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Thursday, April 4, 2013


As I was preparing to commence what I hope will be a relatively brief discussion of religion, I came across a story about the state legislature of North Carolina, where I live.  It seems that some of our Republican state legislators are now maintaining that the First Amendment "Establishment clause" ["Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion"] applies only to the Federal government, leaving individual states free to establish a state religion, should they have a mind to.  I report this in case anyone should be so naive as to suppose that the great controversies over religious freedom are safely behind us.  This is an authentically f***ed up country.

A story from my Memoir.  When I was twelve, my mother said to me, "Robbie, you come from a mixed marriage.  Your father is an agnostic and I am an atheist.  All the other little boys are going to go to Hebrew school and be bar mitzvah'ed and have big parties and get lots of presents, and you can do that too, if you want to.  Or, your father and I will give you a hundred dollars and you can buy yourself some presents."  I thought about that for a bit and took the hundred.  I used it to buy Natie Gold's Lionel electric train set, which I coveted.  That was my last serious engagement with organized religion.  Little did I know then that I would choose a career in which a rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew would be useful.

A few words of clarification, by way of introduction.  In the three great Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- "belief in God" is not usually taken to mean "belief that God exists."  That is simply assumed.  To believe in God means to trust in God, to trust that He will keep the promise He made first to the Israelites, and then to all mankind -- a promise several times renewed in the Old Testament and sealed with the blood of his Only Begotten Son, a promise that is repeated in the Qur'an. 

The discussion of religion in the tradition of Western philosophy has its roots in the Greek philosophical tradition of Plato and Aristotle, and takes on its particular character through the effort of the early theologians to bring about a fusion of that tradition with the entirely separate tradition of Divine Revelation embodied in the Old Testament and the New Testament [I am from now on going to omit talking about the Qur'an, since I do not actually know much at all about it, and do not wish to make more of a fool of myself than is absolutely necessary.]

The distinction between Rational Theology and Revealed Religion is fundamental, and must always be kept in mind in what follows.  Rational Theology seeks to establish a series of propositions about the existence and nature of a divine being and its relation to the experienced world, drawing for its arguments only on human experience and the principles of rational argument.  Its conclusions, if there are any, are thus equally available to any rational agent, regardless of his or her relationship to any religious tradition.  Revealed Religion grounds itself in the belief that a personal God has revealed Himself to human beings both in direct manifestations and in texts that are divinely inspired or dictated, and hence contain indisputable truths.  Revelation is available only to those fortunate enough to have been its recipients, or to those to whom the Glad Tidings and the revealed Texts have been brought by missionaries.  Hence the irrepressible impulse among Christians to carry the physical Bible across the globe to those benighted peoples who, having been denied the Revelation, are unaware of God's promise of salvation.

Very soon after the death of Jesus and the ministry of Paul, philosophers trained in the Graeco-Roman traditions of rational argument and investigation [which is to say, in the Greek traditions -- the Romans did not add much] undertook to work out some sort of rapprochement between the teachings of Plato, Aristotle, and their followers on the one hand and the revelations of the Old Testament on the other [the special problems posed by the teachings of the New Testament took a while longer to percolate into philosophical circles.]

There were, to put it as simply as possible, three positions staked out in the debates.  These were, First, that the truths of Revelation take precedence over the arguments of Reason, and indeed displace reason entirely -- credo quia absurdam, as Tertullian did not actually say but might just as well have;  Second, that the arguments of Reason take precedence over what purport to be the truths of Revelation, so that any incompatibility between the two must be resolved in the favor of Reason;  and Third, that Reason and Revelation are, and must necessarily be, compatible, since the same God who has given us His Revealed Truths also blessed us with the power of Reason, and must therefore have made them capable of producing compatible beliefs. 

The attempt to make the truths of Revelation compatible with the arguments of reason began even before the Christian era among Jewish philosophers steeped in the Greek traditions, and reached its height in the work of eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth century Christian, Muslim, and Jewish philosophers of whom Thomas Aquinas, Averroes, Maimonides, Anselm, and Avicenna are representative.

The central issue, of course, was the relation of Man to God.  It was a commonplace that Man is finite and God is infinite, but that was simply a way to pose the question, not to answer it.  Are Man's attributes akin to God's, but inferior in every way -- finite instead of infinite -- or are Man and God so totally unlike that they cannot even be spoken of by means of the same terms?  Are God's infinite power, knowledge, and goodness just man's finite knowledge, power, and goodness raised to the highest degree?  Or does "infinite," when applied to God, mean "utterly unlike what is finite, in every possible way," as some scholastics maintained?  If the former, then some sort of knowledge of God by analogy would seem to be possible.  But if the latter, then nothing beyond wordless adoration seems appropriate.  A good many quills were sharpened and vellum scratched over these questions.

The centerpiece of the effort to make Revelation compatible with Reason was the attempt to demonstrate the existence of God, using nothing more than the evidence of our senses and the power of our Reason, unaided by appeal to the truths of Revealed texts.

Tomorrow, the famous Proofs for the Existence of God, the mainstay of the Spring semester of every Freshman Introduction to Philosophy, usually timed so as to coincide with Easter.


Don Schneier said...
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Don Schneier said...

The ambitions of these Theologians stand in stark contrast with those in which irrational Faith is touted as a virtue, if not as the sufficient and necessary basis of Religion. There may be a variety of explanations for the apparent ascendancy of Faith-based Religion in recent centuries. Regardless, with the easy availability of either a technique for revealing God, or a compelling proof of his existence, Faith would lose any such cachet.

Michael Llenos said...

If anyone wants to know more about the Koran, then I suggest N.J. Dawood's Penguin Classics translation. He was originally from Iraq, and I think he is the only Jewish man to translate the Koran into english. His translation is beautifully done, and I have grown very fond of it over the years. It is a must read for anyone looking for a translation of the Koran and not an interpretation.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you, Michael. My translation is deadly dull. I will take a look at it.

Michael said...

I'm neither a lawyer nor much of a historian, but, much as I hate to say it, I think there's something to the reading of the "Establishment Clause" as pertaining only to the federal government. And according to Wikipedia (yes, yes, I know) it's really the 14th Amendment which we should thank for limiting the states:
"Prior to the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1868, the Supreme Court generally held that the substantive protections of the Bill of Rights did not apply to state governments. Subsequently, under the Incorporation doctrine, the Bill of Rights has been broadly applied to limit state and local government as well. The process of incorporating the two Religion Clauses in the First Amendment was twofold. The first step was the Supreme Court’s conclusion in 1940 that the Free Exercise Clause was made applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment."

But then again, your son is the legal scholar, so I won't make much fuss if someone says I'm wrong.

It's a minor comment, I know, but my father was a high school history teacher, so I tend to be a stickler for these things.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

In all such things, I bow to my son, of course. I was just appalled that a collection of state legislators wanted to establish a religion [they did not say which one, but I think we can guess.] None of the fights that we thought we had won are over, it seems.

Magpie said...


I don't know, I never much liked the big, old, bearded guy living in the penthouse, with his "thou shall not this, thou shall not that".

I sort of like the basement guys better...

goliah said...

It is an illusion of reason to presume that theology is even a valid human intellectual endeavor. Nor has anything, as far as institutional religion is concerned, 'revealed' anything of God to man. The existing paradigm of 'faith' passed down by tradition remains an intellectual corruption waiting to be overthrown. No more than neo paganism with a scriptural spin. An historical rational founded upon a profound ignorance innate to human nature which history has yet to transcend and judge.