maandag 28 juli 2008

Confessions of an unwilling Gnostic

I do not mean to suggest that I subscribe to doctrines of an evil demiurge, or of an evil material world that he created, or that the snake was right, or that Christ escaped crucifixion and gloated over poor Simon of Cyrene as he carried his cross toward Golgotha. What I mean is more that I always and still seek salvation through understanding, much as I might rebel against that and acknowledge the insuffiency of reason in religious matters by mouth. My heart is not
there yet. Faith is still a very faraway country.

I am increasingly reserved towards attempts to reconciliate religion with science, or religion with science via philosophy. Regardless of the role that theistic philosophers played in my own journey over the past few years. The below will no doubt veer a bit towards an extreme anti-rationalistic position. But it is useful to explore extremes sometimes.

I'm not afraid of the possible ramifications scientific research can have on Christian doctrine. There cannot be such ramifications, there cannot be a conflict. Natural science deals, by its very nature, with the abstract, the general, the repeatable. It is interested in atoms, in The Atom, but
not in this or that particular atom. And at the smallest level of the physical world, the thisness or thatness of elementary particles becomes acutely problematic. Likewise, natural science may have an interest in Man but not in this or that particular experience of this or that particular man.

The science that deals with concrete thought is, as Collingwood claimed, precisely history, and for that reason history will be forever irreducible to the natural sciences. Concrete facts are always concrete facts for some experiencing or thinking subject - to wit, if no one is looking at the moon, it is not (concretely) there. (I know this is a controversial point, suffice to say here that I am aware what I am saying).

And the God of Abraham and Israel and Jesus is a God of history. God is concrete, particular. There seems to me something very unsatisfactory about the notions of Omnipotence, Omniscience, Omnipresence, and so forth, that have been tied up with classical notions of God. The God revealed in the Bible inspires awe, fear, longing, wanting to hide - thoroughly relational, subjective concepts. And neither science nor philosophy seem to have much to say about the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ - that most concrete, most particular of historical events (nothing good, at any rate).

God is transcendent with regards to His creation - do we need to further specify Omnipotence and such things? God is a God of forgiveness, and mercy, and love - it is necessary to wrangle over the question whether he is furthermore good? And whether his existence is commensurable with the evil in man and creation?

I've stated sometime before that the Problem of Evil is the sharpest arrow in the atheist's quiver. I'll go further: it is the only arrow. For all the other arguments or counterarguments may serve how an abstract idea of God - or a rejection of that idea - underlies other presuppositions we use to make sense of the universe. But they have little to do with the concrete God of religion. With the Problem of Evil, it is different. The whole of the Bible is concerned with it - from the Fall of Adam to the resurrection of Christ. And it is concerned with it in its own concrete, particular fashion. It says little of Evil, or of Pain, or of Suffering - but a lot of the particular evils and suffering that befell figures such as Job, or Christ.

It seems to me that the theist cannot even allow the admissability of something such as the Problem of Evil without exploding all that. For to allow for the possibility of doubting the existence of God on the basis of Evil seems to be counterposed to the Biblical answer of hope, and of faith in God. And, to me, it seems almost sacrilegious to think that we could find a philosophically satisfactory answer to the problem of Evil. Comprehending by our reason why Evil exists, why we sin, and why nevertheless God is good or goodness itself almost seems to me to be tantamount to comprehending God. At most, philosophy may show there is no logical contradiction here - but this is hardly going to convince the atheist raising it as s/he may well have very concrete, particular situations in mind. There is something that remains unsaid, something unsatisfactory, when we try to answer these in general, abstract terms.

Briefly put: if the answer is faith, then no exhaustive, satisfactory answer to the Problem of Evil can be admitted by reason. If this answer is denied, and the point is conceded, then all hope is lost.

But as I said, faith is still something I can but marvel at. I am still too enamoured by my own understanding. I don't like to admit that there are things that I will never be able to comprehend.

I've been reading Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling. It is one of the most disturbing texts I have read so far. Some people are, I understand, deeply offended by the idea that Catholics believe in the real and concrete presence of Christ in the Communion Wafer. I understand that these people are especially numerous in the comment boxes of certain ScienceBlogs.
I can only implore these people not to read Kierkegaard. If the doctrine of transubstantiation causes your Reason to be so deeply scandalized as to applaud PZ Meyer's adolescent mockery as some kind of highly incisive piece of performance art, Kierkegaard's analysis of the story of Abraham would have you ready the Molotov Cocktails.

Genesis 22:

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!"
"Here I am," he replied.
Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains
I will tell you about."
Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you."
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?"
"Yes, my son?" Abraham replied.
"The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"
Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son."
And the two of them went on together. When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.
He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!"
"Here I am," he replied.
"Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."
Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, "On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided."
The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, "I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me."

At the beginning of his work, Kierkegaard lays out a number of alternative stories of Abraham, all of which somehow end in him failing this particular test. In one very poignant one, Abraham turns towards Isaac as they ascend the mountain and tells him he is not a servant of God, and not Isaac's father, but an idolator, and he is going to sacrifice Isaac. Terrified, Isaac calls out for God to help him, and Abraham is satisfied he at least succeeded to save Isaac's faith. But by doing so, he has lost his own.

Kierkegaard contrasts Abraham as a "Knight of Faith" with those that, for the sake of eternity, the greater good, resign into sacrifice something dear to them. There are many such stories: Agamemnon ordering the sacrifice of Iphigeneia at Aulis so that the ships may sail towards Troy; Jephta promising to sacrifice the first thing that
approaches him from his house if God grants him victory, and ending up sacrificing his own daughter. Harsh as these stories are, Agamemnon and Jephta have some kind of transcendent ground to take comfort in. The well-being of the many, the prosperity of their people. Abraham has little such comfort. No ethical justifications. Just the command of God - to him alone.

What, according to Kierkegaard, makes Abraham into a "Knight of Faith" is that, as he ascends the mountain, he holds the absurd and impossible hope that Isaac may yet be restored to him. That even if he were to strike his son with the knife, God would revive him. This absurd hope co-existed side by side with Abraham's absolute and perfect obedience to God's commands. The state of mind that Kierkegaard describes is, simply, terrifying to contemplate.

Note that in no way Abraham had an assurance that Isaac would be restored to him. He had faith. He had hope. But he did not know that God would provide for a ram at the last moment, and, for that matter, he did not know that it was God speaking to him, and not some terrible demon.

There are to be sure mad people who believe they must sacrifice their sons and daughters. If we were to meet Abraham on the way to the mountain, probably little would distinguish himself from such a madman. We should probably try to
stop him by all means from performing such a foul deed, and perhaps even kill him in order to save his innocent son. And yet, by this action, Abraham became the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Thus, to Kierkegaard, faith is faith in the impossible, in the absurd. It is groundless. It is unreasonable. And yet it was what made Abraham to such a towering figure, such a giant looming in our religious consciousness - greater than
Agamemnon, greater than Jephta.

There is another corollary Kierkegaard explores. If Abraham acted against all ethical duties towards his family, and indeed was full prepared to commit a particularly gruesome crime - killing his own son - then either he should be condemned or one's duty towards God should be taken as particular, as absolute, and overriding ethical concerns. This, too, is an extremely disturbing notion.

In Kierkegaard's terms, ethics is something general, universal - the collective mores of a particular social group, etc. He makes the point that in this and other aspects, God raises the particular, the individual, above the general and the universal. It is one's individual, particular duty to God that is of paramount importance. That is absolute. Kierkegaard explores precisely what this implies - and the implications are uncomfortable, offensive to our reason, our sense of ethics, and so on.

The New Testament often seems to reflect a similar notion. Jesus is fond of talking in parables, of using a very particular situation to make a general point, or to answer a general question. When he is asked by an expert in the Law,
in Luke 10, what loving one's neighbours means, who is a neighbour, Jesus answers with the very specific example of the Good Samaritan. Much more strikingly, there are some parables which seem to offend our human notion of justice:

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard.
He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing.
He told them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went.
He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, 'Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?'
'Because no one has hired us,' they answered.
"He said to them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard.'
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.'The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.
'These men who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.'
But he answered one of them, 'Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?'
"So the last will be first, and the first will be last."

In other words, God relates to you particularly, individually; he does not weigh your merits against another. He is not being "fair" in that sense - he is the ground of your being, the one you absolutely depend on with every breath you take, why would he? God is a God of love, not a God of "fair" of "unfair" or a God of "good" or "evil" in human terms - but a God whose love is gratuitous just as your existence is gratuitous.

God is concrete. A God who calls you by your name.

donderdag 24 juli 2008

Books and teapots

So exhibitionistic atheist PZ Meyers declares that not only has he desecrated a communion wafer but a Koran, and something secret he won't tell us about until tomorrow. I am not sure what desecrating the Koran is going to mean, but the Koran is a book, and I don't like the idea at all. Not one bit. If "desecrating a communion wafer" means you're an uncivilized boor with a perplexing desire to demonstrate your lack of comprehension, "desecrating" a book in any way that damages or tarnishes said book demonstrates you're a barbarian, a modern savage, pure and simple.

(And I don't mean to go soft on the Catholic League here either. Bill Donohue's vow to sic the Council on American-Islamic Relations on Meyers is a touching manifestation of the ecumenical spirit. But it only heaps more undeserved attention on Meyers' stunt, as well as shows more than a whiff of a victim/persecution complex).

But amidst all the din on PZ blog, David Heddle attempted to get a point across about Russell's oft-quoted teapot analogy. There's something that always bothered me about that analogy. I read very little of Russell. I have his history of Western philosophy somewhere on my shelf but it's in the partially-read state so many of my books are in. But I'm at least aware that he wrote it, and I'm aware that Russell remained on friendly or respectful terms with such thoughtful philosophical theists as Whitehead, and that he engaged with philosophical defenses of theism. Why would he put forward such an awful argument?

Unless, as David Heddle argues, the argument is not so much an argument against theism as such, but an argument against a careless way of shifting the burden of proof:

Theist: Why would the burden of proving the existence of God be on me? After all, as an atheist, you surely cannot disprove the existence of God.
Russell: Ah, but there are many things I cannot disprove. I cannot disprove the hypothesis that somewhere around Saturnus a tiny teapot is orbiting - one so tiny that our most powerful telescopes can't catch it. But surely this is not an argument for accepting the existence of such a teapot?

The catch here is of course that the retort only flies in as far as the theist leaves unspecified whether the God whose existence is debated is an empirical reality, a metaphysical presupposition, or some kind of transcendent reality encountered in faith and mysticism. And that's as far as it goes. If the theist specifies that God is a purely empirical reality, an "entity" part of the cosmos in the same way particles and gas clouds and supernovae are, then he must furnish possible ways of falsifying or verifying God's existence - and if he does, out goes the analogy (regardless of whether the theist's further arguments are any good). If he is arguing for God to be some kind of metaphysical presupposition, he would need to defend it by showing how more everyday, including empirical, ideas about the world depend on it. And so forth. Russell's analogy, on Heddle's reading, works but it only works as a reply to one specific kind of argument by a very careless theist. Used as a general argument on theism, it often rests on unexamined presuppositions (such as a positivistic theory of knowledge, i.e. the only propositions worth discussing are those that are empirically verifiable or falsifiable) which the theist is under no obligation to share.

UPDATE: So Myers did mistreat his communion wafer, if it is indeed that - together with ripping out pages from a translation of the Koran as well as The God Delusion. I'd have betted on Origin myself. In any event, the juvenile behaviour in question is accompanied by a long piece on Catholicism and Anti-Semitism which would be interesting just about anywhere else, as well as with the following exhortation:

By the way, I didn't want to single out just the cracker, so I nailed it to a few ripped-out pages from the Qur'an and The God Delusion. They are just paper. Nothing must be held sacred. Question everything. God is not great, Jesus is not your lord, you are not disciples of any charismatic prophet. You are all human beings who must make your way through your life by thinking and learning, and you have the job of advancing humanities' knowledge by winnowing out the errors of past generations and finding deeper understanding of reality. You will not find wisdom in rituals and sacraments and dogma, which build only self-satisfied ignorance, but you can find truth by looking at your world with fresh eyes and a questioning mind.

I cannot but marvel but at the mentality which couples destroying books with questioning everything - but I guess questioning everything is useful. For a little while. Until you find out that there are things that are sacred, that there are truths that you live by, and that these have been mediated by tradition - and that's just the first step.

dinsdag 22 juli 2008


Don't send him to The Hague, to a Tribunal instituted by Nobody, representing Nobody and handing out sentences in Nobody's name. Do not be fooled by such concepts as International Community, Humanity, and so forth. Humanity is, absent the Kingdom of God, an ideal, a possibility, but not here yet, and certainly not involved in the administration of international justice. And those who feign to act in its name are liars. Instead, there are tribes, clans, religious communities and nations - and it is against these that Karadzic committed his crimes, and it is these that should sentence him. His place is in Sarajevo.

Do not be concerned about fair trials, as those that were hand-wringing about the fairness of Saddam Hussein's trial. Deposed tyrants and kings and vanquished warlords and generals do not receive fair trials. Hussein did not, Ceaucescu did not. The Nazis at Nuremberg did not. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette did not. The Czar was not even given a trial (the Bolsheviks understood the real point of the exercise well enough). Responsibility is too scattered among too many smaller thugs and officers and functionaries. It is not about justice - there is no room for such a thing at historical points of transition. It is about power. For the new state to be born and assert its legitimacy, the old must be done away with in an expiatory act of bloodshed.

I was strongly against the extradition of Milosevic to that Nobody's tribunal in The Hague, not because of much sympathy to Milosevic. If, in defiance of NATO and the European Union and the United Nations and other such nonentities, the Serbs would have asserted themselves and done a Ceaucescu on him, such an action alone would have bestowed more dignity on that people (as well as on Milosevic himself, oddly) than anything much else that has happened in post-Milosevic Serbia. Note that there was enough to object to with the tribunal itself. Its inability to decide whether to have a trial or an extended therapy session for one - if I recall, Milosevic was in the sixth year of his imprisonment at the time of his death, and the trial had anything but ended. Then there is the time of the indictment, which was at the height of the bombings of Yugoslavia, by which the tribunal made itself rather blatantly into a party in the ongoing conflict. Of course, this was not surprising, since this, too, was about power rather than justice. In the end, I just happened to disapprove of the entities wielding said power.

Or indeed the ideology behind it. Which was that of the most blatant worshippers of power - the Western European babyboomer former radicals. The privileged brats of 1968 who turned the Left from anything remotely to do with practical politics to the uncritical worship of any far-away armed movement with the vaguest allegiances to "socialism", to desperate acts of terror in the cities of West Germany and Italy, to hopeless sectarianism encapsulated in minuscule "workers vanguards" ran by their miniature tinpot Stalins and Maos complete with miniature tinpot show trials, excommunications, etc., etc. - and eventually, rather comfortably, to the hallways of power itself. Where the iron faith in the perfectability of man by high explosives turned into the worship of American warplanes bombing old European cities. The ideology of Joschka Fischer, Tony Blair, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Stalinists-turned-MEPs and other ideologues of military humanism.

Yet the world has moved on. Military humanism - the spread of Western-European and American ideals of democracy and liberal society through the massive and coordinated use of firepower - has pretty much met its fate in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not to be lamented - if a resurgence of Talibanism in Afghanistan definitely would be. Multi-ethnicism, the attachment to which pretty much defined the Western liberal response to Yugoslavia, is a dirty word now in most Western European societies, which seem to be obsessed with the idea of Muslims either planning to kill us or to outbreed us. We're falling apart.

Which is why the Serbs and Bosnians should pay no heed to the demands of the European Union or international organizations running courthouses - the legitimacy of these institutions themselves is under increasing strain. The legitimacy of Serbia as a nation is not, and that of a multi-ethnic Bosnian nation may not be either. But it must be asserted over and outside the confines of Europeanism. Karadzic should not be shuttled out far away to some clean maximum-security prison cell in some country like Italy or Norway or another which has nothing to do with him. He should not be prosecuted by a Swiss or English attorney and sentenced by a panel of judges from France or South Korea or some such. Instead, he should answer to the people of Bosnia and them only. Don't let your modern sensibilities be offended by such notions as blood sacrifice and the like. Not all old ideas are bad. It's not about justice, even though justice may be done: but a symbolic exercise of power by the hands of a people over the ghosts of the past that still haunt it. Karadzic should be tried, accused and shot in Sarajevo. "International community" and the rest of the world be damned.

vrijdag 18 juli 2008

Encountering the Communion Wafer

PZ Meyers got himself into a bit of a fracas with Catholics. See here, here and a bunch of other places on his blog. Reason? PZ Meyers solicited consecrated communion wafers for him to publicly desecrate:

Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There's no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I'm sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I'll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won't be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart. If you can smuggle some out from under the armed guards and grim nuns hovering over your local communion ceremony, just write to me and I'll send you my home address.

Now, why would an adult, and a well-educated and intelligent one at that, want to do such a thing? When I was fifteen, I didn't even bother about winding up Catholics as they weren't nearly bothersome enough to me. Much more fun to wind up the Evangelical kids and Youth for Christ types who were attempting to "save" me. Funny how things turned out. In any event, PZ Meyers wants to respond to the issue of a University of Central Florida student who smuggled out a Communion wafer from a Catholic mass:

Cook claims he planned to consume it, but first wanted to show it to a fellow student senator he brought to Mass who was curious about the Catholic faith.

"When I received the Eucharist, my intention was to bring it back to my seat to show him," Cook said. "I took about three steps from the woman distributing the Eucharist and someone grabbed the inside of my elbow and blocked the path in front of me. At that point I put it in my mouth so they'd leave me alone and I went back to my seat and I removed it from my mouth."

A church leader was watching, confronted Cook and tried to recover the sacred bread. Cook said she crossed the line and that's why he brought it home with him.

"She came up behind me, grabbed my wrist with her right hand, with her left hand grabbed my fingers and was trying to pry them open to get the Eucharist out of my hand," Cook said, adding she wouldn't immediately take her hands off him despite several requests.

Diocese of Orlando spokeswoman Carol Brinati said she was not aware of anyone touching Cook. She released a statement Thursday: "... a Catholic Campus Ministry student representative filed a complaint with the Student Union regarding the behavior of the two young men. A Student Government Representative called Catholic Campus Ministry to apologize for this disruption."

Cook filed an official abuse complaint with UCF's student conduct court regarding the alleged physical force. Following that complaint, Brinati said church members filed their own official complaints of disruptive conduct. Punishment for either offense could result in suspension or expulsion.

"The church feels that I'm the problem here," Cook said. "The problem is actually that this is a publicly-funded religious institution. Through student government here, we fund them through an activity and service, so they're receiving student money."

Cook is upset more than $40,000 in student fees have been allocated to support religious organizations on campus for the 2008-2009 school year, according to student government records. He denied he is holding the Eucharist hostage to protest that support.

I'm not sure what to think of this, except that the student seems to me to be the self-important rebel-without-a-cause type, who apparently knew little of the Catholicism he supposedly wanted to teach his curious friend about.

One of the first things I learned when occasionally attending mass as a child:

You get the wafer, you put it in your mouth, chomp-chomp, down. Immediately. You don't wave it around, or crumble it to little pieces, or slowly nibble on it while sitting again on the bench. People tend to dislike that.

And if you don't want to respect that, you have no business holding that wafer or being in a Catholic Church in the first place.

So the student's explanations, based on the above article to me, smell like crap to me. Methinks he was deliberately provoking people in order to make some political point about religious funding - and regardless of the merits of his cause, I take a pretty low view of his methods (deliberately disrupting a religious ceremony). He should go back to his books, apologize, and stop being such a twit. Same goes for PZ Meyers as far as I am concerned.

This is not to say that the Catholic League is not overreacting by calling for the student's expulsion and action against Meyers on the part of his employer. The student in question may still grow up, and Meyers' competence as a researcher or teacher has little to do with his middlebrow atheism.

A nuanced take on the whole affair at Prosblogion here. Another one from another ScienceBlogger here.

I had just been reflecting a bit on the doctrine of transubstantation - the notion that, at the moment of the Eucharist, the communion bread takes on the essence of the body of Jesus Christ while all its accidents - all its material appearances - remain that of bread. Philosophically, I can't do much with a doctrine that states that an 'essence' can actualize with no change in 'accidents'.

This said, I have no issues with the doctrine either. To an extent, I can apprehend the sense behind it. Of course, the sharing of bread and wine as the body and blood of our Lord has a deeply symbolical sense, affirming the presence of Jesus Christ in the community of believers. But symbolism and literalism don't always contradict. I can very well see how literally holding that, for one indivisible moment, the bread becomes the body of Christ in a very real sense, lends an enormous poignancy and strength to the very symbol. And the believer is part of that symbol, submerging himself into it. One could perhaps argue that, paradoxically, the Eucharist is symbolical precisely by virtue of the presence of Christ in the bread and wine being real (compare my comments on Collingwood's notions of symbolism and faith here).

I'm not sure if I'm getting at anything here. It's just the vague notion that if we call the Eucharist as just a symbol or merely symbolic, we are in a way placing ourselves outside of the event in a way which obscures quite a bit of the religious import of the symbolism to us.

Atheists who har-har-har about the 'irrationality' of religious believers engaging in the Eucharist miss this point. A miraculous event is not a miraculous event in virtue of transcending the laws of nature. It's a miraculous event in virtue of being a sign - something that refers to a reality beyond itself. Criticizing it on the basis of, hey, it's just a cracker, really does not begin to apprehend what the Eucharist is about, what is actually going on in there. If you don't want to, fine. Though your ignoring a dimension to your existence that is as essential to being human as an appreciation for art, or indeed, science.

Just keep your hands off that wafer, and don't whine if you get pushed around a bit while you are essentially sabotaging a religious ceremony. You're not a paragon of rationality and Enlightenment values - you're being an uncivilized boor.

The Transitional Program on the Mount

There was in the 1930's across 7th Avenue a giant sign, a quote by Earl Browder, 'Communism Is 20th Century Americanism.' And when I heard about that I thought, hmm, I want to put another sign across 7th Avenue, 'Trotskyism Is 20th Century Calvinism.'
James Robertson, Spartacist League/US, 1978

On the issue of morality, the Law, and the impossibility of us meeting God's standards by our own devices, David Heddle has a post up with which I pretty much agree. I'm not a Calvinist (I think) but I can very much sympathize with the doctrine of Total Depravity as explained by "one-point Calvinist" Heddle.

Reflecting on the stuff I wrote in my last post, it struck me that the reasoning was all too familiar to me. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Back in my Trot days, I was acquainted with the logic of transitional demands - of demanding the impossible, essentially, in a similar fashion as Jesus demands the impossible from his followers.

Most main-stream Communist parties have always essentially followed the method of Social Democracy combined with some overt genuflections towards the Soviet Union or other "actually existing socialist" states - without this reflecting on their actual political program very much. Which basically contained demanding a reform of the conditions within Capitalism. For socialism and better toilet-paper in the factory bathroom, so to speak. I do not mean to be so disparaging as I sound, on second thought - main-stream Communists as well as Social Democrats have actually gotten important things done in Western Europe, when given the chance.

A smaller group essentially followed the logic of demanding everything, right here, right now. Full-blown Communism, with fully common ownership of the means of production, etc. the morning after the revolution. Some Maoist and Ex-Maoist groups, such as the Progressive Labor Party in the US, have tendencies towards this kind of maximalism. From a Marxist perspective (not to speak of a pragmatical political one) it's of course nonsensical. We make our own history not in circumstances of our own choosing - and overcoming the constraints of the (reformist) general ideology of the workers' movement cannot be simply done by stamping our foot and saying that we really, really want full-blown Communism. Right now.

The third approach is the one actually pioneered by Leon Trotsky in his 1938 Transitional Program. The approach is, somewhat like the maximalists above, to "demand the impossible" but not in an abstract, general fashion like "Communism now!" but in the shape of concrete demands in response to concrete situations. The political program of the Fourth International would have to propose solutions to the concrete problems of Capitalism which cannot be accomodated by the Capitalist system itself. The "ideal", the "then", must appear in some concrete shape as a programmatical demand, allowing us to basically transcend the logic of reforming the Capitalist system within the boundaries laid by Capitalism itself and apprehend a revolutionary political logic. Basically, the Transitional Program is a political program which constantly reaches beyond Capitalism, with yet its feet firmly planted in the now.

The tragedy of the Trotskyist movement is that it has preserved the dialectical "edge" of Marxism more than any other Marxist or post-Marxist current, contained and contains some of the finest and most acute minds of the radical Left (starting with Trotsky itself) and yet has remained utterly marginal. And constantly ripped apart by the twin temptations of sectarianism and ideological puritanism on the one hand (see the Maoists) and political opportunism, foregoing the transitional program for the logic of campaigning for small, piecemeal changes in the here-and-now, on the other.

In any event, what I saw laid out in the Sermon on the Mount reminded me strongly of the political logic that I had tried to wrap my head around earlier. The demands of Jesus are impossible. We cannot refrain from hating and despising and lusting after one another - this follows simply from our condition, our fallenness, our alienation from God and each other, our Total Depravity if you're a Calvinist. How, then, can we hope to enter the Kingdom of God? We cannot, not by our own devices - but by the undeserved grace of God. Where Trotsky's Transitional Program basically criticizes the current, concrete conditions of Capitalism from the viewpoint of the future and thereby allows us to transcend our ideological constraints, the Sermon criticizes our fallenness from the viewpoint of the Kingdom of God, and thereby allows us to apprehend precisely what it takes to enter it - which is the first step towards a reconciliation with God.

I wrote this because I found the similarity amusing. There is no question where my own sympathies lie - I have written before that I believe the precise tragedy of Marxism to lie in its notion of Man as shaped by social and ideological circumstance and therefore mutable and perfectable, rather than, as in Christianity, as simultaneously containing an inalienable, essential dignity as created in the image of God and an ineradicable stain in its fallenness. This lead the Marxists to sacrifice current generations of men in the name of the next on the killing fields in Siberia, China, etc. It does not do to say that Stalinism was corrupted, or that the Stalinists and Maoists were evil. Even if they were, the sting lies precisely in the recognition that their crimes were made possible by the actions of those who were trying to do the good.

zaterdag 12 juli 2008

Dawkins the Marcionite

(Via Exile from Groggs) a confused but funny piece by Dawkins on 'Atheists for Jesus'. Key quote:

Of course Jesus was a theist, but that is the least interesting thing about him. He was a theist because, in his time, everybody was. Atheism was not an option, even for so radical a thinker as Jesus. What was interesting and remarkable about Jesus was not the obvious fact that he believed in the God of his Jewish religion, but that he rebelled against many aspects of Yahweh's vengeful nastiness. At least in the teachings that are attributed to him, he publicly advocated niceness and was one of the first to do so. To those steeped in the Sharia-like cruelties of Leviticus and Deuteronomy; to those brought up to fear the vindictive, Ayatollah-like God of Abraham and Isaac, a charismatic young preacher who advocated generous forgiveness must have seemed radical to the point of subversion. No wonder they nailed him.

Then Dawkins goes on to marvel at humanity's capacity for altruism, which has evolved far beyond what reasons for survival would have dictated. Dawkins wonders how the memes of the 'super-nice' could be encouraged to spread. Apart from the memetics idiocy, this part is actually not all that bad. It shows the very big gulf between Dawkins' ideas and social Darwinism. But then Dawkins comes up with:

I am no memetic engineer, and I have very little idea how to increase the numbers of the super nice and spread their memes through the meme pool. The best I can offer is what I hope may be a catchy slogan. 'Atheists for Jesus' would grace a T-shirt. There is no strong reason to choose Jesus as icon, rather than some other role model from the ranks of the super nice such as Mahatma Gandhi (not the odiously self-righteous Mother Teresa, heavens no). I think we owe Jesus the honour of separating his genuinely original and radical ethics from the supernatural nonsense which he inevitably espoused as a man of his time. And perhaps the oxymoronic impact of 'Atheists for Jesus' might be just what is needed to kick start the meme of super niceness in a post-Christian society. If we play our cards right - could we lead society away from the nether regions of its Darwinian origins into kinder and more compassionate uplands of post-singularity enlightenment?

I think a reborn Jesus would wear the T-shirt. It has become a commonplace that, were he to return today, he would be appalled at what is being done in his name, by Christians ranging from the Catholic Church to the fundamentalist Religious Right. Less obviously but still plausibly, in the light of modern scientific knowledge I think he would see through supernaturalist obscurantism. But of course, modesty would compel him to turn his T-shirt around: Jesus for Atheists.

A few thoughts:

1. The article pretty well illustrates the sophisticated, condescending position that Jesus was a great moral teacher, sort of like Gandhi, just a pity there's so much supernaturalist nonsense in the New Testament. If we would just take away the conversations with daemons, the healing of the blind and the crippled and the sick, the walking over the water, the resurrection after three days - all the miraculous fairy-tales which, in our age of Science and Reason, we have outgrown - we could well assent to his teachings. The problem with this position is of course that it is, well, shit. Without the miracles, the temptation in the desert, the daemons and most importantly the death and resurrection, the gospel is reduced to nothing. And if you don't understand why all those things that offend our modernist sensibilities yet must be there, you haven't really understood anything of it.

2. Another thing: Dawkins makes a lot of the supposed contradiction between Jesus' teachings and the 'vengeful', 'vindictive' God of Abraham. It's an unfortunate but very commonly human phenomenon that we either see contradictions or continuities - but not both at the same time. And in as far Jesus stood in contradiction to the Old Testament he also stood at the end of a line that was drawn throughout the Old Testament. I am not talking here about the Messianic prophecies - but in the way the Old Testament, at the same time as it lays down the Law, continuously reaches for something beyond, something transcending the Law.

3. The God of Abraham is, of course, the God that reveals Himself by rejecting human sacrifices. A God who in one key passage is persuaded by Moses not to destroy the people who have turned away from him:

"I have seen these people," the LORD said to Moses, "and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation." But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. "O LORD," he said, "why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: 'I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.' " Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened. (Exodus 32: 9-14).

Or the God of Jonah, who was moved by the repentance of the Ninevites he had intended to destroy, to the displeasure of his prophet, and who gives Jonah the following lesson: Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the LORD God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah's head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, "It would be better for me to die than to live." But God said to Jonah, "Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?" "I do," he said. "I am angry enough to die." But the LORD said, "You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?" (Jonah 4: 5-11).

Or the God of the prophets, who continuously rejects outward ritual observance in favour of lived faith, the spirit of the Law: Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations — I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1: 13-17).

Or: With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
(Micah 6: 6-8).

Or indeed the maligned God of Leviticus: Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him.
Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight. Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD. Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor's life. I am the LORD. Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.
(Leviticus 19: 13-18), When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19: 33).

This God is the same God of love, compassion and forgiveness that Jesus preached.

4. Dawkins quotes the Sermon on the Mount:

"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.'" But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5: 38-48).

Now, first of all, with these injunctions, Jesus was not proclaiming a new Law to succeed the old: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." (Matthew 5: 17-18).

Second, the passage that Dawkins quoted may indeed sound pleasant to well-meaning, pacifist-minded secularists. But what of the following two?

"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matthew 5: 21-22)

"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5: 27-30).

They, to me, illustrate the difficulty of taking Jesus' sayings as mere ethical injunctions. As injunctions towards 'niceness'. Or even 'super niceness'. Reflecting on them, I am painfully conscious of how far I fall short of them. I may restrain from adultery - but the very thought of adultery? And how often I have called my brothers idiots - on this blog, to begin with? Compare the spirit of the passages above with the basic 'golden rule' ("Do unto others..."). This is a call to action, or the refraining of actions - whereas the passages in the Sermon of the Mount call for a cleansing of the spirit, which is much, much more difficult to obtain. More precisely, they illustrate precisely how radical the Biblical commandment of love is.

Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" "Why do you ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments." "Which ones?" the man inquired. Jesus replied, " 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,' and 'love your neighbor as yourself.'" "All these I have kept," the young man said. "What do I still lack?"
Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
(Matthew 19: 16-22).

Notice first how Jesus is reluctant to explain to the young man what is good. At his question, he first explains the commandments, and only when the young man perseveres in his questioning, Jesus answers that if the young man wants to be perfect (see the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect., Matt. 5: 48) he is to abandon his wealth and follow him.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." (Matthew 19: 23-26).

Jesus here illustrates the impossibility for a wealthy man to enter the kingdom of heaven by his own devices, but elaborates on the astonished questions of his disciples that what is impossible for humans may yet be possible for God.

5. Again, if we bowdlerize Jesus' message by taking out all the supernatural stuff and concentrate on the notion of 'Jesus as a great moral teacher', we are left with a moral teacher who sets impossible standards. And leaves me, personally, feeling very much like the rich young man who leaves Jesus' company dejected. An alternative is to read the passages as illustrating precisely how high the standards are that God sets for us, and how impossible it for us to meet them by our own intermittent, occasional goodness, if that. But this exercise is futile on an atheist/secularist reading of the gospel such as Dawkins proposes.

6. If you'll allow me to indulge in stereotypes, there's two kinds of atheists. The first one is the liberal secular humanist type: they like their universal moral standards, universal rights and liberties - just no God, please. This is the type that tends to react as though bitten by a snake if you bring up the Argument from Morality as they tend to intepret it as to say atheists can't be moral, and being moral is important to them. To the extent that a lot of their criticism towards religion is inspired by the very immoral past and present behaviour of religious leaders and institutions. And if we were to just leave these behind and have our decisions guided by the light of Science and Reason, we will evolve towards a more just, tolerant, happy society. Most 'New Atheists' are exponents of the first type.

The second one would cheerfully allow the Argument from Morality and contend that, as there is no God, there are no universal morals either. We are bags of chemicals and subject to whatever chance and necessity nature has in store for those: normative systems are entirely conventional. I would guess some Satanists are of the second type. As may be Sartre. And my favourite De Sade.

Now, if I were adrift in shark-infested waters, thrashing around and seeing black fins approach me, and at the same time a boat full of atheists holding a rope, I would hope they would be first-type atheists. That goes without saying.

Nevertheless, I am much closer in my outlook to the second type than the first type. Because I am not so convinced that humans are particularly good or moral. In his brilliant satire Justine, Sade describes a virtuous heroine who continuously falls victim to all kinds of tormentors, and who when confronted with an opportunity to kill one of them, refuses to do so as such an action is not virtuous (after which the victimization of the heroine continues). In other words: either become an amoral predator or fall victim to one. Eat lunch or be lunch. And religion and morality, to Sade, are pious lies to convince the lunch to resign to its fate.

Were I an atheist, I could not but agree. And I cannot but agree with Sade that, taken in themselves, the torture and the pain of others are rather delightful things. It's ugly, but there it is. Certainly the behaviour of people when given the slightest chance does tend to convince me that the sentiment is widespread.

So if an atheist were to ask me: Do I need God, do I need Divine commands to do the right thing? I would have to answer that I pretty much do. You're blessed if you don't. But I do. For as far as I can be arsed to do the right thing, that is.

7. If the Gospel would be merely a message of morality, of being 'nice' or 'super-nice' as Dawkins wants it to be, I would despair of it. Turn my face away, and depart like the rich young man in Matt. 19. I would turn to some libertine cult with lightly-clad ladies and hallucigenic substances, or some weird Gnostic sect with lots of arcane and cryptic writings to satisfy my liking for puzzles. But not Christianity (let alone Dawkins' secular humanism with Christian influences).

Fortunately, it isn't. It's about hope - hope that the small death that I experience in my reptile-brained desires and fears, arrogance and pride, and all that, sin, basically - the wilful turning away from standards that I am all too well aware of, and the big death that looms at the end of the road might yet be conquered. Has been conquered by Christ and the grace of God.

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory. (Matthew 12: 20).

That ultimate message, which speaks to the depths of a broken and stained soul and whispers it may yet be clean, cannot be secularized.