31 January 2008

On Vainglory

Like the sun which shines on all alike, vainglory beams on every occupation. What I mean is this. I fast, and turn vainglorious. I stop fasting so that I will draw no attention to myself, and I become vainglorious over my prudence. I dress well or badly, and am vainglorious in either case. I talk or I hold my peace, and each time I am defeated. No matter how I shed this prickly thing, a spike remains to stand up against me.” - St. John Climacus

30 January 2008

An Interesting Idea

I was rummaging about on the internet earlier and discovered a very intriguing website , called AskPhilosophers.org. Even more intriguing is the fact that one of my old teachers, Dr. Peter S. Fosl--a man about whom I cannot speak highly enough--is one of the professional responders. In looking through some of the questions my classical skeptic former philosophy instructor responded to, one of them struck me, because he introduces an idea that I find highly provocative for Eastern Orthodox thoughts on Christianity.

The question asked of him was:
All major religions have miracles in their sacred texts, presumably to prove their divine origins. Don't these alleged miracles cancel each other out, and can this be extrapolated to religions as a whole?
Peter's response to this was:

I remember once posing the following question to a class I was teaching: if we take the religions of the world, isn't it true that at most one can be right and that perhaps none are right? Every single student in the class answered in the negative, holding that all can be right. When I pointed out that such an option would violate the principle of non-contradiction in the sense that it would mean that both X is true and X is not true (where X is a religious doctrine, for example that Jesus is God). To my amazement, every student was comfortable with tossing out the principle of non-contradiction.

At the time I figured that the event showed that people are more interested in moral and political practices of tolerance and even simple manners than with logic. But I later thought to myself that my students might be onto something about the curious way "truth" plays out in religious discourses. There may be a sense in which it's wrong to use ideas of truth and falsehood as they appear in the sciences, philosophy, law, etc. But if one takes that option, one does have to accept, I think, a set of consequences that most religious believers would be loathe to tolerate (for example, that believing in Jesus may have little to do with salvation).

In short, by common standards of logic and truth, the occurrence different sets of miracles can't be evidence for inconsistent religious doctrines. The miracles might have all occurred (though I follow Hume in thinking we can't have good reasons for thinking that they have); but even if they have, under standard meanings of truth, at best they can give evidence for one truth.
I added the bold emphasis to the part of Peter's response that I'd like to take on. Here, I think that my philosophically skeptic teacher has hit on something that we, as Orthodox Christians, would agree on, to a point. I would like to point out that I was not in the class at the time that he polled this questions--else there would have been at least one dissenting opinion about the nature of religious truth. It is logical...only one Way leads to salvation, but that was is not a mental adherence to dogmas, but rather, the mercy enacted by God who became flesh so that our flesh might be made divine. But, I digress.

The point I wanted to think about is the idea that belief in Jesus may not, in fact, have very much to do with salvation. I think this is especially true when one tries to define what one means by the word belief. If by 'belief' we mean only the mental acceptance of certain religious ideas, whereby these ideas serve as a kind of starting point for all our perceptions about reality (this, I think, could be considered what 99.9% of Western Christians understand belief to be), then this sort of "belief" really does not amount to much more than being another way of saying "It is my opinion that ___." Plato taught us all, some time ago, that in democratic societies, the problem with opinions is that everyone has one, and you have to affirm, on some level, that these opinions are all of equal worth...which, of course, leads to the tragic flaw in truly democratic societies, that a shoemaker's opinion about international policy would be just as valuable as a professional diplomat's. In this sort of set-up, it is easy to see how 'beliefs' get relativized. After all, if a belief is nothing more than an opinion about the nature of reality, no one is in any position to say that your beliefs are incorrect. We value, after all, the ability of everyone to have a difference of opinion. Again, in a world like, belief in Jesus Christ may have absolutely nothing to do with salvation at all--in fact, I would go so far as to say that it does not have anything to do with salvation, at all. My 'belief' may be that Jesus was a Jew, therefore if I want to emulate him, I must become a Jew. The predicate here is perfectly consistent with my premise, that is, my 'belief.'

However, this 'belief' (which is really no more than an opinion), has nothing whatsoever to do with salvation, as Orthodox Christians understand the term. For us, belief is not about mental adherence, but about living encounter--about the experience of Jesus Christ, whom we know because we meet him. Of course, this is a mystical proposition--and one that cannot be judged from the outside. This is why to philosophers, metaphysics is such a tricky dilemma. There is the recognition that we ought to be able to understand certain concepts--Truth, Justice, Beauty, etc--but in the end, no metaphysical system is able to really, perfectly lay it out. That is because belief has nothing to do with mental adherence, nor it is it an opinion; belief comes from experience, the same way that a scientist who studies gravity believes that objects fall to the ground at 9.8m/s/s, that is how Orthodox Christians believe in Christ as the savior: because we experience it.


I'm probably not done with this subject, but I'll gladly entertain comments.

Pax vobiscum