2016 has taken many great musicians from us. Early in the year we lost Prince and David Bowie. Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip is still with us for now, but the band played its last concert. And then there was Leonard Cohen.
Cohen began his career as one of the long parade of 1960s singer-songwriters who temporarily changed the phrase “folk music” so that it now referred to the music of educated urban élites. He earned a place alongside Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan – many of whom he played with. In that context he developed his talent for enigmatic, evocative lyrics. But as far as I’m concerned, none of his real greatness comes from that period. If he had died as young as Janis Joplin (or Amy Winehouse), I wouldn’t be writing this tribute, and a few decades from now I’m not sure that he would be remembered.
Cohen’s real brilliance came out in the 1980s and early 1990s, when decades of whisky and cigarettes had lowered his sensitive folkie voice into a gravelly growl, and his music took a darker turn to match. Continue reading
For Augustine, evil is nothing more than the absence of good, as we would say cold is no more than the absence of heat. Not every contemporary Christian follows this idea exactly, but the majority would surely agree that the goodness of God is supremely powerful, with evil (whether personified as Satan or not) significantly lesser.
It was not always this way. Many early Christian factions – most famously the Manicheans, but also the Marcionites and many Gnostics – believed that there were two warring gods, one good and one evil. Continue reading
One of the first posts I made on this blog examined Dale Wright‘s methodological approach of naturalized karma. This is a way of continuing to use the concept of karma, and thereby remaining more closely in dialogue with classical Buddhist (and Jain and brahmanical) texts – without relying on the supernatural connections usually implied by the concept, especially rebirth. (By “karma” here I refer above all to the referents of Sanskrit pāpa and especially puṇya, best translated respectively as “bad karma” and “good karma”.) I’d like to explore this idea in more detail here.
Wright’s basic approach is to read karma as meaning something like an Aristotelian virtue ethic: good actions are rewarded with a good, flourishing life, in this life irrespective of future ones (and bad ones correspondingly punished). This much is not a Yavanayāna innovation; plenty of Buddhist texts make it clear that good action is rewarded in this life as well as in future ones. Continue reading
Is man the measure of all things? Or at least, are creatures with subjective internal consciousness the measure of all things? In ancient Greece, the Sophists answered yes. In so doing, they inaugurated Western reflection on a perennial question that stretches throughout both theoretical and practical philosophy, epistemology and ethics.
I’ve briefly discussed this question before, with a focus on ethics. Afterwards, following James Doull, I examined how it gets works out in the history of Western philosophy after the Sophists – in ethics. But as Doull knew, there is an epistemological story that parallels the ethical. Continue reading
I started writing this blog while I was teaching at Stonehill College, which hired me for a one-year visiting position and took me on shortly after that. A Catholic school, Stonehill requires all its students to take an introductory course in religion, and a third-year course in “moral inquiry”; faculty learn rapidly that these are the bread and butter of their teaching. In my time at Stonehill I taught one elective in Hindu tradition; the other eleven course sections were all the religion requirements.
Teaching students who did not want to be there was not always a joy. The wonderful advantage of teaching Stonehill’s required courses, though, was that there was almost no restriction on content. My love of big cross-cultural questions does not play well with the specialization taught in grad school and encouraged in academic publishing, where one must learn one thing and nothing else. But I could design these courses the way I wanted. The religion department had decided it wanted one common reference point that upper-year students could turn back to, and it had decided on the book of Exodus. But as long as you taught Exodus, the rest of the course was all up to you.
And so one semester I decided I wanted to learn more about Western monotheisms, and entitled my intro religion course “God in the West.” All that Buddhism and “Hinduism” I’d studied in grad school – never mind that. Because that was stuff I already knew pretty well. One of the things I hoped to impart to my students was a love of learning; and so I decided I would teach them a subject I wanted to learn about myself.
And learn I did. Continue reading
Alasdair MacIntyre, especially in his Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, has frequently tried to make the case that adequate moral inquiry needs to be embedded within a tradition. In the book he makes the case by arguing that Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris shows a fuller and more adequate understanding of the attempts to get beyond tradition (Nietzsche’s genealogy and the Ninth Edition of Encyclopedia Britannica) than they show of themselves or each other. I’m not going to address the details of his case here. But I want to note one point that MacIntyre frequently seems to shy away from: for Leo XIII and the Catholic tradition that precedes him, it is not the case that adequate moral inquiry must take place within a tradition. Rather, it must take place within this tradition, the universal and apostolic Catholic Church. The inquiries of the Confucians or Muslims are not significantly better, in this respect, than those of deracinated cosmopolitans like the Encyclopedists or Nietzsche.
In this, MacIntyre skirts around on an idea that endures through the history of the Abrahamic traditions: that the ultimate truth is tied to one single historical event, time, place and/or people. It begins with the idea recorded in the Book of Exodus that the Hebrews/Israelites/Jews are God’s chosen people, and continues with the idea that the single human person Jesus of Nazareth was the only begotten human son of God. The Qur’an, too, is a single set of revelations made in a small geographic area to one human person, not adequately translatable (so the claim goes) into a language other than the original, which is better than any other revelation that has been or will be made.
It is in this context that I am intrigued by the Buddhist claim that there are multiple buddhas. Continue reading
My wedding approaches rapidly, and with my love of philosophy it’s important for me to have profound and meaningful readings at the ceremony. We have each picked a modern reading that meant a lot to us – she from Walt Whitman, and I from Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata, beautiful advice from when I was a child. But I also wanted to find meaningful premodern readings, and that turned out to be a lot harder.
The problem I quickly realized is that romantic marriage is a recent invention, a construct of our own time. It was obvious to me from the beginning that I’d get little help from Indian Buddhism, where sex and marriage are emphasized as fetters that bind us in suffering. I knew that to choose marriage was to side against Śāntideva. Sure, Śāntideva praises the monk Jyotis for breaking his monastic vows and marrying a woman who fell in love with him – but Jyotis, like a good bodhisattva, did this entirely out of compassion. “I’m marrying you out of sympathy” is not exactly the note on which I want to start married life. Continue reading
How do you depict a perfect being? The Jewish and Islamic answer is pretty clear: you can’t. From Exodus onward, idolatry is considered a sin. In the Ten Commandments the God of Exodus tells his subjects not to bow down before idols of anything on heaven or earth, for he is a jealous God – and, the implication is, all these things in his creation are different from him. Muslim tradition becomes much more explicit on the point. Islam’s cardinal sin is widely considered to be shirk: the association of any partners with God, saying that anything worldly – such as a drawing or statue of God – shares God’s attributes. Protestants have tended to follow the Jewish and Muslim lead. Catholics have been a bit more slack about it, but still accept the basic principle through fine distinctions, saying they don’t worship images, but merely venerate them; even for them, it’s understood that there’s a fine line they’re walking, something a little suspicious about depicting God that needs to be defended.
No such suspicion is found in India. I was struck recently by the climax of the Bhagavad Gītā. The god Krishna explains to the hero Arjuna what he needs to do, and explains his own divine nature as lord of the universe. Then, Arjuna asks to see Krishna’s true form – and Krishna agrees to show him. Arjuna can’t see it with mere human eyes; but Krishna grants him a “divine eye,” which has no such problems.
The form Arjuna sees is clearly divine – not like the God of a Renaissance painting, who could be mistaken for a bearded old human if you didn’t know the context. But when Arjuna sees that form, he really sees it – he sees God just as God is. I think this represents a very different conception of divinity in India – divinity as divinity can be seen.
Krishna’s divine form is infinite, extending in all the directions – but with infinite numbers of eyes seeing everything, infinite numbers of mouths swallowing the dead as they go to their fates, infinite crowns on his infinite heads. This divinity is physical, visible, even tangible.
What does this mean for thoughts of a God as structuring the universe, a First Explanation with metaphysical significance for the way we understand the rest of the world? YHWH precedes the physical world, stands in some sense outside it, describing himself only as “I am that I am.” Krishna, on the other hand, seems a much more physical God, a part of the world itself, a creator of standing in some sense equal with his creation. I haven’t quite figured out what the implications are of all this. But I suspect they’re important.
20th century, Adolf Hitler, Augustine, Bhagavad Gītā, chastened intellectualism, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Hebrew Bible, hell, Krishna, Mahābhārata, Mañjuśrī, Pol Pot, Rāmānuja, Sigmund Freud, theodicy, Vishnu, Xunzi
I once heard someone – I don’t remember where – criticize humanism (however defined) in the following manner: “The problem with humanism is it leads you to deify man, and the evidence seems to be that man is not worthy of being deified.” The point resonates with me as I think about chastened intellectualism, the idea – which I associate with Freud as well as Augustine and Xunzi – that human beings tend naturally toward wrong behaviour. Individually, despite good intentions, I find it a constant struggle to be a good and happy person; collectively, the history of the 20th century is a dark litany of what happens when – as is too often the case – people’s intentions are less than good. It is difficult to have faith in humanity when humanity has not earned it.
The argument to this point is, I think, in perfect sympathy with Augustine. Human beings for him are invariably and inevitably flawed, in a way that makes them unworthy of our trust. Instead, Augustine wants to argue, we must place our trust in a truly perfect being, God. Augustine’s argument here underlies a great deal of conservative Christianity: even if church institutions and/or biblical scripture appear wrong to us, they are a better guide than our own weak and easily misled intellects.
For the moment, let us leave aside the question of how we know Church or Bible embody God, or even whether God exists. I think there is a far deeper question at issue here: even assuming he exists, how can we trust God? Continue reading