Thursday, November 29, 2007

A truly free society must be rooted in something permanent and transcendent

Belief in Disbelief, or Inside the Postmodern Skeptic Tank from One Cosmos by Gagdad Bob
[T]he new rebel is a skeptic, and will not entirely trust anything.... And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in the way when he wants to denounce anything. For denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it.... In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. --G.K. Chesterton
One of the key ideas of Orthodoxy is that we require a stable framework in order to think productively and deeply about reality, and that certain frameworks (Chesterton would say one framework) have been given to us from "on high," so to speak, in order to accomplish this. Naturally, the "radical" opposes this constraint on his freedom, but freedom in itself is not freeing, any more than progress in itself is progressive; without limits, or boundary conditions, the former is "nothingness" or "lostness," while the latter is just pointless change, drift, or entropy. This reminds me of the distinction Polanyi drew between what he called the open society and the free society. He used the practice of science to illustrate the difference, pointing out that a truly free society does not merely consist of everyone believing whatever they want. Science, for example, is a free and spontaneous intellectual order that is nevertheless based on a distinctive set of beliefs about the world, through which the diverse actions of individual scientists are coordinated. Like the cells in your body, individual scientists independently go about their business, and yet, progress is made because their activities are channeled by the pursuit of real truth.
In contrast, in a merely "open" society, there is no such thing as transcendent truth: perception is reality and everyone is free to think and do as he pleases, with no objective standard by which to judge it. This kind of "bad freedom" eventually ramifies into the cognitively pathological situation we now see on the left, especially as it manifests in its purest form in academia (the liberal arts, not the sciences, except to the extent that science devolves into metaphysical scientism). Initially, the assault on the existence of objective truth seems liberating, as we are freed from the dictates of arbitrary authority. However, the whole idea of the individual pursuit of truth was a deeply liberal project, since truth was not accepted a priori but was subject to criticism and logical or empirical demonstration. But with deconstruction -- the Swiss pacifist knife of the intellectual left -- the entire concept of truth is undermined, so there is no way to arbitrate between competing notions of reality. Therefore, whoever has the power may enforce their version of reality, which is what political correctness is all about: Truth is arbitrary, but you had better believe my version of it, or be branded a bigot, or a homophobe, or a white male oppressor. One more reason why contemporary liberalism is so deeply illiberal. Their ideas cannot be argued on the merits, so they are enforced by the illegitimate authority of political correctness. If you are on the left, you are undoubtedly oblivious to this bullying pressure (unless you are a totally cynical Clinton-type who does it consciously). If you are on the right, you feel it all the time -- cognitive “stop signs” that impede you from uttering certain truths in public for fear of triggering attack. The politically correct leftist is always a passively-aggressive controlling person -- hardly a victim, but an aggressor (for his self-imposed victimization legitimizes the release of amoral sadistic aggression).
Thus, the deep structure of the left-right divide in this country goes beyond the secular vs. religious worldview. A purely secular society is an open society, where all points of view, no matter how stupid or dysfunctional, are equally valued (e.g., multiculturalism and moral relativism), whereas a truly free society must be rooted in something permanent and transcendent. It doesn't necessarily have to come from religion, although it inevitably leads in that direction. Mainly, in order to be truly free, one must acknowledge a source of truth that is independent of man, an antecedent reality that is perceived by the intellect, not the senses. Fortunately, our founders knew that the self-evident religious truths that constrain us actually set us free (indeed, are the very basis of our liberty).
You may note that this has direct relevance for the current debate between strict constructionists vs. the notion of a "living constitution." In reality, strict adherence to the constitution results in increased freedom and democracy, while the "living constitution" quickly devolves into judicial tyranny. If you enjoy playing blackjack, your freedom is not really enhanced if the dealer can either hit or stand on 16, depending on his moment-to-moment interpretation of the living rules of blackjack.
How can a progressive even be progressive unless he has some permanent standard by which to measure his progress? In the absence of such a standard, there is only meaningless change, rebellion, random reshuffling, not progress. As mentioned yesterday, atheists ironically fantasize about a day when human beings will be liberated from the shackles of religion and be truly "free" to think what they want. First of all, this is analogous to a musician longing for the day when he is free to play his instrument without the annoying constraints of scales, notes, and keys. Perhaps more importantly, that day has already arrived. The atheistic free thinkers are noisily trying to knock down doors that are already wide open, especially in the arts and in academia. There you can see the direct consequences of "free thought," and it is hardly any kind of liberation, but rather a stupifyingly oppressive nihilism.
For those of you who are not jazz mavens, there was a movement in the 1960's called "free jazz." As a matter of fact, it wasn't so much a musical movement as a political one -- or at least it was indistinguishable from the breaking political winds of the day, i.e, "black liberation." There was the idea that one could absolutely break through the chordal structure of (white) western music and achieve a kind of quasi-religious purity of expression. True, you can do this, but it leads in a circle back to the "pre-musical" expressions of an angry or exuberant child. It is a "song of myself," by myself and for myself. In a word, pure narcissism, or musical maestrobation. It is the end of music, just as atheism is -- and must be -- the end of thought, i.e, intellection, as opposed to mere computation.
Again I must emphasize that no one is more surprised than I am at the essentially infinite amount of cognitive music one may play within the chordal structure of religion. One is not constrained but set free. I used to be a "free thinker," but the quality of thought I produced was essentially worthless get-a-cluevinilia. And now that I think about it, it was worthless for very specific reasons. Among others, it lacked timelessness, universality, generativity, wholeness, harmony, radiance -- exactly the things that revelation embodies par excellence. This is why a Meister Eckhart or Denys the Areopagite will always be timely -- because their thought is rooted in a source "outside time" -- whereas the narrow-minded rants of a Dawkins, Harris, or Hitchins are already beyond their hackspiration date by the time they have been pabulished. Truly, they are by the dead and for the dead, the blind leading the bland. In the absence of transcendent truth, freedom's just a nothing word for leftists to abuse.
Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame.... The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits.... Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three-sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end. --Chesterton

Friday, November 23, 2007

Animals have "oughts"—rules that the group must follow—and the community enforces them

TIME Cover Story Friday, November 23, 2007
How We Stay Good
Merely being equipped with moral programming does not mean we practice moral behavior. Something still has to boot up that software and configure it properly, and that something is the community. Hauser believes that all of us carry what he calls a sense of moral grammar—the ethical equivalent of the basic grasp of speech that most linguists believe is with us from birth. But just as syntax is nothing until words are built upon it, so too is a sense of right and wrong useless until someone teaches you how to apply it.
It's the people around us who do that teaching—often quite well. Once again, however, humans aren't the ones who dreamed up such a mentoring system. At the Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands, de Waal was struck by how vigorously apes enforced group norms one evening when the zookeepers were calling their chimpanzees in for dinner. The keepers' rule at Arnhem was that no chimps would eat until the entire community was present, but two adolescents grew willful, staying outside the building. The hours it took to coax them inside caused the mood in the hungry colony to turn surly. That night the keepers put the delinquents to bed in a separate area—a sort of protective custody to shield them from reprisals. But the next day the adolescents were on their own, and the troop made its feelings plain, administering a sound beating. The chastened chimps were the first to come in that evening. Animals have what de Waal calls "oughts"—rules that the group must follow—and the community enforces them.
Human communities impose their own oughts, but they can vary radically from culture to culture. Take the phenomenon of Good Samaritan laws that require passersby to assist someone in peril. Our species has a very conflicted sense of when we ought to help someone else and when we ought not, and the general rule is, Help those close to home and ignore those far away. That's in part because the plight of a person you can see will always feel more real than the problems of someone whose suffering is merely described to you. But part of it is also rooted in you from a time when the welfare of your tribe was essential for your survival but the welfare of an opposing tribe was not—and might even be a threat.
In the 21st century, we retain a powerful remnant of that primal dichotomy, which is what impels us to step in and help a mugging victim—or, in the astonishing case of Wesley Autrey, New York City's so-called Subway Samaritan, jump onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train to rescue a sick stranger—but allows us to decline to send a small contribution to help the people of Darfur. "The idea that you can save the life of a stranger on the other side of the world by making a modest material sacrifice is not the kind of situation our social brains are prepared for," says Greene.
Throughout most of the world, you're still not required to aid a stranger, but in France and elsewhere, laws now make it a crime for passersby not to provide at least the up-close-and-personal aid we're good at giving. In most of the U.S., we make a distinction between an action and an omission to act. Says Hauser: "In France they've done away with that difference."
But you don't need a state to create a moral code. The group does it too. One of the most powerful tools for enforcing group morals is the practice of shunning. If membership in a tribe is the way you ensure yourself food, family and protection from predators, being blackballed can be a terrifying thing. Religious believers as diverse as Roman Catholics, Mennonites and Jehovah's Witnesses have practiced their own forms of shunning—though the banishments may go by names like excommunication or disfellowshipping. Clubs, social groups and fraternities expel undesirable members, and the U.S. military retains the threat of discharge as a disciplinary tool, even grading the punishment as "other than honorable" or "dishonorable," darkening the mark a former service person must carry for life.
Sometimes shunning emerges spontaneously when a society of millions recoils at a single member's acts. O.J. Simpson's 1995 acquittal may have outraged people, but it did make the morality tale surrounding him much richer, as the culture as a whole turned its back on him, denying him work, expelling him from his country club, refusing him service in a restaurant. In November his erstwhile publisher, who was fired in the wake of her and Simpson's disastrous attempt to publish a book about the killings, sued her ex-employer, alleging that she had been "shunned" and "humiliated." That, her former bosses might well respond, was precisely the point.
"Human beings were small, defenseless and vulnerable to predators," says Barbara J. King, biological anthropologist at the College of William and Mary and author of Evolving God. "Avoiding banishment would be important to us." Page 3 of 4 Previous 1 2 3 4 Next 12:16 PM 12:27 PM

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The East's pull on the West is strong and undeniable

Ancient Chinese wisdom for modern Catholic Church
When Catholic missionaries brought the Faith to the Far East they found in Confucianism a preparatio evangelium that would aid them in spreading the Gospel to the peoples of China
Tuesday, November 13, 2007 By Joshua Snyder
Discuss Insights: Religion
That Holy Mother Church borrowed from and built upon the best of pagan Greek philosophy is as uncontroversial as it is indisputable. Similarly, when Catholic missionaries brought the Faith to the Far East, they found in Confucianism a preparatio evangelium that would aid them in spreading the Gospel to the peoples of China and the nations influenced by its venerable traditions. Today, the Catholic Church in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam are as marked by Confucianism as is the Church in the West by the synthesis of Jerusalem and Athens that occurred in Rome.
We live in an age of profound self-doubt in the West. China experienced a similar age a century ago, culminating in the end of the Ch'ing Dynasty and the establishment of a republic and later a people's republic, both ideas imported from the West. Only now are the Chinese becoming disillusioned with materialist Western imports. The Chinese are now not only returning to their ancient traditions, but also finding belief in Christ to the extent that the pseudonymous Asia Times Online columnist Spengler predicts the Middle Kingdom will be the epicenter of global Christendom within fifty years.
Meanwhile, in the West, disillusioned with the materialist ideologies that replaced the Faith, people are looking toward the traditions of the East to fill their spiritual emptiness. Buddhism is said by some to be the fastest growing religion in the United States. Even professed Christians feel the pull of the venerable traditions of the East. One can imagine that at a typical Catholic parish, a workshop on Zen meditation might draw more attendees than one on Scholastic philosophy. The trouble is that this spiritual curiosity often leads to a weakening of the Faith and to superficial or even outright syncretism.
The East's pull on the West is strong and undeniable. Among modern Westerners, the traditions of the East have a certain clout that their own have long lost. More then three decades ago, Catholic economist E.F. Schumacher decided upon the title "Buddhist Economics" for what was to become the most famous chapter of his tome, Small Is Beautiful. The economic ideas this chapter contained were influenced by those expressed by St. Thomas Aquinas, papal encyclicals, and Chesterbellocian distributism, but he explained, "If I had called the chapter ¡®Christian Economics,¡¯ nobody would have paid any attention!" Schumacher was not being disingenuous ©¤ he was a believer in the sophia perennis, or perennnial philosophy to which all religions to a greater or lesser extent took part of ©¤ he was only recognizing the degree to which the contemporary West looked to the East for wisdom.
The average Christian today in the West today is less likely to be influenced by our great traditionalists from Edmund Burke to Russell Kirk than by Captain Kirk. But mention Buddha or Lao Tzu, and one is likely to get at least a listen. Is it possible then that de-Westernized Westerners are ready to hear from that greatest of Chinese philosophers, Confucius, who is simultaneously the most misrepresented in the West and most compatible with Western thought? Could it be that the Sage has something to say to the Catholic Church in her time of trial?
When Fr. Matteo Ricci, S.J., the Apostle of China, arrived in the Middle Kingdom in the late Sixteenth Century, he first adopted the dress and mannerism of a Buddhist monk, so as to appear as a man of religion to the Chinese. To a first-time visitor to China, it would indeed appear that Buddhism was the country's religion. In the Chinese non-exclusive "tridharma" of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, the first is a great religion, the second a mystical philosophy popularly degenerated into a school of divining, and the last a worldly and humanistic philosophy and ethical system.
After Fr. Ricci had mastered the Chinese language, he came to realize that Buddhism, itself a foreign import, was, in actuality, not held in very high esteem by either the Chinese people or their rulers. Monks were often the object of derision. It was the Confucian scholars, the literati, who commanded the respect and esteem of all classes of society. Fr. Ricci remade himself as a Confucian scholar and found himself with a position in the imperial court as China¡¯s chief astronomer.
But it was not for gain, material or spiritual, that Fr. Ricci remade himself as a "Western Confucian." After translating the Confucian classics into Latin, Fr, Ricci came to realize than not only was Confucianism the philosophy of the Chinese soul, it was a universal philosophy, worthy of study in the West. He bestowed upon its two great philosophers the Latinized names by which we in the West know them today, Confucius and Mencius. Fr. Ricci even came to the conclusion that original Confucianism, which had to various degrees fused with Buddhism and Taoism into Neo-Confucianism, was in fact far more compatible with the Catholic Faith than it was with these Eastern traditions.
The cornerstones of Confucianism, which in Chinese translates as the "school of the scholars," are jen and li. The former, most often translated as "benevolence," is a reality understandable to the Catholic mind. In fact, when it comes to jen, Catholics are more Catholic than the Pope, or in this case, more Confucian than Confucius. The Confucian Golden Rule is stated in The Analects, XV, 23: "Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you." Our Lord's version was stated in the positive in Matthew, VII, 12 and in Luke, VI, 31. Thus, the charity work for which the Church is esteemed throughout the world, her hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens, and leprosoria, finds no counterpart in the Confucian East. Confucianism, as noble as it is, is but a human philosophy informed by natural theology, not a divinely revealed religion. Confucian jen is perfected by the Catholic Faith.
It is, rather, in the Confucian concept of li that the Catholic Faith is able to find a needed intellectual armament for the battle she now faces. Just as li is more difficult to understand than jen, the concept is also more difficult to translate. It has been rendered variously as "etiquette," "ceremony," "rite," "ritual," or "propriety."
Confucius understood that man was Homo religiosus, even though the Sage himself was, if anything, irreligious. He denied the presence of the ancestral spirits in the rite which has come to be known, incorrectly, as "ancestor worship" in the West. While he denied the existence of the spirits, he affirmed the importance of ceremonial propriety in the orientation of man toward the good, which, for Confucius, was filial piety. The ancestral rite was meant not for the departed ancestors, but for the living.
Confucian li proscribed a precise following of the rubrics without the slightest deviation in the ancestral rite. If Confucius meant to orient the people toward the good in the ancestral rite, how much stronger should be the li of Holy Mother Church, who means to orient the people toward God in the Divine Sacrifice of the Mass!
The Confucian understanding of li went beyond the ancestral rite to include ceremonial music and human relationships as well. It is obvious where Confucius would stand in the liturgical battles of the past four decades; he would be on the side of those who want Gregorian Chant and Palestrina, not folk guitars, at Mass. Also, the Catholic laity should find much with which to agree in the Confucian five relationships, between father and son, husband and wife, elder and younger brothers, ruler and subject, and friend and friend. Particularly, the idea of filial piety and male headship of the family would do much to restore to the family the dignity it once enjoyed.
In what has come to be known as the "Rites Controversy," the Church, under Jansenist influence, determined the Confucian ancestral rite to be pagan. In one of the great ironies of Church history, Catholics in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam were persecuted for centuries for what was misunderstood as their lack of li. It was not until 1939 that the Church came around to the learned opinion of Fr. Matteo Ricci, that the Confucian ancestral rite was familial, not religious in nature, and Asian Catholics were allowed to participate in it. It has been suggested that the East might be Catholic today were it not for this error.
Pope John Paul II offered a mea culpa for this misunderstanding on Oct. 24, 2001, the 400th anniversary of Fr. Ricci's arrival in China. We today have a chance to right this wrong by fostering Confucian li in the Church Universal. No, we should not introduce to the West the Confucian ancestral rite; we already have All Souls' Day. But an understanding of li could help us in restoring Catholic liturgy and Catholic culture to its former glory. Said the Sage, "Take your stand in the li" (The Analects, VII, 8.) and "Not to know the li is to have no means of standing" (ibid., XX, 3).
The Holy Father has taken his ¡°stand in the li.¡± Pope Benedict XVI has unwittingly shown himself to be something of as Confucian sage in his liberation of the Tridentine Rite with his Summorum Pontificum and his concern for propriety, li, in liturgy. And by this linking of li and the Traditional Latin Mass, we are led back to China; Bishop Juan Ignacio Gonz¨¢lez Err¨¢zuriz of Chile observed the following after the motu proprio:
All of those Chinese Catholics are unfamiliar with any other liturgical form besides the previous one, and most assuredly in full communion with Rome, in the case of many Catholic faithful of communities not fully united with Rome, would not mean a change in liturgical form. Now, many will be able to return to the unity of the faith and will be able to do so without any change to the liturgy.
Was the li expressed in Summorum Pontificum a gift from the Holy Father to the Chinese Catholics of the underground Church? Whether or not that was the Pope's intention, it was certainly a gift to all of us. It is our job as the laity to cooperate with the Holy Father in his efforts to promote the extraordinary form of the Mass and to see to it that the ordinary form is instilled with the propriety of which it is worthy. If Confucius is among the unbaptized and virtuous pagans residing in Dante's Limbo, he will smile upon our efforts.
An American Catholic son-in-law of Korea, Joshua Snyder lives with his wife and two children in Pohang, where he serves as an assistant visiting professor of English at a science and technology university. He blogs at The Western Confucian.

If Western values stand for liberalism and individualism, Eastern values are closer to collectivism and communalism

Home > Newszone > Opinion > Thoughts of the Times > 11-16-2007 17:09
Philosophy of Universality By Kee Woo-tak
In the world's spiritual history, what era could have made philosophers agonize as much over the issue of human nature as the current one? Various crimes caused by the contempt for human life throughout the world ― the 9/11 terrorist attack of 2001, a massacre at Virginia Tech, threats from nuclear weapons and the almost daily occurrences of carnage in Iraq ― are calamities brought upon humans by other humans. They should have been inconceivable in the civilized society of the 21st century, so in the face of these tragedies, philosophers must provide a solution. Life, whether it is your own or another's, is equally precious. Murder is the worst case of obliterating human nature and an extreme rejection of peace. We can't help but search for the cause of this destruction of humanity in the innate duplicity of human nature. This duplicity, while it gives humans an unflagging will for good, also gives way to their weakness when tempted to seek "the radical evil" tenaciously lurking within. Therefore, there can be few, if any, objections to the assertion that a key proposition of this era should be the "recovery of human nature."
Confucius, a famous ancient Chinese philosopher, said:
"What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others."
And the German philosopher Immanuel Kant said:
"Always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as means to your end."
According to these teachings, human nature is noble and subject to reverence.The secret in the recovery of human nature is evasive, as humanity stands somewhere between divinity (morality) and bestiality. It is thus an important task of today's men and women to cast away their bestial (carnal) inclinations, and to elevate themselves to moral characters to maintain balanced personalities by encouraging their reflection on human nature. The philosophy of "recovering humanity" through nurturing morality should lead toward the road to global peace. Should the logic of a "World Citizens' Community" that Kant advocated in "Perpetual Peace" about 200 years ago remain just an ideal, an eternal dream? There is a limit to the role that religion and politics can play in resolving conflicts among human cultures. So its' the philosophers' role to provide solutions. They should elaborate a philosophy of universality for global villagers to prevent war and to serve as the basis for individuals' rights. Therefore, the creation of world philosophy is more urgent than anything else. It implies first of all breaking the wall between Eastern and Western philosophical traditions and facilitating mutual understanding and communication between the two heterogeneous cultures.
To give shape to "World Philosophy," a proper fusion of Western and Eastern values is necessary. In other words, if Western values stand for liberalism and individualism, Eastern values are closer to collectivism and communalism. Still, this dichotomous analysis can never be absolute, as Western values contain elements of Eastern values and there can be Western characteristics, too, within the components of Eastern values.
To resolve such cultural conflicts, it is first necessary to form a pan-Asian philosophy as the premise for establishing a World Philosophy, and for this purpose, I think it very important for the three East Asian nations of China, Japan and Korea to pursue the integration of a common cultural sphere and jointly examine how to evaluate modern values contained in the heritage of Confucian culture, as represented by the teachings of Confucius and Mencius. The discussion of the Universality of Philosophy is based on the global village theory to form a global community.
The progress in today's information and transportation technology sector, and the sweeping wave of globalization have made the fences of nationalism and regionalism no longer tenable. Philosophy must adapt to the new information society and the pursuit of cultural globalization, and universality should emerge as the grand proposition that brings together today's philosophies, a prerequisite for the birth of the Universality of Philosophy. The role of the Universality of Philosophy will be to seek, above all, harmony and unity that enable humans to escape from cultural antagonism and conflicts as well as to avoid philosophical, religious and cultural exclusiveness in their search for universality amid cultural diversity.
Kee Woo-tak is a former philosophy professor at Hongik University in Seoul. He is now a researcher at Sungkyunkwan University. He contributed the above article on the occasion of World Philosophy Day, which fell on Nov. 15. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) introduced the day in 2002 to promote philosophical reflection.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Plato used the myth of the cave to show how enlightenment is relative

The idea and history of myths is explored in Karen Armstrong’s “A Short History of Myth”. Myth is culture’s way of understanding itself and the word has many meanings across ritual and anthropological, literary and semiological fields. Armstrong primarily looks at the primary meaning: its ritual and anthropological function. She believes humans have been mythmakers since at least Neanderthal times and our imagination allows us to have irrational ideas. She said the five most important things about myths are
  • 1) the fact they are rooted in the fear of death
  • 2) it is inseparable from ritual
  • 3) they force us to go beyond our experience
  • 4) they teach us how to behave and
  • 5) they speak of another reality, most commonly referred to the world of the gods...
Around 4000 BCE humans began to build the first cities and with them the first civilisations. The earliest successful cities were in Iraq’s Fertile Crescent where the rate of societal rate rapidly increased. People began to learn new skills and there were new occupations: Engineers, plumbers, builders, barbers, porters, musicians and scribes. But destruction was common-place: Cities brought wars, massacres and revolutions. The violence of cities was reflected in the new mythology. Cain was the first city-builder and the first murderer. The Tower of Babel caused those who built it to be unable to understand each others speech. Mesopotamian myths such as The Epic of Gilgamesh were the first in which the Gods withdrew from the world. Civilisation and culture were on the ascendency and God was becoming increasingly remote.
The next major development in myth occurred between 800 and 200 BCE. Armstrong quotes German philosopher Karl Jaspers who calls this period The Axial Age because it is a pivotal era in humanity’s spiritual development. It marks the beginning of modern religion. There was Confucianism and Taoism in China, Buddhism and Hinduism in India, monotheism (Zoroastrianism and Judaism) in the Middle East and rationalism in Greece. A new market economy developed that saw power pass from holy men and kings to merchants. All the new religious movements began to tamper with the older myths. City life was making the divine more remote and alien. Indian cultures reflected this with the severe asceticism of their holy men. The Chinese did not speak of the divine at all. The philosophy of Confucius and Lao Tse were based on the ethics of how humans dealt with each other.
All the new religions believed strongly in rites which gave the myths emotional resonance. Myths demanded action. The Jews, so convinced by the emptiness of earlier myths began to insist that their god, Yahweh, was the only God. Meanwhile the Greeks used logos to find a rational basis for old myths. In matters such as physics, philosophy and drama, they explored ancient themes in new settings. Plato was impatient with myths but he saw they had an important role in the exploration of ideas that lie beyond the scope of philosophy. He used the myth of the cave to show how enlightenment is relative. Irrational matters, he conceded, might allow a plausible fable.
In the post Axial Age of 200 BCE to 1500 CE, the status of myth remained constant. Judaism inspired the myth of Christianity. The historical figure of Jesus was mythologised by St Paul. Paul was uninterested in Jesus’s teachings. What was important to him was the mystery of his death and resurrection. He turned the death and ascension in to mythical creations of the ‘everywhen’. Western Christianity used the Fall of Rome to develop the myth of Original Sin, but the myth is unknown to the eastern Orthodox, where the Roman Empire did not fall. The Christians were followed by Mohammed and the Koran. The Muslim holy book is a series of parables that speak about the divine in terms of signs and symbols.
In the 16th century, Europe (followed by its North American imitation) was beginning its world dominance. The Western modernity was based on logos. Society was freed from its dependence on the constraints of traditional cultures and forged forward fuelled on technological advances and constant reinvestment of capital. The western economy seemed infinitely renewable. This modernity bred an intellectual enlightenment that deemed myth as useless, false and outmoded. Modern medicine, hygiene, technologies and transport revolutionised life in Europe and North America. However logos could not explain these successes’ intuitive sense of significance. As a reaction, religion was read factually; hence the horror of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species.
In 1882, one of Nietzsche’s characters in “The Gay Science” famously proclaimed God was dead. Armstrong argues that in a sense Nietzsche was right; without myth and ritual, the sense of sacred dies. Humanity had turned God into a wholly notional truth. The nihilism of the 20th century seemed to bear this out. Iconic events such as the sinking of the Titanic, the killing fields of World War I, the death camps of World War II and the Russian gulags seemed to indicate the results of a total loss of the sacred. Armstrong argues we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that the myth is false or inferior. She says we need myths that help us identify with all of humanity, creates a spiritual attitude and helps us become transcendent. She argues that “unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that is able to keep abreast of our technological genius, we will not save our planet”. Labels: , , , , posted by Derek Barry at 10:22 PM

Freud and Marx are fundamentalists of the Enlightenment and hold faith in the powers of reason. Nietzsche has lost even that faith

By Merold Westphal Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1993. 296 pp. $19.99.
As the title clearly indicates, this book has not been written in order to silence atheists. It has been written, rather, to bring the church to repentance and renewal, and atheists, Westphal insists, can be helpful in this regard because their critiques of religion bring into clear focus the dangers of religion to the spiritual life. It is too often forgotten that "in Jesus' eyes the righteous are more deeply alienated from God than are the sinners." But it is not just any kind atheism that can have such a salutary effect upon the Church. Westphal distinguishes "evidential atheism," which constitutes scepticism, from the "atheism of suspicion," which directs its attention not to matters of truth and falsity but to the evasiveness of consciousness that allows religion itself "to mask and to fulfill forms of self-interest that cannot be acknowledged." Under such conditions, religion "reduces God to a means or instrument for achieving our own human purposes with professedly divine power and sanctions," which means that the devotees really do not know what they, religiously speaking, are doing.
Thus, given the emphasis of Hebrew prophecy on corporate self-examination and the Christian emphasis on personal self-examination, Westphal concludes that it is possible to speak of the religious uses of modern atheism if it is the atheism of suspicion. Atheistic suspicion may be helpful to the Christian in recovering the Bible's own built-in polemic against those forms of religion corrupted by instrumental interests. Westphal is aware how threatening his suggestions regarding the religious values of atheism might be to his readers, and he attempts in the remainder of part one of the book to provide a gentle introduction to the atheism of suspicion by turning to a form of such thought found in religious, and therefore less threatening, thinkers like Martin Luther and Karl Barth. He also provides a very brief account of the origins of such a hermeneutic of suspicion in Francis Bacon's critique of the Idols of the Tribe and Cave and David Hume's critique of religion in The Natural History of Religion. Each of the remaining parts of the book is then devoted to the "masters of suspicion": Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche.
In approaching Freud's work, Westphal is well aware that Freud is an evidential atheist, and he thinks Freud's scientism deserves refutation. However, he argues that to do so would be a mistake because Freud's primary mode of critique is his suspicion of religion and that understanding him on this score will yield the Christian great benefit. Westphal fears that refutation of the evidential atheism may lead to a simple rejection of Freud's atheism of suspicion as well. What is of value in Freud is his concentrated attention on the role of motive in religion and on the function of religion. In understanding him on these points, it is possible for Christians to see that their beliefs are often held for reasons hidden from themselves and that, because of that self-deception, they believe and act so as "to domesticate the divine power [and] to co-opt and control it for [their] own purposes." As Westphal puts it with respect to the performance of religious rites, Freud shows "that the believing soul engages in religious practices without understanding their meaning, without, for example, awareness of the motives that give to the rite its wish-fulfilling character." This means, quite simply, that Christians do not really know what they are doing, and that is a spiritually dangerous state in which to be.
As is the case with Freud, Westphal maintains that Marx's evidential atheism is also open to criticism but argues that Christians have much to learn by understanding what Marx means in his reference to religion as "the opium of the people." Even though Marx fails to note that religion can function as protest, it is the recognition of the role religion plays in the legitimation of social structures that can be of great benefit to the Christian. According to Marx, Christians think they adopt religion because it is true, but the truth is that they have adopted it because of its instrumental value to them in their everyday lives here and now. In not being aware of this, Christians also fail to see not only the ways religion endures evil in this world but actually eventually embraces it. This means, Westphal points out, that Christians "must go beyond asking whether our beliefs are true and our conscious intentions respectable to asking the really hard questions. How does our theology function?"
Nietzsche, unlike Freud and Marx, is not an evidential atheist, according to Westphal, because his critique of religion is grounded solely in a hermcneutic of suspicion. His message for the Christian, however, is ultimately the same as that delivered by Freud and Marx. But there is one sense in which Nietzsche goes beyond the other two masters of suspicion, namely, in his suspicion of reason. Freud and Marx, that is, are still fundamentalists of the Enlightenment because they still hold faith in the powers of reason. Nietzsche has lost even that faith.
Westphal concludes this meditation on the religious values of modern atheism by noting the dangers that accompany such an exercise-such an undertaking can simply spawn its own hypocrisy in the battle to rid itself of hypocrisy, or it can degenerate into cynicism, or it may destroy all memory of the grace of God. Despite the dangers, however, he encourages a careful examination of such atheisms as an antidote to a pervasive self-deception within the religious life, which leads to a severely distorted form of piety. He sees this book, therefore, as primarily for the church rather than for the academy. If modern atheists are taken seriously, he is confident they will provide a stimulus to a self-examination that can help restore the integrity of religious life. Thus, he thinks of the book as a kind of lenten exercise.
Although not directed to the academy, Westphal's book is a careful and illuminating analysis of the nature and the religious import of the atheism of suspicion and will, therefore, be of interest to many in the academy. It is also, and primarily, a profound religious meditation of particular value to Christians, though not obviously limited to those within the Christian church. Donald Wiebe Trinity College Toronto, ON

Monday, November 12, 2007

Happiness’ Sisyphean nature

All They Are Saying Is Give Happiness a Chance
By EDUARDO PORTER NYT Editorial Observer: November 12, 2007
The framers of the Constitution evidently believed that happiness could be achieved, putting its pursuit up there alongside the unalienable rights to life and liberty. Though governments since then have seen life and liberty as deserving of vigorous protection, for all the public policies aimed at increasing economic growth, people have been left to sort out their happiness.
This is an unfortunate omission. Despite all the wealth we have accumulated — increased life expectancy, central heating, plasma TVs and venti-white-chocolate-mocha Frappuccinos — true happiness has lagged our prosperity. As Bobby Kennedy said in a speech at the University of Kansas in March 1968, the nation’s gross national product measures everything “except that which makes life worthwhile.”
The era of laissez-faire happiness might be coming to an end. Some prominent economists and psychologists are looking into ways to measure happiness to draw it into the public policy realm. Thirty years from now, reducing unhappiness could become another target of policy, like cutting poverty.
“This is another outcome that we should be concerned about,” said Alan Krueger, a professor of economics at Princeton who is working to develop a measure of happiness that could be used with other economic indicators. “Just like G.D.P.”
It might be a bit of a political challenge to define happiness as a legitimate policy objective. Imagine the Republican outrage when the umpteenth tax cut didn’t do the trick. Democrats would likely slam the effort as regressive, distracting from efforts to improve the lot of the less fortunate by more conventional measures — like income.
Happiness is clearly real, related to objective measures of well-being. Happier people have lower blood pressure and get fewer colds. But using it to guide policy could be tricky. Not least because we don’t quite understand why it behaves the way it does. Men are unhappiest at almost 50, and women at just after 45. Paraplegics are not unhappier than healthy people. People who live with teenagers are the unhappiest of all.
Happiness seems fairly cheap to manipulate. In one experiment, subjects were asked to answer a questionnaire about personal satisfaction after Xeroxing a sheet of paper. Those who found a dime lying on the Xerox machine reported substantially higher satisfaction with their lives.
Most disconcerting, happiness seems to have little relation to economic achievement, which we have historically understood as the driver of well-being. A notorious study in 1974 found that despite some 30 years worth of stellar economic growth, Americans were no happier than they were at the end of World War II. A more recent study found that life satisfaction in China declined between 1994 and 2007, a period in which average real incomes grew by 250 percent.
Happiness, it appears, adapts. It’s true that the rich are happier, on average, than the poor. But while money boosts happiness, the effect doesn’t last. We just become envious of a new, richer set of people than before. Satisfaction soon settles back to its prior level, as we adapt to changed circumstances and set our expectations to a higher level.
Despite happiness’ apparently Sisyphean nature, there may be ways to increase satisfaction over the long term. While the extra happiness derived from a raise or a winning lottery ticket might be fleeting, studies have found that the happiness people derive from free time or social interaction is less susceptible to comparisons with other people around them. Nonmonetary rewards — like more vacations, or more time with friends or family — are likely to produce more lasting changes in satisfaction.
This swings the door wide open for government intervention. On a small scale, congestion taxes to encourage people to carpool would reduce the distress of the solo morning commute, which apparently drives people nuts.
More broadly, if the object of public policy is to maximize society’s well-being, more attention should be placed on fostering social interactions and less on accumulating wealth. If growing incomes are not increasing happiness, perhaps we should tax incomes more to force us to devote less time and energy to the endeavor and focus instead on the more satisfying pursuit of leisure.
One thing seems certain, lining up every policy incentive to strive for higher and higher incomes is just going to make us all miserable. Happiness is one of the things that money just can’t buy.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The liberal arts are not merely indispensable; they are unavoidable

The tradition of the West is embodied in the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of history and that continues to the present day. Whatever the merits of other civilizations in other respects, no civilization is like that of the West in this respect. No other civilization can claim that its defining characteristic is a dialogue of this sort. No dialogue in any other civilization can compare with that of the West in the number of great works of the mind that have contributed to this dialogue. The goal toward which Western society moves is the Civilization of the Dialogue. The spirit of Western civilization is the spirit of inquiry. Its dominant element is the Logos. Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to speak his mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined. The exchange of ideas is held to be the path to the realization of the potentialities of the race.
At a time when the West is most often represented by its friends as the source of that technology for which the whole world yearns and by its enemies as the fountainhead of selfishness and greed, it is worth remarking that, though both elements can be found in the great conversation, the Western ideal is not one or the other strand in the conversation, but the conversation itself. It would be and exaggeration to say that Western civilization means these books. The exaggeration would lie in the omission of the plastic arts and music, which have quite as important a part in Western civilization as the great productions included in this set. But to the extent to which books can present the idea of a civilization, the idea of Western civilization is here presented.
These books are the means of understanding our society and ourselves. They contain the great ideas that dominate us without our knowing it. There is no comparable repository of our tradition. To put an end to the spirit of inquiry that has characterized the West it is not necessary to burn the books. All we have to do is to leave them unread for a few generations. On the other hand, the revival of interest in these books from time to time throughout history has provided the West with new drive and creativeness. Great Books have salvaged, preserved, and transmitted the tradition on many occasions similar to our own.
The books contain not merely the tradition, but also the great exponents of the tradition. Their writings are models of the fine and liberal arts. They hold before us what Whitehead called “‘the habitual vision of greatness.” These books have endured because men in every era have been lifted beyond themselves by the inspiration of their example, Sir Richard Livingstone said: “We are tied down, all our days and for the greater part of our days, to the commonplace. That is where contact with great thinkers, great literature helps. In their company we are still in the ordinary world, but it is the ordinary world transfigured and seen through the eyes of wisdom and genius. And some of their vision becomes our own.”
Until very recently these books have been central in education in the West. They were the principal instrument of liberal education, the education that men acquired as an end in itself, for no other purpose than that it would help them to be men, to lead human lives, and better lives than they would otherwise be able to lead.
The aim of liberal education is human excellence, both private and public (for man is a political animal). Its object is the excellence of man as man and man as citizen. It regards man as an end, not as a means; and it regards the ends of life, and not the means to it. For this reason it is the education of free men. Other types of education or training treat men as means to some other end, or are at best concerned with the means of life, with earning a living, and not with its ends.
The substance of liberal education appears to consist in the recognition of basic problems, in knowledge of distinctions and interrelations in subject matter, and in the comprehension of ideas.
Liberal education seeks to clarify the basic problems and to understand the way in which one problem bears upon another. It strives for a grasp of the methods by which solutions can be reached and the formulation of standards for testing solutions proposed. The liberally educated man understands, for example, the relation between the problem of the immortality of the soul and the problem of the best form of government; he understands that the one problem cannot be solved by the same method as the other, and that the test that he will have to bring to bear upon solutions proposed differs from one problem to the other.
The liberally educated man understands, by understanding the distinctions and interrelations of the basic fields of subject matter, the differences and connections between poetry and history, science and philosophy, theoretical and practical science; he understands that the same methods cannot be applied in all these fields; he knows the methods appropriate to each.
The liberally educated man comprehends the ideas that are relevant to the basic problems and that operate in the basic fields of subject matter. He knows what is meant by soul. State, God, beauty, and by the other terms that are basic to the insights that these ideas, singly or in combination, provide concerning human experience.
The liberally educated man has a mind that can operate well in all fields. He may be a specialist in one field. But he can understand anything important that is said in any field and can see and use the light that it shed upon his own. The liberally educated man is at home in the world of ideas and in the world or practical affairs, too, because he understands the relation of the two. He may not be at home in the world of practical affairs in the sense of liking the life he finds about him; but he will be at home in that world in the sense that he understands it. He may even derive from his liberal education some conception of the difference between a bad world and a good one and some notion of the ways in which one might be turned onto the other.
The method of liberal education is the liberal arts, and the result of liberal education is discipline in those arts. The liberal artist learns to read, write, speak, listen, understand, and think. He learns to reckon, measure, and manipulate matter, quantity, and motion in order to predict, produce, and exchange. As we live in the tradition, whether we know it or not, so we are all liberal artists, whether we know it or not. We all practice the liberal arts, well or badly, all the time every day. As we should understand the tradition as well as we can in order to understand ourselves, so we should be as good liberal artists as we can in order to become as fully human as we can.
The liberal arts are not merely indispensable; they are unavoidable, Nobody can decide for himself whether he is going to be a human being. The only question open to him is whether he will be an ignorant, undeveloped one or one who has sought to reach the highest point he is capable of attaining. The question, in short, is whether he will be a poor liberal artist or a good one.
The tradition of the West in education is the tradition of the liberal arts. Until very recently nobody took seriously the suggestion that there could be any other ideal. The educational ideas of John Locke, for example, which were directed to the preparation of the pupil to fit conveniently into the social and economic environment in which he found himself, made no impression on Locke’s contemporaries. And so it will be found that other voices raised in criticism of liberal education fell upon deaf ears until about a half-century ago.
This Western devotion to the liberal arts and liberal education must have been largely responsible for the emergence of democracy as an ideal. The democratic ideal is equal opportunity for full human development, and, since the liberal arts are the basic means of such development, devotion to democracy naturally results from devotion to them. On the other hand, if acquisition of the liberal arts is an intrinsic part of human dignity, then the democratic ideal demands that we should strive to see to it that all have the opportunity to attain to the fullest measure of the liberal arts that is possible to each.
The present crisis in the world has been precipitated by the vision of the range of practical and productive art offered by the West. All over the world men are on the move, expressing their determination to share in the technology in which the West has excelled. This movement is one of the most spectacular in history, and everybody is agreed upon one thing about it: we do not know how to deal with it. It would be tragic if in our preoccupation with the crisis we failed to hold up as a thing of value for all the world, even as that which might show us a way in which to deal with the crisis, our vision of the best that the West has to offer. That vision is the range of the liberal arts and liberal education. Our determination about the distribution of the fullest measure of these arts and this education will measure our loyalty to the best in our own past and our total service to the future of the world.
The great books were written by the greatest liberal artists. They exhibit the range of the liberal arts. The authors were also the greatest teachers. They taught one another. They taught all previous generations, up to a few years ago. The question is whether they can teach us.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

As though we were a single person with four heads

What the New Atheists Don’t See Theodore Dalrymple
Selected Responses: Sent by Sam Harris on 10-29-2007:
Needless to say, Dalrymple is not the first critic to respond to Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, and me as though we were a single person with four heads. He is not the first to claim, somewhat paradoxically, that our criticism of religion goes much too far without, he is sorry to report, going so far as to say anything new. He is not the first professed "atheist" to suggest that, while he can get along just fine without an imaginary friend, most human beings will always need to delude themselves about God—nor is he the first to fail to see just how condescending and unimaginative one must be to believe such a thing about the rest of humanity. Dalymple is, however, the first in one respect: he is the first writer to claim that he could have produced every argument found in the "new atheist" books ("with the possible exception of Dennett's") by the tender age of 14. I do not doubt this for a moment—though this leaves me wondering how many blows to the head Dalrymple has suffered in the intervening years.
In lieu of answering our arguments against faith—in lieu, even, of noticing them—Dalrymple simply misses the point of our books outright. He misses it petulantly at first, but his obliviousness to matters of substance soon swells to something like exultation. He then delivers what he clearly imagines to be the killing blow, comparing our misbegotten work to a few religious meditations he deems especially profound. Perhaps it was meant as a further insult to us that he sought to convey the invidious gulf between the "new atheists" and certain "Anglican divines of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries" by furnishing the readers of this journal with some of the most banal religious meanderings ever recorded. But I fear there is not this much method in Dalrymple's madness. The man appears simply lost. He sees neither what is worst about religion, nor what is best, with anything like clarity. It’s a pity we don’t have the 14-year-old Dalrymple to reckon with. Then we all might have learned something.
Theodore Dalrymple responds:
I understand why Mr. Harris feels strongly about the way in which I expressed myself, and perhaps I was a little intemperate, in which case I apologize.
There seem to me three main points to discuss. First, the existence of God; second, the actual historical record of organized religion; third, the metaphysical difficulties of human existence without God.
The arguments for and against the existence of God are by now pretty well rehearsed, and I do not think that any of the new atheists (I call them that because their books came out at about the same time) add anything much to them. They are not entirely to blame for this: it would take a very great philosopher to do so. I certainly have nothing new to say on the matter.
Second, the historiography of religion employed by most of these authors, though admittedly not by Daniel Dennett, is one of bringing up only damning evidence. This does not seem to me to be an honest appraisal of religion's role in human history, but one that is emotionally parti pris and fundamentally intolerant. It would be possible to write a history of medicine using only the stupidity and ignorance of doctors, and the harm that they had done, as material; but that would not be the history of medicine in its entirety.
Third, the metaphysical difficulties of human existence are considerable, and I do not think the abandonment of religion would make things any easier. Many people would find the reverse to be true.
Finally, with regard to Mr. Harris's statement that it may be ethical to kill people with certain (unspecified) ideas: for myself, I fear the likelihood of mission creep. I cannot help recalling the wise words of a great British judge, Lord Mansfield, who said in the eighteenth century that so long as an act remains in bare intention alone it is not punishable by our law. Killing people for their thoughts alone is not a recipe for anything except bloody disaster. Autumn 2007 Table of Contents

Judaism focuses on the small questions of everyday existence » Opinion » Op-Ed Contributors » Nov 5, 2007 20:09 Updated Nov 6, 2007
The Jewish gift to Humanity By SHMULEY BOTEACH A few weeks ago I debated philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, a self-declared atheist, and Noah Feldman, arguably America's foremost 30-something legal mind, on whether Jews - based on their values - are different from other nations.
Are Jews distinct based on the values we cherish, or are we like everyone else? To be sure, Jews are fiercely devoted to their identities. Even when they marry out they still never give up the title "Jew," and they rarely convert to the religion of their non-Jewish spouse. It's as if Jews feel innately that there is something infinitely meaningful in the simple title "Jew."
But can we identify values that make Jewish identity so consequential to so many? I believe we can.

FIRST, THERE are the values that the Jewish people gave the world, that have since been co-opted by other faiths and for which we have lost a copyright. Since these values have been adopted by other nations who do not credit the Jews with their origin, this makes many believe that the only Jewish legacy is one of suffering and death.
In thinking of golden civilizations the average secular Jew will conjure up images of pontificating Greek philosophers, Roman legions shimmering in the golden sun, and the artistic wonders of the Renaissance masters. Tell him that in terms of world history the Jews have outshone all these civilizations, and he will break into giggles. The Jews, he thinks to himself, are the ones who were defeated by the Romans, slaughtered by the Crusaders, expelled by the Spaniards, disemboweled by the Cossacks, and cremated by the Nazis. Every Jewish child studies in school about how each nation lived, and how the Jews died.
This is, sadly, due to the fact that the many gifts of the Jews now go by unrecognizable names.
We gave the world the one, true God. Today the name is Jesus and Allah. The Hebrew Bible's idea that all men are created as equals today goes by the name democracy. The idea of a brotherhood of nations, rooted in the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah, today goes by the name United Nations.
Consider also that the teaching of Leviticus 19:18, that one must love one's fellow man as oneself, is today called the Golden Rule and attributed to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.
British historian Paul Johnson puts it this way: "To [the Jews] we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews it might have been a much emptier place.

BUT THERE is a second tier of values, values which remain wholly Jewish, which have not been embraced by the world, and which can bring great healing if they were to be disseminated.
In America, the age of Judaism has arrived. Why? Because Christianity and Islam mostly focus on the big questions of how one gets into heaven and where one goes after death. But Judaism, instead, focuses on the small questions of everyday existence, at which most people today fail: how do I stay married, how do I inspire my children, and how do I live a life of spiritual purpose that is not dominated by corrosive materialism?

There are six central values that are uniquely Jewish and which the world desperately needs in order to heal. Their perpetuation among Jews only will be to the earth's detriment. And it should be our objective to mainstream these values everywhere. They are, in acrostic form, DREAMS:

1. Destiny: Unlike the Greeks, who believed in the "awesome power of fate," the Jews are messianists. For Christians messianism is a spiritual concept which speaks of mankind's redemption from the original sin. But for Jews messianism is a physical concept which connotes mankind's capacity to make the world a nearly perfect place. Jews believe in humankind's promised destiny of an era in which peace will reign over the earth and "the wolf shall lie with the lamb" and the predatory streak in man and in nations will be purged.
In short, we believe in the perfectibility of mankind. We are even willing to wrestle with God Himself, battling whatever divine plans He may have for afflictions, and instead bring healing to the world. Abraham argued with God to save the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses debated with the Creator to rescue the Jews after the sin of the Golden Calf. And they did so in the knowledge that it was the will of the Creator that they seek to rescind the devastating divine decree.
Whereas Christians believe in a leap of faith, and Islam translates, literally, as submitting to God in faith, the word Israel means "he who wrestles with God." This explains why Jews always struggle to improve the society into which they are immersed. This also explains why so many Jews have founded utopian movements aimed at social justice and the equal distribution of wealth. SOME ACADEMICS attribute universal Jewish achievement to social Darwinism; that less intelligent, less able Jews, may have been killed off by anti-Semites, leaving only the best to survive. Others believe that Jews have higher IQs than most. But such endeavors at eugenics would leave us as lost as James Watson - who in 1953 along with Francis Crick identified the structure of DNA - who recently suggested that Africans are not as smart as whites.
Watson's ideas, for which he apologized, are repugnant to us in the extreme. We do not believe that we are in any way racially better or smarter than other nations. But we do believe that we have superior values, and our belief in the destiny of mankind is one of those superior values that the entire world ought to embrace.
Amid the most tragic history, the Jews remain eternal optimists. Most of all, this explains Zionism and the establishment of modern Israel. Just three years after the Holocaust the Jews returned to their homeland, and this when so many other nations succumbed to calamities much less serious. Because, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik said, the burning fire to return to the land of their fathers could not be snuffed out even by the raging crematoria of Auschwitz

2. Redemption: Christians and Muslims believe in salvation. The need for man to become spiritual, refine his character and earn a place in heaven. But Jews believe that world redemption precedes personal salvation.
The betterment of the community must always outweigh the perfection of the individual. Repairing the world is more important than repairing oneself. Communal needs precede personal needs.
Judaism has never had a monastic tradition. Less so do we pray on our own, but in a quorum of at least 10. There is no strong meditative tradition in Judaism. Everything is geared toward outward, communal involvement. Jews are raised with a collective rather than a personal conscience.

3. Action: What you do is more important than what you believe. Good deeds always supersede good dogma, which is why a great man like Michael Steinhardt can be an atheist and still be infinitely committed to his people, saving thousands of lives and educating tens of thousands more through his philanthropy.
Jews believe that what we become in our lifetime is dependent entirely on the choices we make rather than the ideas by which we live. Man possesses freedom of choice at all times. Therefore, we must choose righteousness.
Christianity put faith above acts. Many strains of Christianity believe in predetermination. Even modern day science believes in genetic predisposition. Not Judaism. We believe in the power of a single good deed to vastly change a person's life and the world at-large, which is why the concept of mitzva is the most central Jewish value of all.
We believe that giving money to the poor is tzedaka - justice, rather than charity, an affair of the heart, motivated by strong feelings for the underprivileged. We do not care whether one feels anything for the poor. They must still give.

4. Enlightenment: Jews believe in the illumination that comes from the pursuit of knowledge. We are the people of the book because of our deep reverence for study. Unlike other civilizations that believe that knowledge's purpose is its application to everyday problems, the Jews believe in knowledge for knowledge's sake. To live in ignorance is, for the Jew, to live in the dark pit of hell. Being raised Jewish is being raised to always want to know. We are an infinitely curious people and believe that the great bane of existence, boredom, can only be cured by knowledge.

5. Marriage: By marriage, I do not only mean the institution, but rather that we Jews believe in the softening of the masculine by exposure to the feminine, the amelioration of the aggressive by synthesizing it with the passive. No nation has been so passionate about the need to curb masculine aggression with feminine nurturing.
Judaism insists on curbing the desire for conquest with the desire for peace. Judaism is an inherently feminine faith, and Jews an inherently feminine people. We glorify the Sabbath, a passive day of peace and rest, as our holiest day. We have strict prohibitions on eating blood, and we are prohibited from eating animals or birds of prey.
The ancient world glorified warriors like Odysseus, Agamemnon, Hannibal, and Caesar. But the Jews glorify Abraham, who is praised in the Bible for being a caterer, Jacob who pardons the angel with whom he struggles, and Joseph, who forgives his brothers their attempt at fratricide.
Even King David, our greatest warrior, is celebrated not for his military triumphs but for playing harp and lyre and authoring the moving Psalms. Even so, David could not build the Temple because he was a man of war.
Jewish families are strong because Jewish men have been domesticated for thousands of years. They have been taught not to be womanizers but to commit to one woman and to commit at a young age.

6. Struggle: It is wrestling with our nature, rather than perfection, which constitutes true righteousness. The Christian model of righteousness is Jesus, who is perfect. The same is true of Muhammad for Muslims. Criticizing the prophet is blasphemy. But Jews look up to Abraham, who made mistakes in his parenting of Ishmael. Jacob is criticized for favoring Joseph. Moses was so imperfect that he was not allowed to enter the promised land. What, then, made these men great? It was their capacity to wrestle with their nature and do the right thing amid a predilection to do otherwise. Jews believe in struggle. The angelic model of he for whom goodness is intuitive is not compelling to Jews. Rather, we admire those who act altruistically amid the pull to behave with selfishness.

Therefore, Jews, while of course condemning hypocrisy, still understand the concept in a totally different way. Most people are inconsistent rather than hypocrites. They preach one thing and practice another not because they don't believe in goodness, but because they cannot always master their natures to do the right thing. No matter. Imperfect people can still vastly contribute to the perfection of the world. All it takes is one good deed. The writer, the host of TLC's Shalom in the Home, has just launched The Jewish Values Network, aimed at bringing Jewish Values to mainstream, American culture.

Friday, November 02, 2007

A divine vocation that brings with it, not enlightenment, but darkness, confusion, oppression

In his infamous lecture, “Why I am Not a Christian” – presented 80 years ago this year – Bertrand Russell remarked that the word Christian “does not have quite such a full-blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant.… Nowadays it is not quite that.” This comment reflects the state of atrophy into which Christianity has descended, the continual process of being alienated from its own essence, of growing ever more vague and indistinct.
And yet it is truly a peculiar aspect of our time that shards of a lost authenticity can be found in the most “anti-Christian” of sources. Indeed, the offensive strangeness historically embodied in the Christian message is frequently more discernible in such sources than in the impotent expressions of official Christianity. As usual, Karl Marx said it best: “Shame on you, Christians, both high and lowly, learned and unlearned, shame on you that an anti-Christian had to show you the essence of Christianity in its true and unveiled form!”
Perhaps one of the paradoxical tasks left to us, then, is to try to make out the truth in the likes of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, or buried deep in the pages of Darwin’s scientific notebooks, or even amid the moving images of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ...
But there is a disturbing dimension to Scorsese’s films that is far more profound than just on-screen violence. It is conveyed by the stark inelegance of the cinematography, the absence of warm tones, the chilling sense of an austere world in which kindness, let alone love, is not possible. Scorsese’s is a fallen world. Like Cain, his tortured characters are driven further into the wastelands – whether the desert or the untamed streets of New York – by their acts of almost mythical violence, until any remaining vestige of hope or virtue is finally extinguished.
And it is into this world that Scorsese – like those great Italian auteurs before him, Pasolini and Zeffirelli – conceived his own Christ. Drawing inspiration from Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ presented a radically different version of the Jesus story than other, more sanitized depictions. Scorsese’s Jesus, like all of his protagonists, is a tortured soul, haunted by a divine vocation that brings with it, not enlightenment, but darkness, confusion, oppression.
Jesus’ experience of God is of an expansive, entirely free presence that can no more be apprehended by the young Galilean’s marginalized psyche than it can by the temple in Jerusalem. The psycho-spiritual journey of the film, then, is not toward some deep sense of Jesus’ “secret identity,” a clearer realization of who he is and what he must do, but rather away from any such security. He is plunged into the divine void, and need only be willing to resign himself to it to find salvation, and sanity.
This is where the film’s near fatal weakness lies: it reduces Jesus’ message to an antiestablishment spiritualism, or even vulgar pantheism over against the rigid formality of Jewish ritual. (As Jesus puts it at one point in the film, “God is an immortal spirit who belongs to everybody, to the whole world!”) By casting God as an all-embracing life spirit, rather than some tribal deity, the film locates the critical opposition as one between Jesus’ free spirituality and Judaism’s stale religion.