Sunday, July 08, 2012

Does Christianity have all the answers?

Carbon River, with Mount
Rainier in the background.
Yesterday, a Christian philosopher named Jeff Cook posted an interesting article on Patheos called "They Don't Believe Because Your God Isn't Desirable."  Among other innovations, Cook did something, like crossing Niagara Falls on a wire, that I have seldom seen attempted in recent years: he cited He Who Must Not Be Cited Accurately (Blaise "bad bet" Pascal), correctly.   (Sorry, I was listening to the last Harry Potter on our car CD player yesterday, on the way back from a bike / hike to Carbon Glacier on Mount Rainier.  That's the volume in which, if you say the name "Voldemort," his minions instantly appear and try to charm you into submission.  So here I am: think of me as one of Pascal's minions.) 

Anyway, it was a pretty good article (also hike, see photo above), making the case that pure reason is not enough, that we must also show why faith in God is desirable, indeed why God is desirable.  This should be no great shock to followers of one J. Christ, who defined the ethical tradition of his people in terms of "love God, and love your neighbor as yourself," breaking the former down as follows:

With all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.

This seems like a good balance.  It also fits empirical studies in the sociology of religion, that show that people seldom convert to a new religion unless someone they care about deeply belongs to that religion.  This is what sociologist Rodney Stark calls "social capital," which is intrinsically linked to "spiritual capital."  We are homo sapiens, so faith should be reasonable.  We are also social creatures, so loving God is inherently related to loving others, with the causation flowing from both forms of love to the other.     

Anyway, a visitor calling himself (herself?) Rupaul challenged Cook on pluralistic grounds: not that "all religions are equally false," but that they are, if not equally true, more-or-less equally useful.  He (she?) expressed ideas one often meets in a thoughtful tone. 

I responded briefly on that site, but would like to go into more detail, here.  

I don’t have a crystal ball either. But people are aware there are lots of world religions with rich traditions, and it’s not clear that one particular religion has the answers. Metaphysically, they can’t all be right, of course. But most people, not the least Christians, aren’t looking for metaphysics, they are looking for ways to live their life, or to make sense of the suffering in their life.

Notice, first, the words "people are aware there are lots of world religions."  This comment may reflect the common pluralist notion, popularized by philososopher John Hick, that world religions are a new challenge to Christian theology.  The metaphor Hick uses is the Copernican Revolution.  Once upon a time, everyone thought the sun and planets circled the Earth.  But then Copernicus discovered that Earth is nothing special, and all the planets really circle the sun.  In the same way, Voyages of Discovery showed the West that our tradition is nothing special, that there is a world "out there" of profound truths and deep insight, the world of "pagan" religions.  One religion is no better than another, Hick (and other pluralists) conclude: all are reflections of The Real, of whom the Christian God is just one image. 

To a large extent, Hick's Copernican Revolution is falsified by one simple fact: early Christians of the Alexandria School were aware, not only of Greco-Roman polytheism, and all the cults that jostled for attention in late Antiquity, of Egyptian or Mesopotamian gods, or even of the theistic schools of Greek philosophy.  They also refer to Hindus and Buddhist beliefs.  Augustine also responds in City of God to a vast sweep of human thought.  He defends the Gospel as the true revelation of God, but also fits truths from other schools into the Christian system, dialoguing with Plato, Epicurus, Varro, Plotinus and Porphyry. 

I would agree with Rupaul that there is a lot in other religions about "how to live one's life" that is worth adopting.  Clearly, early Christians thought so, too, because they adopted quite a bit of Platonic and Stoic ethics.  Mateo Ricci wrote a book called On Friendship that went through many editions in China 400 years ago.  The book was mostly composed of quotations from ancient Greek and Roman pagan philosophers.  Great modern Christian apologists like GK Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and the Chinese evangelist Yuan Zhiming, also gladly accept moral truth from non-Christian sources -- often fruitfully. "All truth is God's truth," or as Augustine put it, “[a] true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found . . . ”

I think most people ARE looking for truth (whether or not you want to reduce that to "metaphysics), or should be looking for truth, however inchoatly we may seek it.  For example, one reads the Gospels and recognize the "power" of Jesus words -- which means one recognizes that they not only fit the reality of what we are as humans, and explain it more deeply, but help us lead our lives in light of what we now recognize as truth.  As CS Lewis put it (I paraphrase), "I believe the sun has risen, not because I see it, but because by it I see all things." 

Christianity does have answers for that (multiple answers, since the pluralism outside Christianity is matched by the diversity inside Christianity).

Matched, perhaps, in number of denominations. as the number of branches on a large spreading western maple may match the number of bushes on the hillside around it.  But churches that are truly Christian, like the branches on that tree, take nourishment from the same source, and are founded on the same ("genetic") truth, and therefore share more in common than flora growing from other roots. 

But the argument from diversity is more like arguing about which the “best” language. The one you grow up in is going to seem natural and obvious, but as you grow up and learn about others you realize that they all seem that way to people who grow up speaking them. This is really the challenge for orthodox Christianity; people “learn to speak” other religious forms. This started in the US with the transcendentalist movement, after Indian scriptures began to be translated into English. 

I've read some Indian Scriptures, both Hindu and Buddhist, and find them not so much speaking a different language, as often saying different things.  But the funny thing is, when we read the Indian Scripture from a Christian point of view, I believe we can make better sense of them, and even "save" more of them, than we can from either a Hindu or an atheist perspective. 

For instance, the most ancient Indian Scriptures talk incessantly about sacrifice.  Mohandas Gandhi was repulsed by this, and vehemently rejected blood sacrifice.  (Even while feeling that he, himself, might act as a sacrifice for the butchered animals, and also for India.) 

The complex set of traditions called "Hinduism" seems to often be in conflict with itself, over sacrifice, and other things.  

The Gospel makes sense of both sacrifice, which Jesus fulfilled on the cross, and the disgust over sacrifice, which it helped end in much of the world.  That is because Jesus was seen as the fulfillment of sacrifice. The perfect having come, the reality which sacrifice symbolized, it was no longer necessary to sacrifice animals, and those customs were discontinued.   

I could give other examples from Indian tradition, and have.  Indian tradition as a whole, seems for some to make best sense in light of the Gospel of Jesus, which both critiques and fulfills, challenging error and injustice, and bringing to consumation.  This is why J. N. Farquhar called Jesus the "Crown of Hinduism."  This is how Clement of Alexandria came to understand the multi-cultural "Greco-Roman" world, which as he pointed out, was really constituted from the contributions of dozens of different cultures.  Christ, he believed, lent the various schools of the philosophers new unity. 
My only point maybe is that most people “outside” traditional religion, at least in North America, are likely to find debates about philosophy irrelevant, but that they would find messages about Christ’s love inspiring. So far I would agree with you about that, I just wouldn’t expect that to lead them to traditional Christian “belief”.

Yet one of the most insistent messages of the New Atheists, and one with which I and most other Christians fully agree, is that "truth matters."  God gave us minds because He wants us to think, and the desire to rationally understand the world is, in fact, a noble and inescapable human need.  We make suppress this desire, but it is with us from childhood, which is why we ask our parents so many questions, and why some of us become scientists and scholars.  But the thirst for truth is in not limitted to those few, nor is it even always strongest among them. 

“Love God and love your neighbor” is all God wants anyway, does it matter if a person also believes in, say, reincarnation? (Sikhs are monotheists but believe in reincarnation, and their tradition/metaphysics is every bit as sophisticated as Christian beliefs. They feed the poor, also.)

But Jesus said "love God with all your mind" as well as "all your strength, soul, and spirit."  So even looking just at this verse, "kindness" in the general sense is not ALL God wants of us.  He also wants us to seek truth. 

And I have argued that the Gospel has uniquely blessed the world, as God promised to Abraham at Mount Moriah.   

Or if the God they love looks plural? (Wiccans, some Hindus, Shinto. Why shouldn’t God appear plural, if She can also appear as a Trinity in some religions? If She can incarnate as a person, why shouldn’t she incarnate in nature also?)

Arguing for the particular Christian combination of dogmas just looks like arguing for English as the “best” language. That is where the challenge of pluralism lies.

Truth matters, not only in the sense that God gave us minds, and wants us to use them. It also matters, in the sense that what we believe, affects how we live. For instance, the Aztecs were wonderful polytheists. Only they believed that the gods required human blood to renew the universe, which is why they built pyramids and captured tens of thousands of enemy soldiers. (War was convenient for both, since their enemies and neighbors shared similiar ideas, from the Andes to St. Louis.)

So I do care that reincarnation is false. I also care that after the idea arose in Indian civilization, so did the idea of karma, and with it, caste and gender discrimination as horrendous as anywhere in the world. And it is an objective historical fact that those practices were first challenged by Christian missionaries, like William Carey, and quasi-Hindu followers of Jesus, like Ram Mohan Roy.

"Love" means, among other things, seeking and then teaching the truth. There is much truth in all the world's great traditions, I admit gladly.  But I believe Jesus is the incarnation of the divine Logos, and the redeeming, often challenging truth, who calls on us to "repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand," not just to trot off to the right building on Sunday and sing orthodox praise hymns.  He wants to remake us, and to remake our world, into something better. 

One of the things I believe we can learn from other religions, or rather relearn, is the Taoist concept of wuwei, "lacking force," "without striving." 

Ancient Christianity fused with the Emperor Cult of Rome, then borrowed liberally (too liberally) from Greco-Roman, Germanic, and Islamic traditions.  As a result, we often tried to force people to believe correctly.  Charlemagne forced the Saxons to convert, Inquisitors forced Jews to believe in orthodoxy, Conquistadors imported the idea of jihad to the New World.  (Not that the mesoAmericans didn't have their own ideas on the subject.)

Much of this was a terrible perversion of the Gospel.  Already Augustine justified abuse of the Donatists, who themselves seemed to have overlooked what Jesus said about forgiveness.

The Chinese evangelist and philosopher, Yuan Zhiming, argues that God raised up Lao Zi as a prophet to the Chinese people, to bring them to Christ.  He also believes the concept of wuwei, as exemplified by Jesus, is exactly what China now needs, in seeking reform.   

Over the past several hundred years, thanks to Christian thinkers like Las Casas, Milton, William Penn, John Locke, and others -- and yes, some Enlightenment thinkers have contributed -- we have begun I think to understand politics with more of the respect for free choice that Jesus himself exemplified.  It does Truth no dishonor to admit pagans sometimes see it more quickly than we Christians.  After all, the hero in the story Jesus told after telling us to "love God, and love people" was a Samaritan, who "loved his neighbor as himself," while the Pharisee and the Levite passed by on the other side.


Rudy said...

David, thanks for responding at such great length to my questions over at Jeff Cook's.

I think it is worth repeating that Islam challenged caste before Christianity did (though I am not sure about the Nestorian Christians).

When I checked the dates, I was quite wrong about Roy: he died in 1833, five years before Emerson's divinity School address. So, there could be no way he would have been influenced by transcendentalism, as a movement.

I am not sure where to start about pluralism today, I feel more moved to talk with you about the tao and wuwei, as I think you are really onto a wonderful idea. But maybe there is a connection; I think that the heart of our disagreement is about action vs. belief. I think that most people see the beliefs such as Christ's divinity and
"single" rebirth (as a poster over on Jeff Cook's site said), they just do not see any conflict with following Christ but having unorthodox or no beliefs.

Wendy Doniger, the controversial Indologist, has an essay on her website that discusses pluralism, where she says "Any time that we speak, and state our own views to someone else, someone “other,” we imply that we believe that what we are saying is better than the alternatives, and in that sense all statements of religious belief are attempts at conversion". Does the nonviolence of Chritianity point to an ethic of nonconversion?

David B Marshall said...

Rudy: I wouldn't deny that Islam has ever effected positive social reforms. I think it has helped abolish human sacrifice, here and there. And at least Indian Muslims didn't commit sati, as far as I know. But all in all, I think the positive impact Islam has had on the world, has been relatively limitted, and I'm very sympathetic to VS Naipaul's critique.

Interesting quote from Doniger. I have her (partial) translation of the Rig Veda. Why is she controversial?

I'm neither a pluralist, nor an exclusivist, nor really even an inclusivist, though have sympathy for people who take that view. I am trying to popularize a view I call Fulfillment Theology.

What that is, I should explain some time. I'm just finishing a dissertation making the case for FT, carefully examining a Christian interpretation of Dao and wuwei by one of the philosophers behind the Democracy Movement back in 1989. I should try to explain it briefly in a blog. It's connected with people like Clement, Origen, Augustine, Ricci, Wilhelm Grimm (surprisingly), Chesterton, and C. S. Lewis, though I like to hope my analysis is going to clarify things, a bit.

Rudy said...

Donziger upset fundamentalist Hindus because of her book "The Hindus: an alternative history", that (as far as I can make out, I haven't read it) tries to trace Hinduism through the voices of women, Dalits, and small village Hinduism, rather than conventional mainstream Hinduism. I have her Rig Veda somewhere too.

I tried googling Yuan Zhimin but all the sermons etc. I could find were in Chinese.

David B Marshall said...

Well, I like the idea of that. "Hinduism" is such an amorphous word. Only about 1/10th of the total Rig Veda is included in that book, I think -- read through some of the rest, and it seems she picked out the interesting parts. The other parts I read were like miles of Leviticus.

Yuan's book on the Dao and Jesus has now been translated into English. (My book on the same subject, True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture, may soon finally be translated into Chinese.) I've only read Yuan's book in Chinese, but have corresponded a bit with his translator, and she seems competent. I imagine you'll find things that are a bit challenging (not intellectually), but find it interesting, anyway. Yuan also contributed a chapter on Christianity and Chinese culture to our new book, Faith Seeking Understanding, coming out in two months.

Rudy said...

I can't find Yuan's book on Amazon; there is another Tao and Christ website but I don't see a link to the book, maybe I am overlooking it?

I am a little put off by the Rodney Stark's interview there: it's got the standard anti-Islam invective. I remember reading Stark's most recent book and finding it distasteful; I'm not sure when he changed. His earlier books were interesting. He also references Bernard Lewis and Naipaul, who are really not to be trusted on Islam. (In my opinion anyway.)

The whole business about Indian vs. Arabic numerals is ridiculous; Arabs invented algebra, after all, which is a pretty major idea; and Islamic art is amazing (I took a course in it at university), and is mathematically very sophisticated.

Anyway, that aside, I see your books (including the most recent one) but I don't see Yuan Zhimin's. Maybe it isn't quite out yet?

David B Marshall said...

No doubt Stark dislikes Islam. He also covers a lot of territory, which means he sometimes gets details wrong. I see Wikipedia ascribes advances in algebra to the Arabs, but credits Babylonians, Greeks, and Indians with inventing it. Naipaul is biased, no doubt, but he's a keen observer. Bernard Lewis, surely you have to admit is a leading authority on the history of Islam.

Yuan's book is called Lao Tzu and the Bible in English, and is available on Amazon.

Rudy said...

Thanks David, I see your book is available on Amazon too. If I order from your website, is that better for you, or is Amazon just the same?

Do you know that Girard wrote a small book on the Vedas? He doesn't come to any grand conclusion but he thinks that later scriptures tried to undercut the sacrificial religion of the earlier ones.

I will get Yuan Zhimin's book too, I'm sorry I can't read enough Chinese to read the original!... I took Chinese in college but have forgotten most of it. My children study Japanese, and I've become more and more interested in Japanese religion, esp. millenarian New Religions (there are many more of them than I realized, I recently learned about one based near Osaka that has a huge fireworks display!)

David B Marshall said...

Amazon works for me.

No, I didn't know about Girard's book on the Vedas. He tends to overreach a bit with his "one size fits all theory," but I'm sure it's interesting. I would love to interview him.

My wife is Japanese, so our boys are much better at that language than myself. But I did do a little research in the 5-6 years we lived there.

Rudy said...

It's called "Sacrifice", I just checked and it's still on Amazon. It came out last year. It's quite short though (I read it through on a plane flight) and probably you should try to get it from interlibrary loan, unless you are collecting Girard. I'd send you my copy but I put in our meetinghouse library.

My younger son started Japanese back in elementary school (I wanted him to take Chinese but the Japanese teachers' classroom had way more fun looking stuff) and then my older son took it because his brother was taking it. They do a lot of back and forth copying like that, it's kind of funny to see it; it's somewhere between rivalry and imitation. My older son was an exchange student in Shikoku one summer.

I guess I should get back to the subject of pluralism. I read some of the back and forth you did with the OTF fellow (I'm sorry I can't remember his name.) He seemed very sure that the OTF would "resolve" in the favor of atheism or at least lack of religion.

The alternative that might be problematic for both of you is what I might call the "New age agnostic" alternative: it's all good, there is a lot of good in all religions (as you say) but the good stuff doesn't require belief (as he, and Feuerbach says) but that the forms of these religions are all available for "use" (as per the stereotyped New Age Californian), or even lightly held belief.

That isn't the alternative I'm advocating, exactly; I'm not sure where I would fit in exactly, more as a post-Christian theist, if I had to put a label on myself. In practice I'm a liberal Quaker, and I recognized that I was a theist after seeing a film about Indian Puja. I like your version of Christianity, and that of Christ-centered Quakers, but I hold belief rather lightly, like the California New Age person above. So maybe this is a fourth possible response, or maybe it is just another version of the New Age stuff.

David B Marshall said...

Rudy: The problem with a Huston Smith-style approach to religions, is that it often fails to take the stuff that is not good, seriously enough. This creates at least three problems: (1) One tends to over-praise successful villains; (2) One may fail to understand and critique one's own grounds for evaluating traditions, and judge wrongly -- pluralism seems quite vulnerable to the Spirit of the Age; (3) One may also overlook paradoxical goods that emerge from evils. (For example, the power of the cross.)

I don't know much about Quakers, but I've been developing an interest in William Penn, a great man. Of course I also have great respect for all the good Quakers did in abolition, etc.

I'm not sure what it means to "hold belief lightly." Does that mean you're not sure what's true? If so, an honorable admission.

Rudy said...

Yes, that's what I mean by holding belief lightly, I'm not sure that I'm right and feel as though I should stay open to changing my mind.

The dangers you cite for pluralism are quite real. I am not sure that they are avoided by sticking to one religious tradition, like Christianity, though. But of course if Christ actually speaks to us, then we are not on our own facing these problems.

I do believe God speaks to us, and that people meeting together in love (Quaker meeting in my case) can help us avoid going in wrong directions.

You might like John Woolman's diary if you haven't read it yet, at least to skim (in his travels he gives the same anti-slavery message to many people, so it is kind of repetitious).

The danger of the Spirit of the Age worries me now. I will have to think about that.

I've ordered your book, after I've read it I'll post my thoughts on this post (I guess blogger will tell you, even if some time has passed.) Thank you for a very enjoyable and fruitful discussion!