CORE ESSAYS

HOMECOREQUOTESCHANGE FORMAT




 

CURIOSITY: The desire to enlarge oneself is the desire to embrace
more and more possibilities, to be constantly learning,
to give oneself entirely over to curiosity.

 

THE FAILURE OF JUDGMENT
5 May 2004

"Man desires a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished, for he has an innate and irrepressible desire to judge before he understands. Religions and ideologies are founded on this desire." — Milan Kundera

"I am for those that have never been master'd ...
For those whom laws, theories, conventions can never master.
I am for those who walk abreast with the whole Earth,
Who inaugurate one to inaugurate all.
I will not be outfaced by irrational things ..."
— Walt Whitman

“Surely, even those who believe they have attained certainty in these matters must feel some doubts when they see how widely wise men have differed about so crucial a question.” — Cicero on the gods

It is obvious that human intelligence and judgment are not up to the task of discerning what constitutes right religion and true belief.

There has never been a consensus on what is the true religion or what constitutes right belief or worship; there has never been agreement on who God is or what God wants or if God exists or cares about the human race at all. We don't need to be philosophers, psychologists or theologians to grasp this fact: It's simply an undeniable part of our human heritage.

But that's religion in general, and perhaps the field is too broad; let's pick one particular religion and see if human judgment improves when the topic is narrowed.

DISPUTES FROM THE START

Jesus was a Jew, and his apostles were Jews. After Jesus' death, James, who was Jesus' brother, and the other apostles — including Peter, the head apostle — founded the Jerusalem Church to worship Jesus and await his return, which they believed imminent.

Paul, not a member of this select group, was also a Jew and had a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. He went away for three years to think about his experience and then visited James and Peter to tell them what Jesus supposedly had in mind for His Holy Church.

James and Peter were stunned.

They believed that one had to be a circumcised Jew, keeping all the dietary laws, in order to worship Jesus. Paul said different. Peter and James pointed out that they knew Jesus; they had traveled with him, heard him preach and knew what he stood for. In what had to be an amazing display of arrogance, Paul said it didn't matter; he said, on the basis of his vision, that he knew Jesus better than they did, and he left Jerusalem to win converts far and wide.

While James and Peter stayed in Jerusalem and waited for Jesus to return, Paul traveled much of the known world and invented Christianity. The Gospel writers, influenced by Paul and his many disputes with the Jerusalem Church, depict a Jesus that's less a historical personage and more a figure from Paul's vision, and so the phrase "Gospel Truth" is unintended irony.

Paul, not Jesus, was the first Christian.

THE GNOSTICS

Sometime later a group called the Gnostic Christians came on the scene and won a substantial following, but eventually they were persecuted into oblivion by mainstream Christians. So when Emperor Constantine officially permitted and promoted Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313, the Jerusalem Church and Gnostic Christians were generally out of the picture ... or at least on the way out. That is until the Gnostic Gospels were dug up in 1945.

The Nag Hammadi Library is a collection of thirteen ancient codices with more than fifty texts discovered in upper Egypt. It includes a large number of scriptures — texts once thought to have been destroyed during the early Christian struggle to define orthodoxy. Some of the more important sections of the Nag Hammadi Library are the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Truth.

My point? Not only have humans never agreed on what religion is, Christians have never agreed on what Christianity is. The apostles couldn't even agree!

MOTHER CHURCH

Of course, Holy Mother Church solved that problem, right?

No, there was the Great Schism in 1054 with the Greek Orthodox Christian church, and then Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church in 1517, instituting the Protestant Reformation, which amounted to an explosion of Christian sects, each with its own slant on truth. And we now have Jews for Jesus and Sabbath-keeping kosher Christians, so maybe James and Peter are getting their due at last.

And today within the bosom of Catholicism you have a retrograde group that hates the changes brought about by Vatican II; it says real Catholics should hear Latin Mass and eat fish on Friday. On the other side you have something called FutureChurch, which urges married priests and an expanded role for women. Mainstream Catholics tell FutureChurch members, "If you don't like the church, leave." News flash: Catholics can't agree on what Catholicism is!

So as not to be accused of picking on the Catholics, let's look at the most powerful word in American belief right now: "evangelical."

EVANGELICAL

"Frontline" last week was entitled, "The Jesus Factor" and detailed the conversion of George W. Bush from devout drinker to Bible-studying evangelical.

After the broadcast, the "Frontline" Web site had more than a dozen pages on the segment, one of them dedicated to defining "evangelical." A panel of preachers, theologians and scholars tackled the problem. The one thing they agreed on was that evangelicals cut across other denominations in their belief that the Bible is objectively and factually true, though evangelicals do not consider themselves fundamentalists.

Here's what Mark Noll, Historian and professor at Wheaton College, said about the term, "evangelical."

"'Evangelical' designates both a trait of churches, religious practices and networks. It designates a certain series of convictions, actions or practices. Evangelical is a slippery word because it can be used to designate certain religious groups or denominations. But then it also can be used to transcend denomination. So there would be in the United States evangelical Presbyterians, evangelical Episcopalians, evangelical Lutherans.

"But there would also be lots of individual congregations that would be evangelical in some general sense. ... So the word is plastic. The concept is not precise. ... Evangelicals recognize each other, often by how they sing hymns, and what hymns. But it's not a hard and fast designation. The word 'evangelical' does designate a limited range of beliefs and practices. But it's not a word like Baptist or Presbyterian or Roman Catholic."

The moral of this story: It's hard to say what an evangelical is.

IN TODAY'S PLAIN DEALER

And just to put a cherry on top ... Page One of today's Plain Dealer features a story headlined, "Methodists denounce homosexuality — Church refuses to acknowledge disagreement among members."

The story begins, "The nation's largest mainline Protestant denomination Tuesday stood firm against homosexuality, strengthening policies that declare same-sex practices are incompatible with Christian teaching and banning sexually active gay clergy.

"The 8.3-million member United Methodist Church also rejected a policy statement acknowledging people of good faith disagree on the issue."

"In an emotional debate, advocates for gay rights pleaded with the church to at least acknowledge division in its ranks, but opponents said the church could not afford to be ambiguous. ... Delegates voted 527-423 to overturn a recommendation from the Committee on Church and Society to add a statement to the denomination's teaching that Christians disagree on the acceptability of gay sex."

TOO DIFFICULT TO FIGURE OUT

First, generic human judgment when applied to belief systems across the board is not up to the task of deciding what religion really is; second, Christian judgment is not up to the task of deciding what Christianity really is; third, Catholic judgment is not up to the task of deciding what Catholicism really is; and finally, Protestant judgment is not up to the task of deciding what a Protestant really is. And you talk of religious truth?

I could go on to describe how Jews disagree on what Judaism really is or how Muslims disagree on what is the right form of Islam or how Lutherans or Episcopalians challenge each other over who is a real Lutheran or Episcopalian, but you get my point: mass confusion and disagreement reigns. If you're starting to realize that people can assert or deny whatever they wish without regard for truth, facts, evidence or history, then you're catching on; you're starting to understand religion.

Of course, there are many versions of early church history, and each group creates or embraces a view that conforms to its core doctrine. They say the facts determine their beliefs, but really their beliefs determine "the facts." I did not give a definitive version church history above but only one version of it. Understand that each new denomination rewrites church history to some degree ... perhaps drastically. The Mormon belief that Jesus came to North America and preached to Native Americans is a prime example of drastic revisioning. What Mormons hold to be sacred truth is viewed by mainstream Christians as a ridiculous and fanciful fabrication. But the point is that one person's sacred truth is always another person's ridiculous fabrication: that's religion!

And remember, when people talk about eternal truth they are talking about an idea that popped up at a certain time and place with all sorts of cultural and historical baggage, an idea, theory or event that was discussed and debated by humans and negotiated into importance by some learned council — only then did it become "truth." Indeed, eternal truths are legislated truths, born of a "struggle for orthodoxy." Truth by committee becomes "fact" for the masses. Religion shows people will believe just about anything; this is not necessarily our best trait.

To clarify, I'm not saying the lack of agreement proves the impossibility of truth but that the shadow of doubt covers the entire human race. We're standing in the dark looking at the light; maybe that's why we don't see clearly yet. Maybe we never will. And maybe it isn't that important.

EXCUSE ME

So, excuse me if I roll my eyes when you say you know the absolute and eternal truth of God — who God is and what God wants from me — because that's what every devoted believer says! Ironically, it's your truth claims that show you really don't understand the problem of belief or its long history of incompatible and incommensurable claims.

True Believers assert that truth never changes. But in fact, what passes for true belief always changes. It's in a state of incredible flux. People are forever coming up with new ways of being traditional. Committees are forever negotiating new "truths" into existence. Eternal truths are a dime a dozen — and overpriced at that! I'll admit that they are worth collecting as curiosities but not as "facts" to live by.

THE TWO REALMS

Novelist Milan Kundera says, "Outside the novel we are in the realm of affirmation: everyone is sure of his statements: the politician, the philosopher, the concierge." And you can live like that. It's incredibly popular.

He adds, "Within the universe of the novel, however, no one affirms: it is the realm of play and hypotheses. Inside the novel, dogmatic thought turns hypothetical." Such a life is possible outside the novel, too. You can live like that. It's incredibly interesting. You're allowed to wonder deeply about anything. Be bold and creative: There's nothing stopping you but yourself.

Of course, Kundera admits it's not easy to step beyond our comfort zones. "To take, with Descartes, the thinking self as the basis of everything, and thus to face the universe alone, is to adopt an attitude that Hegal was right to call heroic. To take, with Cervantes, the world as ambiguity, to be obliged to face not a single absolute truth but a welter of contradictory truths, to have as one's only certainty the wisdom of uncertainty, requires no less courage."

And he adds: "It is precisely in losing the certainty of truth and the unanimous agreement of others that man becomes an individual." If individuality is important to you then you'll have to rethink all your views, top to bottom. And that takes lots of courage — and study — but you might find it worthwhile. Here's what freethinker and orator, "the great agnostic," Robert Green Ingersoll said of his escape from dogma:

"When I became convinced that the Universe is natural — that all the ghosts and gods are myths — there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf or a slave. ... I was free — free to think, to express my thoughts — free to live to my own ideal — free to live for myself and those I loved — free to use all my faculties, all my senses — free to spread imagination's wings — free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope — free to judge and determine for myself — free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the 'inspired' books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past — free from popes and priests — free from all the 'called' and 'set apart' — free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies — free from the fear of eternal pain — free from the winged monsters of the night — free from devils, ghosts and gods. For the first time I was free."

DON'T BLAME THE PHILOSOPHERS

It's not the philosophers who chiefly give religion a bad name or hang a cloud of doubt over spiritual truth; it's the madding crowds of devoted believers, all of whom are shouting, "Truth! Truth! Truth!" The real question is not, "What is the right religion?" but, "Why do so many people believe in so many incompatible and incommensurable doctrines absolutely?" This shows that the study most proper to religion is not theology but psychology. We need to understand why truth and certainty depend so little on one another and why people — even those trained to know better — thoroughly confuse fact and opinion.

In conclusion, it is obviously beyond human intelligence and judgment to sort out "the truth of the matter" in regards religion. There's no consensus. Many of the world's most brilliant and devoted people spent their entire adult lives on the problem, but after millennia we're no closer to an answer; indeed, there's less consensus now than ever. People still love to judge before they understand. "Thinking that we know, when actually we do not, is a special sickness to which all people are prone. Only when we become sick of such conceit and fraud can we cure ourselves of the sickness," reads the preface to "The Great Religions."

Hopes, dreams, fears, illusions, blinding visions, strange occurrences, odd coincidences, mental seizures, bizarre encounters, auditory hallucinations, wishful thinking, wild theories, learned debates and political wrangling: such is the stuff belief systems are made on. The more you talk about religion, the less you say about truth.

Under such conditions, how could skepticism be anything less than perfectly understandable?

There's one saving grace: The failure of judgment is the birth of freedom — the freedom to use all your faculties, the freedom to think and express your own thoughts, the freedom to judge and determine for yourself, the freedom to investigate, guess, dream and hope. Certainty might be a wonderful thing, but it is not the only wonderful thing.

SEE ALSO: KANT ON ENLIGHTENMENT

 




QUOTES

UNCERTAINTY: Living with no supernatural justifications,
no complete explanations, no promise of permanent
stability,with guides of merely probable validity.