"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Monday, December 17, 2007

Where do we begin?

We have spoken often here about how the only indubitable certainty is "that I am experiencing existence". From there our epistemology exhibits a steady downhill trend. Even so, as finite men we have only one option in our search — and that is to begin with ourselves. And here I think is the dilemma that I've been trying to articulate. (with limited success.)

What justifies such a move?

What justification do we have to begin with our own experience? There is only one answer that holds any weight, and It's not atheism. Atheism destroys any justification to begin with ourself. Within atheism the foundation of all reality is an impersonal something. If you start with impersonal something, then man must be reducible to impersonal stuff. To argue otherwise is to say the stream rises above it's source.

My co-blogging friend Matt seems to realize this (at least the first bit) and thus, has accepted determinism. Man is simply part of the machine. But he can't live consistently within such a world view — none of us can. The implications are too destructive. As such, he clings to one last hope: "My life is meaningful because I find it to be meaningful". I empathize with his sentiment here – we all do – but it's an unjustified leap. It's unjustified because it destroys itself when it tries to answer the question I have asked above. "What gives us the right to start with ourselves?"

It all comes down to this word "personal". If, for the sake of argument, we presuppose atheism, then to avoid having the stream rise above it's source, "personhood" must be reducible the impersonal. Suddenly all the attributes that man has historically thought unique to himself (self-determination, the importance of love, the ability to act for 'better' or 'worse') have been destroyed by man's only option: The decent into behaviorism and determinism. Man is just a part of the machine.

One must watch closely at this juncture as all but the most hopeless of men employ some understandably slippery language in the hope of avoiding the implications. You will hear them say things like, "You are making this all sound much worse than it really is. You simply fail to comprehend the incredible potential of the material world!" and "There is no God needed, just look at all the world can do with out him!" Though I truly empathize with such statements, they are irreconcilably flawed. First off, they simply beg the question. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, they make an unjustified optimistic leap. The leap is to desire one's unique personhood in-spite of what must become a reductionist programme in the absence of God. Any attempts to argue otherwise once again have our stream rising above it's source.

I hope I have made the situation clear. It's a desperate place to come to, but if the foundation is impersonal something we are left with no alternative. Now I often have those who are of the atheist persuasion become angry with me at this point. They act as though I have tricked them. There has to be another way... and indeed there is, but before we can consider it we must feel the depth of our plight. If we begin with the impersonal, man is dead. There is no other alternative.

So what other option do we have? "What right do we have to begin with ourself?". There are only two options here an I am convinced that the presupposition of atheism has utterly failed. Let us now consider that which Christianity holds to be truth — that at the center of all reality lies personality. If this proposition obtains we don't have the dilemma of the stream rising above its source. In-fact, personality becomes irreducible altogether. There is an upward rather than downward movement. In atheism we think we know what material is and what it does, thus we are reduced to it. Under Christianity we are only experiencing diffused personality. We cannot fully grasp what it is to be personal. Our ultimate starting point is not blind matter, but a personal God. Our ultimate relationship to reality is not downward, but upward. The mistake of atheism is that it tries to get to know personality by studying corpses.

In the Christian system, beginning with ourself is justified as we are created in the image of God. Like God, we posses a measure of self-determination. Thus, our search is valid because we really CAN search. Also like God, our mind operates according to reason, thus validating our search for unity within the varity. However an important distinction between man and God is that man is finite (and fallen, but that's for another time). Our finite nature makes necessary the 'search' for truth. We don't arrive programmed. We need to look for it. And so, in these ways our most basic task of beginning with ourselves is justified.

One caveat I must add is this: We must here make the distinction between validating the "starting from one's self" and validating the claims of rationalism which stipulate we can achieve final answers using ONLY man, at the exclusion of any revealed religion. This has been the enlightenment project that has died a thousand deaths, but for some reason continues to resurface in the minds of men. If we choose to reject all forms of revelation the result is predictable as the rising of the sun. Unless an unjustified leap of faith is adopted, man is dead. All is arbitrary. We are lost.

As I continue to grapple with these questions I am increasingly confronted with the fact that Christianity, as a system, answers man's fundamental questions like no other philosophy or religion can. It's coherence and correspondence continue to amaze me. Though there are plenty of peripheral questions I continue to do battle with, I am able to live in the comfort of knowing the big ones have answers that satisfy the deepest yearnings of man.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Quick Question

To anyone who believes in the validity of any of the ontological, cosmological or design arguments for a deity: If such a being wanted us to believe in its existence, why would it only provide evidence that a) can only be properly understood by a small segment of the population, and b) generally only leads to endless debate?

(I realise this might sound a bit glib, but I've been chewing the question over myself for a while now and I'm yet to come up with a decent answer).

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

More on 'The Golden Compass'

Following my deist reading of the films in the post below, I thought I'd offer up two differing interpretations.

First, a Protestant take:

The irony, though, is that because the film never attacks religion eo ipso, its supposedly atheistic critique of the Magisterium is indistinguishable from a very traditional (also several centuries' worth) Protestant critique of Catholicism. If anything, Lyra's position as a savior figure, foretold in the witches' prophecies, implies the existence of an alternative religious structure--not the opposition of religion to no religion at all. And the film condemns the Magisterium's attempt to legislate behavior from above on the same grounds as Protestants have condemned the Roman Catholic Church since the Reformation: such external control promotes both legalism (that is, it emphasizes obedience to a law imposed from without, instead of spiritual rebirth from within) and denies the importance of the conscience. Effectively, we have "tradition" opposed to a kind of private judgment, represented in both Lyra's apparently inspired ability to interpret the alethiometer and Lord Asriel's quest for scientific truth. For that matter, Asriel's interest in alternate universes takes on a distinctly Galileo-esque tinge. All of this overlaps with a secular or skeptical critique of religion, of course, but is hardly confined to it. Even the Master's demand for "free inquiry" has solid religious roots, as well as secular ones.

Second, a Catholic one:

These books are deeply theological, and deeply Christian in their theology. The universe of "His Dark Materials" is permeated by a God in love with creation, who watches out for the meekest of all beings - the poor, the marginalized, and the lost. It is a God who yearns to be loved through our respect for the body, the earth, and through our lives in the here and now. This is a rejection of the more classical notion of a detached, transcendent God, but I am a Catholic theologian, and reading this fantasy trilogy enhanced my sense of the divine, of virtue, of the soul, of my faith in God.

The book's concept of God, in fact, is what makes Pullman's work so threatening. His trilogy is not filled with attacks on Christianity, but with attacks on authorities who claim access to one true interpretation of a religion. Pullman's work is filled with the feminist and liberation strands of Catholic theology that have sustained my own faith, and which threaten the power structure of the church. Pullman's work is not anti-Christian, but anti-orthodox.

I've yet to find a convincing atheist one.

UPDATE: I think the final word should go to Jean Kazez over at 'Talking Philosophy', who (in my opinion) manages to sum up the "message" of the film quite nicely:

A moviegoer could come away thinking Pullman is for witches and demons and multiple universes, talking polar bears and mysterious dust. The movie’s real theme, though, is truth. Good in the movie is lined up with free inquiry and the unimpeded search for the truth. Evil is the monstrous institution of the magisterium, which battles against the truth- seekers.

But wait, if the movie is pro-truth, why shouldn’t it be construed as pro-God, or even pro-Jesus. (Wasn’t it Jesus who said “I am the way and the truth”?) It will take any moviegoer a moment of honest reflection to admit the power of the movie’s message. All religions claim contact with truth, but they don’t empower members of the religion to be truth-seekers themselves.

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Friday, December 07, 2007

'His Dark Materials': deist, not atheist

I'm on a break from blogging at the moment, so I'll keep this brief.

'The Golden Compass' (based on book 1 of Phillip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy) has just been released in cinemas worldwide, attended by considerable controversy about its alleged "anti-religion" / "pro-atheist" arguments.

As someone who has (unlike, it seems, most commentators on the subject) actually read the books, I thought I'd add my tuppence worth on the subject. While they're far from perfect (I have some issues with the third one), much of the criticism (and some of the praise) has been seriously misguided.

(NOTE: Although I've tried to keep the following free of any major plot details, it does go into the background mythology of the books, which isn't really developed until the second and third).

The most important point to make is that the mythology of the books is deist rather than atheist in nature: God (in the traditional sense) created the universe(s) and then retired for some unknown reason, though I rather suspect it has something to do with the concept of free will.

The target of criticism in the books is not this being, but rather the "Authority", an angel (self-formed) who has set himself up as overlord of the universe(s) through lies and tyranny (sound familiar?). The allies of this being are the power-hungry and the close-minded - who seek to maintain their power through shutting down individual inquiry into the nature of the universe(s).

The fact that so many describe the above as "anti-religious" is quite telling.

The concept of the soul also features heavily in the books - though whether it is material or non-material is questionable. It is, however, quite capable of surviving the death of the physical body, and the characters of the books enjoy an afterlife which (arguably) is quite compatible with Christian notions (the world of the dead = purgatory, oneness with the universe = the traditional idea of heaven?) if a certain amount of poetic license is allowed.

There are, though, two (that I can remember) specific mentions of traditional Christianity that are quite negative: The first is in the recasting of the fall of man in more positive tones - Pullman argues that knowledge of good and evil is an integral part of what makes us human, and that life pre-fall was of a lesser kind. What most Christians will make of this I can't say, though I suspect that there are some (perhaps many) that would agree with it. The second is the description of Christianity as a "mistake" by the character of Mary Malone, a former nun. For me, this is simply the opinion of one person in the books, and given that her Christianity (which denied basic human pleasures, such as love) was of a particular repressive kind, it's arguable that her problem was only with the debased version of religious belief rejected by a large number of believers. Neither, it seems to me, should be particularly troublesome for liberal Christians.

In summary: The books aren't so much anti-religious as they are pro- freedom of thought and freedom of religion.

(They also have talking, armour-plated polar bears. One of which, in the film, is voiced by the great Ian McKellen. How cool is that?)

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

For he's a jolly good fellow...

Hmmm, quiet around here isn't? Maybe too quiet, if you ask me.

Anyway, just thought I'd take this opportunity to wish friend of the blog Rev. Dr. Incitatus happy birthday for yesterday. I won't tell you how old he's become, but I will point you in the direction of this post. Go. Point and laugh or offer commiserations, it's up to you.