Thursday, January 27, 2011

. . . dreamt of in your philosophy

By Eric Von Salzen

I recently saw a story about Keith Parsons, a college professor who announced that he will no longer teach his course on the philosophy of religion, because he “cannot take . . . arguments [in favor of theism] seriously any more.”

Boy, was this a shock!

I had no idea that there was such a thing as “philosophy of religion”, or that you could actually get paid to teach it.

OK, OK, I’m being facetious. I have great respect for philosophy (and for religion, too, or at least for some religions). I took a whole course in philosophy my freshman year of college: Phil I, Plato, Aristotle, and Lucretius. What I most remember is how Plato wrote his Socratic dialogues so that Socrates always won the argument. I don’t mean just that we the reader ended up being persuaded. Even the guy Socrates was arguing with ended up agreeing with him. As you read along you came to a point where Socrates would say: Alcibiades (or whoever was Socrates’s victim in that particular dialogue), don’t you agree that . . . ? And as the reader I wanted to call out to poor Alcibiades, No, No, it’s a trick question, don’t agree with him! But feckless Alcibiades would agree, and then, sure enough, a few pages later, Socrates would show that if you accepted that assertion, you logically had to agree with Socrates’s conclusion. So old Alcibiades would sigh and agree that Socrates was right. Yes, Socrates, of course you’re right, how could it be otherwise?

This became a standing joke for a while in my crowd. Whenever some classmate would go overboard pontificating about something or other (and believe me, Harvard freshmen pontificated a lot – probably still do), someone would say, Yes, Socrates, of course you’re right, how could it be otherwise? It didn’t shut the pontificator up for long, but even a few minutes were a gift. So, I found that philosophy could be useful.

Later (much later), when I began to discover what my religion was all about, I started to read, or read about, philosophers who dealt with religious issues (or theologians who dealt with philosophical issues): Barth, Buber, William James, Kierkegaard, Leibniz, Tillich, etc. So, when I discovered from the article I just mentioned that there was an academic discipline called philosophy of religion, I thought it would involve in-depth consideration of the kinds of issues that these philosophers raised. “Fear and Loathing Revisited”? “I and Thou in the 21st Century”? Terrific!

But I found it was not so. According to the article about Professor Parson’s resignation, “much of philosophy of religion consists in working out the logical implications of arguments”, such as “the argument from evil”. And what is that “argument”? It’s the old chestnut about whether the existence of evil in the world proves that there cannot be a loving and omnipotent god.

Please don’t get me wrong: I don’t for a moment mean to minimize the agony of the person who cries from the heart, How can a loving God permit this terrible thing to happen, my child to die, my home to be destroyed by a hurricane, or whatever tragedy it is. There is evil in the world and it does challenge our faith.

But the “argument from evil” is not a cri de coeur by someone whose faith is being challenged, it’s an intellectual exercise by philosophers who like to play games with ideas. The article tells us:

In the 1970’s, several leading philosophers of religion broke the argument [from evil] down into a “logical” version (that any amount of evil is logically incompatible with such a god) which most philosophers consider defeated, and an “evidential” version (that certain amounts or types of evil we observe in our world are evidence against such a god) which remains a thorny problem.

This seems like a waste of intellect. Do these philosophers ask themselves whether perhaps God could have a different definition of, or perspective on, evil than they do? Have they considered Genesis 1-3 and tried to understand how a religious tradition reconciles the reality of evil in the world with the existence of a loving God? Have they even read and attempted to understand “Fear and Loathing”?

These are rhetorical questions. Perhaps the philosophers of religion have considered all these things and satisfied themselves that their own approach is right. But I doubt it. We are told in this article that 73% of philosophers are atheists, and I suspect that even those who are believers in their hearts know whose game they have to play.

I find this all depressing. It’s like learning that your professor of music is tone deaf. There may be certain things that you can learn from such a teacher, but it can only go so far,

I was thinking about this stuff the other day when I saw that Turner Classic Movies was showing Glory on Martin Luther King Day. I’ve seen this great movie two or three times before, and it is painful each time, but worth the pain. It tells the story of a regiment of Black soldiers, recruited by the Union in the Civil War. Near the end of the movie, the night before the great battle in which most of them will die, the soldiers gather around the camp fires and sing hymns, pray, and testify. Their faith in God gives them the ability to face the coming day.

I don’t have words that can evoke what I felt when I saw that scene. You can see most of the scene here.

This scene says more about the Christian religion than any philosophical exercise can do. Our faith is a peculiar mixture of heart and head, emotion and intellect. On the one hand, it has a mystical power that seems to plumb depths far more profound than mere intellect can reach. On the other hand, it is not a blind and foolish tooth-fairy faith; it depends on a confident knowledge of the fact that God so loved this real material world, and us its real material inhabitants, that he sent his only begotten son so that we could have eternal life. Isn’t that more important that any philosopher’s word games?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

For We Have Seen His Star In The East . . .

By Eric Von Salzen

Some call it Little Christmas, or Twelfth Night, or Epiphany: The end of the Christmas season. Traditionally, it’s the time when the Three Kings visited the Christ child

Everyone who reads this blog probably knows that scripture doesn’t call them kings, doesn’t even say there were three of them. Matthew’s Gospel, the only one that mentions them, says that “wise men [magi] from the east” came looking for the new-born King of the Jews. The notes in the New Oxford Annotated Bible say that the Magi were “a learned class in ancient Persia”, and that they might be called “astrologers”.

The wise men told King Herod that they had seen a “star” that signified the birth of a new king of the Jews. It’s uncertain what the “star” might have been; some have suggested that it might have been a comet, or a nova or supernova. I recently read that the “star” may have been the planet Jupiter, which passed close to the bright star Regulus three times between September of 3 BCE and May of 2 BCE, and for about three months during that period moved in a westerly (“retrograde”) direction – i.e., toward Judea from the perspective of observers in Persia. In June of 2 BCE Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest planets, overlapped, to appear as a single object. Astrologers might well have interpreted this unusual conjunction of stars as a sign of a portentous event.

If that’s the correct explanation, it solves one puzzle in Matthew’s gospel: Why nobody other than the wise men seems to have seen the “star”. When the Magi come to King Herod’s court with their story about the star, this was apparently the first time that anyone there had heard about the phenomenon. In fact, Herod asks the wise men when the star first appeared. If the “star” was a comet, everyone would have noticed it; even a nova or supernova would have been widely remarked, certainly by Herod’s chief priests and scribes (by the way, a 10-year old Canadian girl recently became the youngest person to discover a supernova ). But an unusual conjunction of Jupiter, Regulus, and Venus might have been noticed only by astrologers.

In most of the Christmas pageants I’ve seen (or been in, as I wrote here a couple of years ago), you have Mary and Joseph and the Babe; the three kings and the star; and shepherds, their sheep, and the angels who brought the tidings of great joy. But there’s no gospel that has both kings and shepherds. Matthew has the wise men, Luke has the shepherds. I assume that the new-born savior was visited by both wise men and shepherds (perhaps not at the same time – that could have made the stable awfully crowded), so why did Matthew choose to feature the wise men in his story of the savior’s birth, while Luke chose to go with the shepherds?

On the face of it, it would seem to make more sense for Matthew to tell about the shepherds, and for Luke to tell about the Persian astrologers. Matthew’s is regarded as the most “Jewish” of the gospels, whereas Luke, who had been the companion of Paul in bringing the message of Christ to non-Jewish foreigners, seems to be writing for Greek Christians. So you might expect Matthew to emphasize Christianity’s Jewish background in telling the story of the birth of Christ, and Luke to emphasize its universality.

But what does Luke give us? Shepherds. It would be hard to imagine a more obvious Jewish symbol. The ancestors of the Jewish people, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the twelve sons of Jacob for whom the twelve tribes of Israel were named, were all shepherds (so was Abel, the second son of Adam and Eve, who was murdered by his brother Cain, the farmer). After the Israelites were freed from Egyptian slavery, they became farmers in the land that God had promised them, but they seem to have regarded that as a demotion from their ancestral occupation: Their great king, David, was a shepherd, and shepherds and sheep appear throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (“The Lord is my shepherd”, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel”, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd”, “And I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them”, etc.). Thus, if you wanted your gospel to emphasize Christianity’s Jewish background, it would be entirely appropriate to have the birth of the Messiah of the Jews announced to shepherds abiding in the fields, and to show them – representatives of the Israelite ideal – as the first people called to worship him.

So if shepherds are an obvious Jewish symbol, why didn’t Matthew, the gospeler to the Jews, have shepherds in his story? Why, instead, did he give us foreign astronomers?

The answer, I think, is that the wise men were just as much a symbol of an idealized Israel as Luke’s shepherds were, just a symbol of a different aspect of the ideal. Wise men coming from afar to adore the new-born King of the Jews is something that the Jewish scriptures had been expecting for centuries before the birth of Jesus.

The Psalmist said of the King of Israel:

May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles
Render him tribute,
May the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.
May all kings fall down before him,
And all nations give him service.

[Psalm 72:10-11]

The wise men weren’t kings, but it would have been appropriate if they were.

But it wasn’t just the King of Israel that foreigners were to honor, but the Lord who the king represented:

All the ends of the earth shall remember
And turn to the Lord;
And all the families of the nations
Shall worship before him
[Psalm 22:27]

All the nations you have made shall come
And bow down before you, O Lord,
And shall glorify thy name
[Psalm 86:9]

Isaiah (and Micah, too) prophesied:

Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
To the house of the God of Jacob;
That he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem
[Isaiah 2:3; Micah 4:2]

Over and over again in the Old Testament we see the same prophecy, that the gentiles will in time come to understand that the God of Israel is the God of all the world. Thus, Israel, by being God’s special people, would become the means of bringing the rest of the world to God.

Matthew’s story about eastern sages coming across the trackless wastes to do homage to the new born king is therefore just as “Jewish” a story as Luke’s story about shepherds. Luke’s shepherds remind us of the ancient, unspoiled, ideal Israel; Matthew’s story reminds us of the Hebrew tradition that the nations will come to Zion for instruction, that Israel will be a beacon to the entire world, “a light to enlighten the gentiles”.

For us today, or for me at least, the story of the wise men has more resonance than the story of the shepherds. Shepherds aren’t part of the world that I live in, but wise men are – that is, men and women who think that their learning enables them to understand how the world works. There are times when I find myself thinking that I’m one of them. So it’s good to be reminded that the wise men in Matthew’s story got it wrong. Their wisdom, their science, told them that what they were seeking was an earthly king, a king of the Jews like Herod; certainly that’s what Herod feared that the star foretold. When they got to Bethlehem, the child that they found would not grow up to be an earthly king. He would never issue an edict, or call forth an army, or impose a tax, or execute a rival, or do any of the things that kings did, and do. But when he died, three decades later, under a sign that mockingly called him “King of the Jews”, the Roman centurion in charge of his execution said, “Truly this man was God’s son.” That’s who the wise men had found, not the king they were looking for.

That’s quite an epiphany.