Christianity

Philosophy v. Theology

I was attending a New Year’s dinner with some old friends a few years ago, when the subject of philosophy came up. My friend had a master’s degree in computer science, with a minor in philosophy, and was exceptionally well-read on the subject. At the word “philosophy,” a friend of my friend’s dad came over. It turned out he happened to have a PhD in the field, and had a thought or two to contribute to our discussion.

My initial challenge to my friend was the purpose of philosophy. My contention was that it was essentially about wisdom, “philo-sophia” literally meaning a love of wisdom. My friend, and the PhD acquaintance, held that philosophy was fundamentally about “truth,” and not wisdom. They were willing to grant that perhaps it had once been about wisdom, but had evolved and matured to the point of being about understanding the nature of things.

“Well, okay, I’ll grant your definition. Philosophy is about truth, which I think is important, but as a servant of wisdom, not as a thing in and of itself. I’m interested in wisdom: what do we call the study of that?”

“Um… pop-philosophy?”

I didn’t bother pointing out the (probably unintentional) condescension latent in the label, being offhand and casual. But the answer didn’t exactly sit right with any of us, and the struggle to distinguish the pursuit of knowledge — what is true — from the pursuit of wisdom — what is good — was challenging. It was distinction that eluded me for a long time after that meeting.

Sometime in the last year and half, however, the answer to the question revealed itself to me. The pursuit of wisdom has a name, and that name is theology.

I was an ardent atheist at the time of the philosophy discussion, and I suppose by the lights of certain fundamentalists, I might still be today. As with philosophy, it’s a label I’m willing to grant if “God” is defined narrowly enough, and “belief in God” confined exactingly enough. But even within Christian theology, there is more than one “God,” as tacitly acknowledged among the first commandments from the decalogue:

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

– Exodus 20:3

The precision of opting for “have no other gods before me,” rather than “have no other gods,” is telling. The commandment could just as well have told the Jews to believe there to be no other Gods, and yet it did not. This is not just telling about the spirituality of supposedly monotheistic faiths, but informative about the nature of what a God — and by extension, what theology — is.

Augustus Invictus and I had a lengthy discussion last month about the nature of religion, and of Gods. I brought up Wim Hof of a man who had, quite organically and independently, come upon the word “God” to describe his relationship to the cold, which drew him out of his depression and into a realm of superhuman ability, and into life. Augustus, in turn, referenced Frank Herbert’s masterpiece of science-fiction Dune, saying that religion is that which reminds me that I am not the man I want to be.

There is something odd about these examples, relative to the majority of religious tradition that most people are familiar with. Rather than being a pedagogical system maintained by a hierarchical institution, Wim Hof and Herbert seem to be describing something different, something more visceral, and getting there by a different route.

In my opinion, the most illuminating light that spans this understanding gap is, perhaps ironically, pop music. Consider the words of Leonard Cohen:

At our best, we inhabit a biblical landscape, and this is where we should situate ourselves without apology….That biblical landscape is our urgent invitation…Otherwise, it’s really not worth saving or manifesting or redeeming or anything, unless we really take up that invitation to walk into that biblical landscape.

From a traditionalist’s perspective, this may seem like a strange way of framing the situation. But the writer and performer of the famous song Hallelujah knows what he’s talking about. Aside from being a lifelong Jew, Cohen was an ordained Buddhist monk. He understood that religious talk was not so much a metaphysical theory, but a grammar for describing emotions and questions that cannot be described adequately in the language of ordinary life.

Lady Gaga isn’t the only one who understands this without having such a background in faith. Audioslave, System of a Down, and many other artists use Christian (or other religious) language to talk about emotionally complex, mysterious, or downright traumatic subjects. As a rule, artists that take the subject less seriously use the language less seriously; those who care more, as a function of age, inclination, or introspection, tend to use the grammar of religion more carefully and with greater reverence.

I was reading N.T. Wright’s book Scripture and the Authority of God today, and was pleased to hear him make the exact same reference I have been making use of in describing the “truth” of much of the bible. If someone asks “is the parable of the boy who cried wolf true?,” no one in their right mind takes that question as a historical one. The question is clearly about the message; do people stop listening to you if you deceive them? The truth of the parable is, when you think about it, greater than the truth of a historical event. We understand the timelessness of the relationships between archetypes, and no historical evidence is necessary. The parable, in other words, is a language for talking about relationships.

In this way, religion is the language for discussing values, wisdom, and how to live. This makes theology the study of wisdom, in much the same way that philosophy is the study of truth. Words like “epistemology,” “a priori,” phenomenology,” and “existentialism” are all words we use to talk about the truths of our experience of the world, and in exactly the same way, the stories of religious traditions (and here, one can’t help but notice that Christianity and Buddhism seem to rise to the top of these kinds of discussions) are the language for discussing wisdom, values, and the good.

It is for this reason that I’ve gradually shifted my focus from philosophy to theology… assuming, of course, that philosophy is, as my friend suggested, first and foremost about truth. This does not mean that philosophy is of no use, of course; truth is indispensable in pursuit of virtually any endeavor. But is it valuable in and of itself? Living well, and not being right, strikes me intuitively as the superior long-term aim. In this regard, I’m happy to side with Cicero, who’s opening in his Defense of the Republic was making fun of philosophers who sat on the sidelines and accomplished nothing. I share Cicero’s appreciation of theology more now than I did as an atheist, and am glad to be in such esteemed company.

Mostly, I’m just glad to have found a name for what I love studying.

Why Christianity?

Today’s right wing is rehashing an age-old debate, and one that I myself have grappled with for nearly a decade in some form or another: what faith should the West follow? Paganism, Christianity, or Atheism?

The debate begins, to my mind, first with a root separation, of those of faith from those without.  Let me begin by going over my own reasons for choosing religion over atheism.

Between the end of high school (2008) all the way through to about two years ago, I had been a very strong and vocal atheist. I was raised Christian, but saw through the illusion that was literal Christian dogma. I remember quite clearly a video I saw, which logically demonstrated that prayer which was answered by God in the form of “yes,” “no,” or “wait” was equivalent to a Geicko commercial promising to save “up to 15% or more:” it covered every base, and was indistinguishable from nonexistence.

From there I read Dan Barker’s Godless. Soon after that, I read Richard Dawkins, and eventually, the man that was to become my greatest intellectual hero: Christopher Hitchens. The arguments were flawless. God is not dead. He simply is not.

The beginnings of my unconversion (or reconversion, if you prefer) began by sheer chance. I remember stalking the aisles of a Barnes and Nobles, armed with a gift card to dispose of, and the title The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell stuck out to me. Without knowing anything else about the author or the theory contained within it, the title alone seemed to say to me “this is a book with a very big idea.” It was not the first nor the last time I judged a book by its cover, but it may have been the most fortuitous.

I found it to be one of the most difficult books I’ve ever had to read, more difficult even than the Thomas Kuhn I read back in high school. I understood enough, however, to see a deeper layer behind the literature being analyzed. I could not yet discern what it meant, but I could see that it was there.

At the time, I received most of my news, information, and entertainment from YouTube, and so one day, I decided to search for “Joseph Campbell,” and came across The Power of Myth, an interview by Bill Moyers with the famous literary theorist. This interview has since been taken off of YouTube, but for me, it was a light bulb moment.

All my life, I had been raised to think of religion as an assertion of scientific truth. If “God” exists, than he is essentially a man in the sky, who must be falsifiable or else presumed false. With this scientific world-view, the idea of a mythological religious attitude was perfectly understandable, but completely uninteresting. It was like Santa Clause, or The Boy Who Cried Wolf. It was not unique, and felt a little puerile. It was lame.

What Campbell began to illuminate for me was a phenomenological understanding of the world, wherein relationships between things, and between types of things, are the substance of our experience and the orienting forces in our life, rather than discreet “facts.”

From a scientific standpoint, a mythological story is inherently uninteresting because it is scientifically false. But mythological stories are not false. They stay with us for thousands of years, and we keep retelling them to each other because they say something essentially true about ourselves and our relationship to other people and to the world. In fact, they are in some sense more true than empirical facts. This, of course, depends on how one measures truth, but if the standard of truth is “what works based on collective experience,” rather than “what is most corroborated by scientific scrutiny,” than the experience conveyed in folklore transcends our contemporary knowledge of physics and mathematics by orders of magnitude, measured both in combined human experience and in relevance to living well. It isn’t much use to most people, knowing how to make an airplane wing in the correct shape. How to make a marriage work, and how to orient oneself in relationship to boredom and to suffering, are relevant to everyone, no matter your job.

I felt like an elite intellectual, like I had discovered the very top of the pyramid called “religion.” But this soon gave way to the feeling that G.K. Chesterton described in his book Orthodoxy, of one who has set sail from England to discover far-off South Sea islands, but somehow miscalculates and discovers England. As I reread old scripture–scripture that I had so casually dismissed once upon a time–a new layer of understanding shone through like a ham-fisted moral in a children’s fairy tale… and yet I had never seen it before.

The deeper understanding hadn’t just been there the whole time: it had been the underlying purpose the whole time.

But this was not my point of re-connection with Christianity specifically. Mythopoetic narratives, establishing, retaining, and building who we are, layered beneath a narrative that survives through literalism, are the foundations of most religions. I found myself facing a new challenge, not between faith and atheism, but between two faiths: Nordic paganism, on the one hand, and Christianity on the other.

Plumbing the depths of moral philosophy had brought me to face the hard-edged suspicion of Nietzsche. In the exploration of master-moralities and slave-moralities, and their resulting effects on the character of the human condition, what once seemed like the harshest criticisms of religion now seemed like weak and insufficient compliments: the problem is not that Christianity is violent and intolerant, but is in fact not violent and intolerant enough.

The national character of pagan faiths make them particularly amenable as psychological homes for particular groups of people, rather than as universal, one-size-fits-all spiritual systems designed for the particular nature of nobody in particular.

The more I thought on the topic, however, the more transparent it became that universal truths do exist, and that universal truths are not exclusive to more particular and contextual truths, of the sort that distinguish tribal faiths from the great monotheisms. The problem was not with Christianity, but with human nature… a problem which Christianity tackled head-on better than any other faith.

By illustration, anyone involved in Nordic paganism knows about and resents the politically progressive, hug-the-world incursions into their religious traditions. Indeed, it seems that most Asatru organizations that aren’t the equivalent of Unitarians are converging in a separate, but equally blasphemous direction: towards a business model, where the religious aesthetic is used as a marketing tool to ply “brutal” and “deadly” merchandise, from knives to t-shirts to necklaces. All in the name of Odin, ostensibly…

I don’t say this to condemn paganism generally. Christianity is not only as bad, in this regard, but arguably worse. What this use of paganism shows, however, is that the weakness in Christianity is not a genuine expression of the faith, but an expression of the weakness of mankind. Christianity is only more commercialized and politicized because it’s larger, at the moment.

I’m reminded of the story of a young woman, a main character in the story Reading Lolita in Tehran. She was a devout Muslim woman, who wore the hijab openly to school, prior to the 1979 revolution. The other women, who were Westernized and broadly secular, made fun of her for her peculiar religious habits. But for her, that made the garment meaningful. It made her special.

We often use the word “special” ironically and as a pejorative today. But this is only because of the way that people who were profoundly unspecial abused the word, and declared that everyone was special, in their own way. This amusing paradox did devastating damage to the previously unchallenged understanding that some things really are special. Indeed, the word “sacred” essentially just means “special,” or “set apart.” We should no more reject the meaning of “special” or “sacred” than we should the difference between our significant other and a stranger, or between our children and another child.

Anyway, the revolution of 1979 saw the return of theocracy to Iran, and now all the women had to wear head coverings. Suddenly, the sacrifice of the one devout woman had been rendered boring and “normal.” When everyone is forced, or perhaps even mildly coerced, into adapting a faith and its trappings, the faith becomes a victim of the character of its new converts. This is something evangelical Christians should bear in mind when proselytizing the faith.

So the choice between paganism and Christianity could not be one between the cultures each had adapted, but between the principles underlying them. The problem here, however, is that the religious traditions have been built slowly, by many errors and corrections, and by trial and error, over thousands of years, by people far more intelligent than myself. There is no way a mortal, even in a whole lifetime, can begin to comprehend the intersecting values, ideas, experiences, and principles that created the value-hierarchy, the beliefs, and the practices that form the core of a religious tradition. It takes what Kierkegaard called “a leap of faith.”

My decision did not feel particularly sudden, but if there was a decisive moment, it must have been listening to Greg Johnson’s interview with Paul Waggener:

GJ: […]And obviously you have diverged from Christianity as a path to Nordic neo-paganism.

PW: I wouldn’t call it Nordic neo-paganism, though that was certainly one step on the road. That’s not how I would express my spirituality now. I think that would be far too limiting a category to put it in. But yes, I certainly diverged from Christianity, and that was certainly one step along the way.

GJ: OK. So, how do you describe your outlook now and can you describe the Wolves? Tell us a little bit about them.

PW: As far as spiritual outlook, I would say that my spiritual outlook is tribal, in that my expression of spirituality now is organic, and it’s grown as the tribal organization of the Wolves, which I am a member of, has grown. And I think that it’s become a tribally-serving expression now rather than taking something from without and modeling a tribe after that. So, after the tribe took wings and has become more of a self-developed entity, the spirituality developed along with it. It serves the tribe rather than the other way around.

It occurred to me, while listening to their conversation, that religion is not something you choose. Certainly Paul and the Wolves are doing something like creating a faith of their own, but I already have a tribe. I have a wife. I have a brother, a sister, and a brother in law. I have parents, in-laws, and two extraordinarily close friends I’ve known for more than a decade. All of these people are either Christian or come from a Christian background; if they are not Christian, they reject the faith for reasons similar to those I once rejected it on. None of them are remotely familiar with, or interested in, Nordic paganism.

If I were to choose paganism over Christianity, I might experience some novelty, and the joy of exploring for myself a religion I was previously unfamiliar with. But because I was not born into it, I will never truly master the religion as one who was born into it could. And because my family and tribe were not born into it, my choice would be an abandonment of them and the culture they knew.

I have actually half-compromised, based on another passage from that interview, and opted to learn about and practice traditions of Orthodox Christianity, rather than the Catholicism of my mother’s side, the Episcopalianism of my father’s side, or the Methodism of my own upbringing.

Certainly I was raised with a very conservative Christian upbringing, but when I was young my father was actually an Anglican priest and he moved to Orthodoxy later on as a reaction to some of the . . . I think he would probably consider it to be creeping liberalism finding its way into the Anglican Church. He believes that Orthodoxy is a sort of last bastion of true Christianity left in the world.

I confess that I am not a particularly orthodox practioner of any spiritual tradition, and there are blendings of traditions, as much from arrogance in my own understanding as by accident. The necklace I have, for example, is actually an unconnected pair of strings with 100 knots tied in them. In this way, it resembles an Orthodox prayer rope. I also use it as the Orthodox do: to recite the Jesus prayer a minimum of 100 times a day. The knots themselves, however, more closely resemble a Catholic rosary, and moreover, they are separated into numerically inaccurate “decades” (of 25) by beads, as a traditional rosary is. The knots make it easy to casually loop the string into a kind of necklace, which closely resembles a rosary.

To make matters even worse, I will often bring it with me to the gym, and hold the cross in my mouth before attempting particularly heavy lifts. In this way, I hope to associate power and effort with the necklace, and imbue it with associative power that can be drawn from when I need it. While not incompatible with Christianity, this practice seems pagan in spirit.

Yet perhaps this pagan association reflects something that the Christian church has lost, and has a right — perhaps a duty — to reclaim for itself. Every religious tradition, in every generation, must be saved from the corruption of time and humanity. If I am successful in finding new life in Christianity, and showing that to others of my generation, it will make the work of my children no easier for the same task that they will have to perform. Yet it must be done regardless. Or, put another way, I get the privilege of pursuing this noble and rewarding task, despite the previous efforts of minds more brilliant than my own to do the same. Their work was not fruitless, but there is no final solution to the problem of human nature. And thank God for that.