Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Platonism and Theism

Why do you believe what you?

Adapting an idea from Dallin H. Oaks I am resistant to making final judgments. Part of that is I think it’s just more interesting to take different ideas and try them on for size. But I make lots of intermediate judgments, seeing what the logical and existential implications of ideas are and how they fit or don’t fit together.

Going back to differences between Christian classical theism and Mormon theism there are strengths in each. I’ll talk about Christian classical theism. I think it is interesting that Christian theology/philosophy moved in the direction of Neoplatonism and I think there are certain strengths in that position. There is something remarkable about the order of the universe. Here’s a line from Carl Sagan’s The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God:
A na├»ve Western view of God is an outsize, light-skinned male with a long white beard, who sits on a very large throne in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow. 
Contrast this with a quite different vision of God, one proposed by Baruch Spinoza and by Albert Einstein. And this second kind of god they called God in a very straightforward way. Einstein was constantly interpreting the world in terms of what God would or wouldn’t do. But by God they meant something not very different from the sum total of the physical laws of the universe; that is, gravitation plus quantum mechanics plus grand unified field theories plus a few other things equaled God. And by that all they meant was that here were a set of exquisitely powerful physical principles that seemed to explain a great deal that was otherwise inexplicable about the universe. Laws of nature, as I have said earlier, that apply not just locally, not just in Glasgow, but far beyond: Edinburgh, Moscow, Peking, Mars, Alpha Centauri, the center of the Milky Way, and out by the most distant quasars known. That the same laws of physics apply everywhere is quite remarkable. Certainly that represents a power greater than any of us. It represents an unexpected regularity to the universe. It need not have been. It could have been that every province of the cosmos had its own laws of nature. It’s not apparent from the start that the same laws have to apply everywhere. 
Now, it would be wholly foolish to deny the existence of laws of nature. And if that is what we are talking about when we say God, then no one can possibly be an atheist, or at least anyone who would profess atheism would have to give a coherent argument about why the laws of nature are inapplicable.
Forgiving Sagan’s uncharitable caricature at the beginning of that quote I think the God of Spinoza and Einstein is actually not that metaphysically different from the God of Augustine or Aquinas, to the complaint of many other Christians. Hence Blaise Pascal’s line: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars.” In Confessions it was the immateriality of platonic, abstract objects that allowed Augustine to accept, intellectually, the concept of an immaterial God.

Mathematical Platonism is one of those ideas that I have tried to shake off but have found quite difficult. And if it’s true it stands there like a governing principle for all that is or ever could be. Even reading Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea it kept popping up. Dennett touts the notion of the algorithm as a means of removing design and intention from various processes, like evolution by natural selection. But an algorithm is itself an abstract vehicle that exerts a lot of causal power in the physical world. That’s not trivial. Evolution by natural selection after all is not random. Randomness is a creationist’s caricature. It’s a highly ordered process superimposed on random processes. (It was Richard Dawkins who first drew my attention to that point).

Even rejecting Platonism the order of the universe, as noted by Sagan, does allow for a certain kind of theism. Carrying that forward to a personal deity is a huge leap. Mormonism seems to have space for an impersonal, transcendent order under which God and mortals subsist. Some Mormon philosophers like Adam Miller try to carry immanence further and collapse the whole notion of transcendence and Platonism. That’s an interesting idea but in my own mind presently the platonic Hydra repeatedly rears its head.

The Philosophies of Men

Elder Cook said in his General Conference talk, Valiant in the Testimony of Jesus:
We are committed to knowledge of every kind and believe “the glory of God is intelligence.” But we also know that the preferred strategy of the adversary is to lead people away from God and cause them to stumble by emphasizing the philosophies of men over the Savior and His teachings...
We know the Apostasy occurred in part because the philosophies of men were elevated over Christ’s basic, essential doctrine. Instead of the simplicity of the Savior’s message being taught, many plain and precious truths were changed or lost. In fact, Christianity adopted some Greek philosophical traditions to reconcile people’s beliefs with their existing culture. The historian Will Durant wrote: “Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it. The Greek mind, dying, came to a transmigrated life.” Historically, and in our own day, some people reject the gospel of Jesus Christ because, in their view, it doesn’t have adequate intellectual sophistication.
I admit I'm not crazy about this kind of talk but I want to do right by what he's saying here. And I want to think critically about the concept of the "philosophies of men" and its utility, because I think it is useful. First I'll distinguish between the known gospel and the true gospel. This is just to say that our understanding of the gospel (the known gospel) is imperfect. To get at a useful definition of the philosophies of men I'll adopt the premise that the true gospel is rational. That's already a problematic premise and not everyone accepts it. There's a lot more to be said about that but I'll leave it at that for now. In light of that I'll define the philosophies of men as ideas that are dominant in a culture and are accepted uncritically. I'd say that makes them rather unphilosophical but no matter.

I'm adopting this definition rather than a more obvious, and in a way correct, definition: that the philosophies of men are any ideas that are dominant in a culture and contradict the gospel. To the extent that we're referring to the true gospel here I think that definition works. But there's a problem. If our understanding of the gospel is imperfect we have no way of knowing if these ideas are in conflict with the true gospel or just the known gospel other than reason and revelation. I think reason and revelation are often the same thing. But to the extent that they are different I don't discount the importance of revelation. But as my experience with revelation (outside of reason) is quite non-propositional I'll focus on the importance of reasoning.

I think it's more helpful to think of the philosophies of men as the uncritical acceptance of ideas because the way to confront them is not avoidance but critical engagement. It's the strategy outlined by Hugh B. Brown:
One of the most important things in the world is freedom of the mind; from this all other freedoms spring. Such freedom is necessarily dangerous, for one cannot think right without running the risk of thinking wrong, but generally more thinking is the antidote for the evils that spring from wrong thinking. More thinking is required.
I'm very concerned about the cultural attitude that intelligence and rationality are dangerous to religion. And I worry that talk of the philosophies of men often plays into that. It gives the natural impression that religion is unintelligent and irrational. I often hear people say of someone who has left religious activity that they were "too smart". My first reaction to that is to feel insulted; am I not smart enough to leave then? I think that it's that kind of attitude that is more repelling than anything. It's a recipe for brain drain.

My Institute teacher, Jay Richardson, wrote his doctoral thesis on the place of reason in Mormonism. It's a fascinating piece and it was reading that paper that gave me the confidence to just be who I am without fear or apology. Richardson refers to Mark A. Noll's book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind in which Noll analyzes a strain of anti-intellectualism in Evangelical Christianity. Richardson asks whether or not there is similarly a scandal of the Mormon mind.

Threats of a scandal of the Mormon mind include what Richardson, quoting Armand Mauss, calls "folk fundamentalism":
Mormon folk fundamentalists have a tendency to read the scriptures literally, to emphasize the gap between God and humanity, to emphasize obedience at the expense of autonomy, and to have a general distrust of reason especially compared to revelation.
Richardson concludes that there is not yet a full blown scandal of the Mormon mind but it is a real risk.

Getting back to Cook's talk, I think there is utility in the concept of the philosophies of men but it's treacherous. I don't like the approach of: "this contradicts what I believe, therefore it's just so much clever sophistry." More thinking is required. A fruitful analysis of the philosophies of men, the uncritical acceptance of dominant ideas, is of the form: "this is problematic and here's why." It's Brown's principle. Otherwise we sell ourselves short.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Abu Nasr as-Sarraj on Repentance

The Station of Repentance (Tawba)

Abu Ya’qub Yusuf ibn Hamdan as-Susi (God grant him compassion) said: “The first station of those devoted completely to God Most High is repentance.”

When as-Susi was asked about repentance, he replied: “Repentance is the return from everything that knowledge condemns toward what knowledge praises.” When Sahl ibn ‘Abdullah was asked about repentance, he responded, “It is to never forget your fault.” When Janayd was asked about repentance, he said, “It is forgetting your fault.”

The Shaykh (God grant him compassion) said: The response of as-Susi (God grant him compassion) concerning repentance was in reference to the repentance of the novice, the venturers, the seekers, the questers, those who are sometimes in the right and sometimes in the wrong. The same is the case for what Sahl ibn ‘Abdullah [at-Tustari] (God grant him compassion) said.

However, the response of Junayd (God grant him compassion)—that repentance is forgetting your fault—concerns the repentance of those who have achieved realization. They do not remember their faults; their hearts are overwhelmed with God’s majesty and with his continual remembrance.

Similarly, Ruwaym ibn Ahmad (God grant him compassion), when asked about repentance, said: “It is the repentance from repentance.” Likewise, Dhu n-Nun, when asked about repentance, said: The masses repent of their faults. The select repent of their neglect.”

As for the pronouncement of the people of knowing, the wajidin, and the select of the select, concerning the meaning of repentance—Abu l-Hasan an-Nuri (God grant him compassion) said when asked about repentance: “It is turning away from everything except God Most High.”

Someone else alluded to that when he said: “The faults of those near to God are the virtues of the pious”—that was Dhu n-Nun. He also said:

“What is sincerity for the seeker or novice is self-display for the knowers (‘arifin). When the knower has become firm and self-realized in that through which he draws near to God Most High and Transcendent—in the moment of his quest, in his beginning stage, upon his undertaking of offerings and pious deeds—when he has been encompassed by the lights of guidance, when providence has touched him, when he has been encircled by divine care, when his heart is witness to the majesty of his master, when he contemplates what God has fashioned and the eternity of his goodness, then he turns away from noticing, relying upon, and attending to his pious deeds and acts and offerings, as he did as a seeker and a beginner.”

How great are the differences among the repentant! One turns away from faults and bad acts; a second turns away from slips and oversights; a third turns his attention away from his good and pious deeds.

Repentance demands watchfulness.

Excerpt from from The Book of Flashes (Kitab al-Luma’) by Abu Nasr as-Sarraj (d.988)

Saturday, March 26, 2016

A Celebration of Life

The Resurrection Of Christ
Carl Heinrich Bloch

I love taking my daughter to the park. She loves going too. She likes to climb, hang upside down, run, and swing. She loves life and I love sharing it with her. I love these simple experiences as well as the memories. This is Easter, a celebration of life.

As a Christian I see Jesus, a baby, a boy, a man living life, feasting and drinking, weeping and suffering. He was a man like me with sensations, relationships, memories, and dreams. But one day this living, breathing man lay still and dead in a dark and silent tomb. What happens after that is the mystery and hope of the Christian life.

I've sat alone with dying grandparents. I can't process death. Maybe I'm too young but I'm not sure any of us are ever able to process it. Being with my dying loved ones I see life in its starkest moments. I've never been so aware of breath as when I've seen the lungs that have inhaled and exhaled unconsciously millions of times strain to continue a little longer.

What happens when it comes to an end? I don't really know but as a Christian I believe that life is eternal. I choose to believe that as part of my religion. It's my faith. It also feels appropriate. Life is so large and full, too much to be contained. This is Easter, a celebration of life that is too big to be kept within the walls of a tomb. It has to break out.

Easter is a celebration of life with an awareness of the reality of death. Life with all the sensations, relationships, memories, and dreams lasts only a number of years for each of us. We can have hope that the beauty of the gift of life will be restored after death and last forever, that something about us is eternal. It's not something we can see or know for sure. But our love of life can give us faith and hope. In this space between the sublimity of life and the mystery of death is the power of Easter.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Safety in Danger

The best way to be safe is to understand that what you're doing is dangerous. Everything you do is dangerous in one way or another. The important thing is to understand the danger. Doing something is dangerous but so is doing nothing. Even playing it safe is dangerous. Everything is dangerous for different reasons and the key is to understand how, and to use this knowledge to navigate through the danger safely.

Monday, December 21, 2015

"Give", Said the Little Stream

In his last General Conference address Elder Neal A. Maxwell shared several memories with little lessons that were important to him. One included a song he sang as a child.

In my Primary days, we sang “‘Give,’ Said the Little Stream”—certainly sweet and motivating but not exactly theologically drenched.

I like to think that Elder Maxwell was indirectly inviting us to look deeper into the song. It may not be theologically drenched but I think it's simplicity is quite beautiful.  It sounds like a song that Jesus would sing. Jesus was a master of simplicity. This song sounds like it could have come out of the Sermon on the Mount.

What does this song say to you?

"Give," said the little stream,
"Give, oh! give, give, oh! give."
"Give," said the little stream,
As it hurried down the hill;
"I'm small, I know, but wherever I go
The fields grow greener still."

Singing, singing all the day,
"Give away, oh! give away."
Singing, singing all the day,
"Give, oh! give away."

"Give," said the little rain,
"Give, oh! give, give, oh! give."
"Give," said the little rain,
As it fell upon the flow'rs;
"I'll raise their drooping heads again,"
As it fell upon the flow'rs.

Singing, singing all the day,
"Give away, oh! give away."
Singing, singing all the day,
"Give, oh! give away."

Give, then, as Jesus gives,
Give, oh! give, give, oh! give.
Give, then, as Jesus gives;
There is something all can give.
Do as the streams and blossoms do:
For God and others live.

Singing, singing all the day,
"Give away, oh! give away."
Singing, singing all the day,
"Give, oh! give away."

Words: Fanny J. Crosby, 1820-1915
Music: William B. Bradbury, 1816-1868. Arr. (c) 1989 IRI

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Rationality in Tradition

The Book of Mormon says that the prophet Nephi spoke with such great power that is was not possible for the people to disbelieve his words.[i] Somewhat irreverently, this reminds me of Robert Nozick’s quip that it would be great to come up with an argument so powerful that people would either have to accept it... or die![ii] Amusing as the comparison may be I don’t actually think that’s what was going on with Nephi. I think there was something much deeper in his preaching; he wasn’t arguing in the way we usually do. When we reason about things we move from premises to conclusions in steps that logically follow one another. If all men are mortal and Socrates is a man then it follows that Socrates is mortal. But this only works if you accept the premise that all men are mortal. For the big questions the difficult part is getting to premises that everyone agrees on. On the most important issues like morality and religion our premises are given by tradition. This seems like a problem because the most difficult disagreements are between people from different traditions, people who start from different sets of premises[iii]. Tradition seems to be a great gulf.

Although our different traditions separate us this doesn’t have to preclude productive communication on important issues. Natural barriers like gulfs and canyons are most treacherous when we don’t see them. But with some familiarity with the terrain gulfs and canyons can be crossed, though still with difficulty. This reminds me of a fictional correspondence written by the Jewish thinker Samson Raphel Hirsch. In Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel, a university student writes home to his rabbi with some challenging questions[iv]. The student challenges various tenets and rituals of Judaism and wonders how anyone educated in a modern, scientific society could continue to be Jewish. The rabbi responds that it is not possible to understand or appreciate Jewish rituals and tenets in isolation from each other; Judaism most be understood in its totality. The beliefs and practices are intelligible only in the context of the whole tradition. What Hirsch gave here was a method for understanding specific teachings, rituals, and norms of a tradition—you have to dive in deep and view these things from within the tradition, seeing how the parts fit into the whole. Crossing the divide between traditions is possible though not simple.

I think a better understanding of our traditions and the different premises that lead to different conclusions could help to avoid some of the misunderstanding and offense that sometimes results in our discussions. Speaking to each other from different traditions is a little like speaking in translation from different languages. If you consider all the things we do in English to make things sound more polite you can see how a person learning to speak English could inadvertently sound rude. When we make requests or express disagreement we have various ways to soften our language: “Would you mind…?”, “Do you think you could…?” But knowing how a language feels requires some extensive experience and immersion into it.

Traditions are a lot like languages. They have words, symbols, rituals, roles, stories, texts, and values. These things taken as a whole are what make the tradition intelligible. As a Mormon American the traditions I think about most, because I live in both, are Mormonism and what I’ll call American individualism. These two traditions overlap at points but there are important differences. The traditions share many of the same words but the words have different meanings. For example, “freedom” is an important word in Mormonism and in American individualism. But the word doesn’t have exactly the same meaning in each tradition. As an American individualist I understand freedom to be my right to do what I want to do and to be what I want to be. I am free do whatever I want as long as I am not hurting anyone else in the process. Whatever I achieve or become in life is up to me and I am not limited by anyone else. As a Mormon I understand freedom, or agency, as my power to act toward my divine purpose. My freedom expands as I act in accordance with divine principles but contracts as I deviate from them[v]. I also understand that my freedom includes accepting the results of my actions. These understandings of freedom are not diametrically opposed. They can be syncretized and often are. But they are different.

There are certain concepts in Mormonism that don’t translate easily into the tradition of American individualism and it is at these junctures where conflicts arise. Mormonism is a much more communal tradition. We think in terms of not only ourselves but also our families, ancestors, and descendants. Who we are and what we become is not solely up to us. We are all connected. In the parlance of scripture there must be a welding link of some kind between the fathers and the children, our ancestors cannot be made perfect without us and we cannot be made perfect without them.[vi] The signs and symbols of Mormonism, the ordinances, the temple rituals and liturgy, the stories and practices in which we take part immerse us in this understanding of our eternal relationships with each other and of our own identity. It is in this totality that family, marriage, husband, wife, sexuality, and love are to be understood.

The tradition of American individualism is not necessarily opposed to this dense field of relationships and symbols in Mormonism but it is different. For example, in Mormonism sex outside of a marriage is not only wrong; it doesn’t make any sense. The Mormon understanding of sexuality is made intelligible by the way it fits into the practice of eternal marriage and the understanding of our divine nature as paired beings in the image of God, our heavenly parents. But outside of this context, translated into the tradition of American individualism, this view of sexuality could be understood principally, or exclusively, as just a prohibition, even an arbitrary prohibition[vii]. And for something as important and personal as sexuality such a prohibition feels like quite an unwarranted intrusion. There is conceptual content lost in translation. The translated version of a concept may not mean the same thing as the concept in the context of its original tradition and this shift in meaning can lead to offense. This can happen with many issues.

What can I do as a Mormon to communicate more effectively with people outside my tradition? Part of the process is mapping out the terrain, understanding our own traditions thoroughly, and understanding enough about other traditions to see the differences. We are usually so embedded in our traditions that we don’t think about their foundations; we hold our premises unconsciously. This is usually fine. But to communicate effectively with people from other traditions we need to understand our own better.[viii] This is a process of reasoning and investigation. It’s a process of making connections between concepts, practices, and values and seeing how they come together as a whole. What is the connection between our physical bodies and the sacrament[ix]? How does marriage relate to the Atonement of Christ? How is our agency both individual and social? How does baptism bring us into the community of the church? How does the Spirit of Elijah[x] affect the way I understand my own identity? Some of my favorite conversations about Mormonism have been with people who weren’t Mormon. They have asked me things I never would have thought of asking. And I’ve learned a lot after thinking about their questions.

This process of reasoning and investigation is very rewarding for another reason: it empowers us to participate more effectively in the conversations within our own tradition. Traditions are not static, at least not if they are in good health. There are different ideas within traditions but unlike the differences between traditions the differences within traditions work with shared concepts, symbols, rituals, roles, stories, texts, and values. This means that as an American I work with the heritage of texts like The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. As I Mormon I speak with the language of The Bible and The Book of Mormon. The relationships between all these texts, symbols, and values are complex. Some passages of scripture may not fit easily with other passages or with other aspects of the tradition. For example, Mormons have a conception of what kind of life is of greatest value: marriage between a man and women, raising children together in the ways of the Gospel of Christ. But this ideal is not available to everyone for various reasons. What are we to make of this? Fortunately, the scriptures have resources we can use. For example, in the Gospel of Luke we find the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the prodigal son, and the parable of the lost coin. These parables directly address the repentance of sinners but could also be interpreted more broadly to address other issues. This kind of language—the language of scripture, symbols, and the values of a tradition—is the kind of language that will be effective and intelligible within a tradition.

The process of reasoning within and between traditions makes rational progress possible. The conversations within our traditions can generate novel concepts and find solutions to problems using the concepts, symbols, and values we already have as building materials. We can also appropriate ideas from other traditions that, by our own standards, we find useful and expand our understanding. Finally our experiences in the world, whether from the natural sciences or the existential challenges of our lives, also affect and inform our traditions. For example, with our expanded understanding of astronomy it would not be possible for one to believe, as did the ancient Greeks, in a geocentric universe with the planets embedded in rotating crystal spheres. Closer to home, our ways of understanding the world and God change as we pass through life's challenges and tragedies. In these experiences some ways of understanding the world and the resources provided by our traditions will be more helpful or more plausible than others. Thus traditions are not impenetrable walls that trap us into rigid, inflexible ways of seeing the world. They can adapt, appropriate, and expand through the history of a community or the life of an individual.

Building relationships with people, within your own tradition or from another tradition is hard work. It requires patience and energy. But I think it can be very rewarding. Paul said that he became all things to all people. To the Jews he became a Jew. To those under the law he became as one under the law. To those outside the law he became as one outside the law. To the weak he became weak[xi]. In this I think he was imitating Christ. The Book of Mormon says that the Lord speaks to people according to their language and their understanding[xii]. There is a pattern in scripture of the Lord coming closer to us to enter into a more intimate relationship with us. He does this by speaking our language according to our understanding and he did this by becoming one of us as a mortal man. There is also a recurring call in scripture to imitate Christ, to die like Christ, and rise again like Christ in his life[xiii]. I wonder if we could imitate Christ in his efforts to speak to others according to their language and understanding, to imitate his incarnation by becoming what other people are to enter into a closer relationship with them.

[i] 3 Nephi 7:171-18                       
[ii] Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations
[iii] My ideas on this subject are heavily influenced by Alasdair MacIntyre.
[iv] Sampson Raphael Hirsch, Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel
[v] 2 Nephi 2:27
[vi] Doctrine and Covenants 128:15,18
[vii] This may be a case where the misunderstanding has worked its way back into the original tradition. Even within Mormonism we sometimes put undue emphasis on prohibition without adequate doctrinal context.
[viii] Doctrine and Covenants 11:21
[ix] The Mormon sacrament is similar to the Eucharist.
[x] The Spirit of Elijah is the inspiration we feel to seek after our ancestors.
[xi] 1 Corinthians 9:20-22
[xii] 2 Nephi 31:3
[xiii] Romans 6:3-8