Friday, December 26, 2008

A Review of the Sullivan-Harris Debate, Part 2

OK, so I just finished reading Part 2 of the Andrew Sullivan-Sam Harris debate on religion (it was only 13 pages). There wasn’t anything earth-shattering in those 13 pages, so I’ll restate my initial judgment: that Sam Harris, the advocate of atheism, won the debate.

However, I want to make a couple of things clear…First, while I think that Sam Harris “won” the debate, I’m confident that Andrew Sullivan is closer to the “Truth.” There is no question that, when compared to Mr. Harris, Mr. Sullivan’s views are much closer to my own philosophy (which is explained in my book, The Mustard Seed, and can also be found on this blog; see the post dated December 2nd).

Sullivan argues that life is a “balance” between “reason and faith”, whereas Harris sees no room for faith at all. Clearly, I will stand with those, like Sullivan, who cast a skeptical glance at bold fundamentalist claims – whether those claims are Christian, Islamic, atheist, or any other creed.

If I have been too tough on Mr. Sullivan, I have to confess: it’s because I WANT him to win, and I think he SHOULD win. I am very personally invested in his victory. Not to sound strange, but I feel like a parent watching his child play a game of soccer; even if my kid is the best player on the field, if he isn’t playing up to his abilities, I feel the need to criticize him.

Of course, I know that Sullivan did the best job he could. But far too often, he used his emotional experiences to defend Christianity, when reason alone would’ve been much a more useful tactic (and never – not once in over 50 pages – did he use reason to attack atheism).

In any case, I would like to praise Sullivan for two statements. The first is an except from his book The Conservative Soul:

"The reason I call myself a Christian is not because I manage to subscribe, at any given moment, to all the truths that the hierarchy of my church insists I believe in, let alone because I am a good person or a "good Catholic." I call myself a Christian because I believe that, in a way I cannot fully understand, the force behind everything decided to prove itself benign by becoming us, and being with us. And as soon as people grasped what had happened, what was happening, the world changed forever. The Gospels - all of them, including some that were rejected by the early Church - are mere sketches of a life actually lived, and an experience that can never be reduced to words or texts or doctrines...

"In this nonfundamentalist understanding of faith, practice is more important then theory, love more important than law, and mystery is seen as an insight into truth rather than an obstacle. It is the great lie of our time that all religious faith has to be fundamentalist to be valid. There is another way. For Christians, that other way is about a man, Jesus, whose individuality and humanity cannot be abstracted. And it is about a commemoration of that man, as he asked us to commemorate him.”

I think this is a beautiful defense of Christianity as it can be (and should be) practiced: a humble, positive, loving creed that is tolerant of other faiths (and is open to reforming its own tenets if circumstances change). As a true practitioner of that brand of Christianity, Andrew Sullivan is worthy of our deep respect.

I also enjoyed this Sullivan line:

“Convinced that the choice is solely between fundamentalism and atheism, the vast majority of believers will then be trapped perforce in the fundamentalist camp. Given the ubiquity of faith, given the absence of any civilization in human history that has been free of it, given the evolutionary and biological inclination toward faith, given the respect that a man even as rational as Einstein paid to the ‘veneration’ of the force beyond all of us, your project is absurdly utopian. And like many utopians, you may, I fear, be making hell on earth more likely.”

I think Sullivan is absolutely right. The competition between “reason and faith” (which has being going for millennia) has recently become a sharp polarization between “fundamentalism and atheism” (and that polarization continues to deepen). This is not healthy for people on a personal level, and it’s just as harmful for society as a whole. One of my main motivations for writing The Mustard Seed was to heal that breach between “faith and reason,” and, if possible, unify them. The potential unification of reason and faith (which Andrew Sullivan supports, and Sam Harris earns a living opposing) is, in some ways, the preeminent civilizational issue of our time.


A Review of the Sullivan-Harris Debate on Religion

I’m a frequent reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish, which includes commentary on politics, culture, and current events. For those who are unfamiliar with Mr. Sullivan, he is an openly gay Catholic and a self-described “conservative” (although he strays from the Republican Party line quite often, including, quite mysteriously, cheerleading Barack Obama in this year’s presidential election).

For a long time, I knew that Mr. Sullivan engaged in an online religious debate with a prominent atheist named Sam Harris, who wrote the best-selling book, The End of Faith. However, I never bothered to read a transcript of their debate. I’m not sure why. I guess I feared that the atheist, Mr. Harris, would win the debate (and since I’m a “person of faith,” I didn’t want to see that happen).

In any case, a few days ago, I clicked on the debate’s webpage and read the opening arguments from both Mr. Harris and Mr. Sullivan. I was encouraged by Mr. Sullivan’s writing. To quote him, “God is, by definition, reasonable…I do not, in other words, see reason as somehow in conflict with faith.” As anyone who is a familiar with my book, The Mustard Seed, knows, I share Mr. Sullivan’s confidence in the unity of reason and faith, along with the dangers of dismissing either one of them. So Mr. Sullivan was off to a good start, and today I decided to read a transcript of Part One of their online debate (all 38 pages of it). I’ll get around to reading Part Two at a later time.

So what’s my judgment? Well…as I feared, Mr. Harris was very knowledgeable and articulate, while Mr. Sullivan (although not bad, per se) was clearly playing defense the whole time (and not doing a very effective job of it, either).

That’s a shame too, because Sam Harris’ position is actually quite vulnerable. As my book demonstrates, the foundation of atheism is just as flimsy as any of the major religions. Unfortunately, Mr. Sullivan (like most committed Christians) couldn’t think “outside the box” and challenge atheism on rational grounds. Nor could he defend Christianity on rational grounds. When pressed to defend his creed, Sullivan abandoned his confidence that “true faith rests on the truth.” Instead, he advocates the mushy emotionalism of Mark Williams (the passionate Christian from my book, The Mustard Seed). “If I feel that Christianity is true, then it must be true.”

To quote Sullivan:

“I have never doubted the existence of God. Never. My acceptance of God's existence--of a force beyond everything and the source of everything--goes so far back in my consciousness and memory that I can neither recall "finding" this faith nor being taught it…When people ask me how I came to choose this faith, I can only say it chose me. I have no ability to stop believing…I know of no ‘proof’ that could dissuade me of this, since no ‘proof’ ever persuaded me of it.”

Sam Harris immediately sees the useless of this argument.

He reports:

“I now feel like a tennis player, in mid-serve, who notices that his opponent is no longer holding a racket…You have simply declared your faith to be immune to rational challenge. As you didn't come to believe in God by taking any state of the world into account, no possible state of the world could put His existence in doubt. This is the very soul of dogmatism.”

Then Sam Harris starts wielding the knife, dissecting Sullivan’s ludicrous claim that he “never doubted the existence of God.” There is no God “instinct;” only family and community can produce such an “instinct.”

“I'm guessing that your parents told you about God from the moment you appeared in this world. This is generally how people are put in a position to say things like faith ‘chose me.’ Your determination to have your emotional and spiritual needs met within the tradition of Catholicism has kept you from discovering that there is a mode of spiritual and ethical inquiry that is not contingent upon culture in the way that all religions are.”

Later, Sullivan slips us again when defending his Catholic creed…

“In high school and university, I was able to study the history of that faith--the astonishing cultural wealth and spiritual depth of the Catholic church that kept the memory of Jesus alive for millennia. I was then able to move to a different continent and country and walk into a church that was itself part of that universal inheritance. There is no free place on earth where I cannot find a home.”

Again, Harris pounces…

“Another factor [in Christianity’s appeal] is the very experience of belonging that you wrote about so eloquently-the fact that you can go anywhere on earth and find a home….I do not doubt the attraction of having such communal infrastructure, and I admit that there is no secular equivalent (at the moment). But it is important to point out that this perk of religious affiliation says nothing about the truth of any specific religious doctrine.”

“Are you really surprised by the endurance of religion? What ideology is likely to be more durable than one that conforms, at every turn, to our powers of wishful thinking? Hope is easy; knowledge is hard. Science is the one domain in which we human beings make a truly heroic effort to counter our innate biases and wishful thinking.”

Of course, as my book, The Mustard Seed demonstrates, science is full of its own “wishful thinking” (specifically, atheism) but Mr. Sullivan never bothers to raise that point. Instead, he sadly wanders off into one of the most common (but ultimately useless) defenses of religion: its comfort to the suffering (particularly those who are close to death).

“Religion is best understood, at its core, as an experiential response to the simple fact of our own death. Once a human being has asked himself, as Hamlet did, ‘To be or not to be?’ a human being has become religious, whether he likes it or not. Death is a place from whose bourne no traveler returns, right?…You and I will both die. To the question of what becomes of us then, science has a simple answer. We decompose and rot and eventually become dust. But the human mind, because it is human, resists that as the final answer to the question of our destiny. We find it very hard to think of ourselves as not being. That resistance is always there. There is no escaping it…Is this sense of an afterlife an illusion? We cannot know for sure.

Actually, we can be quite confident of the afterlife’s existence. Such evidence can be found through thousands of so-called “near-death experiences” (see Dr. Raymond Moody’s book, Life After Life, and many similar books). But Mr. Sullivan doesn’t raise this point. Why not? I have no idea.

In conclusion…No one doubts that Sullivan is a very intelligent man (an Oxford-and-Harvard-educated political commentator who has written several books on cultural matters, including his most recent work, The Conservative Soul”). And yet, when given a chance to defend his nearly 40 years of Christianity belief over the course of nearly 40 pages, he can’t do it – at least not successfully.

Ultimately, I have to agree with Sullivan’s own conclusion: “I feel an unworthy apologist for Christianity in many ways.”

As for Mr. Harris…he won Round One, but it was a victory by default. While he was a genuinely strong advocate for atheism, he was never really challenged about his beliefs. I am fairly confident (in fact, I am almost certain) that he can be beaten by someone who is willing to challenge him on his intellectual territory (reason), instead of artfully skirting away from it.

Of course, I still have to read Part Two. Maybe Andrew Sullivan will stage a comeback. Or maybe Sam Harris will add another triumph to his literary belt. We shall see…To be continued…


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Inexplicable Popularity of C.S. Lewis

When I was a child, my familiarity with the religious writer C.S. Lewis was through his best-selling Narnia books, which – like most children – I enjoyed quite thoroughly. At the time, however, I was quite unaware that this deceased Irishman – who wrote compellingly about lions, witches, and wardrobes – was also the most prominent Christian apologist of the twentieth century. If there was a religious message to the Narnia series, I regret to say that I missed it quite thoroughly.

Eventually, at the age of 19, I was confronted with Mr. Lewis’ real legacy. During my junior year of college, my girlfriend at the time told me she was reading Mr. Lewis’ autographic work, Surprised by Joy. In that book, C.S. Lewis recounts his conversion from atheism to full-faith, no-doubt-about-it Christianity. She was intrigued by the content of the book, since, like myself, she was a person who hungered for a spirituality she was unable to acquire as a youth. Ultimately, when she finished reading the book, she declared that it was “disappointing” (although that didn’t stop her spiritual quest). As for me, I never bothered to read the book, although it’s been on my Wish List for oh, about nine years or so.

Why am I bringing up C.S. Lewis’ book? Well, because of my book. Overall, my book, The Mustard Seed: A Story of Life and Faith, is about the spiritual journey of a young man named Brian Raines. In Chapter 2, he recounts the early stages of his journey.

"In a last-ditch attempt to salvage my fledgling faith, I started reading a couple of C.S. Lewis’ books. Supposedly, Lewis was the most important Christian thinker of the 20th Century, and what made him especially interesting was that he started off as an atheist. I heard on a radio show that his books were the best medicine for skeptics like me. Since he had such an appealing background, I started to devour his books – Surprised by Joy, The Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity, etc.

"But I have to say, Lewis’ books weren’t very unconvincing. His arguments were circular, embarrassingly simplistic, and contained more holes than a gangbang video. If this was the best the Christian elite could come up with, the search for faith was pointless. Overall, the whole experience left me feeling drained and empty inside.

I won’t spoil the rest. The point is…in my book, I had criticized (or at least Brian Raines had criticized) C.S. Lewis’ world-famous work.

Considering that I had never bothered to read ANY of C.S. Lewis’ books (the Narnia books excepted), was that criticism fair?

Well, yes, for the most part. I had a reasonable understanding of C.S. Lewis’s philosophy through I another book called The Language of God by Dr. Francis Collins. I had read this book while writing The Mustard Seed, and after completing it, I added the two paragraphs bashing C.S. Lewis. Why did I find Mr. Lewis so objectionable?

Well, up until recently, I couldn’t remember. After all, I read the book almost three years ago, and my memory – besides the overall negative judgment – was faulty. So I decided to be a good little lad and actually BUY C.S. Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity.

I thought that was the only fair thing to do.

Boy, was I mistaken!

I read through the first 50 pages of Mere Christianity before I realized that no page in this piece of drivel would be informative or useful to me in any way whatsoever. Eventually, in the interest of fairness, I read the Wikipedia page on Mere Christianity just to be 100% certain I hadn’t missed anything. I didn’t.

Under the section, The Case for Christianity, there are 2 main points.

First, according to the Wikipedia article…

C.S. Lewis “bases his case on a moral law, a ‘rule about right and wrong’ commonly known to all human beings, citing the example of the Holocaust; even atheists believed that Hitler's actions were morally wrong. On a more mundane level, it is generally accepted that stealing is violating the moral law. Lewis argues that the moral law is like the laws of nature in that it was not contrived by humans. However, it is unlike natural laws in that it can be broken or ignored, and it is known intuitively, rather than through observation. After introducing the moral law, Lewis argues that there must be ‘something behind’ it; namely, God.”

So that’s the first argument.

Very often, a gifted writer will mask his fraudulent arguments with so many half-truths and humbug that the reader will be forced to think and re-think the argument several times in order to proclaim its falsehood. But in Mr. Lewis’ case, the argument is so poor that it can never be seriously considered.

Let’s break this down Dr. Jack-style.

First, according to Mr. Lewis, every human being is born with an “intuitive” understanding of “right and wrong.” This is just plain false. Every mother and father will confirm that NO child is born with an “intuitive” sense of “right and wrong.” Rather, those children must be TAUGHT to understand the difference – and the best way to understand THAT difference is through REASON (although, especially in the early years, social conformity and a few spankings might help).

Lewis’ further explanation that the Holocaust is proof of this “moral law” that is “commonly known to all human beings?” Oh really? I would beg to differ. The fact that SS guards laughed while shooting innocent women and children in the concentration camps and then mailed photos of their crimes to their families back home certainly negates any theory that “right and wrong” is “intuitive” in human beings. The fact that even today, in most Muslim cultures, teenage girls who are raped are then MURDERED by their own parents (to cleanse the “shame” on their family) shows that there are no universal, intuitive standards of “right and wrong.” If there are no such “intuitive” standards, where can we derive such standards?” I’ll let Brian Raines explain (The Mustard Seed, Chapter 13)…

“Feelings are a part of life – but they’re ultimately unreliable. And a life philosophy that is based on feelings is equally unreliable. What is reliable? Reason. Intelligence. Judgment. The power of the mind. The individual mind.”

But you know what? I’ll suspend the “judgment” of my own “individual mind” and take C.S. Lewis’ word for it: Fine, there is a “moral law” that can be “known intuitively, rather than through observation.” But Mr. Lewis insists that there must be “something behind’ it; namely, God.”

Oh really? Why must God be behind it? Why can’t it just exist naturally? Why can’t it be Darwinian evolution (reciprocal behavior towards family members and other members of the tribe) and/or the evolution of the civilization itself (in which people must participate cooperatively in large political and economic organizations to ensure their supply of resources – whether it be food, housing, or getting National Book Awards). This argument is so easy to refute it’s almost laughable. There is NO – repeat NO – need to use God as the explanation for an intuitive “moral law” that (as we’ve already established) DOESN’T EVEN EXIST!

Let’s return the Wikipedia article…

“The other underpinning of [C.S. Lewis’] appeal for a benevolent being is his argument that we cannot yearn for something that does not exist. The fact that people thirst reflects that they naturally need water and that there is no other substance which satisfies that need.”

(Folks, that sound you hear is me banging my head on my keyboard). Umm, I thirst to be the King of the Planet Slocar in the Uriental Galaxy. Does that mean there is such a planet? Well, according to C.S. Lewis, Plant Slocar must exist since I “thirst” for it.

“Oh,” C.S. Lewis might say, “that ‘s not a reasonable thirst.”

And God is?

I know plenty of people who DON’T thirst for God (they are either agnostic or atheist), and I would argue that most young Christians in America today have NO thirst for Christianity as it’s been traditionally practiced for most of its 2,000 years (you know, the genocide, Reformations, Spanish Inquisitions, all that jazz). Bottom line: C.S. Lewis’ assertion that we “cannot yearn for something that does not exist” is patently false – because people yearn for things that don’t exist ALL THE TIME (!), and besides, that “yearning” for a “benevolent being” doesn’t even exist in many people.

Finally, I’d like to comment on something that was written under the “Christian behavior” section of the Wikipedia article. Specifically, I take great umbrage with this line:

“[C.S. Lewis] also writes about ‘the great sin:’ pride, which he argues to be the root cause of all evil and rebellion.”

Since I remembered this point from the brief part of Mere Christianity that I actually read, I decided to open my copy and scan for it. On page 49, I found this quote…

“The moment you have a self at all, there is a possibility of putting yourself first – wanting to be the center – wanting to be God, in fact. That was the sin of Satan: and that was the sin he taught the human race…What Satan put into our heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’…and out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history – money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery – the long terrible story of man.”

So, basically, according to Mr. Lewis, “putting yourself first” and “being like God” is responsible for the “long terrible story of man.” Personally, in contrast to Mr. Lewis, I recommend that ethics should be grounded in “rational self-interest,” but I won’t spend paragraph upon paragraph justifying my views (I would just recommend reading The Mustard Seed – specifically, Chapter 9).

Instead, I’d like to focus on the line, “being like God.” Why shouldn’t we aspire to “be like God?” If God is all-good, all-knowing, all-merciful, the pinnacle of perfection, then shouldn’t He be our inspiration (rather than our downfall)? I think the answer is self-evident. But what’s self-evident is of very little interest to Mr. Lewis. Rather, he wants to regurgitate the millennia-old lie that human beings should be meek, humble, reserved, and bland (whereas I firmly believe that people should be self-confident, creative, colorful, and unafraid to reach for the stars).

Now that’s a philosophy worth living.

After reviewing Mr. Lewis’ book, I have to agree with Brian Raines: it is “embarrassing simplistic.”

And to paraphrase Brian again, if Mere Christianity is the best defense of Christianity today, then that religion (at least the way it’s practiced today) is in even more trouble than I thought…


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Curious Case of Nicola Karras

Last weekend, I went to the Culture 11 website, and discovered an article with the rather-intriguing headline, “Yale Brought Me to Conservatism."

As someone who is interested in what causes people to gravitate toward certain political beliefs, I read the article and re-read it a second time. The article – which was written by a Yale student named Nicola Karras – was certainly interesting, but not very convincing. I think a full-depth review of her article can shed some light as to how young people – and indeed people of all ages– can get caught in philosophical traps that can generate great unhappiness and an unfulfilled existence.

In her article, Nicola describes herself as someone who, at an early age, “believed with all my heart in Man’s ability to understand the world by reason alone. I was an Enlightenment fundamentalist.” Sounds reasonable enough. “The first big shock of my life,” she continues, “came when I arrived at Yale.” There, she realized, “the things I believed didn’t make sense.” Still, she stubbornly pressed on. After all, “I couldn’t give up my faith in reason. If not, what then would life be but despair?” Again, sounds reasonable enough. But eventually she decides to embrace the despair. She becomes a fan of a philosopher called Godel who, in her words, “proved that, except for the most trivial, no system of axioms could be both consistent and complete.” From there, Nicola concludes that “reason couldn’t establish a purpose for my life…The only rational thing to do was to become a nihilist.”

Let’s take a break here, and review Ms. Karras’ case. She starts off with faith in reason. She is happy with that faith. And then she abandons it…why? Because of Mr. Godel, who supposedly has “proved that, except for the most trivial, no system of axioms could be both consistent and complete.” What is this mind-blowing proof? And would this proof, even if it existed, have any practical effect on our lives? Let’s quote Heather Manning in Chapter 9 of The Mustard Seed…

“According to postmodernism, Reality is an illusion, our minds are feeble, our senses are futile, and we can never truly be sure of anything. This is the conventional wisdom across most university campuses, and is the view of most ‘educated people’ today.“However, I strongly resist these opinions – and I feel no need to explain it further than a single analogy: Imagine that you and I are in a room with a table. We see the table with our eyes. We touch it with our fingers. We smell it with our nose. If we wish, we can even taste it. Now, if I suddenly ran towards that table, I will trip and fall down– even if I prayed for the table to disappear. If you ran toward the table, the same thing would happen to you. The consequences are always the same. There is a ‘Reality’ out there whether we like it or not.”

In contrast to Mr. Godel, I personally believe that Reality exists, and reason – and only reason – is the faculty to discover, interpret, and master it. Furthermore, if Mr. Godel is correct that “no system of axioms could be both consistent and complete,” then isn’t Mr. Godel’s own axiom – by definition – “inconsistent” and “incomplete?” Why is Mr. Godel’s philosophy fundamentally better than Heather Manning’s – especially when you consider that Heather’s is certainly more practical for living on Planet Earth? Couldn’t the practicality of Heather’s philosophy be evidence enough of its value?

OK, back to the article. According to Nicola, “every morning I asked myself why I existed, since there was no rational purpose for it and the universe at large was utterly indifferent.” Then she relates an amusing tale…

“At one point I called my mother and told her I was having an existential crisis. ‘Oh no!’ she cried. ‘What’s wrong?’ I explained that I was stricken with doubt about the possibility of knowledge and whether my life had any meaning. ‘Oh,’ she said, sounding a little relieved. ‘An actual existential crisis. I can’t help with that.’

That reminds me of another Heather Manning story…

“Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t relieve the grief of a child who had lost her mother, nor could I shake my own fear that the loss of this person, was, in the grand scheme of things, utterly and totally meaningless.

“However, like any common prisoner, I still held some vague hope that I could escape the jail cell of my mind. I still believed that I could find a philosophical loophole, and walk through it into a lifetime of bliss.

“At one point, I met with one of Duke’s most famous philosophy professors, and I practically begged him for any insights he could offer. After several hours of conversation, do you know what he told me? ‘Try not to think so much.’ Yep, this was the grand summation of twenty centuries of human philosophy: ‘Try not to think so much.’ It was enough to drive any decent person to despair.”

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. In any case, inspired by a T.S. Eliot poem called The Waste-Land (whose meaning was admittedly lost on me), she has an “epiphany:” “There was no reason to exist. But I did: not because I could prove it, or because I knew, but because in that utterly human moment of terror and sacrifice that gave meaning, I recognized that it didn’t matter.”

Ah, there’s the key phrase we’ve been waiting for: “it didn’t matter.” At least Nicola is honest: the rejection of reason leads to a philosophical dead-end. Eventually, we’re all doomed to say, “it doesn’t matter.” Apparently, Nicola takes some solace in this conclusion, but I’ll venture to guess that she won’t find it satisfying in the long-run. Like Troy Dawkins in The Mustard Seed, she can hide from the ramifications of that thought system for quite a while, but eventually it’ll catch up with her.

But let’s take a break from that sermonizing. Let’s return to Nicola’s article itself. Finally, about halfway through the article, Nicola returns to the supposed theme of her article – how Yale “brought me to conservatism.” Before coming to Yale, she claims that she had “been liberal in the classical sense: I had considered Man as an atomized, self-complete individual, engaged through choice and rational thought…The entire edifice of my beliefs had rested on that rationalist Weltanschauung….When the framework for that conceptual system fell apart, so too did its results.”

Let me start by agreeing with Nicola that a “rationalist” conceptual system supports the integrity of the “self-complete individual” and is consistent with being a “liberal in the classical sense.” Think Edmund Burke or Adam Smith or any of the Founding Fathers. And I agree with Nicola that when the “rationalist” conceptual system “falls apart” so must this classically liberal political philosophy.

Nicola continues, “I know that in my rejection of rationalism, I considered duty and community as alternate sources of meaning.” Once again, I agree with Nicola. With the rejection of rationalism, the quest for meaning doesn’t die; it just becomes hideously distorted. In Nicola’s case, “alternative sources of meaning” include “duty and community.” As Mark amply demonstrates in The Mustard Seed, “duty and community” – rather than reason and self-esteem - are appropriate convictions in an irrational life. So Nicola wouldn’t be the first person in history to respond to intellectual and spiritual confusion by “sacrificing herself” to the great “community” of humanity.

Nicola elaborates on her new spiritual philosophy:

“If we cannot understand ourselves as meaningful participants in something, we regard ourselves as fundamentally other; if all we can truly establish is our own existence as ‘things that think,’ we have nothing to do with our fellows. Language and logic are not enough to bridge those gaps: it requires something more. In opposition to that liberal, rights-based worldview, I looked to love and to tradition.”

Personally, I don’t agree with any of this. While I certainly appreciate the human hunger to be “meaningful participants in something,” I don’t see why “language and logic” are handicaps to that participation. Why is love and logic inherently in conflict? Nicola doesn’t say – probably because there is no conflict.

Nicola continues…

“I understood my own struggle with rationalism and meaning as a symptom of a far greater cultural crisis. It was Man’s isolation in the face of an increasingly alienating world, and his commitment to Enlightenment rationality as the only means of explaining that world, that created the problems of modernity.”

This is just plain wrong. According to Nicola, the Enlightenment “created the problems of modernity.” Really? So everything the Enlightenment created – freedom, democracy, science, technology, religious tolerance, equal rights for women - is wrong? I know Nicola doesn’t mean that, per se, but she needs to see the consequences of her logic. Oh wait, she doesn’t believe in logic, so never mind! In any case, I would bet that the pre-Enlightenment world with political tyranny, religious persecution, and short lives of physical toil was a lot more “alienating” than life in the twenty-first century. So any way you look at it, Nicola’s assertion is wrong.

Back to the article…Nicola says, “If a man is drowning in his own nihilism, he’ll cling to some – any – ideology as though his life depends on it.” Personally, I agree with that. This gets back to the human hunger for “meaning” which we discussed earlier. Then Nicola continues, “In my longing for certainty, I might have latched on to some murderous ideology. It was only by luck, or by that awful daring of a moment’s surrender, that I’d sacrificed the logical consistency of ideology for compassion.”

Once again, ironically, I agree with Nicola. The “longing for certainty” is a major ingredient in “murderous ideology.” But instead of making Nicola question her new “certainty,” she sees no problem with it. As for me, I have a major problem with it. If it’s only through “luck” that she avoided a “murderous ideology,” isn’t that a tenuous foundation to support her new “ideology for compassion?”

I know I’ve used up my quota of Heather Manning quotes, but here’s another one that I think is relevant:

“In my life, when I saw the ethic of self-sacrifice in action, I saw Buddhist monks walking around, literally sweeping the ground in front of them, in order to avoid hurting bugs. On the other extreme, I saw Nazis hurtling Jews into ovens – in service to the collective ‘Fatherland.’ Despite this obvious insanity, even today, we are still scolded to ‘live for others,’ and we’re reprimanded whenever we question that slogan. But from my perspective, everything worked better when people lived for themselves.”

Back to the article…According to Nicola, her “two intellectual priorities led neatly into conservatism: first, I was concerned with creating meaning through community and human connection, as I saw in Eliot and Arendt; second, I felt strongly about human virtue…The human race is not, at it’s core, nice…Society’s job then is to teach us to be better.”

I’m not sure what Nicola’s talking about, but it’s certainly not conservatism. Conservatism is a philosophy of freedom (and all that freedom entails – individual rights, democracy, limited government, etc.). No conservative –at least no true conservative – would claim that “society’s job is to teach us to be better.” That is a recipe for tyranny. While Nicola later states that “state intervention is dangerous,” her underlying belief about “society’s job” makes that intervention inevitable.

In my favorite sentence of the whole article, Nicola writes, “We need a set of values that makes us feel guilty about wanting to do the things we should not do; we need a culture that sanctifies those urges and channels them into something beautiful.” Read that sentence again. According to Nicola, “we need a set of values that makes us feel guilty.” Really? Guilty? Are you sure? What human being would voluntarily sign up for such a value system?

For the last time, Heather Manning…

“I find it sad that people are forced to choose between self-interest and morality, because that is a false choice they should never have to make. Is it any wonder that an early age, people see morality as the enemy, and seek to avoid it? After all, what does morality have to offer them, beyond pain and misery? The most important rules of ethics have been the least practiced because they have never been wedded to the logic of self-interest.”

Clearly, I am quite hostile to Nicola’s new moral philosophy, but to her credit, she concludes her piece by writing, “I’m still reading, still thinking, still arguing, and I know that meaning comes not from the certainty of truth but from the struggle for it.” I appreciate her open mind, and I am confident that her mind will change as gets older. I presume that Nicola is somewhere between the ages of 19-22. God knows I wouldn’t have done much better at her age. So I wish her luck as she continues to grapple with the struggle for truth.


**UPDATE, JUL. 8, 2009**

The Culture 11 website is now defunct. I've changed the link accordingly.


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Philosophy of Heather Manning

At its heart, my book, The Mustard Seed, is a philosophical debate expressed through the medium of action – a vivid and emotionally-gripping contest between three unique life philosophies – first: the emotional, self-sacrificing religion of Mark, second: the instinctive, narcissistic nihilism of Troy, and finally: the rational, self-interested, and humble faith of Heather Manning (later termed “spiritual rationalism”).

I think people have a good sense of what Mark and Troy represent – either because they know people who fit neatly inside those representations, or perhaps because they recognize those qualities inside themselves (to varying degrees). But Heather’s life philosophy is quite rare, and as far as I know, never been publicly defended. The best way to describe “spiritual rationalism” is to read The Mustard Seed (especially, Chapter 9), but for those who wish to read the Cliffs Notes version, here it is. “Spiritual rationalism” in 10 easy steps…

1) Spiritualism rationalism begins with the premise that Reality exists, and it exists independent of our personal thoughts or feelings. In other words, there is a “there” out there, which we can perceive with our 5 senses, and not an illusion that we can choose to ignore or manipulate based on our own whims.

At first, this doesn’t seem like a very controversial idea, but in fact, the 2 main thought systems of the modern era (traditional religion and postmodern nihilism) reject that idea. According to traditional religion, God is a very active puppetmaster in human affairs and He suspends the very laws of nature to accommodate requests ranging from the major (winning a war) to the minor (winning a college football game). After all, God’s powers are spelled out in Revelation, and Revelation is the final word.

On the other end of the spectrum, according to postmodernism, Reality is an illusion, our minds are feeble, our senses are futile, and we can never truly be sure of anything. This is the conventional wisdom across most university campuses, and is the view of most “educated people” today.

However, I strongly resist these opinions – and I feel no need to explain it further than a single analogy: Imagine that you and I are in a room with a table. We see the table with our eyes. We touch it with our fingers. We smell it with our nose. If we wish, we can even taste it. Now, if I suddenly ran towards that table, I will trip and fall down– even if I prayed for the table to disappear. If you ran toward the table, the same thing would happen to you. The consequences are always the same. There is a “Reality” out there whether we like it or not.

2) If Reality exists, then reason – and only reason – is the faculty to discover, interpret, and master it. Reason is the highest domain of the mind – focused purely on facts, unswayed by emotion, and in every moment, seeking a constant expansion of one’s knowledge. Reason is a complex and highly demanding tool – primarily because it forces us to be independent in thought, and responsible for our own judgments.

Again, at first glance, the value of reason doesn’t seem very controversial. However, the value of reason is regularly dismissed by both traditional religion and postmodernism. In the case of traditional religion, the key to mastering the world (specifically, God’s world, as revealed through Revelation [not the same thing as “Reality”] is through emotion – the emotional commitment to God, which is something you can “feel” deep inside you once your commitment is strong enough.

However, as Brian points out later in the book, this “feeling” is hard to acquire unless you’ve been raised with it (thanks to your parents). Even then, it can be very unreliable. For the rest of us, feelings change all the time. One minute, you’re on top of the world; the next minute you’re bleeding in a gutter. One minute, you’re at peace with all creation; the next minute you’re mourning the death of a close friend. The roller coaster of emotions can become overwhelming. Given enough time, they can persuade most people to adopt a safe and dreary agnosticism. Even worse, when the valleys of life are at their steepest and longest, those feelings can harden into atheism.

As for the postmodernists, they are equally antagonistic toward reason. After all, what use is reason when Reality itself is an illusion? Instead of reason, they rely on emotion – in this case, the basest instincts produced by man’s body. As Troy explains, “We – as human beings – are not made in the image of God. In fact, there is no God. Every religion is a fraud, and every code of morality is a deception. We are simply animals, and like all animals, our mission in life is simple: eat, shit, fuck, and procreate…We should follow the path of Nietzsche – silencing the voice of our minds, and pursuing pleasure for its own sake.”

Like so many others before him, Troy glorifies nihilism by draping it in the cloak of the rebel, and then makes it respectable by calling it the most “reliable” life philosophy. But the instincts of nihilism – just like feelings of Revelation – are inherently unreliable. Furthermore, they can be harnessed and improved through the focused power of the mind.

Therefore, what is reliable for mankind? Intelligence. Judgment. And above all: Reason.

3) According to reason, “rational self-interest” is the best ethical system for human beings; the best way to go live our lives on a moment-to-moment basis with all of the choices and decisions that come with it.

Why is “rational self-interest” the best system? Because Reality is a condition of separation. Every human being is separate from one another. No human mind can truly connect with another mind, at least in any meaningful sense of the word. And yet, strangely, the universe seems to work quite well this way – with each individual acting, well, as an individual. Think about it: The person who knows the most about you is you. The person who knows the most about your physical and emotional needs is you. The person who is most trustworthy to handle those needs, and to take care of those needs, is you. In a very real sense, the world works best when people put themselves first and foremost – and follow the path of rational self-interest.

This is obviously radically different from both religion and postmodernism. According to nearly all traditional religions, we should always put other people ahead of ourselves. We must sacrifice for others. This is not a natural concept for most people. By definition, sacrificing for others requires a sacrifice of our own minds – a surrender of our judgment and responsibility – for uncertain rewards. Inevitably, there are times when it is rational to deny the demands of others – especially when their values conflict with our own.

And besides, what would a “life of sacrifice” truly look life? Does it mean that we should constantly ask people what we can do for them, and then do it (like some “eager pleaser”)? Needless to say, no religion has provided a coherent answer to that question, so there is a unspoken understanding between the leaders and the led that we can live for ourselves (although we must feel guilty about it), and then do penance for our guilt at appropriate times and places (usually with money).

The ethics of postmodernism is equally detrimental, although less socially acceptable. Basically, for the postmodern nihilist, the idea of self-interest is quite appealing, but it must be “emotional self-interest” of one who follows their instincts. Of course, “emotional self-interest” eventually becomes an easy excuse for reckless narcissism – specifically, drug abuse, recreational sex, and shameless disregard for the needs of others. In time, the greatest victim of that behavior is the nihilist himself.

Bottom line: A life of “rational self-interest” is the healthiest, and dare I say, the only healthy form of existence.

4) So what is in our self-interest? I would argue that a self-interested life is a virtuous life, and there are three virtues which are critical: honesty, responsibility, and justice.

Honesty is the commitment to understand and act upon reality in all cases.

Responsibility is the appreciation that, in reality, each of us chooses our own actions, and therefore, we are ultimately accountable for the consequences of those actions.

Justice is the recognition that every person has the capacity to live honestly and responsibly. Every person is equal in that regard. Thus,
all of humanity should be treated as fundamentally equal. This is the ‘golden rule’ in action (“do unto others as others would do unto you”).

These three values – honesty, responsibility, and justice – provide us with a sense of ownership over our lives, and the confidence to surmount any of life’s challenges.

When we choose to practice those values at all times, in all circumstances, we possess the final, all-encompassing virtue, which is loyalty to virtue itself. That is known as integrity.

We should strive for integrity because it benefits us, and not out of some abstract moral principle. Unfortunately, society continues to insist that morality consists of shedding the ego, and working exclusively for the benefit of others. It’s sad that people are forced to choose between self-interest and morality, because that is a false choice they should never have to make. Throughout history, the most important rules of ethics have been the least practiced because they were never wedded to the logic of self-interest.

5) The principle of reason can be applied to another area: faith.

In the last few decades, there has been a quiet revolution in the scientific community – especially in the areas of physics and biology – whereby a growing body of evidence leads to an inevitable and surprising conclusion: it is “rational” to believe in God, and even better, a personal God who has a loving interest in our lives.

Despite the hopes of millions of atheists who hoped that science would eventually destroy God, today there is more “reason” to believe in God than at any time in history. The collection of modern science is immense – especially in physics where a growing consensus is emerging that the universe was “fine-tuned” to support the creation of life. And if life was designed, then there must be a Designer.

New discoveries in biology are also helping the cause – specifically, as we unlock the mysteries of DNA, which is essentially a digital code (and code is always the result of a mental progress).

The increased ability of doctors and hospitals to resuscitate people who were clinically dead for 20 or 30 minutes or longer is also a marvelous development. The survivors usually describe a sudden sense of peace, moving through a ‘tunnel,’ being greeted by relatives who had passed away, and encountering a ‘Being of Light’ that emanates a powerful, unearthly love. Since there isn’t any physiological theory that can explain these “near-death experiences,” it seems reasonable to say that science has inadvertently stumbled on evidence for the soul.

The Mustard Seed covers some of the highlights of these scientific breakthroughs, but there are whole books – such as God: The Evidence and The Devil's Delusion - which go into much greater detail.

The bottom line: it is rational to believe in God and a greater purpose to life.

6) When a rational person achieves faith, they perceive a feeling of completeness, and the desire to share that completeness with others. By completing that desire, they are flooded with an unexpected feeling of “power” - the power to expand oneself – not in a physical sense, of course, but in a spiritual sense. In a very real way, you are leaving the physical limits of your body to recreate a part of yourself inside another person’s soul. That sense, that power, that desire is known as “love.”

Love is the language of God – inspiring us to craft the highest vision of ourselves, and to shape the world in that image. But love is not a sacrifice. Love is not a negation of “spiritual rationalism” – but rather an extension of that philosophy to its highest, and greatest purpose. True love is an expression of rational values, projected not inward, but outward into the world. This concept of love preserves the wholeness of the individual. After all, there is no ‘I love you’ without “I.” “I” comes first. Furthermore, love, like any rational value, must be evaluated based on its costs and benefits. In other words, love should be earned; it is not an entitlement for ungrateful people who may perceive it as weakness.

7) Reason is the only safe home for faith in the twenty-first century. The days of blind faith are over. It’s simply too vulnerable to the rapid increase in human knowledge, and the existential doubt that knowledge inevitably produces. But if faith is conjoined to reason, it has nothing to fear from a person’s intellectual advancement. This partnership is the only way to preserve an honest faith in a rapidly-changing world. Reason and faith are allies, and they’re most powerful when used in tandem, although I will say that reason must come first, now and always.

8) However, every now and then, we are confronted by acts of God – like the death of a young friend – where reason alone can provide no explanation. No amount of raw intelligence can decipher its meaning. During these troubling times, reason itself must be transcended and substituted with faith. Needless to say, this doesn’t mean that reason is pointless. Not at all. Reason must always come before faith, and even God Himself must be evaluated by the facts as we understand them. But ultimately, at the end of the process, we must put our faith in God – because we know, through reason, that God is worthy of that faith.

9) If we stay focused on those facts, our feelings of sadness and doubt will gradually melt away, and a new feeling will spring forth and reenergize us: a feeling of gratefulness.

We should be grateful to God because He has given us the gift of Life – the Life we have now, and the Life we have to come. We love life. Every day, when we wake up and get out of bed, we affirm the value of life. Every breath we take is our personal vote of confidence in God’s plan. After all, very few of us choose to end our lives. And why should we? We are all artists, and the world is our canvass. There are endless possibilities for acts of self-creation. We are what we choose to be. We love life. We protect it, we fight for it, and when it ends, (or at least seems to end) we mourn it. We should also be grateful for it.

We should be grateful because it’s an appropriate response to reality. God has been good to us – and we should honor that goodness.

10) If I had to summarize the message of “spiritual rationalism” into a single word, it would be “think.” I mean, really think. Think about everything! Especially about yourself! I know some people are afraid to think about their own lives. As human beings, we fear what we don’t understand, and all too often, what we understand least is ourselves. But the reality is, when we understand ourselves, we empower ourselves, and the feeling of self-empowerment is the greatest of all feelings.

The root of happiness is the conviction (supported by experience) that you are competent and morally entitled to succeed on this Earth. And you are.

**UPDATE, OCT. 20, 2009**

During the past few weeks, the Christian blogg
er "Novaseeker" has hosted a major discussion about "Spiritual Rationalism." Overall, I thought the debate between Novaseeker, myself, and his many commenters was stimulating and enjoyable. I've cut and pasted some of the highlights here.