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Friday, January 28, 2011

Aristotle, "By Faith or Works?"

The ultimate aim of Christians is salvation, or entry into the Kingdom of God. The final end for humans, according to Aristotle, is happiness. Aristotle's happiness is not fleeting joy, but closer to a life of satisfaction. And he recognizes that some (I suspect including Aristotle) see the path to happiness as virtue. Which leads to this:
With those who identify happiness with virtue or some one virtue our account is in harmony; for to virtue belongs virtuous activity. But it makes, perhaps, no small difference whether we place the chief good in possession or in use, in state of mind or in activity. For the state of mind may exist without producing any good result, as in a man who is asleep or in some other way quite inactive, but the activity cannot; for one who has the activity will of necessity be acting, and acting well.
Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, Chapter 8. Compare this with excerpt from the second chapter of Ephesians, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast," and this from the second chapter of James, "As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead." Eph. 2; James 2 (note deeds is just a different translation of works).

Aristotle initially indicates that virtue without action is no good, noting, "in the Olympic Games it is not the most beautiful and the strongest that are crowned but those who compete (for it is some of these that are victorious), so those who act win, and rightly win, the noble and good things in life." Nonetheless, if the possession of happiness is the ultimate goal, it is hard to see how it requires action.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Religion & Rationality

I'm reading Sam Harris's End of Faith with my Sunday School Class at Chalice Christian Church. I think it is fair to say that Sam Harris defines faith as irrationality. This allows him to do a couple of things. One, in Chapter 3 of his book he can make the claim that Nazism is essentially a religion. Two, in Chapter 1 and elsewhere, he can claim that rational adherents to a religion are not really religious.

What I take from this is that rational religious folks need to work hard to make other rational people understand the value of faith to a rational person. The shortest answer I have for this is that the human condition involves a spiritual/soulful something that is neither defined by our intellect or our physicality. Religion and faith help nurture and grow that aspect of our humanity. Developing our sense of compassion and empathy, feeding our better angles, and sharing our progress in these efforts with others is important and entirely rational.

The other thing I take from Harris's book is how tremendously dangerous irrational beliefs are. Irrational fears whether brought to us by religious leaders, political leaders, or news moguls all seeking to consolidate power are dangerous. Harris's book is really a critique of the frequent failures of humanity.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Did Jesus Exist?

Dr. James McGrath blogs at Exploring the Matrix with is linked to on the right. He had a post today which is a round up of past posts on mythicism. Mythicism is the notion that Jesus is a character in a myth and not a historical figure. Myth is not necessarily intended to be derogatory, it just means a story that helps us understand our world. In fact, there is no reason no to attribute divine authoriship to myths.

In any case, McGrath compares thinks mythicists, like creationists, put forward lots of psuedo science and half-readings of primary sources to arrive at false conclusions. He is pretty thorough in his analysis, and it appears to be a pet topic.

I am not particularly interested in debunking the notion that Jesus was a character. But it is enjoyable to read someone with such intelligence and such resources address the topic.

Good Is As Good Does

I am reading Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. It agrees with Plato's Republic in claiming there are two kinds of good. Things that are good because of the outcome they bring, e.g., medicine for producing health, and things that are good in and of themselves, e.g., justice. Plato adds a third category which is things that are enjoyable to do, but which do not produce a good outcome. This is an intellectually seductive way to view the world, but I wonder if it is accurate. For example, dieting may be pursued for the sake of the outcome, fitness, but many people report that they actually enjoy eating more healthful foods.

The discussion of greater and lesser views of the good or happiness reminds me of my understanding of Hinduism, which is derived entirely from Huston Smith's The World's Religions, and its notion that humans evolve their aims as they proceed through various lives. The lowest, but legitimate, aim is pleasure. Then humans seek prestige or honor. Next the goal of a life is service, and finally the most evolved soul seeks detachment.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Socrates' God.

Well, first off, Socrates never gets back to the risk of damnation as reason to act justly, at least not in Book II. He does develop the notion of social contract as the foundation of society by imagining the State from the ground up. From there he talks about educating the children because the State needs guardians who "unite in [themselves] philosophy and spirit and swiftness and strength." [376] To that end, he wants children to be educated about the truth about God. Well, at first he says "the gods," but then he morphs into discussing god in the singular. I'm not sure about the choice to capitalize. But he concludes Book II by deriving this about God, he is "perfectly simple and true both in word and deed; he changes not; he deceives not, either by sign or word, by dream or waking vision." [382]

What to make of Socrates' God? A part of the argument about God includes that God is only responsible for the good and humans are responsible for the bad, and thus God is not responsible for very much. This sounds pretty cheeky. And this understanding of God was posed literally as an attack on Homer's and Hesiod's stories, but seems to be an attack on religion of the day.

I knew that Dante and Milton influence our notions of afterlife. I wonder how much Socrates' God influences our understanding of the divine. It is most notably different from the God of the Psalmist or the God of 1,2 Kings in that Socrates' God is sterile and distant.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Time with Young People: Teaching & Learning

While taking the high school and junior high youth on a trip to find snow in Arizona, I had the chance to experience some touching and exciting moments. While playing something called The Ungame:
Q: What would you do if you found out you had a week to live.
A: (Jr. High girl) I would cry.
Q: Okay, anything else?
A: I would hide because I wouldn't want to make anyone else sad.

# # #

Q: What is one thing that peopel don't know about you?
A: (H.S. girl) That's hard because I'm so outgoing. People know everything about me. I don't know. I guess I wish my family was closer.

# # #

Q: What are the four most important things to you ad why?
A: (H.S. boy) . . . and fourth, I guess self-awareness because you can't improve as a person unless you are self-aware.
We also had a variety of formal and informal conversations. I began a conversation with a group of high school boys about whether they would act justly if they could get away without acting justly. The conversation evolved to one boy openning my eyes when he said he would always act justly, but unlike what another boy said, guilt had nothing to do with it. He said that if he did something wrong he would (1) accept personal responsibility (2) work to fix it and (3) not do it again, but he would not feel bad about himself over it, or have an emotional response about something that happened in the past. We talked about whether there was value in "feeling bad" and came across the notion that perhaps others would have trouble accepting your apology if you did not feel bad about having made a mistake. He stuck to his guns and said that he couldn't feel what he doesn't feel. He would, however, accomodate such a person by making an effort to assure them the mistake wouldn't happen again.

We have a formal discussion about New Year's Resolutions that could focus on spiritual development in addition to growing your mind and body. (A little disturbing how many 11-17 year olds list eating better as a resolution.) We also talked about how to both be truthful and constructive with the tone of our speech.

Lake of Fire

I just wanted to dash off a quick note here as I work my way through Book II of the Republic. The question presented is whether it is better to be just or unjust. Socrates argues that it is better to be just and various people argue in opposition. The second main challenger is arguing the two limiting cases of the perfectly unjust man and the perfectly just man. Through a device that is not quite perfect, he assigns humility to the just man. Thus: the perfectly unjust man would take advantage of people in his business dealing, would sleep with other men's wives, and would be universally loved as a just man; the perfectly just would do worse in business, presumably sleep only with his wife-although I don't think that was spelled out-and would be universally loathed by society because they would keep his just deed secret.

But then, the speakers brother pipes up asking Socrates why he isn't going to ask about the most important difference: the way they will each be treated by the Gods. The brother goes so far as to discuss how the just will go to the underworld and lie on couches at a feast while the unjust will be tormented in Hades. I'll have to make that a cliff hanger because that's as far as I got today. So, I don't know how Socrates deals with this.

That said, I cannot remember anything in the Old Testament that even comes close to this level of do good, get good in the after life. I've heard it said that Old Testament Hebrews did not believe in after life at all, which would obviously explain it. Now, most notably Matthew 25 makes this explicit argument; but, Matthew 25 was written about 500 years after The Republic and in by Christians who were at least emersed in Helenistic culture. Curious, yes?