Friday, 18 October 2013

Caricature Christianity


[Warning: long read :)]0

As I have said previously, I am a great fan of Dr. Yuval Noah Harari’s MOOC “A Brief History of Humankind,” which I have found not only entertaining and informative, but also thought-provoking and which I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone. Dr. Harari’s style is engaging and masterful, the examples he uses are vivid (e.g., “The human race is no more than a herd of sheep that ended up with tanks and atomic bombs because of an evolutionary accident.”), his presenting alternative theories throughout the course is greatly illuminating and enriching and his use of the concept of “fiction” is a powerful didactic device that draws attention to the mental/material categories in a novel and forceful way.

Had I been writing this post before the course’s tenth lecture, it would have been 99% panegyric (with the 1% criticism reserved for the presentation of the sex/gender distinction not as fiction, given how that term is used throughout the course). Without taking away from the excellence of the first 9 lectures, I do have serious misgivings about the tenth, entitled “The Law of Religion,” where I consider Dr. Harari’s presentation of Christianity to be a caricature instead of an attempt at synthesis and summary. What makes this the more disappointing is that he is clearly a highly intelligent and learned person, very capable of speaking about religion in an informative and balanced way, as he demonstrated with the excellent exposition of Buddhism in Segment 3 of the lecture.

Even though I was not going to write about my experience of Lecture 10, I have changed my mind after being encouraged to do so by my überbestie JMGR - so you can consider this to be both a “work made for hire” and an attempt to present my grounds for calling it a caricature in more than the 140 characters of a tweet. Before delving into the details, I’d also like to say that the following will be my attempt to present what I, as a Christian, believe and that its justification by reference to established Christian doctrine will be omitted (each of the following points meriting long blog posts individually). The format I’ll use is to go through a number of claims that Dr. Harari makes about Christianity, each immediately followed by my own account. Here I will not be exhaustive (and hopefully not exhausting either), e.g., glossing over the treatment of Christian persecution by the Roman Empire, and try to focus on the most substantial claims.1

First, Dr. Harari claims that Christians believe “that you could make deals with the supreme power of the universe in order to recover from illness, to win the lottery, or to gain victory in war.” This, to my mind is a caricature of prayer, which is presented as a bargaining process: I’ll say these prayers, do some penance, go to mass, etc. and in exchange god will grant me a wish. This is nothing like what my relationship with God, or prayer are for me. I believe God loves me and has a plan for me that starts in every present moment. Prayer is the maintaining of a relationship with God, both by listening and being disposed to discerning his plan and by speaking and sharing my joys, worries and needs with him. Such sharing is not the demanding of an overriding of the Laws of Nature, but instead a silent conversation, an opening up, a turning towards. It also brings with it what Dr. Harari presented so well about Buddhism - an acceptance of both joys and sorrows, of successes and defeats, all of which are received in the context of the above prayer, which - together with a seeking of God in all around me - is the basis of my being Christian.

Second, Dr. Harari presents Christianity as incapable of coexisting with other religions:
“A religion that recognizes the legitimacy of other faiths implies either that its god is not the supreme power of the universe, or that it received from the one and only god only part of the universal truth. [...] Monotheists could not live with these ideas. Monotheists usually believed that they are in possession of the entire message of the one and only god. They were compelled to discredit all other religions. If our religion is true, no other religion can also simultaneously be true.”
This, to my mind, is fundamentally a caricature of the concept of God itself and of epistemology too. It first assumes that God is wholly knowable, then that Christians believe they fully know such a fully knowable God and finally that they know that they have such full knowledge. I dispute all three assumptions. Not only is knowledge fundamentally incomplete, indirect and limited even when it comes to my self, let alone to another or a world around me, or to a God whom I believe to be both more immanent and transcendent than anything else. Every single person, their experiences, insights and beliefs are of interest to me and an opportunity to look for the traces of God’s presence. At the same time it does not mean that I believe Christianity to be incomplete, on the contrary, or that I, conversely, have to believe it to have exclusive access to the Truth and to God.

Third, Dr. Harari presents Chirstian saints as being connatural with the gods of polytheism:
“Homo sapiens tend to divide the world into we and them and sapiens want to be in contact with powerful entities that will help us against them. So the idea that there is only one supreme power in the world that cares about everybody equally this was very difficult even for Christians […] to fully adopt and understand. Consequently Christianity [...] created an entire new pantheon of saints and people simply began to worship [... them] just as previously they worshipped all kinds of different gods. […] So when England and France […] go to war […] it is believed that Saint Martin helps the French and Saint George helps the English - just like the old gods.”
The irony here that it is precisely the saints who are a strong argument in support of the belief that God “cares about everybody equally.” To me the saints are my fellow Christians, who have lived lives that mirror Jesus’ own life to a particularly high degree and who are therefore examples for me to follow. Not only does the vast variety of backgrounds from which they come (social, ethnic, educational and cultural) support the claim for the universality of God’s call, but their own care and love for their neighbors does too. Since I believe that these saints are now alive in the immediate presence of God, having a relationship with them through prayer is logically consistent with the relationship I have with God himself.

Fourth, Dr. Harari presents the “problem of evil” as follows:
“The problem of evil […] asks why is there evil in the world, why is there so much suffering in the world, why do so many bad things happen even to good people. [...] For monotheists the problem of evil is extremely difficult. Monotheists have to perform all kinds of amazing intellectual acrobatic tricks to explain how an all-knowing, all-powerful and perfectly good god allows so much suffering in the world. [...] One answer that monotheists try to give is: “This is god’s way of allowing for human free will. If there was no evil in the world, humans could not choose between good and evil and hence there would be no free will.” This is one of these intellectual tricks that monotheists use to answer the problem of evil.”
Again, this strikes me as a caricature: there is a glaring problem with Christianity, so Christians come up with shaky stories to fool themselves. My objection here is not that the “problem of evil” is a challenge, but that presenting it as something that Christians deal with via self-delusion is a caricature. There is no satisfactory explanation for the “problem of evil” - all that I, as a Christian have are some intuitions. Of these, the argument from freedom is a strong one and I fail to see how it can be categorized as a “trick.” It still does not explain why there is evil and suffering in the world though, but only how freedom and the necessity of real choice are linked. Why could God not have done it in a different way is a valid question though! Another, strong intuition to me as a Christian is Jesus’ own life, where the acceptance of suffering - a suffering by a supremely innocent person who was scared of it - plays a pivotal role. All I can say about suffering is that it is linked to the freedom that lets me establish genuine relationships with my fellow humans and with God, that Jesus having endured it also points to its importance, but I can certainly not claim to be in a position to explain or justify it.

Fifth, to sum up his position with regard to Christianity, Dr. Harari has the following to say:
“Monotheism is a kind of mishmash, a kind of bringing together all kinds of monotheist, dualist, polytheist and animist legacies, constantly influencing and changing each other, all coexisting with each other under one big divine umbrella. The average Christian believes in the monotheistic god, but also believes in the dualist devil, in the polytheist saints, and in the animist ghosts and demons.”
Eh ... no ... I believe in no ghosts or demons, the saints are my brothers and sisters - not gods, and the devil is no equivalent “opposing power” to God (as would follow from Dr. Harari’s dualist definition) but simply the personification of a turning away from God while possessing full knowledge of His being God.

And breathe ... :)

Needless to say, I am happy to provide references for how what I have said about my own beliefs above is official Catholic teaching and how it is consonant with the beliefs of Christians also from past centuries. At the same time I am not claiming that no Christian has ever held some or all of the beliefs that Dr. Harari, to my mind mistakenly, presents as being universally and fundamentally Christian - certainly they have: in the same way in which some have used microwaves to mistreat cats, without thereby rendering microwaves primarily instruments of cat torture ...

0 Many thanks to my überbestie PM for his nihil obstat. :)
1 I am skipping the part about heaven and hell only because its exposition is factually holey (not holy :)), where to Dr. Harari’s statement: “There is no trace of [heaven and hell] in the Old Testament” I only have three words to say: Daniel 12:2 ... Seriously though, there would be things to say about his claim that such beliefs are dualistic, but their refutal would take us too far off-track and I’ll leave them for another time.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Athena and/or Jesus?


The other day I watched a greatly edifying and enjoyable video of Eugenio Scalfari and Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi having a chat about a variety of topics in the context of the Courtyard of the Gentiles initiative launched by Pope Benedict XVI - a forum for dialogue between catholics and non-believers. What struck me in particular was a train of thought triggered by Scalfari commenting on Ravasi quoting him as having said that he was “in love” with Jesus. To this Scalfari responds:1
“Maybe it is an exaggerated phrase, but it is true. I have been following the life and preaching of Jesus ever since I was a kid, since I abandoned the faith. I grew up in a Catholic family [...] but then I met Athena, together with Italo Calvino, with whom I shared a desk for three years at school ...”
This follows the pattern I have seen so many times among my friends: I grew up a Catholic (or member of another church), but then I realized that belief in God was not reasonable and I became an atheist or agnostic. Scalfari tells the same story: upon encountering Athena (the Greek goddess of wisdom) his religious beliefs crumbled. Faced with a choice between faith and reason, he opted for the latter and while he still admires Jesus, he does so without any accompanying - irrational or at least arational - religious beliefs.

I particularly liked the posing of the above process with rationality personified by Athena, as it gave it a symmetry that less poetic accounts lack, and I was looking forward to Ravasi’s response, as this was a statement that he was sure to react to:
“[You tell the story of how you] made the choice of Athena, in a certain sense abandoning the choice of Christ in that moment at least. I think though that this choice, these two choices are not necessary and divisive, that they would split a person. Because I am firmly convinced, I personally, that, even though I have made the choice of Christ, I have not renounced my choice of Athena. Athena, reason, has always interested me.”
Ravasi then - very compellingly - proceeds to expand on Pope Francis’s speaking about the Truth in relational terms in his letter to Scalfari, and then shares the following, personal reflection:
“I, for myself, can’t say that I have the Truth, that I have God. I, every day, have to return - and in some moments it is likely that I drift into a territory where the heavens seem devoid of divinity ... [pause] Precisely because there is this dimension of the subject [pointing at himself], that is limited and that walks in a reality that exceeds me. This is why I believe that the element of seeking, searching is fundamental.”
I believe Ravasi is absolutely spot-on here - faith is not an alternative to reason, but a position that requires reason for the sake of remaining authentic. Ravasi presents his relationship with God as a dynamic, persistent search for the infinite, transcendent-immanent by a limited and finite self contained by it. This is no rejection of reason, blind adherence to tradition or irrational ignorance of evidence that are often the objections leveled at faith, but a sincere, dynamic relationship with God, as experienced through the limited, fallible, imperfect consciousness of a human person.

Having focused on Ravasi - whose fan I admit I am, I would also like to express my admiration for Scalfari, who comes across as a highly intelligent, sincere and compassionate person and whose atheism I don’t in any way find issue with. If anything, the fact that shines through their conversation is that both are open and honest about their own understanding of reality and that both value the other’s thoughts and find inspiration in them.

To conclude, I’d like to share my motivation for this post, which was my überbestie, PM’s saying that he didn’t get why I keep talking about faith and reason as being opposed, when in fact they are not. This certainly made me stop, since I completely agree with him, and I in fact proceeded to read up on more formal treatments of rationality, reason and faith, with the desire to get to some low-level mixup that would explain the mistaken perception of this fictitious opposition. I very quickly realized though (how could I not have seen that straight-away?!) that such efforts lead me down the well-trodden, lengthy and criss-crossing paths of epistemology and ontology, for whose considerations the terms “reason” and “rational” were a lax shorthand. Not wanting to attempt a synthesis of a vast field of investigation here, I’d just like to argue again that faith and reason are not opposed - they are both means for making sense of our conscious experiences in ways which I (and the Catholic Church) believe to be complementary and fundamentally incapable of contradicting each other in their perfect instantiations.

Seeing the sincere experiences of Scalfari and many of my friends, who arrive at a different conclusion - i.e., of faith being opposed to reason - instead leads me to an examination of conscience. Why is it that the Church and I fail to present the inherent compatibility of faith and reason compellingly enough? Has too much baggage accumulated over the centuries? Have ulterior motives obscured the profound purity and rationality of Christian faith, motivated by insecurity and lack of trust in God’s love? Maybe the answer lies in personal dialogue though, instead of an attempt to address the question via some new systematic exposition. And Pope Francis’ clear, blunt and razor-sharp directness will help too, of that I am sure ...

1 This is around 21:50 in the video (in Italian) and Ravasi’s reaction around 43:00.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The tyranny of absolutism


Walking home this evening I felt like Douglas Hofstadter may have felt when coming up with the central idea of his spectacular Gödel, Escher, Bach book. Unlike his realization about a “golden braid” linking the thoughts of Kurt Gödel, M. C. Escher and Johann Sebastian Bach, which all shed light on infinity, I felt like I saw a way to connect the seemingly opposed words of Popes Benedict XVI and Francis with regard to relativism.

Benedict XVI famously attacked relativism in his sermon during the opening mass of the conclave that elected him, saying:
“To have a clear faith, according to the creed of the Church, is often labeled as fundamentalism. While relativism, that is, allowing oneself to be carried about with every wind of “doctrine,” seems to be the only attitude that is fashionable. A dictatorship of relativism is being constituted that recognizes nothing as absolute and which only leaves the “I” and its whims as the ultimate measure.”
The message here is very clear - the arbiter of truth and falsehood as well as good and evil has become the individual, with no intrinsic meaning left for these concepts beyond what each person chooses to invest them with for themselves. It is not only a relativity of meaning but also a solitude - I have my truth and you yours and that is the end of the story. In his book-length interview with Benedict XVI (“Light Of The World”), Peter Seewald, gets Benedict to elaborate on the above idea, when he says:
“It is obvious that the concept of truth has become suspect. Of course it is correct that it has been much abused. Intolerance and cruelty have occurred in the name of truth. To that extent people are afraid when someone says, “This is the truth”, or even “I have the truth.” We never have it; at best it has us. No one will dispute that one must be careful and cautious in claiming the truth. But simply to dismiss it as unattainable is really destructive.

A large proportion of contemporary philosophies, in fact, consist of saying that man is not capable of truth. But viewed in that way, man would not be capable of ethical values, either. Then he would have no standards. Then he would only have to consider how he arranged things reasonably for himself, and then at any rate the opinion of the majority would be the only criterion that counted. History, however, has sufficiently demonstrated how destructive majorities can be, for instance, in systems such as Nazism and Marxism, all of which also stood against truth in particular.

[…] That is why we must have the courage to dare to say: Yes, man must seek the truth; he is capable of truth. It goes without saying that truth requires criteria for verification and falsification. It must always be accompanied by tolerance, also. But then truth also points out to us those constant values which have made mankind great. That is why the humility to recognize the truth and to accept it as a standard has to be relearned and practiced again.”
Essentially, Benedict says that just because we cannot possess the truth, it does not mean that “the” truth does not exist. Our access to it is imperfect and tolerance and caution are called for, but denying its existence (just because of our epistemological constraints) is a dangerous path to follow. The picture from the above is very clear - relativism (making one’s “I” the ultimate arbiter of truth) is a tyranny and a reliance of one’s self is dangerous.

Fast-forward to this morning’s interview1 with Pope Francis talking to Eugenio Scalfari and take a look at what he has to say on the subject:
“Scalfari: Your Holiness, is there is a single vision of the Good? And who determines it?

Francis: Each of us has their own vision of Good and also of Evil. We have to encourage him to proceed towards that which he thinks is Good.

Scalfari: Your Holiness, you have already written it in the letter you addressed to me. Conscience is autonomous, you said, and everyone must obey their own conscience. I think that’s one of the most courageous passages spoken by a Pope.

Francis: And I repeat it here. Each one has their own idea of Good and of Evil and must choose to follow Good and fight Evil as they understand them. This would suffice to make the world a better place.”
“Each one has their own idea of Good and Evil […] as they understand them.” But, this sounds precisely like the relativism (the “I” being arbiter of truth) that Benedict denounced and declared a destructive danger. Are Francis and Benedict disagreeing here? Is Francis changing Church teaching?

I don’t think so. Instead, I believe, that their apparent opposition flows from the different perspectives from which they speak about truth and good and evil. Benedict describes what you’d see from God’s perspective: truth is absolute and denying its existence and substituting one’s whims for it, just because humans can’t access it, is a mistake. Francis, instead looks at the picture from the perspective of the individual: trust your conscience’s discernment between good and evil and choose good. Each human has a conscience by means of which they can discern (to varying degrees of faithfulness - “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror” as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12) a reflection of the absolute truth. It is the same landscape, but Benedict looks down from the mountaintop while Francis looks up from the valley.

Applying this to myself, I can simultaneously believe in absolute truth and goodness, while being aware of my own inability to grasp them fully (or even with a known level of (in)accuracy). This epistemic constraint in no way undoes the meaningfulness of pursuing goodness and truth and instead makes tolerance and dialogue necessary. It also means that - as Francis said in the same interview - “Proselytism is pompous foolishness that has no sense. We must get to know each other and listen to each other and grow our understanding of the world around us.” I believe we are all accessing fragments of the one Truth,2 which makes me want to know what you have understood as much as deepening my understanding of my own faith.

1 The English translation sadly has some serious issues at the time of this post’s writing (the tile itself being seriously mistranslated), as a result of which I started from it but made adjustments based on reading the Italian original.
2 This is consonant with Francis saying, still in this same interview that “I believe in God. Not a Catholic God, there is no Catholic God, there is God.”