The troubles in Gaza have provoked me to write this brief article on Israel and Palestine. And all that I am about to say can be boiled down to this: the calculus of determining good guys and bad guys is very difficult to work out, and in reality both peoples are generally good people (great people even) that have been thrust into a terrible situation, one that perhaps is destined to remain terrible (though I hope not).
When it comes to Palestine, I believe we must acknowledge how much the Palestinians have suffered vis a vis Israeli policies. Many statistics get thrown around in perhaps careless ways. But it does seem to be the case that Palestinians have been killed and maimed in greater proportions than the Israelis, killed and maimed in ways not only disproportionate in number, but also disproportionate in terms of technology. The Israelis have weapons with greater precision and power, and they have a better trained military. Moreover, the Israelis have used that power to occupy parts of Palestine that many believe are not their own (West Bank, Gaza Strip, etc.).
That said, things have to be viewed in a larger perspective. The Israelis feel themselves to be a small island in a sea of hostility. And in many ways they are right. Less than a century after the emergence of Adolf Hitler, the worst adversary against the Jews since Pharaoh and Antiochus, the Jews find themselves living in the very plausible scenario of some sort of cataclysmic attack. The reason why Israel has a well trained and equipped military is not simply an accident of history. It is part of the commitment to avoid another Holocaust. For all the negative aspects of Zionism, there were indeed some perceptive insights in the mind Theodr Herzl, the founding father of Zionism, namely that the Jewish people could not depend upon other governments to protect them, and that if the Jews were going to survive then they had have their own state. I am not sure that having their own state will keep them safe, and that seems to suggest that there are some forces of history that seem to defy explanation for why the Jews throughout so many ages, and in so many contexts, find themselves facing the prospect of extinction.
My belief is that there is no easy solution to the Palestinian and Israeli conflict. But a good first step – a necessary but not a sufficient condition for peace – is for the poetic activists on both sides to temper their mythologies with the difficult realities of the situation, realities that do not fit well into our adversarial, us-them binaries.
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It is a worthy question to ask why the various Abrahamic faiths have different attitudes to philosophy. Here are some of my embryonic thoughts on the matter.
Christianity: When we survey the Christian tradition what we see is a very strong reliance upon the concepts of the tradition of Western philosophy. Why is that? My theory is that this in many ways goes back to St. Paul. Though scholars debate (very fiercely) the meaning of the law-gospel relationship in St. Paul’s letters, one thing that most scholars have agreed upon is that St. Paul was not advocating a juridical approach to ethics, something akin to Halakha in Rabbinic Judaism or Fiqh in the Islamic tradition (Note: some scholars argue that Paul does indeed engage in Halakha in his letters, but if it is Halakha it uniquely related to his Christological-monotheistic explorations, of which more will be said below).
Paul’s ethical imperatives seem to flow from his theological reflections on the person of Jesus Christ. In Paul we can already see the pattern of later Christian theology, which is to think through the meaning of God with reference to the unique relationship of Father to the Son (and Spirit to a lesser extent). This task almost required for the later Christian theologians to take up the tools of philosophy in order to think through the meaning of monotheism in light of Jesus Christ. This seems to be evident in the three main braches of Christianity: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy (including the Coptic Orthodox as well), and Protestantism.
Even though all three of these groups have a different understanding(s) about the nature of faith and reason, they all share a common utilization of philosophy. Aquinas for instance is well known to have used Aristotle and other philosophers as he thought through the Christian doctrines. Gregory Palamas and Maximus the Confessor (two of the most important theologians for the Orthodox) are in many ways leaning on the Platonic tradition in their articulations of God and creation. The Protestant tradition began with a rhetorical attack on philosophy, especially in Luther’s Heidleberg Disputation, but by the second generation of the Reformers it was seen as necessary to take up once again the concepts of the philosophers (e.g. Reformed Scholasticism).
Even a person like Karl Barth, who had a different conception than Aquinas about the limits and scope of human reason vis a vis God, still borrowed quite intentionally from Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, and Plato (e.g. Barth takes up a distinction in KD II.2 (God’s “being” and “becoming”) that was first as first introduced by Plato, if not earlier by Democritus (becoming) and Pythagoras (being) respectively).
Judaism: After the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem a bit later, the intellectual torch of Judaism was carried by the Talmudic Rabbis. Their own brand of Judaism seems to be in some unique way (though probably not identical) related to the Pharisees. We know from the New Testament, Josephus, and the Dead Sea Scrolls that there was a very diverse array of Judaisms during the 2nd Temple Period. The Qumran community was an apocalyptic and extremist sect that perhaps reflects some of the broader messianic movements in Palestine during that time, characterized as they were by their opposition to the collusion with Rome that was common (in different degrees) among the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians.
(Note: throughout this article I am not merely using apocalyptic to refer to an unveiling of truth, but also to refer to an imminent expectation that God is about to grant a visible victory to his people, a victory that is already in a veiled way beginning to happen).
When we think of the first great Jewish philosopher our minds are drawn to Maimonides, who was in the tradition of the Talmudic sages, and thus, in the tradition of the Pharisees. Had the torch of Judaism been carried by the messianic movements like the Qumran community, then we might not have ever had an allowance for philosophy among the Jewish leadership. Why did it take so long?
My theory is that it took a long time for philosophy to be allowed because the Rabbis had an emphasis on juridical matters pertaining to the law, matters that were not in need of the abstractions of philosophy. Christian theology needed the abstractions, since Paul (and perhaps other Apostles) did away with a tradition of jurisprudence and began an intellectual tradition of meditating on Christological monotheism.
Islam: Philosophy began among the Muslims fairly early. But the Muslim philosophers seemed to always be an uneasy fit for the Ummah. Al Ghazali (d. 1111) seems to have rightly (in my view) seen that the task of philosophy was incompatible with Islam. (Note: there are and will continue to be in the future revisionist readings of Al Ghazali which are necessary in my view, due to the complex way that faith and reason hang together in his thought, however he defined and viewed philosophy/falsafa).
My own view at the moment is that philosophy will always be difficult to square with Islam for two reasons. The first is that Islamic scholars are primarily jurists, not practitioners of abstract theology (kalam). They have less need for philosophy than Christian thinkers do. Second, Islam by its very character seems to have more of an apocalyptic current running through it, which in some ways places Muslims in closer relationship to the Qumran community than they are to the Pharisees and Talmudic sages. This apocalyptic current is characterized by zeal and preaching, rather than by the irenic and dialectical mode of philosophy, or even the type of debate that is found in the Talmudic literature (i.e. Arguably the greatest Muslim jurist of all time, Imam Malik, did not believe in debate. Whatever discussion and disagreements were allowed, these do not seem to resemble the level of debate in scholastic Disputatio or in Rabbinic debate).
This of course needs to be qualified by a striking distinction between Islam and the Qumran community, namely that the Qumran community was insular and parochial, whereas Islam is a community with a universal impulse – an impulse to spread the message of Islam to all people and invite them to conversion/reversion (something similar to the evangelistic impulse in Christianity). That said, the apocalyptic current that runs through Islam is less ordered to the irenic and dialectical way in which philosophy must be done.
(Note: there is also an apocalyptic current that runs through Christianities and post-Talmudic Judaisms. The Lubavitch Rebbe was one expression of a growing apocalyptic messianism in some Orthodox Jewish circles. And Dispensationalism was one revival of the apocalyptic ethos in evangelicalism. The apocalyptic element in Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and in historic post Reformation Protestantism is more of a theological postulate than an imminent expectation (I could defend this claim if asked).)
One of the things that I am generally displeased about when it comes to the study of Paul is how some pro-Paul scholars investigate the Antioch Incident (Galatians 2:11-14/19). Today I was reading a monograph by one of my favorite New Testament scholars, whose comments on the Antioch Incident are in my view very insufficient. (Note: I am not mentioning his name, lest perchance he treats the topic in more detail in some other part of the monograph that I have yet to read.)
My personal view is similar to the pro-Paul interpreters (Note: wait till the last paragraph for my defense of the pro-Paul view, because before that I am going to pose some big questions that might make me seem anti-Paul). But there are a number of historical questions which arise naturally from reading Paul’s account of the Antioch Incident.
The first is whether Paul is giving an accurate account of the Incident, as well as whether there are other relevant factors that Paul does not mention in order to make himself look better.
Related is the question of what the Galatians had heard about the Incident prior to receiving Paul’s letter. Did they hear that there was a big showdown between Paul and Peter in Antioch, one where everyone turned against Paul, including Barnabas and the emissaries of James?
Another question concerns the nature of the Jerusalem church’s practice of the Eucharist. Did they never consider the possibility of Jews and Gentiles taking the Eucharist together? The Antioch Incident seems to presuppose that the Jerusalem Church – or at least its key emissaries – were not too keen in eating with the Gentiles at all, whether at dinner or during the Eucharist. Perhaps they made a distinction between the Eucharist and dinner, such that they allowed themselves to eat with Gentiles during the Eucharist but not during dinner. Or perhaps the Jerusalem church was 100% Jewish and had never even considered the question of Gentiles at the Lord’s table. All of these questions should be raised.
It is interesting to note that in 1 Corinthians Paul does not say that he learned about the Lord’s supper from the other Apostles, but rather “I received from the Lord”(11:23). Did the Jerusalem Church even practice the Eucharistic meal? How do we know whether or not Paul was the first person to receive the institution through a vision from the Lord? We need to confront the question of whether the Jerusalem church ever knew about the Eucharist before Paul, which might explain why it was strange for its key leaders to even think about eating with Gentiles.
We need to raise the question of whether the Jerusalem church ever gave up the Jewish dietary law. How do we know that they did?
Also, we need to consider the possibility that Paul was not as close with the other Apostles as the book of Acts suggests. When we think about the New Testament, we need to ponder the question of whether most of it represents a pro-Pauline type of Christianity. All of Paul’s letters and pseudo letters come from a Pauline perspective. And we need to raise the question of whether the other books, like for instance the Gospels, the letters of “Peter,” “John,” “Jude,” as well as Revelation, also represent a pro-Pauline faction that existed in distinction from another faction (i.e. James and/or Peter).
The reason we need to raise the question of a faction in the early church is because we only have Paul’s side of the story. We know that there is a conflict based on some of his letters, and the most explicit details of that conflict (i.e. the Antioch Incident) have him in a gridlock with Peter and the party of James. When we judge a quarrel of any kind, we are not wise people if we only listen to one side of the story, especially when the other side is characterized by respectable people (i.e. like Peter and James/James’ emissaries).
We know that there was some sort of conflict between Peter and Paul, between James’s emissaries and Paul, and that a major part of this controversy was Paul’s teachings about the Law as well as Paul’s legitimacy as an apostle. Paul speaks with a very sharp tongue in reference to Peter and the emissaries of James. Peter was acting hypocritically, as well as not walking in the truth of the gospel (Gal 2:13-14). Those are very harsh words to be speaking about Peter in a letter directed to the churches of Galatia. Notice that Paul never claims that Peter acknowledged he was wrong, or that they repaired things.
My own view of Paul at the moment was that he did not have some long-standing quarrel with Peter or James. It is hard to see how the Apostolic Fathers could have universally loved both Paul and Peter if there was an ongoing quarrel between those two apostles. Ignatius of Antioch writes a letter to the Romans wherein he speaks highly of Peter and Paul, calling them both “apostles,” something that would be out of place if Peter and Paul had some kind of permanent falling out. Why would that be out of place? Because Ignatius seems to have no concern that the Roman church would be aware of some controversy between Peter and Paul. The letter assumes that they were unified. Clement also mentions the apostolic ministry of those two men. And these writings fall within one generation of the deaths of the Apostles. There is also evidence for apostolic unity within the other writings of Paul, as for instance 1 Corinthians, where Paul speaks of both Peter and James as being higher than himself. That would be an odd thing to say if Paul was in some sort of competition with them.
That said, it is worth mentioning that Ignatius and Clement might represent one movement among many in the early church, and perhaps one of the other Christian movements would have viewed Paul in a more negative light. We know that the Ebionites were an anti-Paul group, and we know that the terminus ad quo for them was in the middle of the second century (we know this because Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, describes them in his work Against Heresies).
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Descartes very famously used an Evil Demon as a thought experiment for his systematic doubt. But this article is not about such things. This article is about the possibility of real demons. If we admit that Christian theism is plausible, then it also seems reasonable to ponder whether we who have given ourselves over to doubts are under the influence of some forces of spiritual darkness, forces of intelligence that are so different from us that we can only conceive of them with mythological symbology.
Searching my soul I have realized that I cannot shake the conviction that Jesus is the Lord. How therefore do I explain my destructive life of continual doubt, which is something akin to a heroin addict (even worse than a heroin addict, since my addiction to doubt is more harmful to the soul than heroin necessarily is)? I think my doubts are a complex mixture of my own ignorance, rebellion, and also the influence of those spiritual forces of evil that the bible sometimes calls demons. Obviously I do not know the proportions of such causality.
Do not get me wrong, I am not claiming that my life of inquiry is being driven by spiritual forces of evil. Rather, the life of self-examination and perplexity and confusion is in some way being distorted by a complex mixture of my own pride and the influence of Satan. That is the conclusion I am coming to on the basis of my realization that I do at rock bottom, beneath all the sediments of all my doubts, whether they are the good kind or the rebellious kind, is the knowledge that Jesus is the Lord.
So far my life has been akin to an alcoholic or a drug addict, but as I said, much worse – given the fact that my addictions are directly injurious to the soul, whereas some addictions to drugs or alcohol are only chemical in nature, or at least predominately chemical. I have come to the realization that perhaps the best treatment for my condition is the sacrament of confession, which is another way of saying that the best treatment for me is the Lord Jesus Christ.
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Yesterday I spent the evening with Muslims as they had their daily break in the Ramadan Fast. It did much to reinforce my belief that Islam is perhaps the best of all civilizations. I do not have any pretensions that Islam is a community of perfect people. But it is an unusual thing in this world of faction and division to see a brotherhood and sisterhood that in a concrete manner forges bonds of unity between such disparate people, bonds which have their power in that very humane and reasonable confession that there is only one God.
But during my visit to the Mosque, I could not help but fear that I was causing these people to stumble in the truth. When I visit the Mosque I am not merely seeking to inform myself about the beliefs of Muslims (a noble goal). It is more than that for me. I am attracted to the Muslim religion as a community of truth, peace, and goodness, as a place where enemies are reconciled and where the highest forms of virtue and thought can be cultivated. For such reasons I am open to the possibility of believing their message. Yet this openness leads me to the injury of my own conscience, in the sense that I very much still feel a deep loyalty for Jesus as he is understood in historic Christian creeds. And because I still have such a loyalty, I am a conflicted person, one who wants on the one hand to explore Islam with sincerity, but who on the other hand fears that he is betraying his Lord.
If Jesus is the Lord, if he shares in the identity of the one true God, then all human beings need to be healed from sin and corruption by the medicine of his life, death, and resurrection. One very pious Muslim man was speaking with me about Jesus, and he asked me if Jesus ever said: “I am God” or “worship me.” This is a common objection among Muslims to the Christian confession that Jesus is God. I said, “well, perhaps not explicitly, but he said some things that implied he was god.” Then the gentlemen responded in a way that was actually quite reasonable: “God is clear about who he is. Think of what he said to Moses.” To me this was a very sensible reply, and I told him as much.
According to my own thought patterns, it would be more sensible for Jesus to be explicit about his identity, especially given that the question of God is so perplexing and puzzling. But perhaps Jesus had reasons to reveal his identity in the way he did, perhaps because the Jewish world into which he preached needed to slowly be led into such a deep truth – the truth of the Logos made flesh.
But despite all of these things I cannot help but think that Jesus is not who the Muslims believe he is, sensible as their descriptions of him are. When I turn back to the question of the historical Jesus, I am filled with so many confusing questions about his life and message, but there is an aspect to the identity of Jesus that seems to cut through all of this puzzlement: the Lordship of Jesus. Scholars debate what the word Lord means in the gospels and upon the lips of the early disciples of Jesus. But the behavior of the disciples reveals that they too felt overwhelmed and accountable before authority of Jesus. Even when we look at the great respect and obedience that the early Muslims had with reference to Muhammad, something different seems to characterize the relationship of the disciples to Jesus.
For me, there are so many puzzles about theology. How is the Trinity compatible with Monotheism? Why is it that Christian political theology seems to open the door for ethnic factionalism among different Christian groups? Why is there little expectation of a divine messiah in ancient Judaism? I do not know the answers to these questions. But hidden beneath all my confusion and doubt, beyond my rebellion and pride, is the kernel of knowledge that I am accountable to this man Jesus, accountable in a way that surpasses and transcends the type of accountability that is due to a mere human being.
The primordial experience of his Lordship convinces both my reasons and my emotions that I am in the presence of ultimate authority. And this primordial experience gives rise to the necessary task of theology and contemplation – a process of confusion and doubt, of wonder and mystery, of philosophy and syllogisms, and of course a process of prayer and repentance.
I have heard reports (which need to be verified) that ISIS is persecuting the Christian minority of Mosul, and that a local church was acquisitioned by force, after which the crosses were smashed. To me this sends a sense of horror into my soul. What is it that causes me to be so horrified by this?
When I search my soul I find that no matter how much I love Islam, and no matter how much I am assured that ISIS does not in any sense represent the beautiful Islam that draws me to consider conversion, I still think that I have a reverence for the cross of Christ, a deep fear that the Muslim denial of the cross is probably mistaken, and a sense that the Christians who face persecution do truly belong to the Lord Jesus.
But is there something about witnessing persecution that can change our disposition toward a religion? A few years ago a U.S. solder killed some Muslims for fun in Iraq, and when I witnessed the pain of the Muslim community (on the television) it caused me to contemplate anew the truth of Islam. Perhaps the same thing could be the case when one sees the pictures of the persecuted Jews during the Holocaust.
I think that there is something deeper in my horror of the smashed crosses in Mosul. This event (whether true or not) represents the convergence of both an unfortunate desecration of the most holy event in human history, as well as the pain of the people of Christ who are suffering under that persecution. The smashed cross stands before me as a witness of some sort, a witness not just to all of those things I just mentioned, but also to my own sin and guilt.
Heidegger asks a very good question in his essay “What is Metaphysics?” He poses the question about the nature of nothing. The atheistic scientist believes that all that exists is the universe or the multiverse. Beside that nothing exists. But what is the relationship between the universe and nothing? (Note: this question is not about “nothing” defined as empty space with electromagnetic radiation, or even empty space, but no-thing.) I take it that atheism is a very powerful intellectual option. And if atheism is true, then imagine how strange it is that the universe exists out of nothing, that it is suspended over nothingness, that it comes into presence from nothing. Positing the multiverse only pushes this phenomenon one more step from the same conclusion. For then the multiverse would be birthed from the womb of nothing, or (if it is eternal) at least sustained in the cradle of nothing, what Heidegger calls “the groundless ground.”(109)
Heidegger thinks that human beings (i.e. Dasein) have our being in relationship to this nothing, and only when we realize that we are held up by nothing can “the total strangeness of beings overwhelm us.”(109) I am not sure whether Heidegger thinks that human beings are in some way the ground of nothing, or whether we are grounded by nothing (or perhaps a bit of both). But it seems that the strangeness of beings is intimately related to the question of why is there something rather than nothing: why is it that beings are coming into presence before me instead of nothing at all: why is the universe not simply collapsing back into nothingness – by which I do not mean to ask why the so-called laws of physics keep the universe expanding and why we do not crunch back immediately into the singularity. I am speaking about the nothingness that grounds the laws of physics. The fact that there are beings rather than just nothing is indeed strange, especially considering that the beings are and even being itself is suspended in nothing.
But notice that the strangeness does not disappear if we are theists. The fact that there are beings does not lose its strangeness when we posit a God. That is just as strange. Why is there a god rather than no-god? That is a very strange question. Does he stand in awe of himself? The Christian portrait of God is one of self-love, whereby the Son and Father share the love-gift of the Spirit. This is not conceived of by Christians as a polytheistic type of love between separate beings, but rather a self-love between the one God and itself. Does this love include awe? Does God stand in awe of itself (I don’t say himself because the Trinity is not a person, but rather three persons)?
It is very strange indeed that I am here typing on this keyboard, looking at a table, breathing the air in this room, remembering things that I did and friends that I have. Why does all this stuff exist rather than nothing at all? Whether one posits a god or no-god, the strangeness is not at all diluted. Though it might be said that one of the options is more rational than the other, and hence the less rational option would be more strange.
Martin Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics.” In Basic Writings. Ed. By David Farrell Krell. London: Harper Perennial 208.
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I want to consider the origins of polytheism in a phenomenological sense, not asking where this or that version of polytheism first arose (though I will raise some historical examples), but asking a more fundamental question: why is it that human beings become polytheists? This is not an apologia for St. Paul’s etiology of polytheism (though I think he has some good insights), nor is it an exposition of one religious view of polytheism. I want to ponder this question from a philosophical point of view, in such a way that all thinking people can follow my logic without the presuppositions of this or that religious text. That said, it should most loudly be noted I am not a person in a vacuum. I have concerns and cares that even cause me to ask this question, namely my own quest to find the true God (if indeed such a God exists).
An investigation into the phenomenological origins of polytheism cannot be done in isolation from the phenomenological origins of monotheism. Indeed, when we survey the history of the world’s religions, what we seem to perceive, over and over again (though perhaps not in every case), is that the polytheistic religions have a strange monotheistic aspect. Often times this is overtly articulated at some point into a monotheistic doctrine, as for instance the doctrine of Brahman as it was articulated by certain schools of Indian religion and philosophy. In fact, these schools interpreted the Vedas in such a way as to show that their conception of the Brahman was already there. More accurately, however, is that the Vedas are infused with various currents and ideas which are not easily untangled, one of which being the trajectory of monotheism, and another being the trajectory of polytheism.
When we survey the Hebrew scriptures we see the same thing. We see a mixture of monotheism and polytheism, a smattering of idolatry and monolatry. Scholars have their theories about when and how monotheism first became explicit in Jewish self-identity. But the lines are blurry and difficult to trace out. From the very earliest texts of Jewish scripture we can see a monotheistic trajectory (even if not an explicit articulation of monotheism). But here is the fascinating thing: the trajectory of polytheism is always present as well. The prophets are a witness to the fact that the Israelites and Judeans had an impulse toward idolatry. Now of course this impulse was incompatible with one view of the Jewish doctrines (i.e. the view of the prophets), but we do not know how the other Jews might have justified their dabblings in idolatry and polytheism.
Even in the time of Jesus things were not as clear cut as they might seem. The evidence is scanty. But how was it that a group of devout Jews began to call him God? Other devout Jews seemed to have thought this was a violation of the Shema. Some scholars have claimed that the early Christians were syncretists. But other scholars have shown how the charge of syncretism does not easily stick. The earliest testimonies to Jesus’s deity were from St. Paul, who unlikely would have become a self-conscious syncretist, and who was smart enough to avoid an accidental descent into Greek religious syncretism. (Note: I am not currently puzzled by the Christological monotheism of the New Testament. On the one hand I can see it being a type of universal monotheism, but on the other hand, I can see the arguments that it is a version of polytheism).
We must raise the question of whether people have an impulse to polytheism, an impulse that is sometimes manifested in one way or another, and is even an ever present current in the lives of monotheists. In other words, does polytheism have more than simply an historical explanation, more than simply a domino effect of polytheism spreading from one culture to another. Instead we must ask whether there is also an existential cause of polytheism. In other words, the phenomenological exploration of polytheism leads us to ask the existential question of polytheism. How would we know whether there was an existential cause that was in some measure responsible for polytheism?
Let us remind ourselves again of the need to explore polytheism in tandem with monotheism, especially when we are trying to find the root cause of polytheism in human life. The phenomenological consideration of monotheism, as well, brings us to that haunting question of whether there is an existential cause that gives rise to the monotheistic impulse. If there is indeed an existential dimension to monotheism, that it cannot be reduced to a bizarre accident of history, then we must ask how the existential impulse to monotheism relates to the existential impulse to polytheism.
One of the theories that I have, which I will be ruminating over as time goes by, is that the impulse to polytheism is a distortion of the impulse to monotheism, a distortion that is bound up with the impulse to tribalism. I say this and already I hear the objection that must be answered if this thesis is to be considered right. And that is this: is not monotheism also an expression of the impulse to tribalism? After all, when a group of people says “my god exists and yours does not,” isn’t that a classic example of tribalism. The problem is that such a statement reduces god to “my god.” Monotheism cannot say “my god” without at the same time acknowledging that this god is the god of all people, even if they do not recognize him, and even if they are in a state of disobedience to him.
What this means is that monotheism is ordered to the bursting of the dams of tribalism. Polytheism on the other hand is the handmaiden of tribalism. Of course there is also an objection to be answered here: “doesn’t polytheism logically lead to pluralism – to the unity of tribes rather than to tribalism?” The answer is: I don’t think so. Let me give two reasons.
First, pluralism seems to be just a particular version of tribalism. No pluralistic society can be held together unless the various myths of its peoples can be unified in some broader myth, otherwise the pluralistic society would splinter apart. But this broader myth will be will simply be one myth in competition with other myths, be they monotheistic or polytheistic.
Second, pluralism seems to be a way of coping with tribalism, a way of handling the difficult reality that people are tribalistic. It does not dissolve factionalism into unity, but rather allows factionalism to exist without escalating into violence.
The impulse to monotheism seems to be bound up with the impulse with universal benevolence, with the motion of the soul to do all people and other animals well. It is the impulse to tribalism that distorts monotheism into something it is not, a parochial religion for this or that ethnic group, or a religion that is only concerned with this or that culture or race. The logical conclusion of this tribal impulse is to reduce your god to a local tribal deity, creating a world where various people in faction with each other call upon their own local patron gods for assistance. The principles of polytheism and monotheism, therefore, seem to be dual and incompatible impulses in men and women, principles that are bound up with the impulse to tribalism and the impulse to universal benevolence.
For some people, converting to the Catholic Church is like joining the Elk’s lodge. Such an act does not require a radical break with one’s home-tradition. But for others converting requires one to forfeit one’s citizenship in the tradition of one’s youth, and then to accept the appellation of traitor from one’s former comrades.
I know that I can never regain that sense of belonging that I once had, that sense which was in many ways was a power-source for my life of virtue. Is it a mark of pride to say that I once lived a life of virtue, that I had the respect of my peers since I was a teenager? Perhaps I can say such things due to my lack of virtue at present, or rather, my lack of the sense of virtue (I still try to live with virtue). One cannot easily maintain a sense of dignity when one is considered a morally compromised man by so many in one’s home-tradition, something I experienced from the time that I resigned my ordination as a Southern Baptist minister. The life of self-examination led me to question my Protestantism, then to question my Catholicism, until finally at length I was led to question the life of self-examination.
I have to wonder whether the life of self-examination, if lived consistently, is an unfitting context to practice virtue. Virtue seems to require a sense of belonging to a community. But can a philosopher ever truly belong to a community when he is living the life of self-examination? To examine oneself with consistency requires that one is never truly loyal to anyone or any group. Whatever loyalty he has is always being examined, and is always in danger of dissolving under his questioning. When we survey the great philosophers, we discover that they either (1) committed themselves to a tradition or ideal in such a way as to compromise their self-examination, or (2) they had no craving for the life of virtue. Often times it was a bit of both. The consistent philosopher who strives after virtue must be a clown or a madman to everyone else, something Plato admitted in the Republic.
But can one live a life of virtue while everyone considers you a clown or a madman? When we examine the history of great men and women, we do not see any of them who lived truly Contra Mundum, against the world. They all were planted within some tradition, a tradition to which they had a sense of belonging. The only people who truly live Contra Mundum are sociopaths. And that raises the question of how one can both live a life of truth-seeking and a life of virtue?
One of the things that such a life would require is a community. This community would have to simultaneously be one of truth and virtue. Those who follow the truth to the end will end up in the same place as those who pursue virtue to its limits. They will become universal human beings who worship a universal God and who live in a universal community. No lover of truth or virtue can ever be fulfilled in worshiping a tribal deity or belonging to a tribal clique. But what community can embrace such a way of life? As much as I long for my days of virtue, I could have never remained a virtuous person in the Southern Baptist Church, or even in Anglo-Evangelicalism. All of it was too parochial. The life of virtue if taken to its logical conclusion should grow and grow, until it burst the cords of all particularisms, and finally comes to rest in a universal community ordered to a universal God. If there was a community of this kind, then it would truly be a light in the midst of darkness.
When I survey the world, the only community that seems to fit this criteria is Islam. Now what I am going to say will be controversial, for I will contrast Islam with Christianity vis a vis universality. When we survey all of the Christianities, we see that the tie that binds them all together is a common set of dogmas, but not a common community. Churches are divided along ethnic lines. The illusion of church unity dissolves when we consider that individual churches are segregated. This is the rule and not the exception. People are bound to Christian Churches through the mythology of their own cultures. Belonging to a particular protestant tradition, by and large, means sharing in the mythology of a particular culture’s experience of Christianity. People naturally segregate themselves in order to worship the Jesus that is aligned to their own cultural myths. We need not even mention Eastern Orthodoxy, which for all its greatness, is well known to be primarily divided into ethnic enclaves.
But even in the Catholic Church this seems to apply. Rather than all Roman Catholics rooting their identity in a common myth, each individual Catholic culture is primarily bound to apparitions, saints, and sites that are unique to their culture. The Irish Catholics draw their identity from Patrick, while the Mexican Catholics look to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Their own cultural myths provide the window and entry point into the universal Catholic mythology. The result is that the vibrations of the heart come to rest ultimately in ethnic loyalty, and from there echo out into a universal mythology.
Moreover, the universal Catholic mythology does not primarily begin with scripture, something that has ramifications for converts. Scripture looks very different than the Catholic Church. The cornerstone of Catholic unity – the Papacy – is nowhere to be found in scripture, at least not explicitly, not to mention monasticism or Marian devotion. Why is it that Catholics tend to be ignorant of scripture but abound in knowledge of various saints and Marian miracles? One answer is that they are not driven back to scripture to understand who they are and where they are going. Scripture is not adequate to confirm their identity because so many of the hallmarks of Catholic praxis are absent in scripture. The biblical myth is not strong enough to bind Catholics into a unified body.
The origins of the Catholic Church are Medieval in character, since that is when the Papacy begins to take a recognizable shape, as well as when Marian devotion and the proto-typical Catholic saints begin to *explicitly and commonly* emerge. Why do I bring this up? Because Christendom rather than Pentecost is the unifying myth for Catholics. By this I do not mean to say that Catholics undervalue Pentecost, only that their foundational story is not one that bursts forth with conversions, but one wherein families and cultures are already seasoned Catholics. Why is it that converts often feel alienated and looked down upon by cradle-catholics? Perhaps because they do not fit as well as cradle-catholics into the unifying myth of Catholicism. Compare this to evangelicalism, which has historically emphasized Pentecost. Conversion to the faith fits in with the norms of the governing mythology of evangelicalism. But as we said, each evangelical tradition tends to be ethnically segregated despite holding forth conversion as normative.
When I began studying Islam, there was something that seemed strange to me, something that now seems to be making sense. The prophet Muhammad said that the best generation was the first generation of Muslims, and then the second best was the generation after them, and then the next generation, and so on. What this seems to mean for Muslims, is that they do not draw their identity by looking to the Golden Age of Islamic philosophy, or to the particular cultural origins of this or that particular group of Muslims. Rather, they are always going back to the prophet and his companions, i.e. the best generation. In that generation, many people were converting from paganism, and many others were being born into Muslim families. The attention of Muslims is constantly being drawn back to this story, a story in which conversion and cradle-Islam are both normative. Furthermore, this is a myth in which strangers and enemies are being reconciled together in one universal community. It is difficult to be culturally particular when one is planted in the story of Muhammad and the foundations of the Ummah.
In many ways I hope Islam is true, and that I would have the wisdom to believe that it was true. I desire to practice virtue in a way that is not parochial, not bound to the myth of one ethnic group. I desire a community that bursts all the cords of racism and ethno-centricism. I desire a community that reaches out for the truth above all other truths, the reality in which all other realities are comprehended. I desire the forgiveness of my misdeeds and the mercy of the one true God. May Allah guide me.
My love for Plato is indeed in something of an existential crisis as I consider the question of whether his views on women are sexist. At first it is quite alarming to hear someone call him a sexist, since he elevated women to the highest office in his ideal city, something that broke every taboo in ancient Greek culture. But at the same time I must be willing to admit that Plato was indeed a flawed individual, just like I am, and that he still might have had many blind spots, ones that left him vulnerable not just to error, but also to oppressive doctrines.
When we survey the Republic (the book I will limit my comments to), we see that, one by one, Plato demolishes the “present” paradigm for how women are to be treated. He considered his own views about gender equality to be “contrary to custom.”(452.a) Moreover, his views were not counter-cultural because he just wanted to be a rebel – to be new for the sake of newness. He actually thought that the gender structures of his day were “against nature.”(Bk.V; 456.c) He claims that there are no functional differences between males and females other than that “females bear children and males beget them.”(Bk.V; 454.d) That means they should share in exactly the same functions vis a vis the city.
There are two basic criticisms that are commonly leveled against Plato’s view of women. The first is that he believed men were generally superior to women in most things, including philosophy. And the second is that he only liberates women to serve the common good, not because he truly was concerned for the well-being of women. Let’s take those one by one.
Did Plato think that men were on average better suited to most roles? A usual proof-text used to support this view is the following: (Glaucon speaking) “It’s true that one sex is much superior to the other in pretty well everything, although many women are better than many men in many things. But on the whole it is as you say.”(Bk.V; 455.c) There are some nagging questions about whether this text is a proof of Plato’s sexism. For one, it is not Socrates speaking (Plato usually seems sympathetic to Socrates, not commonly to Glaucon).
The second is Socrates’ response: “Then there is no way of life concerned with the management of the city that belongs to a woman because she’s a woman or a man because he’s a man, but the various natures are distributed in the same way in both creatures. Women share by nature in every way of life just as men do, but in all of them women are weaker.”(BkV; 455.c-d) That response seems to be saying that the various natures of human beings (i.e. natures suited to medicine, or philosophy, or military, etc.) are distributed “in the same way” for men and women. How can men be much superior to women if their gifts are distributed “in the same way.” Perhaps it can be argued that Socrates (and Plato) indicts himself as a sexist when he claims that women are weaker than men. But it is not clear whether weaker means inferior, or whether it is a description of physical strength.
Regardless, let us assume that Plato thinks that men are generally superior to women. In other words, although he wanted men and women (in the ideal city) to have equal opportunities, he did think that men on average would be better at most tasks, even being philosopher-rulers. Does this make Plato a sexist? Does it mean that his philosophy is contaminated by sexism? The answer to this depends on how we define sexism.
Perhaps sexism occurs when one denies any gender-distinctions. Perhaps it occurs when one says that the genetic probabilities are not equal for men and women vis a vis all tasks. Or perhaps it occurs when one says that genetics favors men to produce more math and science geniuses. If any of these are the proper definition of sexism, then Plato did hold sexist views. He did indeed think that men, on average, were better at most tasks than women, even when it came to philosophy. He didn’t know about genetics, but he did seem to believe that men were natural endowed (on the whole) with greater capacities than women. And if that is one’s definition of sexism, then Plato was a sexist.
But if sexism is the denial of equal opportunities based on gender, then Plato was not a sexist. I personally think that Plato offers the best feminist response to gender-realism vis a vis neuroscience. It does not matter whether science shows that men are genetically more likely to be in the top-tier in math and science, because these differences do not amount to the claim that all women are unsuited to being top-tier mathematicians or scientists. This means that women should have equal opportunities as men, even if it turns out that genetics favors men to be in that top-tier in these fields.
If one defines sexism as disdain for women, regardless of whether you think they should have equal opportunities, then I do not think that Plato was a sexist. It took a great amount of counter-cultural courage to grow up in Greek society (where women were basically shut-ins who were sequestered from political life) and claim that women should have an equal role with men when it came to philosophy, ruling, military, and everything else. What religious leader from the past appointed females to the highest offices of his movement, or at least claimed that females should be equal with males in terms of authority and scholarship? The exceptions to this rule are rare. Plato most likely had to give the plight of women serious thought to elevate them past anything even imaginable in his own society.
Note: my personal view is one of suspicion to the claim that genetics favors men to be in the top-tier of math and science. I think there are too many epigenetical questions at the moment to feel confident in the findings of people like Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist who argues that genetics favors men to be in the top-tier of math and science. But notice as well that my view of gender roles (which follows Plato’s) does not rely on any particular finding in neuroscience, even if Pinker turns out to be right. It is is irrelevant whether the most recent journal article favors men genetically to be in the top-tier of math and science. The commitment to equality still remains. Each gender is basically the same, regardless of the averages. And that fact is best expressed in a society where women have equal opportunities as men, even when it comes to tenure-track positions in math and science.
Notice lastly that I do not consider Plato or Pinker to be sexists (even though I am suspicious of their views) for arguing for gender-distinctions, particularly for saying that men and women, though basically the same, are not genetically ordered to equal representation in some fields. (Plato’s views are a bit more comprehensive than Pinker’s, though not much). Plato like Pinker does not claim knowledge about such things. These are opinions about things that are difficult to investigate. And both Plato and Pinker (rightly in my view) believe that the differences between genders, whatever they are and if they exist, are so minimal that every person should be judged on his or her own merits, and not with reference to the genetic or natural probabilities.
The second criticism of Plato, voiced especially by Julia Annas, is that Plato only liberates women for the common good, not because he is concerned with the welfare of women. In my view, this is an accurate interpretation of Plato in one sense, but a misunderstanding in another sense. The common good for Plato does is not the type of common good of modern political philosophy. He was not advocating a mercantile common good, or even a common good like the pragmatists (i.e. whatever works). Plato’s common good has a metaphysical dimension, such that the common good is inseparable from “the good.” As Plato writes: “it’s foolish to take seriously any standard of what is fine and beautiful other than the good.”(Bk.V; 452.e) It is hard to see how Annas’ definition of Plato’s common good can account for this metaphysical dimension. This means that Plato’s concern for the common good of the society includes the abolition of the harmful treatment of women. Plato again writes: “the beneficial is the beautiful, while the harmful is ugly.”(Bk.V; 457.b)