Thursday, March 4, 2010

Christian Atheism and the Golden Rule

Following on from yesterday's post, the exploration of the paradoxymoronic concept of the Christian Atheist continues. Though there is clearly no textual basis for making the claim that Jesus wanted us to be secular humanists, there is always that "Be a Good Person" argument for those wanting to be Atheistic Christians. We can be good without God, or so the billboards posted by atheistic organizations proclaim. Just be nice to other people, and things all fall into place.

For the person professing to be a Christian Atheist, one of the ways to avoid major neural crashes engendered by irreconcilable cognitive dissonance is to say: "Anyone who approaches the teachings of Jesus with an honest and open mind knows that the Golden Rule is the primary point and purpose of Christianity. I don't believe in all this Sky Daddy Easter Bunny Superstitious Nonsense, but the ethic Jesus taught was basically just for us to treat other people the way we want to be treated. I'm down with that, therefore, I'm a follower of Jesus who just happens not to believe in God."

I'm not about to start frothing and foaming about this perspective. I'm not going to give a long rant about not being WAAASHED IN THE BLOOOD OF JEEESUS. In fact, I'm not even going to say it's evil and damnable, because I don't think it is. Folks who live out their lives governed by an ethic of compassion and love for neighbor aren't enemies of Jesus or his followers. That's true of Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists. It's even true of atheists. When that Day arrives, quite frankly, those who just can't do the faith thing but do unto others the way Jesus taught aren't necessarily toast. We know so 'cause Jesus said so, and it's His call, not ours.

However, that does not make those folks Christian.

To be Christian, you need to be radically governed by the Great Commandment. It is our One Law, the single measure of our faith that defines and guides every other aspect of our faith. But the Great Commandment is not just "love your neighbor as yourself." It is, as Jesus taught it, far more radical than that. To be that "highest ethic" Thomas Jefferson declared it to be, it needs to be more radical. So let's take a hard look at the Golden Rule.

When you present the Golden Rule to an atheist with a chip surgically implanted in their shoulder, one of the typical responses you'll hear is, "Yeah, well, that's a really sucky morality. What if I don't want for myself the same things you want? What if you're just imposing your own sociocultural perspective of 'love' on me, and I have another perspective? What about that? Huh? Huh? That's why Jesus is a dumb loser stinkypants and you are too." They'll typically throw the word "fallacy" in there somewhere, too, because it's a Very Smart Word.

Though this could be construed as WAAAAY overthinking the Golden Rule, it actually has legitimacy philosophically. Loving others can easily be interpreted in such a way that it permits acts of violence or spiritual abuse. "I only yell at you because I know what's right for you. I'd yell at me, too, if I was doing what you're doing." In this instance, the "right" is typically an attitude that is, in fact, mediated by culture and society. Even the structures of our ethical reasoning are frequently mediated by those biases.

But the ethic that Jesus taught didn't hinge on just treating others in the way that we expect is right. That Great Commandment has two inextricably interrelated components. Love your neighbor? Sure. That's part two. But before that, we are told to "love God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul." This theocentric grounding radicalizes the love commandment, because in giving ourselves over to that first element, a Christian experiences the Golden Rule in an interesting way.

The engagement of our whole being in the love of God has a continually iconoclastic effect. It is the great shatterer of idols, and by idols I mean the false godlings of society, culture, and self. God is not to be confused with cultic practice, or with doctrine, or with dogma. God is not to be confused with ethnic identity or political orientation or material prosperity or nationalistic pride. God...if we're being orthodox about it...cannot be conflated with any category that exists within the bounds of space and time. That orientation becomes, as Christian existentialist Paul Tillich would have described it, an "ultimate concern," one that forever drives us towards progressing and deepening our love of others.

That means, in terms of our practice of the love ethic, that the Christian is called to resist the desire to love only those who share our worldview. Christian orthopraxis requires us to apply lovingkindness in a way that is mindful of the needs and perpectives of those who are not Us. As Jesus taught it in the first century Near East, that included those who were outside of the boundaries that defined his culture. We are to love the lepers, the tax collectors, the unclean, and the Samaritans. We are to love and show kindness to those who are set utterly against us. This ethos transcends ethos itself...and as such, it's as radical a morality as possible.

Christian atheism does not get us there. If our orientation towards the numinous mysterium tremens et fascinans of our Maker is removed, then the Christian ethic is not authentically presented. What you get instead is not evil, necessarily. It may quite possibly be good.

But it cannot meaningfully claim to be what Jesus taught.

27 comments:

Pastor Bob said...

Isn't it interesting that people, including Christians, tend to ignore that Jesus puts Deut. 6:5 first? Or that Jesus even mentions it? What we call the golden rule Jesus says is the second greatest law. I would suggest that it is a partial interpretation of the first.

Beloved Spear said...

@ Bob: We do ignore it, 'cause it's not as familiar to us. I don't know if it's the "second greatest," though. Jesus seems to view the two as somehow interwoven. In the Matthean and Markan record, they are linked, with primacy seeming to go to Deuteronomy, but the second is "like it." But in Luke, the two (which precede the story of the Good Samaritan) are woven into a single command. Somehow, the two are part of the same thing.

Jodie said...

"We are to love the lepers, the tax collectors, the unclean, and the Samaritans. We are to love and show kindness to those who are set utterly against us. This ethos transcends ethos itself...and as such, it's as radical a morality as possible."

To be sure, I think Christian Atheist is like decaffeinated coffee. What is the point?

But still, there is such a thing. It exists. And people drink it.

Christianity and the Christian Church have shaped our culture. And that is a good thing. Jesus of Nazareth was all about changing people's values, much more than changing their doctrines. It's that whole salt thing.

To be sure we have other values that do not come from Christ. In a way we have always been polytheists. The Church never completely forgot the Greco-Roman pantheon. We just added all these religions together, and came up with Christian Western Civilization.

How tied are we to our religions?

Look at Japan after WWII. In defeat Japan adopted all the "superior" attributes of their enemy. Post WWII Japanese culture, at first blush, copies Western culture quite nicely. But it never adopted Christianity. And in so doing, it preserved its distinctive nature.

Or take Gandhi. He used the Christian value system his enemy to bring down the British Empire. But he never became a Christian. Always a Hindu.

Both of those non Christian cultures, by the way, have serious problems with loving lepers and the unclean.

So there is such a thing as Christian Atheists, and I think they are all around us. In Western Civilization, if you are an Atheist, you are a Christian Atheist.

Beloved Spear said...

@ Jodie: I think there's some real truth in that. Atheists in Western cultures tend to define themselves in resistance to the particular characteristics of Christianity, simply because Christianity has had such a significant impact on the development of Western society. In many ways, the morality they assume as a product of rationality is, in fact, one that springs not from an objective process, but from the seedbed laid by Jesus.

But I don't tend to call those folks "Christian," mostly because I don't view Christianity as a cultural phenomenon. Yeah, I know, it is sorta kinda, but at it's heart, it's pan-cultural.

Browning said...

"In many ways, the morality they assume as a product of rationality is, in fact, one that springs not from an objective process, but from the seedbed laid by Jesus."

This is a claim that Christians often make, but I have a hard time understanding how anyone can seriously believe it. I think it would be a difficult assertion to defend on the basis of historical evidence, but you don't even have to look at the evidence to spot a serious flaw in the argument.

Hitchens makes the very good point that if you believe in human evolution and in the divinity of Jesus, as most modern Christians do, then you have to believe that God saw fit to withhold his best version of morality from humanity for hundreds of thousands of years. And then when he finally decided to spell it out for us, he decided to do it once, with a guy who insisted on using a lot of confusing parables, in a culturally backward backwater, leaving, say, the vast population Han Dynasty, or the great empires of the Americas, to carry on in a moral vacuum for a good deal longer.

Beloved Spear said...

@ Browning: Folks can seriously believe it because if you study European/Western civilization, the influence of Christianity is unquestionable. Denying it is like denying the normative impact of Hindu practice in India, or Confucianism in China, or Islam in the Middle East. Meaning, someone can deny it, but it doesn't make them come across as particularly rational.

Arguing the nature/merits of that influence is fair game, particularly when it comes to views of religious minorities or the oppression of scientific discovery. Arguing that it isn't significant is materially inaccurate.

Two interesting things about that second paragraph: First, that the case that you/Hitchens seem to be making is exactly why Christians are so very vigorous about getting the word out. Have those teachings remained in a backwater? Or do they resonate and spread virally in ways that leap across the firewalls of culture and language? Ya gotta start somewhere, and that it's not big and showy means diddly.

Second, that the parables are "confusing." Yes, they are. That's the point. Parables exist to engage the narrative imagination. Their purpose in the rabbinic tradition that Jesus built upon was to thwart literal thinking, and force the listener to engage on a deeper level.

Not sure how well that's worked for many Christians, but the intent is a noble one.

Browning said...

I'd never be so silly as to claim that Christianity has not influenced Western culture. What I'm disputing is your assertion that the ethics that you and I share has no basis in rationality (or, I'd say, the human capacity for empathy and rationality) but comes from Jesus. As though he introduced it to the world and owns the copyright. I know you think he best embodies it, but I disagree. He preached a version of it, surely, but it's a garbled version that is complicated by his many shortcomings. (The biggest one being that he apparently suffered from the delusion that he was God, or the son of God, which doesn't even make him very unusual. I've met one of those guys myself.)

Looking at his story, it's easy to see ways in which one wishes he had said or done something a bit more ethical by our standards. The poor are always with us? Please. If anything his popularity is a result of his attaching his name to an appealing ethic, and not the other way around. That is why someone like you has to "view the tradition through a lens." His legend requires reform that it may better suit our moral intuitions, which we came by naturally, I'd argue, by evolving empathy and rationality.

And your response to Hitchens' point is "you gotta start somewhere"? Really? The point is that supposedly YOU'RE GOD. In theory, you can start any time, anywhere you want to, as often as you want, with as much clarity as you want. If there is perfect ethic for human beings, why would an omnipotent being wait so long to introduce it in such an imperfect way?

frizzy said...

I have been reading atheist online writings lately. They seem so sane and logical. They do not want to "believe" in something that has so little concrete evidence. But they are very up on being good for goodness' sake and doing unto others as they would have others do unto them, etcetera.

I find myself as a child, with a child like belief in a Good God , who loves us, and wanted to make it known to us. Can I prove this? No. Do I believe this because someone else told me to? Maybe. Am I 50 years old? Yes. Can I think for myself? Yes. So why do I still believe this? It makes me happy and my life feels deeper and it inspires me to connect to something much more than meets the eye. And that lifts my spirit.

I have this for the atheists out there: I suppose you believe that being good is logical and evolved to preserve the species. But that is also just a belief. You cannot really prove that everyone being good leads to more offspring. How do you know if a world ruled by a totalitarian violent dictator would survive longer than one full of good people ? And why isn't that just as valid a scenario? A long lived civilization of humans who are cruel and selfish. If it lasts, what is wrong with it?
In summary, I think you believe something that you cannot prove because you just like it. and why do you?

Browning said...

Hey, Frizzy.

I cannot speak for all atheists, but I can speak as one atheist who represents, more or less, the noisiest sect of godless culture in the present moment. I am right there with the Dawkinses, Dennetts, Hitchenses, and Harrises.

I think your "supposing" is a little off. Being good is rational, but not merely because it would result in the greatest longevity of the human species. Perhaps that would be good -- or at least the longevity of human consciousness and memory in some form. It is not, however, the the only good. I think I would agree with you that miserable totalitarian arrangement that caused the species to survive a longer would be inferior to a happier arrangement that would not survive as long. Would you rather have a happy, short life, or a long miserable one? The question answers itself, doesn't it?

You say, "So why do I still believe this? It makes me happy, etc." There is word for this -- "wishful thinking." My daughter, who is six, believes that fairies will visit her someday and grant her magic powers. Why does she believe this? It makes her happy, etc. Unlike you and my daughter, I would rather believe in things that are true than those that appeal to my wishful thinking.

You say, "In summary, I think you believe something that you cannot prove because you just like it." You think wrong. You have not made a case for this by imagining implausible strawman versions of my thought-processes. I think this is a case of projecting your cognitive shortcomings onto your opposition.

And I don't think it gets you what you want even if it were true. To get it you have to embrace radical skepticism ("no one can ever really 'know' anything") and relativism ("I believe what I believe because it pleases to me, and so do you, and who is to say that either of us are 'right' or 'wrong'?"). Radical skepticism and relativism are impediments to ethics, which require empathy and a belief that there is such a thing as right and wrong.

Beloved Spear said...

@ Browning: My gracious! You must have a comments feed crankin' to have returned to this one.

Radical skepticism is certainly an impediment to ethics if it is as far as you develop ethically. Cynicism..as a philosophical movement..tends to lead nowhere. But as a waypoint rather than a destination, it can be most constructive.

Once you dig past the invective, much of "new atheism" seems to rest on assumptions about the glory of human reason that died in the trenches of the Somme. It's as if the existentialism and the nihilism the "rational" horrors of the 20th century stirred never happened. It feels, philosophically, rather quaint.

Of course, who am I to talk...;)

Browning said...

@ David. Yeah, I just check that little notify box when I post a comment.

Re: Radical skepticism. My point is that you can't invoke radical skepticism temporarily -- long enough to win an argument (or attempt to win one) with an atheist -- and then revoke it once (you think) you've made your point. That's radical skepticism "for thee but not for me." And you can't just throw down a cynical kind of false dichotomy between faith and radical skepticism. I suspect that kind of argument is tempting for you because I think I've seen you make some version of it elsewhere. But it's flawed reasoning.

And really? "Died in the trenches of the Somme?" I'm not sure what purplish point you are trying to make there. "We tried reason once, and look what it got us! The horrors of the Twentieth Century! Nice going, reason! Let's just go back to the good old days when we just took it on faith that God wrote this book."

Or does it have something to do with latest fad among critics of "new atheism": "I liked the old atheists better! Well, I didn't like them, but at least I respected them. Flinty-eyed existential nihilists, reeking of Galoise, riddled with syphilis! Now THAT was an atheist! These new guys want morality AND rationality, as if you could ever have both! Grow up and have the cold, hard stones to declare yourself an ubermensch, or fall on your knees and come to Jesus."

Beloved Spear said...

@ Browning: How is establishing a dichotomy between faith and radical skepticism false? Are they the same? Perhaps I've missed something, or am misreading you.

And yeah, that Somme line was rather purpley, wasn't it? Sometimes I can't help myself. ;) Clearly, you get the point I'm trying to make, even if I did so in a rather lavender hue.

Browning said...

@David.

Calling something a false dichotomy doesn't mean you are saying that the two things are the same. It means you are saying that there are more than two things. I'm all about the chotomy. I just ain't buying the di.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dilemma

The maneuver I'm objecting to is one in which you say, "Oh, a skeptic, eh? Then you must be a RADICAL skeptic!" And then you start nattering on about brains in vats until I finally say, "Enough! What do you hope to gain by claiming we can't know anything?!" And then you grin, and say, "Then you ADMIT that you have no good reason not to believe in the existence of Cthulhu." Or whatever deity you happen to be an apologist for.

I say that there is a reasonable middle ground. Being skeptical of x does not imply that I must be skeptical of everything, nor vice versa. I can be 99.99999999% certain that the teapot in my hand is real, and my doing so does not prohibit me from being more or less equally certain that Russel's teapot isn't.

Frizzy's maneuver seems to be a variation on that in that s/he actually seems to be claiming that s/he IS a radical skeptic. "No one can know anything. We all choose to believe what it pleases us to believe. Therefore, I am free to believe in God because it just makes me happy." That way of thinking is not merely wrong -- if it WERE right, it would lead to moral relativism. I don't think you or Frizzy want that.

Re: Somme. So you're looking at my characterization of your point and saying, "Yeah, that's a fair cop." That seems weird to me. It looks to me like a self-evidently foolish position to take. But it's another false dichotomy: "Either be Nietzsche or be a Christian. Otherwise, ST*U."

Beloved Spear said...

@ Browning: That I implied you "got" what I intended to say with my plum phraseology does not mean that I accede that your response was a "fair cop." It was simply evident in your reply that you understood what I was intended and were prepared to argue against it. Hope that clears it up.

As for the false dichotomy, well, that's not really what's being argued...by me, at least. Radical philosophical skepticism is a precursor to a robust faith...as a significant thread within 19th and 20th century existentialism expressed. I'd pitch Kierkegaard out there, but having heard kvetching about "appeal to authority fallacy" whenever I reference a significant philosopher in these sorts of conversations, I think I'll abstain.

I think what's probably most annoying about the Cartesian flanking maneuver you object to is that it makes the neoatheist position seem callow, the kind of bright but experientially ungrounded argumentation you might encounter from a sophomore on the forensics team of some overpriced prep school.

Browning said...

@David.

It's odd that you would disown the argument I paraphrase in one breath, and then in the next breath, speculate that I must dislike it merely because it makes me feel childish. Is it a good argument or isn't it?

But no. What's annoying about the "flanking maneuver" is not that it makes me feel callow. It's that is is callow. Goofing around with radical skepticism is textbook freshman dorm room pseudo-profundity. "Dude, how do I know you even exist!" In response to skepticism about the existence of things not evidenced, it's a desperate squirt of squid ink in the water. There is something even a little cynical about it. You're not a radical skeptic, but you're happy to dress up like one for a bit and do a little brain-in-a-vat dance in a vain effort to create a false dichotomy between radical skepticism and faith in [fill in the blank]. Now, that's sophomoric.

And if that's not your argument, my apologies. But then what is it? And it's fine for you to reference an argument by Kierkegaard. But you have to be able to state the argument in some form. What most apologists do -- and what you've actually done just now -- is to drop a name, insinuating that there is real argument out there of which I am embarrassingly unaware. I call that theological vaporware. Or argument by absent authority. E.g., "I won't respond to your arguments because they only show that you've never read Duns Scotus. Come back to me when you have." I think it's a bluff. There's no there there.

Beloved Spear said...

@ Browning: Yeah, I'd pretty much describe Heraclitus and Qohelet and Diogenes and Descartes and Nietszche and Sartre as goofing around in substanceless freshman dorm-room banter. "Hey Jean Paul, stop getting all emo and pack me another fatty, dude."

You are so endearingly consistent, Browning me lad.

Browning said...

Now THAT'S an argument by absent authority! Why drop a name when you can drop a hatful? Bonus points for the dripping condescension.

(Actually, that's the way it's usually done. Terry Eagleton hasn't really warmed up until he's rattled off the names of several dozen philosophers and theologians who have supposedly dispensed with all of the "new atheist" objections ages ago. But there is seldom any argument actually stated, and when one is, it is transparent nonsense. Again, I think it's all a bluff. Actually, I think it's a sincere bluff, which is the worst kind.)

Your point seems to be that because a bunch of famous old dead guys (the majority of them atheists or pagans) spent some time considering the question of whether we can ever really know anything, then... What, exactly?

I stand by my assertion. Radical skepticism is an absurd position to take. You can't prove that it isn't true, but anyone trying to act as if it were true is, at best, a moral relativist. Which means it's of no use to Christians except as a bit of cynical misdirection. It goes like this: "No, I have no proof of my most dearly held beliefs, but then you don't have any proof of anything you believe in either! What do you say to that!?"

That's a juvenile form of argument. That's classic dorm room bong talk. The fact that such an argument may bear a family resemblance to something somebody once said a long time ago that people now study when they are sophomores does not make it any less sophomoric.

Now, you can deny that I've fairly characterized your argument (thrice before the cock crows). Or you can sort of slyly acknowledge it but insinuate that my only real objection to it is that I secretly recognize that I'm just outclassed. But you can't do both. And in neither case have you actually offered any substantial objection to my assertion. Just name-calling and name-dropping.

[word verification: bomygod]

Beloved Spear said...

@ Browning: I knew you'd enjoy that wee little listie! Don't you think for a moment I didn't do that on purpose. ;)

And it's only a bluff if you don't understand the conceptual linkages in that 2,500-year chain of philosophers, particularly as it relates to the dynamics of skepticism. From your reaction, I think you get it, sort of. Of course radical skepticism is absurd. Existence itself is absurd. That's kinda the whole point each of those philosophers was making, eh? Unfortunately for the whole dorm room dopehead line of counterattack, their critique is one for which neoatheism has no response, other than to fall back on the assumptions of materialism.

But what of the relationship between faith and skepticism? Is the latter just a tactic of convenience, taken up to cynically annoy neoatheists? Hardly.

Here, we get to Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, and the relationship between the positions he describes as the Knight of Infinite Resignation (who is aware of the absurdity and meaninglessness of being, but chooses to affirm himself anyway in defiance of but not escaping ontological despair) and the Knight of Faith (who recognizes that absurdity, and transcends despair through the leap of faith). The two are part of a process, existing not in tension, but as a continuum. Sound familiar? Perhaps you didn't take that coursework.

A similar point is made by existentialist theologian Paul Tillich, who posited faith as a necessary response to the inherent meaninglessness of being. That's the core thesis of both his Dynamics of Faith and Courage to Be.

The apologetic argument derived from those positions is not intended to assert that the simple materialist/objectivist position of the neoatheist is flawed. It is, rather, a philosophical justification for faith as something with intellectual and conceptual integrity. That's the point of apologetics, mon frere.

Browning said...

I think we are talking about different things and it's confusing. You seem to be using two different senses of the word absurd as if they were the same. Radical skepticism is the idea that knowledge is impossible -- we can't know anything -- and we seem to agree that that is an absurd position to hold onto for very long. But I think you are conflating it now with a different kind of absurdity -- the absurdity of our condition as recognized by the existentialists, many of whom I admire, especially the atheists. Stephen Crane, for example.

"When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers. Then, if there be no tangible thing to hoot he feels, perhaps, the desire to confront a personification and indulge in pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying: 'Yes, but I love myself.' A high cold star on a winter's night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation." -- "The Open Boat"

Radical skepticism is an absurd (i.e. unreasonable) overreaction to the epistemological uncertainties of life. Existentialism is a potentially reasonable reaction to the absurdity (i.e. apparent meaninglessness) of life in general. Radical skepticism is just a denial that the truth can be known at all. Existentialism faces the truth, accepts it, and then defies the apparent absurdity of it by deciding to go on rowing the boat, sometimes as a self-affirming act of will, but often out of deep sense of love for and solidarity with the other souls on it. As I see it, the only place where existentialism and radical skepticism connect at all is if you count it as one of the absurdities of life that we cannot objectively disprove radical skepticism. (Frankly, as absurdities go, that's a small one. The faint suspicion that one might be a brain in a vat does not seem terribly relevant when you are on that boat and the sharks are circling in the moonlight. It's really the kind of thing a philosopher in Paris cafe, or a kid in frat house garret, would ever leisure enough to worry about. Which is why I maintain that is a callow card to play.)

Browning said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Browning said...

Now, it's probably not completely fair for me to accuse you of slapping down a radical skepticism card (cynically, annoyingly) against more conventional local skepticism towards the supernatural claims about religions. Because I think I remember reading you making such an argument once on your blog, but I can't find it now, Google as I might, and I may have misunderstood or misremembered it, and if you did make such an argument, you seem to have seen the error of your ways. Perhaps you were just kidding. If so, fair enough. But, in the interest of full disclosure, I think you know what I'm talking about, and that I am not so far off in my characterization, and I suspect that is what you meant by "flanking maneuver," a metaphor that implies precisely what you deny -- "a tactic of convenience" against a skeptical adversary, rather than merely a false but necessary step in your own spiritual development.

In any case, even if radical skepticism were a problem for atheists, you, as a Christian, are forbidden wield it in an argument with us. (This was my original point to Frizzy.) This is because if you accept radical skepticism, then you admit that all beliefs have an equal knowable correspondence to any objective reality, which makes you a relativist, and I think that's out of bounds for you. If, on the other hand, you moved through radical skepticism on your own personal journey to faith, ultimately rejecting it in favor of your current beliefs, then from now on you can only invoke it cynically, as a tactical maneuver, because it's an assertion that you do not sincerely hold. An analogy would be someone who had found his way to Christ after being a heroine addict trying to lead an fine, upstanding atheist to the same place with a rap on the joys of unbridled hedonism and needle full of smack. You can talk me out of the gutter, but you can't talk me into it.

So, no. Contra your claims, there is no argument here that atheists can't answer. We don't feel childish in your presence, or stand in mute, frustrated awe of your superior Cartesian karate.

Beloved Spear said...

@ Browning: I'm not sure your description of existentialism effectively articulates the relationship between that movement and radical skepticism. The "truth" that is faced by the existentialist is the complete absence of knowable meaning. They deny that truth can be known at all, and then do one of two things. Either collapse in despair, or forge on anyway for the hell of it. You seem to suggest a distinction between the two that is...oh, me, what's the term...a false dichotomy. One is fully integrated into the other.

Perhaps you do grasp it, but just haven't expressed it clearly.

And out of bounds? Dearie me, no. Even if Kierkegaard and Tillich hadn't given solid conceptual ground for integrating doubt into a fully orthodox theology over the last two centuries, we'd still have Qohelet, who dates back considerably longer. If you've got the hammer in your toolbox, it would be foolish not to use it when the appropriate occasion arises.

Is it a cynical tactic? No, no more so than a Buddhist talking about the cycle of suffering, or Sartre discussing the essential meaninglessness that he felt the human will could overcome. The bit about the heroin was a nice straw manalogy, though. ;)

Browning said...

No, I'm not claiming that there is a dichotomy between radical skepticism and existentialism, false or otherwise. But I am claiming there is a distinction between them. A la Kierkegaard, you seem to want the concept of faith to contain existentialism, which in turn would contain radical skepticism, like so many Russian dolls. But Kierkegaard is not the only game in town. (Thank goodness.)

Acknowledging that the universe is devoid of knowable "meaning" (by which I think you mean some ultimate teleology) is not the same thing as radical skepticism, which is the idea that knowledge -- all knowledge -- is impossible. And radical skepticism is not a necessary condition for existentialism. (I am probably using the term "existentialism" in a somewhat idiosyncratic way. But then, who doesn't? It's one of those terms that with a rather squishy definition.)

Let's put it this way: I can't know that everyone else isn't a soulless automaton created by an evil genius for his own inscrutable purposes. But I can face that Cartesian epistemological quandary and say, "This is a stupid thing to be concerned with. This is dorm room bong talk. Things appear to actually happen, and they have real effects on me, and they appear to have real and similar effects on other sentient beings." In doing so, I have rejected radical skepticism. As Russell said, "Skepticism, while logically impeccable, is psychologically impossible, and there is an element of frivolous insincerity in any philosophy which pretends to accept it."

Once I've done so, I can be as certain as I feel I need to be that, say, the human race evolved on this planet along with every other earthly living thing. And this makes the proposition that we were put here for some ultimate purpose seem unlikely and unnecessary. We may just be a particularly interesting self-aware eddy in the swirl of the material world. In fact, we probably are. There is no good, rational reason to think that we aren't. A belief that we have some supernatural teleology an unjustified appendage. Facing this is a second, separate quandary from the Cartesian one. And facing it square on is a kind of existentialism, the kind I admire. It is the Rower in the Open Boat.

Now, I've explained myself. Maybe you could do the same. If I understand you, you are also claiming to be a sincere radical skeptic (thereby defending yourself from the charge that you would use it cynically against the atheist) but that your skepticism is contained within the Russian doll of your Kierkegaardian leap of faith towards Jesus (thereby giving you a basis for your ethics). But I think this position leaves you open to the charge of relativism. If you are really the radical skeptic you claim to be, then you have no more reason to leap towards Jesus than you do to leap towards the Flying Spaghetti Monster. As Frizzy said, in so many words, "It's a matter of taste. I just prefer it."

Beloved Spear said...

@ Browning: I'd put in a good word for Descartes, if only because existentialism as a movement was a response to the Cartesian transition from ontology to epistemology as the governing framework for philosophy. Without Rene and his wacky doobitch banter, we'd still be Aristotelian.

So...why isn't radical skepticism...meaning not just doofing around with it, but being impacted by it...necessary for existentialism? I don't get that anywhere in Sartre, for instance. My readings of Nausea and No Exit surfaced nothing but despair at the absence of meaning at both the cosmological, social, and personal level. It's a necessary prerequisite. Is there another thread within that admittedly broad movement that informs your thinking?

I think you've summarized my position more or less fairly in your last paragraph. I wouldn't describe myself as currently being a radical skeptic, any more than I am currently single, or seven years old. It is, nonetheless, a part of my development as a sentient being...and a part that I'm willing to discuss and be open about. There is very little point in experience if you're not willing to both use and share it.

While I understand your concern about relativism, I'm not sure I see why that is a concern you have about those with faith, and not a concern you have about the secular existentialists you admire. Asserting that the Rower is noble and the one who takes the Leap is simply deluded seems a bit of a stretch. Both are acting from a foundation of awareness of their position relative to empirically knowable purpose.

Browning said...

@David. As I said, my use of the term "existentialism" is probably idiosyncratic. My version of it is gets its pedigree from Camus and "The Myth of Sisyphus," but it's tempered with many other works of literature and my own thoughts and experiences, and so I am more concerned with empathy and solidarity and ethics than I think Camus was. (So don't ask me to defend Camus. Not least of which because I haven't read him since I was a teenager.)

But the essence of existentialism, it seems to me, is the acknowledgment that we find ourselves in circumstances that are absurd, and that it is up to the individual to decide for himself how best to cope with that. Exertion of the human will in defiance of despair, and a more local skepticism about various forms of conventional wisdom are also common themes of existentialism, and they all still resonate with me. Radical skepticism is not required for any of that. You can take the world as you find it at face value and still find it plenty absurd without conjuring up a sack of rascally Cartesian demons. Not that I do take the world at face value. A big part of the fun can be figuring out the ways in which things are NOT as they first appear. But this activity entails a belief that we can, in fact, know things, which entails a rejection of radical skepticism as being a parlor game, a pointless waste of energy.

So I take it that radical skepticism for you is stage you passed through. Like being a tadpole? But apparently for you it was also a very perilous stage -- one in which the only choices are to waste your brief life in bottomless despair, or to make a leap of last resort to a belief system that you admit you cannot rationally justify except that you prefer it to where you were. (Again, I think my heroin analogy is more apt than you credit.) But the tactic I'm objecting to is not so much trying to entice unbelievers through a this stage of ultimate peril (which is odd enough), but attempting to defend your irrational beliefs from skeptical questions by temporarily returning there, or pretending to. That strikes me as dirty pool. To end that argument, it seems sufficient for me merely to say "You admit that you don't even believe what you are saying, so why should I?"

Browning said...

You say: "While I understand your concern about relativism, I'm not sure I see why that is a concern you have about those with faith, and not a concern you have about the secular existentialists you admire." First of all, I reject radical skepticism, remember? And I do so before melting into a puddle of fear and trembling and nausea. I think that knowledge is possible without taking a leap of faith out of that morass. So relativism is not a necessarily problem for me the way it is for you.

Besides which, that's a tu quoque fallacy anyway. Even if I were a relativist (and I'm not), that doesn't help you in this argument. Unless, I'm way off, Christians don't get to be relativists just because atheists can. I mean, you agree, right? You can't say "I'm a Christian because no one can say that any belief system is objectively any better than any other one, and this one just happens to appeal to my personal tastes." It also seems to me that if you claim some basis besides your personal taste for choosing Christianity over Pastafarianism, then you can't have gotten there from authentic radical skepticism. So I don't think you've successfully refuted my assertion that Christians don't get to argue from a position of radical skepticism. You've only claimed that they have a long history doing it anyway. That's an own goal.

Browning said...

You also say: "Asserting that the Rower is noble and the one who takes the Leap is simply deluded seems a bit of a stretch." This one is so easy it almost doesn't seem fair. I am tempted to help you phrase it in a way that would be harder for me to answer, or to offer Kierkegaard some better examples of his own concept. But I think I should address you both as you have chosen to express yourselves.

The Rower on the Open Boat perceives that the universe is completely indifferent to his plight. But he also feels a strong empathy and solidarity with his fellow creatures who are all in the same boat, literally and figuratively. In defiance of the absurdity of his situation, he acts to try to save himself and his comrades. He seeks and finds within himself kindness and courage and love. I find this heroic. I can't find anything delusional about it. In many ways it is a story about the loss of delusion. The Rower comes to realize that he was mistaken in thinking the universe could feel any obligation towards him. His reaction is to feel an obligation towards his fellow man that he recognizes is paradoxically the finest thing that he's ever experienced. I have never read a story in the Bible that I find even half as moving. So, no delusion and utterly noble.

On the other hand, I find Kierkegaard's "knight of faith" to be a ridiculous, contemptible character. One of K.'s examples of a Knight of Faith is a man who refuses ever to give up hope of attaining the woman he "loves" as his mate. We have a more modern term for this now: "stalker." At best, he is kind of pathetic.

But seriously, and more pertinently, K.'s principle example of a knight of faith is Abraham putting a knife to his own son's throat. That's a completely hateful, nauseating image to me. I find nothing in it to admire or aspire to. If you were to learn that anyone you knew had received such a message from God, I suspect that you would, as I would, understand immediately that they were in the grip of a terrible delusion, and I hope you would do anything you could to stop them. Nothing seems more obvious to me than this: if you hear the voice of God in your head telling you to murder your own child, you shouldn't seek to do as it it says. You should seek lithium. So it seems that the original "leap of faith" was a commitment to do something insane and horrible and ignoble in the thrall of a textbook delusion.