I am thinking about writing a book on the clash between ancient religion and modern science, tentatively entitled Wrestling with an Angel. The general idea is that one can’t both take science seriously and believe in the traditional religious doctrines of creation, an immortal soul, and divine providence. One can follow Nietzsche, and reject religion altogether, or one can follow Spinoza, and try to establish something divine in the world — perhaps in a Bultmannian way, understanding religion as a powerful myth which enlightens and informs a well-led life. (Maybe some additional metaphysics can be larded into this, making it more than a pleasant illusion.)
More about this project in weeks to come, I expect. Meanwhile, I’d welcome further thoughts about Jacob’s wrestling with an angel. The story is given in Genesis 32, where Jacob is on his way back home (after working for 14 years to pay for his two wives). He ends up on a river bank alone and wrestles all night with a stranger. In the morning, the stranger admits defeat, injures Jacob’s hip or thigh, and bestows upon him the name “Israel,” or “he who has wrestled with God.” Jacob names the place something like “where I saw the face of God,” and his story goes on. Later, in Hosea 12, the story is alluded to, and it says Jacob wrestled with an angel. But what might be going on in this story? A few references I’ve seen suggest it is metaphorical for the struggle of the Jews, who have been forced to struggle with the painful consequences of being God’s chosen people. (Tevye: “Lord, why can’t you choose someone else once in a while?”) Some see it as Jacob’s own internal struggle against doubt. I see it as a powerful emblem of struggling to believe, wrestling both with what one knows and what one fears, and emerging not completely unscathed. That’s how I link it to my project: it seems to me that our knowledge forces us to confront our faith, and we will not emerge from that struggle without something being lost or changed.
This sounds like a fascinating project and I look forward to seeing it emerge on huenemanniac.
I can’t seem to come up with any thoughtful ideas regarding the biblical reference as I’m not very familiar with the Bible and thus don’t feel confident analyzing it. (I have started reading Robert Alter’s translation of the Pentateuch–though what has touched me the most so far is the strange and wonderful literary qualities of the ancient Hebrew, especially its paratactic grammar.)
But as I was reading your proposal, I kept being reminded of a particular strand in Nietzsche’s thought, developed in both _Beyond Good and Evil_ and _The Will to Power_: he seems to often trace the rise of the Enlightenment, as well as the attendant decline of Christianity (the death of God), to the very Platonic-Christian injunction to seek truth behind the illusions and seductions of daily life, etc. In other words, the very processes that spelled the cultural demise of Christianity as having originated within Christianity’s platonic core.
Which makes me wonder how Nietzsche would respond to the fundamentalist revival in full force today?
Like the line in the Woody Allen movie: “If Jesus came back today and saw what was being done in His name, he’d never stop throwing up.” Nz, same response (both with regard to his name and Jesus’s).
Nz does often criticize the notion of trying to find truth behind appearances, and praises the Greeks for being so superficial. But he also often tries to pull the mask from philosophers and reveal the psychological forces that are really at work. I think he is mainly criticizing the Kantians and idealists and Platonists, or anyone who thinks they have some special apriori insight into the True Nature of Things. But — at least for some purposes — he does think that psychologists and naturalists have the means for discovering what is really at work. Sometimes he criticizes scientists, but it’s almost always an “in-house” dispute, meaning that he’s criticizing the particular theory they’re advancing. It’s different when he turns to metaphysical philosophers. He thinks their whole project is a kind of sickness and ignorance.
I’d like to hear how the project progresses. I’m very interested in the struggle with faith but I think I lean more heavily on the side of taking life more seriously than taking science more seriously. A thorough understanding of humanity (and self) is much more dangerous to faith than a thorough understanding of science. The sorts of faith I take issue with are the ones that can only survive with a very selective and unsympathetic reading of history. For whatever reason it seems to me that the faithful have built up nice structures and padding against science that allows them to easily move between or separate their religious and scientific worlds (remain unchanged). You might say “they aren’t taking science seriously” but I think it’s philosophy that defines the “seriously” bit there. is it really science that forces the issue?
Now the statement “our knowledge forces us to confront our faith, and we will not emerge from that struggle without something being lost or changed” is something I buy into whole heartedly. In any case, there’s lots of overlap here with my interests so let me know what you’re studying and I’d love to participate.
Mike, you’re raising a really good point. The results of science do conflict with traditional religion, but it seems like the conflict is at arm’s length. The real conflict is within the individual, and more specifically with the first-hand knowledge (usually suppressed) that religion doesn’t fit in with everything else we know about ourselves and one another. When I moved to Utah, I was some sort of Christian. But seeing how confident Mormons are of their faith — and how ridiculous it seemed to me — forced me to recognize that people can be raised to believe damn near anything, and it will seem obvious to them. I took that personally, and realized how arbitrary my religious beliefs were. Getting honest with ourselves about our epistemic situation is where religion falls into trouble. Science perhaps enters the dialogue when we try to understand our epistemic situation, and take a look at psychology, anthropology, and biology.
The idea that one’s faith is most challenged when it’s confronted–not with science–but with one’s own repressed, “inner” epistemic sense reminds me of certain moments of deep personal and interpersonal alienation: those rare, subtle moments when looking at my reflection in a mirror or–padon the T.M.I.–assuming a cerebral, absurdist, third-person perspective during sex confirms all of my skepticism about ideals such as community, culture, and faith. The 20th century existentialists rely on these highly subjective modes of being as the bases for much of their arguments.
A clever person of faith however, could respond: I’ll grant you that, phenomenologically-speaking, you are not lying, that you are indeed experiencing x state of mind (and perhaps a neurologist would be able to somehow map moments like this as well)–nonetheless, shouldn’t we be vigilant precisely against this kind pessimism because it is indeed so subjective? that to be objective means to be able to transcend one’s sense of the absurd, see the signs of the divine all around us, and be as confident as the Mormons Charlie describes?
“ganselmi” is my username on wordpress since I have my own blog.
Psychology and anthropology are included in what you’re calling science in this post?
I don’t think a phenomenological inner epistemic sense (mirror dwelling) is necessary to provoke the struggle so much as the desire for consistency and honesty in one’s beliefs. That’s not to say that people of faith are necessarily inconsistent but that if they are consistent they are not unchanged. Their faith has been re-formed (usually this means heresy of some sort). I think I agree with Charlie that there is a limited range of views you can adopt if you’re taking the world seriously and that the major world religions (taken non-heretically) aren’t within that range.
Since I like to be a thorn in Charlie’s side:
In a previous post, Huenemann wrote:
“The results of science do conflict with traditional religion, but it seems like the conflict is at arm’s length. The real conflict is within the individual, and more specifically with the first-hand knowledge (usually suppressed) that religion doesn’t fit in with everything else we know about ourselves and one another.”
Three points on this:
1) While science might disprove certain literalist readings of the Bible, I would challenge you to back up the claim that the results of science conflict with “traditional religion”. What in particular? Please, show me the science. Since I suspect you will point to miracles, tell me which science has disproved miracles. Instead, having you just rejected miracles because of a naturalist assumption?
2) Am I the only one that sees an inconsistency in what you say about religion? On the one hand, you suggest that religion does not fit with our “first-hand knowledge” of ourselves and others. On the other hand, you are attracted to the Spinoza/Bultmann project – saving the “mythology” of religion since its teachings lead to a well-lived life.
3) For someone so concerned with our “epistemic situation” (by which I think you mean skepticism), you seem awfully confident in your belief that religion and science are incompatible. As outsiders, you all see religion as being full of “dogmas” (I use that word in the derogatory sense). But as an alien to your worldview, let me tell you that naturalilstic materialism has as just as many “dogmas”. Naturalism is an assumed posture (I don’t think you can prove it) and materialism is – as Charlie himself has admitted to me – a sort of comfortable assumption that is hardly questioned!
Put another way, you seem to have “selective skepticism”. Why not direct your skepticism toward materialism and naturalism? Haven’t you just traded [allegedly] unjustified confidence religious dogma for [allegedly] justified confidence in a secular ideology?
That being said, I do not think all religious beliefs are created equal. My encounter with Mormonism has made me more convinced than ever that religion must be “hellenized”. Where we seem to part company is the view that, somehow, engaging our condition with reason somehow necessitates a death of faith.
Kleiner– I take Charlie as saying science is incompatible with “traditional religious doctrines of creation, an immortal soul, and divine providence”. I think he thinks there is a problem with miracles but that’s just the old Hume problem.
If you think that religion is necessary (at least helpful) for a moral society (Plato) then you might consider whether science erodes the religion (it already has) and therefore the morality of the society. So if you re-shape the religion into one that science won’t conflict with then maybe you can preserve this societal morality.
Plato is probably wrong and philosophers don’t have that sort of power anyhow but it’s something to consider. I think I’d need to study anthropology and sociology a lot more to decide where I come out on this debate which is why I think the question is still live.
I would ask for the science that disproves an immaterial and immortal soul. (Neuroscience does not do it, by the way. All modern neuroscience does is show that the brain is a necessary condition for thought, which is not news at all. Aquinas knew this 750 years ago and Aristotle knew it 2000 years ago). I would ask for the science that proves the impossibility of providence. I would ask for the science that disproves creation (again, I do not defend a silly young-earth creationism and I think, to use JPII’s words, that evolution is “more than just a theory”).
I think many on this blog are far too quick to dismiss religion, and their certitude should disturb them as much as our LDS counter-parts’ certitude bugs us. This laundry list of “problems” science causes religion is rattled off like dogmatic talking points, but I have NEVER heard anyone give a satisfactory explanation of why a hellenized religion cannot handle such things. That is, I’ve never seen the science that proves that these things are cannot be. The only arguments that I hear are arguments that assume, unjustifiably, naturalism and materialism. But science need not be materialist and it need not conflict with a role for the supernatural. In fact, if you attended Machuga’s lecture, you heard a compelling argument that materialists cannot do science at all (or make sense of meaning in general)!
Miracles are the bigger problem, frankly. (Aquinas remarked that the problem of evil and the problem of miracles are the two best reasons to question God’s existence).
By the way, I don’t think religion is necessary for a moral society. This because intermediate causes can be grasped without necessarily making reference to ultimate causes (in an ultimate sense, God is the source of value since God is the source of everything).
Enough though, I don’t want to be a buzzkill to the anti-theists (I used to be one, by the way, so I know the fun). Get back to bashing straw man religiousity. I already hijack the usuphilosophy blog, so I won’t do the same with Huenemaniac. We’ll let this suffice as my rant which intends to keep you guys honest (I check in over here every once in a while to make sure you guys aren’t going too far off the deep end). As you were.
Well, at least count me out on the “quick to dismiss religion” front since I don’t think 15+ years is quick (20+ years if you count the beginning since my catholic baptism). I actually think an orthodox formulation of Christianity could be made that I wasn’t averse to (it would still retain many practical heresies, just no theoretical ones — hopefully that clarifies my earlier statement about heresies) but that doesn’t mean I could make a commitment to it. My view of the world does have room for it (i guess this means I wouldn’t think someone was nuts for believing it), which I can’t say about something like Mormonism (but it’s rapidly changing so some orthodox form of it may be palatable to me in maybe 50 years).
Apologies for making a sweeping judgment. This is the problem with blogs, you don’t know the people you are talking to, so the only history of them that you have is their brief posts!
Aristotle was right, philosophy is best done among friends. This is usually understood to mean that philosophy is best done with people that generally agree with you (the “second selves” of perfect friendships). But maybe it just means that you have to have a history with the persons you do philosophy with, or else you will always misunderstand and mistake them.
As a side effect, if you want to convert me to Christianity you don’t have to work on anything metaphysical or even “the doctrines of creation, an immortal soul, and divine providence”. You just have to convince me that it’s not boring, useless (i think we should solve the world’s problems with a direct approach) and repetitive.
Oh, I guess you’d also have to convince me that it is THE theoretical truth instead of just one of a few possible “true” ways of seeing the world. My use of true here has something to do with consistency. Now you know I’m a pluralist. (in the theoretical sense of worldviews and all that blather, no man is a pluralist in life)
Boring? Have you read Kierkegaard? How can anyone think of genuine Christianity as “boring, useless, and repetitive”? It is the most outlandish and radical thing that has ever been thought!
I think there is room for a kind of pluralism in Christianity. To my mind, Christianity is not “one truth among many”. Instead it is the culmination and fulfillment of all the other true things ever thought.
The non-boring Christians are usually philosophers and I do find them interesting and there are a ton of people who are primarily X but also happen to be Christians but in those cases usually the religion isn’t anywhere close to being a defining characteristic. But for all the Christian communities we have encountered (which are quite a few though I’m sure we’ve been over-influenced by the lamer ones) I’ll have to borrow a quote from my wife after a particular experience with Christians
“They’re not even crazy in a fun way, they’re crazy in a really boring way.”
Who said anything about “genuine” Christianity? I’m talking about Christian communities that exist.
Well, I think it goes without saying that Christian communities (and any other community for that matter) tend to “fall away”. This is because “falling” is a basic existential of the human condition (this need not be understood religiously, as you can see in Heidegger’s Being and Time).
I am quite skeptical of ultimately romantic categories like “authenticity” (and its evil sister inauthenticity or “bad faith”). We all fail, endlessly, to be what we want. Isn’t that true of everyone? Does that mere fact make a doctrine false? Aren’t there really two choices in this life: a) be unprincipled or b) be a hypocrite (since all principled people will sometimes, if not even most times, fail to live up to their own principles).
In fact, Christians might be praying for their own damnation when they pray, in the ‘Our Father’, for God to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those that trespass against us”. I dearly hope God does not take me at my word there.
Point is, “striving” is basic to the human condition, and as such so is failure and hypocrisy. One of the things I find refreshing about Christianity is its honesty about this.
Anyway, perhaps I am lucky for I have made friends with all sorts of fascinating Christians (mostly philosophers) for whom their religion is a defining characteristic (as it is for me, but I am not all that interesting/exciting so I make for a bad example). That said, I agree with your basic sentiment – there are more than a few Christians out there who need to encounter Kierkegaard’s critique of “Christendom”. This is what JPII called the “new evangelization” – reminding the baptized of just how radical a life they have chosen. Put another way (and I have said this to Charlie several times) I tend to only trust Christians who are Christian on the hither side of encountering Nietzsche.
I agree with you that hypocrisy is a human trait (although that doesn’t alleviate the need to try to be honest with yourself and others about what you think you’re capable of) and I value the enlightened Christians that I know. I don’t think there is a significant difference between most idealogical groups (when we get to a more cultural level it gets more complex) and that being the case I don’t see the need to give one group any sort of special treatment or preference. It probably seems like I give Christians more negative treatment but that’s because of who I’m talking to and how lame forms of Christianity have a prominent place in US society (e.g. Huckabee). With my better friends they know I speak out of some sort of respect because otherwise I wouldn’t bother to say anything. I try to give individuals the benefit of the doubt but I am fairly selective about with whom I spend time– life is short. I’m not sure how to put my finger on what I mean by “enlightened”. I guess that’s what I give preference to (usually determines my friends) but I know it doesn’t have much to do with idealogical commitments and it does have a bit to do with existential commitments. I try to surround myself with people who are living deliberately because that’s what I’m trying to do.
Maybe “enlightened” has something to do with how hard a person has wrestled with the relevant philosophical questions. I think it might also have to do with maturity, in a certain sense: putting away childish things. Sometimes, when a person has cleared away the superficial clutter, they find God there; other times, not. Viva la differance!
The view of our Orthodox friend is something like that. He thinks the core of Christian/Buddhist monasticism is the same and an essential part of understanding the world but he thinks paying attention (he’d include clearing away the superficial clutter) reveals God. Where he especially diverges from most people in his church though is that he thinks Christians should be making partnerships with athiests and agnostics to make a better world because he sees their concerns as very often in line with his. He sees a value to the this-life focus and doesn’t deny their morality. He also thinks that believing that this life is all there is forces people to behave more ethically in ways because their main hope for the future is to make the world better for the children. [hopefully I’m not mis characterizing his view]
He has a lot of other cool views in regard to proselytizing (or lack thereof) and I don’t think he thinks there is a need for apologetics. He’s the only missionary I support. It’s hard to find true humanitarians.
I wonder if this “core of monasticism” is intricately related to philosophical inquiry. I think so (at least the Christian monks get a lot of philosophical training) but I’d like to parse that all out. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I really like the idea of a rule of life though I don’t think it needs the sort of structure of a monastery. For the moment I think you work out how you want to live deliberately (with your family if you have one) and take the necessary steps for that to happen. The key is not to just get bound into the typical cultural traps or let fear (overly) guide your choices. I think that last piece is where people fall off (myself often included), contemporary ideals tend to guide their views of need and want. I should also mention I think the end result would look quite different from person to person and I don’t have anything really specific in mind as to what that life looks like. I have a bit more of idea of what that life looks like for me.
A question for Kleiner–
If Christianity is “the most outlandish and radical thing that has ever been thought!” then I guess you’ve spent some time gathering other outlandish and radical thoughts for comparison? What do you think is the second most outlandish and radical thing that has been thought? Do you have a top ten, perhaps? How about the least radical and outlandish thing that has ever been thought?
I realize zombies, vampires and cannibalism more generally could have taken some pieces from Christianity and that makes it pretty outlandish to me but those radical thoughts could get some origins elsewhere as well I’d think. Will Durant ties Christian theology to Plato/Zeno and Aquinas (Aristotle) and that doesn’t seem so radical.
Transubstantiation is pretty outlandish.
I was speaking in a bit of a flourish when it called it the most radical thing ever thought. I don’t have a list (and surely you did not expect me to).
What is outrageous about Christianity? I’ll keep it basic instead of listing particular outrageous claims.
The idea that the ultimate, infinite, and absolutely transcendent would/could become a man (in fact, a crying baby in a cow barn). The Unexperiencable becomes concrete. The Ultimate becomes particular. … … Kierkegaard thinks that is the principle paradox of Christianity (in fact, Kierkegaard thinks that you don’t need to know anymore than “once there was a man who was also God who walked among us”).
If you don’t find that outrageous and shocking, well then I just don’t know what to tell you. Those that are not outraged probably have made God too pedestrian. It is a far more outrageous claim than any claims about zombies or vampires (about which Hume would certainly be right, we can think of them just by combining ideas we already have from experience).
And I would submit that this is far more outrageous than Platonism (the infinite does not “save” the finite from within on his system) or Aristotelianism (God is not relational at all for Aristotle). By the way, Christian theology certainly has ties to Platonism and Aristotelianism, but it cannot be reduced to either. One more note: despite the common understanding of such things (one that I play along with in undergrad classes), there are important ways in which Aquinas is not at all Aristotelian.
I didn’t think Aristotle was all there was to Aquinas just that Aristotle influences Christian theology most prominently via Aquinas. It would be cool if you had a list of most radical things every thought, but no, I didn’t think you would. Even the Kierkegaardian things you’ve said don’t seem all that uniquely outrageous. Strong claims for this time period certainly but since they’re claims that are being made about the distant past, it takes some of the umph out of it for me.
I think most of Mormonism as more outlandish than Christianity but that’s probably because of the nearness (in relation to time and location) of a lot of the claims.
This is a piece I stole from a friend of friend, turned a Christian argument into a Mormon argument using a short bit of code. Interesting if you want to hear Lewis and Chesterton arguing for Mormonism. This conversation we’re having reminded me of it.
What a horrid abuse of Chesterton and Lewis – I think I just threw up in my mouth!
I suppose we’d need to get clear on what we mean by “outlandish”. My original point was that Christianity was extremely radical. I don’t think Mormon theology is radical at all. Outlandish maybe, but not radical. There is a reason mormons don’t observe advent – their god is not transcendent (in the most meaningful sense).
Wasn’t I going to quit Huenemanniac?
Those terms aren’t very precise and that’s probably why for me those sorts of arguments don’t do a lot. I’d hate to drive you away from this “wicked and depraved” blog. If that sort of parody work makes you sick, I can’t imagine how you’d feel about the stuff that comes out of places like farms.
I’m sympathetic with your views on a number of issues in other threads.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t there a half-dozen or so religions that have a god being born in a barn? I think some Egyptians believed that, and the Mithra religion has at least a god born of a virgin; not sure it was in a barn. But maybe in these cases the god wasn’t seen as so essentailly incoherent, er, I mean, transcendent.
Charlie – I am not an expert on such things. But I am not aware of other religions that combine the radical transcendence and radical immanence of Christ.
Mike – You are not driving me away. And I don’t think the blog is “wicked or depraved” (though I find it odd that you would take pride in it being so). I only appreciate debates, parody, etc. I think I have a reasonably good sense of humor (the vomiting in my mouth was meant to be a joke).
So why do I occasionally “quit” Huenemanniac for stretches of time? I think a point about the practice of philosophy can be made here:
I think Aristotle is right that philosophy is best done among “friends” – in Aristotle’s sense of being “like minds”. This is not because I want to stifle debate or insulate myself from possible objections. But I think we all have to do at least some (if not most) of our philosophy with “like minds”, otherwise we never get anywhere. The Republic would not have moved forward at all if Socrates had continued on with Thrasymachus. Plato had to get Thrasymachus out of the conversation and replace him with Glaucon. For if two thinkers don’t agree on “first principles” (I am using that term broadly), no progress can be made. Even when Charlie and I try to be charitable with each other, we still don’t move forward. In that sense, love as I do doing philosophy with Charlie, at some point I want something more “positive” (something that can actually move forward).
What I so appreciate about doing philosophy with Charlie is that it is worthwhile to have one’s “first principles” questioned sometimes. We can’t do this all the time (not even Socrates wants to, he is not a skeptic in that sense). But it is good to do sometimes.
By the way, I will spend no time on that “farms” page, because I just don’t care to investigate LDS apologetics any further than I already have. Isn’t it enough that I have an ongoing line of students coming to my office trying to convert me?
By the way, this is why I “check in” over here at Huenemanniac every once in a while – to keep you guys honest. The “first principles” that often drive this blog (naturalism, materialism) deserve some critical attention!
That last post was meant to be a bit tongue in cheek too. ahh, tone and the internet. I was playing with “a wicked and depraved generation looks for a sign” but I guess it’s really an “evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign”. I’m looking for signs everywhere.
I don’t mean for you to spend much time over with farms, but it’s crazy how they’ve tried to subvert people like Lewis. I’m surprised a mormon student hasn’t tried to use it with you. I had a friend of a friend once give me a whole packet of info (maybe 50 pages) printed out from a site like that. I could have kept it for posterity but I couldn’t get myself to do it. The moral to me is to be careful about making arguments that can be easily subverted. [I draw morals everywhere, Nietzsche would hate me. Or is that not the sort of moralist he hates?]
I agree with you about common ground if not so much about what should be considered “first principles”.
I have a student who recently left the LDS church and re-read CS Lewis. She was amazed, remarking that “I must have been reading a different book before”. I am surprised that Lewis is so popular with Mormons, and I am not entirely sure how his clear orthodoxy can be brushed aside when they read him!
You rock, Kleiner!! As a Christian, I struggle when I get into such discussions with non-believers. However, you are so educated and articulate, you can run with them. Not that it matters too much since we know where the Truth is, but I just admire your responses.
Thanks for the kind remarks, Jane. I think lots of Christians struggle when discussing these matters with non-believers (in particular materialists and naturalists). But we should not be afraid of the debate (in fact, I think we should have extreme confidence). I would encourage you to read some apologetics. Kreeft and Tacelli have a “Handbook of Christian Apologetics” that would be a great starting place. It will help you on the way to having confidence when you engage religion in the “public square”. Before you know, you’ll be able to “run with them” too.
I only check on this blog occasionally. I would welcome you to other blogs where I participate with greater frequency:
We try to keep the former mostly philosophical (though God and religion come up). The latter is my own blog so I speak much more freely on Christian topics there.