Towards A Good Samaritan World

Saturday, December 16, 2006


In one respect, the way I've managed the discussion of philosophical themes on this blog may be a bit unfair. I've engaged in a sustained skeptical critique of materialism, naturalism, and Darwinism, as being based on inadequate evidence and groundless assumptions, and broadly at odds with experience. I have often mentioned, but never elaborated on or defended, my own Christian position, from which the critiques are launched. Of course that is too large a task for a single blog post. But I want to provide at least the outlines of that here.

A lot of thinkers want to characterize themselves as Christian because it provides them with a built-in supportive audience, but the set of views they hold would surprise or offend many believing Christians. Perhaps I am in the same position: my rejection of Biblical inerrantism would certainly offend many fundamentalist Protestants. While I think the Catholic and Orthodox Christians would be more favorable to it, my preference for saying that the Eucharist is "mystically" rather than "literally" the Body and Blood of Christ might make some Catholics and Orthodox uncomfortable. Of course, many liberal Protestants (and perhaps Catholics) would be perfectly happy with my rejection of Biblical inerrantism and share my discomfort with the idea of "literal" transubstantiation, but with respect to some of them, I would be the one offended by their using the "Christian" label for their views, feeling they had turned their backs on the true teachings of the Christian faith.

So as a touchstone of small-o orthodox Christianity (I am also a capital-O Orthodox Christian, but the purpose of this post is to give an outline of the case for Christianity in general, and not for Orthodoxy), I will use the Nicene Creed, which was established in a Church Council in 325 (and amended in 381) A.D., in the late Roman Empire, and has been accepted by Catholics, (most) Protestants, and Orthodox alike for one-and-a-half millennia. It runs as follows:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

Is there a rational argument proving the existence of God? The Catholics have a doctrine that there is a rational proof of the existence of God, but they do not say, authoritatively, what it is (though they offer St. Anselm's ontological argument as a non-binding example). I suppose I would accept this odd doctrine, but a proof of the existence of God that I would find interesting would require that reason be defined in a certain way. (I am not interested in a priori proofs like the ontological argument.) Reason without faith, the functional meaning of which in this context can be elucidated by the phrase the legitimacy of extrapolation, has a mostly negative function: it undermines, erodes, and topples beliefs, leaving either an abyss of pure skepticism or perhaps a skeleton of a priori tenets like the truths of math, but certainly nothing like a system of beliefs adequate to constitute a sane worldview. Just as the coin flipped a hundred times and coming up heads is no proof that it will come up tails next time, reason-- in its most austere, Humean sense-- forbids us to anticipate the rising of the sun merely it has tended to happen before.

Once induction-- faith, the legitimacy of extrapolation-- is allowed for, we can conclude that the sun will rise tomorrow, and that all objects (on Earth) are pulled downwards at a rate of 9.8 meters per second-squared; or we can, with C.S. Lewis, argue that since every human desire has a corresponding satisfaction-- for hunger, there is food, for thirst, drink, for lust, men/women-- then there must be an Entity corresponding to the desire that men feel when they yearn for God. Let me accept Lewis's point but offer different approach to (I think) the same truth.

If we see the lower slopes of a mountain rising up into mist and cloud, so that what is further up is invisible, we assume that the slope continues rising, and that there is some summit. It is my experience that in the life of the mind-soul there is always a higher up. Not for nothing did the pagans believe in gods of the earth and the air, of the sky and of growing things, or see the trees as dryads and the streams as nymphs. In my most sublime, poetical moods, walking through the forest on a spring day amidst the buds and the young leaves and the vital air and the radiance, I feel angelic presences around me. The parts or aspects of nature have their own personalities, which is not illuminated by biology but is communicated to the mind through moods. One senses that the nymph-streams and dryad-trees, that Jupiter the sky-god and Poseidon the god of waters and Demeter the goddess of greenery are discoursing to another in a language we do not fully understand-- it would be more appropriate to say, singing in harmony, except that that suggests the trained, regimented harmony of human, earthly choirs, whereas in the serene ecstasy of nature, freedom and harmony are one. (I wonder how many people have left the Church because of the, in this respect, unfortunate-- though profoundly sublime and true if properly understood-- depiction of Heaven as "angel choirs singing.") "The heavens are telling the glory of God," writes the Psalmist. Yes, they are, but our understanding of that glory is so limited-- or ruined, marred, spoiled-- that we understand what they are saying only dimly. Like children sitting at the table with adults engaged in an important conversation, wanting, trying-- at least intermittently-- to follow it, and sensing that it is more important than their toys or candy, but not (yet) able.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds (├Žons), Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made;

Behind these words lie several fierce disputes from 3rd- and 4th-century theology. There was a long struggle for supremacy between the orthodox, the Monophysites (who believed Christ had only a divine nature), the Nestorians, and the Arians. One of the disputes concerns whether Christ had one or two "hypostases": this word apparently has no English equivalent, because historians tend to use the Greek word, making the debate quite opaque to readers, or at any rate to this one. What is significant here is the idea of community within God, which in turn provides an assist to the idea that God is love. That is, since Jesus Christ the Son always existed, there was room for love within the divine nature even before creation occurred. The nature of God is an important matter and I certainly don't blame my ancient fellow-Christians for taking it seriously. However, I must admit that these doctrines seem arcane to me and I don't fully understand how 3rd- and 4th-century Christians could have had such strong opinions about them.

who [meaning Jesus] for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;

If one wanted to approach the issue as rationally as possible, one might break down the Incarnation into two claims that would seem to need independent defense: first, that God becoming incarnate as a man in order to save the world is possible, or plausible, or probable, or necessary; second, that that incarnation occurred in the person of Jesus Christ. If the Incarnation is impossible, or implausible, or improbable, or unnecessary, then one will either disbelieve in Incarnation, or not be interested in it. If, having examined the issue, one determines that God saving the world through Incarnation is something that is possible, and, if it occurred, important, then one would look for evidence whether it occurred, and compare different historical candidates for the character of God Incarnate, and accept Jesus as God if and only if he seemed like the best of these candidates.

Of course no one would naturally approach the issue this way. The Gospel-- "the Good News"-- comes as complete event, a surprise, a shock, a glorious Answer to all the soul's deepest Questions. And, having been accepted, it remains a mystery, in the venerable though today partly lost (at least in mainstream society) sense with which the ancient (and continuing) Church used (uses) that word. The Christian "I believe" will always differ from the rationalist's "I believe," because the former is not the expression of the rational mind alone, but also of those parts of our mind-souls from which our capacities for joy and wonder spring.

But considering that in our day, the intellect is so often a stumbling-block to Christian faith, it might be worth venturing this kind of two-part defense of the Incarnation. So, first, why is an Incarnation of God necessary?

This world in which we live and love is a dying world. I do not merely that we are all doomed to die, though of course that is part of it. This world is dying every single moment: the present is an infinitesimal point between a changeless past and an unknowable future; flowers wither; lofty words, confessions of love, poetry and music thrill the heart, but it soon settles back to its mundane norm. Everything good, everything we labor for, passes away. Perhaps the most poignant illustration of this is the experience of falling in love. How the soul can soar, how many doors to paradise are opened, by a mere glance, or a few words! How spontaneously the heart puts its whole trust in someone, and values them above everything in the world! And yet how subtly, how mysteriously, and how irrevocably it can all be lost. She loves me, she loves me not...

There is a strange inconsistency here between the internal and the external or material perspective. In the thwarted lover's, or in the bereaved husband's, mind the beloved still exists; he can conjure her up with ease, indeed she moves through the halls and courtyards of his memory without asking his leave, and scenes may appear to his mind as vividly as when they first occurred, or even more so. There is no law in the life of the mind that all good things (or bad things) pass away. Why is the material world cursed to be the slave of Time?

However, while in the mind, there is no law that all good things pass away-- they sometimes, unexpectedly, come back-- they certainly can pass away, and regularly do, and we seem to have little power to prevent them from doing so. The mind is a chaos, and one of the reasons that the Design work I recently wrote about is so difficult is that it is terribly hard to force the mind to work in an orderly fashion to achieve a goal, rather than cut it loose to follow a free, meandering stream-of-consciousness. (It's easier to shovel dirt, disciplining the body, letting the mind wander.) The mind can get in touch with eternal things: it can come back to the same place ("place" on the soul's metaphysical plane, of course, not the same materio-physical place). I think this is what underlies the experience of deja vu: our body has not been physically-here before, but our mind has been mentally-here. But we cannot come back merely by wanting to. It is one of the mysteries of our nature that our will has a certain definite, if limited, dominion over the body, but in the thought-realm it is only one member of a steering committee, and the faces of the other committee members remain masked. And all too often we are steered against our will into the shadows: into depression and despair; into obsession and madness; into nightmares.

Which is why even this dying world is a blessing of inestimable worth. The physical world is perpetually invading, interrupting the mind: an unexpected sight or sound interrupts our thoughts; a bright summer morning changes our mood. We awake from a nightmare to see the morning light stream through the window, and dark thoughts run away like thieves from a floodlight. We take advantage of these invasions and interruptions to impose our will on our wayward, rebellious minds. That is, we routinely use the material world to influence the thought-realm. Books are an example of this-- they are physical objects that influence our thoughts-- but they also obscure it because books are typically a form of communication between minds, though of course they don't need to be. When calculating sums, or when writing an essay, we scribble on pads of paper, intending for no one but ourselves to read it. Why don't we just remember our own past thoughts? Because memory is unpredictable. The physical world is a weapon for our will to use against the chaos within.

And of course, the physical world is also the street, the public square, where we go out and meet one another, in contrast to the lonely private apartments of our minds. And yet it is dying, and we, or at any rate, we-as-hybrid-body-souls, are dying. The notion that the mind perishes with the body has no doubt been held on a few occasions in history, but it seems for the most part to be an artefact of the modern attempt to reduce the mental to the physical. Yet what we know about the life of the mind, by introspection, is more fundamental than what we know about the life of the body, through the senses, and it is irrational to believe that the former must terminate with the latter. Of course, the life of the mind is in practice parasitic on the life of the body, at least in many respects-- the content of our dreams and nightmares is derived, or at any rate clothed, in the memories of sensory experiences-- but we do not know that our thoughts necessarily take this form, and in any case if will and memory outlive the body, they would still have a store of sensory experiences to draw on. Induction gives us no reason to believe in the possibility of our own mind's death. The most obvious approach to understanding what death will be like is on the analogy of sleep, which suggests that it will involve an intermittent, shadowy, sometimes frightening form of consciousness. The ancient Greeks believed, more reasonably, that the dead descended to Hades, where "Achilles, though he was the son of a goddess and half-divine, had become only a shadow in the gloom and could only say fretfully that it were better to be the meanest and most miserable slave among the living than king of all the dead." The Jewish concept of Sheol was similar.

So prior to the mystery of God's Incarnation is the mystery of our (temporary)incarnation: why are we these curious amphibians, these body-souls, bound to this dying world, what does it mean, and what comes after it? We can touch the eternal things with our minds but cannot hold them. The physical world is a blessing and we do not (usually; and certain not in our wisest moments) wish to die, yet what use would it be to be immortal in this dying world? Even the elderly in this world seem to have aged not only physically but in the soul: their memories are bound to things that are passed away, they lose interest in the busy rush of new things, some are sad as they yearn for the past, others are buoyed up by hopes of something better beyond the grave. No doubt if their bodies remained young they would live in the present a bit more, but one still feels that to live forever, while loving mortals, and watching them die one by one, generation after generation, would be a sorrow. We fear our own deaths; we fear it more if we are denied the comfort of disbelieving in the immortality of the soul and expect to be condemned to a shadowy Sheol of nightmares and dreams; yet to live in this dying world forever would itself be a curse of a different kind. We need for this dying world to be changed, we need it to cease to be a dying world. We need it to be infused with the Eternal Things that we can sometimes touch-- but not hold-- in our sublime but chaotic minds. We need God to Incarnate himself in this world, to transfigure it, to revoke the law that all good things pass away.

So why Jesus Christ? I'm sure I can't put into words all the reasons why the story of his life-- the story told with such brevity in the Gospels, his teachings, his casting out devils and healing the lame and the blind, his teachings which constantly led to misunderstandings and dissent among his disciples, who nonetheless kept following him, his love for his disciples and for simple people, his challenges to the powers that be, his unresisting death at the hands of two of the greatest civilizing forces of the ancient world, Jewish religion and Roman law-- never ceases to be the Spring of Truth from which I have only to drink so as never to be thirsty. I suppose it would be just as difficult to explain why so often I fail to drink of it even when my soul seems to be dying of thirst. But the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount:

"You hae heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder,' and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you that anyon who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment... You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth." But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also... You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you... Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break through and steal... Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear... seek first [God's] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own... Do not judge, or your too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye..." (Excerpts from Matthew 5-7.)

From the point of view of this world, of common sense, of the way that ordinary people do business with one another, Jesus's teachings are absurd. And that is part of their merit, for the way that people treat each other in this world is not good enough. I don't live by Jesus's ethics, I'm the first to admit. Christians are the world's greatest hypocrites: because their ethics are loftier than others', the gap between what they preach and what they practice is always wider. I wouldn't quite know how to live by Jesus's teachings-- not completely anyway-- and I'm sure I don't do it even as well as I do know how. If I tried to, I think it would probably lead me into some kind of monastic-style retreat from the world; and as I have argued before, one of the themes of past twenty centuries of history is that striving Christians have, again and again, retreated from the world, only to inadvertently renew it. Yet it is the counter-point between Jesus's absurd, unattainable teachings and the sordid ways of this world that is constantly sowing seeds of aspiration in my soul, which, when I let them grow, make me better. Sometimes the teachings of Jesus are obscure to me, but I find that my conscience never either tires of them, or rejects them. The Sermon on the Mount is the mountain rising into the mist. It always leads one higher up.

from thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead;

This is one place where my views would perhaps strike some Christians as a bit wayward. It is not consistent with my view of a loving God that God will judge us and send some of us to Hell as punishment. But I know that people can create a Hell for themselves, from my own experience-- having seen others do it, and having done it myself. In this life the personal hells that we can create for ourselves are interrupted by sensory input from without. But our current incarnation is temporary, and when it ends, if our minds are fit to produce only nightmares, then we will no longer be able to wake from them. Will God keep trying to lift the damned out of Hell? The creed does not suggest it; and perhaps it is not my business to know. But I know that we can shut the "still small voice" of God out, and a soul that is habituated to doing so might become unreachable to God.

If Judgment Day is really to occur, when will it occur? Are we talking about a literal end of the world here? One of the most embarrassing parts of Christian history is that people are constantly thinking that the end of the world is just around the corner. And with some reason: Jesus says "I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened." But of course, he also emphasizes that "no one knows about that day or hour" and that the end will come "like a thief in the night." Hmm. Christians are thus exhorted to be skeptical about any claims about the imminent end of the world, and have a ready rejoinder whenever kooks chant "Repent, the end is near!" But when is Judgment Day? is a question I'm not quite sure what to make of...

whose kingdom shall have no end.

Our dying world will be changed...

And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spake by the prophets.

The Holy Ghost is perhaps less objectionable from the modern point of view than the Incarnate Jesus Christ. We hear the poets talk about their "inspiration." We are charmed by the Greeks' talk of "the Muses." The idea of a spirit that can commune with our souls is not unfamiliar to mainstream culture. The word holy, though, sounds strange to modern ears. Yet we still have an intuition, we still understand and use the word; even materialists might describe it with psychologisms rather than dismissing it altogether. Perhaps my position is not so different. Some thoughts are better, nobler, loftier; some are worse, baser, meaner. To say that that which draws the mind up to better, nobler, loftier thoughts is holy, and that which drags it down to worse, baser, meaner thoughts is unholy is too simple and relativistic because it is too individualistic. Part of the nobler, loftier state of mind that is holy is love, which is between persons, and so what is holy cannot be holy only from an individual perspective; holiness is in the eye of the beholder, but the beholder must be a community. But different communities can hold different things to be holy; and this leads to the practices related to "holiness"-- venerating saints' relics and all that-- seem a bit absurd. Though of course secular folks seem just as foolish dragging their spoiled teenagers who would rather be playing video games to the cathedrals of Europe.

In one holy catholic and apostolic Church;

The Church is said to be the mystical Body of Christ, yet century after century it falls short! It sanctions tyrants, it persecutes "heretics", it condones and fortifies unjust social orders, it consecrates hypocrites, it clings to sterile doctrinal formulas, it fosters spiritual pride, it gets split into factions that fight each other and pays more attention to intra-Christian divisions than the Christian message. Why do we need it? I've known people who say they believe in God and in Jesus Christ but who think going to church is pointless, or even that they feel insincere, phony, dishonest there.

But if Jesus wanted his disciples to bring the Good News to the world, surely some vehicle is needed to achieve this! He didn't plan to do it by getting a Bible written and printed, using the printing press and taking advantage of modern mass literacy to convert mankind, or at least those with sufficient reading comprehension. Protestants over-emphasize the Bible. The Bible is a priceless treasure, God be praised for it, but it is also contingent, an accident. Matthew, Mark, Luke or John could have fallen under a cart-horse sometime. Or they could have fallen into temptation and failed to answer God's call. And many others might have been called to write Gospels who were not. Paul's epistles are even more obviously contingent: something happened in some Christian community that made him want to write.

One of my favorite Scriptural verses is the last verse of John, which reads, "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of thm were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written." John could be satirizing the notion that the Bible is an adequate instrument for communicating the Gospel. We need the Church, with all its variety of music and art and architecture and hierarchy and other traditions. It is one of the mysteries of Christianity that God does his saving work through persons who are themselves sinners, and who thus impart to the Church, age after age, a sinful character. This is only an extension of the mystery of the Incarnation: that a sublime and perfect message could be incarnated in a vehicle as inherently corruptible and weak as flesh.

we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;

Ritual, like writing, has an arbitrary character, though perhaps less so: ritual is symbolic, and some symbols are more intuitive than others, thus the baptismal notion of "washing" away one's sins thus seems appropriate. More generally, the church, like many communities, needs some way of distinguishing those who are "in" and those who are "out." If someone in my life is committed to the Christian faith I may exhort him using Christian phrases and teachings and expect him to listen; if not, I must speak to him in other terms. It's nice to know which. Whether an unbaptized soul can be saved is, as it were, none of my business: I am a baptized Christian, and will be judged as such. Though it would seem a bit odd if the accidental non-occurrence of baptism in a person's life (if, let's suppose, faulty record-keeping recorded them being baptized when in fact they were not) could prevent that person from being saved. But I don't really know.

we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The literal resurrection of the dead? One may ask, given that our current bodies are inherently corrupt and mortal, why should we want to be resurrected into them again. The question is useful for underlining that this teaching is a "mystery," meaning here that we can only see the vague outlines of a great truth. Lazarus was raised from the dead, but died again; that is not what the Creed is talking about. If I say that we will have "deathless bodies," the phrase is perhaps paradoxical, since we have never encountered deathless bodies in this life and have no basis-- except possibly some form of extrapolation, but it's not clear what-- for knowing what they would be like. What I believe is that we will be enabled to participate in the transfiguration of this dying world, which will become a deathless world. This is a threshold that our mortal imaginations cannot cross, but towards which desire and hope can nonetheless reach towards.

In the meantime, I have my work cut out for me to live a Christian life in a simpler sense.


  • I feel such an investment of time and thought deserves a response, but I fear nothing glib offers itself.

    I suppose I can say that, at the end of the day, we all have work cut out for outselves to be better people, however crafted that idea.

    By Blogger Nato, at 8:38 AM  

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