Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"Open" questions

In conversation with Tzvetan Todorov, A.C. Grayling remarks:
When you think scientifically, you think in an open-minded way, in which questions of practicality, empirical test of hypotheses, and public debate, are central. This contrasts sharply – because of its open-endedness, its preparedness to live with uncertainty, and with the creation of new problems from the solution of old problems – with the old narrative structure of theistic explanations of the world. Those narratives are very neat – human beings like a nice simple story. We can tell the religious story in ten minutes, but to explain science takes years.
Wow. Ladies and gentlemen, Professor A.C. Grayling.

Ten minutes! I mean, c’mon, it takes a good three minutes, at least, just to tell the gist of Genesis; with twenty-four books in the Old Testament (I'm counting Jewish-wise not Christian, here), you're clocking over an hour even before intermission. O.K., sure you can skip some of the begats and thou shalt (nots). But to tell the whole religious story, I don't see how you can possibly do it in under an hour and a half. Plus commercials.

Faced with this sort of depressing caricature, one might just sigh and give up. The poor we will always have with us, apparently, including a poverty of worthy opponents. This, what we might call the cliff-notes argument, would have it that because Newton’s laws were three, Newton must have been telling a fairy tale. Come now. Just because one can sketch an outline does not mean you have read the Odyssey. Try explaining—let alone grasping—the Athanasian creed or the Abdhidharma in ten minutes!

To be fair, this is an offhand comment that Grayling makes in the midst of a conversation, and I wouldn’t want to be called to account for every stray remark of mine. It is also, by far, not the most interesting thread in the conversation, about which I will have something else to say in a later post. (The discussion is occasioned by Todorov’s book In Defence of the Enlightenment.) But Grayling’s error is more than an exaggeration; it’s a drastic mischaracterization. Nor is it primarily about the time exposition takes; it’s about simplistic dichotomy according to which religion eschews open-endedness, whereas science cultivates it. Tell this to the dreamers of a final theory. The deep desire to wrap the whole thing up with a nice syllogism or equation or rhymed couplet is as old as human discourse, and is right at home amongst the godless reductionists.

While I couldn’t agree any less with Grayling’s too-stark-by-half contrast, I agree with every word of the aspiration.
Though I would stipulate, with Aristotle, that not every realm of inquiry admits the same degree of certainty, or even discussion, I too hold that we ought to think “in an open-minded way, in which questions of practicality, empirical test of hypotheses, and public debate, are central...[with] open-endedness, ...preparedness to live with uncertainty, and...the creation of new problems from the solution of old."

Religionists have indeed done more than their share of avoiding this, and I know very well from experience what it is to stare into the uncomprehending face of God-said-it-I-believe-it-that-settles-it. But really, does anyone think this sort of know-nothing cretinism characterizes Aquinas, or Nagarjuna, or Gandhi? Or even Mother Teresa? Even the most vehement and eloquent defenders of faith—say, Pascal, or Luther, or Kierkegaard—trouble to, you know, defend it. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing is about as opposed as you can get to modern scientism (which Grayling thinks is a straw man—quite wrongly, as witness this chapter in a book worth arguing with). Writing in the 14th century, taking medieval Catholicism for granted, undreaming of double-blind experiments and quite comfortable, as far as anyone can tell, with pre-Copernican geocentrism. But the picture of the spiritual life that emerges from a reading of The Cloud is precisely one of unknowing. To take any religion seriously at all does not deliver one into certainty and comfort, but into radically unfinished territory, the territory of one’s own salvation, which is to be worked out in fear and trembling.

To be sure, there is a human craving for security, and religion has bought into the notion that it ought to provide it. Indeed, there is a degree to which, or a sense in which, this desire is legitimate. But there is all the difference in the world between having a star to steer by, and riding a tram car. There is a seven-word sentence I read in Voegelin’s New Science of Politics which turned my understanding of religion upside-down:
Uncertainty is the very essence of Christianity. Between this and Todorov’s concurring reply to Grayling, “We have entered an age of uncertainty via the Enlightenment,” lies the whole question. When the best minds of any given religion buy into this mistake, they wind up infantilizing themselves and reinforcing the perception that faith means refusing to look through Galileo’s telescope, or indeed to entertain any questions at all—that is, to stop thinking. So my assertion that Voegelin is right and that Grayling is wrong—wrong about Christianity, though not necessarily about the Enlightenment—is addressed not primarily to Grayling and those like him; it is addressed to those within Christianity whose assumption, often unexamined, is that Grayling is right.

Grayling also likes to make this move by which he strips contemporary Christianity of its pretensions of having made this or that contribution (a move he makes against Todorov’s somewhat more generous read of Christian universalism, for instance). One could be forgiven for the impression that Grayling thinks that Christianity is really a religion of plagiarists:
When you look in the fourth/fifth century Church, you see how much they import into Christian moral thinking and metaphysics from Plotinus and neo-Platonism and the rich ethical resources of Stoicism. And of course later in Aquinas you get another import from Greek philosophy. When people attribute things to Christianity, I see through the veil of Christianity, I see the Greek classical tradition. For example in Stoicism there is a universalising ethics.
This is what you might call missing the point with a machine gun. Even if we stipulate the completely counter-factual claim that there is no universalizing strain in the Biblical tradition, the fact remains that Christianity as Christianity was capable of assimilating and wanting to assimilate this tonic of the classical tradition. So it is pretty clear that the Christian animus Grayling sees against it was not so strong as to be able to reject out of hand all that pagan wisdom which must’ve seemed a pretty big threat (and which, indeed, we know to have been problematic for certain strains in Christianity). Such scholarship, if you want to call it that, is about as sensitive a portrait as an x-ray (and mind you, even that metaphor is pretty poor for the “seeing through the veil” Grayling says he does.)

Sorry to mash up my figures of speech like that, but nothing like getting a bit riled to turn on the writing. I’m not sure it makes for the best thinking, though, so if I’ve made some mistake, please call me on it. I am in agreement with Grayling that religion ought not to be a sacrosanct and undiscussable topic; and I find a number of his positions (on all sort of matters from skepticism to ethics) worthy of engagement. Besides, he writes in a way that gives pleasure. But alas, on this matter, Grayling's thinking, if open at all, is open at the wrong end.


  1. I am far more sympathetic to Grayling than you are. Seems to me that he's being hyperbolic to make a general point--and caricatures work by exaggerating a fundamental *truth*, even if they miss nuances as a result. The reason science is (allegedly) open-minded is because of its (in principle) infinite revisability. Although science is inherently conservative and resists ideas that conflict with existing models, it does (a la Thomas Kuhn) re-orient itself with entirely new paradigms when the data stops fitting the existing model--hence incommensurability of different paradigms.

    Religious authority like Christianity, however much it pledges itself to personal experience or to uncertainty, is irrevocably tethered to print texts that, however much they might be tortured through reinterpretation, never change their signifiers. And these signifiers say some pretty horrifying things, no matter how much one might try to spin them differently. This means that for someone like me who has attempted to (again) embrace Christianity, I always end up with (a bit different from Lewis' concern over "Christianity AND") but "Christianity BUT."

    In short, I think that the basic problem Grayling is pointing out is one of a narrative FORM that he can't tolerate. Religion (as you point out) might not be as "neat" and tidy as he thinks, but the closed nature of the system (again, at least with respect to signifiers, if not signifieds) and its posture of final authority make me highly sympathetic to his view.

  2. Another concern. You state that "the fact remains that Christianity as Christianity was capable of assimilating and wanting to assimilate this tonic of the classical tradition." I think there's a risk here of hypostatizing Christianity as something that itself exists "outside" such influences which "chooses" or "selects" freely. I just don't see that. Yes, the early Church was conscientious in rejecting many aspects of classicism (Augustine's reduction of benevolent daimons to demons, for instance) but I don't see that there was something durable and impermeable called "Christianity" which engaged with, say, Stoicism or the Mystery Cults, and then consciously decided what to take or leave out, without being always already influenced by these traditions in the first place! One does not have to be a hardcore endorser of the syncretistic paradigm of Christianity to find problems with such a model. (It feels flat-out disingenuous, in my view, to treat classicism as a "tonic"--as a mere tasty "supplement" to some pure core called "Christianity." I suspect Derrida would have fun showing how this "supplement" has forever infiltrated and infected Christianity from the get-go.) In short, influences often find their own way in without one knowing it--as McLuhan points out, media do not require your consent to operate on you.

  3. Just when I start thinking Skholiast and I have more in common than not in our thinking he neatly clears up that misunderstanding.

    Before I get into disagreeing with you let me say I admire the thoughtful and almost heroic stance you take to belief in something which, face it, is dubious at best. That you have managed to contort Christianity into something that is all about uncertainty does not mean that is the norm amongst Christians. In fact, if we tried to settle this by vote I'm sure the number of Christians identifying with your position would be overwhelmed by those who think that anything more than ten minutes to tell the important point of Christianity would be bullshit. You're saved, 'nough said!

    I agree with what Alf has said. Using the classical influence of Christianity as an example of its open mindedness is a circus mirror distortion. Obviously, I'm not a believer so it is no surprise that I see nothing special about Christianity that wasn't already present in the Greek and Jewish cultures before it. I think it more accurate to say that Christianity was ultimately forced to adopt classical modes much as it was ultimately forced to accept the Copernican model--by submitting to a superior argument. In time(several hundred years or so) Christianity will accept the arguments of science on most topics. That does not make it a model of adaptive efficiency.

  4. “if I’ve made some mistake, please call me on it,” I wrote. What was that about Ask and ye shall…?

    Well then, he said, rubbing his hands and rolling up his sleeves, this certainly is a lively discussion. Thanks to both Alf and dy0genes for calling my bluff. This response is the first, of maybe two or three (depending on eventual length), but the others may have to wait a bit because I'm out the door soon.

    Alf: first, though not most importantly-- my reference to the "tonic" of classicism was tongue-in-cheek and meant as a counterpunch to Grayling, who I think is the one reifying (or hypostasizing) Christianity. As of course he needs to; we all reify our opponent into a straw man to some extent. The danger of course is that sometimes we provide so much straw that our blows never land home.

    However, I will cop to believing that Christianity, like any spiritual tradition, has a core of experience against which discourse is checked, and that this is identifiable. It is identifiable however by those who know it. A Zen master does not certify transmission for just anyone. The criterion in question is an experience. While obviously I can say nothing about the content of the experience, since I am not a Zen master (so far as I know), it is quite plain that, from the overwhelming testimony of the tradition, some verbal formulae are better than others at “pointing the way” to it. Hence despite the universal acknowledgment that words are pretty much useless for communicating “what awakening is,” Zen scriptures and commentaries on the scriptures abound, and these are significant not just for what they say, but for what they don’t say. They don’t, for instance, say that God is one God in three Persons; nor that there is an eternally abiding Self. The fact that there could and can be heterodox Buddhism testifies to the fact that “what the Buddha taught” was not an endlessly-elastic nonverbal blah that could accommodate itself to any and all paraphrase, but a verbal summary of a recognizable experience. Those with that experience have always claimed to be in a position to discriminate between other verbal approximations, to say “yes, but…” to some and “no” to others.

    Christianity is a spiritual tradition like any other in this respect, and I simply don’t concede that this is reification. The precise modes and manners in which the very early Christians engaged with their Hellenistic cultural matrix is a question I am interested in, but of course the scholarship on this is almost as old as the church. But I’m comfortable saying that Christianity adopted such vocabulary and ways of speaking from the Stoics and Platonists and so on as it felt resonated rightly with the experience it was transmitting. This goes on to this day, to the extent that those who really practice the discipline of Christianity encounter those who speak another “language.” But this is the wider question of trans-tradition encounter, a far bigger issue.

    As to hyperbole. Grayling is perfectly entitled to use whatever tools he wishes in his polemics. But if he employs hyperbole, he cannot justly complain when someone takes it and runs with it. That, too, is hyperbole.

    More to come soon, I hope.

  5. (part 2 of 3, I think):

    Alf’s more substantial points (as I see them) are first, that whatever the exaggerations, science is in principle revisable, and second, that this is so because it is unmarried (as is religion, or at least Biblical religion) to “print texts.”

    Science is indeed (ideally) revisable, always provisional in its conclusions, and to the degree that this is not so, I assume that those in good faith will attribute this lapse to human foible. Whatever the flaws of Popper’s test of falsifiability, this seems to me the gist of what is right with it. There is always the possibility of being shown to be wrong, shown by the world.

    My claim is that this is what a mature spirituality ought to be, and (more controversially, I expect), what it always is in any tradition worthy of the name. Now at this point I imagine some are just shaking their heads and wondering WTF, has this guy ever actually been in a church, doesn’t he know that it is nothing but Thus-Saith-The-Lord all the way down? And, when I nod and say, yes, I’ve been in some churches like that, the next questions are easy to guess:

    First question: “Well, then?” Well, I claim that such shutting-down of the discussion as one finds in such Christian churches is essentially heretical, in precisely the sense that the church used the word in the early centuries. Which means, I guess, that I do think that the Christian church is pretty much riddled by heresy all around, some places more than others, but more or less all over. (But then, it has always more or less had to acknowledge this).

    Second question: “Well, you can define your imaginary religion any way you like, but in the real world, that’s how they do it.” This seems to be dy0genes’ point. Thus, “ That you have managed to contort Christianity into something that is all about uncertainty does not mean that is the norm amongst Christians…” That is to say, “you are reifying Christianity until it has no resemblance to its actual historical exemplars.” When dy0genes suggested that we might settle the matter by vote, there was a moment when the sentiment, if not the phrase, passed through my heart: The Lord hath delivered him into my hand. For we both know that objective matters are not settled by counting heads, and my claim is precisely that there is some objectivity—for lack of a better word—here (and I deeply wish I had a better word). Nor has the Christian tradition ever been under that misimpression. (The comparison with Zen is again apposite: Zen transmission is not decided upon by a vote among disciples). On this matter, Nietzsche is at one with Athanasius contra mundum.

    However, I also deny that my view is as idiosyncratic as is implied. Paul, Origen, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, Hildegard of Bingen, Hadewijch, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhardt, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Kierkegaard, Cardinal Newman, Dostoevsky, Simone Weil, Evelyn Underhill, Thomas Merton; these are a few of those who make their devotion a sane and sober enterprise, as “sure” as any scientist of the basics (ask any scientist how far the heliocentric “hypothesis” is open to doubt), but willing to go out very far into the uncertain. I don’t claim that these souls are in “the majority,” however that would be measured; nor that they would agree with me. But I do claim their testimony bears some weight in evaluating whether Christianity is an inherently anti-intellectual position. (Obviously I don’t contend that it is an purely “intellectual” position either).

  6. I wouldn't expect a religion to be bound by vote of all its members, no more than science could be. I was simply trying to show that you hold a minority opinion about your faith, even among believers. Now there are in the religions I know about the "Elect" whose votes do matter. But in the end their decisions come down to matters of opinion about which, like sincere jurists, persons of good intent could differ. When they come to a matter of importance they vote and dissenters often wind up creating schisms. To me this rings of a primarily political system.

    I'm perfectly willing to grant that there is a "true" Christianity experienced by a few phenomenal humans (I think we understand each other enough to know that I don't necessarily think this means anything about the nature of the non-human world). I would even accept that in principle people who have had some such experience may be important to listen to as we riddle through our lives. The problem lies in transmission of this experience. If one establishes a religion to do so one is going to have to include "non-elect" individuals. If the "true" religious experience were so common that one could use only the elect then there would be such consensus on matters of faith that factions would be unlikely to happen. But since it appears that the world is full of factions I think we have to assume that there must be an awful lot of church leaders who have never had this "true" experience. They're mostly good folk making decision to the best of their ability. If it is going to endure they're going to have to decide a few things--the nature of the trinity for instance--and just decide, in a very legalistic manner, that it stands decided. Then along comes somebody gifted with the true experience and disagrees with the decisions as they stand. Since they have no way to tell if this person is for real or not (that would require having had the experience themselves) they have to follow law and rule against the mystic. If this little narrative is in any way accurate we come to the crazy paradox that the church is always going to be anti-true Christianity--let's just go ahead and say the Church is, by necessity, the Antichrist.

    I think problems like this riddle any privileged spiritual state. It's one of the reasons that I personally have no use for religion. Not that I hold an atheistic agenda. I just don't like churches. But I don't think that people who do are necessarily wrong or irrational or otherwise nutty. Having a church or not is not to me a spiritual question, it's a social-political one.

    The radically different perspective of science is that there is nothing privileged about it. That is assuming we can all learn the math. Like it or not in religion it ultimately comes down to a vote by somebody who by gift or social status gets to decide. In science the vote can always be recalled if it turns out to have been a mistake.

  7. thanks to dy0genes for responding further. my comment is partly a reply to this more recent one, spliced with what I was preparing before.

    dy0genes is right that my position is a minority one. I readily concede that I selected Voegelin’s quote (“uncertainty is the very essence of Christianity”), as a contrast to the conversation between Todorov and Grayling, in order to highlight as starkly as possible the issue at hand. In other words, playing a bit of hyperbole of my own. The less-than-ten-minute synopsis dy0genes offers—“You're saved, 'nough said!”—does have its place in Christianity. But any spiritual tradition has to be endlessly open to the questions that are generated for as long as they are generated. My own battle, thus, is one the one hand with the likes of Grayling, and on the other with those who have barricaded themselves behind locked Bibles. I’m not sure, most days, who I think are most wrong, but usually I tend to think worse of those who do violence to their spiritual traditions from within than those who attack it from without. It’s they who have settled for such an embarrassing excuse for the spiritual life as to make it suspect in the eyes of all the thinking world.

    Thus I make no apologies for citing saints and theologians and mystics—for carefully selecting the “sample” of what counts for me as the “real” tradition. (Not all of such people are ones I agree with—that is a separate matter; I don’t have to agree with Aquinas or Pascal or Simone Weil to see them as mature in their spirituality.) But of course, I do have to deal with the “’nough said!” know-nothings; all the ones who vote against me in dy0genes’ straw poll. After all, fundamentalism is obviously a real aberration, and is popular enough at least in the last century. I have earlier contended that it originates in the abandonment of the lived liturgical context by which scripture is intended to be received. (“Intended,” I mean, by those who shaped it). I should have added at the time, of course, that liturgy as antiquarianism is not enough; one needs a real groundedness in the ascetic practices that makes Christianity a method for the “care of souls.” For many centuries this was the special (but not monopolized) provenance of monasteries and convents; we will see where it goes from here. These sorts of people are the ones with the sort of insight dy0genes is referring to. Transmission is indeed a problem when it comes to this, and while I would not go so far as to call the church the antichrist, you’ve probably noticed that I’m quite willing to call it full of heretics.

  8. Last reply (part 4 of 4):

    Even if I am right about Christian churches being all more or less full of heretics— (now who's being willfully provocative?), some explanation, either Alf’s—“it’s the medium, stupid”—or some other, has got to be found for why this was possible. I both agree & don’t agree with Alf on this; clearly it is a matter of media to some extent (that is to some degree what my liturgical argument contends). But I can’t agree that it’s a question of print. It’s not that I disagree with McLuhan (who Alf cites). McLuhan was one of those for whom the phrase “ahead of his time” was invented. There was a period in which he was adulated, mainly for the wrong reasons; his reputation is now beginning to emerge from the backlash of neglect that followed. We may only now be beginning to catch up. But as a devout Roman Catholic, McLuhan knew very well that the critique of print culture could cohere with the faithful practice of a grounded, liturgical orientation to a spiritual horizon that articulated itself Christianly. McLuhan is very right to note the coincidence between Gutenberg and the Protestant Reformation.

    But I think Alf probably wants to object not to print but to writing. This issue goes very deep, and stretches back far before Christianity (the locus classicus being the Phaedrus), but I'll stick w/ church history here. Obviously the Monophysite & Nestorian schisms & the great schism between Rome & the east predate Gutenberg by centuries, & in any case the sorts of things Alf points to are characteristic of any “permanent” text (written or print), a collection of signifiers which “say some pretty horrible things,” “spin” them though we may. Which means that many are left with no choice but, as you put it, a “Christianity but”, i.e, “Christian but without the anti-gay stuff” or “Christian but more pro-body,” & so on.

    One might, in fact, do worse for an account of Christianity than “Judaism-and-” (or “Judaism-but-…”) And in fact, both Judaism and Christianity have always been “the Bible, but…,” which gives the lie to any critique whereby text per se would be deemed the problem. One can have solid text and revisability; in fact, this is exactly what one has anyway, all the time. One can’t do without “text,” meaning a semi-permanent documentation of what the community agrees on and values, and you can’t do without revisability, the flexibility to adapt to new circumstance. The Talmud is a model of dynamic and static in dialogue. So too Sharia and Fiqh; or Canon Law. One may not like the balance struck in any of these, but their aim to strike a balance is what’s important. The problem is not with “unrevisability,” whatever that would look like, but with the wrong kind, degree, direction, parameters,or priorities for, revision. Everyone, even the most fundie of the fundamentalists, “picks and chooses” and selectively lives by the supposedly inviolable text. No one out there lives by unrevisable laws they can't break out of because “it says right here...” They know perfectly well that “it says” to hate their father and mother, or to never, ever, ever eat a shrimp. It isn't a choice between faithfulness to the spirit or to the letter, but a choice between faith and no faith. The only faithfulness possible is to the spirit, not to the letter. And lo! This is just what the letter saith.

  9. Faith as uncertainty is a paradox. In the Catholic tradition we are told that the truths of faith are more certain than any other. Etienne Gilson in his Elements of Christian Philosophy declares that when faith is contrary to reason the theologian can only surmise that a defective use of reason is trumped by a higher one. Shankaracarya, the Thomas Aquinas of the East as he is sometimes known as, takes much the same position on behalf of sruti (scripture). And they disagree on everything else.

    A paradox casts a light on the fact that truths are held in tension by falsities:

    Between the idea
    And the reality
    Between the motion
    And the act
    Falls the Shadow (The Hollow Men by Eliot)

    The shadow side of a truth that is inexpressible is one in which the definitions are dubious and where there is a development of doctrine. How?

    I find it so very difficult to read Kierkegaard and Weil, the former especially as he endlessly circles and recapitulates. He induces the tension that he himself felt as he strove to be authentic. Faced with the incomprehensible reason is not enough though it passes the time on the bus.

    Siris on your blogroll has a link in his latest post to a review of Grayling's book Ideas that Matter by John Gray who convicts him a liberal innocent. Grayling's reply dribbles from the mouth of the cannon and falls on his foot.

  10. Michael: Your reminder of paradox is to the point. There was a time when I used the word more than I do now. The difficulty is, of course, that paradox requires real seriousness and lightness of touch to wrestle/dance with. This is not easy to inculcate in hoi polloi, though one often finds it there already. On the other hand, paradox-mongering on its own is, well, a pose that takes one in oneself. I am deeply sympathetic to the claim that faith-as-uncertainty is paradoxical, but I am also a little bit creeped out by those who apply "paradox" as a kind of Universal Salve on every contradiction. (obviously this is not pointed at you). It's all too easy for intellectuals to breezily declare paradox and mean no more than a shrug of the shoulders. I don't pretend to have found the answer, but I am very sure the answer is not haughty dismissal of the likes of Śaṅkara.

    Thank you for the pointer to Siris (often one of my favorite blogs). I greatly enjoy John Gray, though he is a crotchety one; a bit sour, he's almost Grayling's evil twin (I don't live in the UK, but he strikes me as no less a philosophical pundit). Grayling's response is a bit weak and nyah-nyah, but in the limit space for a rejoinder I don't see how he could have done much more. It's funny-- seeing almost anyone attacked like that in print makes me more, not less, sympathetic to them. This is psychologically, not philosophically, interesting (if that), but there it is.

    The notion of a truth that is inexpressible is of course the sort "limit to thought" that rationalism per se does not want to admit, and so finds merely nonsensical. I am much more sympathetic to dy0genes' remark that there probably are such limits, but the rationalist does not want to have dictated to him/her where they lie. Meillassoux's After Finitude is importatn, among other reasons, for having thematized this question in a new way; which works against these "limits" from being just a shibboleth (like "paradox" can also be).

  11. I guess what I'm saying is, I'm comfortable with "paradox" in philosophical meditation (as part of the fruits or work of reflection); I'm less comfortable with it in apologetics.