Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Christians in Politics (?)


A Moral Minority

            I hold lots of unpopular opinions on important topics.  I think we ought to abolish capital punishment.  I think abortion is morally wrong in almost every case.  I think we ought to pursue peace by peaceful means, not by killing enemies.  I think women should marry only men, and only one at a time.  I think it’s always wrong to break a marriage, but sometimes after a marriage has died the best option is legal divorce.
            These opinions vary in their degree of unpopularity.  The very earliest Christians were pacifists, but for a long time now the vast majority of Christians have adhered to the “just war” theory.  (Most non-Christians, in this country and worldwide, also approve of war.)  On the matter of peace and war, I’m in a small minority. 
On the question of abortion, my position isn’t quite so unpopular, but only because all the opinions are minority views.  Public opinion about abortion is deeply divided between multiple positions.  Some say abortion is always wrong and should be prohibited, some say abortion may be wrong but only the mother involved should have any say in the matter, others say abortion is sometimes wrong because it is the killing of an innocent person so society as a whole (the state) should prevent those abortions, others say abortion is never wrong unless it is forced upon a woman who doesn’t want it—and there are many variations on these positions. 
Public opinion about capital punishment varies from time to time and country to country.  In some places and times my abolitionist view would actually be a very popular one, but in other times or in other places my view would be excoriated.  I could make similar observations regarding gay marriage, plural marriage, and divorce.  Public opinion shifts over time and varies between cultures; my views are guaranteed to be unpopular somewhere sometime.
There is nothing surprising or wrong about this.  I live in a moral minority.  Most likely, you do too.  The moral beliefs of people in the United States are influenced by culture, religion, education, personal experience, family migrant experience (except for pure-blood native Americans, the immigration experience shaped every family tree in this country), relative wealth, and other factors.  On this or that important moral question, you may find yourself in the minority.
When I say there is nothing wrong about this situation, I do not imply any kind of moral relativism; that all views are equally true, right, or “valid.”  (As a teacher of logic, this last locution is especially irritating.  No opinions whatsoever are “valid.”  Validity is a feature of arguments, not propositions.)  If my unpopular views about abortion or war are right, then contradictory views are wrong.  But in a country whose people’s thinking is influenced by differing religious doctrines (including anti-religious doctrines), multiple cultural backgrounds, and a myriad other differing factors, we should not be surprised by deep difference.
How should we think about and live with deep difference?  One option is to ignore its existence.  Those of us who have inherited privilege (for example, by being white, male, and Protestant in my case) may be tempted to think that most people are really like us.  That is, we may believe that behind all the headlines, we are the “moral majority.”  Demographical changes have exploded that self-deception.  There is no majority ethnic, cultural, or religious group in America (unless by “Christian” we adopt a very inclusive definition, lumping all Christian sects together whether or not the individuals participate much).
More realistically, we could seek to think and live as pluralists.  Here I am drawing on the excellent work of Matthew Kaemingk, Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear.  Christian pluralism should not be taken as a belief that all religions are equally true, Kaemingk argues.  Sometimes in philosophy of religion we do use “pluralism” that way, but Kaemingk is a theologian, using the word to describe a position rooted in Dutch Calvinism.
Abraham Kuyper and other pluralists started with a basic Christian belief: Jesus is King.  But they drew an interesting and important implication from that belief: If Jesus is King, we are not, not even if we are doing our best to follow Jesus.  It is clear that Jesus, as Sovereign King, has allowed many human cultures to flourish.  No human culture (not even Dutch culture!) is the “right” culture; rather, God wishes to bless all cultures. 
Jesus is King and Messiah, so Christianity really is the right religion.  But in 19th century Holland, did that mean Calvinists or Catholics or agnostic liberals?  Kuyper was a convinced Calvinist, but he said that every religious persuasion must be encourage to participate in the larger society.  If Calvinists wanted their freedom to worship as they thought right, Kuyper said, they must support the freedom of Catholics to worship in their way and liberals to neglect worship in whatever way they thought they could.  (In truth, Kuyper thought, everyone worships something, and the agnostic deceives himself if he thinks he doesn’t.)
The pluralism of 21st century America is much greater than 19th century Holland.  We have Catholics, many kinds of Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, a great many “nones,” and lots of smaller religious groups.  Kaemingk argues that Christians, because we are Christians, ought to support and welcome the arguments of all groups.  If we don’t want “them” to impose their will on us, neither must we impose our will on them.
Because Jesus is King (and we aren’t), we should not be afraid to live as moral minorities.  We should vigorously participate in public debates on important moral topics, but we should not presume to think we are “claiming America for Christ.”  Even if on some particular issue my opinion should carry the day (e.g. if capital punishment were abolished in this country), that day will only last for a time.  Jesus is King, and when he returns his reign will be made evident.  Until then, his followers should speak up and encourage others to do so as well.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

What can writers do?


Limits to Imagination

            Several weeks ago, while discussing a philosophy text with some really good students, I said, “MacIntyre’s point is that we can’t imagine a good life for human beings without practices.  And since practices require virtues, we actually need virtues for the good life.”  Or something to that effect.  Claire, being a really good philosophy student, challenged the claim.  “Let’s imagine someone stranded on a desert island,” she said.  “Why couldn’t this person live a good human life?”  And so the classroom discussion/debate continued. 
            (Side comment: I get paid to do this!  How cool is that?  Yes, being a professor means reading and marking lots of mediocre essays by half-hearted or sleep-deprived students.  But it also means doing philosophy with smart, enthusiastic young people like Claire.)
            At the end of the hour—at the end of the semester, for that matter—I still agree with Alasdair MacIntyre.  Human beings are social creatures, and I can’t imagine a good life for human beings that did not include “practices” (a semi-technical term in MacIntyre’s theory of the virtues).  But my point is not to resume a classroom discussion, but to think about the limits of imagination.
            What does it mean to imagine or conceive of something?  In philosophy we sometimes speak of “broadly logical” possibilities.  The only limitation here is logical consistency.  The sun has risen in the east for ten million mornings in a row; can we imagine that it will not rise in the east tomorrow?  Yes.  The sun “rises” because the earth turns on its axis.  If there were no earth, there would be no sunrise.  So if the Vogons put in a hyperspace bypass (see Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), there won’t be an earth and there won’t be a sunrise.  There is no logical contradiction between the fact that the sun rose ten million mornings in a row and the possibility that it will not rise tomorrow.  In contrast, “a stone so heavy that an omnipotent God could not lift it” is a logical contradiction, naming nothing.  We may think we can imagine such a stone, but we can’t, no more than we can imagine round squares.
            But logical limits are not the only limits to our imagination.  We can conceive of beings somewhat like human beings who could live happy, productive and fulfilling lives in total solitude.  They might be some sort of angel or extraterrestrial.  Of course, these imagined beings would only be “somewhat” like human beings.  They would not have language, since we are imagining them to live wonderful lives without any interactions with others.  An intelligent being with no language and no interaction with other intelligent beings…  Hm.  Aristotle remarked that a solitary life might be fit for a god or a beast, but not for a man.  The limitation here rises from human nature, not pure logic.
            Some people object to arguments that appeal to “human nature.”  For good reason!  In times past, people have argued that human nature requires or allows superior people to enslave inferior ones, or that women are designed naturally to be mothers and wives and not much else, or that human beings are naturally warlike.  Objecting to such arguments, some have come to think that “human nature” is a fiction.  They believe that people can be literally anything they want.
            But that’s not true.  Each one of us has a certain physical form, organs of particular kinds, and mental capacities peculiar to us as individuals.  And in spite of the differences between us, we are far more like each other than we are like the ET or the angel who could delight in lifelong solitude.  We cannot be “simply anything” and still be human beings.  Who would want such an undefined life?  We are human beings, and what we want is a good life for human beings.
            There is yet a further limitation on our imagination, a limitation especially important for writers.  George MacDonald, nineteenth century writer of fantasy stories, pointed out that the fantasy writer has enormous but not unlimited freedom.  In a fantasy, the author can make fairies small or tall, princesses serious or light (MacDonald’s “The Light Princess” is so light she defies gravity, which is a problem for her parents), dragons of all sorts, and intelligent parrots (as in my story, The Heart of the Sea).  But what the fantasy writer cannot do is change good into evil or vice versa.  The moral world extends to the land of fairie, MacDonald said.  There cannot be a world where cruelty is the ultimate good or kindness the worst of evils.  Of course, there may be imaginary worlds with lots of cruel characters and those characters may pour scorn on kindness (think Game of Thrones), but even in those stories vice has not been turned into virtue.  The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called for a revaluation of all values, but even he pleaded with his readers: “Let us be honest with ourselves!”  It turns out Nietzsche wanted to revalue some values, not all of them.
            Despite the truth in MacDonald’s teaching, imagination does have the power to shape our understanding of morality.  It’s not so much the explicit teaching of stories that matters, though that is important.  Stories help us see what is possible.  For example, if a person reads or sees story after story built on the myth of redemptive violence, he may come to see the world that way.  He may come to think, perhaps only unconsciously, that evil can be defeated only by destroying the source of evil—that is, by killing the enemy.  Marduk kills Tiamat, Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star, the good guys imprison the bad guys (even better, execute them); this is how good defeats evil.  An imagination shaped by the myth of redemptive violence may be offended by a gospel of redemption through suffering.  It is important to attend to stories shaped by Jesus’ story.



Thursday, April 5, 2018

Jesus and Hercules


What Kind of Hero?

            On Saturday afternoon between Good Friday and Easter, after the Mariners game I resorted to channel surfing.  I chanced to watch a few minutes of The Legend of Hercules.  Other than those minutes, I knew nothing about this movie until I looked it up.
            Wikipedia facts: released in 2014, The Legend of Hercules was panned by critics and quickly ignored by the movie going public.  Its box office take did not cover its costs of production.  The film was nominated for several “Gold Raspberry” awards, including worst picture, worst leading actor, worst director, and worst leading actress.  The convoluted story line starts with Hercules’s birth as son of Zeus and a human mother, Alcmene, the wife of King Amphitryon (Hera, Zeus’s queen, approved and abetted the sexual liaison between Zeus and Alcmene). Since Alcmene never publicly revealed her liaison with Zeus, Hercules grew up as son of Amphitryon and brother of Iphicles.  The story then jumps twenty years to Hercules’s adulthood, when he fights in battles, against gladiators, against his half-brother, Iphicles, and eventually against King Amphitryon himself (who meanwhile had murdered Alcmene).
            In short, it’s a soap opera—sex, secrets, betrayals, alliances, surprises, reversals, and so on—with swords and sorcery thrown on top.  I’m not condemning The Legend of Hercules on that ground; there have been fantasy stores made into fine movies.  But by all accounts this wasn’t one of them.  (It holds a 3% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website, which gives a consensus judgment: “Cheap-looking, poorly acted, and dull.”)  My reaction matched those of the critics; I quit watching after about ten minutes. 
So why am I writing about it? 
The only scene I watched comes late in the story.  In this scene Hercules has been captured by King Amphitryon’s men.  They chain Hercules, spread-eagle fashion, between two stone pillars.  Amphitryon commands Hercules flogged and executed.  While Hercules still lives, Amphitryon brings out Chiron, the long-time faithful servant of Alcmene and orders Iphicles to kill him while Hercules watches.  (Chiron knew Hercules’s true parentage from the beginning and helped Alcmene raise the boy-god.)  Thus physically and spiritually tormented, Hercules cries out to his true father, Zeus, who answers by giving Hercules super-strength.  Hercules pulls the chains binding him, and the stone pillars break into pieces.  The chains still intact, Hercules swings massive stone blocks like gigantic scythes, mowing down his enemies. 
At this point I could stomach no more and surfed to another channel.
It cannot be an accident that this horrible movie played on Holy Saturday.  Consider the scene I described.  In it, the “son of god” is tortured in a crucifix position, having fallen under the power of an evil king.  He appeals to Zeus, calling him “father.”  The god answers his prayer, giving him power to slaughter his enemies.  According to Wikipedia (since I watched no further), Hercules goes on to kill Amphitryon and Iphicles, save his true love from a forced marriage to Iphicles, and rule the kingdom in peace and harmony.
Walter Wink, a Bible scholar, coined the phrase “the myth of redemptive violence.”  It’s an archetype, showing up in story after story, beginning with the Babylonian creation story Enuma Elish.  In the myth of redemptive violence a great hero (the god Marduk in Emuma Elish) saves the world from chaos (represented by Tiamat and her servants) by killing his enemies in inventive and gory detail.
Our stories—on television, in films, in novels and graphic novels—repeat the archetype so often that we don’t notice it.  Star Wars, Batman Begins, Taken, the list goes on and on.  It’s the American way, right?  No matter what your problem, the answer is to find your enemy and kill her, even if she is not yet born. 
But of course that’s too simplistic.  The myth of redemptive violence is far older than American popular culture, and it is found all around the world.  Wink argues that the biblical creation narrative may have arisen in opposition to the violent mythology of Enuma Elish.  In the Hebrew Bible, God creates by speaking; he does not have to destroy prior gods.  Of course, Wink cannot deny that the Bible also contains many episodes that seem modeled on the myth of redemptive violence: Pharaoh and his chariots are drowned in the sea.  But as a Christian Wink points to the New Testament for the definitive story of God’s action in the world.  Real redemption came via redemptive suffering, not redemptive violence.
And that’s what made my viewing experience on Holy Saturday so jarring.  Salvation came to my world not when the son of god called for super power to destroy his enemies and make everything good, but when the Son of God bore the sins of the world and endured the violence of men, dying with words of forgiveness for his oppressors.
What kind of hero do I want?  The Legend of Hercules is a lousy movie, but its hero is a very familiar type.  We like heroes who put things right by killing our enemies.  But it seems to me that followers of Jesus would want something better.


Sunday, March 4, 2018

Do we live tragedy?


The Shape of Stories

            Much of what I know about literary criticism (and it isn’t very much) comes from having read Anatomy of Criticism, by Northrup Frye—well more than forty years ago.  Frye invented (or borrowed from others) an easily remembered scheme for categorizing stories: the mythos of spring—comedy; the mythos of summer—romance; the mythos of autumn—tragedy; and the mythos of winter—irony and satire.  Comedy/spring celebrates new beginnings, new life, and new possibilities.  Romance/summer gives us an adventure, a contest between the hero and all that opposes him, a contest that ends happily.  In tragedy/autumn, the forces that oppose the hero triumph, things end badly.  Irony and satire, the voices of winter, protest the injustices of the world, the things that produces bad ends.
            Within the four mythoi, differences in detail abound.  Comedy can be farcical; new hopes emerging from silly coincidences; this is comedy on the border of satire.  In other comedies, the protagonist triumphs at least in part by virtue; comedy on the border of romance.  In romance proper, the hero is more completely heroic, overcoming multiple or great antagonists in a great contest.  Sometimes the hero dies in battle and his triumph is to be celebrated by his comrades.  And so on: there is infinite room for authors to innovate.
             Popular storytelling in my lifetime has come to be dominated by movies.  Since movies are expensive to produce, they cater to mass audiences, usually with happy endings.  Love stories, musicals, adventures—we get lots of spring and summer stories, from Forrest Gump to Sleepless in Seattle to Star Wars.  Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List show how deadly serious a movie romance can be; their heroes’ triumphs are not fully complete and bought at high price.
Hollywood occasionally gives us popular winter tales of irony or satire; think of M.A.S.H. or Catch 22.
Tragedies?  Well, we have horror films, with suitably bad outcomes for the protagonists, but too often we feel cheated; the story is just an excuse for mayhem.  We don’t really care about the—often very young and vulnerable—protagonists, since we know from the start they will die.  The television series Breaking Bad probably counts as a tragedy, so it’s not impossible for tragedy to gain a mass audience.
Nevertheless, I want to consider the mythos of tragedy.  What should we think of stories that end badly for the hero?  For serious tragedy we sometimes turn to Shakespeare or to ancient Greek writers like Aeschylus or Sophocles.  Here the main characters are in many ways admirable and sympathetic.  We want them to do well and be well.  Yet disaster befalls them.
Aristotle wrote that we are attracted to tragedies—he was thinking of plays performed before an audience—because we experience through them deep emotions we would otherwise avoid.  We admire the tragic hero, or at least we see he has good qualities.  He has a flaw of some sort, a flaw which in some ways is admirable.  Oedipus is determined to discover the truth—a good thing, surely!  But his determination to find the truth at all costs destroys him.  Creon wants to steer the ship of state through perilous waters, and to that end decrees what seems to him a sensible law.  By ordering his law be obeyed, he loses his son and his wife and finds his life ruined.
Modern interpreters, such as Martha Nussbaum, give other readings of tragedy.  Rather than a flaw in the hero, maybe a tragedy shows us the chanciness of the world.  We want to live lives of meaningful activity (Aristotle would agree with that) in which we enjoy good relationships with others and experience good outcomes.  In the typical word of modern philosophy, we want to “flourish.”  But many things may undermine us, Nussbaum says.  Perhaps, through no fault of hers, a woman’s business partner betrays her; she ends in poverty.  Disease, war, or bad government may destroy one’s hopes.  At a deeper level, the hero may be frustrated by contradictory impulses arising in her own heart.  It is impossible to this good and that good in the same life.   In Nussbaum’s phrase, tragic drama shows us the “fragility of goodness.”  It is possible, with luck and skill, to reach old age and look back with satisfaction on one’s life.  But no amount of skill can erase the danger of bad luck.  Your life may turn out to be a tragedy no matter what you do.
I suspect J.R.R. Tolkien would reject Nussbaum’s philosophy.  The Christian gospels are, in Northrup Frye’s terms, romances.  Tolkien invented the word eucatastrophe to express what he saw as central to the Christian story.  Jesus is presented as a cosmic figure—the eternal logos, the Son of Man, the lamb of God—in battle with the evil powers of the world.  The stakes of his quest are the highest possible, the Kingdom of God and the redemption of humanity.  At the climax of the story, demonic forces working through religion and the state crucify him.  In a stunning about-face, the resurrection of Jesus transforms defeat into victory.
(Compare Frodo, in The Lord of the Ring.  Lacking the necessary spiritual strength, Frodo failed in his quest to save Middle Earth.  At the crucial moment, when all was lost, help came to Frodo in a way he would never have expected: eucatastrophe.)
Tolkien would aver, I think, that Jesus’ story is the fundamental story.  All our stories and our personal histories are bits and pieces of the great story.  Whether we see it or not, our stories weave into a romance, the triumph of the Christ.  For Christians, hope is always appropriate.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Murdoch and Hope


The Philosopher Who Feared Hope

            The first course I took as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oregon, in the fall of 1987, was Ethical Theory.  (Actually, I wasn’t a Ph.D. candidate; I was a provisional admit.  Essentially, UO said, “Come and take a class and see how you do.”  After I wrote a paper, they admitted me to the program.)  William Davie, the professor, had us read Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good.  Through that book and others, Murdoch greatly influenced my thinking during my time at Oregon.  My dissertation, Learning to Love: Philosophy and Moral Progress, is heavily indebted to Murdoch.  In later years I discovered Diogenes Allen, a longtime professor at Princeton Seminary, whose book, The Path of Perfect Love, was equally shaped by Murdoch’s ideas.  Allen, now deceased, and I are both Christians who learned much about love from the same explicitly non-Christian philosopher.
            Murdoch was a 20th century Platonist who believed in the Good, but not in God.  She quite consciously borrowed or adapted Christian ideas, giving them nontheistic treatments, as part of her moral philosophy.  For instance, Murdoch thought modern psychology, with its notion of an unconscious mind, gives a pretty good picture of original sin.  Human beings are often unaware of the drives and fears that condition our behavior; our selfishness consists in the way we see and evaluate other people and things by their roles in our lives.  It is natural for us to see other people as furniture in our worlds.  So we have to fight against our natural tendencies.  In the moral life, Murdoch wrote, the enemy is the “fat, relentless ego.”
            Moral progress is rarely easy, Murdoch thought.  We struggle to see our neighbors accurately.  Sometimes, as if by magic, a person might be freed (for a time) from egocentricity.  Murdoch’s novels (she wrote many) often describe a character jarred loose from the fat ego, perhaps by illness or injury, or by a sudden recognition of having sinned, or by a realization of death’s approach.  Murdoch does not hesitate to label such unexpected interruptions in egocentricity as “grace,” though she did not believe in any God who might be the source of such grace.
            It’s really quite remarkable.  Murdoch obviously knew Christian theology.  Sin, grace, prayer, spiritual exercises—she used them all.  And she endorsed familiar Christian virtues: love, humility, graciousness, etc.  She just didn’t believe in God.
            Over the years, I’ve revisited Murdoch’s book many times.  In recent weeks I’ve had opportunity to re-read Murdoch yet again—along with Diogenes Allen—as part of a directed study with a student.  I’ve been struck by the Christian virtue Murdoch did not endorse.
            Repeatedly, in The Sovereignty of Good, Murdoch warns against “consolation.”  She takes it as clearly true that people ought to live morally good lives.  We ought to struggle against selfishness, even if we have evolved in such a way that egocentricity is natural to us.  We ought to strive to see other people justly and lovingly, even if experiences of clear vision are hard to find and fly away quickly.  Murdoch thought the “Good” was real and ought to be the end goal of moral pilgrimage, even if we only get small glimpses of it.  The moral life is hard.  Therefore, Murdoch thought, we will be tempted to believe in things that promise to make it easier.  And religion is full of such consolations.  We are tempted to believe in a personal God who graciously helps us overcome selfishness.  We are especially tempted to believe that God will reward us in the end.  Thus we will be tempted to believe in fictions. 
            We must try to be good, to fight the relentless ego, without consolations.  In the end, Murdoch thought, we die.  Our lives are tiny flickers in an unimaginably old, dark universe.  We must pursue the good, but without hope.  We must, Murdoch thought, be “good for nothing.”  Without expectation of reward, without hope for final triumph, Murdoch believed the almost impossible task of fighting egocentricity was obviously right.  And yet, morality is not democratic; some people may not see the importance of trying to see the world as it is, and there is nothing in philosophical argument that can force them to see it.
            It seems that Iris Murdoch feared hope. 
Perhaps she thought that if she admitted consolation into the moral life, it would undermine the project of seeing rightly.  How can I rightly love the other—how can I see the other justly and lovingly—if I think all the while that my love will benefit me?  The “just and loving gaze” can be corrupted into merely another way of protecting and enlarging the ego.
I say “perhaps.”  I am not certain why Murdoch feared consolation so much.  But it strikes me as sad—and unnecessary.  Honesty often compels us to admit we do things with mixed motives.  Any husband, upon very little reflection, will realize that doing kind things for his wife will redound to his own advantage.  “If my wife is happy, I’ll be happy.”  So the consoling, egoistic motive is there, if he wants to pay attention to it.  But the other-focused motive is also there; it is enough to see that the kind deed will bless his wife.
I hope for the resurrection of the dead, for a new heaven and new earth, for eternal friendship with God.  These hopes are tremendously consoling.  That fact alone, that these hopes are consoling, does not move me to abandon them.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Lively Hope


A Door Into Heaven

After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven.  And the voice I had heard first speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”  --Revelation 4:1

            Recently, I have been reading Embodied Hope, by Kelly Kapic, a “theological meditation on pain and suffering.”  Kapic does not write to defend God in the face of suffering; this book is not a theodicy.  Rather, he talks about how we should live in a world of pain, especially chronic severe pain.  We have to focus on bodies.
Chronic severe pain confronts sufferers regularly with the brokenness of our physical bodies.  Such sufferers know—they are reminded daily—that our bodies are destined to die. 
Put it more baldly: I am going to die.  I am this body, which will die.  I am going to die.  We all know it’s true, but we often put it out of mind.  With severe pain, the body forces us to listen.  So how do we hope?  By means of a body, a very particular body.
Kapic reminds us of basic Christian doctrines.  Incarnation—the eternal God took on humanity, and from the first century orthodox theologians insisted (against the Gnostics) that Jesus was a real man, like us in every way except sin.  Crucifixion—the god/man Jesus suffered intense physical pain (as well as pitiless enemies, betrayal by a friend, and the inconstancy of his disciples), and he died.  None of this was play acting; Jesus suffered and died.  Resurrection—the physical body of Jesus rose from the dead.  His disciples were not persuaded by a phantom or spirit; they recognized him and could see his wounds.  They heard his voice and saw him eat food.  Ascension—Jesus, as a physical body, was taken from his disciples’ presence.  He did not cease to exist; he went somewhere else.
Those who suffer and die, says Kapic, can hope in Jesus.  Jesus suffered in his body and died.  But he rose and still lives.  Those who are in him suffer now and will die, but we will also rise.
None of these doctrines are new.  Kapic is not inventing Christian dogma; he is applying it to the experience of suffering.  We find hope by identifying with Jesus, in particular by identifying with his body.  Symbolically in baptism we die and rise, but we look forward to a literal resurrection after we die.  Kapic’s book is helpful precisely because it is not creative.  Christians do not hope that their immortal souls will be freed from their bodies (that’s Plato, not the Bible).  We hope that our bodies will be raised from the dead and changed.  Pain and death will end, but not bodies.
Now, let’s go back two paragraphs.  About Jesus’ ascension, I wrote: “He did not cease to exist; he went somewhere else.”  Where did Jesus go?  Where is his body?  Where is Jesus?  Kapic’s emphasis on the physicality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection pushes such questions to mind.  The answer, I think, is that we don’t know but are free to speculate.
In the Revelation, John sees “a door in heaven.”  The voice of Jesus invites him to “come up here.”  It’s quite likely that John, a first century Galilean fisherman, held the traditional Hebrew cosmology in which a flat earth and sky separated the heavens from the nether regions below the earth.  (Later in the book he writes of the “four corners” of the earth.)  It’s possible that John would have answered, “Jesus went to heaven, which is up there, above the sky.”
Some centuries before, Greek philosophers and astronomers had already adopted a different cosmology, though John may not have known it.  On this view, the earth is a globe at the center of the universe, with moon, sun and planets orbiting it.  Familiar with this Ptolemaic cosmology, Medieval Christians would have located “heaven” beyond the fixed stars.  Either way, with an ancient Hebrew or Medieval cosmology, Jesus’ body is in heaven.
In the last hundred years we have adopted a new cosmology, replete with billions of galaxies spread over mind-boggling distances.  Interestingly, we speculate (though we are not sure) that there may be dimensions of existence unobservable by telescopes.  Maybe there are many universes!  Now, where is Jesus?  We should still say: In heaven.
Christians need not think that belief in heaven is tied to any particular theory of cosmology.  Today we think there may be extra dimensions of existence; perhaps tomorrow we will know.  Science fiction authors sometimes imagine “portals” between universes.  C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories used such ideas.  At the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan makes a hole in the sky to send the children back to their world.  In a children’s story, Lewis didn’t explain how that might be.  It’s just part of Aslan’s magic.  But it’s the sort of move a knowledgeable twentieth century science fiction writer could defend.
Part of the “syndrome” of hope is imagination.  Christian doctrine teaches that Jesus is alive.  The hope of that doctrine gains vivacity when I imagine a door into heaven.



Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Faith, Hope, and Existential Choice


The Knight of Hope

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself.  Suppose we have.  Than all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones.  Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of your is the only world.  Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one.  And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it.  We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right.  But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow.  That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world.   I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it.  I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.
                                                                                    --C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair

            Let us assume, without argument, that faith is a kind of believing.  We can leave open and unanswered the question what sort of believing faith is.  I explained and defended a particular definition of faith in Why Faith is a Virtue, but the reader need not approve my view.  It’s enough, for now, to say that having faith implies believing something.  Perhaps you think faith means more than merely believing something (I would agree), but still it includes belief.  And to believe something means you think it is true.
            Imagine a person—with complete fairness, we can call him Louis Pojman—who was taught in childhood that a person must have faith to be a Christian.  His Catholic education taught young Louis a list of important propositions that all Christians must believe.  “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…” Young Louis dutifully learned catechism.  Perhaps for a while he believed every required proposition.
            However, as an adult and a careful, honest philosopher, Pojman confessed that he did not believe some of these crucial propositions, for instance, that there is in fact a transcendent, all-powerful, beneficent and all-wise eternal being.  Again, as a careful, honest philosopher, Pojman did not deny that God exists.  Finding neither theistic nor atheistic arguments convincing, Pojman thought it possible but not certain that God exists.  Unsurprisingly, he came to the same conclusion about other parts of the creed.  If you’re not sure that God is real, it’s hard to believe that the Son of God became a man, being born of a virgin, etc.
            As a mature philosopher, Pojman confessed that he did not have faith.  Nevertheless, being unconvinced by atheistic arguments, he thought Christianity might be true.  And, he believed, if it were true it would be a very good thing.  Thus, Pojman wrote, he could hope that Christianity is true.
            At its core, hope has two parts.  We desire something (the appetitive part) and we believe the thing we desire is possible (the intellectual part).  And by “possible” we mean it is neither certain nor impossible.  Pojman’s attitude toward Christian doctrine fits this definition well.  Is it possible to have genuine Christian hope without having Christian faith?
            Someone might argue that the core definition of hope isn’t accurate when it comes to Christian hope.  For Christian hope, one must desire that the gospel be true and one must believe that it actually is true.  But this objection has the odd result of making Christian hope a singular exception from the general theory of hope.  (It might also be a surprise to Aquinas, who first explicated the core definition of hope.)  So let us put aside this first objection.  Christian hope is a species of hope in general. 
            A second objector might agree with the core definition of hope, but say that in regard to Christian hope the core definition is not enough.  That is, Christian hope involves something more than desiring that the gospel be true and judging that it might be true.  What is that something more?
            The marsh-wiggle Puddleglum illustrates a possible answer.  Puddleglum and the two children, Jill and Eustace, have come to an underground world to rescue Prince Rilian.  After many adventures, they have found Rilian and freed him from the cursed Silver Chair.  But then the evil queen of the underworld appears.  Under the power of her magic, Puddleglum, the children, and Rilian all become confused.  Everything they thought was true seems questionable.  They cease to believe in the sun, trees, grass, Narnia, Aslan, etc.  If faith requires belief, they have lost their faith.
            At the crucial moment Puddleglum stamps on the witch’s fire, producing a horrible smell of burnt marsh-wiggle and a great deal of pain, two things that greatly help Puddleglum to think straight.  Then he launches into the speech I quoted above.  Notice the ending: “I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”
            Puddleglum desires that his memories of Narnia, sun, moon, trees, grass, and especially Aslan be true.  He judges that these things might be true (although under the spell of the evil queen’s magic he came close to thinking they could not be true).  And he acts as if these things are true.  Immediately after the words I quoted, Puddleglum says: “So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once…”
            Soren Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, wrote that we have a “task” of hope.  He meant, I think, that we need to order our hopes, so that we hope for things of real importance.  We need to clear our hearts of inconsequential hopes, or at least make them all subservient to our central first hope, our hope in God.  If I understand him rightly, Kierkegaard’s “task” of hope is not exactly Puddleglum’s action of hope.  Still, the idea that we ought to order our hopes is cousin to the idea that we act in hope.
            Puddleglum fits Kierkegaard in another, more obvious way.  The Danish philosopher insisted that Christianity requires commitment, what is often called “the leap of faith.”  We do not know that Christian dogma is true, he thought, and we must commit ourselves—with a passion that holds nothing back—without having such knowledge.  When Christians persuade themselves they have proofs of Christianity, Kierkegaard thought, they hide from passionate commitment.
            Now, Kierkegaard uses “faith” language: the knight of faith, the leap of faith, etc.  But it may be that his insights really help us understand hope.  Maybe we could call Puddleglum the “knight of hope.”