Sunday, April 28, 2013

Atheism

This post is in part motivated by Matt Barber's article, The Fool Says 'There is no God' published on April 23rd, which essentially argues that atheists are fools because we don't realize that the Big Bang and life on earth prove there is a God. Sure.

Sometimes it surprises me that I have written so little on the issue of atheism in this blog. After all, it is not only one of the most controversial issues in history, but in my youth, anyway, it was a leading ideological division between me and other people starting in the second grade, even if of no real practical importance. And though most of my friends and family could care less (especially anymore), some occasionally do, although not to the point where anyone ever stopped being friends.  Still, I can be at least a little reluctant to tackle the issue. The main reason is that even among people I know well, sometimes it upsets them to hear what they believe is reasonable and important is not seen the same way by me.  Some see it as a challenge to their beliefs (I've heard that said). Maybe it shouldn't bother people, but we know it can.

But those are friends or people I know relatively well. In the world at large, people care a lot more and some can be a bit rude about it. Some are even murderous, but that's not what this post is about. At least, when I read online I find an awful lot of columnists, bloggers and commenters who are quite concerned with atheists, Matt Barber's article being a good example. According to many of them, we atheists are not only fools, but have no morals or values either. Of course, I have spoken with religious people, and heard religious leaders speak on the topic who think no such thing.  But, I am also aware that when Pew and Gallup take polls on what ideologies or ethnicity would cause them to rule out voting for someone for president, more would vote for any ethnicity and any religion than for an atheist. Atheists do worse than even homosexuals and sometimes Muslims. The bias is that deep. Go to Pew or Gallups websites or http://atheism.about.com/od/atheistbigotryprejudice/a/AtheistSurveys.htm, if you find this hard to believe.

Fortunately, not thinking much of atheists doesn't regularly translate into violence in America, with threats of it only a little more common.  If people do find out I am an atheist, most aren't overtly troubled, but some tell others that they feel sorry  for me or look down on me (and those people obviously tell me) but others try to convert me.

Once in a blue moon I am challenged to informally debate the issue.  I have never had one of these debates go bad, that is, degrade into an argument, though it has frustrated some of those in the conversion mode.  If I do debate it, I usually say to whoever I am debating that I have no interest in changing their opinion -- and I don't -- but will defend my own. But, I do understand that they often very much want to change my opinion. The charitable view is that they are trying to save my soul.  A more cynical view is that they find my lack of faith uncomfortable. It varies person to person. Rarely though, do I find other people who are as curious as I am about what other people believe without having the added motivation of proselytizing to them. What can I say? It's a hobby.

Admittedly, I am careful about the way I say things in a religious debate. I know that people are less sensitive about issues that can be proved in some way or another (Was Mickey Mantle no. 7 or 9? Google it) and much more sensitive about those they can't really prove at all, such as religious matters, politics or who was a better quarterback - Bart Starr or Johnny Unitas?

Following are just some of my thoughts on atheism, shorn of my usual reluctance.  I suppose I could make more detailed arguments, but, for me, atheism is not a difficult question. It's simple.

My basic premise

God is an assertion that a Supreme Being, or at least something like that, exists. It cannot be thought or argued, even if it is accepted on faith, without making that type of assertion. Atheism, to the contrary, does not necessarily require asserting anything, although an atheist can assert the negative position as a matter of belief. But, someone could theoretically grow up and never hear of or consider the issue of the existence of God.  They would be an atheist by default, but not believe in God all the same.  It is no different than that someone who has never heard of the idea of life on other planets does not have to assert that it does not exist in order not to believe in it. Again, to the contrary, to believe in the existence of anything, including God, you have to have a positive or active thought that it exists.

It is axiomatic that no burden can logically be required to prove a negative existence except in a closed system where you can measure sufficiently to rule out existence (I just made that last part up, but it sounds right to me), and I will not try. It would be fruitless. But, I certainly can claim that the proofs of God's existence that I have heard have never been sufficient for me to believe in something of which there is no evidence (and below I will get to some of the claims that there is evidence).

Ontological argument  

This is a logical argument that has been around for about a thousand years.  Some hold that it is the best proof of God. I don't get it at all.  Since, it is a logical argument, if the premises are true, the conclusion should be true. The premises are so far from rational that I do not think one needs to even argue that they aren't true, though they are not in my view. I disagree that it is truly a logical proposition at all. I do not think it follows any of the basic axiomatic logical principles that we generally agree upon (such as - If p then q: p therefore q).

Many philosophers have bought the ontological argument, some tinkering with it a little, but many others disagree. Perhaps Bertrand Russell was right when he said that it was not very persuasive to the modern mind, but it was easier to say that it was wrong than to say how. But I don't think so. It is so filled with flaws as to be almost preposterous. Because there are a number of versions of it, varying in degree of complexity - Gödel's, for example, is just ridiculous - I have to pick one.  So I will go with the original, of which all the others are variations. Anselm held that (I took this from Wikipedia):

"1. Our understanding of God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.

2. The idea of God exists in the mind.

3. A being which exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind.

4. If God only exists in the mind, then we can conceive of a greater being—that which exists in reality.

5. We cannot be imagining something that is greater than God.

6. Therefore, God exists."

I think you could argue that each and every one of these propositions is false or at best may be true only because it is a tautology (the premises are the same as the conclusion).  For example, take 1: This is not necessarily everyone's understanding of God in the first place. It is merely one understanding of God. Indeed, there have been arguments within the Christian religion itself whether some aspects of the trilogy are greater than other parts. If that argument is taken as true, it would be harder to argue perfection (though they do anyway).  Second, we can easily conceive of a being greater than God simply by believing that a being created God but itself did not think it necessary to create the universe that it could have. This is actually existing Hindu theology as well - Vishnu creating Brahma who created the world (not generally what you would learn in college or some other texts about them, but one version of their mythology or theology). Or we could conceive of a being who could create a superior universe and have even reigned supreme over God (rendering God a Lucifer), but deemed it superior to allow God to destroy him or simply remained inert as God created the world and heavens.

And so you could argue the falsity with each of his five premises, though I do not want to go on forever here.  But, if you look at the list closely, the logic falls apart anyway, which is my main point. The conclusion (no. 6) is not at all based upon its premises (nos. 1-5) the way this classic example is: All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal. There is simply no logical imperative that God exists simply because we cannot conceive of something greater than God. Also, it is a tautology because God's existence is already made part of the premises from no. 1 through 5, but especially in 3 - which explicitly states that God is real. It comes almost as a self sustaining conclusion which he could have given after any statements he made, almost a deux ex machina.

I agree with Karl Popper and others that eventually all philosophic arguments can be reduced to common sense or axiomatic grounds which we cannot prove.  And on common sense grounds, the ontological argument falls apart, as shown above.  For instance, Premise no. 4 simply makes no sense whatsoever because a) there is no such thing as an objective definition of reality; b) there is no objective definition of "greater," a concept which only exists in the mind; (c) one cannot conceive of something which does not exist only in the mind and we cannot tell ever whether anything exists outside the mind. I recently made fun of some obtuse writing by A.J. Ayer, a philosopher. In the book I had quoted from, he argued that we can know that things exist outside our minds. But, when you read what he writes closely, you have to recognize that it is simply on - as we lawyer's like say - his own ipso facto.

First cause

This is a far more substantial argument than the ontological one because it cannot be disputed that all of our experience and sense tells us that everything must be created at some point in order to exist. We know of no example for which we can say with any authority that this is not so.  This argument can also be presented in several ways, but simplest is perhaps to ask why there is something rather than nothing? It is an excellent question. Where did all this come from? Must there not be some first cause?

Excellent as the question is, it cannot be answered. And, it is inconceivable, unless there is some way to witness a second creation, that it can ever be answered unless we are all subject to what is usually termed revelation.

Of course, believers propose the answer - God did it. But, I ask then, if that is taken to be the answer, how was it accomplished? Because if we cannot know that, then we cannot know at all that it is so. It is neither evident, nor claimed by a Supreme Being to us, and the circumstantial evidence points only to God if you already believe it based on faith.  I would say that God is an appropriate answer only if the meaning of God is "I don't know."

For as Hume has pointed out, we cannot witness causation. We only can know that one thing regularly follows another. In this case, we cannot even witness the former event - whatever was or occurred preceding creation.  And it presents a paradox.  For, if a deity existed prior to existence, then existence preceded existence, unless we say that God did not exist. If God did not exist, then it could not be first cause. And, as been asked many times by many people, if God created the universe, where did God come from? If the answer is God always existed, then why couldn't the universe have always existed? More, if God and the universe are identical, what special meaning does God have? These are far more logically certain than the ontological argument. Yet, the questions are (must be) dismissed by all those who argue that first cause is proof of God.

Of course, the faithful are usually comfortable with paradox and mystery.  So, they don't mind.

But it's all so complex

Here's the theory. The world, the universe, all of it could not be so complex, were there not a designer.

Is it really that complex? It's not even a real question. Complexity is purely a human construct. It does not exist, on this planet anyway, outside of the human impression that something is hard to comprehend because there are more aspects to it that one can easily arrange in one's mind. Unlike a person, a dog or an even an ape may not be able to comprehend some thing or concept, but it doesn't recognize that its inability is due to something intrinsic in the nature of the thing that puts it beyond the comprehension of its mind. Only humans, as far as we know, have this self awareness.

If humans are, so far as we know, the only creatures in the universe capable of the notion of complexity, were to be wiped out -- certainly not an impossible situation -- would that make the existence of God more or less likely? Of course not.  Therefore, complexity cannot be proof of God. It can't possibly have any effect on the question any more than the existence of humans can have an effect on whether a planet or a fern exists.  It is just bogus argument that sounds good, but is entirely illogical.

Or, if you want to presume that out of the (likely) billions of solar systems in the universe there are not only other intelligent beings out there, but some which may be much more intelligent than us, it doesn't help the theist argument at all. Because the argument would then again rest on the relative intelligence of two beings -- just as it did with human intelligence and that of a dog or ape. And that really makes no sense at all.

Revelation

Very often God is asserted as a matter of revelation. That is, either the believer relies on personal revelation by God or reliance on his revelation to others. This cannot be easily combated and I don't really try.  It is arguably the opposite of science, which is the most powerful tool we have to discover what is not true and a better approximator of what is true than anything else of which we know. Science is dependent on independent verification or falsification (depending on whether you agree with the Circle of Vienna or Karl Popper, and these days, Popper won), documentation and rigorously controlling variables, among other things. Revelation has no rules other than those imposed on themselves by whomever is the recipient of the revelation.  No documentation need be made and certainly no verification or falsification is possible. In what other type of decision would we reasonably allow this to be considered proof?

The same argument of personal experience is made with other things which are not in common experience, such as with UFOs. I have several friends who swear that they have seen flying saucers. In one case I know an entire family that says they saw one together and I don't disbelieve them. In fact, right in front of me another person who grew up in the same town as them claimed that she saw the same phenomena and their stories matched. Since they knew each other it may just be that she had heard the story before and later remembered it as though she experienced it herself (I've seen this many times in life). What I believe in their case is that they experienced something which they interpreted to be a UFO or their belief was aided by priming and imagination.

And I readily acknowledge that I have had my own experiences when I lived in Virginia which seemed like there was a ghost in my house which were very hard for me to dismiss as just my imagination (particularly while they were ongoing). I also had a momentarily terrifying moment in Gettysburg where I felt like my arm was being lifted up in the air as I fell asleep.  But, I do not really believe there was a ghost in either place. I think in the former case there were natural explanations, probably mostly the wind. It was a drafty old house. Though the light switch going off in the ghost's room while I was in there, and just that once - is a little harder to explain. Well, and the doors repeatedly opening as I approached. Oh, and the garbage can swivel top moving. Hmmm. I said it was hard, but I really do not believe it.  Anyway, in Gettysburg I told myself I was dreaming and I fell immediately asleep, to awake early the next morning as usual, all in one piece and alone.  Others in turn can (and have) laughed that I refuse to accept as true what they see as a reasonable conclusion of interactions with ghosts. But even were I convinced by my own experiences, I cannot experience what someone else says happened in their head or privately to them.

There are all kinds of revelation. There is that which comes either word for word or as inspiration to a Moses and Mohammed or the authors of the Vedas, etc., which are very detailed. There is that revelation which simply seems to the recipient to say "I am."  And there are other people who simply experience a feeling and believe they understand it as the presence of a deity or the deity.  None of these convinces me because I cannot know they are true. I am assuming they were genuinely experienced just as I know that I experienced something in Virginia and Gettysburg, even if only in my mind.

But, for obvious reasons, personal revelation or reliance on someone else's revelation cannot serve as proof for someone else, however satisfactory it is to a believer.  And a free choice to believe someone else's revelation cannot serve as evidence of truth either.  If it could, then completely opposite things could be true at the same time since one person can believe it and another reject it. Even were technology sufficient to see someone's thoughts as they occurred, would it change anything other than verify that they were telling the truth as to what they are experiencing? If we could not see the source of their "voice," how would we know how to differ it from imagination or even psychosis.

And, not least, how do we deal with contradiction, which is virtually inherent in revelation?  For it is likely enough that every revelation particular is contradicted by another person's revelation experience; even something as simple as feeling a presence - which asserts several things about a deity - it can be felt; it is mobile, at least into a mind; it has a will to be felt; it responds to a person's beliefs/heart/soul or favors an elect group, and so on. Each of these beliefs can be contradicted by another's revelation as to what constitutes God.

None of the above means that revelation, whether first or second hand, isn't good enough for the believer. And, they can argue also that none of it means it is not true. There is no possible logical rejoinder to that.

Verifiable?

I may have made fun of Ayer, who I mentioned above, but he was considered by some the greatest 20th century English philosopher after Russell (not by me though). He argued that the question of God was unverifiable, so it was meaningless. In fact, he considered any religious debate meaningless because it was unverifiable. Therefore, he argued, he was not even an atheist, because it was pointless to discuss it.  Like much he wrote, there is some logic to support him, but in my opinion, he pressed it too far in stating that one could neither argue that God exists nor that God does not exist. Because, if we cannot have arguments about what is unverifiable, at some level, we cannot argue about anything. And absence of certainty is the whole point of arguing. Even a philosopher may step down off his pedestal and have an opinion that cannot be verified.  If we only had opinions, even very strong beliefs about only that we can verify, it would be a very quiet and boring world. Besides, what was unverifiable, might become readily so.

I would call his position intellectual pompous anyway, as eventually he did come to refer to himself as an atheist later in life.  However, supposedly he had a dream before he died where he saw a Supreme Being. I say pish posh, and his own son had doubts it happened that way in any event. http://variousenthusiasms.wordpress.com/2009/04/28/did-atheist-philosopher-see-god-when-he-died-by-william-cash/ (I am laughing at myself now, because I put that website there thinking someone might care enough to read it. But, really, how many people would care enough to read about what some old philosopher claimed to experience when he was probably dreaming?)

And I am sure there are those who would like to point out that we cannot measure or detect gravity either,  but we do not doubt its existence.  From this they continue that just because we cannot detect or verify God does not mean God does not exist. Well, that is certainly true. But, there is a big difference.

There may not, in fact, be a thing called gravity. Perhaps it is an interaction we little or cannot at all understand.  But we certainly can directly experience it by jumping up in the air or even standing and observing and comprehending it in the motion of the planets and stars. When we say we believe in gravity what we are really saying is that we believe in the experience of it.  Whether it is a thing, like a pen or an interaction of the universe in a way that is beyond us may be determined in time, but that it may be a complex being beyond our common state of knowledge and intellect is no more proof of God than anything else.

Is atheism just another faith?

I do not know when this idea was first proposed, though I have heard it offered many times in recent years.  I think it is entirely wrong. Faith implies a belief. In order to have faith, one must have faith in something.

All knowledge relies on some kind of faith if you reduce it far enough because at some point we just can't know things through experience. We have to accept that certain things are what philosophers call a priori, that is, we know them before we experience them (like, arguably, 1 plus 1 = 2).

Why then can it not be said that atheism, like theism, is simply a faith like a religion? The answer is because one - religion or faith in a deity - is an active decision to believe in something (even if not consciously) and the other is simply a recognition that you can't prove something or everything.

There is a great and unalterable difference between believing in something without (sufficient) evidence and not believing in something when there is no (or insufficient) evidence.  But, I have learned over time if people do not or will not see the difference between these two things, there is no point in trying to argue it.

Ad hominem arguments

Arguments against the person are not really arguments but fallacies. Yet, they are more often used by many to try to prove the existence of God than anything else.  I keep an informal list of insults I receive online when I argue politics because it amuses me to do so. The other day I was called a "hit and run troll," which really means, of course, that the writer did not appreciate that I disagreed with what was obvious to him and found it unsettling that I can't stay online all day like many of the regulars on that website. But, it had nothing to do with the difference in opinion we had.

I have heard throughout my life many reasons people assert why they thought I believed or did not believe something. Among them are because I wanted to be different, I liked to shock people, I am a lawyer, I was a psych major, I was a liberal or conservative, a jerk, just wanted everything to be in the middle and so on.

There is no problem with discussing any of those things. We can certainly discuss someone having a  recognizable political or religious philosophy shared by others and then the discussion is about them (or me). Few people like to be labeled, though some do, and we all feel sometimes that we are being labeled unfairly. Me too. But, that's not what really bothers me.   What I find frustrating is when the personal quality is substituted for the argument we are discussing.  There is a difference between arguing about someone's typical mindset and using it to prove a point about something unrelated. But, I really don't think everyone gets that because they argue with me about the difference too. I remember not to long ago a fairly intelligent person looking at me bewildered at the idea that whether someone was a liberal or conservative might be a genuine object of debate, but whether they were one or the other could have no bearing on whether health care reform was a good idea. To her the two were precisely the same.

It is, of course, not fun to have someone point out that you are engaging in a logical fallacy and if you do, be prepared to have your target spend time trying to prove that your arguments are fallacious too. Ad hominem arguments are a distraction and in my mind, almost an admission of defeat, but it is also just the way the world is, and I am long used to it.

I heard my favorite ad hominem attack on me when I was 13 and it involved whether there was a God or not. Two friends, neither who I am friends with as an adult, explained to me that the reason I did not believe in God (and did not get bar mitzvah'd) was because I was immoral.  Oh.  It was that time I came upon a tactic that I thought was brilliant but has never seemed to do me any good whatsoever.  I suggested that they presume that I was the worst of all people in the world, and that once we accept that, we should move on to discuss the topic. Didn't work then, doesn't work now. My personal immorality seems to answer the question for them.

Aesthetic argument

"Aesthetics" is what I like to call the dumbest branch of philosophy, dealing with beauty and taste. Come on.  One man's brilliant sunrise is another man's headache producing burning pile of hydrogen and that is all there is to it. Of course there is such a thing as beauty in itself, but it is merely what appeals to us and there are many reasons for it doing so. Einstein would argue that you could know when a scientific theory was true because it had a beauty to it, and that also was dumb. Smart as he was, Einstein thought and believed dumb things just like everyone else.

Nevertheless, some people urge aesthetic arguments as if they were proof of God. I am far from immune to their appeal. There are many things I love, for example, about the Old and New Testament, particularly the stories and the language. There is a tremendous appeal to the idea of a human soul - something which I am certain will never be measured or scientifically detected (at least, validly such that we can replicate the experiment) because it does not exist. The idea of a soul can be beautiful, but, if you want to view it differently, you could make quite ugly stories about them too and this has been done as well.

When I discuss whether there is a God with people, and particularly with women, I find the question of an afterlife comes up. Don't I want, I am often asked, to believe that there is life after death? My answer is, well, sure, especially if it comes with guilt and consequence free eating. But, wanting something to be true does not make it true either.

During my whole life myth has had a tremendous appeal to me. It is possible that the reason is nothing more than that one of the first books my mother taught me to read with was Edith Hamilton's Mythology.  Few of my brothers and sisters share this love with me at all. In fact, with the exception of my one deceased brother, the idea of fantasy seems completely unexciting to them. My oldest brother describes watching The Lord of the Rings as one of the most boring things he has ever done in his life and his son joined him in it. I find myth so appealing that I literally feel sadness for those who cannot enjoy it and think that they would if they gave it an opportunity. I am well aware that there are those who feel that way about me and the concept of God, which is not a large step from myth. In fact, it is a tiny, almost imperceptible step. Yet, the aesthetic appeal of myth to me  - even of Jehovah walking in the garden - does not translate into belief at all. If it did, as I explained to my mother when I was very young, I would as soon believe in Athena or Odin as I would Jehovah. But, the gods and goddesses were make believe she told me, and God real. I didn't buy it then. I don't buy it now.

But, feel free if you like.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Stunning photos of rural Va. found 1000 years later.

Maybe not a thousand years ago. Probably last year. But, a few weeks ago all of a sudden there was this roll of film sitting on top of the bureau and I have no idea where it came from. Anyway, that camera is now deceased, having lived a good 10 years or so, and so these will be my last roll of film developed. Even for a Luddite like myself, the next one will be digital. Turns out it is yet more pictures from my almost five years at home down in the Commonwealth of Virginia, land of more founders than you can shake a stick at, Lee and Jackson and John Paul Jones and Booker Washington and Lewis & Clark and whole lot of others, not to mention a whole lot of scenery, which is what these photos are meant to describe.


This is the terminus of the walk developed at The Natural Bridge about 10 miles or so from my home. I went here dozens of times to walk or just study and met people who had been there many more than that. In the center distance is Lace Waterfall, behind which the stream stretches for somewhere between 100 and 200 miles. This is by no means the best picture I have of it, just the most recent. Below is the miraculous bridge itself, of which no picture I have ever seen by me or anyone else can do justice. You just have to go see it yourself, best in Spring or very early Summer when the river is full.

 
 
You can't tell from the photo, but that cut out is approximately 180 feet high and the same beautiful stream that hurried over Lace Falls still runs right through it and keeps going a few more miles until it runs into the James. It is said that George Washington through a rock or something over the bridge when he was a young man. When you go there, you realize that even were he a titan, he could not have done it no matter what they say.


The above two are my beautiful Mount Purgatory. It runs laterally for about 5 miles. None of my plans to climb it ever materialized, though it was the closest real mountain to me. Go figure. Never got tired of looking at it either. My landlord, who was born in the house I lived in, says he still isn't tired of it. He tells a story of sitting on the porch when he was a little fellow and the neighborhood minister walked by (I think this would have been sometime in the 1930s) and said "What a nice view." My landlord said "Thank you," as if he had something to do with it. I don't have anything to do with it either but I can be heard bragging about my 30 mile deep view into the valley and my beautiful Mt. Purgatory nevertheless. Every day, often every few minutes, it looked different thanks to sunlight, clouds and the seasons.


You can tell me the clouds are the same everywhere, but they are not. I have seen many beautiful cloud and sunset/sunrise formations in my life. But I never have seen so many consistently remarkable ones in any spot than I have here (I mean back there) in my little town of Buchanan, Va.




And, the river which runs right through the heart of the town, the James, is the largest river to run completely through Virginia, from almost the West Virginia border twisting up and down for hundreds of miles until it empties into the ocean. And, for most of that run, it looks something like this.


And the lakes, well, that is just another kind of special. I don't particularly remember if this is Lake Moomaw or Carvin Cove - I think the former - both can take your breath away. And neither were even the prettiest ones I could drive to in a couple of hours.


That's it. All from the same roll. All you need to do is point and click - no talent required.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Ruminations on aging

Damn it. I was writing this post on old age and stopped for a few days to go to the Bear's lair in Baltimore. We watch a Louie C.K. comedy special and he did a bit on old age. And, it was pretty funny.  I'm funnier than Mitt Romney (who isn't?), but not Louie C.K.  I had no intention for this to be funny and now I have to follow him.  It's not that everyone who will read this will have seen it. But, for me, it now feels kind of dry in comparison. Too bad. It's like getting old, I guess. Which brings us to my ruminations on it, starting with

. . . one of my favorite myths, which is about Thor, the mighty Norse god of thunder, who, accompanied by the trickster Loki and a very speedy god you likely never heard of, went to the halls of Utgard-Loki, who was one of the giants the Norse gods were always battling. There the gods were humiliated in competition. Thor, who first lost a drinking contest (or so he thought, not realizing he was drinking almost the entire ocean), challenged anyone there to wrestle him. The giant ridiculed him and called upon his nurse, Elli, who proceeded to outwrestle Thor, forcing him onto one knee, when the match was called.

Only after the gods had left did they learn the truth. Elli had not been a simple nurse, but the personification of old age, and, Thor had deeply impressed the giant that she was only able to force him onto one knee. What the point of the myth is, is not  especially clear. Maybe it's that even the gods are subject to old age, or, maybe that Thor was so powerful that even old age could not completely defeat him. Maybe both.  Or, maybe it's just that old age is even more powerful than an immortal (the Asgardian gods by the way, like many other gods, gain their immortality by eating special food).  It's an unusual myth in that it has been found in only one source, The Prose Edda, a collection of myths written by 11th century Icelander Snorri Snurleson. Unlike with his other stories, he cited no sources for this one and so some scholars think he made it up.  I have no idea, nor do I care very much. After all, all myths are made up by someone at some time. If he did make it up, it's still old enough to satisfy my sense of ancientness.

I'm 53 and no Thor.  Not only does that make me more than a half century old, but, I realized not long ago that I was more than 1/4th the age of Abraham Lincoln. Doesn't that blow your mind? Doesn't it seem like he should be ten times my age? 

53 is not very old by many standards. Though I probably feel better than I have in many years, I still feel kind of old. Some of that has to do with a bum leg, but I can see the sagging on my body and feel the loss of strength.  I go to the gym as often as I can stand to, usually between 3 and 5 times a week.  I'm also physically stronger than I was at most times of my adult life and my arms are physically larger than when I was a kid. Nevertheless, I was definitely stronger back then.  The loss of strength, it seems to me, is not so much because of weaker muscles so much as it is the tighter, more brittle ligaments, tendons and less oomph.  Less oomph may just mean I produce less testosterone than I used to.

There's all kinds of people in this world and maybe there are people who actually like getting older, just like some people claim. I have trouble believing it just like I have trouble believing people really like lettuce.  Getting older means decay. You slowly start dying. Thanks to modern medicine, food, safety rules and other benefits of modern life, we live a lot longer than we used to even a half century ago and much more comfortably. But, no one has found the fountain of youth yet.  Though there are those who are marvelously welled preserved, all of us are still aging, and once you get passed a certain point, it's all downhill. Sometimes, if an old person falls or otherwise injures themselves, it is downhill very, very quickly.  

But, I have no doubt that the vast majority of people do not like getting older. Let's face it, whoever said first "I'm not getting older, I'm getting better" was probably 22 years old. If you are a man, your testosterone slowly starts reducing when you are about 30. Less energy, less arousal, pretty much less everything.  If you are a woman, well, don't kill me for this, but your menopause is terrifying to others - both men and women. We understand, we sympathize, but we just hate it. I guess it can't be fun for you either, so - sorry.

Perhaps you want to say that older people have more wisdom, but one's man wisdoms is another man's just plain crazy. As my great, great spiritual grandfather, Henry David Thoreau said - "I think that no experience which I have today comes up to, or is comparable with, the experiences of my boyhood."  He also wrote something much rougher:
 
"Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about."

I think my beloved Thoreau, who seems to as wise a writer as I've ever read, and possibly the one who has had the biggest impact on my life, stumbled there, taking his point too far. It's not that all old people have good advice; he's right, much of it is terrible and based on their own.failures. What passes for wisdom is often just the voicing of regrets, bad luck, resignation or fear.  And sometimes the perception of wisdom is just acquired material wealth that gives the appearance of it,  as one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite musicals tells it - "When you're rich, they think you really know!" 
 
And sometimes it is just the appearance of venerability that passes for wisdom 
too.  I have to admit, since my hair has gone gray, I get treated with more respect by some strangers and definitely juries. Sure, when you have gray hair you just think you are getting the respect you deserve, but it probably is just the color. And sometimes it is also true that experience, perhaps seeming to bring with it the ability to see future risks, stands in the way of flexibility to meet new challenges. Sometimes.

But, it is petulant to argue as Thoreau did. Sometimes experience really is good, even great. I don't know what we'd do without it. Everything we know with the exception of some instincts and things we can know by reason, are based on experience, no matter what centuries of philosopher's have told us. And let's face it, the young are often idiots. Not because they are literally stupid, but because of lack of experience; they don't know what to expect and think their dreams are reality. It probably is not going to be that way for the great majority of them. Do you know someone even at 30 who doesn't say, or at least think - if only I knew then what I know now. Of course, mostly guys say that with respect to getting over on women, but the principle is the same whatever the goal.

Some few things don't seem to change at all as people age. I still remember my father's strange behavior a few years after my mother's death.  When I asked him why he was acting so strange, he said that when it comes to the opposite sex, nothing changes. He was in his sixties then, but in my 50s I notice that is true of many people I know in their relationships.  Again, it's never everyone, but it sure is a lot of people.

Not only does age make you physically more decrepit, but I have already noticed in the last few years a greater tendency to crankiness and lack of patience, even among friends.  It is particularly true with noisy children, of course.  I can't pretend that I haven't felt this too, more and more as the culture seems to have changed that it is now okay - yes, okay - to have your little kids cry in public places without removing them.  Grrrrr.  But, it's not just with kids. I haven't indulged in it, but I am far more likely to get into a fight now than I ever was as a kid. At least verbally.

And memory - oh my God, has it affected the memory of some of my friends and acquaintances. Sometimes I want my entire life to be recorded so that I don't have to have endless conversations about who said what (always with the same people though).  It's one reason I'm so glad for email. Anything important I have to say to someone, I want it electronically recorded.

And as for weight loss, it's just sad. At my age, gaining weight is like blowing up a balloon. Losing weight is like carving Mount Rushmore with a tooth brush. Even when older people have lost weight, they often discover that their skin has lost its elasticity so that the skin just hangs on them, toneless,  curdled and, you know, all yccchy and stuff. The bags under my eyes seem permanent, far as I can tell.  And that little soft line under my chin is a constant focus of my attention.  Oh, I did the phony-bologna chin stretching exercises for a while with hopeful expectations, but short of a sharp knife or more likely today - ultrasound, nothing is going to change.

Of course, some people do cover up their age with surgery and I have no problem with provided its reasonable (we've all seen the cat lady). Others use steroids, which is a substitute for testosterone. Not just a substitute, but a super duper substitute. I've personally seen its use explode over the course of the last ten years. When I started going to a gym about a decade ago there was one body builder who readily admitted using and another guy there who didn't publicly acknowledge it.  But no one else was all that big. Now, you have to stop and count the steroid users. You can't even call them freaks anymore because there are so many.

One night I counted 20 men and 2 women in my gym that I was certain were using them. You can pretty much just tell. If their muscles look unbelievably cut or huge or both, they probably are. It is especially easy when their heads are small.  Lots of teenagers and some septuagenarians are doing them too. Yeah, 70 something year olds with faces like your accountant but absurdly muscular. To me, it looks creepy and unnatural, but I don't expect they'd care what I thought. 

It is even obvious with the young men who you might expect to be more muscular. I grew up in an era when many kids were constantly on the go playing sports, running about and lifting weights. But, the most muscular kids I knew then did not look like so many young men today, with melons for biceps and shoulders  that would make professional football players from the seventies  jealous.  Are some of these muscles natural?  Rarer and rarer.  There is just no way training has gotten so much better in just a few years that muscles like these are popping out of people. Thankfully, there are far fewer women doing it than men.  The other day I saw a young woman at the gym not only with a body builder physique, but with a predatory look to her walk and glance. I'd say there about 4 women in my gym I regularly see who are into it to one degree or another.  There are a few women there who are just in great natural shape, but, again, you can almost always easily tell the difference.  

If there were no side effects to taking steroids, who'd care, but there are. This isn't a post about that. If someone doesn't know it, they aren't paying attention.

I know, I know. You are not supposed to say any of this stuff (except about the steroids - if you don't do steroids you pretty much know it is crazy). Many people don't want to feel old, look old or acknowledge it at all.  I can hear it now - you are not "positive."  I get that sometimes from people. In my view, they just don't like the truth and substitute fantasy for reality.  I do understand, of course, that my view of what is positive and what is just pretending to be positive, and ultimately negative, is skewed from most people. That's part of the reason I have a blog. Because, apparently, I upset a lot of people when I talk in public. If talking about aging is not positive, then I'm not positive. I think it is.

And, it's not like I invented shaking my fist at aging.  Even in enduring and favorite works of legend and fiction immortality is a predominant theme, sometimes the main one.  The authors of The Old Testament granted long life to the patriarchs - though not immortality! Perhaps that was a result of Adam and Eve's fall. Earlier still Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, desperately sought immortality and failed! In The Iliad and Odyssey constantly reference mortality and the wasting away of the elderly.  In The Lord of the Rings, it's creator could have resolved the problem in his new mythology, but does not. Some characters are described as virtually ageless, and few show much sign of it. The elves, if not destroyed, last thousands of years retaining great beauty. Gandalf and the wizards came to Middle Earth as elderly men, but age little over a great length of time too.  Tom Bombadil, the spirit of the countryside - "Oldest and Fatherless," seems immune to it.  But, eventually, they must leave Middle Earth. Arwen, who remains, is long lived, but eventually diminishes and dies. The dwarves are long lived by our standards. The  span of time given to the favored Numenorian kings, even down to Aragorn (who saw 210 - not bad) was extended, though not immortal. And, of course, the Ents, Treebeard perhaps almost as old as Bombadil, are not human and may have approached it, but only to an extent .  And, of course, long life, but without preserving powers, accompanies the One Ring - but the toll it takes is horrifying.  Tolkien is one long tale of the fight against aging, even after temporary success. It seems almost his primary theme that immortality cannot survive.  "The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli," says Legolas, after all is said and done and all the "magical" creatures leave us.

I'd like to have a more conventional ending for you today.  Something like - "But in the end, we . . . " or "There is yet hope. . . "  I could talk about positive thinking and of course, many people turn to religion to help them with the process. Not for me. There may be, for our children, the possibility of greatly lengthened life and greater peace at the end.  Perhaps for our descendants a pleasant longevity beyond our imagination is possible.  But, it must all end the same way until we become something else - part human and part something else, and that I do not think any of us will be around for. Nor am I sure what the trade off might be either. All I can recommend at this time is flossing, as much exercise and moderate eating as we can stand, a certain amount of stoicism and to try - just try to enjoy life and health while you can. As is sung in Fiddler on the Roof "God would like us to be joyful even when our hearts lie panting on the floor/How much more can we be joyful when we really have something to be joyful for."

Wait a second --Thor, Thoreau, The Iliad, Gilgamesh, The Bible, Fiddler on the Roof and The Lord of the Rings. It happened again. This post is just another excuse for me to talk about some of my favorite things.
 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Eating paninis in the 16th century - free will and justification

I had lunch with my daughter a few months ago, and had an awe inspiring turkey with cranberries, tomato and onions on panini bread.  I hate to think that this entire post is written just so I can relive those delectable moments in my head, but, I realize I am not above that. It's possible. I go back about once a week to the cafe just for that reason.  It was, indeed, an excellent panini and since this blog is ultimately about my thoughts, at the very least,  I just thought I'd mention it.

Just for the hell of it, I decided to research a little if there was any connection between panini and my actual topic, which is 16th century European religious history and sure enough there is - though slender.  For, according to various sites on the internet, the precursor for the panini was actually created in the 16th century.  I kid you not. I've also learned that the singular for panini, which is a plural, is actually panino, though I'm sure the interest level in these linguistic remarks will not set off any seismographs.

When my daughter arrived at lunch that first glorious day I was reading a book, as I almost always am when alone or waiting for virtually anything.  It was Ronald H. Bainton's  Here I Stand: A life of Martin Luther.  Bainton, who died in the 1980s after a long life, has been described as an historian of religious toleration.  Some of his books focused on one of the times and places that fascinates me most -- the 16th century.  I have read two of Bainton's books,  the one on Luther twice, with a third expected in the mail within a few days from now.  Bainton's particular interest in Christianity, and particularly that one century, seem to parallel mine, though I expect that unlike me he was a devoted Christian. But I don't really know and it isn't important enough to me to actually research.

I do not really take sides in most theological issues simply because I do not believe in a deity. So, for me issues like the trinity - whether God is one or three, divisible or indivisible, or, whether the body and blood of Christ is actually in the Eucharist metaphorically or spiritually - which concerned those in the 16th century a great deal (some even today) - do not concern me at all. Nor do the forms of prayers or rituals. But issues which relate to political or liberty do concern me.  Two topics which raged in the 16th century have always fascinated me more than any other, at least as far as Christianity is concerned, because they have something to do with liberty, ethics and toleration.  One is called "justification by faith" as opposed to good works and the other is free will.  Both were divisive issues in the separation of Protestant from Catholic Europe. We can wink at it now, but long, horrible wars have been fought over the right of heretics, some who became known as Protestants, and some of whom were heretics to Protestants. Bloody torture and murder were engaged in just to force someone to say -- I agree with you. 

While I tend to prefer the Catholics on those two issues, I am also an admirer of the Protestants efforts to unshackle the chains of the dominant united church and assert their religious liberty. However, it is often not recognized that many Catholic figures deserve that same praise, reform not being solely the desire or occupation of the Reform churches, although they certainly sped up the process much faster than if it were done without them.

At least when I read history, I feel an unending sense of gratitude towards those who have come before me and suffered the indignities, pain and suffering - even death - for their disbelief in God, as their suffering has helped lead to the fact that today reactions to my own disbelief are infinitely mild in comparison.  People just disagree with me, usually very civilly, and have very rarely ever threatened (I can think of once) and certainly never threatened torture or (obviously) death.  It would be irrational not to notice that often the same people who cried out for religious tolerance for themselves could be as intolerant of other's beliefs themselves.  When they talked about freedom, they meant for their viewpoint. I find that true in the 16th century as it is today.

That paradox is seen heavily in the 16th century and is certainly not unknown today. The two Protestants who always come to mind first are Martin Luther and John Calvin, and they were undoubtedly the largest figures in Protestantism, dwarfing in popular history such other figures as Zvingli and Melanchthon.  At the least it can be said that their two movements, roughly coinciding in time, were more similar than different, and resulted in more actual changes in Christian worship than others before or after them, whereas previous reform efforts by predecessors largely failed.  Luther, who is usually and I think fairly credited with beginning the Protestant revolution that effectively took root was preceded by others, including most famously, John Wycliffe of England and Jan Hus of Bohemia. Wycliffe's translation of the Bible into old English (most of it actually done by others) in the 13th-14th century, was considered a terrible crime by the church in England and Hus's revolution resulted in war and ended with his burning.  Luther himself came to recognize that he was merely restating, at least in general, that which had been argued by these two men before him. But, as opposed to either of those two, Luther was succored by government - Frederick the Wise and other nobility - so that he not only survived but flourished.  

It would be very easy to stick pins in both Luther and Calvin, particularly the latter, as they were not only men of their times, but forceful and passionate personalities of whom I could never detect anything but certainty and faith in their undertakings.  Both were very learned, perhaps brilliant men and both at least tried to be, by their lights, to be righteous, though we would call neither so in applying modern Western views on toleration.  Both were also exceptional writers, Luther perhaps more known for his breadth (you can buy a 55 volume set of his works) and fiery spirit and Calvin, no slacker when it came to voluminous works either, for his literary abilities.  

If either gets pride of place, it would probably be Luther, who was mercurial and could write with a white heat that can be very enjoyable to read even now.  Although some followers might be offended and Calvin chafed under Luther's disagreement with the Reform Church over the Lord's Supper, he was in a sense a Lutheran himself and even signed Melanchthon's Variata on the Augsburg Confession (although the Lutheran Churches themselves are split on which version is controlling). 

Childish name calling with those who disagreed with you was readily practiced by even the devout in those days, and I have to say that sometimes this unfortunate tendency is what makes reading these sometimes insufferable figures bearable and even enjoyable.  The word "vituperative" is sometimes applied to Luther, but certainly could be applied to Calvin as well. One of my favorite Luther remarks is from his letter to Henry the VIIIth, which he addressed -- "From Martin, by the grace of God, to Henry, the King of England, by the disgrace of God." 

However, like most men who wrote a lot over a long period of time, his opinions changed and you fairly easily discern directly inconsistent positions in his writing. 

Luther is also sometimes criticized for anti-Semitism. But that really is a more modern sentiment. Initially he was sympathetic with Jews but later called for their being expelled from Lutheran lands. Some link his anti-Semitism historically with the 20th century holocaust, but others defend him as complaining about their religion and that it was never racial for him; that is, he thought of the Jews no differently than he did of others who did not accept his beliefs. Luther was also initially against using the sword against "heretics," though,  of course, he was called one himself, but he did not maintain this position consistently and thought it acceptable to use violence against those like the Anabaptists. He did, in fact, believe in the death penalty for sedition and blasphemy, but his categories for these two crimes was much larger than ours would be and included those who simply believed differently than he did. I have trouble seeing how it can be rationally argued but that he approved of the murder of Jews and others.

Calvin has come down to us in popular history as a more dour figure than Luther, who would hold raucous court with his young students and spout witticisms over dinner almost like the 20th century Algonquin group (although his primacy in it made him both Groucho and Dorothy Parker). Perhaps I am just ignorant of it, but I have no knowledge of Calvin making a joke about anything.  More, though as far as I can find in the little time I devoted to it, he condemned even idle talk and pleasantries. But, worse, his passionate piety and intellectual defense of his view seemed to me a facade that hid a killer, even if it is true that he weeped at Michael Servetus being put to the torch, as some of his modern followers like to point out.  For he was himself instrumental in Servetus' arrest, trial and eventual burning purely on theological grounds.  And though Servetus was quite a brilliant and arrogant man too, it is very hard to see how his questioning the trinity or other similar unconventional, could be rationally viewed as a threat to Calvin's theocracy and power except in so far as free speech and conscience has frightened many of the powerful right up to present times.                                                                                        

A tendency to like and sympathize with those who agree with our opinion may even have a natural basis, or so it appears to me. It gratifies people when others affirm our beliefs particularly if we can convince them to change their position, and frustrates us when they disagree, particularly if they cling to beliefs that seem untenable to us. J. W. Allen, another one of my favorite historians of religion and political thought wrote concerning this volatile century: "It has to be remembered, also, that there of course existed, on all sides, the constant tendency of the human mind to resent disagreement and to regard those who differ from ourselves as foolish or perverse or wicked. . . Men have to learn not to resent contradiction; and when the proposition in question is one that seems of the utmost import, the lesson is hard to learn. That which has convinced me, ought, it seems, to convince all others, or, alternatively, it ought not to have convinced me. The alternative may seem intolerable."

And it was intolerable to them. It would also be easy to go through a list of horribles from the sixteenth century, including the torture and burning of many heretics like Anabaptists (of whom it seems thousands were burned).  This sect was anathema not just to Catholics, but reformers like Calvin and Luther as well. Though most Anabaptists were non-violent seekers of what they felt was the pure primitive church that had existed after the death of Christ, in some ways the hippies of their time, there were even those among them who were as tyrannical and intolerant as their persecutors. At least, Thomas Müntzer  called for the slaughter of all those who did not accept his brand of Christianity.  As they did not have sufficient resources to do what he sought, he and his followers were slaughtered themselves. Müntzer  is an interesting study in what I am talking about, though he was monstrous by both our and sixteenth century standards. He wanted to free Christianity from much of its dogma, and rightfully argued that there was no way to know if the gospels were true. He believed that Christians in his day needed to return to a  primitive (we would call it communistic) Church and trust in their own revelations - not those of the past.  He believed, as Anabaptists did, that infant baptism made no sense, as they were too young to understand what was happening. He believed in adult baptism, though it is controversial whether he himself took the adult plunge and was a true Anabaptist. All this seems very modern. His willingness to do it by the sword, very medieval.  

Though casual popular history might have us believe the idea of religious freedom and freedom in general popped out of John Locke's mind and pen in the late 1600s (though he was not nearly so tolerant as almost anyone reading this blog would be today), the idea was always around, if not so developed.  It certainly did not arise in the sixteenth century after a 2000 year slumber from the Golden Age of Athens.  For example,  lost in most popular retellings of history is the defensor pacis of the fourteenth century,  which argued that the Pope's power is limited to religious matters. The defensor pacis itself was an extension of an essay by none other than Dante, whose De Monarchia was published even earlier that century. These were calls for secular states, not fully developed individual freedom as we would see it, but include aspects of religious freedom sorely lacking at the time and played out on a much larger scaled a few centuries later.  You can trace the notion of freedom back as far as you are willing and able to research it and, likely, it extends back, though out of our reach, to pre-historic times, when the first man or woman decided they were just going to do or believe what they wanted regardless of what the chief or council permitted.

But, the nature of the argument changes over time as well as the consequences of dissent. Some ideas needed to be restated over and over again before they take root for other reasons. And they were restated fervently and with great effect in the sixteenth century by Luther and Calvin as well as others.

It was also impossible at that time to separate politics and religion. The idea that they should be separated at all was in its germ stage in our culture, though I think that Luther, more than Calvin, played a role in the progress of this idea. As they both knew, the price for religious freedom was to subject oneself to secular power.  For Luther government and religion were two separate things that should not be entwined, but nevertheless, government had a duty to stamp out heresy. For Calvin, the state also controlled, but its major purpose was to enshrine the "true" religion. The Lutherans (Luther preferred "evangelists") and Calvinists saw great difference between them in this as in other things, but for me and I'm sure most modern people, these are relatively similar positions, both allowing religion to dominate the government.  Whatever their beliefs, it was rare that anyone with any sway truly separated religion and political theory in that era.

Even Macchiavelli, who slighted preceded Luther in time, though not really influence, and who seems more modern to us, saw religion as playing a dominant role in government, though to him it appears this was a strategic principle, and not a pious one, in order to fashion public spirit, which in turn fostered liberty. It was not necessary for him that the rulers even believe the religion, so much as use it for the benefit of the state. Nor did he necessarily think Christianity the best religion to do this.  But, Macchiavelli, whose name is synonymous with power politics, was not on a winning team when he wrote, but in dejected retirement.  In fact, had he been on the winning side, he probably never would have written at all.

Others in the 16th century possibly deserve more credit than either Luther or Calvin in pursuing aspects of religion that were a cause for progress in liberty. Of great interest to me are two writers, Castellion and Acontius (you can find many variations of their names), and certainly also Servetus, all of whom wrote and believed that there could be no certainty in religion and that it should be freely discussed and a matter of free conscience. But, without Luther and Calvin, it is possible we would never have even heard of any of the three, and none were household names at either their own time or now.  However, it is also true that the tolerant view of Castellion and Acontius and Servetus prevailed, while the intolerant view government of Calvin and Luther slowly and haltingly gave way (at least for now). Ironically, by virtue of their fame and influence, it is the latter two who unwittingly paved the way for greater tolerance. Indeed, the modern followers of Calvin and Luther's faiths are probably close to uniformly tolerant, and even regret many of their founder's views, just as we regret the slave holding of revered forefathers.

The doctrine of justification by faith is a religious doctrine that I could easily just choose not to care or think about like I do with other religious questions. Arguably it is one more question akin to debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and some choose to discuss it by terming it one of the mysteries we can know little about. But, despite living safe in the womb of a secular state which has for quite a long time been quite disentangled from religion, the debate mildly concerned me a little for a long time. I have even spent more time than I can justify studying the position of Luther and his closest theological companion, Melanchthon, as well as that of Catholic Church fathers like Augustine and Origen, trying to wrestle out of it what was philosophic as opposed to theological. In this either I failed or they did.  The arguments are as confusing as most religious doctrines and I can see little sense in the discussions even as far back as St. Paul and Acts.  But, this is sometimes also true of many, perhaps most philosophical arguments I've read.  Perhaps it is just not in my nature to be easily persuaded and I tend to read even my favorite philosophers extremely critically (I have noted to myself that although my favorite 20th century philosopher Karl Popper insists that he himself should be read critically, he would probably be very disgruntled to know that I find much of his epistemological arguments as irrational as those irrationalists he criticizes).

Put in the simplest way, the argument of justification by faith alone comes from Luther's reading of Paul's Epistle to the Romans. It was the most important of his differences with the Catholics. According to Luther, you do not get to heaven by doing good works, but solely by the grace of God based on your faith in him. Good works spring from the faith, not vice versa.  When he translated the Bible into German, a work that had a huge impact on Europe, he decided to include the word "only" after "faith" - Sola fide - in his reading of Romans. In other words, where St. Paul wrote justified by faith, Luther boldly insisted on justified by faith only. When called out on it he admitted that the word only was not found in Paul, but argued that you would have to be an idiot to think that it wasn't plainly implied there. That sounds a little crafty to me, but, I've read Romans, and though it is confusing as hell and too much credit is given Paul for a reasoned argument, I think Luther may have been right - Paul meant justification by faith only.  

And, apparently, after centuries of argument, the two sides seem to have tried to patch this whole schmegegge - at least some Lutherans and the Catholic Church.  In 1999 the Lutheran World Federation (not all Lutherans) and the Catholic Church made a Joint Declaration (which they claimed was not new) which I thought glossed over their differences in a diplomatic fashion, not worthy in my opinion of the scholarship, however biased, that came before it.

My dislike of the doctrine and my singling it out as one of the two or three that really makes a difference is based up my concern that when people believe that their behavior is solely guided by faith in a higher power, then their behavior is guided by whatever those they feel have authority over them, whether it be a religious figure or voices they hear in their own head. If that sounds overly dramatic to you, remember we live in a world where there are countries, terrorists and plain crazy people all motivated in that very way to do violence to others. It doesn't matter what religious theory supports their beliefs. They justify any action with certainty of its sanctification.

I only said that I am mildly concerned about it. I can hardly be terrified when it comes to our own culture in which what I term the enlightenment values have been in my lifetime dominant over religious ones.  In fact, I have found that many American Lutherans and Baptists with whom I discussed it were not even aware that justification by faith was the theology of their church.

On the other hand, I also accept that the liberties in our and every generation have to be watched over carefully and are ephemeral, as we see over and over again in history. I was not pleased to read of a recent poll that found that approximately one-third of Americans believe that their own states and also the United States, should officially be a Christian nation. Not that all of them think it would be constitutional - that is actually a much smaller number of those posed. And far larger numbers feel that we should not have any state religion. However, one-third is a very significant number, and my reading of history shows that far smaller numbers than that, organized and motivated, can influence a country's direction. This was as true of our own revolution as it was of the Nazi's rise to power. 

There is no doubt in my mind either that those who believe in dominating others are often more animated and aggressive than those who believe in freedom, the latter group only being roused when they see their rights have been largely taken away. Those who seek to merge religion and government often imagine there is already a war upon them. Or perhaps this is only a tactic you can find throughout history, enabling them to gain unfair advantage in a dispute. I can't tell you how many articles I read every year about a war on Christianity or Christmas, or people I personally know who believe it. So, whereas I am slow to rouse also, and wish I could simply ignore this doctrine, it is something to think about.

The other issue that Luther thought as important as justification was free will, which is closely related. Generally speaking, both Calvinism and Lutheranism take the position that man does not have free will, at least in some common sense meanings (there is to them a separate civil and religious sense) and their positions were not precisely in accordance with each other. Still, I would say the lack of free will is a principle part of their religion. The Catholic belief is to the contrary. This brings in a third figure who is central to the 16th century debate on this, which is Desideratus Erasmus, or more simply, Erasmus, who was a classicist and great translator of the Bible and a Catholic sympathizer with reform who believed it should be a matter inside the Mother Church and certainly all of the major figures weighed in on it. Really, they are all debating St. Augustine and Origen as well.

I rarely intend anything comprehensive in this blog, and certainly am not going to try to do so with this heavily treaded topic. I will though sum up the three positions thus:

Erasmus (On Free Will): "Those who deny any freedom of the will and affirm absolute necessity, admit that God works in man not only the good works, but also evil ones. It seems to follow that inasmuch as man can never be the author of good works, he can also never be called the author of evil ones. This opinion seems obviously to attribute cruelty and injustice to God, something religious ears abhor vehemently. (He would no longer be god if anything vicious and imperfect were met in him.)"

Luther (from his On Human Bondage): "THIS, therefore, is also essentially necessary and wholesome for Christians to know: That God foreknows nothing by contingency, but that He foresees, purposes, and does all things according to His immutable, eternal, and infallible will. By this thunderbolt, "Free-will" is thrown prostrate, and utterly dashed to pieces. Those, therefore, who would assert "Free-will," must either deny this thunderbolt, or pretend not to see it, or push it from them."

Calvin (from his Institutes of Religion): "That man is so enslaved by the yoke of sin, that he cannot of his own nature aim at good either in wish or actual pursuit, has, I think, been sufficiently proved. Moreover, a distinction has been drawn between compulsion and necessity, making it clear that man, though he sins necessarily, nevertheless sins voluntarily."

As with the argument about justification, my concerns lie not with the "truth," but with the excuse that not believing in free will brings. For if man does not have free will, it matters not what he thinks. If he does have free will, then it matters what everyone thinks about it - for then believing in it should more likely lead someone to at least choose to do "good." That in itself doesn't solve the problem, of course, as that person's and my own definitions of what "good" is might greatly differ. But, it is at least a start, because it is an impetus to bother trying. Resignation to those things out of our control is a good thing. Resignation to everything, pure fatalism, is not.

My positions with respect to justification and free will are somewhat different. Not being a believer, and not therefore believing in salvation or heaven or related concepts, I do not believe that justification (that is, how we are saved) actually exists. But, I do think the belief in its existing and the consequent beliefs in how salvation it is attained does matter a lot, for reasons I stated above. With respect to free will, I do believe that it exists, though not because of the arguments that Erasmus, Luther or Calvin make, or, frankly, that made by any philosopher I have read. I doubt very much that we are capable, or will be in the future - at least in my lifetime - of ever knowing whether we have free will or whether our apparent will is predetermined by everything in life that has come before us (determinism). My own belief is purely introspective. That may sound mundane, but I do not believe we can do better than his, however inconclusive it may be. More, I would argue that in spite of anyone's position that they do not believe in free will, they nevertheless will live their lives as if they did. But, as with justification, I do believe that our belief in free will helps us avoid the excuse of choosing to do bad or selfish acts based on a belief in the lack of it and that this is also quite important.

I have spent a lot of time traveling in the 16th century through my beloved books. Were I at leisure to spend more time there I would. Although I do not think I would like to spend time with Mr. Calvin, I am pretty sure I would with Mr. Luther - though I expect his conceit and certainty would ultimately prove insufferable - even more so than I would with those other historical figures I have mentioned whose way of thinking is much closer to my own. But, in the meantime, while the problems with actual time travel are hammered out, I will continue whiling away hours there virtually, reading and eating my panini.

About Me

My photo
I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .