I’ve been frustrated for years by political controversies. I decided a few weeks ago it’s time to start working out what I think for real.
My first avenue of attack is to decide how I think the discussion should proceed. I want to work out the rules I think are essential for a productive dialogue, and then let that guide me to the people I trust to show me how to think about political things.
One of the first moments of clarity for me came after listening to this iTunes U philosophy lecture. The one I have in mind is #7, “Understand Skepticism About Climate Change”.
I describe the whole lecture over here. This was my conclusion:
Suppose conservatives and liberals disagree over factual issue X. Then I think the following are key to a discussion that actually makes progress.
- Realize that people make decisions about X based on who they trust. It isn’t that one side is willing to look at the facts and the other isn’t. It’s that each side has its own experts telling it what the facts are.
- Expect people on each side to be rational and honest. It’s just that liberals and conservatives have different presuppositions and trust different people.
- Don’t use X to push a liberal/conservative agenda. That instantly makes you untrustworthy.
- Help opponents find a way to believe X while remaining conservative/liberal.That’ll take creativity, but it gives people space to look at X without feeling like they’re being pushed into something else.
I leave it as an exercise to the reader to think about how this would work in the case of scientific creationism / evolution, or the question of who was to blame in Ferguson, or the question of whether Obamacare was a good idea.
Philippians 4:8 says this:
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.
Note what the verse does not say. It does not say we are to avoid anything that is false or dishonorable or whatever else is the opposite of the verse. It doesn’t talk at all about whether we are supposed to avoid bad influences. What it says is that we are supposed to focus on the good influences.
We live in a world in which most things both good and bad at the same time. In our world, every movie, every book, every song, is a mixture of truth and error, a potential influence both for good and for evil. Paul does not say, “Avoid all the evil”, but he does say, “Whatever you may encounter, notice and focus on the good.”
When it comes to movies, the same verse applies. We are not commanded in this verse to avoid every movie with error in it, but to sift what we see so that we can focus on the good. There certainly are movies we should avoid, but that’s not the meaning of this particular verse.
All this was already said by my daughter Hannah here. She is starting a blog series on movies and Philippians 4:8, and invited her readers to talk about movies and truth first. Since I’m one of those readers, here is what I have to say.
Hannah also already looked up the Greek word for truth in Philippians 4:8 and found three different definitions: a) reports the facts, b) authentic, and, from a very literal translation of the Greek word, c) unconcealing. She focused on authentic. I am going to focus on unconcealing.
A lot of people only care about the report-the-facts aspect. If something is true, it means what it says is a fact, and if not, not. Most movies are fictional, though, so what does it mean for a made-up story to be true? To answer that, I want to turn (just for a moment, I promise!) to philosophy.
In the 20th century, philosophy split into two branches. One was analytic philosophy, which predominates in the US and in Britain, and focuses on accurately defining all our terms and concepts so that we can analyze them as precisely as possible. The other branch was Continental philosophy, which predominates on the European continent – for example, in France and Germany. It focuses on understanding the things that we can’t define – either because they are just not the kind of things that can be captured by language, or perhaps because we are prevented by our own personal cultural and linguistic framework from thinking about them clearly.
Analytic philosophers seem to want to be scientists. Continental philosophers seem to want to be poets.
Heidegger, one of the most famous Continental philosophers, noticed that “truth” in the Greek was literally “unconcealing”, and used that notion of truth extensively. The problem with truth, he assumed, is not that we can’t find, but that we hide it from ourselves, even when – or especially when – we analyze it. With each step we take into more precise definitions, we further cut ourselves off from the thing we were actually trying to talk about.
For Heidegger, one of the best ways to see truth was art. Art has a way of pointing us that which we have been busily concealing from ourselves. The truth of an artwork is the unconcealing that happens when it sneaks around behind our intellectual fences and shows us not just as another fact to believe, but a whole new way of thinking and seeing everything.
Art, said Heidegger, clears a space for truth.
With regard to movies, I take this to mean the following: a movie introduces us to a new way of thinking about the world, a new way of seeing it, which raises possibilities for us that we would not have thought of on our own. Movies don’t do this by telling us what to think, but by letting us experience something. They put us inside a story. They put us in a relationship with the characters. That’s why Hannah says that she can vicariously live someone else’s life in a movie.
Because they draw us into an experience instead of just telling us about an idea, they can introduce things into our minds without having to put them into words. We have been changed afterwards, but it make take us some time to say exactly how.
Sometimes, once we have had the experience we can put it into words. Unlike Heidegger, I think there can be a great value to articulating what we think we know. The point is that, before the movie, there are concepts we could not have thought of. There are distinctions we would never have made. There are nuances we would never have cared about. And, therefore, there were truths that were inaccessible to us. After we have absorbed what the movie had for us, we can see more. A few of those things we can even put into words.
The truth of the movie is not a set of facts, but it is a new way of seeing that makes us more alert to all sort of facts we had been missing.
So … examples.
Remains of the Day: Lots of people make movies (and speeches) about the need to take a risk, and not let life slip away from them, but most of them make no impact on me because I am not sure they know what they are talking about. This movie, though, which is about two very proper English servants who fall in love but never get together because of their emotional reserve, really stuck with me. I saw, in a way I’d never realized before, how one’s caution about relationships can simultaneously be generous to others and imprisoning for oneself. It showed very precisely how that can happen.
Another Emma Thompson movie with a somewhat different insight about emotional reserve and propriety is Sense and Sensibility.
What was true about these movies? Not the facts, and not the moral of either story, but rather the experience each offered, an experience which not only tells the truth but makes it possible for it to be seen.
Rocky: This movie tells the truth about courage in an ordinary life by an ordinary guy. Even if I can’t say what courage means, I can think of Rocky and think, “That. Courage looks like that.”
All The President’s Men: Some movies, like this one, are clearly fact-based, but that doesn’t make them truer in the important sense. Personally, I dislike most pictures based on true events, because I don’t trust them. Even if the movie gets all the facts right, I’m always worried that they’ve interpreted them wrong. Whatever it was like to really live through the events, I’m sure it was different from the way the movie showed it.
So when I say this movie is true, I don’t just mean that the things it talks about actually happened. I don’t mean that it accurately reports the way that the Woodward and Bernstein felt. I mean that the movie used their story to communicate a specific way of thinking about Watergate, and journalism, and government. I think the fact that Nixon really did all that stuff is important for the success of the story, but the way in which the story unconceals isn’t found in the events it recounts but in the way it interprets those events through the eyes of the main characters.
Mr. Holland’s Opus: I don’t know whether to consider this a positive or a negative example. When I first saw it, I reacted very negatively, because I thought it was telling a falsehood. As I saw it, the story purports to be about a man who loves music, and wants to bring beautiful music into the world. Failing that, he wants to share the love of music with his students, so they can experience the beauty of it for themselves. At the end of the story, he is told that everything is all right because he was kind to his students as he went through his life, and although they still don’t share his love of music or see its beauty, they felt better about his being there for them. I thought of it as saying that there is no real point to beauty, no value in trying to point people to something beyond their own lives, just moments of superficial friendliness. That’s all we can hope to be.
You can see why I didn’t like it!
I thought the “truth” it was teaching was false, through and through.
Later, people convinced me I should interpret the story differently. I should see it as about a man who wanted to show people the beauty in music, and set his heart on it, but by his own choices, made consistently throughout his life, kept choosing to sacrifice that goal in order to show love to the people around him. At the end of the story, he is shown that the reason he valued the music was because of how it could be a blessing to people, and that his love for people was deeper and more important to him than the music. He realizes that he has not lost out. He lets go of his self-pity and embraces the fact that there is beauty that he has shown to others in all the small acts of kindness throughout his career.
If that’s true, then there is some important truth in the movie after all. But personally, I still think it told the story wrong. I think the first interpretation is partly there in the movie too. I like it now, but only because I think both interpretations are there. After all Philippians says “whatever is true”, so if there is some truth there I can rejoice in that even if I reject the falsehood at the same time.
Another negative example: Chinatown.
The truth I think it tells is that there is no truth that we can find. There is not even any provisional truth we can try to live up to. If we simply try our best and do what we can, we are just as likely to ruin peoples’ lives as to help them. It is a very bleak movie.
I think there is some value in understanding what is like to face that bleakness, but fundamentally I think it’s telling a lie about life.
Somewhere out there, there is probably someone who loves Chinatown and was profoundly moved by it. Maybe after talking to them about it, I would be able to appreciate its message, because through their experience of it I’d be able to find whatever is true in it.
Another example: A good friend of mine has a similarly negative reaction to American Beauty.
A final point: what is the Scriptural meaning of “true”? Is it report-the-facts, authentic, or unconcealing? I think that it is not really any of them, but a fourth which is related to the other three. It seems to me that “truth” in the Bible is personal truth, connected to a relationship of trustworthiness and reliability. Truth, in other words, is closely related to being honest and loyal.
Furthermore, truth in the Bible also connotes the really Real, that which lies behind the transient illusions of our life on earth. Jesus is the true vine, as opposed to the mere physical vines we see in the world.
Both meanings come together when we are told that Jesus is “the way and the truth and the life”. We can rely on Him because he is the ultimate reality and because he is faithful and loyal toward us.
So “whatever is true” may mean that whatever we encounter, we should try to see the reality of Jesus hidden behind it. We should look for signs of Him in the movies.
I’m very excited right now because I am going to a philosophy of religion conference in just a couple of hours. I haven’t been to a professional academic conference like this for about 25 years, and I am expecting to really enjoy myself, even though most of the talks will probably go right over my head!
The conference is in honor of Richard Swinburne, a giant in the field of philosophy of religion who is celebrating his 80th birthday this year. Every paper is supposed to relate to something he’s worked on. Even though it’s in honor of him, participants are free (even expected) to disagree strongly with his views if they want to.
For my own entertainment, as well as to catch myself up on the philosophical basics everyone else there will already know, I looked at each of the descriptions for the papers that will be presented, and tried to figure out what they will be talking about.
I’m going to post what I discovered here, because I think some of you may be curious about what in the world they’ll be thinking about at a philosophy of religion conference.
The papers have been divided into two broad categories: Natural Theology and Philosophical Theology.
Natural theology is the stuff you can prove about God without appealing to things like the Bible or direct revelation or other stuff that only believers would accept. For example, if the natural world by itself is enough to prove the existence of God, then that proof would be a part of natural theology.
I am guessing that the Philosophical Theology category is for papers which do take certain theological doctrines for granted, and then grapple with philosophical questions they raise.
Anyway, here goes.
The first two papers (Thursday) share a common theme. They discuss the nature of faith and how it is related to reason.
In one unit of the intro-level philosophy classes I teach, we discuss arguments for and against the existence of God. Sooner or later, one of my students will say, “But faith isn’t about reasons and arguments. It’s faith.” The question is whether faith requires reasons, and what kind of reasons count, and whether intellectually assenting to certain facts counts as faith or whether something more – some kind of commitment or trust or what-have-you – is needed.
The first paper on Thursday is explores the idea that faith is trust, which means it is more than merely a type of belief or knowledge. The author says he will compare his definition of faith to the “preference-based account” of another philosopher. Both accounts move beyond a merely doxastic conception of faith.
So then, here’s a new word for some of you!
- doxastic = belief-related.
Apparently, Swinburne argued that a life of faith involves belief in certain facts plus an ethical commitment to certain purposes, and said those commitments may be even more fundamental than the beliefs.
The author of the second paper agrees with this.
After developing the idea of these commitments as far as possible, he thinks we will see that they are so central to faith that someone who holds them could be considered to have faith even in the absence of all the doctrinal beliefs and religious attitudes we generally associate with it. (Hmmm … I’m skeptical.) Therefore, he concludes, when we analyze faith we should pay close attention to these ethical commitments, just as much as we do to the doctrines and philosophical beliefs associated with them.
God created everything, but does the universe exist since then independently from him? And if not, how involved is he in its moment-to-moment activities? For example, is the existence of an object from moment to moment best seen as God recreating the object each moment that it exists?
A question with the same flavor is, what makes things happen? When A causes B, how does A cause B? Occasionalism is the view that God is the real cause behind everything. In one sense, when A causes B, it is really God who is the true cause of B.
The first paper on Friday morning (by a philosophical hero of mine 🙂 ) promises to relate occasionalism to the question of free will and determinism.
The next paper relates Swinburne’s aesthetic argument to skeptical theism.
Swinburne’s aesthetic argument: Swinburne argues that the universe has order and that makes it likely that it was designed. To show that it has order, one thing he considers is the presence of beauty.
Skeptical theism: One of the arguments against the existence of God is the existence of evil. If an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God existed, so the argument goes, then there would be no evil. There is evil, and therefore such a God does not exist. One way to defend theism against this argument is to find a way to explain how God could allow evil. A different way is to just say that we have no reason to expect we would understand anything about God’s reasons for doing things. Therefore, if we can’t figure out a reason why he might allow evil, it doesn’t matter, because we wouldn’t expect to understand his reasons anyway. This view is known as skeptical theism.
The problem with skeptical theism is that although it undercuts the argument from evil against God, it also seems to undercut several other arguments for God’s existence. The author of this paper says he will explain a view about aesthetics that is similar to skeptical theism, and then show how it undercuts Swinburne’s aesthetic argument in somewhat the same way.
There have been lots of natural theology arguments designed to show that it is likely that God exists, but for a while many philosophers have felt that none of them work. Swinburne agrees that none of them works by itself, but argues that we can consider their cumulative effect, and that, together, they make it likely that God does exist.
As a key part of his argument, he considers the question of how we choose between competing theories for something, and claims that one of the main criteria is that of simplicity. If one theory is much simpler than another, we should believe it over the other. He argues that based on simplicity, the existence of God is quite likely to be true.
The next paper is going to argue that simplicity is not really the point, but rather, “coherence” is the point, and that that makes Swinburne’s argument less convincing.
Omnipotence is hard to define. For example, if it just means being able to do anything, then can God make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it? Or, can he fail?
One way to define omnipotence is to claim that a being is omnipotent if it can do anything which does not contradict its essential nature. (To create a rock he cannot move would contradict God’s omnipotence, and so he cannot be expected to be able to do it.)
A famous counterexample involves a hypothetical being (a man named “McEar”) whose essential nature is that the only thing he can do is to scratch his ear. If he were to do anything else, it would violate his essential nature. Therefore, the only thing he has to do to be omnipotent is to scratch his ear, and he can do that, so he is omnipotent.
This counterexample means there is still something wrong with our definition.
I think (after googling a little) that Swinburne’s definition of omnipotence relies on the idea that an omnipotent being can bring about any state of affairs as long as the state of affairs does not lead logically to the conclusion that that being did not bring about the state of affairs. This eliminates the heavy stone example, but not the McEar example. Swinburne has since proposed a fix to his definition to deal with McEar. This last paper on Friday explores whether his fix works and whether there are alternatives available.
The first paper on Saturday morning investigates the atonement. We often have the idea that God could not have forgiven us if Christ had not died. The speaker is going to present a particular view of the love of God and argue that it is incompatible with that idea.
My pastor always quotes the Scripture, “Without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness,” as though it were embedded into the nature of the universe that there cannot be forgiveness without bloodshed. Actually, though, the verse says:
“According to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Hebrews 9:22.)
In other words, it isn’t saying that forgiveness requires bloodshed by its essential nature, but simply that God chose to set the law up that way — and even that is qualified with an “almost”.
So perhaps God could have set things up differently. Perhaps he could have worked things out so that forgiveness was granted through some other act. Or perhaps not.
I’m not sure,then, whether the verse contradicts the speaker’s views or not. I’ll have to wait and see what she says, since in her description of the paper she doesn’t say yet what her view of God’s love actually is. I think it’ll be interesting.
The second paper on Saturday examines the fact that in liturgy and hymns, “the present tense is used when speaking of Christ’s birth or resurrection”. Why? How should we interpret it? One of the most common theories doesn’t seem to make philosophical sense, and he is going to ask what other options there may be.
After that we get an exploration of “the Doomsday Argument”. I looked that up online and it appears to be basically this: if the human race were going to be around forever, it would be extremely unlikely that we would just happen to born so close to its beginning. Therefore, it is much more probable that the human race will only be around a short while. Therefore, it is extremely unlikely that it will last forever.
Apparently this argument, which seems clearly wrong at first glance, is actually hard to refute.
The speaker promises to identify the key premise and then examine whether it would provide an argument against individual people living forever.
The final paper looks complicated. It examines the nature of the soul and relates it to dualism and hylomorphism.
Dualism addresses the relationship between the mind and the body (including the brain). For example, Descartes, who was a dualist, believed that we are the combination of two separate things, a mind and a body. The body is a physical object, obeying physical laws, existing in our physical universe. The mind/soul and its thoughts are non-physical, and not subject to physical laws, but exist nonetheless. Somehow our mind and body interact.
Most philosophers today are not dualists. Typically they say that the mind is the brain – a physical object – or else some aspect of the brain, such as its organization or its functionality or something.
Swinburne is a dualist. He argues that one’s soul must be more than merely one’s body and more than merely one’s psychological characteristics (memory, intentions, etc.)
Hylomorphism (matter-form-ism) is an idea of Aristotle’s that I only partially understand. He said that everything is composed of both matter and form together. When you cut down a tree and cut it into timber and use the timber to make a chair, the same matter keeps being re-molded into different forms. We never see just matter or just form. We always see both together. (Reading this back, it makes it sound like a form is merely a physical shape. That’s not what Aristotle meant, but I will go wrong if I attempt to say anything further, so I’ll leave it at that!) Anyway, it’s possible to argue that the soul is the form and the body is the matter of a person.
It looks like this paper is going to compare and contrast a hylomorphic explanation of the mind/body distinction with Swinburne’s explanation.
Of course, this is all especially significant because we believe that the soul is going to survive being separated from the body and later reunited with a resurrected version of the same body. That means the relationship between the soul and the body matters.
OK, there you have it. Maybe I’ll discover that half of these talks aren’t about what I thought they were going to be about at all! Doesn’t matter – I’m planning on having a blast, regardless.
See y’all later!
P.S. If you were going, which would interest you most? Leave your opinions in the comments.
I wrote in my philosophy blog about whether we are able to choose what we believe. The answer for most Christians will probably be, “of course”, but many secular philosophy students don’t understand how it could be. Aren’t we predetermined to believe what seems true to us? And don’t things seem true to us or not based on what we’ve been exposed to about them? We don’t really have the choice to see something that we don’t see, or vice versa.
My answer there was that we set the bar for how much evidence we will require before we believe something by our own choice. We decide how much proof is enough.
We also decide what kinds of things count as proof for us.
I think we do this constantly in our Christian lives, and we make mistakes in both directions. Sometimes we are too skeptical. Sometimes we are too naïve. Always, though, we have a tendency to be too arrogant. We are convinced, down deep, that we and we alone are seeing the world as it really is. All the other people around us don’t understand. “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” Proverbs 14:12.
The biggest thing for us to come to terms with is that we simply don’t know much of anything for sure. We are at the mercy of our senses, of our experiences, of our culture. We are almost certainly wrong about a great many things we take for granted. This should make us all the more hungry for the God who is truth.
It is fashionable in our Christian world to suggest that our era’s most dangerous intellectual error is the rejection of absolute truth. I disagree. I believe in absolute truth: God is omniscient, and so whatever he knows to be true is absolutely true. However, in practical terms, we are not so blessed. We are almost certainly swimming in half-truths (including this one). It’s not that dangerous to give up the pretense of knowing things for sure.
In fact, in my strong opinion, it is when we get comfortable with the idea that it is part of the human condition to be slightly uncertain about almost everything that the claims of Christianity become really attractive.
Christianity is not merely a series of true doctrinal propositions. Christianity is a relationship with a Person who is Truth. The Bible is not merely factually accurate. It speaks to us with power. We encounter the Logos through the written Word. Absolute truth exists, but it is a Him.
I wrote in my philosophy blog about why philosophy never seems to make much progress. Well, sort of. I describe a paper by philosopher Peter van Inwagen in which he says that philosophy is almost never able to settle arguments definitively. The idea is that every proof depends on the assumptions you start with, and people can always reject the assumptions if they don’t like where things are going. Furthermore, the most important assumptions in philosophy are things that seem intuitively self-evident to some people and not even true to others.
This leads to, and is part and parcel with, a view of knowledge which says we don’t start from a neutral point of view. To think well at all, we need a rich set of beliefs about the world and ourselves and truth and so on. No one makes progress by throwing out all his assumptions to start with. (Perhaps there is no assumption we cannot examine, but we cannot reexamine them all at the same time.)
In other words, life is not like mathematics. In math, we pick a few axioms – maybe just 10 or so – and then prove all sorts of things based on those axioms. All the rest of our mathematical knowledge unfolds from those axioms. Furthermore, it doesn’t really matter which axioms we pick, as long as we get interesting results.
Life is different. First of all, we can’t possibly reduce all the assumptions we need for thinking about real things to just a handful of axioms. Second of all, we can’t just pick the simplest or most interesting axioms, we have to try and pick the true ones. And that is the hard question – which axioms are really the true ones?
I think Christians should have this view of knowledge. It would affect how we defended and used Scripture. Instead of thinking of Scripture as a collection of facts and principles that we reason from – like a collection of several hundred axioms we use in doing our theological proofs – we would think of Scripture as a collection of (true) stories and statements and examples that are intended to push back against our network of pre-made assumptions. I don’t let Scripture teach me by clearing my mind and starting from scratch with no assumptions at all. I let Scripture push back on my ideas about life. I let it make me uncomfortable. I keep having to modify how I think to make it fit what I see in Scripture. Over time the Bible begins to mold the way I think to make it more Christ-like.
One cool thing about this is that we don’t have to make people agree with us first and then show them the Scriptures. We can carry the Scriptures right over to them in the middle of their muddled intellectual worlds and then let the Word begin to do its work.
In defending abortion, a lot of people say something like, “If this baby was born, what kind of circumstances would be grow up in? If it was going to be severely disabled or suffering horrible poverty, wouldn’t it just be kinder to abort it now? What kind quality of life would it have?”
One response to this is simply to express outrage that people would consider “playing God” by taking it upon themselves to decide whose life is and isn’t worth living.
Another response is to point out that no one would make the same argument for babies outside the womb. Ask them what they would do if they knew of a five-year old child living in extreme poverty, with parents who beat him. Would they say, “Well, his life isn’t worth living. Let’s just kill him and put him out of his misery!”?
I’d like to respond in a third way, and that is simply to point out that quality of life doesn’t depend much on the amount we suffer. Suffering makes life hard, but it doesn’t make it low-quality. Quality of life comes from joy. It comes from meaning. It comes from bringing glory to God. Some Christians have endured great persecution and had even greater joy. Others have struggled with joylessness for a time, but still known their lives had meaning to God. If God takes pleasure in my life, if He is glorified in it, then it is a life well worth having. Look how much Jesus suffered! – and yet his life had as high a quality as it is possible to have.
Sometimes I think we make life harder for ourselves than we need to because we think the point is to avoid as much pain as we can. The point isn’t to avoid pain. The point is to live – to trust God and pour ourselves out in love for others, to “know Him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death”. I think joy comes from courageously being who we are called to be, without holding anything back. Can a child raised in severe poverty or with a debilitating physical handicap do that? Of course. I’m not saying it will be easy. I’m just claiming it will be worth it.
(My more philosophical take on this is over here.)
Suspicion & Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism, by Merold Westphal
Westphal is a philosophy professor and a Christian.
The book is about the three modern philosophers Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche. (OK, Freud isn’t exactly a philosopher, but he wrote philosophically relevant stuff, so I’m calling him one for now.) These three have become known as the “masters of suspicion” for the common approach they took in attacking Christianity.
As Westphal explains in this book, most of the atheists we’ve been exposed to practice skepticism rather than suspicion. That is, they try to debunk Christian claims by showing that they are false. The three discussed in this book took a different tack. They exposed the unworthy motives that they insisted lay behind Christian claims. Freud argued that religious beliefs are subconsciously generated by our secret desires and the guilt we feel about them; Marx said they arise as the inevitable result of class conflicts, and represent the justification of the rich and the pacification of the poor; Nietzsche saw them as the disguised resentment of the weak and cowardly against those who are willing to act powerfully, joyfully, and courageously. All three agree that Christians are not aware of their false motives, but they have them nonetheless.
There are ways to defend ourselves against such criticisms, but that isn’t Westphal’s point here. He wants to ask whether we can learn from the critiques. Should we take the charges seriously? Should we search our hearts in humility and repent of the things we’ve been charged with?
I really like that approach, and I want to take several paragraphs to discuss my view of it.
First, I think there is a place for doing apologetics, for defending ourselves against attacks by opponents of the faith, but I think there is also a place for asking whether we are guilty as charged. In my opinion, most attacks on Christian motives are exaggerated, but there is nearly always a seed of truth in them, and we need to consider how we should respond to that truth. We know that because of the example of David and Shimei (2 Samuel 16:5-12) and because of what Jesus taught in Matthew 7:1-5.
Furthermore, this approach is very much in line with my own gifts and personality. I thrive spiritually when I listen carefully to critics of Christianity. Once I understand clearly why they feel as they do, it deepens my own walk with God. (I have a corresponding weakness, in that it is difficult for me to shoot down false teaching when it needs to be refuted. I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently, but I am not sure what to say about it at this point.)
Anyway, there are a few different ways to respond to someone who is as hostile to one’s faith as the masters of suspicion. One, of course, is to reject everything they say as nonsense. I think that’s a bad approach.
Another is to capitulate too quickly; to just accept whatever charge they make as true and try to fix things. That way of dealing with their attacks isn’t much better. Freud and Marx and Nietzsche are so thoroughgoing in their rejection of everything remotely Christian, and their objections are so emotionally charged, that it isn’t spiritually healthy to accept their assumptions uncritically.
So a third way is to hold onto one’s Christian beliefs and then use the complaints of our critics to alert us to little things here and there that we can do a better job of. This is easy enough to figure out on a surface level. Marx says that Christianity is a justification of the rich and an opiate for the poor, so we think, “How can I be sure I am not ignoring the plight of the poor?” Nietzsche talks about disguised resentment, so we double-check our attitudes to be sure we have forgiven people. That’s not a very good response either, though; it’s too superficial.
The fourth, best way of responding to Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche is to go deeper. We can’t just think about how they view Christians, and then try to make ourselves look better than that. To be content with that would be to miss their point. They claim that our wrong motives are a) embedded into our very identities at a deep level and b) almost completely unconscious. We can’t see the problem by simple self-reflection.
What we have to do instead is wrestle with some deep theology about original sin and the nature of self-deception in Scripture. We have to find the precise connections between that and the suspicions these three raise. We have to track down the ways in which the views of Freud, Marx and Nietzsche are themselves corrupted by original sin. Finally, we have to look for ways to apply the insight this gives us to our lives, but we have to find, not just any application we can think of, but those which go to the heart of the matter.
Doing all this takes more than intellectual analysis: it takes humility, wisdom, balance, and especially time. It may take months or even years mulling over the basic charges being made, and doing so in inward conversation with the Holy Spirit.
Back to the book: that’s what I felt was missing when I read it. Westphal is completely right that there is value in working through how we need to repent in light of the masters of suspicion, but he didn’t help me see how to do so in any depth. I felt as though he used approach three. He just grabbed some obvious superficial applications and wrote some mild exhortations and platitudes about them.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he’s carefully thought all of this through, and what seemed glib was deep. Maybe he just presented it simply for the sake of his audience. If so, I needed less simplicity. I needed to see the depth.
So much for my disagreement with the book. There were also several things Westphal did well. That he wrote the book at all is great, because his general point is one that needs to be made. His explanations of all three philosophers were clear, thorough, and easy to understand. He is doctrinally sound and reasonable throughout.
Would I recommend the book? Probably not to most people, but I wouldn’t be worried about recommending it either.
Would I reread it? Probably I won’t, but if I wanted to take a closer look at his summaries of each philosopher, it’d be worth doing.
Even though I was hoping for more, I didn’t dislike the book. It didn’t raise any alarms in my mind. It didn’t make me mad. It was a mildly enjoyable read. On a scale of 1 to 10 I would put this around 4.
The hopelessness of fictional atheism
Sometimes TV show writers have a habit of torturing their shows’ characters for dramatic effect. Especially at the end of a season, there is a tendency to have something horrible happen to keep the audience interested. I don’t mind it when the cliffhanger is action-adventurey and leaves the protagonists in great danger. When it leaves the protagonists in emotional misery, though, it can really bother me.
Why does a fictional character’s distress cause me distress? I think it’s because a good story is supposed to be telling the truth about life. Even if the character and plot details are made up, they are made up in such a way as to say something about how things really are. To open myself up to a story is to let myself believe in its deeper truth. When writers invent tragedy just to play on my emotions, it angers me, but it also causes a lot of turmoil for me.
One of my children suggests I just invent a new ending, if I don’t like the old one. The reason I have trouble with that is that is seems somehow dishonest. When a writer invents a world, he gets to make the rules for it. To re-make the events of the story is just to pretend something about the characters that isn’t real within that story. It wouldn’t be appropriate to imagine away real-life tragedies; neither is it okay to imagine away fictional ones.
In real life, when I am faced with suffering, I cling to God for comfort. I rest in His unswerving love and sovereign control of everything that was going on. Even when it is people around me who are suffering, and they don’t believe in God, I can still take solace myself in the fact of God’s essential goodness.
In stories, though, it has often seemed wrong to do that, if there is no God in the story. If the writers have described a world without God, it seems as though in order to take the story seriously I should read it with that in mind. Atheist fictional worlds, properly interpreted, are worlds without God. The characters in it are in that sense without hope.
Or so it seemed to me up until recently.
The last time I got really upset about the random tormenting of a favorite character, I went for a walk to mull things over. As I was asking God for insight into my distress and how I should respond, an odd thought from philosophy passed through my head.
God exists in all possible worlds
Time for a quick detour.
First, there are these things that philosophers call possible worlds. In the twentieth century, philosophers struggled to pin down the precise meaning of statements like “X might have happened” or “If Y had happened, then Z would have happened.” They invented a discipline called modal logic, the logic of possibility and necessity.
As part of defining modal logic, they appealed to the concept of a possible world. A possible world is any way in which the world could have been, logically speaking. Possible worlds include those that are very much like ours, differing only in a detail or so, as well as those whose in which the universe operates according to completely different laws.
If something is possible, it means that it is true in some possible world. If something is necessary, it means it is true in every possible world.
Second, there is this strange proof for God’s existence known as the ontological proof. At first glance, it seems to try and prove that God exists from the definition of God, which seems pretty goofy. Even most theists reject the validity of the ontological proof.
In recent decades, however, a new version of the ontological proof based on modal logic has arisen which is a little harder to refute and perhaps more plausible. I won’t go into the details here, but it hinges on the idea that God exists necessarily. That is, God is the kind of being for whom it is impossible not to exist. Which means that God exists in all possible worlds.
So there you have it. God exists in all possible worlds. That means, he exists in any possible fictional world. So God is there after all!
Is this for real?
Well, sort of.
First, I am not sure the ontological proof works. It doesn’t matter, though. I don’t need to start from the mere definition of a necessarily existing God and get to a God who really exists. Rather, I start from the assumption that God already exists, and exists necessarily, and then work out the implications of that.
Second, possible worlds don’t actually exist. They aren’t worlds in the sense of being locations in space-time. A possible world is merely a set of logically consistent statements describing how things could be. Take any statement about how things are: “The sky is blue” or “The sky is green” for example. Add as many other statements as you like. Work out all the logical implications of all the statements, and you get a possible world, but calling it a world doesn’t mean we should think of it as being in any particular place. “World” is being used metaphorically.
Since possible worlds don’t exist anywhere specific, saying that God exists in a possible world doesn’t have anything to do with Him being anywhere in particular. Rather, it means one of the implications of any set of logically consistent statements is that God exists.
Fictional worlds are the same as possible worlds in this respect, though. When we say that a story takes place in a fictional world, we don’t mean that it happens at any particular place in space-time. (Even when the story is set in a certain time and place, as in a historical novel, we only mean that the story’s setting matches the real time and place; we don’t mean that the events in the story actually happened in history.)
In fact, the fictional world of a story, to the degree that it is logically consistent, is a possible world. What does it mean that God exists in it? It means that the implications of the rules of the world include the existence of God. Every story carried to its logical conclusion would end up stating that God exists. Worlds in which atheism is explicitly stated are worlds which are, strictly speaking, logically contradictory, whether or not the author recognizes it.
In other words, I am free to imagine God being a part of every story, without worrying that I am not taking the author seriously.
With that settled, I can return with a clear conscience to picturing things in terms of worlds. Every story describes a world. Within that world, God is there, even if no one else in the story thinks so.
That’s kind of cool. I love the thought that God is so omnipresent that he even shows up in fiction!
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me. — Psalm 139:7-10
(‘m working on finishing up the 30 or so books I’m in the middle of and posting quick reviews of them here as I do.)
Freud and Philosophy: An Essay in Interpretation, by Paul Ricouer
What a fascinating book! Paul Ricouer is perhaps my favorite philosopher. He’s a phenomenologist, which is perhaps my favorite branch of philosophy. He’s a Continental philosopher who works at being clear and precise, which is a combination I love, and he’s a Christian trying to understand how the way we interpret the world affects everything.
There are two camps in philosophy, Analytic Philosophy, and Continental Philosophy. Analytic philosophers are very precise. They define their terms precisely, put their arguments into precise form, and prove whatever they can prove. Then other philosophers pick on the argument in some minor detail and re-define terms their own way and put together another precise argument proving something slightly different from the first proof. It all feels very mathematical, and it tends to attract people whose mission in life is to clarify things. Like mathematics, though, it has the drawback that sometimes it isn’t really about what people actually wanted to know. What people actually wanted to know was too vague to express. Most philosophers in the US are analytic philosophers.
Continental philosophers are fond of pointing out all the stuff that we can’t quite put into words. They know that no one starts out their philosophizing as a blank slate, from a neutral position. They love to track down all the things that we just take for granted as we think because we couldn’t even think at all otherwise. They love to focus on the way in which we are shaped by our culture and our bodies and our human situation. They are fond of noticing how the words we use are limited and limiting, and they love finding ways to talk about things that can’t be precisely articulated. This leads many of them to write almost poetically or use wordplay. It also means, unfortunately, that some of them tend to makes things obscure almost for the sake of doing so.
Ricouer has a great interest in hermeneutics (the science of interpretation) which means in this context that he is interested in discovering how the way we interpret everything affects what we think about and express.
I believe Ricouer is the one who formed the phrase “masters of suspicion” to talk about three important philosophic figures in the 1800s, namely, Freud, Marx, and Nietsche. Each practices a “hermeneutic of suspicion”, meaning that they assume that when people make arguments for, say, the existence of God, they are doing so from hidden motives (hidden even to themselves). Therefore, rather than take their statements seriously, the proper response is to show what they really meant, or would have meant, had they known what their words were repressing.
Ricouer analyzes Freud’s hermeneutic of suspicion in the book, and tries to find a way to bring it fruitfully into tension with an opposite hermeneutic, one of faith. When a hermeneutic of suspicion is applied to almost any statement, it starts by viewing it as a mass of self-deception. It attempts to strip away all the falsehood and reduce it to the bare elements from which it sprang. The hermeneutic of suspicion eliminates as much extraneous meaning as it can. It narrows the meaning pretty radically.
Ricouer wants to combine this with a contrary approach, a hermeneutic which instead of stripping away false meaning attempts to find possibilities for as much true meaning as possible. Instead of finding out all the things a statement does not actually say, it attempts to make the statement blossom with meaning. Its aim is to use the text to “open” additional possibilities for us.
To reconcile these two opposite tendencies, Ricouer proposes to use the idea of symbols. A symbol means one thing in a way that really also means another thing. Thus symbols have a dual meaning, and point in two directions at once. Freud sees symbols everywhere – in dreams, in art, in apparently innocent everyday statements, and considers that they all point back to the instincts of the id. Ricouer wants to suggest that at the same time they point forward to the future, toward ideas bigger than ourselves, toward certain ideals and aspirations, toward faith and toward God.
Except that I’m oversimplifying. And except that I may have missed most of what Ricouer said. Seriously, trying to understand this book was one of the biggest challenges I’ve had in a long time. I loved it, and want to read more, but it assumed a philosophical background I don’t have and used terminology according to conventions with which I’m unfamilier. It even used several words I didn’t know at all (“ascesis” and “maieutic” for example)
What fun, anyway!
Would I recommend it? Not to very many people because it would just baffle them :-). Not only is it complicated, but it reaches me because so much of it is personally relevant to my own philosophy of life and faith. I don’t think that would be true for most people.
Would I reread it? Definitely. I need to read this again, because I didn’t understand all that much the first time, and it seems worth understanding. It also makes me want to read other things by Ricouer, because all his books seem connected. I think reading others will help me understand this one.
How would I rate it? High. Maybe 9 out of 10, which is good because I am not sure I ever give 10s to anything.