly possible to see the basic stance of Christian faith (ostensibly, at least) as right, at least for oneself, without seeing it as true in any "deep" sense. He could look at Buddha and Jesus as say "Those are my heroes in my quest to enact an ethic of universal love." Yet he could also be an atheist with respect to belief in the metaphysics of traditional faith.

This is where the question of how to make sense of a "religionless Christianity" dovetails with the question of whether and in what sense Bertrand Russell can be called "Christian": In Bonhoeffer's exploration of the idea we are forced to consider the possibility of a faith without metaphysics, something that sounds very much like being asked to be Christian in whatever sense Russell might be considered to have been.

But Russell's perspective breaks through this impasse too, albeit probably unbeknownst to him. Consider the final paragraph of his History.

In the welter of conflicting fanaticisms, one of the few unifying forces is scientific truthfulness, by which I mean the habit of basing our beliefs on observations as impersonal, and as much divested of local and temperamental bias, as is possible for human beings. To have insisted upon the introduction of this virtue into philosophy, and to have invented a powerful method by which it can be rendered fruitful, are the chief merits of the philosophical school of which I am a member ["logical analysis," often called positivism]. The habit of careful veracity acquired...can be extended to the whole sphere of human activity, producing a lessening of fanaticism with an increasing capacity of sympathy and mutual understanding. In abandoning a part of its dogmatic pretensions philosophy does not cease to suggest and inspire a way of life. (836)

Two things need to be said. First, it is odd, to say the least, that Russell credits a philosophy that bases "beliefs on observations as possible for human beings" for "inspir[ing] a way of life" that increases the "capacity for sympathy" amongst peoples. Just a bit ago we read that there is no "appeal to facts" (774) to determine whether a Nietzschian antipathy to humanity in general or a Buddhist/Christian ideal of universal love ought to serve as one's motive in life. Clearly it is Russell's experience that the two (his philosophy of logical analysis and a Buddhist/Christian ideal) can exist together. But that they are compatible does not change the fact that--on his own view--the commitment to compassion is a supplement to his ideal of truthfulness based on impersonal observation rendered coherent by logical analysis. Moreover, it is a supplement which, if we hold him to his philosophy, he ought not make: he chose the Buddhist/Christian view over the Nietzschian challenge by an appeal to "emotions," claiming that it is not established by "an appeal to facts." (774) Clearly, his habit of basing his beliefs on "impersonal observations" was not nearly as well established as he believed. His choice of an ethic of universal love was neither impersonal nor based on factual observation. It might even be called atheistic fideism.

Second, there is an important sense in which Christianity has always implied, and required, a form of atheism. A man hanging on a cross looks like anything but a god. To say it is so is to contradict everything a person who did believe in the gods or God of the first century would have thought, at least prior to becoming a Christian. In that case to be a Christian is to be an atheist with respect to the old beliefs about God. And here's the coup de grace: A very good argument can be made that the cross is supposed to function as an ongoing reminder that the very human temptation to deify one's own view in order to make the world serve one's own goals (whether cultural, national, personal, philosophical, biological, or even non-sensical, etc.) is "demonic"--or "fanatical," to use Russell's word. (I am using Tillich's view here.) So rendered, Christianity marries a commitment to universal love to a reminder that any attempt to set up our personal (cultural, etc.) view of the divine as THE divinity is both wrong and false. And need it be added that God rendered as something that is impersonal and observable and then rendered intelligible by logical analysis is idolatry by any fair understanding of relevant biblical texts?! But in that case a right thinking Christian and Bertrand Russell--with his thoughts straightened out a bit--are saying the same thing! Apparently, at least at a high level of abstraction. (I did say this would be fun--at the end of the last post.)

What are we to make of this extremely odd situation in which the 20th Century's most famous atheist's core beliefs are the same as the core beliefs of Christianity? I think that Paul Tillich--whose framework we will borrow again--framed the best possible answer in his conclusion to BIBLICAL RELIGION AND THE SEARCH FOR ULTIMATE REALITY.

The correlation of ontology and biblical religion is an infinite task. There is no special ontology that we have to accept in the name of the biblical message [in which case Russell is Christian without qualification]... There is no saving ontology, but the ontological question is implied in the question of salvation. To ask the ontological question is a necessary task. Against Pascal I say: The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the God of the philosophers is the same God. He is a person and the negation of himself as a person.

Faith comprises both itself and the doubt of itself. The Christ is Jesus and the negation of Jesus. Biblical religion is the negation and the affirmation of ontology. To live serenely and courageously in these tensions and to discover finally their ultimate unity in the depths of our own souls and in the depths of the divine life is the task and the dignity of human thought.

Two sentences stand out. The first: "To ask the ontological question is a necessary task." If so, whether we frame positivism as the philosophy of logical analysis (Russell) or "methodological realism" (Hawking/Mlodinow) our philosophy is incomplete. Russell's importing of a foundational value based on feelings at the very point he is asserting a philosophy based on impersonal observation is a nice case study in support of Tillich's claim. But if our philosophy is always incomplete, we will always be in need of supplementing our philosophy with some form of faith.

The second: "Biblical religion is the affirmation and the negation of ontology." Isn't it interesting that we have been considering the puzzle of whether an atheist can be considered Christian, when it can be just as well asked whether a theist can be! Life is fun, and don't let anyone tell you differently, except when it's not. If you want it simpler than that, just don't try to do theology--or atheology for that matter: You'll be in over your head. On the other hand, if you don't know you're in over your head, you're not doing theology--or atheology.

That's what Hawking and Mlodinow need to know. They, like all the rest of us, are in over their heads. That's what Russell came within a hair of discovering within the sphere of his own philosophy.* That's what Tillich was getting at--and Bonhoeffer appeared to be, though I've got some reading to do on that question. That's what's implied in the biblical prohibition against idolatry conjoined to the injunction to love God. Atheistic theism? Religionless faith? What's the alternative? Well, it seems that either one can be in over their head and not know it, or be in over their head and know it. And to know it is compatible with faith. In fact to know it is a form of surrender to faith--and doubt!

*William James made what I take to be the deepest view possible on this: "One's objective deliverance, when one says 'the absolute exists,' amount[s] this, that 'some justification of a feeling of security in the presence of the universe' exists, and that systematically to refuse to cultivate a feeling of security would be to do violence to a tendency in one's emotional life which might well be respected as prophetic." (Preface to THE MEANING OF TRUTH) And this comes very close to bringing together Russell's smuggling in a commitment to universal love founded on his personal feelings with the Christian view that we must all come to God as little children.