Notes to Explore: Pascal and al-Ghazali

Apologies, this is not a complete thought yet:

There are three sources of belief: reason, custom, inspiration.  The Christian religion, which alone has reason, does not acknowledge as her true children those who believe without inspiration.  It is not that she excludes reason and custom.  On the contrary, the mind must be opened to proofs, must be confirmed by custom, and offer itself in humbleness to inspirations, which alone can produce a true and saving effect.  Ne evacuetur crux Christi.

~Pascal in Pensees, translated in 1904 by W.F. Trotter and offered, abridged, in The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche (2002) by the Modern Library, NY: p. 121

I make mention of this because, it sounds distinctly Ghazalian (I should know better, I ‘ve just been reading Foucault’s Archaeology).  Particularly, this division of the sources of belief mirrors, I think so please correct me, al-Ghazali’s al-Munqidh min al-Dalal or Deliverance/Deliverer from Error.  Regardless, primacy is given to that knowledge which is revealed – inspiration.  It’s a thought I would wish to see borrowed more by those religious philosophies which claim that God has revealed Himself in the world.

Oh, and the other, which is perhaps more removed, is when Pascal comments that offering arguments to unbelievers is most likely to lead to contempt rather than belief, for they are likely to scorn your arguments as indicative of the weak strands holding your belief together.  Such an utterance would n’t sound out of place for al-Ghazali either, I should think, especially given the manner by which he defines theology – as first an internal defense and then an external one against unbelief.  Theology is not, in the function it serves, equipped to be particularly constructive.

Again, apologies for the incomplete nature of this piece, but I ‘m trying to catalogue major dialogue points with al-Ghazali and not only has this one interested me on prior occasion, but it jumps off the page when I hear Pascal echoing sentiments so near in tone.  I ‘m happy to be corrected in these matters.

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Revisiting Anti-Religious Religiosity

Jefferson Bethke has offered his thoughts following the reactions to ‘Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus’.  In essence, he is attempting to humbly explain what he intended (to deconstruct a few ideas and point to Jesus), what the reactions have been, and how he is walking through this process.

Taking a few of his points, art does n’t seek to be comprehensive, but rather, expresses a particular glimpse of something.  Bethke’s professor-friend is right to a point; parables are n’t up front about the truth.  Rather, they are intuitive and, naturally, imprecise.  We should rather ask is it true rather than is it factually flawless.

I agree with him to this point, but I believe art always performs in order to express something.  At this point, we observe, as far and as fairly as we can, whether that intention was successful or unsuccessful and good or bad.  It does not do for me to judge another wholly on my standards.

Jefferson’s choice of media fit his intended audience.  He hoped to provoke some thought for those who truly do hate religion, but might give Jesus a chance if some of their misconceptions were deconstructed.  I do n’t wish to deny that some good end has come of this – some have returned to church after seeing that they are n’t condemned.  Great.  We can and should move the dialogue past this point.  No church is perfect and no evangelization strategy is perfect.  Those who enter or re-enter a community of believers should be welcomed (and discipled in truth and character).  There ‘s no point in arguing against such items, and I would n’t want to.

 

How one chooses language can be mis-leading.  That ‘s a pre-concept for this very blog.  It ‘s the reason I think philosophy, religious philosophy in particular, is difficult.  There ‘s theory which tries to describe things which occur in ‘real life’.  Bethke states that he has used ‘religion’ in the same sense that Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll use the term: to mean “moral effort attempting to appease God.”  I sincerely think this use of the term is horribly naive.  Truly, in dominant culture there is a dislike of speaking of my convictions as ‘religious’, but I can describe my experiences and practices as ‘spiritual’.  Bethke intends to show that Jesus is better than self-righteousness, but even this is not how the term is used in society.

This usage really misses the point – ‘religion’, according to etymonline.com (a favorite source for me), traces from Latin meaning to “re-read” suggesting a devotion to the spiritual authorities.  We do see a divide today (and of course throughout history) in what we say and what we do.  People bearing the name of Christianity do un-Christian things.  Religious people (read: devoted) can, and often enough do, act in ways contrary to devotion.  Such things leave a bad taste in people’s mouths.

I think this is the sense which Bonhoeffer is using (and which I believe Bethke has mis-read in favor of his usage).  From his imprisonment, Dietrich speaks of the movement of society to a “religionless time” in saying, “Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up on it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious’. (Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 362 [as quoted by Bethke])”  Put ‘devoted’ in for ‘religious’ both times Bonhoeffer uses the term and it works.

So, Bethke’s choice of terms was poor.  I do n’t begrudge him this personally, but I do see the potential results as damaging (even if such results are n’t overtly displayed).  If his purpose was to point away from self-righteousness to Jesus (and indirectly to the church), I do n’t see how that message came through.  A few bulletin-board pieces came through -e.g., following Jesus does n’t mean signing up to be a Republican, but I fail to see how self-righteousness in particular is communicated in this piece.

 

The responses, mine included, honed in on defending ‘devotion’ not ‘self-righteousness’, so at best the resulting dialogue has respectfully and lovingly sought to clear up the confusion.  In my view, this causes more problems than it solves.  I hope I ‘m wrong and I hope that many are saved and discipled regardless of my premonitions.  Questioning Bethke’s devotion is far outside my scope and I won’t engage in such rhetoric.  In short, I do n’t believe his choice was particularly helpful (again, I hope to be wrong) – especially in terms of his target.

 

My concern is honestly for those who find his words compelling.  If they should then look around at the church and be discontented in its self-righteousness, what is to save them from their own?  I know Jefferson does n’t claim to have it all together, but how can you point to a problem of this nature and cut off the means of improvement?  Please misunderstand me well: no problem is ever fixed if no one speaks up.  The path to improvement (where possible) is to fully and critically engage.  Maybe if more religious people respectfully asked questions and tried to do the right things there would be a more fruitful dialogue.  Condemning ‘religion’ confuses this process and lends little with which to overcome pride.

The church should be the place where self-righteous people are humbled and taught to live better – it should n’t be condemned when most of what is seen is failures.  The history of God and Adam, and Cain, and Noah, and Abram, and Hagar, and Moses, and the judges and prophets and prophetesses into the history of the church tells of a lot of failures.  Honestly, if you do n’t see failures in your community you probably are n’t looking well.  But positioning yourself, as Jonah, in a position against those who try to do right is naive.  Jesus came not condemning religion and its authorities, but demonstrating true religion in practice and in teaching.  The church does n’t often live up to that, but the answer is n’t to state what Jesus is better than, but rather to try to follow Him in community.

Setting up ourselves as critical authorities is a dangerous position – it’s a lot better to describe what shortcomings you see and try to humbly assist in correcting them.  I do n’t know how that can be accomplished via YouTube…but then, maybe it should n’t.  May we all be careful to critically engage in helpful ways and may God and others forgive us when we fail.