Sunday, December 23, 2012

Augustine's Ambivalence

The following two passages can be found within about two pages of each other in Augustine’s Confessions, Book VII.

 “I saw, then, for it was made clear to me, that you have made all good things, and that there are absolutely no substances that you have not made. I saw too that you have not made all things equal. They all exist because they are severally good but collectively very good, for our God has made all things exceedingly good. For you evil has no being at all, and this is true not of yourself only but of everything you have created.”

“I was drawn toward you by your beauty but swiftly dragged away from you by my own weight, swept back headlong and groaning onto these things below myself; and this weight was carnal habit. Nonetheless the memory of you strayed with me, and I had no doubt whatever whom I ought to cling to, though I knew that I was not yet capable of clinging, because the perishable body weights down the soul, and its earthly habitation oppresses a mind teeming with thoughts.”

It came as a revelation to me when, in my freshman-level History of Ethics course at Seattle Pacific University, Dr. Phillip Neal Goggans scrawled on the board “being = goodness” as Augustine’s core doctrine, and really the bedrock idea of all of medieval ethical thought. To be is to be good. Everything that exists (even Satan) is good insofar as it exists. Further, there are degrees of being and hence of goodness. A contingent thing is inferior to a necessary thing an a dependent thing is inferior to an independent thing. So God is both the best thing and the most real thing. Thirdly, when a thing is perfected, it becomes more fully what it is. A good man is truly a man; a degenerate man is less real than a perfected man. And inasmuch as things are perfected by being in proximity to God, there they become most fully what they are.

So much good theology flows out of these thoughts. All that God creates is good, so nothing can be totally depraved. The world is God’s good world, to be enjoyed and to be studied on its own terms. Art, science, culture, recreation and bodily pleasure are all parts of God’s good world. Anti-intellectualism, insularity and austerity are all un-Christian because they are rejections of God’s good creation—they declare wicked or unclean what God has called good (Genesis 1) and made clean (Acts 10).

Further: as a thing departs from the presence of God, it becomes less real. Hence there is a logical connection between hell and the rejection of God. It is not as though God is jealous and vengeful and feels the need to inflict misery on those who reject him. Instead, to reject God is to reject our true selves. Sin is disordered being, and hell is non-being. The rewards for seeking God and the punishments for rejecting God are intrinsic consequences of those choices.

As the source of these thoughts that are central to the way I understand my faith, Augustine has become my most important Christian teacher. But recently, his name has been slandered by a lot of folks. They say that he is the father of the doctrine of original sin, in its ugliest form: Adam sinned, and God holds all subsequent human generations guilty for his sin. Baptism washes away this guilt that we inherit simply by being born, but infants who die prior to receiving the sacrament are justly sentenced to hell. They say he is the father of Christians’ disdain of sex: propensity to sin is actually passed from father to offspring via the penis, he held. And they say that he is the father, or at least one of them, of the treatment of women as second-class citizens. I have read that he taught that women were not full bearers of imago dei.

How could the man who taught me to embrace God’s good world and to find the fullness of my being in God be the same man who treated aspects of God’s good world—children, sex, women—as so contemptuous? I don’t know—but he was. Augustine held a love of God’s world and a disgust for God’s world in each of his two hands, as it were—as expressed in the two quotes above. He is the father, then, of some of the best and some of the worst of Christendom’s children. For this reason, many of my eastern Orthodox friends and my liberal Protestant friends have come to think of Augustinian thought as the foremost disease that has infected Christianity and from which it must be cured if it is to survive.

I find Augustine’s views on children, sex and women—if they really are his views—deplorable. But the reason that I cannot set him aside is that—paradoxically—it’s his own thought that shows me why those views are deplorable.  We need Augustine to rescue us from Augustine.

Recently I have gained what I think is a still wider perspective on the matter. There is a reason that Augustine’s affirmation of God’s world as good was so refreshing to me: the broadly Evangelical tradition in which I was raised has not been particularly good at affirming God’s world. Regarding its relations with the culture at large, Evangelicalism of the last century has largely emphasized resistance, purity, distinctness, rather than engagement, participation, belonging. Among the results has been some pretty bad PR: Evangelicals are weirdly uncomfortable with sex, especially as it relates to marginalized groups such as homosexuals; they have been hesitant to learn from the feminist movement; they have rejected a lot of good science; when they have made art it has been pretty wretched. Now, all of this has been in the name of faithfulness, not raw stubbornness or stupidity or mean-spiritedness. But the plain fact is that the Church has plenty to learn from the world, because—per Augustine—there is no definite line between God’s people and everybody else. It is not as though the Church is a haven of righteousness and the world is a den of sin. No, the world is God’s good world, bursting with beauty and wisdom and creativity. So it’s time for a corrective: it’s time to open the gates of the Church and experience some discourse with the wider world. So much was canonized in SPU’s slogan, “Engaging the culture, changing the world,” and I ate it up as a student there.

But that’s not the end of the matter. There was something right about the Church’s  insularity and defensiveness in the last century. Those who believe in the Gospel believe that there’s something wrong with God’s good world. It’s a delicate discernment process to figure out what’s healthy and what’s not in the world, and there’s plenty at stake in diagnosing things wrongly, either way: it’s very destructive to reject as unclean what God has made clean, but it’s also dangerous to affirm that which is a weak, broken, undeveloped version of God’s vision for redeemed Creation.

I think that Augustine did not succeed in this discernment processes, but neither do I think that there is something essentially contradictory in the process, either. Rather, it’s imperative that our affirmation of the world and our distrust of it play out alongside each other. The two sides of Augustine’s ambivalent relationship to the world must be the two sides of any Christian’s relationship to the world—perhaps with a bit more fear and trembling added to the mix.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Pub(lic) Theology, October 16: The Self

Our jumping-off point was a series of quotations, some Scriptural but most not, on the nature of the self in Christian perspective. Among those quoted were Jean Vanier, St Augustine of Hippo, Alasdair MacIntyre, Parker Palmer, Rick Warren, Anne Lamott and Simone Weil. (Lyrics from 'Place in This World' by Michael W. Smith didn't, ultimately, make the cut.) The bits that seemed to generate the most discussion were the following:

"There is absolutely no other free act which it is given us to accomplish--only the destruction of the 'I'." --S. Weil

"God loves us exactly the way we are, and God loves us too much to let us stay exactly the way we are." --A. Lamott

"So you are no longer slaves, but God's children; and since you are his children, he has made you also heirs." --Galatians 4

What emerged over the course of our discussion was that there are at least two ways to err when it comes to Christian identity. On the one hand, it's possible--perhaps in the course of "the destruction of the 'I'--to think of oneself as small or inept, and to fail to accept our full adult membership in God's family that Paul lays out in Galatians 4. On the other hand, it's possible--perhaps in the course of asserting just such full membership--to indulge whatever dispositions one happens to have, and hence fail to subject oneself to the type of transformation that God lovingly desires for us (as Anne Lamott describes). (I recall hearing a quote from some rock star in which he was attempting to justify his foul lyrics by insisting that God had made him a potty-mouth. Something's gone wrong here.)

Those are the problematic extremes; but what's the wholesome middle way? In our discussion, two images emerged that helped us get a grip on a positive picture of the true self.

1. According to a story told by one of the members of our gathering, evangelist Charles Finney once told a group of new converts to kneel before God, and that upon standing they may find that God has a new occupation in store for them: "If you have been a plumber, you may find yourself no longer a plumber," or some such declaration. What intrigued us wasn't so much the suggestion that God might wish to assign us new roles, but rather the suggestion that in Christ our selves and our roles come apart. The statement "I am a plumber" comes to have a new meaning: our roles cease to define our essence. In this sense, Christian identity seems to wholly negative. Who am I? I am not the roles I take on--despite the fact that I may--indeed must--continue to take on roles.

2. From time to time we may feel an impulse to change our relationship to material things. Here's an unhealthy way to do it: throw away everything you own and start from scratch. Here's a healthier way: sift through the items in your home; decide which of them contribute positively to your life and which have an adverse effect, and dispose only of the latter. Similarly, despite the fact that in Christ none of our roles contribute to our essential identity, still it would be weirdly violent and counterproductive to disown all of one's past activities. Instead, one ought to sift through them with an open hand and heart. (We noted: while St. Paul wrote that he counted "as rubbish" the religious and social pedigree that he had cultivated prior to encountering Christ, his knowledge of the Jewish tradition, his zealousness, and his knack for rhetoric all contributed to his pursuing his new Christian calling. They were rubbish for the purposes of constituting a self, but not for the purposes of evangelizing the Hellenistic world.)

A couple of questions were raised that didn't find a consensus answer. First, to what extent is our identity relationally- or communally-constituted? (Jean Vanier seems to think it is.) Second, does God have a unique task set aside for each of us? (Rick Warren seems to think so.) To try to answer these questions, we looked to Paul's image of the Church as a body, with Christ as the head, and with individual Christians as parts of the body that serve distinct but complementary functions. The implication seems to be that each of us has an important role to play in the life of the community. But this point doesn't seem to settle our questions. Perhaps my communal role is identity-constituting, but perhaps not; perhaps my communal role is uniquely dictated by God, but perhaps it is just the sum total of the giftings I have, be they naturally acquired or supernaturally conferred. Further thoughts on these matters are most welcome.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Pub(lic) Theology, October 2: Healing and Miracles

I started our discussion by reading parts of this article by a woman with Cerebral Palsy named Beth Hopkins who has been the recipient of offers to be miraculously healed which she has turned down--despite the fact that she is a Christian who believes that miraculous healing is possible. Hopkins' reasons not to desire healing are a little unclear, but they at least partly involve bewilderment and the change in identity that would accompany the loss of her ailment. She also points to the Apostle Paul's "thorn in the flesh"--suggesting that not all physical healing is spiritually constructive.

Hopkins' ambivalence about healing provided a starting point for a discussion of other sources of confusion around the issue. For one thing, why are reports of miraculous healing as infrequent as they are? For another, why do they often involve relatively trivial matters of health--compared, at least, to more catastrophic matters such as wars and plagues and famines and tsumanis and such?

There were a few interesting, general observations that came up in our discussion. First, there are a couple of ways to respond to these puzzling matters that are probably a little too cheap and quick. One could say, for example, that both healing and suffering are spiritually significant--certainly so saying reflects long-standing wisdom from the Christian tradition--and hence that God is equally active in our sufferings and in the deliverance from our suffering. But this is a little unsatisfying, in that slaps God's stamp of approval on whatever circumstances the world dumps on us. (Here's a helpful rule of thumb, I suspect: good theology gives us the tools to discriminate between the brokenness of the world and the redemption of the world. A theology that automatically lumps everything into one pile or the other fails to supply us with God's perspective.) Similarly, it's a little too quick to say that sometimes God heals through direct, miraculous intervention and sometimes God heals through doctors, because the phrase 'heals through' covers over any distinction between supernatural disruptions of the natural order, and things proceeding according to their usual way.

There are more subtle things that can be said, however. It was pointed out that an ancient and still pervasive Christian practice--even among those who don't expect miraculous, physical healing--is the practice of the laying-on-of-hands, accompanied by--not in lieu of--prayer. In other words, the practice seems to acknowledge a mysterious cooperation of divine and human action. The cooperative nature of healing may go some way to explain why larger, global conflicts don't just dissipate when we pray about them. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria doesn't stop persecuting his citizens when I pray that he will, because his will is not aligned with mine (and presumably with God's) in the matter. It's worth noting, also, that though we may puzzle over the infrequency of miraculous healing, it's very difficult to imagine a world in which God responds to every wish with miraculous intervention. In response to gripings over the infrequency of miracles, one can imagine Jesus responding as he did to James' and John's request to sit at his right hand in his Kingdom: "You don't know what you are asking."

Finally, it seems right to say that physical healing, in all its forms, is in line with God's redemptive purposes, even if God's involvement in bringing it about takes a more active form in some cases. (...and yet it seems that even this thought calls for qualification. A lot of work is going into the study of aging and death, that they might be forestalled or reversed. At one point is the preservation of life, or the restoration of youth, not really part of God's plan for us?)

The most intriguing part of our discussion focused not so much on a general theology of miraculous healing, but on the weird range of peculiar experiences that Christians have had:
  • Edgar Cayci was a moderately educated Christian Kentuckian who fell into trances wherein he diagnosed visitors' illnesses.
  • Marjoe Gortner was a lapsed Pentecostal who took up faith-healing for money--whose counterfeit antics seemed actually to result in the healing of many.
  • Julian of Norwich was a medieval nun who prayed that she might be spiritually purged through violent illness resulting in death. Her prayer seems to have been answered (though she recovered).
  • A recent book by a faculty member in the IU Department of Religious Studies argues that there is significant empirical evidence of miraculous healing, especially among the peoples of the global south. According to one especially interesting finding, the most dramatic healings seem to take place among those who persist in visiting multiple healers.
These curious anecdotes suggest that whatever else is true about it, we shouldn't expect the miraculous to be replicable.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Pub(lic) Theology, September 18: Sin

At a service at Church of the Apostles some years ago, there was a prayer station involving Jesus Christ band-aids—kitschy items procured at Archie McPhee or some similar supplier of ironical accouterments. I don’t recall exactly what we were supposed to do with the things, but I do remember feeling pushed to consider the ways that I treat Jesus as a fix for whatever superficial maladies cause me discomfort—rather than asking Jesus to deal with me according to his concerns, to be savior for me in whatever sense he thinks I need saving. The broader point is that how we understand the problem (sin) and how we understand the solution (salvation) are closely connected. Christians maintain that Jesus offers us something that we need and can’t supply for ourselves. If we want to receive it, we would do well to understand it—and to that end, we would do well to understand why we need it. (As a result of our discussion, I’m now less convinced that our understanding of atonement turns on the way we conceptualize sin. More on that below.)

As a jumping-off point for our discussion, I presented a list of all the conceptions of sin I could recall as having been presented or defended by Christians. Here’s my list:

Breaking of God’s law
Propensity to break God’s law
Inherited guilt of Adam’s breaking of God’s law
Hatred of God
Weakness of will
Weakness of love
Disordered love
Confusion about the nature of the good
Desire to cause harm
Propensity toward causing harm
Fractured relationship (with God/others)
Institutional dehumanization

Somewhat to my surprise, most of these ideas seemed to have some traction with most of those present at the discussion, and no one expressed offense at any of them. As the conversation progressed, notions of sin seemed to cluster into four groups (which jointly encompass nearly all of the items on my list):
(1) Institutional injustice
(2) Distorted relationship
(3) Violation of divine law
(4) Underdeveloped character
Each of these problems calls for a unique solution, i.e. a particular way to think about how Jesus brings salvation:

(1) Where our institutions have been unjust, Jesus teaches us a more just way of building human communities.

(2) Where we fail to relate properly to God and others, owing to our idolization of self (and corresponding rebellion against God), we participate in Jesus’ death to self. (For more on this, check out Jordan Warner’s fantastic 9/23 sermon here.)

(3) Where we have disobeyed the law, we can be forgiven and purified, because of Jesus’ death. (I confess I am somewhat uncomfortable with this idea, which perhaps we will revisit on another occasion.)

(4) Where we are weak, immature and broken, we participate in Jesus’ resurrected life—with its freedom from the law and ever-increasing love.

We spent a good deal of time talking about law, especially Old Testament Law and its relationship to sin and to Jesus’ work. What really struck me was how diverse the purposes of the law came to seem, when seen through the lens of each of our four conceptions of sin: Old Testament law can be understood as (1) instituting just social structures, (2) depicting of right relationship (as vividly illustrated by Jesus’ distillation of the law into the command to love God and love neighbor), (3) establishing norms of obedience (as well as indicating our liability to fall short), and (4) putting constraints on the behavior of an ill-formed people, as a parent sets boundaries on a child, lest that child cause harm to himself and others.

It also became really clear how complicated and nuanced is Jesus’ relationship to the Law. In Matthew 5, Jesus says that he comes to “fulfill” the Law—whatever that means—and not to abolish it. But then he says a variety of intriguing and perplexing things. He mentions the rule, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”—i.e. the institution of reciprocal punishment. But then he insists that wrongdoers be forgiven, even indulged in their wrongdoing. Similarly, Jesus was often criticized for transgressing the Law’s purity requirements by associating with outcasts and ignoring rituals such as ceremonial hand-washing. In these cases, Jesus really does seem to be rejecting the Law of Moses and replacing it with something else. In other ways, however, he is a properly observant Jew; and with respect to some areas of Law, he seems (again in Matthew 5, for example) not only to honor the Law, but to deepen it, to make it even harder to obey.

Is there any simple explanation for Jesus’ intense and ambivalent relationship to Mosaic Law? Perhaps so. It could be—indeed, it seemed to me after Tuesday’s discussion that it probably is—that the Mosaic Law was instituted for all of the purposes mentioned above, and more. Jesus’ mission may not have been similarly multifaceted, or at any rate, it may have had a somewhat different aim, such that at times he seemed to embrace the Law and at other times to work against it. If so, it’s much more important that we understand Jesus’ mission than that we understand the Law with which he engaged in such subtle ways.

Similarly, perhaps we need not settle on a particular conception of sin, because there are lots of ways to go wrong. Contrary to the intuition that I used to motivate our discussion, perhaps what deserves our attention is the purpose for which we are being saved, not the nature of the defect from which we are being saved—which might actually serve to distract and distort our thinking. (Sin, then, is not only a problem with our character but also a problem with our thinking—we need a new set of concepts; we need to learn to think in New Creation categories.)

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Pub(lic) Theology, September 4

It has been a long, long time since I have contributed to this blog—over four years! The time has come to pick it up again.

I lead a biweekly, informal theology conversation, sponsored by Red Door Church, which I call “Pub(lic) Theology”. (The ‘lic’ silent. I take my cue from Jon Myers here, from whom I learned the richness of just such a gathering: this is theology done on the ground, by the folk—not without guidance, but also not left to the professionals. It is done at the Pub, the Public House. Everyone is welcome.) It is my intention to write up a brief recap of the conversation each week. If you attended and you have further thoughts, we can continue to discuss your thoughts in the comments section. If you weren’t able to come—or can’t ever come—you’re invited to comment, as well.

For now, I don’t plan on mentioning any names. I will indeed be broadcasting your comments to the world, but anonymously. So pontificate away.

The jumping-off point for our discussion was a series of biblical passages that are at least apparently about the Holy Spirit. I say ‘apparently’ because, as was pointed out, in order to know which texts are about the Holy Spirit, we need to have some sense of what or who the Holy Spirit is. The Holy Spirit, more than the Father the Son, has tended to be referred to experientially, i.e., via the felt presence of divine guidance and comfort that Jesus promised to his followers and that many (but not all) Christians have reported experiencing.

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word that we translate spirit is ‘ruach’, which can mean “breath” or “wind” or “spirit” or “life-force”. It is this “mighty ruach” or “Ruach of the Almighty” that hovers over the waters in Genesis 1, and it is the ruach of life which God breathes into the nostrils of Adam in order to animate him. In a radically egalitarian declaration, the prophet Joel promises that God will pour out his ruach on all people—even slaves, both men and women!—resulting in ecstatic episodes (dreams and vision), wondrous and awful signs (blood and fire and billows of smoke), and societal well-being (the end of shame and of want). It is Joel’s promise that Peter picks up on in Acts 2, where ‘ruach’ is now replaced with ‘pneuma’, a Greek term with similar connotations and ambiguities.  The Apostle Paul speaks of this Pneuma as the source of moral transformation, of identification with Christ, of adoption into God’s family, and of giftings—ecstatic, prophetic, pastoral, etc.—that build up the community of faith. In Acts, we read about an episode in which some people have been baptized with water but do not receive the Holy Spirit until the apostles lay hands on them; we also read about another episode in which some people receive the Holy Spirit (as evidenced by speaking and tongues and praising God) prior to being baptized with water. These episodes made us wonder to what extent we can expect the experience of the Holy Spirit to look a certain way, and to what extent the Holy Spirit will dodge and subvert our expectations. If the latter: how do we know whether we have genuinely opened ourselves up to the Holy Spirit’s influence?

In the book of John, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit under another title, ‘parakletos’, i.e. advocate or defense attorney, who “will teach you all things.” We wondered (again) what is reasonable or realistic to expect from this promise. Certainly the Holy Spirit does not teach every Christian all things, e.g. the exact number of chestnut trees in Nova Scotia on the eighth of February! So, what sorts of truth can we expect the Holy Spirit to teach us? A troubling observation is that the history of the Christian Church has continually involved fragmentation and disagreement. Has the Advocate failed to teach us? Have we failed to listen? Or have we, after all, received the teaching that we need?

Much of our discussion focused on the interesting question of the relationship between the institutions of the church (worship forms, pastoral offices, spiritual disciplines, authority structures, etc.) and the manifestations of the Holy Spirit. It seemed to me that there are four different ways to think about it:
(1) Institutions are deadening and should be minimized; in contrast, the Holy Spirit animates the Church.
(2) Institutions and the animation of the Spirit pull in opposite directions, but are mutually stabilizing. We need institutions lest individual experience lead to disorder and disunity; we need manifestations of the Spirit to vivify and reform institutions.
(3) Institutions and the animation of the Spirit are mutually reinforcing not by pulling in opposite directions but by moving in the same direction. For example, gifts of teaching and administration, which Paul mentions, serve the very purpose of empowering people in institutional roles.
(4) The Spirit is only experienced within the structures of the Church. Any claim to an experience of the Spirit outside of those institutions is a distraction or disruption.
We didn’t have any defenders of (4), but there was some interesting disagreement about (1)-(3). It was pointed out that our very ability to use the Bible as a jumping-off point for our discussion of the Holy Spirit was made possible by the institutionalization of the church, i.e. the leaders of the Church in the first few centuries gathering (under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we hope) to compile the New Testament canon.

Finally, it was pointed out that when Paul says, “eagerly desire the greater gifts,” it appears that he isn’t talking about the more spectacular gifts. Though Paul affirms (even prizes) gifts such as tongues and prophecy, he seems to think that the greatest gift is love—i.e., the topic of his most magnificent bit of writing, 1 Corinthians 13, which follows immediately after (actually, is sandwiched within) his discussion of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, May 05, 2008

What I Should Have Said

Dear Mr. Lynden LaRouche Street Team Spokesman with whom I conversed outside of the post office this afternoon:

As I said, the problem with LaRouche is not his policies. Not that I think they’re good policies: I think they are such that reasonable people might advocate for them, though they are not particularly revolutionary or well thought-through. The problem is the man. The problem is that he says that he alone can predict the future of the economy, that his policies alone can save us, and that everyone else is not only wrong but conspiring. That, my friend, is the voice, not of reason and reform, but of a cult leader.

You say: But he predicted the current economic downturn.

I say: Hardly. LaRouche predicted that a second Great Depression would be upon us two years ago. Whatever pace to which our economy has recessed, this is not so bad as the Great Depression. The unemployment rate is currently at 5%. In the 1920s it was at 25%. And of course, lots of economists predicted the current economic downturn, i.e. as the correction resulting from the bursting of the housing bubble.

Of course, even those economists who did predict it were unsure—or disagreed among themselves—about the degree of the downturn. And why? Because these things are extremely difficult to predict, not because it takes special wisdom to predict them, but because there are so many variables, so the whole system behaves chaotically. And this is the real point. Imagine if one meteorologist said that he alone could predict the weather, or could predict it far better than anyone else. Let’s even say he is a generally reliable predictor. The problem is that there is no special metric for predicting the weather; it’s a chaotic system on anybody’s watch. Nothing short of psychic foresight could give one skilled meteorologist a major edge over another.

And that is essentially what LaRouche is claiming. Now, I’m no enemy of mystical authority. But it’s not a small claim. You mentioned Socrates as an example of a man with a unique claim to knowledge and authority. (In fact, he disavowed all knowledge, but that’s no matter.) But Socrates claimed to be God’s gift to Athens, to have a ‘divine sign’ that inspired him. Even if you think he was an intelligent gentleman, it hardly follows that he was the prophet of God that he claimed to be.

Or, think of Jesus Christ. C.S. Lewis is exactly right to say that we can’t dismiss the audacity of the claims he made about himself. Either he was a liar, a lunatic, or a divine representative. Whether you agree with his moral teachings or not is such a small matter.

So, why don’t I trust LaRouche? Because I don’t think he’s divine. And, given the statements he makes about his own powers of prediction, that’s the only alternative to his being a liar or a lunatic. I’d rather not call him a liar. So I’ll just conclude that he’s crazy.

I know, sir, that I came across today as a bit abrasive. It’s really not like me. But in this case, I’m soundly convinced that I’m right and that he’s dangerous. So get out while you can.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Theoretical Knowledge vs. Acquaintance Knowledge

Please forgive my egregiously lengthy silence. As you may know, I began a doctoral program in philosophy this past August, after 2 years out of school. My blog was a way to continue intellectual pursuits while in academic limbo, and now that I’ve emerged from that limbo I have another release valve for my pent-up thoughts, not to mention a whole lot of work.

I want to continue blogging, though. There are too many ideas I have that don’t ever get expressed in my papers, and too few readers of my papers. So, for whatever narcissistic reasons people keep blogs, I intend to resume regular posting.

My brother Will suggested that I use my blog for popular “riffing” on otherwise esoteric, technical philosophical topics. That sounds about right. One thing I should note, though: earlier, my blog posts were largely in response to social, political and religious issues that concerned my community. My focus, then, is likely to change somewhat, since I’m in a different intellectual community now with somewhat different concerns. So much for meta-blogging, then. On to the ideas.

Awhile back, my wife pointed out to me her observation that when she used the air conditioning in her car, her gas mileage went down. I scoffed. “How is that possible?” I asked. “The air conditioning is an electrical system, but the gas mileage derives from a mechanical system. It isn’t the drive shaft that’s powering the A/C. You must have been mistaken.”

I mentioned it to a friend who knew a bit more about machines. He told me that my wife was absolutely right. Yes, the A/C is an electrical system powered by the alternator. But the alternator generates current by the motion of the drive shaft. Put a load on the drive shaft—even an electromagnetic one—and it will take more energy to turn it: i.e., more gas per mile. Voila.

The argument is made by psycho/physical dualists that it is impossible to reduce conscious mental states to physical brain states, because physical things just don’t have conscious mental states. How could they, after all? We have no theory that could explain how physical things could have mental properties. Hence, mental properties are properties of nonphysical things; the mind is nonphysical.

Richard Taylor argued to the contrary: physical things can and do have mental properties. This we know because human beings are, quite clearly, physical things. Sure, we don’t have a theory for why some physical things have mental properties, but it’s plain that some do.

Jesus put mud on a blind man’s eyes and his sight was restored. The religious leaders were vexed. They knew that Jesus was not a godly man; he didn’t obey Sabbath regulations. So they put it to the ex-blind man: there’s something fishy about your story, since this Jesus is a sinner. The man replied: "Whether he is a sinner or not, I don't know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!"

I intend these three examples to illustrate the distinction between theoretical knowledge and acquaintance-knowledge. In each case, an empirically manifest fact is challenged because the currently held theory can’t account for it.

This is the reason I’m inclined not to believe in ghosts. What, after all, is a ghost? A thing that can interact with matter, clearly; a thing that can reflect light, typically; a thing that is spatially located, and so on. But that’s silly. What we really have in mind is a diaphanous, vaporous material thing; “spirits,” whatever those are, can’t make stairs creak. That is all to say: ghosts don’t coherently fit into my best theory of the material world. (And this is not to mention theological problems I might have.) And yet…and yet…people very frequently claim to see ghosts. What if I’m just stubbornly clinging to an incorrect or incomplete theory?

It has frequently been observed throughout the modern period that miracles represent “a violation of the laws of nature.” This is problematic, of course, if the laws of nature are never violated—if the physical forces acting on a particle uniquely and exhaustively determine its behavior. Thus it is not particularly controversial, in academic circles, to chuckle at reports of the miraculous as so much superstitious wish-fulfillment. But I say, not so fast. I know those (not ordinarily known to lie or to be excessively gullible nor with any particular motivation to lie or to be excessively gullible) who attest to witnessing dramatic, miraculous healings. Which is more rational: to say (with me, with the dualists, with the Sanhedrin) that the observer must have been mistaken—nothing of the kind can happen, because it would contradict our best theory; or to say (with my wife, with Professor Taylor, with the ex-blind man) that we know what we know, by acquaintance, whether or not we’ve got a theory for it?

I think it is for this reason that, at the end of the day, I go home with the mystics, rather than with the academicians. Our best theories are nothing to be trifled with. But it would be very foolish to insist that the wisest among us, who have direct access to the truth, whether or not they can explain it, don’t really know what they know, because we can’t currently account for it theoretically.