Search This Blog

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I Guess this Makes me a Patchwork Person

  I have a friend who is extremely Presbyterian. I have another friend who is extremely Objectivist. I am sort of jealous of them.  A while back I wrote a post about being a third-culture-kid and the impact that had on my views of culture in general. On that post Ben reflected on my take-what-I-like-and-leave-what-I-don't-like approach to culture and applied it to denominationalism and the search for a tradition. I am going to expand it a bit further and take a look at my approach to ism-ism (if I may coin the term) in general.

  Ben pointed out that it can be uncomfortable to not have a tradition with which to identify and I found myself sympathizing with him. First, because it is nearly always more comfortable to say "well what we believe is..." than to say "I believe...". There is strength in numbers, and that is not a bad thing, we are communal beings and it is natural and I think very proper to try and find our place in a greater family. Also it always feels a little arrogant to say "I believe this and I'm not really sure whether anyone else ever has". One seems to be saying "Nobody in the history of the world has been able to figure all of this stuff out until me; but now I understand".

  So I think that there are some very good reasons to want to find a tradition (philosophical or theological) to fit into.

 But I don't. I do have several terms or isms I will apply to myself but I tend to find that when I use them I have to do it with a lot of caveats: "I'm a capitalist, but I don't think that selfishness is a virtue or that it is better for rich people to get money than poor people, or that capitalism will necessarily make anyone happy" or "I'm think of myself as something of a Platonist but here are bunch of things I think Plato was wrong about" or "I'm basically a protestant but I'm not really sold on the protestant understanding of sola scriptura and I think that the Orthodox have a better understanding of the Eucharist than protestants, and I'm really very confused about what the Church is in a metaphysical sense but I kind of think that the Catholics have a better understanding of it than any protestant does". You see the problem? I can usually identify with some central premise or teaching of one ism or other but I haven't found one yet that I can swallow whole (with the possible exception of Mere Christianity as Lewis defines it - whether you are christian, atheist or other I bet you will be shocked if you go back through that book and look at how basic Lewis' definition is).

  And yet at the same time I don't pick and choose by fancy; at least I sincerely hope that I don't. I put a pretty high value on the law of non-contradiction and for as long as I have been trying to construct/discover/receive a complete worldview, I have insisted that no one part of it necessarily contradict any other part. Those of you who know me will know better than I whether I have been successful but I have always at least tried to reconcile any contradictions I saw in my own worldview and to reject one conclusion or the other when the reconciliation failed. Contradiction gives me a stomach ache.

  Let me try and describe the process: When I come across a bit of truth and recognize it as such, I go right ahead and believe it. This is a lot like trying on a new tie; I like the tie so I put it on, then I have to see whether it matches the rest of the suit. It may match my coat well enough but it may clash horribly with my shirt. Then I have to decide whether I like the tie or the shirt better. Say I decide for the tie. This means changing the shirt, but not any old shirt will do; it has to match the tie and not clash with the rest of the suit. Eventually I might find just such a shirt only to discover that the shirt comes with a pair of shoes which won't work with the belt.

  You begin to see? I am not complaining, as a general rule, I love the process. It's just that I might have
hoped by now to have found some tradition which contains or at least allows for everything I believe to be true and nothing that "clashes" with it. But I haven't.

  And I am beginning to be alright with that. I have said in the past that I believe that everything I believe is true. Not because I am arrogant (I probably am but it has nothing to do with this particular conviction) but because my answer to "What do you believe that isn't true?" has to be "Nothing, if I thought that something I believed was a lie then I wouldn't believe it would I". I understand the White Queen "believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast" but I have only been able to believe impossible things by accident.

  As a result I have found that I am pretty much stuck where I am. I zip through political theories, philosophies, theologies, religions and I grab gems of truth where I see them and throw out falsehoods when I become aware of them. After all, Jesus claims to be the Truth, and I believe Him. So maybe my sifting process is a good one; maybe I am slowing cleaning the glass through which I view Him; maybe my frenetic truth sorting is really just a series of course corrections towards the center. Maybe your's are too; maybe as you seek the truth at all costs and no matter where you find it, maybe you are getting closer to Jesus. He did say that He is near to those who seek Him.

   In the meantime I will try to find community with anyone who will have me. Maybe this is why I care so much about reviving the ability to disagree without vitriol. After all, we are all sure to be wrong about a whole lot of things, even if we don't know which things they are.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

And They'll Know We are Christians by our.....Vitriol?

  My apologies for the lateness of this week's post. I have been somewhat overwhelmed because I got a new job this week (cheers all 'round) and have been so busy celebrating that I haven't been able to sit down and put my thoughts to keyboard.

  Last week I got my first-ever topic recommendation from a reader. I suspect that the particular observations in the e-mail I received were a result of our having officially (because I said so) entered election season 2013. At least we have on the republican side of the aisle. No, No! don't go away. I promise this is not going to be a post on politics; or at least not exactly. My correspondent commented that he has a number of Christian friends on different sides of the political spectrum - so far so good and a lot more than I could say back when I lived in the Bible belt. I, for one am hugely in favor of Christians not being tied to any particular political ideology, I have my own political opinions and I would hope that each of you have yours but I don't think that good things come from a giant, conglomerate, homogeneous, religious-political-moralist group think.
  Unfortunately, things go downhill from there. It seems that these politically heterogeneous Christians are engaging the political world with all the vitriol, and blinders we have come to expect from [insert your least favorite media outlet here]. Or maybe more. Each group seems to have chosen a favored demagogue or two and will defend that demagogue with all the loyalty and ardor we might hope to see directed towards the rest of the Kingdom of Heaven.
  Of course it needs to be pointed out that this attitude is not restricted to the Church. Nearly all media outlets seems to have spent the last few years lamenting the lack of civil political discourse in this country (not that I think we ever had much of a hold on it). So yes, Christians are not the only ones who can be downright hateful and nasty when it comes to talking about politics. But I seem to recall something about "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another" and somehow political, rhetorical venom doesn't seem to fit into this description. It has also been observed that this sort of approach to political discussion doesn't really reflect any of the improvements we are supposed to look for in people who have asked the Holy Spirit to start working on them. Putting aside love for a second, when was the last time you heard a political conversation between two Christians on opposite sides of the aisle which was just brimming full of joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control?
  Now maybe this just has to do with our culture's loss of ability to engage in any sort of discussion or disagreement. But even if it is, shouldn't Christians at least try to correct the error?
  But I suspect that the real problem for Christians in this arena is how clear it always is that the other side is not just mistaken, they are nearly always disastrously mistaken and quite possibly thoroughly evil. After all those people can't possibly be "real Christians" - never mind that we are under even more stringent orders to love people who aren't part of the family yet - why "they" want to rob the poor, or destroy the family, or kill babies, or institute anarchy, or create a dictatorship or, or, or, or.....
 Or maybe, just maybe it really is more important to love one another than it is to be vindicated in our opinions, even if those opinions are true. So let me end by pointing to a couple of role models. One of the things I have noticed recently about my hero, C.S. Lewis and his best disciple Peter Kreeft is that both  engage in fierce dialogue and dispute without once giving the impression of disrespect or ill-will for their opponents.
  Maybe we ought to take a lesson from Pascal; a friend of mine recently drew my attention to the following:
  "When we wish to correct with advantage and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true." - Blaise Pascal, Pensees

Have you found an effective way to enter into genuinely courteous dialogue with other people on political subjects? Do you just avoid talking about politics because it "always gets ugly"? What is your strategy?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What a Solid Idea!

This ship has a dragon head... foreshadowing.

Last week I posted on my understanding of the non-material world in a purely philosophical a method as I could manage. My thought was, and still is, to talk this week about what impact those suspicions have on my theology. But before I get into that let me take a moment to admit that part of me sort of hates what I have done.

I think that the common distinction between philosophy and theology is baseless and damaging to both disciplines. In fact, so far as I can tell it is like trying to make a firm distinction between philosophy and ethics or philosophy and ontology. I tend to irritate a lot of Christians and non-Christians with the following statement but here goes: I think that theology is a proper subset of philosophy just like metaphysics, ethics, anthropology and the rest; and I think that it ought to be treated as such. I don't think that anyone can really develop a full philosophical worldview without addressing theology any more than someone can develop an un-philosophical theology. So just as ethics is philosophy thinking specifically about how we ought to behave, theology is philosophy thinking specifically about God.

Right, now that that is out of the way why don't I talk a little about what impact my understanding of pre-modern metaphysics has on my theology. The first observation I want to make is that it clearly undermines any purely materialist understanding of life. If the non-material world of forms has a greater participation in reality than the material world does, it would be nonsense to say that the non-material world is less real than the material world, much less that it does not exist at all.

Secondly, it makes a lot of sense to me to equate the non-material world of the forms with the spiritual world. Clearly, the spiritual world is non-material. But I realize that this will not work if we insist on a purely Platonic understanding of the non-material world. So I don't. I think that one of Plato's greater mistakes was to miss the fact that personhood is a characteristic quality of the real (I think that Lao Tzu missed this insight as well but that's another story). If things with greater being are things which are more person then it would follow that the world of forms is not merely the world of abstraction but is the domain of concrete reality in which all souls, all essential personhood, is anchored.
Eustace does look like
he almost deserved it

Another implication of this pre-modern paradigm is the idea that things and actions can have an intrinsic significance which may be even greater than their material significance. I mentioned in the last post that C.S. Lewis thought of himself as a pre-modern (he would have said medieval) thinker. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Rahmandu the Star tells Eustace that in our world, burning gas "is what stars are made of, not what they are". The idea here is that there is more to stars than just their material composition and properties. If you have ever had the feeling that you are more than a cloud of atoms even though a cloud of atoms is what you are made of, and you apply that feeling to stars as well as to yourself, then you begin to get at the point here. Or to put it in more platonic terms: the burning gas is a pale reflection, a material hint, of the reality of a star.

In the same sort of way, the bodies we interact with in our friends and enemies are pale reflections, material hints, of the reality of those persons. When I put it this way to myself generally "spiritual" or "ethereal" concepts like the immortality of the soul, or the impact that virtue and vice can have on a person, become almost self evident. Of course if the spirit has more reality than the body, there is no reason to assume that it should be subject to the same weaknesses (death) as the body.

But the biggest payout for my theology has been the understanding that certain acts may have genuine, profound, spiritual consequences which ought to be take at least as seriously as the material consequences. The clearest example I can think of at the moment would be my understanding of sex. From a pre-modern viewpoint, there is not contradiction and a great deal of gravity in the assertion that sex creates a spiritual bond between two people. If this is the case then it would follow that once one persons soul has been - remember that we are talking about events more "real" than even our physical world - joined to another, then these two people ought to make a commitment to love and support one another at least as long as their bodies stay alive; not to would be cruel and self destructive. 
Is this just or at least burning gas?

I want to leave it open from here. Do you find the pre-modern worldview compelling? Does it explain anything you might have struggled to understand? Do you think I have come to accurate conclusions about its implications or am I way off base? Of do you think that the whole project is a wrong turn? I would love to hear your takes, thoughts and suggestions. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

What a Flimsy Reality!

There is another way of writing about my topic today. In almost any other format it is a better way. I plan to talk about my suspicions about the nature of the non-material world. In another context I would do this by documenting the original publisher of the germ of every thought and observation I use to build my conclusion. I would provide comprehensive footnotes and I would address the primary objections that occur to me (I would also cite the originators of those objections). I would do that if I were writing a lecture or a formal paper. But this is a "heaven and earth questions" blog post. As such, I try to structure my writing as a conversation; partly because I think that make it a more engaging read for most people, and partly because I am way too lazy to implement the full scholarly rigor that an academic paper or lecture would require. Whether this is a good or bad thing, I have noticed one advantage that has risen out of it. This format allows me to write up and thereby work through ideas before I have them entirely worked through - it works as a great half step on the way to an academic paper.

More preamble! - this topic is, in some ways, focusing on one aspect of a larger topic I have been working on trying to develop a different way of understanding pre-modernism, modernism and post-modernism. The more I research and read, the more I find myself in agreement with what I understand to be a pre-modern mind set toward philosophy and theology. I do want to make a distinction between the descriptive (the model in itself) and the prescriptive (my sympathy for one approach as the model would describe it). This post will be focusing on certain implications I draw from the pre-modern outlook as I understand it through the (new?) model. Also it could just be a poor attempt to justify some sort of odd contemporary neo-platonism.

As I have said in another post, I believe that pre-modern thinkers began with metaphysics. That is to say, they began with statements and arguments about what life, the universe and everything are really like. So far as I can tell, nearly everyone who did this was influenced by Plato's theory of the forms which (in a bare bones way that will certainly not cut the mustard if you ever find yourself in my PHIL101 class) basically claims that there is a world behind the physical world of our senses in which the essences or patterns or archetypes or abstractions exist. Something my students have a lot of trouble getting is that this "world of the forms" is more real than the physical world.

I am sympathetic to the difficulty. First, we are conditioned to think of the objects of our senses as the most real things there are. Even metaphysical relativists who like to go around talking about "my reality" and "your reality" - an absurd notion so far as I can see - tend to at least treat the physical world as a fundamentally shared, base line reality. On top of this, every time we run into a world "on top of" or "behind" the physical in literature or the media, it is nearly always presented as shadowy and/or ethereal; we get the sense that it is less real.

The only exception that springs to mind is C.S. Lewis The Great Divorce, which portrays people in purgatory/heaven as looking and functioning somewhat like ghosts because their environment is more real than they are. So he sort of inverts the popular portrayal. This sort of thing comes out in a few of his other works (notably his angels in the space trilogy and especially the ecstatic cosmic dance scene in Perelandra) But then, Lewis described himself as a pre-modern (De Descriptione Temporum) and seems to have been something of platonist as well.

But if I am going  to explain Plato, much less recommend co-opting part of his worldview, you need to understand that the world of forms genuinely is more real, it has more being, than the physical world. If it helps, you might try following Lewis' approach and imagine the physical world as ghostly in comparison to the world of the forms. Once you have this settled in your head, you will be in a much better position to understand the pre-modern approach.

Things in this world are merely things of seeming. Of course there is some reality to the world of seeming, things really do seem this way or that way. But if we can begin to think and talk about the world of being -  a world which this one reflects - then we can begin to get at understanding. Thus, "what is a human?" is a far more interesting question than "how does the blood circulate?"; "what is justice?" is far more profound than "did she hit him without cause?".

Furthermore, the greater reality of the world of forms is actually a really great thing for all of us. Anything which has a soul, has a connection to the world of forms and (to mix my philosophers and bring in our old buddy Aristotle) pretty much everything that lives or has lived has a soul of some sort. In fact, everything that has any being at all is thereby anchored in the world of the forms from which the seeming of existence gets its start (Plato would have said "emanates"). Basically, everything physical that you think of as real is based on its greater reality in the world of forms. Although the aspects of it that we tend to focus on are probably not its more "form-ish" aspects. 

Now I take this understanding of two worlds and I am inclined to modify it by denying the separation (that's not new people have been doing it at least since Augustine). I do not think that there are so much two worlds as that there is one world, many aspects of which we are not in the habit of experiencing. We pretty much orient ourselves around our senses. But that doesn't mean that there aren't aspects of reality that our senses just aren't designed to pick up. And if those aspects of reality are more profound, are more fundamental to our identities and being than the physical aspects we are so preoccupied with then it might just be worth thinking about them. 

This is one reason I have been so sympathetic to the pre-modern understanding of life, the universe and everything recently. Rather that assuming that our senses give us as much reality as there is and trying to be content with that (modernism) or assuming that what our senses give us isn't even real so that ultimately there is no real reality (postmodernism) I find myself much more persuaded by the idea that our senses communicate some of reality but that there is so much more to it. Maybe there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies.

P.S. I decided to make this a purely philosophical post. Next week I intend to post on what I see as the religious/spiritual implications of all this.

Monday, August 1, 2011

I'm a Capitalist, Am I Going to Hell?

2018 Update: This is one of the more widely read pieces on my blog. I am definitely leaving the piece up as it reflects where I was in 2011. However I am not quite in that same place anymore. I hope to eventually write a response to my own thinking here, but until I do, the summary of my changed thinking is that this piece is built on a belief that rights=goodness. I have come to believe that such an equation is ethically anemic. That is to say I think that a rights-based ethic represents a weak vision of the Kingdom of Heaven. A more fully developed vision of the Kingdom would be based on Love/Justice and would look to that state of affair where (to quote Julian of Norwich) "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well". That is not so say that I have quite rejected capitalism or embraced socialism (I am still very uncomfortable with state power over people) but I do think that I started from the wrong place when I was working through these ideas seven years ago and that, as a result, my conclusions were flawed.

Cigars make you rich
I spend a lot of time hanging out with and reading the works of people who are (among other things) united in being anti-capitalist american Christians. This is odd because I am a pretty hard line free-market guy. But I agree with them on so many other points. In fact my worldview seems to have much more in common with theirs than it does with most other Christians, especially with other Christians who tend to hold free-market type views.

Now a when I started to notice this discrepancy I wasn't too worried about it. I just chalked it up to "personalities and preferences". After all, it is an issue of economics, not exactly (despite what some modern theologians want to claim) a matter of deep doctrinal profundity. I didn't see my stance, or the stances of others, as integral to my understanding of what Jesus is like or what it means to be one of His followers.

But recently I have found that my position on this issue does have a pretty big impact on my beliefs about how I ought to live as a Christian in the modern world (for those of you theologaphiliacs, it has substantial implications for orthopraxy). If that is an accurate observation then it would seem that I was wrong to dismiss the debate as unimportant to my worldview. If I find that I disagree with someone about how a person ought to live then it is likely that we have some fundamental disagreement on a deeper level than personality and preference.

So this post is targeted at those of you who really disagree with me about capitalism. I intend to lay out 1. Why I am a free-market sort of person and 2. Why I think that being a free-market kinda person is more in line with following Jesus than opposing it would be. I hope that you will let me know where my thinking starts to diverge from yours and why I am so terribly mistaken.
Also smoke stacks... see... cigars?

Let me begin with some of my presuppositions. I think that Jesus is not interested in having us force people, especially people who aren't interested in following Him anyway, to behave in a "kingdom of heaven" sort of way. So Jesus isn't interested in us passing laws that make divorce illegal in the case of "irreconcilable differences" even though that doesn't look like something He thinks is actually good for people. He doesn't want us to make it illegal to "blaspheme against the Holy Spirit" even though He suggests that doing so will have pretty dire consequences. So it's not good to force someone to do good.

My second working presupposition is that capitalism creates wealth. But let me be clear about this. I'm not saying that wealth is intrinsically good (I see it more as a tool which can be used well or badly) and I'm not saying that there is any particular virtue in a countries acquiring wealth, at least not beyond the capacity required to feed the population. But I do think it's pretty clear from history that the capitalist approach has been more effective in creating wealth in general than any other system we have tried. That doesn't make it good, it just sets up a correlative and assumed causal relationship.

My third presupposition has do do with definition. I define free-market capitalism (the kind I am interested in) as an economic system which guarantees all members the right to make and enforce whatever contract they choose so long as that contract is made in good faith and doesn't infringe on the basic negative rights of anyone else. (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a great article on the distinction between positive and negative rights).

As a consequence of these presuppositions I see free market capitalism not as an established economic system so much as an economic non-system which generally has to be defended from having systems like socialism, mercantilism, or crony capitalism imposed on it. Essentially, free market capitalism is what you get if you just let people do their thing and a)don't force them to be virtuous and b) don't let them violate one another's negative rights. Thus I see it as a system of minimal justice. Free market capitalism is not forcing the kids to share but not letting them steal each other's toys either.

But this is not complete. Surely a  Jesus follower wants people to do more than just "not steal each other's toys", surely it is important that people actually grow into practicing the positive virtues of love, generosity and compassion for others. Of course this is true. But remember my first premise: Jesus isn't interested in having us force our joy on people who don't want to follow Him (another way of saying this is that God's Kingdom grows by persuasion, conversion and transformation not by threat, violence and law). If this is true then following Jesus means living a life of love, generosity and compassion without ever trying to force anyone else to lead such a life.

And now I bring the two together. Free market capitalism leaves everyone free to do what they think God wants them to do with their money without forcing anyone. I am in favor of free market capitalism specifically because I see it as the economic system of maximal freedom. All the other systems I know of either force people to do what others think is right (socialism), or force people to contribute to specific injustices (mercantilism, crony capitalism, feudalism).

Apparently Jesus doesn't like flappers... not sure why.

I want to end by heading off a couple of objections by adding a couple of clarifications. First, I do not think that this country does now or ever has practiced free market capitalism. We have been both closer to it and farther from it in the past but we haven't ever fully practiced it so I am NOT arguing for the status quo or the "system that created the current financial crisis". Second I am not arguing that free market capitalism with it's at least tacit approval if not outright benediction of greed reflects the way we would go about dealing with possessions in a perfect world. And I am not saying that capitalism is a necessary evil. I don't happen to believe that there is any such thing as a necessary evil anyway. I am only saying that free market capitalism is the only system a Jesus follower can advocate for in the world as it is because it does not, of necessity, cause us to act in ways that are contrary to the life Jesus calls people to (though it does allow such actions to occur).
This visual pun is supposed to be
"The Communist Party"

In case this last point is unclear let me make an observation. In a society which restricts itself to enforcing only free market principles (a capitalist society) it is perfectly compatible with that societal structure for any given person or even for every person to behave in an economically socialist manner so long as they do not try to impose their socialism on anyone who doesn't accept it. Thus in a free market society I would be free to throw my income into a pot along with a group of friends or an established community and then distribute that wealth to each person according to their need. But the reverse is not true. In a socialist society, no person is free to behave in a free market manner distributing wealth to each person in accordance with a pre-defined, mutually agreed upon manner; instead all people are required to dispense with their incomes according to the direction of the state. Thus free market capitalism allows for socialistic behavior (so long as it does not force itself on anyone) while socialism does not allow for capitalist behavior. I note that this relationship does not exist between free market capitalism and several other economic systems (feudalism, mercantalism, crony capitalism) because they are integrally dependent on suppression of human rights.

So where have I gone wrong? Are my premises false? Is there a flaw in my reasoning? Have I overlooked some key fact? Please let me know.