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?


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