Last week I examined the theology of Marcion of Sinope, who believed – as did many other early Christians – that there existed two gods, one good and one evil. I argued that Marcion’s theology is an ingenious way for a Christian to make sense of the atrocities in the Hebrew Bible. But this week I want to argue that the appeal of such a theology goes well beyond the interpretation of scripture in the West. Rather, it is also a way to help us understand the world, if we are to take theism seriously. Continue reading
Not long ago I attended a conference on a particular genre of educational technology. The conference presenters were endlessly positive, uplifting – they sought to inspire the attenders with the potential that their subject could offer for student learning. But some discontent rumbled among the attenders, rightly I think: these presenters are not really saying anything. Their theories are abstractions, perhaps even platitudes, that are difficult to disagree with but mean very little in application. Emotionally they can inspire us; rationally they give us no value.
In the conference’s smaller- group discussions (of which there were fortunately many), there was more of a chance to speak of problems, to complain, to be negative – and paradoxically, by being negative they were able to be more constructive. Why? It is far easier to understand what to do when you understand what not to do; you learn what’s true in part by learning what’s false. Endless affirmation of how good something is won’t tell you anything about what makes it good, let alone about how to put it into practice successfully.
As it happens, on the way to this conference I had been reading a book about Kant. Continue reading
Last week I spoke of a philosophical single-mindedness shared by modernists, evangelical Protestants, Salafi Muslims and St. Augustine, and this week I’d like to reflect on it further. What these various single-minded thinkers hold in common is opposed above all, I think, by literal conservatism. Conservatives in the literal sense seek to preserve much of the world as it is – “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They are opposed to radical breaks and revolutions, whether those aim to take us forward (as the modernists) or backward (as the Salafis). I noted in my earlier post that Jane Jacobs’s urban criticism, a direct attack on modernist architecture and modernist urban planning, is a quintessential example of literal conservatism; Jacobs would react with the same hostility to the Salafi assault on Mecca. In that respect, for all its urbanity, Jacobs’s work is of a piece with the agrarian rural conservatism of Front Porch Republic and Wendell Berry.
The appeal of such literal conservatism is certainly not limited to aesthetics, but one may perhaps see it most clearly in the aesthetic realm. (Some modernists, like the Marxist geographer David Harvey, see an aesthetic conservatism as opposed to a more ethical modernism.) For it’s hard to imagine elevating a single most important principle, as modernists typically do, as the principle behind beauty: could one ever say “Everything constructed according to principle X will be beautiful,” without making principle X entirely vacuous and devoid of content? Aesthetics seem to require a focus on the details and not merely the big picture.
Now of the various single-minded thinkers I’ve mentioned so far – modernists, evangelicals, Salafis and Augustine – one might note that they all have their historical roots in Western traditions. Continue reading
I have recently taken on a position as interviewer for the New Books Network, an exciting new project to hold podcast interviews with the authors of recently published scholarly books. I will be interviewing for New Books in Buddhist Studies, a position I share with Scott Mitchell. I’ve completed a first podcast which is not yet available online, but I’ll let you know when it is.
I mention this now because that first podcast is with Jason Clower on his The Unlikely Buddhologist, the study I recently mentioned of 20th-century Confucian Mou Zongsan. The podcast is there to explore Clower’s ideas; here I’d like to add my own.
The book asks why Mou, a committed Confucian, spent a great deal of time thinking and writing about Buddhism. Its answer is that Mou found East Asian Buddhists expressing metaphysical distinctions with a clarity that the Confucians had not. Mou is deeply concerned with the metaphysics of value – specifically, the relationship between ultimate value and existing things. One might refer to this as the relationship between goodness and truth, or between God and world, even creator and creation. Continue reading
When I taught an introductory religion class at Stonehill, one of my favourite texts to teach was Jon Levenson’s Commentary article, “How not to conduct Jewish-Christian dialogue.” Levenson’s article is a critique of Dabru Emet, a brief statement made by four professors of Jewish studies. Dabru Emet emphasizes the commonalities between Jews and Christians: they worship the same God, seek authority from the same Hebrew Bible, and accept the moral principles of that text.
Levenson responds: wait a minute. For Trinitarian Christians (the vast majority today and for most of Christianity’s history), Jesus is God in a fundamental sense; but for a Jew (or Muslim), to say that a man is God is an idolatry that drastically compromises God’s fundamental oneness and uniqueness. While the content of the Tanakh – the Hebrew Bible as understood by Jews – may be mostly the same as that of the Old Testament, they are read in a very different light. To understand the Tanakh, Jews turn to Mishnah and Talmud; to understand the Old Testament, Christians turn to the New. As a result, the stories of the Hebrew Bible unfold very differently in each – they are even placed in a different order, so that the Tanakh culminates with the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, while the Old Testament ends with a prophesy heralding the “coming of the Lord.” And this isn’t just a matter of arcane scriptural study: it affects one’s ethics, one’s idea of the good life. Jewish ethics have been traditionally focused on following God’s laws and commandments as revealed in Torah, Christian ethics on following Jesus’s example – or even more so on faith in him and his saving grace.
Now my interest in Levenson is not in the particulars of Jewish and Christian traditions, since I identify with neither tradition. Rather, what I deeply appreciate is his criticism of Dabru Emet‘s method. Such documents, Levenson argues, “avoid any candid discussion of fundamental beliefs,” and “adopt instead the model of conflict resolution or diplomatic negotiation.” Continue reading
A couple of my recent posts have explored the idea of anti-politics – the idea that concern with affairs of the state is typically detrimental to a good human life. The anti-political view is one for which I have great sympathy. Now, as the previous post might have suggested, I also reject the supernatural; I believe that natural science is our best guide to the causality of the physical world, and that we would do well to look with skepticism on belief in celestial bodhisattvas, the multiplication of tooth relics, or an afterlife.
But if one takes up the resulting position – neither supernatural nor political – then one has relatively little company in the history of philosophy. From Yavanayāna Buddhists to Unitarian Universalists, those who have sought to move beyond the supernatural have typically also believed in political engagement. The vast majority of political quietists like Śāntideva believed in a vast panoply of unseen worlds far beyond those supported by empirically tested evidence.
I continue to wonder: is there something I’m missing? Is there some reason why so many in the end tend to supernaturalism, politics, or both? Continue reading
In my previous discussion of Christine Korsgaard’s prologue to The Sources of Normativity, I left out one significant feature of the story she tells of Western philosophy. This is the reason – related to the basic account of excellence of obligation – why Christianity proved philosophically more powerful than Greek thought.
On Korsgaard’s account of Greek metaphysics (à la Plato and Aristotle), goodness is a feature of reality, one more fundamental in a sense than the particular physical objects that appear before us. Perfect form is more real than imperfect matter. This is true whether, with Plato, those forms exist in a world apart from matter, or, with Aristotle, they exist within matter as its potential and telos.
But if that’s the case, Korsgaard notes, then the logical question is: why aren’t things perfect already? We normally think of theodicy – the problem of suffering and responses to it – as primarily a problem for Abrahamic traditions. If God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, it’s hard to see how there can be suffering in the world (though it’s less hard to see how there can be evil). But broaden the question a bit – make it “the problem of bad” – and it appears elsewhere too. For Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta, in which reality is pure knowledge, it’s a conundrum to think how there can be so much ignorance.
And Korsgaard seems to provocatively suggest that the Christians were better equipped to handle the problem than the Greeks – connecting to her account of how an ethics of excellence was superseded by an ethics of obligation. Continue reading
Advaita Vedānta, al-Hallāj, Eknath, Emmanuel Lévinas, Hugh van Skyhawk, Paul Hacker, Paul J. Griffiths, Paul Williams, Ramprasad Sen, Śāntideva, Swami Vivekānanda, T.R. (Thill) Raghunath, Wilhelm Halbfass
A curious phenomenon in the study of South Asian and especially Buddhist traditions is the number of Catholic scholars named Paul who have approached these traditions – and especially what Skholiast has called their ātmanism – with a critical eye. The two thinkers I have primarily in mind are the late Paul Hacker (whom I discussed last time, and the living Paul Williams. (The thought of Paul J. Griffiths, who moved in his writings from Buddhology to Catholic theology, bears a strong resemblances to these other Pauls, though I have less to say about him today.) That these men are all named Paul can only be a coincidence. That they are all Catholic is less so; for there are striking affinities in the ways that they (in many respects independently of one another) approach South Asian and Buddhist tradition, affinities that are far less coincidental.
In studying Indian philosophy today one is often confronted with a question that can be surprisingly tricky: what counts as Indian philosophy, anyway? Sometimes what we think of as ancient Indian thought might be something quite different.
Perhaps the boldest statement of this point was the 1962 article “Schopenhauer and Hindu ethics,” by the late German Indologist Paul Hacker (now translated in a collection of Hacker’s writings by Hacker’s student Wilhelm Halbfass). Hacker is reacting against what was until that point a commonplace in the presentation of Indian philosophy – an interpretation presented as uncomplicated fact, for example, in Hajime Nakamura’s A Comparative History of Ideas – which turns out to have a far more modern provenance.
The commonplace in question is what Hacker calls the tat tvam asi ethic, an idea found above all in the works of Swami Vivekānanda. This ethic is Vivekānanda’s influential attempt to use Advaita Vedānta to support an altruistically engaged politics, closely parallel to what would come to be called Engaged Buddhism; it would later be picked up enthusiastically by other modern Hindu thinkers like Radhakrishnan. Continue reading
Advaita Vedānta, al-Hallāj, Arianism, Aristotle, Docetism, Emmanuel Lévinas, Four Noble Truths, James Doull, Jesus, mystical experience, natural environment, Nicene Creed, Nicholas Gier, Śaṅkara, Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindī, Stephen Prothero
I’ve been thinking some more about the idea of encounter, which I blogged about in these posts and which I take to be central to the philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas: the idea that we can never encompass the wholeness of truth, it must remain irreducibly other to us. I’m wondering whether the basic idea animating encounter philosophies is the virtue of humility – a virtue, I think, in both epistemological and ethical contexts. Aristotle, on the other hand, saw pride as a virtue, modesty as its lack – and while I do think humility is a virtue myself, I would remain an Aristotelian in seeing humility, like justice, as a mean. It is far too easy to be too humble in action, to be servile and self-abnegating – an excess which, I’ve suggested before, hurts women’s struggle for equality. And with respect to knowledge, too little humility can lead us to an inappropriate feeling of certainty; but realizing that lack of certainty can spur us to too much humility, leading us into a self-contradictory denial of truth and knowledge.
The issue surrounding encounter, in that case, goes well beyond one’s relationship with God, even one’s relationship with other human beings. Continue reading