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The Vienna Circle: Verification, Falsification, And God – Brian Davies

February 2, 2011

Selected Members of the Vienna Circle (from left to right: Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, Otto Neurath, Hans Hahn and Philipp Frank.

Fr. Brian Davies in his little classic, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, discusses the Vienna Circle and their clumsy attack on metaphysics. This has had disastrous influence on religion in the public square. The first part follows here:

Is there a God? Are there reasons for thinking that God exists? Can God’s existence be proved? These questions have greatly interested philosophers of religion, and they are often asked by people who would not regard themselves as professional philosophers. But are they really worth raising at all?

It has been said that they are not. Why? Because the assertion that God exists is either meaningless or else so problematic that there is little point in asking whether it is actually true, or how one can know or reasonably believe it to be so. This suggestion has been particularly prevalent in the twentieth century and it has done much to influence the present state of philosophy of religion. One of its best-known forms holds that there just could not be a God, that `God exists’ is meaningless, since the existence of God is unverifiable or unfalsifiable or both. Let us therefore begin to look at the philosophy of religion by turning to this view.

Verification And Belief In God
One can begin to understand it by noting the work of a famous group of philosophers who, in the nineteen-twenties, began to gather in Vienna around a writer called Moritz Schlick (1882-1936). The group became known as the Vienna Circle and it included, among others, Otto Neurath (1882-1945), Friedrich Waismann (1896-1959), and Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970). These men were influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), from whom they claimed to derive a theory of meaning known as the Verification Principle. From this they drew drastic and far-reaching conclusions.

The history of philosophy yields much reference to metaphysics, something traditionally understood to include the key claims of religious believers. But the Vienna Circle maintained that all metaphysical assertions are nonsensical. Since traditional metaphysical assertions include religious assertions, the conclusion drawn was that religious assertions are meaningless. Even with its original exponents the verification principle was stated in different forms and credited with different statuses. Normally, however, it is said to hold that the meaning of a statement is its method of verification. Roughly speaking, the ideas involved in this view are as follows.

Meaningful statements fall into two groups. First, there are mathematical statements, tautologies (e.g. ‘All cats are cats’), and logically necessary statements (e.g. `If all men are mortal and if Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal’). Second, there are statements which can be confirmed through the use of human senses, and especially through the methods used in sciences like physics, chemistry, and biology. To ask whether a statement is meaningful is thus to ask if its truth can be confirmed by means of sense experience.

In this way, then, the Vienna Circle tried to locate sense and meaning along with experience. And in doing so it stood in a definite philosophical tradition. Effectively it was agreeing with the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-76). `If’, says Hume, `we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.’

The verification principle became the most distinctive doctrine of Logical Positivism, which is what the school of thinking represented and influenced by the Vienna Circle came to be called. As I have said, however, the principle was not always stated in the same way. Some early formulations take it as a principle about propositions; later ones refer to ‘statements’ and `sentences’. A distinction was also made between what has been called the `weak’ and `strong’ versions of the verification principle.

The weak version became the most popular. It held that a statement is meaningful if sense experience can go at least some way to confirming it. But in the early days of logical positivism it was the strong version of the verification principle that was in vogue. Waismann stated it thus: `Anyone uttering a sentence must know under what conditions he calls it true and under what conditions he calls it false. If he is unable to state these conditions, he does not know what he has said. A statement which cannot be conclusively verified cannot be verified at all. It is simply devoid of any meaning.’

On Waismann’s account, if S is a cognitively meaningful statement there must be a finite and consistent set of observation statements 01 … On, where S entails and is entailed by putting together 01 … 0n. Carnap has a similar principle. He argues that `it is certain that a sequence of words has a meaning only if its relations of deducibility to the protocol sentences are fixed.’ `Protocol sentences’ are supposed to be simple sentences tences about what is given in experience. They were also called ‘observation sentences’ or `basic propositions’.

The history of the verification principle is too complicated for us to follow in detail here, but we can note that all its proponents held that the principle’s implications were devastating for belief in God. Take, for example, Carnap. `In its metaphysical use’, he observes, `the word “God” refers to something beyond experience. The word is deliberately divested of its reference to a physical being or to a spiritual being that is immanent in the physical. And as it is not given a new meaning, it becomes meaningless.

Another illustration of logical positivist methods of dealing with the existence of God (a particularly famous one as it happens) can be found in A. J. Ayer’s book Language, Truth and Logics `The term “god” ‘, says Ayer, `is a metaphysical term. And if “god” is a metaphysical term, then it cannot even be probable that a god exists. For to say that “God exists” is to make a metaphysical utterance which cannot be either true or false. And by the same criterion, no sentence which purports to describe the nature of a transcendent god can possess any literal significance.’ Note that Ayer is not just denying the existence of God in this passage: he is dismissing the question of God’s existence altogether.

At this point some thinking related to that just noted ought briefly to be mentioned. Here one can introduce the name of Antony Flew, with whom the emphasis changes from verification to falsification. According to the verification principle, religious statements, including `There is a God’, are meaningless simply because it is not possible to verify them. Flew does not support the principle in this form, but in `Theology and Falsification’ he does ask whether certain religious statements might not be suspect because no sense experience counts against them.

Flew begins by relating what he calls a `parable’. A and B come upon a clearing in the jungle. A maintains that there is an invisible gardener who looks after it; B denies this suggestion. Various tests (such as keeping watch, using bloodhounds and electric fences) are applied to check whether there is a gardener. All the tests fail to show the gardener’s presence, but A continues to maintain his existence. He says, `But there is a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.’ The skeptic rejects this move and suggests that there is no difference between the believer’s gardener and no gardener at all.

At this point Flew applies his parable to religious statements. Religious believers make claims; they say, for instance, that there is a God who loves mankind. But apparently they are unwilling to allow anything to count against these claims. The claims seem unfalsifiable. Are they, then, genuine? Flew does not dogmatically declare that they cannot be, but evidently he has his doubts. `Sophisticated religious people’, he says, `tend to refuse to allow, not merely that anything actually does occur, but that anything conceivably could occur, which would count against their theological assertions and explanations.

But in so far as they do this their supposed explanations are actually bogus, and their seeming assertions are really vacuous. Flew does not talk in this passage about falsification by sense experience, but it seems reasonable to suppose that this is what he has in mind. The tests which he mentions for checking the gardener’s presence could all be called `sensory’. And from Flew’s example of the gardener it should be fairly clear that in raising the issue of falsification he has the question of God’s existence pretty much in mind. He seems to be suggesting that those who believe in God are unwilling to allow any sense experience to count against their belief, and he seems to be wondering whether this does not invalidate it.

Verification, Falsification, And God
The question we obviously have to ask now is this: is the statement that there is a God meaningless because it is unverifiable or unfalsifiable?

It is clear, to begin with, that we often do regard verification and falsification as ways of distinguishing sense from nonsense. If I say that my dog is a brilliant philosopher you will rightly doubt whether I am talking any sense at all until I am able to show you something about the dog’s behavior that might help to give meaning to my assertion. And you would be justly and similarly skeptical if (a) I say on Tuesday that it will rain on Wednesday, (b) by Thursday it has not rained, and (c) on Thursday I insist that I was right on Tuesday.

It is one thing to say all this, however, and quite another to agree that the writers so far introduced in this chapter say anything to establish that there could not be a God. And when we critically examine what they do: say it soon becomes clear that we cannot plausibly use it in defense of such a conclusion.

Take first the view that a statement is only meaningful and factual if it is conclusively verifiable or falsifiable by means of sense experience. This view falls into difficulties when we remember that it seems possible to make intelligible and factual universal statements like `All men spend part of their lives asleep’ or `All cats are mortal’. The first statement here is, as far as we know, true. Yet there is no way in which one could conclusively show that it is true by means of sense experience. This is because it is always possible that one will one day come across a man who needs no sleep at all. As for the second statement, that too seems true. But it cannot be conclusively falsified. For however old the cats of one’s experience may be, they may die one day. Therefore, it is wrong to appeal to conclusive verifiability and falsifiability as criteria of meaningfulness for factual statements.

It might, however, be argued that the weak version of the verification principle is still useful and that this can serve to establish the impossibility of God’s existence once and for all. But this view is open to the initial objection that the weak principle does not even satisfy its own criterion of meaningfulness. If one accepts it, one would have to say that a statement is only factual and meaningful if some sense experience or observation statement makes it probable or counts in its favor. But what sense experience or observation statement can count in favor of the claim that a statement is only factual and meaningful if some sense experience or observation statement makes it probable or counts in its favor?

It has been urged that the verification principle is acceptable because it only takes up the ordinary understanding of words like `factual’ and `meaningful’. Schlick, for example, said that it is `nothing but a simple statement of the way in which meaning is actually assigned to propositions in everyday life and in science. There never has been any other way, and it would be a grave error to suppose that we have discovered a new conception of meaning which is contrary to common opinion and which we want to introduce into philosophy.’

But this remark seems to overlook the fact that many people apparently regard as meaningful and factual a whole lot of statements which do not seem confirmable only by means of sense experience. Take, for example, religious people and the way they regard as both factual and meaningful statements about God and life after death. And to this point one can add another. Consider the following statement given as an example by Richard Swinburne: `Some of the toys which to all appearances stay in the toy cupboard while people are asleep and no one is watching, actually get up and dance in the middle of the night and then go back to the cupboard leaving no traces of their activity.” Now if someone were to say this, talking, let us suppose, about a particular cupboard, we might be utterly incredulous.

Swinburne’s example is a frivolous one. But it would be stretching things to say that the statement he asks us to consider is meaningless, that it could be neither true nor false. It might be replied that no one could understand a statement unless he knew how it could be shown to be true or false. It might be added that knowing how to show a statement true or false means knowing what available sense experience would make it either probable or improbable. But people also seem able to understand statements without being able to say what available sense experience would make it likely or unlikely that they are true.

To take another example of Swinburne: A man can understand the statement `once upon a time, before there were men or any other rational creatures, the earth was covered by sea’, without his having any idea of what geological evidence would count for or against this proposition, or any idea of how to establish what geological evidence would count for or against the proposition.’

The truth of this observation is just what someone could well refer to if it were said that Antony Flew’s comments about falsifiability made it obvious that statements about God are clearly meaningless. Someone who says that there is a God might not be able to specify what exactly would count against the truth of his assertion. But it does not follow from this that the assertion is meaningless.

Must we then conclude that the verification principle is thoroughly misguided? I have already offered reasons for rejecting it, but it is worth noting in conclusion that even a vigorous proponent of it can be forced to go back on his approval. To illustrate the point we can turn again to A. J. Ayer.

In the first edition of Language, Truth and Logic Ayer attempted to state a version of the weak form of the verification principle. He took the expression `experiential proposition’ to mean any proposition which reports a possible or actual observation. Then he suggested that `it is the mark of a genuine factual proposition not that it should be equivalent to an experiential proposition, or any finite number of experiential propositions, but simply that some experiential propositions can be deduced from it in conjunction with certain other premises without being deducible from these other premises alone.’

But, as Ayer himself came to see, this statement of the verification principle is not adequate at all. For it would allow that any purported statement at all is meaningful. Take any purported statement, S, and take any `experiential proposition’, E. On Ayer’s criterion quoted above we can show that S is meaningful since E follows from S and `If S then E’, while E does not follow from `If S then E’ alone.

In recognizing the force of this difficulty Ayer reformulated the verification principle. In the second edition of Language, Truth and Logic he wrote:

I propose to say that a statement is indirectly verifiable if it satisfies the following conditions: first, that in conjunction with certain other premises it entails one or more directly verifiable statements which are not deducible from these other premises alone; and secondly, that these other premises do not include any statement that is not either analytic, or directly verifiable, or capable of being independently established as indirectly verifiable. And I can now reformulate the principle of verification as requiring of a literally meaningful statement, which is not analytic, that it should be either directly or indirectly verifiable, in the foregoing sense.

But is this reformulation successful? Unfortunately not.

According to Ayer, a statement is directly verifiable `if it is either itself an observation statement or is such that in conjunction with one or more observation statements it entails at least one observation statement which is not deducible from these other premises alone’. Consider, now, three observation statements, 01, 02, and 03, none of which entails any of the others by itself. Take also a purported statement of any kind, for example ‘There is a God’, and call it S. Consider, now, the following:

Either (Not-01 and 02) or (03 and not-S).

This statement is directly verifiable according to Ayer as quoted above. For, together with 01, it gives 03, while 03 is not entailed by 01 alone. Thus:

Either (Not-01 and 02) or (03 and not-S) 01
Therefore 03.

If now one puts
Either (Not-01 and 02) or (03 and not-S) together with S one gets:
Either (Not-01 and 02) or (03 and not-S) S
Therefore 02.

So S is indirectly verifiable according to Ayer’s new criterion. And any statement whatever, including one like `There is a God’, can be shown to be meaningful in terms of Ayer’s restatement of the verification principle.

Ayer now admits this point himself. In The Central Questions of Philosophy he considers the above argument (which originates with Alonzo Church) and he accepts it. He also indicates that if Not-03 is substituted for O1 in

Either (Not 01 and 02) or (03 and not-S)

then the above argument would count against a criterion of meaning stated in terms of falsification. It would show that any statement whatever is falsifiable and that, for example, a statement like `There is a God’ is falsifiable and therefore meaningful.

So the verification principle in the forms in which we have considered it does not show that there could not be a God. Nor does it seem that God’s existence has to be ruled out because it cannot be falsified. But might there not be other reasons for holding that there could not be a God? I will consider this question with reference to a problem often discussed by philosophers of religion. It centers on the possibility of talking significantly about God in the light of the way people normally speak about him. More precisely, it springs from the fact that talk about God seems to pull in two different directions. Let’s conclude this little discussion in our next post.


Discussing Prop 8

August 17, 2010

A Dubious Proposal

I’ve been posting to an Amazon discussion forum recently concerning the recent overturn of Prop 8 by a Judge Walker out in California. Essentially I’ve been following some advice by Dr. Edward Feser, whose blog I recently found. Feser summarizes the issue here:

“Judge Walker’s decision, he tells us, is based on the principle that the state ought not to “enforce ‘profound and deep convictions accepted as ethical and moral principles’” or to “mandate [its] own moral code.” But that is, of course, precisely what Walker himself has done. His position rests on the question-begging assumption that “same-sex marriages” are no less true marriages than heterosexual ones are, and that the only remaining question is whether to allow them legally. But of course, whether “same-sex marriages” really can even in principle be “marriages” in the first place is part of what is at issue in the dispute. The traditional, natural law view is that marriage is heterosexual of metaphysical necessity. Rather than staying neutral between competing moral views, then, Walker has simply declared that the state should stop imposing one moral view – the one he doesn’t like – and should instead impose another, rival moral view – the one he does like.”

So to a merry band of atheists and Homosexualists I have posed a question to advance a theory of Dr. Feser’s. He advises:

“To concede even for the sake of argument that such behavior (Homosexuality) is morally unobjectionable is effectively to concede the whole issue. Conservative moralists have always upheld the norm that sexual behavior and marriage ought to go together – both because sex naturally results in children and children need the stability of marriage, and because sexual passions are inherently unruly and need to be channeled in the socially constructive way marriage provides. To allow that sexual behavior need not be heterosexual is implicitly to allow that marriage too need not be heterosexual. Pragmatic social-scientific arguments about the possible negative long-range social effects of allowing “same-sex marriage” can only seem anticlimactic in the face of such a concession – heartless nitpicking at best, and the rationalization of prejudice at worst…. Moreover, challenging the moral legitimacy of homosexual behavior requires a moral theory grounded in a classical essentialist metaphysics, one in which what is good for us is determined by a fixed human nature or essence and in particular by the natural ends of our various faculties.”

I would offer the paper I recently featured by Fr. José Noriega titled “Homosexuality: The Semblance Of Intimacy” and John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and the metaphysics of a Christian anthropology as a defense against the moral legitimacy of Homosexualism. A succinct exposition of those sources can also be found in Andrew J. Sodergren’s essay which I refer to later. But rather than challenge my audience with a religious/metaphysical defense (which I assure you would only earn me catcalls), I used an argument that Dr. Michael Sandel had advanced in his book “Justice.” (You can find a series of reading selections here.)

Sandel sets up is proposition here:

“Can you decide whether the state should recognize same-sex marriage without entering into moral and religious controversies about the purpose of marriage and the moral status of homosexuality? Some say yes, and argue for same-sex marriage on liberal, nonjudgmental grounds: whether one personally approves or disapproves of gay and lesbian relationships, individuals should be free to choose their marital partners. To allow heterosexual but not homosexual couples to get married wrongly discriminates against gay men and lesbians, and denies them equality before the law.

If this argument is a sufficient basis for according state recognition to same-sex marriage, then the issue can be resolved within the bounds of liberal public reason, without recourse to controversial conceptions of the purpose of marriage and the goods it honors. But the case for same-sex marriage can’t be made on nonjudgmental grounds. It depends on a certain conception of the telos of marriage — its purpose or point. And, as Aristotle reminds us, to argue about the purpose of a social institution is to argue about the virtues it honors and rewards.

The debate over same-sex marriage is fundamentally a debate about whether gay and lesbian unions are worthy of the honor and recognition that, in our society, state-sanctioned marriage confers. So the underlying moral question is unavoidable.”

Now many of my interlocutors on the discussion forum refuse to drop their nonjudgmental grounds and come back again and again to arguments of discrimination and fairness. But Sandel explains why the moral question is the correct one:

“To see why this is so, it’s important to bear in mind that a state can take three possible policies toward marriage, not just two. It can adopt the traditional policy and recognize only marriages between a man and a woman; or it can do what several states have done, and recognize same-sex marriage in the same way it recognizes marriage between a man and a woman; or it can decline to recognize marriage of any kind, and leave this role to private associations.

These three policies can be summarized as follows:

  1. Recognize only marriages between a man and a woman.
  2. Recognize same-sex and opposite-sex marriages.
  3. Don’t recognize marriage of any kind, but leave this role to private associations.

Policy 3 is purely hypothetical, at least in the United States; no state has thus far renounced the recognition of marriage as a government function. But this policy is nonetheless worth examining, as it sheds light on the arguments for and against same-sex marriage.

Policy 3 is the ideal libertarian solution to the marriage debate. It does not abolish marriage, but it does abolish marriage as a state-sanctioned institution. It might best be described as the disestablishment of marriage. Just as dis-establishing religion means getting rid of an official state church (while allowing churches to exist independent of the state), dis-establishing marriage would mean getting rid of marriage as an official state function.

The opinion writer Michael Kinsley defends this policy as a way out of what he sees as a hopelessly irresolvable conflict over marriage. Proponents of gay marriage complain that restricting marriage to heterosexuals is a kind of discrimination. Opponents claim that if the state sanctions gay marriage, it goes beyond tolerating homosexuality to endorsing it and giving it “a government stamp of approval. “The solution, Kinsley writes, is “to end the institution of government-sanctioned marriage,” to “privatize marriage.” Let people get married any way they please, without state sanction or interference.

Let churches and other religious institutions continue to offer marriage ceremonies. Let department stores and casinos get into the act if they want. . . . Let couples celebrate their union in any way they choose and consider themselves married whenever they want.

And, yes, if three people want to get married, or one person wants — to marry him or herself, and someone else wants to conduct a ceremony and declare them married, let ‘em.

“If marriage were an entirely private affair,” Kinsley reasons, “all the disputes over gay marriage would become irrelevant. Gay marriage would not have the official sanction of government, but neither would straight marriage.” Kinsley suggests that domestic partnership laws could deal with the financial, insurance, child support, and inheritance issues that arise when people co-habit and raise children together. He proposes, in effect, to replace all state-sanctioned marriages, gay and straight, with civil unions.

From the standpoint of liberal neutrality, Kinsley’s proposal has a clear advantage over the two standard alternatives (policies 1 and 2): It does not require judges or citizens to engage in the moral and religious controversy over the purpose of marriage and the morality of homosexuality. Since the state would no longer confer on any family units the honorific title of marriage, citizens would be able to avoid engaging in debate about the telos of marriage, and whether gays and lesbians can fulfill it.

Relatively few people on either side of the same-sex marriage debate have embraced the disestablishment proposal. But it sheds light on what’s at stake in the existing debate, and helps us see why both proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage must contend with the substantive moral and religious controversy about the purpose of marriage and the goods that define it. Neither of the two standard positions can be defended within the bounds of liberal public reason.

Of course, those who reject same-sex marriage on the grounds that it sanctions sin and dishonors the true meaning of marriage aren’t bashful about the fact that they’re making a moral or religious claim. But those who defend a right to same-sex marriage often try to rest their claim on neutral grounds, and to avoid passing judgment on the moral meaning of marriage. The attempt to find a nonjudgmental case for same-sex marriage draws heavily on the ideas of nondiscrimination and freedom of choice. But these ideas cannot by themselves justify a right to same-sex marriage. To see why this is so, consider the thoughtful and nuanced opinion written by Margaret Marshall, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court; in the court’s ruling in Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health (2003), the same-sex marriage case.

Marshall begins by recognizing the deep moral and religious disagreement the subject provokes, and implies that the court will not take sides in this dispute: Many people hold deep-seated religious, moral, and ethical convictions that marriage should be limited to the union of one man and one woman, and that homosexual conduct is immoral. Many hold equally strong religious, moral and ethical convictions that same-sex couples are entitled to be married, and that homosexual persons should be treated no differently than their heterosexual neighbors. Neither view answers the question before us. “Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code.”

As if to avoid entering into the moral and religious controversy over homosexuality, Marshall describes the moral issue before the court in liberal terms — as a matter of autonomy and freedom of choice. The exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage is incompatible with “respect for individual autonomy and equality under law” she writes. The liberty of “choosing whether and whom to marry would be hollow” if the state could “foreclose an individual from freely choosing the person with whom to share an exclusive commitment. “The issue, Marshall maintains, is not the moral worth of the choice, but the right of the individual to make it — that is, the right of the plaintiffs “to marry their chosen partner?”

But autonomy and freedom of choice are insufficient to justify a right to same-sex marriage. If government were truly neutral on the moral worth of all voluntary intimate relationships, then the state would have no grounds for limiting marriage to two persons; con-sensual polygamous partnerships would also qualify. In fact, if the state really wanted to be neutral, and respect whatever choices individuals wished to make, it would have to adopt Michael Kinsley’s proposal and get out of the business of conferring recognition on any marriages.

The real issue in the gay marriage debate is not freedom of choice but whether same-sex unions are worthy of honor and recognition by the community — whether they fulfill the purpose of the social institution of marriage. In Aristotle’s terms, the issue is the just distribution of offices and honors. It’s a matter of social recognition.

More than a private arrangement between two consenting adults, Marshall observes, marriage is a form of public recognition and approval. “In a real sense, there are three partners to every civil marriage: two willing spouses and an approving State.” This feature of marriage brings out its honorific aspect: “Civil marriage is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family.”

If marriage is an honorific institution, what virtues does it honor? To ask that question is to ask about the purpose, or telos, of marriage as a social institution. Many opponents of same-sex marriage claim that the primary purpose of marriage is procreation. According to this argument, since same-sex couples are unable to procreate on their own, they don’t have a right to marry. They lack, so to speak, the relevant virtue…

So when we look closely at the case for same-sex marriage, we find that it cannot rest on the ideas of non-discrimination and freedom of choice. In order to decide who should qualify for marriage, we have to think through the purpose of marriage and the virtues it honors. And this carries us onto contested moral terrain, where we can’t remain neutral toward competing conceptions of the good life.”

These are the questions I posed to the readers of the forum. As I said, many ignored the argument and proceeded with the discrimination/fairness argument which rejects the reasoning that Sandel demonstrates is wanting.

In fact Sandel feels that most arguments about Justice do involve the moral:

“One says justice means maximizing utility or welfare — the greatest happiness for the greatest number. The second says justice means respecting freedom of choice — either the actual choices people make in a free market (the libertarian view) or the hypothetical choices people would make in an original position of equality (the liberal egalitarian view). The third says justice involves cultivating virtue and reasoning about the common good. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I favor a version of the third approach. Let me try to explain why.

The utilitarian approach has two defects: First, it makes justice and rights a matter of calculation, not principle. Second, by trying to translate all human goods into a single, uniform measure of value, it flattens them, and takes no account of the qualitative differences among them.

The freedom-based theories solve the first problem but not the second. They take rights seriously and insist that justice is more than mere calculation. Although they disagree among themselves about which rights should outweigh utilitarian considerations, they agree that certain rights are fundamental and must be respected. But beyond singling out certain rights as worthy of respect, they accept people’s preferences as they are. They don’t require us to question or challenge the preferences and desires we bring to public life. According to these ones, the moral worth of the ends we pursue, the meaning and significance of the lives we lead, and the quality and character of the common life we share all lie beyond the domain of Justice.

This seems to me mistaken. A just society can’t be achieved simply by maximizing utility or by securing freedom of choice. To achieve a Just Society we have to reason together about the meaning of the good life, and to create a public culture hospitable to the disagreements that will inevitably arise.

It is tempting to seek a principle or procedure that could justify, once and for all, whatever distribution of income or power or opportunity resulted from it. Such a principle, if we could find it, would enable us to avoid the tumult and contention that arguments about the good life invariably arouse.

But these arguments are impossible to avoid. Justice is inescapably Judgmental. Whether we’re arguing about financial bailouts or Purple Hearts, surrogate motherhood or same-sex marriage, affirmative action or military service, CEO pay or the right to use a golf cart, questions of justice are bound up with competing notions of honor and virtue, pride and recognition. Justice is not only about the right way to distribute things. It is also about the right way to value things.”

The Catholic case for Heterosexual Marriage is made powerfully by Andrew J. Sodergren, M.S. from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family here:

“Those who argue that homosexual inclinations are “natural” utilize a problematic understanding of nature that needs to be challenged. This understanding of nature refers to that which is innate and unchosen within a person. “I did not choose to be the way I am.” “I discovered my homosexuality within me.” Moreover, a certain normative quality is attributed to this nature such that it can and should dictate my actions. Nature as such is good, or at least neutral in respect to ethics, so the modern mentality holds that whatever I am naturally disposed to do I should do as long as it does not involve violating the rights of others. 

A Christian anthropology, however, comes to very different conclusions about “nature”. Human nature, in a Christian sense, does also have a normative content to it. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says, “There can be no true promotion of man’s dignity unless the essential order of his nature is respected” (CDF, 1975, no. 3). In creating the world, God inscribed a certain order in it. Thus, the true nature of things and their fulfillment can be understood only in light of God’s design. This is especially salient when we are speaking of desires that arise within the human heart for Christian revelation recognizes the reality of original sin. At the start of human history, our first parents rebelled against God’s plan and by their action, brought disorder into the world: “Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state” (CCC, no. 404). The Fathers of the Church taught that human nature is one and thus all human beings participate in the same nature. Thus, when our first parents marred their likeness to God through sin, the whole human family was affected by it. Thus, the human nature that each human being inherits is disordered. Original sin is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called “concupiscence” (CCC, no. 405).

Every evil in the world is traceable back to this fundamental disruption at the beginning of time. Indeed, another crucial aspect of Christian anthropology is that human nature involves a unity of body and soul such that the human person is not wholly identifiable with either taken separately but exists as a composite of the two. In other words, the body and the soul are intrinsically united. 

The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature (CCC, no. 365).

Therefore, when we say that original sin has wounded human nature, this includes both physical and spiritual effects. In this way, the doctrine of original sin can account for every sort of genetic or biological defect, disease, or disorder as well as all kinds of human suffering and inclinations to do evil. With this understanding of fallen human nature, a Christian anthropology would have no difficulty accommodating research (past or future) implicating a substantial inherited component to homosexuality.

 Clearly, this understanding of original sin is essential when we are speaking of the moral quality of human inclinations. Because of original sin, a certain disorder resides in the human heart such that one often desires that which is contrary to the moral law. Therefore, even if homosexual inclinations are entirely inherited, this does not mean that they necessarily correspond with human nature in the original sense, as God intended it. Moreover, as Christ made clear in his preaching, it is the original, created order that has normative weight to it, not this transitory fallen state: 

Some Pharisees approached him, and tested him, saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mt 19.3-6).

Thus, the inclinations that arise in the human heart must be tested according to objective moral norms because the human nature we encounter in this age of history, though wounded by sin, is still called to the same norms of behavior intended by God “from the beginning.” Why? Because God created us “out of love for love” (John Paul II, 1981, no. 11); His wise, loving plan permeates all of created reality. Therefore, to follow the norms given to us by our Creator and Redeemer is in no way an imposition or alienation but a call to happiness. The moral law given to us by God is a blueprint by which human beings can achieve their fulfillment. This implies another fundamental truth of Christian anthropology: human nature is wounded, but it is not totally corrupted. Man still has freedom. Though weakened by sin and prone to misuse, the human person still possesses the ability to make free moral choices and, by cooperating with God’s grace, grow in holiness and maturity. 

Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when direct toward God, our beatitude (CCC, no. 1731).

The proper, beatifying use of freedom requires God’s grace. Only with His help can we properly see the truth and act in accord with it. Thankfully, God desires all men to be saved and abundantly supplies the means for it to happen.

If a person finds himself or herself inclined to a homosexual lifestyle, this certainly is a cross to bear because it means that the person has “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder” (CDF, 1986, no. 3). Only in light of original sin does it make sense to say that someone could inherit an “objective disorder”. Recall that the research on homosexuality does not conclusively show that it is inherited, but there is no need on the basis of Christian teaching to deny this possibility. Moreover, society commonly recognizes that certain disordered propensities are inborn in some people. For instance, there is acceptance for the notion that various pathological personality traits are heritable as well as predispositions for various addictions such as alcoholism. Yet, these characteristics are not normalized but still held to be deviations from normal, “healthy” humanity. In light of this, there is no justification for a priori accepting homosexual inclinations and homosexual acts as morally upright without serious rational reflection in the light of objective moral norms.

 Such a discussion, however, would be incomplete without mention of the problem of sexual identity. Because of the language of sexual orientation prevalent in contemporary culture, there is a great deal of confusion regarding sexual identity in the fundamental sense. Christian anthropology recognizes that there are two genders: male and female. This maleness or this femaleness is ontologically grounded in the human person such that the person is always one or the other and this sexual differentiation affects all areas of life. Nonetheless, man and woman share the same human nature, though they live it and express it in two irreducibly different ways.

The importance and the meaning of sexual difference, as a reality deeply inscribed in man and woman, needs to be noted. “Sexuality characterizes man and woman not only on the physical level, but also on the psychological and spiritual, making its mark on each of their expressions”. It cannot be reduced to a pure and insignificant biological fact, but rather “is a fundamental component of personality, one of its modes of being, of manifestation, of communicating with others, of feeling, of expressing and of living human love”. This capacity to love – reflection and image of God who is Love – is disclosed in the spousal character of the body, in which the masculinity or femininity of the person is expressed (CDF, 2004, no.8 ).

Because of original sin, deviations of this sexual difference can and do occur, but there are just that – deviations. The problem with the language of sexual orientation is that it tends to separate sexual desire from sexual identity (the basic sexual difference of male and female). Though one is a man, one’s sexuality need not be inclined toward women and vice versa. This implies that all orientations are on the same anthropological and ethical standing, which the Church recognizes as false. A homosexual inclination is “objectively disordered” (CCC, no. 2358). This is only understood when one sees one’s biological sex and the purposes inscribed in it as fundamentally intrinsic to one’s personal identity. In other words, sexual identity consists in being male or female, and within these two irreducible ways of being human, there is no room for a multiplicity of sexual orientations. The fact that such orientations exist is, once again, a result of original sin. The way to overcome the power of sin is not to normalize all the deviations and disorders that it produces but to persevere in seeking and living by the truth with the unfailing help of God’s grace.

Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection (CCC, no. 2359).

Rather than embracing one’s disordered desires with reckless abandon, they must be submitted to the truth, and thus gradually transformed into dispositions of virtue. Only in doing so, can one’s fallen human nature slowly grow toward its proper perfection bringing with it true freedom and happiness. Accordingly, persons with homosexual tendencies cannot find true happiness in embracing their disordered orientation as their core identity and the guiding light of their lifestyle, but rather they are called to live their sexuality in integrity precisely as a man or as a woman according to the truth of the divine plan. This truth is rooted in God Himself Who created us, holds us in being, and bears our destiny within Himself. Thus, to seek chastity according to God’s plan is not an imposition of arbitrary norms but the inner condition of attaining the fulfillment desired by every human heart. Though it may be a long difficult road, as the late Karol Wojtyla stated, “Chastity is the sure way to happiness” (Wojtyla, 1960, p. 172).”


The Question Of An Isolated Mind

February 10, 2010

Archbishop Kallistos Ware

A reader of this blog took a quote from one of my favorite essays here and asked someone else on a forum “Can this be true?” What does our orthodox faith have to say about this?

The quote in question was: “Wittgenstein taught us that language belongs to groups, not to isolated minds. Language reflects communal practices. Much of the reality that terms mark out is specific to the communities that use the terms. As any learner of a foreign language knows, reading a newspaper in that language requires learning about social and political realities specific to another culture. The abstract question “Does God exist?” is the question of an isolated mind. It tears God out of the context of communities who pray, celebrate, and serve, and it reduces the term to a cipher.”

And the reader’s query  (who listed himself as Roman Catholic, oddly enough) was: “What would you make of this article in light of Orthodoxy? Is it totally off the mark?” I confess I was sort of holding my breath because, as many of you know, the things I read and pass on in the form of reading selections and such are nothing more than the vagaries of following my faith. I’m no expert on the topic of anything Catholic but simply follow my gut. The quote comes from Alan Mittleman’s essay Asking the Wrong Question. Mittleman is of course Jewish and the essay is based on a thought from the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber.

So you can imagine I had breath held, imagining some crushing response (“No, this is totally misguided. Take care when reading those well intentioned but clueless Internet bloggers. Catholic in their minds only…”).

What came back was an Orthodox source that said (beautifully) pretty much the same thing. I offer it here as part of that pebble-thrown-into-a-pond phenomena. His Excellency, the Most Reverend Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia (b. 1934, also known by his lay name, Timothy Ware) is a titular bishop of the Church of Constantinople in Great Britain. From 1966-2001, he was Spalding Lecturer of Eastern Orthodox Studies at Oxford University, and has authored numerous books and articles pertaining to the Orthodox Christianity. It was he whom the responder quoted.

Quote from The Orthodox Way By Kallistos Ware
Because faith is not logical certainty but a personal relationship and because this personal relationship is as yet very incomplete in each of us and needs continually to develop further, it is by no means impossible for faith to coexist with doubt. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Perhaps there are some who by God’s grace retain throughout their life the faith of a little child, enabling them to accept without question all that they have been taught. For most of those living in the West today, however, such an attitude is simply not possible. We have to make our own the cry, “Lord, I believe: help my unbelief.”(Mark 9:24). For very many of us this will remain our constant prayer right up to the very gates of death.

It may mean the opposite – that our faith is alive and growing. For faith implies not complacency but taking risks, not shutting ourselves off from the unknown but advancing boldly to meet it. Here an Orthodox Christian may readily make his own the words of Bishop J.A.T. Robinson: “The act of faith is a constant dialogue with doubt.” As Thomas Merton rightly says, “Faith is a principle of questioning, a struggle before it becomes a principle of certitude and peace.”

Faith then signifies a personal relationship with God; a relationship as yet incomplete and faltering, yet none the less real. It is to know God not as theory or an abstract principle, but as a person. To know a person is essentially to love him or her; there can be no true awareness of another person without mutual love. We do not have any genuine knowledge of those whom we hate.

Here then are the two least misleading ways of speaking about the God who surpasses our understanding: he is personal and he is love. And these are basically two ways of saying the same thing. Our way of entry into the mystery of God is through personal love. As The Cloud Of Unknowing says, “He may well be loved, but not thought. By love can he be caught and held, but by thinking never.”


The Atheist Delusion: An Interview With Prof. John Haught

August 5, 2009

Theologian John Haught explains why science and God are not at odds, why Mike Huckabee worries him, and why Richard Dawkins and other “new atheists” are ignorant about religion. He was interviewed by Steve Paulson

Evolution often seems to be a sticking point between those who debate science and religion. As a Catholic who accepts Darwin and Evolution I could never understand what the conflict was and it wasn’t until I read John Haught’s critique of the new atheists where I found a spirited defense of Catholicism that resonated with my own understanding of my faith and science that acknowledges this truth found in John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio:

“The positive results achieved (by science) must not obscure the fact that reason, in its one-sided concern to investigate human subjectivity, seems to have forgotten that men and women are always called to direct their steps toward a truth which transcends them. Sundered from that truth, individuals are at the mercy of caprice, and their state as person ends up being judged by pragmatic criteria based essentially upon experimental data, in the mistaken belief that technology must dominate all. It has happened before that reason rather than voicing the human orientation toward truth, has wilted under the weight of so much knowledge and little by little has lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights not daring to rise to the truth of being. Abandoning the investigation of being, modern philosophical research has concentrated instead upon human knowing. Rather than make use of the human capacity to know the truth, modern philosophy has preferred to accentuate the ways in which this capacity is limited and conditioned.”

Here is Haught bringing the needed balance to the debate: “What response can the theologian make to these attempts to provide a Darwinian debunking of religious faith? I have no doubt that one way of understanding faith is to explore it through the tools of evolutionary science, and I am convinced that theology should encourage science to push evolutionary understanding as far as it can within the limits of scientific method. From a scientific point of view our capacity for religious faith has evolved like all other living phenomena, and biology can lend an interesting new light to religious studies. But, like almost everything else, religious phenomena also admit of a plurality of levels of explanation. The phony rivalry the new atheists posit between science and religion is the result of a myth, a myth that asserts — without any experimental evidence — that only a scientific frame of reference, or only what counts as “evidence” in scientific circles, can lead us reliably to truth.

Theology unlike scientism, wagers that we can contact the deepest truths only by relaxing the will to control and allowing ourselves to be grasped by a deeper dimension of reality than ordinary experience or science can access by itself. The state of allowing ourselves to be grasped and carried away by this dimension of depth is at least part of what theology means by “faith.” In spite of what their formal creed states, even scientific naturalists have had the experience of faith as understood in this fundamental sense. To be more specific, they too have made a worshipful bow toward the unconditional value of truth. I have no doubt that Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens feel empowered to issue their bold edicts only because they firmly believe they are serving the noble cause of truth seeking. They probably have not noticed that, in order to serve this cause, they have tacitly allowed themselves to be taken captive, as it were, by their love of truth, an undeniable value that functions for them as a timeless good that will outlast them and their own brief success. Should they express outrage at what I have just said, this passionate reaction likewise could be justified only. by their appealing once again to the value of a deeper truth than they can find in my own reflections.

It is not too hard for any of us to notice that we are always being drawn toward deeper truth, even if we decide to run away from its attractive, but also disturbing, pull. If you find yourself questioning what I have just said, it is because you are allowing yourself to be drawn toward a yet deeper level of truth. So you prove my point. ‘What I mean by faith, therefore, is precisely this dynamic state of allowing yourself to be carried along toward a deeper understanding and truth than you have mastered up to this point. People have faith, therefore, not only because faith is adaptive in an evolutionary sense, not only because faith serves the cause of gene survival, not only because of ultrasensitive predator detection cerebral systems inherited from our remote evolutionary ancestors, not only because they have a need for pattern and meaning, and not only because their parietal lobes are overly active. Without denying that any of these factors may be at work, one may justifiably add that people have faith also because they are being drawn toward a dimension of depth. In theological language they are being addressed by and responding to the infinite mystery of being, meaning, truth, goodness, and beauty that theistic faiths call God. Such a claim is in no way opposed to evolutionary accounts of religion. Contrary to Dawkins, religious faith no more conflicts with science than does his own surrender to the value of truth.” [God And The New Atheism]

This strikes me as a lot better place to be than Stephen Jay Gould’s well known explanation of science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria,” having nothing to do with each other. The latter struck me as a little too easy, a politically expedient ploy that almost cheapens the religious position. As a student of Catholicism, I knew the answer was “Both And,” that I should never be forced into a choice but always seek Chesterton’s paradox. Haught is  a veteran interpreter of evolutionary theory as well as Christian theology. He is, like Stephen M. Barr whose essays I have also introduced on this site, perfectly situated to moderate this debate for Catholics. Haught has called Darwin “a gift to theology.” by forcing modern theologians to reject arguments about God as an intrusive designer. He does this by reclaiming the theology of his intellectual hero, Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who believed that “we live in a universe evolving toward ever greater complexity and, ultimately, to consciousness.” de Chardin was someone I had read about but was unfamiliar with.

However I was disposed to think favorably of him as Flannery was such a fan.

The interview I’m introducing here is a wide ranging one with Haught on the new atheists, Albert Camus, and how evolutionary biology can be a complement to faith. What makes this a great interview is Steve Paulson who brings a healthy curiosity and knowledge to the questioning on a wide range of issues: why Mike Huckabee worries him (this was done in 2007) and why science is ultimately not equipped to answer questions about love, consciousness and the Resurrection.

Some teasers:

Paulson: But it seems to me that Camus had a different project. He thought there was no God or transcendent reality, and the great existential struggle was for humans to create meaning themselves, without appealing to some higher reality. This wasn’t a cop-out at all. It was a profound struggle for him.

Haught: Yes, it was. But his earlier life was somewhat different from his later writings. In “The Stranger” and “The Myth of Sisyphus,” he argues that in the absence of God, there’s no hope. And we have to learn to live without hope. His figure of Sisyphus is the image of living without hope. And whatever happiness Camus thought we could attain comes from the sense of strength and courage that we feel in ourselves when we shake our fist at the gods. But none of the atheists — whether the hardcore or the new atheists — really examine where this courage comes from. What is its source? I think a theologian like Paul Tillich, who wrestled with the atheism of Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus, put his finger on the real issue. How do we account for the courage to go on living in the absence of hope? As you move to the later writings of Camus and Sartre, those books are saying it’s difficult to live without hope. What I want to show in my own work — as an alternative to the new atheists — is a universe in which hope is possible.

Paulson: But why can’t you have hope if you don’t believe in God?

Haught: You can have hope. But the question is, can you justify the hope? I don’t have any objection to the idea that atheists can be good and morally upright people. But we need a worldview that is capable of justifying the confidence that we place in our minds, in truth, in goodness, in beauty. I argue that an atheistic worldview is not capable of justifying that confidence. Some sort of theological framework can justify our trust in meaning, in goodness, in reason.”

You see Paulson really holding up his end of the conversation there. And this exchange where he introduces “layered explanations”:

I would think the biggest challenge that evolutionary theory poses to most religions is the sense that there’s no inherent meaning in the world. If you look at the process of natural selection — this apparently random series of genetic mutations — it would seem that there’s no place for ultimate purpose. Human beings may just be an evolutionary accident.

Yes, in the new scientific understanding of the universe, there are no sharp breaks between lifeless matter and life, between life and mind. It seems to many people that the new evolutionary picture places everything in the context of a meaningless smudge of stuff, of atoms reshuffling themselves over the course of time. The traditional view was that nature emanates from on high, so that when you get down to matter, you have the least important level. Above that there’s life and mind and God. But in the new cosmography, it seems that mindless matter dominates the whole picture. And many scientists, like Dawkins and Gould, have said evolution has destroyed the notion of purpose. So one thing I do in my theology is to say that’s not necessarily true.

Isn’t there a simple response to the materialist argument? You can say “purpose” is simply not a scientific idea. Instead, it’s an idea for theologians and philosophers to debate. Do you accept that distinction?

I sure do. But that distinction is usually violated in scientific literature and in much discussion of evolution. From the beginning of the modern world, science decided quite rightly that it wasn’t going to tackle such questions as purpose, value, meaning, importance, God, or even talk about intelligence or subjectivity. It was going to look for purely natural, causal, mechanical explanations of things. And science has every right to be that way. But that principle of scientific Puritanism is often violated by scientists who think that by dint of their scientific expertise, they are able to comment on such things as purpose. I consider that to be a great violation.

Who are these scientists who extrapolate about purpose from science?

A good example is the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg. In his book “Dreams of a Final Theory,” he asks, will we find God once science gets down to what he calls the fundamental levels of reality? It’s almost as if he assumes that science itself has the capacity and the power to comment on things like that. Similarly, Dawkins, in “The God Delusion,” has stated that science has the right to deal with the question of God and other religious issues, and everything has to be settled according to the canons of the scientific method.

But Dawkins argues that a lot of claims made on behalf of God — about how God created the world and interacts with people — are ultimately questions about nature. Unless you say God has nothing to do with nature, those become scientific questions.

Well, I approach these issues by making a case for what I call “layered explanation.” For example, if a pot of tea is boiling on the stove, and someone asks you why it’s boiling, one answer is to say it’s boiling because H2O molecules are moving around excitedly, making a transition from the liquid state to the gaseous state. And that’s a very good answer. But you could also say it’s boiling because my wife turned the gas on. Or you could say it’s boiling because I want tea. Here you have three levels of explanation which are approaching phenomena from different points of view. This is how I see the relationship of theology to science. Of course I think theology is relevant to discussing the question, what is nature? What is the world? It would talk about it in terms of being a gift from the Creator, and having a promise built into it for the future. Science should not touch upon that level of understanding. But it doesn’t contradict what evolutionary biology and the other sciences are telling us about nature. They’re just different levels of understanding.

And a great exchange on transcendence, which I’ve been batting about recently with some very bright folks:

What do you say to the atheists who demand evidence or proof of the existence of a transcendent reality?

The hidden assumption behind such a statement is often that faith is belief without evidence. Therefore, since there’s no scientific evidence for the divine, we should not believe in God. But that statement itself — that evidence is necessary — holds a further hidden premise that all evidence worth examining has to be scientific evidence. And beneath that assumption, there’s the deeper worldview — it’s a kind of dogma — that science is the only reliable way to truth. But that itself is a faith statement. It’s a deep faith commitment because there’s no way you can set up a series of scientific experiments to prove that science is the only reliable guide to truth. It’s a creed.

Are you’re saying scientists are themselves practicing a kind of religion?

The new atheists have made science the only road to truth. They have a belief, which I call “scientific naturalism,” that there’s nothing beyond nature — no transcendent dimension — that every cause has to be a natural cause, that there’s no purpose in the universe, and that scientific explanations, especially in their Darwinian forms, can account for everything living. But the idea that science alone can lead us to truth is questionable. There’s no scientific proof for that. Those are commitments that I would place in the category of faith. So the proposal by the new atheists that we should eliminate faith in all its forms would also apply to scientific naturalism. But they don’t want to go that far. So there’s a self-contradiction there.

Do you accept Gould’s idea of “non-overlapping magisteria” — that science covers the empirical realm of facts and theories about the universe, while religion deals with ultimate meaning and moral value?

I think he’s too simplistic. I don’t think we want to remain stuck in this standoff position. First of all, Gould defines religion as simply concern about values and meanings. He implicitly denies that religion can put us in touch with truth.

By truth, are you talking about reality?

Yes, I’m talking about what is real, or what has being. The traditions of religion and philosophy have always maintained that the most important dimensions of reality are going to be least accessible to scientific control. There’s going to be something fuzzy and elusive about them. The only way we can talk about them is through symbolic and metaphoric language — in other words, the language of religion. Traditionally, we never apologized for the fact that we used fuzzy language to refer to the real because the deepest aspect of reality grasps us more than we grasp it. So we can never get our minds around it.

We can’t get our minds around this transcendent reality because we’re limited by our language and our brains?

We have to refer to it in the oblique and fuzzy but also the luxuriant and rich language of symbol and metaphor. But I still think we have the obligation today of asking how our new scientific understanding of the world fits into that religious discourse. I don’t accept Gould’s complete separation of science and faith. Theology is faith seeking understanding. We have every right to ask what God is doing by making this universe in such a slow way, by allowing life to come about in the evolutionary manner in which Darwinian biology has very richly set forth. So science cannot be divorced from faith. However, I think most people do resort to this non-overlapping magisteria as the default position. It’s an easy approach. It allows you to put all your ducks in a row. But it avoids the really interesting and perhaps dangerous issue of how to think about God after Darwin. In my view, after Darwin, after Einstein — just as after Galileo and Copernicus — we can’t have the same theological ideas about God as we did before.

Anyways, hope I’ve tempted you enough to follow the complete interview here.

Kudos to Salon for supporting Steve Paulson’s work.


Talking Flannery

March 20, 2009

The Maximum Amount Of Seriousness Admits The Maximum Amount Of Comedy

Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not. Then, too, any character in a serious novel is supposed to carry a burden of meaning larger than himself. The novelist doesn’t write about people in a vacuum; he writes about people in a world where something is obviously lacking, where there is the general mystery of incompleteness and the particular tragedy of our own times to be demonstrated, and the novelist tries to give you, within the form of the book, a total experience of human nature at any time.

For this reason, the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul. Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama. The Christian novelist is distinguished from his pagan colleagues by recognizing sin as sin. According to his heritage, he sees it not as a sickness or an accident of the environment, but as a responsible choice of offense against God which involves his eternal future. Either one is serious about salvation or one is not. And it is well to realize that the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy.

Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe. One reason a great deal of our contemporary fictions is humorless is because so many of these writers are relativists and have to be continually justifying the actions of their characters on a sliding scale of values.”   Flannery O’Connor

Posted on Mar 19, 2009 10:12 PM PDT

Galadriel says:

Wow! That’s an awesome quote from Flannery. I particular like the part about humor. “And it is well to realize that the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy. Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe.”

I remember laughing myself silly the first time I read “The Violent Bear It a Way.” I guess some people wouldn’t find it funny. What this means is that they didn’t get it. I consider it one of the greatest novels ever written, along with Nobokov’s “Lolita” and Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and many others. I’m sure a lot of people wouldn’t agree with me, but everybody’s entitled to there own opinion. I’m not a literary critic. Just a person who’s read a lot of books and loves literature.

I’m getting ready to read “The Violent Bear It a Way” again. I would love to discuss it with you. Maybe you could shed some light on parts I don’t understand. I don’t really understand the title. I know it’s from a Bible verse: ” The Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it a way”. I feel like subconsciously, beyond words, I understand it, but I don’t understand it intellectually, if you know what I mean. When I start reading the book again which should be very soon, I will post again.

Your post, in reply to an earlier post on Mar 20, 2009 6:34 AM PDT

Derek Jeter says:

Hi Galadriel:

You’re right, the title is taken from a verse of the Douay Bible: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” Matthew 11:12. “From the days of John the Baptist until now” means from Adam until God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.

The most accepted meaning (Wikipedia) is that violence constantly attacks God and heaven, and that only those violent with the love of God can absorb it or bear it away. O’Connor shows this when Tarwater drowns Bishop: He commits a violent act, but the “accidental” baptism is an equally powerful act of violent love for God which bears the previous wrong away. It’s a little too paradoxical for me. I have trouble with the phrase “violent with the love of God.”

Another possible meaning (more agreeable with me) is that when God’s grace comes into contact with an errant life, a form of violent revelation occurs where falsehood and heresy is burnt off and the individual then sees reality with startling clarity. Those who undergo this spiritual violence take “the kingdom of God” with them as they go through the world.

I like this second one because it seems God’s providence is acting within us and forcing us to react to the violence. We can become inured to violence and it is only when we see it with a fresh mind or the mind of Christ (the Greek metanoia(repent) = understanding “the kingdom of God”) that we truly apprehend its meaning. It becomes a method of God’s instruction to his creatures.

The Wikipedia piece here.


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