[Note: I posted the following last Easter and thought I'd repost it today. It holds up pretty well; if I'd better followed the advice myself I'd have had a much better year. My only regret in rereading it is that there is far too much griping about Christian organizations that (paradoxically and disastrously) bar people who don't self-identify as Christians.
Not that I disagree with anything I wrote, but Easter is joyous and the missive should have been balanced by a celebration of the wonderful people in such groups who do great things. My explanation for the negativity is that I was (and remain) distraught by the inhumanity shown by many Christians leaders of such groups towards gay, lesbian, and transgendered people as well as continuing organized attacks on basic science education by such people. But today is Easter, a time for hope!
And inany case, the advise and criticism still do seem sound to me. This Easter my prayer is that I do better this coming year in following it myself (in addition to the rest of the log becoming unlodged). What follows is simply cut and pasted from last year's letter.]
People who read this will discern an obvious pragmatic self-reflexive contradiction; it is a consequence of the advice I am about to give that I should not be in the business of giving people advice.
The kind of Pride that undoes all of us is rather instanced by taking pleasure in the fact that you are more virtuous (or wealthy, or powerful, or better dressed, or stronger, etc.) than others, and feeling pain as a result of not being so. As C.S. Lewis notes, the truly proud person is not happy just being rich, he must also be richer than everyone else. The canonically proud person is the rapist, whose pleasure is predicated on the debasement others. In this light one can understand why we say that it is Pride that goes before a destruction.
Things get much more complicated with the virtue of Faithfulness since there is nowhere near a consensus in the Christian philosophical and theological tradition concerning what exactly Faith is supposed to be. For the purposes of this discussion I will include what I take to be a core concept shared by various traditions, where Faithfulness is an openness to grace, combined with an expectant hopefulness. I think that one can argue that this too is good moral psychology, though obviously people who don’t self identify as Christians are more likely to take “openness to grace” in a more metaphorical or poetic manner. But with Leonard Cohen I think that, properly understood, most reflective people will agree that every day should be an attempt to be in a state of grace.
O.K. then. The question is really quite simple then. In what ways can the study of philosophy and the practice of Christianity increase or decrease Pride or Faithfulness? How do these combine in students of philosophy who self-identify as Christians.
Christianity: In what ways does the practice of Christianity increase Pride and decrease Faithfulness? The ways are legion, but here are five I think particularly relevant to “Christian Philosophy:”
- we think we can identify who the Christians are and who are not (Lewis and Pope John Paul counseled strongly against this),
- we selectively read Saint Paul (or rather the letters attributed to him, all of which he certainly did not write) instead of Jesus to justify holing up in our own insular “Christian” communities,
- at the expense of working on our own moral and epistemic depravity, we focus on other people’s as a way to feel superior (c.f. Nietzsche's analysis of this tendency ),
- in seeing ourselves as trying to do God’s work, we forget that we don’t help God, but rather that we need her help,
- we wallow in very dangerous epistemic depravity to try to salvage some traditional bit of apologetics from refutation (e.g. only a dangerously deluded sophist could believe that every sentence of “the Bible” is literally true at this point), just because believing that bit of apologetics feels good to us, almost always because it feeds our Pride (e.g. the belief that people hardwired with a different sexual preference are in virtue of that debased) in some way.
These are all pretty serious dangers, ways in which the practice of Christianity can and does make us demonstrably worse Christians. Each is the result of the inevitable way that Pride worms its way into the institution.
Philosophy: In the final chapter of The Problems of Philosophy, Russell speaks quite beautifully about how philosophy’s main virtues are two-fold:
- it allows us to see all sorts of different possibilities that we would not have otherwise seen, and
- it combats epistemic Pride. Once you realize how many really smart people have disagreed with you, the more humble you will become, not using your own beliefs to wall yourself off or feel superior to others. The fact is for most of your own philosophical beliefs, someone much wiser than you has argued for the opposite.
Tragically though, in spite of Russell’s beautiful writings, philosophy often does exactly the opposite. People who are very good at argumentation get extraordinarily good at using this skill to justify whatever antecedent beliefs they already hold. And this yields an incredible and disgusting kind of personal incorrigibility that we all see too much of in ourselves. We get so confident in our ability to provide a prima facie plausible argument for something, that we feel even less of a need to humbly examine our own beliefs and decently listen to those who disagree with us. And so philosophy ends up doing the very opposite of what it is supposed to do. The person who supposedly loves wisdom becomes even more Proud than they were before, because they use this wisdom to set themselves above others in the epistemic way in question.
This I think is the main danger of studying philosophy. And I am confident not only that everyone reading this has had to fight this danger, but also that every person who has taught an ethics class has seen it in action. Students can come out living even less examined lives because all they get is that clever people can come up with arguments for anything. They can also feel less of a need to justify their own beliefs because of the very confidence that they would be able to do so if necessary.
This I think is where philosophy requires Faithfulness (and note that I stated the core of Faithfulness above so that a non-theist can clearly manifest the virtue), both an openness to grace and an expectant hopefulness. For philosophy to get anywhere we have to expose ourselves humbly to the best arguments for and against our important beliefs, and then be genuinely open to whatever argument or belief the muse delivers as a result. This can be terrifying, both because we fear it won’t get us closer to the truth and because we might end up having to give up cherished beliefs. But a Faithful person is able to find inner courage, overcoming the terror and studying philosphers a spirit of expectant hopefulness.
Christian Philosophy: I think that a lot follows when we consider the intersections of the above vices.
- In philosophy we differentiate people in terms of what they believe (e.g. rationist, empiricist, occasionalist). This tendency can make it seem very natural to differentiate the elect (and for all me or you or anyone knows, everyone is elect!) from the non-elect in terms of what they believe. So we “Christian Philosophers” are philosophers who accept some core group of truths from the Christian tradition. But as the previous Pope (Crossing the Threshhold of Hope) and C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity) argued, this is a very bad conception of faith or Christianity. On the contrary, do not assume that atheists such as the Dali Lama (this was the Pope’s example) or Christopher Hitchens are not Christians in the sense relevant to God. It is simply not your place to say one way or the other.
- We set up intellectual societies open only to people who self-identify as Christians with their own attendent journals and blogs. While I have immense personal and philosophical respect for many of the members of the SCP (some of them are my heros), I find the restriction to people who consider themselves Christians immensely troubling. Among other things, if you really are a Christian, then you have to admit that people who do not consider themselves Christians may in fact be better Christians than you (from everything I’ve read by both of them, I think Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens are much better Christians than I am; and I am not being sarcastic when I note that I do plan on petitioning to join the Society of Christian Philosophers when Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens are made honorary members). So what possible good purpose could be served by excluding people who may not self identify as Christians from membership?
- We become so confident in our wisdom that we fail to use philosophy in the way Bertrand Russell thought it naturally operated, as an antidote to epsistemic Pride. We think of ourselves as doing the intellectual equivalent of the soldiers that stopped the Turks at the gates of Vienna, as if God needs our help.
- God does not need our help, we need hers. So instead of thinking you can use philosophy as a tool to do better apologetics and win the intellectual battle against the infidel, one must instead try to use one's humility, openness to grace, and expectant hopefulness to do better philosophy, to (with grace) become slightly less epistemically and morally depraved. I know Christian mathematicians and physicists and historians who try to do this. It should be the norm in our discipline among Christian philosophers, not to invent some separate subject matter but rather just to use our Christian virtues to do metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, philosophy of language, etc. [By way of contrast: consider if Christian mathematicians set up institutions analogous to the SCP for a special subject matter "Christian mathematics" with an attendent journal and blog.]
- As a result of all of the identity politics, we are way too tolerant of sophistry used to support beliefs that make some of us feel better (again this is ultimately rooted in Pride). People who convince themselves that the Bible is literally true, or that evolutionary theory is false, or that homosexuality is morally wrong are only able to do so because their epistemic standards are ridiculously low. But I must say that the identity politics involved in "Christian Philosophy" have I think stifled much needed dissent and, yes where appropriate, derision. Christian philosophers going around saying stupid things and not only refusing to denounce moral evil, but actively supporting it in the name of Christ, are a disservice to both Christianity and Philosophy. And one should not be made to feel that one has shat on the rug for forcefully pointing out this obvious truth.
I’m not saying that nobody should do philosophy of religion. But I do think the way that Pride manifests itself in both religion and philosophy makes this an area that is more dangerous to its practitioners then any other special area of philosophy. I don’t think it is an accident that so many prominent self-identified Christian philosophers of religion exhibited such shocking moral blindness in signing an open petition in favor of institutions that discriminate against homosexuals. In fact I think that the sin of Pride has infected their thinking in exactly the way analyzed above.
So I think it is extraordinarily important as a Christian and philosopher to just (and only this) try one’s utmost to instance Christian virtues while approaching philosophical issues. In this way Philosophy is no different than any other area of intellectual endeavor.
And besides the obvious advice such as going to Church each Sunday, my advice to Christian Philosophers of Religion is that the best way to combat the religious and philosophical Pride discussed above is to become intimately familiar with the philosophical and literary tradition attacking beliefs associated with Christianity (Hume, Schopehauer, Russell, Mackie, Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.). Don’t read these people as if they are infidels at the gates of the city of God, but rather as fellow human beings seeking truth. Be faithful and confident here! Suppose your biggest fear happens. You read them (and the relevant criticism!) in a humble, open, and hopeful manner, and you end up rejecting central tenants of your religious upbringing. Well be faithful here too. If you really have studied them in the proper perspective (and this will of course require grace), then it was God’s will. It may be God’s will that you not believe in God. If not believing in God gets you closer to the truth (and hence God) then it is her will. And once the SCP inducts Dennett and Hitchens, it will be clear to everyone that they will no longer hold over your head the threat of throwing you out because your Christian virtues led you to reject the appelation "Christian." Again, while there is almost zero possibility the SCP will change in this way, I am making a serious point. To prejudge these kinds of things out of a lack of Faithfulness is to walk right into Lucifer’s arms, I think illustrative of the core ways that Pride engenders and sustains epistemic and moral depravity among myself and my fellow Christian philosophers.