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
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
A startling thing happened last week on Patheos, a website for conversation about “religion”. Atheist blogger Leah Libresco wrote a post entitled “This is my last post for the Patheos atheist portal”. Not for the reason you’d normally expect – that she had no time for blogging and was moving on to other ventures in life. No, Libresco wrote this because she was now going to start writing for the Catholic portal. Continue reading
I’ve been thinking a lot about the seventh chapter in a splendid book called The Ancients and the Moderns, by a fascinating Boston University professor named Stanley Rosen. I read the book over two years ago, but the ideas of this chapter have since continued to percolate in my brain.
Rosen argues that we need to see a much closer association between two fields of study often thought separate: logic and psychology. At first glance, the two might seem to have little in particular to do with one another. Logic concerns itself with the proper formal relationships between statements in arguments; psychology, with the empirical investigation of mind and behaviour.
But more basically, what are logic and psychology? Both, really, are the study of thought. 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
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
T.R. Raghunath, a professor in Nevada, gave an interesting talk at the SACP conference explaining Aurobindo Ghose‘s theory of the development of consciousness. There were a number of intriguing points in Raghunath’s talk, but the one that jumped out at me was a point about evolution. Aurobindo, according to Raghunath, accepts “the fact of evolution,” but not “Darwin’s explanation” of evolution. It is a developmental process that has the goal of growth, unfolding. Biological evolution is itself a developmental process of the spirit, in a way that diverges from a Darwinian materialist explanation.
A bell went off in my head when I heard this. In a later conversation with Raghunath, I asked him whether Aurobindo would support the contemporary idea of intelligent design and related critiques of Darwinian evolution, and he said basically yes: there is a guiding spiritual principle at work in the development of new species, it cannot be merely a matter of natural selection through random beneficial mutation. Throughout Raghunath’s talk I had been noticing Aurobindo’s influence on Ken Wilber, and here I saw a still more direct link.
On page 23 of what probably remains his most-read and best-known work, A Brief History of Everything, Wilber makes this now-infamous claim:
A half-wing is no good as a leg and no good as a wing — you can’t run and you can’t fly. It has no adaptive value whatsoever. In other words, with a half-wing you are dinner. The wing will work only if these hundred mutations happen all at once, in one animal — and also these same mutations must occur simultaneously in another animal of the opposite sex, and then they have to somehow find each other, have dinner, a few drinks, mate, and have offspring with real functional wings. Talk about mind-boggling. This is infinitely, absolutely, utterly mind-boggling. Random mutations cannot even begin to explain this. (emphases in original)
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
When you teach at a small Catholic school, theodicy is a question it’s relatively easy to get students excited about: how can God permit the world to be so full of suffering? The problem is finding a good reading to engage students’ interest, one that isn’t full of formal logic’s technical jargon. (We’re talking first-year non-majors taking a required class.) So far, alas, when I’ve found such jargon-free readings, they tend to be exclusively about the “problem of evil.” Which makes them useless.
Evil, per se, is something of a red herring when it comes to theodicy. Evil is what we think of first, after the human-inflicted horrors of the twentieth century. And yet evil is the easy part. Why is there evil? Because human beings have free will, of course, and it’s good for them to have free will. Now, there are some problems with the free-will defence, questions that Augustine grapples with in On Free Choice of the Will – why is it good for humans to have free will, if it leads to all these evil acts? But the answers to those problems are pretty well thought out – determinate good is just not as good as freely chosen good.
The tougher part of the problem is those sufferings for which free will is no defence. I think people understood this part better before the twentieth century, when human-caused suffering was lesser than the suffering of natural disasters – when, as Susan Neiman notes, the one-word reply to claims of God’s goodness was not Auschwitz but Lisbon. Young children, too young to have committed any serious wrong, die in earthquakes, in hurricanes and tsunamis, from tuberculosis. Old people get afflicted by ALS, a cruel degenerative disease that makes people prisoners in their own bodies. This is “evil” only in the old sense, where “evil” just meant “bad” – this isn’t something that we did, a bad action, it’s just a bad thing that happens. Some theologians have tried to come up with justifications for this as well; but it’s much harder to justify these natural sufferings. Can we really say that the torturous drowning of innocent children is justified as part of a larger plan?
People smarter than I am have answered yes. Maybe we can still legitimately believe in God in the face of natural suffering. But let’s not distract ourselves from the real issue by calling it the “problem of evil,” and allowing believers to get out of it with the far-too-easy answer of free will. Call it the problem of pain, as C.S. Lewis did; or call it the problem of suffering, a more common answer. But don’t weasel out of the problem by claiming it’s all about evil. There’s no point in explaining how God could permit Auschwitz if you can’t also explain how he could permit – or cause – Lisbon.
An anonymous friend recently suggested an intriguing equivalence to me: the problem of ignorance in Advaita Vedānta is effectively an Indian form of theodicy.
Let’s back up a bit for those who aren’t familiar with Advaita Vedānta (or theodicy). Vedānta is philosophy based on the “end of the Vedas,” the Upaniṣads – sacred Indian texts often considered “Hindu” (although there are a lot of problems with that term). The Sanskrit advaita means “non-dual”; Advaita Vedānta, associated above all with the philosophical teacher Śaṅkara, is the kind of Vedānta that says everything is really one, and not two (or more). Especially, there is no duality between subject and object. The universe is all one, and each of us ultimately is that one. We seem to perceive multiplicity in the world, but only because of our ignorance. Multiplicity is an illusion; really, all is one. This one is expressed with the word sat, meaning existence, truth, even goodness.
But the difficult question for an Advaitin to answer is: where does that ignorance come from? Continue reading