Friday, March 28, 2008

Rousseau's Civil Religion

It is not easy to understand the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau. It takes much thought and patience to read his books. When you finally have figured out what he's trying to say, then you have to decide whether or not you agree with it!

Take his ideas about religion, for example. At the climax of his book, The Social Contract, he carries out a historical analysis concerning the development of the relation between religion and government. He says that in the earliest phases of human history, religion and government were one. He thinks here of the ancient societies in the Fertile Crescent, and of the earliest phases of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian culture. He then identifies the emergence of Christianity as a crisis point in human history, because this new faith wants to separate religion and government. He explains that this is why ancient societies wanted so desperately to kill Christians: they found this new belief intolerable. Rousseau blames Christianity for creating a social split which has never fully healed. To this day, he says, we see religion and government as two separate things. Human society can never be fully at peace until they are reunited.

To further complicate his analysis, he makes the distinction, as do other historians, between the real Christian faith on the one hand, and what most people usually consider to be Christianity on the other. Rousseau winds up rejecting both, though, because they both lead to the social split identified earlier. Rousseau says that the only hope for human society is to get rid of Christianity in any form entirely.

In its place, he has invented his own religion. In contrast to Christianity, it has no basis in historical events; it is a collection of Rousseau's own personal ideas. Rousseau rejects the idea that God would ever freely forgive humans and extend unearned favor toward them. Instead, he wants to teach people that they must earn their own way into heaven, or be damned. Rousseau believes that his religion is central to any chance for a human society to heal itself, so he recommends that we make Christianity illegal, and require everyone to believe Rousseau's theory about God. Anyone who might reject Rousseau's made-up religion should either be exiled or put to death.

The bizarre theory of religion lies at the base of Rousseau's envisioned society, and is a part of his plan to "force people to be free."

Isaac Newton and Jesus?

As we investigate the work of Sir Isaac Newton, it becomes clear that for this genius, all of modern mathematics and physics are seen as an extension of a spiritual reality. Calculus is the mathematical plan by which the universe was designed, according to Newton; his astronomical observations and his refinements in telescope design were done largely with an eye to calculating the dates of events in the Bible through stellar movement. Yet, for this most religious of men (Newton wrote more books about God and the Bible than he wrote about mathematics and physics), the exact nature of his religious beliefs remains a matter of controversy.

Newton spent most of his life in or near the university in Cambridge, England.

Some historians are inclined to view Newton as a Christian, because Newton does clearly state that Jesus is both the Savior of all humans and the Son of God. Further, he clearly states that Jesus rose from the dead, in the most physical and bodily sense. Finally, Newton proclaimed that the texts of the Tanakh and the New Testament were historically true and literally accurate; Newton wrote entire books, commenting in detail about the writing of the prophets (he could read Hebrew and Greek very well). All of which would make it seem that Newton is probably a Christian.

Yet other historians say that Newton was not, technically speaking, a Christian. They imply that Newton developed some very radical religious views, so strange that he cannot be called a Christian. First, Newton doubted the usual sense of the Trinity: Newton claimed that, although Jesus is both the Son of God and the Savior of the human race, yet Jesus is not identical with God nor equal to God. Second, Newton engaged in some rather occult practices, including the practice of alchemy (in the broader sense of magical chemistry, rather than the narrower sense of the attempt to synthesize gold). These two factors may be enough to make it questionable whether or not Newton can accurately be called a Christian.

Newton's chief work was published in 1687 under the title Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, meaning Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. In one of his history books, written around the same time but published later, he wrote, “I take it for granted that the Passion was on Friday the fourteenth day of the month of Nisan, the great feast of the Passover on Saturday the fifteenth day of Nisan, and the Resurrection on the day following.”

Thursday, March 27, 2008

It Must Be True - I Saw It On The History Channel!

The flood of documentary films which fills both classrooms and many hours of cable television can powerfully inform or misinform millions of viewers. We watch them regularly, and there is a psychological temptation to believe or trust what they show or say. But how reliable are they?

Documentaries can misinform in several ways. First, the images themselves can be misleading. Often, if no still or movie picture of a historical event is available, some "reenactment" or "simulation" is often shown. But any such footage is, at best, an educated guess, and not as reliable as actual historical photographs. Worse, when a reconstruction or simulation is too expensive to manufacture, stock footage from Hollywood films is often inserted. Hollywood is fine for entertainment, but lousy for informing and educating.

Even when actual footage or still photos are available, there is a double bias: first, of the original photographers on the scene, and then of the selections made for the film.

A second danger of documentary films is not in what you see, but in what you hear. Typically, several experts or eyewitnesses are interviewed on camera. Of the many hours spent interviewing, only a few minutes will wind up on camera - and those are often chosen, not for the information, but rather for the drama, which they present. And of the "experts" interviewed, it is understood that one who has a radical or iconoclastic interpretation to offer will be the most interesting on-screen, even if that alleged specialist is sadly mistaken. Historians and scientists whose views are outrageous rather than rational make for entertaining films, but not not for informative ones.

Even the background music can be misleading: a recent documentary about English history showed scenes of London in 1965, while playing "Won't Get Fooled Again," a song not recorded until 1971. The film gave the misleading impression that the song was written in mood of that historical moment, when it was in fact written at a time far removed.

A final strike against documentary films is that the actual amount of information - of quantifiable data - is rather small for the time investment. For sixty minutes spent watching a documentary, compared to sixty minutes spent reading a textbook, fewer facts are gained. Documentaries are simply an inefficient way to inform one's self about a topic.

William Blake and the Doors

Jim Morrison's 1960's rock group, The Doors, took its name from one of William Blake's poems, in which Blake laments the spiritual blindness of humans:

If the doors of perception were cleansed,
Everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.
For man has closed himself up,
Till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.

Blake's concern here revolves around the relation between reality and perception. He sees that, as a result of the Fall, as a result of the imperfections which have become part of human nature, our perception of reality is inaccurate. Can we fix our perceptions? Can we learn to see things as they really are? In addition to being a poet and a painter, and engaging in other forms of the visual arts (e.g., drawings, engravings, etc.), Blake is here concerned with what is fundamentally a philosophical question: to what extent can humans have clear and unhindered access to reality? To what extent can I escape my own bias and prejudice to see things as they really are?

Blake's answer is found in the title of one of his short writings, "There is No Natural Religion", and places him into the midst of one of the great philosophical debates, not only of his era, but also of our era.

The discussion revolves around two possible versions of religious thought: "natural religion" is a view championed by rationalist philosophers, who thought that the most accurate information about God is available to human reason through the process of logical reflection; "revealed religion" is alternative, endorsed by empirical philosophers, who state that only by examining external evidence (mainly texts) can humans correctly inform themselves about God.

By endorsing the idea of "revealed religion" and rejecting the idea of "natural religion," Blake joins Issac Newton, John Locke, and Robert Boyle. For Blake, then, rational thinking and logical argumentation alone are not enough to fully inform us about reality. To "cleanse the doors of perception," Blake wants us to use our five senses to learn additional information, important information, about God. Logic and reason, says Blake, will tell us perhaps, at most, that God exists, and that He created the universe. But to learn the more interesting and relevant facts about God, i.e., that He loves all humans, that He forgives sins, etc., Blake tells us to use our senses, to study nature, to study texts and language, and to see the ultimate power which lies at the base of all which we experience.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Adam Smith - Then and Now

In the March 2008 issue of The Atlantic, author Walter Russell Mead notes that "in 1776, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, a sly and subversive classic." Smith's book is "too often mistaken today for a mere lecture on the benefits of capitalism," continues Mead. In fact, the book probably contains comments of a wider interest about human nature and society: "Smith saw what we see: the progress of modernity, he noted, was not undermining religion in the Britain of his day. Instead, religious revivals were blooming. These new religious movements often rejected the liberal values."

It would be only a few years after Smith's The Wealth of Nations that John Stuart Mill would start modern political liberalism and its rejection of Locke's principle of majority rule.

Adam Smith, from Scotland, but familiar with the industrialization process throughout England, "observed a relationship between these revivals and the process that we now call urbanization." As the alienation, later identified by Marx, left the individual workingman without a sense of community, "the city's small sectarian religious congregations gave rural immigrants a social-support network and a moral code." In the experience of the individual, "these movements were a response to the dislocations of modernity."

In a different aspect of society, the technological innovations of the industrial revolution continued a trend which had begun in earlier centuries: the simultaneous deemphasis of organization religious institutions and the growth of individual religious spirituality. While technical geniuses like Michael Faraday grew increasingly unimpressed with the organized church, they became all the more committed to their individual religious faiths. So, while technological growth can undermine religious institutions, it seems to fuel increasingly serious personal commitments to spiritual beliefs: witness the missionary activities of chemist Robert Boyle, discover of Boyle's law.

"The symbiotic relationship between alienating, amoral modernity and fervent religion can still be seen," continues Mead. In modern education, in a technological society, "the intense competition for top university spots favors adolescents with steady homework habits, harmonious relationships with school authorities, and the ability" to control impulses when necessary to negotiate complex bureaucratic systems.

Technology, industry, and modern physics have not created a society of soulless robots; rather, it has reinvigorated personal spiritual activity. Isaac Newton symbolizes this well: while he was prone to disagree with a stuffy and inflexible Anglican church, he was even more prone to believe that "the Greek and Hebrew scriptures offer a wholly trustworthy guide to God's will for humankind."

It was, after all, not some conservative bishop or priest, but rather the radical Isaac Newton, who not only revolutionized physics and math, but also saw the events reported in the New Testament as central to the human experience.