Thursday, December 23, 2010

Religion, Philosophy, and Christmas

The genesis for today's post came from a recent New York Times op-ed piece. The article itself and hundreds of reader comments can be found here: A Tough Season for Believers. In a nutshell, the author, Ross Douthat, argues that Christmas is a difficult season for Christians because it serves as a reminder that faith has been co-opted, materialism is rampant, and religion itself is circling the drain. This commentary may have gotten my back up just a bit, and I wrote the following impassioned response:


What a bleak and sad outlook about Christianity, the value of religion in general, and the utility of philosophy as a means of understanding our place in the cosmos! Of all the major publications in the world, I think only the New York Times would publish such a hopeless and cynical commentary. The author is completely lost, looking in the wrong direction, and coming to the wrong conclusions. I am familiar with the books he cites, particularly with Putnam and Campbell (the latter at Notre Dame). As for Hunter, well, at U VA any mention of God will get one removed from the tenure track, so Hunter is boldly proclaiming that Christianity is dead unless it finds a way to blend in with the complexity and diversity of modern society such as that which one might find in New York City, or ancient Rome. And we all know what happened to the Roman Empire! 

I can boil my reaction down to seven points:

1. God is real. When Stephen Hawking changed his mind and said that universes can create themselves, therefore there is no need for God, he was partially correct. We know that universes can create themselves and the cosmos is in a constant state of rebirth. Universes form like bubbles in bath water--expanding until they burst, and the matter gets reused. What we don't know is where the original matter came from, or what started the process in motion. Like it or not, the answer is not nothing.

2. Religion is mankind's attempt to make a connection to an unseen, yet all-powerful force known by different names throughout human existence but referred to here as God. The essence of religion is faith, faith in the mystery of a truth beyond human understanding. Being a human (flawed) institution, the mechanics of any religion will be problematic. I do not argue that religion is the answer to all of life's important questions. Therefore religion is not sufficient on its own for a good life. Religions are not all the same. Some religions are better than others, and the differences are worthy of thought and debate.  Much blood has been spilled in the name of religion. It's a sad fact that our debates happen over the course of generations and sometimes become violent. I do not advocate violence in the name of religion. 

3. Philosophy is mankind's attempt to understand our place in the cosmos by means of deductive reasoning and empirical facts. Reasonable people can disagree. (So can unreasonable people, but that's a whole different subject.)  There is benefit in discussing different perceptions and measurements. There is benefit in comparing competing measurement systems. Over time, the assessment frameworks we use have grown in abundance, diversity, and complexity. Yet as they proliferate, they also coalesce around common elements of what we can really know. Take the study of the human brain, for example. There are biological frameworks, and frameworks based on psychology. Different ways of developing our understanding of the brain can lead to common knowledge about what occurs in different parts of the brain. But such knowledge on its own is not sufficient for a life well-lived. The problem with philosophy is that it is limited to the powers of human perception. See #1.
4. Art is more akin to religion, especially in the creation and appreciation of it. Music, dance, poetry, the things that stir our souls do so because there are waves of resonate energy moving through the cosmic ocean. Art, the best art, is about passion. What is life without passion, art, and religion?

5. Science and philosophy are related, especially in the attempt to analyze, test, classify, and understand the natural world. As we learn more and more about the universes, we need God less and less. God does not ride a blazing chariot across the sky every day. No, the earth revolves on it's axis once every 24 hours. The earth is not 5,000 years old. No, there must be some elements missing in the history as recorded in the Bible. Science is about knowledge. Who wants to live a life without knowledge, science, and philosophy?

6. Human existence is enriched by both art and science, by both religion and philosophy, and most especially by the critical thinking skills that enable one to navigate successfully in a complex and diverse landscape. Alone, thinking or believing are insufficient. Both together are necessary.

7. The Dali Lama said that the best way to find peace and enlightenment if you are a Christian is not to convert to Buddhism, but to be the best Christian possible. Chasing after the next spiritual trend is a way to broad but shallow understanding. Searching ever deeper is more likely to yield insights that resonate.  In the deepest depths of all religions, in the depths beyond where science or philosophy can take us, there we will find the God of all religions and the prime mover of the cosmos. 

If Christians march to war into a cul-de-sac of separation and conservative values, then yes, they will cease being relevant and die off as they should, and as Mr. Douthat predicts. All Christians are not the same, and it is a cynical mistake to assume that we move as a monolithic block behind the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and Ralph Reed.  People adapt. The institutions made by people also adapt. The great unanswered questions underly and motivate all change toward a unifying and universal understanding.

I am a Christian. It's Christmas. I am happy. Tough season? Maybe for Mr Douthat.


With a tip o' the hat to Edward and Vincent for bringing this article to my attention.