The difficulty of teaching natural law to undergraduates

This post stems from my difficulties in teaching the natural law to undergraduate and graduate students.  One difficulty is the lack of any decent accompanying text (I think mine is an exception, but I’m not writing this to promote my work).  Most texts argue along the following lines:

natural law is not about human nature as it is, but about human nature at its best . . . . . . [60,000 words] . . . . . . And so you see that abortion and homosexuality are against natural law. 

It is as if the point of natural law is to justify the author’s convictions.  An example is Morality and the Human Goods: An Introduction to Natural Law Ethics, by Alfonso Gómez-Lobo, but there are many others. 

I’m not sure how to best approach the natural law, but I’m pretty sure it’s best not to use it to justify an agenda.

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C. S. Lewis is popular but wrong; we are not little Christs

C. S. Lewis is popular but wrong; we are not little Christs.

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) was one of the most popular Christian writers of the twentieth century, and our century as well. Though he would have disliked being called a theologian, that is exactly what he was, even as he had no formal theological training. In fact, this is exactly what makes his works on Christianity so popular.  Mere Christianity, begun as a series of radio lectures during World War Two, is almost conversational in tone.  It is still taught in adult Christian education groups (Urban).  By the way, the fact that Lewis had no formal theological training does not imply that he lacked intellectual standing, having taught medieval history at both Oxford and Cambridge.  He also wrote the fictional Chronicles of Narnia.  Unless noted, all pages numbers refer to Mere Christianity.

Most critics of Lewis as theologian are Christian evangelicals, and others, who believe he was too loose with doctrine, such as saying that other religions might contain a portion of truth about God.  My take is somewhat the opposite.  He is too literal about what it means to follow Christ.  For Lewis it means to become “little Christs,” which to me makes no sense at all.  Nevertheless, there is a charm and simplicity to his religious writing which has no equal, though perhaps G. K. Chesterton comes close.

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Emmanuel Levinas says we can’t talk to God, only each other

Emmanuel Levinas says we can’t talk to God, only each other.  When we care for others in words and deeds, we come as close as we can to God.

Emmanuel Levinas is popular among philosophers because “he introduces God into the scene without making so much ontological noise,” as Ryan Urbano puts it (p 75).  In other words, Levinas lets us talk about God without talking about God.  It’s true, but it’s not because he is shy about using the G—word.  

For Levinas, God is experienced in the ethical encounter with the other.  Religion is Levinas’ term for this ethical relationship.  For Levinas, there is no direct relationship with the Divine. 

The Divine can only be accessed through the human other to whom the self is infinitely responsible. (Urbano, p 51)

We know God when we act ethically toward another person.  We do not keep God alive by trying to prove his existence, a waste of time.  Everything I can ever know about God is experienced in caring for others. 

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The question “Do you believe in God?” is the wrong question

The question “Do you believe in God?” is the wrong question.  “How do you believe in God?” comes closer to the mark. 

The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, saw religion as an infantile illusion, one in which God would comfort and protect us from the harshness of the world as our parents once did (Future, pp 30-31, 43).  But this is not all psychoanalysis has to say about religion.

Jung and myth

For Carl Jung, a follower of Freud in his younger years, a rebel in his later years, religious myth is a great achievement.  As myth, religion is neither true, nor false.  The categories don’t apply.  A myth is generally the story of an epic hero sent on a journey to found or save a people, either by defeating an enemy, or solving a problem.  Moses did both.  So did Jesus Christ: the enemy is sin and death; the solution is believe that Christ is the Son of God, and act accordingly.

It is no repudiation of God to reject him because almost all of what we know about God and Jesus comes through stories.  We live by and through narrative.  Stories are how we make sense of our lives, and our world.  The Bible is a series of stories, one reason it prospered while the gnostic gospels failed.   Not enough good stories.  About religious myths, Jung says

The religious myth is one of man’s greatest and most significant achievements, giving him the security and inner strength not to be crushed by the monstrousness of the universe (Jung, Collected Works, vol. 5, para. 343)   

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Reinhold Niebuhr and the things that are not: leaving room for faith

Reinhold Niebuhr and the things that are not: leaving room for faith.

For a period in the 1950’s, it seems as almost half the State Department was quoting Reinhold Niebuhr.  But did they understand the man they were quoting?  They had reason to be influenced by Niebuhr.  His Irony of American History is generally considered among the most important books ever written on American foreign policy.   Arthur Schlesinger Jr. spoke for many agnostics in wondering whether Niebuhr’s wisdom on human nature had anything to do with his Christian theology (Crouter, p 96).

It’s important to understand what Niebuhr’s theology brings to his politics.  His theology not only adds; it is necessary.  Consider “The Things That Are and The Things That Are Not,” which takes its title from First Corinthians 1:28. The King James version that Niebuhr uses reads    

Yea, and things which are not [hath God chosen], to put to nought things that are.

The NIV translation reads

God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are. 

The NIV translation, as far as my weak Greek can tell, is better, for “things which are not” (tὰ μὴ ὄντα) is in this context not a philosophical term, but a category which includes things that are despised or contemptible. 

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Kierkegaard and the leap to faith

Kierkegaard and the leap to faith.

I’ve decided that the only way to understand religion is in terms of what Søren Kierkegaard called the “leap.” (CUP, p 340)  He never used the term “leap of faith.”  I’m still struggling with Kierkegaard.  My post is a series of comments on some important ideas of his.  There are others. 

I am particularly interested in the religious implications of his earlier works, those not explicitly Christian.  When people refer to Kierkegaard as the first existentialist, it is to these earlier works that they refer. 

One influence on my decision to study Kierkegaard was reading some of Reinhold Niebuhr’s sermons, prayers, and religious essays (2015).  Far from being a “Christian realist,” as I may have portrayed him here, Niebuhr was first of all a man of faith.  But what does this mean? 

Truth as subjectivity

It means that through an act of “imaginative reorientation,” one chooses to see the world as gift, and Christ as our savior, because doing so makes life more meaningful.  Reasons can be given, but the world as gift and Christ as savior becomes a reality by acting as if it were so.  This is what Kierkegaard means by “truth as subjectivity.”

Truth is not just a proposition.  Truth becomes a way of life.  This is exemplified in Christ’s claim that “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).  Christ not only claims to teach the truth; His life is the truth (Evans, p 62).  Our lives can never be the truth, but we can seek to make the ideals represented by Christ’s life and teachings our own, in so far as this is humanly possible.  In this way faith becomes a reality. 

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Making sense of original sin with Reinhold Niebuhr

The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith—Reinhold Niebuhr      

adam-and-eve-798376_1280Making sense of original sin with Reinhold Niebuhr.

I never took the concept of sin seriously until I read Reinhold Niebuhr.  I think this is mostly because I didn’t read Niebuhr until I was in my sixties, when I began to take a lot of things in life more seriously.  If so, then perhaps I should say that Niebuhr is a particularly good interpreter of a concept that hovered just out of my range until now.

Communal idolatry

For Niebuhr, sin is most clearly seen and expressed in communal idolatry.  This is the context of the epigraph that opens this post.  We see sin every day in the actions of groups, and above all nations.  I discussed communal idolatry in a previous post, so I won’t spend much time on it here. 

In sin, we worship the idols of the group.  And not just extremist groups or nations.  In the midst of World War Two, Niebuhr argued that the American idealization of liberty could itself degenerate into a form of idolatry.  As Andrew Bacevich puts it in his introduction to a new edition of The Irony of American History, Niebuhr

went so far as to describe the worship of democracy as “a less vicious version of the Nazi creed.” He cautioned that “no society, not even a democratic one, is great enough or good enough to make itself the final end of human existence.” (Bacevich, p xii; Niebuhr, 1944, p 133)

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It’s mostly good that the gnostic gospels didn’t make it into the Bible

sky-1122414_1920It’s mostly good that the gnostic gospels didn’t make it into the Bible.

Several decades ago, the gnostic gospels seemed to be making a comeback after a couple of thousand years of loss and neglect.  Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels was published in 1979, and for the first time in a long time people outside the schools of theology began to talk about them.  Often favorably, as if the gnostic gospels contained a purer, less institutionalized form of Christianity. 

I bought into this in a vague way (most of what I thought about religion then was pretty vague), but recently I read The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, a collection of forty-six texts that are generally referred to as gnostic, though not all are.  One is a selection from Plato’s Republic.  Most seem to date from the second and third centuries CE, but the Gospel of Thomas, the most well known gnostic gospel, may have been written around the same time as the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  To make things complicated, the Gospel of Thomas contains both orthodox and gnostic elements.

After some more reading, I decided that on the whole I’m glad the gnostic gospels didn’t make it into the New Testament, or a new canon. 

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Reinhold Niebuhr, Theodor Adorno, and the Scandal of the Twentieth Century

 

B0000955Around the middle of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr was the most prominent Protestant theologian in America.  He was on the cover of Time magazine (March 8, 1948).  More recently, Barack Obama called Niebuhr his favorite philosopher (Brooks). Niebuhr is author of the well-known serenity prayer. 

God give us the grace to accept things that cannot be changed.  Courage to change the things that should be changed.  And the Wisdom to distinguish one from the other. 

His daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, says that this is the real version of the prayer, noting the difference between “should be changed” and “can be changed,” which is the version usually recited.  She thinks the usual version represents a dumbing down of the prayer, for in its original version it calls us to do the right thing, not what I can do, but what I should do (Lemert, pp. 195-196).

The world as gift and idolatry

The difference between science and theology, as I understand it, is one over whether you see the world as a gift or not; and you cannot resolve this just by inspecting the thing, any more than you can deduce from examining a porcelain vase that it is a wedding present. (quoted in Crouter, p. 133)

If one sees the world as gift, then humans were created: to savor life surely, but also to be responsible stewards of the gift, not only of one’s own life, but also a world.  Everything is gift.  Humans are not just creators, but created.

From this perspective, idolatry becomes the gravest and most tempting sin, the worship of our own creations.  For Niebuhr, “communal idolatry” is the most common sin of our time, certainly the most damaging in scale and intensity.  For Niebuhr, sin, and with it idolatry, are an anxious attempt to hide our finitude, to make ourselves the center of life, and so take the place of God.  Each of us can imagine all manner of terrible things that might befall us.   And so humans seek by an act of will, what Niebuhr (1944, p. 139) calls the will-to-power, to overreach the limits of human creatureliness.  Since most people lack the ability to do this on their own, they join communities of self-justification and self-assertion. 

Niebuhr was never very interested in the details of Christian doctrine.  For Niebuhr, original sin had little to do with desire.  Original sin stems from a person’s fear at being alone and vulnerable in the world, leading him or her to worship the gods of the community, indeed the god that is the community.  Nationalism, money, success, fitting in—all this and more become our idols.  

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