2011-09-15

Ockham Rap


This has to be one of the Geekiest things I have ever written. I am co-teaching a class called "The God Debate" about religious belief and unbelief. Several of the thinkers we have examined on both sides of the debate have referred to William of Ockham and his [in]famous "razor". For those who do not know, Ockham was a 14th century Franciscan Friar, a professor at the University of Oxford, one of the founders of the scientific method, and also excommunicated by the Pope for reasons that are partially philosophical and mostly political. Anyway, I thought, "Hey, I should write a rap song to explain Ockham." So, I did. What makes this even stranger is that I am more of a mystical Thomist with a serious affection for postmodern deconstruction. So, it is odd that after an hour and a half of doodling, this came out:

The Ockham Rap
Copyright (c) 2011 by Nathan L. Bostian

His name is William of Ockham
And his philosophy's rockin'
Metaphysical speculations
Are what he's blocking

We rely on too many causes
To explain our problems
Like using angels and demons
To try and solve 'em

When a simple explanation
Based on sense and sight
Would completely describe
Almost anything, right?

This is called Ockham's razor
A speculative saber
Cutting off extra entities
Like they were shot with a phaser

Like when you use three factors
To describe what two factors do:
Why do you use that third factor
Like some kind of fool?

Simply! Says this guy!
On crutches don't rely!
Rid yourself of superstitions
And all excessive replies.

The only things that exist
Are the things themselves.
No need to resort
To abstract universals!

In fact we have no need
For disembodied spiritual forms:
They are all just names
We give to categories and norms

We call this Nominalism
To break you out the the prison
Of confusing individual things
With the Names we give em

For instance: A dog is just a dog
Not an instance of dogness
And fog is water droplets
Not the essence of fogness

So don't think a human person
As part of abstract humanity
And don't use the category "fish"
When you deal with a manatee

Stick to simple, direct,
Particular observations
And never multiply entities
To try and explain them.

This is the Philosophy of Ockham
In a nice little rhyme
And it led to empirical science
In a few centuries time.

2011-09-12

The Moral Argument Against Religion


I am currently reading and teaching from the infamous books by Christopher Hitchens "God is not Great". In pondering Hitchens' arguments against God, I find myself continually underwhelmed (although very entertained). I do not find him persuasive, but rather rhetorically brilliant.

I think that the god Hitchens is arguing against is a god which I would argue against: A kind of "dictator in the sky" who cannot wait to damn the maximum number of people possible. The god he lambasts seems to be an evil elementary school principal writ large, and as such is the common concept of god among grade schoolers and teenagers. And since this is the age when a great many people stop going to Sunday School or challenging their ideas of god, it is also the god of a great many Americans.

So, what happens when a pre-adolescent concept of god is confronted with the complexities of adult life, especially the life of a foreign correspondent who has seen levels of human carnage and suffering beyond what most of us can comprehend? That god gets Hitch-slapped. And rightfully so.

I find Hitchens arguments very compelling against this pre-adolescent concept of god. But the problem is, I don't find that god to be God. God, especially as revealed in and through Jesus of Nazareth, is someone completely different. This God is expansive and embracing, the epicenter of the undying Love which humanity craves. This God does not abandon process and the messiness of life, but works through it, always offering healing, never withdrawing the hope of redemption.

This God is almost entirely untouched by Hitchens. In fact, I might even argue that Hitchens cannot grasp or identify this God as a possibility within the religious landscape.

Thus, when it comes down to brass tacks, I find that the most probable solution to the "big problems" of origins, cosmic rationality, the problem of suffering, the source of human religious impulses, and even the inspiration of the Scriptures and the explanation of the "Christ event", always point me toward a Relational, Personal God who allows creaturely freedom in order to make room for shared Love.

But, there is an argument which gnaws at me. And it is an argument against religion, rather than God.

For, while the evidence may point strongly to the high probability that God exists, and even that God became incarnate in a specific human life 2000 years ago, it does not necessarily follow from this that any particular group of people is practicing the remembrance of this in any authentic fashion.

Christian history is full of epistemic claims to try and demonstrate that certain communities practice the most authentic remembrance of God-in-Christ. These theories may focus on tradition, tactile-succession, doctrine, Scripture, continuance of miracles, etc. But the common denominator is that they focus on accurate knowledge, and knowledge maintenance structures, as the key to authenticity.

However, I generally find these theories less than persuasive.

Instead, I find a more pragmatic, moral way of demonstrating authenticity to be the most persuasive. For me, the question is: Which community generates the greatest amount of sanctity among it's members, as measured by the types of criteria specified by Christ and his apostles? Which community consistently produces Christians who bear the fruit of the Spirit, the virtues of Christ? Which community creates saints?

And the sad fact is, insofar as I spy the landscape, none of us does a particularly good job of this. Not even among- or even especially among- the leadership of the various Churches. We are all racked with corruption, selfishness, pride, vanity, and every other vice known across history. No community can, with a straight face, claim that even a strong minority of its members have been "holy", much less its leaders.

And it is not just a Christian phenomenon. No religion consistently creates saints. Not one.

And to frustrate the matter even more, there ARE shining individuals from other religions and philosophies who do actually show signs of "conspicuous sanctity". Individual saints not only come packaged in the Christian wrapper, but also as Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Taoists, Confucians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Agnostics, and even Atheists. There are Christlike people who may in fact reject, or not even know of, Christ.

This is not to say they produce saints at higher rates than Christian Churches. They don't. And I would imagine that the percentage of individuals who rise "above the bell curve" in any community is about the same across the board.

It is just to say that there seems to be very little correlation between the production of Christlike virtue, and following Christ in any of the existing Christian traditions.

And what is so troubling is that this is precisely the opposite of what Christ and his Apostles predicted. They predicted that one who followed Christ in faith would become Christlike. So, the existing communities of Christianity fail to produce what was promised. There may be isolated incidents of sanctity, but sanctity is not the rule. And it should be.

To look at it empirically, we may even say that the hypothesis of the Christian religion has been tried, and it has largely failed. It predicts one thing, but delivers another. It falsifies itself, based on its own claims.

What shall I make of this?

I could reduce my expectations of sanctity, both for myself and for others who claim Christian faith. This I do on a regular basis, but I know I am pulling the wool over my own eyes when I do it. It does not satisfy.

I could reject the whole project of "Christian Religion" as futile. But I don't think this is the way either. It turns me into a disconnected "autonomous" individual, which I think is part of the problem in the first place. We, as humans, need more of a communal identity, not less.

I could redouble my efforts to find some community that exhibits sanctity on a more consistent basis. But, given my experience such a community must be so small as to be almost cultlike. And if not cultlike, then almost certainly self-righteous and legalistic. Mormons come to mind (and their epistemic claims are unbelievable to boot!).

I could work from within a concrete community, in solidarity with struggling people, to actualize the holiness promised by the Lord, even if that community is flawed in a number of ways. I could believe that the only way to deconstruct and reconstruct "the institutional church" is to in fact be part of the institution of the church. Or put another way: The only way to "stick it to tha man" is to become "tha man".

That's what I do.

Because this type of argument against religion is not one which allows the arguer to stay objectively detached from the argument (not if they are anywhere near honest with themselves).

Because immediately upon charging a group of people with hypocrisy- with failing to live up to their own expectations- the accusation comes full circle:

What about me? Am I any better?

If I am better, why am I not doing something to change things? And if I am doing nothing to change things, yet I know how to change them, then that makes me an even bigger hypocrite.

If instead I am in the same boat as others, how can I cast stones? And if I am actually a worse hypocrite than some people, then it stands that I should join them to learn from them.

Thus, no matter whether I am better, average, or worse in terms of sanctity, the implication is clear: I need to be part of a community greater than myself in order to increase the sanctity of both myself and others. We can only be saints together, if we can be saints at all.

Or, to put it in a more pithy way:

The Church is full of hypocrites. And there is room for one more. So come join us.
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.