Please contact Professor Charles Taliaferro or Alexander Quanbeck (class of 2017) with suggestions or contributions to this site (which is still under construction).
To practice, employ, or investigate ethical problems by applying Christian ethics (and Christian theology in general), is it necessary to assume or actually accept certain substantial positions about God, the cosmos, human nature, values, and so on? This is a question over which there is some disagreement, but our position is that it is not necessary to actually accept certain substantial positions about God, etc., in order examine normative issues from a Christian point of view. Indeed, as we note below, “Christianity” as a tradition has considerable diversity and so it may be that what one Christian believes about God differs considerably about what another Christian believes. We think that there are boundaries of what counts as Christian – for the term “Christian” to be meaningful, there need to be some clear-cut cases of when a position or person is not Christian. Thus, it seems pretty clear that the author of the book, Why I Am Not A Christian, Bertrand Russell, was not a Christian (barring a last minute conversion that was not recorded except by God and the angels). Still, we suggest that applying a Christian point of view does require us, at minimum, to look at ourselves as if certain Christian convictions, passions, and values made sense. These would include being able to suppose, imagine, or accept, for the sake of argument, that the love of God and neighbor are of paramount importance, and that the teaching and example of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (as disclosed in the New Testament) has normative force, even if the scriptural narrative can be variously interpreted. For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan is traditionally interpreted as valorizing the practice of treating and thus caring for a stranger, assisting him in healing and recovery. One may also see the parable as a repudiation of racism. But it would seem quite far afield to interpret the parable as commending the accumulation of wealth so that one can help others (even though Dame Margaret Thatcher did come close to suggesting this when she claimed that no one would have heard of the good Samaritan if he did not have money). To read the text of the parable, CLICK HERE.
One other important preface: one might (wrongly) get the impression that Christian theology from the beginning was an exclusively scholarly or academic enterprise. On the contrary, from the outset theology was thought of as passionate and inextricably bound up with a life of prayer, love, wisdom, and fellowship. You can see this in the work of Augustine, Anselm, Gregory the Great, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and others, in which it is explicitly affirmed that one cannot separate knowledge from love (love of God and neighbor), or separate theology (theologia) from piety (eusebeia). Theology was an affair of the heart (an affaire d’amour) whose purpose was to delight as well as teach. Theology became more “academic” (in both the positive and negative sense of that term) with the empiricist methodology of Ockham in the 14th century, which separated knowledge from passion.
There are several sections below: The first three address these questions: What might a non-Christian gain from studying Christian theology and ethics? Is Christianity, in any form, defensible from the standpoint of reason, or is it all blind faith? If Christianity is reasonable, does it follow that all forms of non-Christianity are unreasonable?
There follow, then, a series of observations, themes, and terms that may be important for both students and professors. It is not assumed that users of this site are already well schooled in world religions, but in answering the first question, some of the technical terms like ‘reincarnation’ or ‘monism’ are not defined at the outset (they are defined later, however).
TO BE ADDED: After the replies to the opening questions, there are references to some outstanding contributors to Christian ethics. Some of this overlaps with the ‘important figures’ section of this site, but they will be treated here as “persons of interest” (as they say in detective fiction) whom you may wish to address in your scholarship or personal reflections.
There is also the page entitled ‘Christian Ethics Part II,’ which addresses theories of interpretation when it comes to the Bible. Finally, there is the ‘History of Christian Theology’ page, which offers you a chronology of both Christian and non-Christian thinkers in the context of some world events.
The questions and replies that follow are aimed at making the engagement with Christian ethics maximally interesting to professors and students who are non-Christian as well as Christian; inquirers into Christianity who are open to exploring its positive and negative sides, as well as those convinced of it’s foulness.
The goal of this website is not to convince any user of the truth, plausibility, or value of Christianity, but to convince users that there is value in engaging Christian theology and ethics as part of an EIN course, even if the students and professor(s) are currently committed to believing that Christian theology and ethics are misguided or in great need of reform.
This entry is composed in the spirit of one of the greatest, fairest intellectual observers and natural scientists of all time, the philosophical anthropologist, mathematician, and linguist, Abū al-Rayhān Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī, otherwise known as simply Al Biruni (973-1048). He was the court scholar under several Muslim rulers, and while he was a servant of some of the most aggressive conquerors of India (Mahmud of Ghazni, who is still hated to this day by many), Al –Biruni wrote an amazingly sympathetic, honored study of the practices of Hinduism (basically all the different practices on the Indian subcontinent). He was acutely aware of the extraordinary differences between Islam and Hinduism, and so was especially careful to compose as fair and impartial study of Hinduism as possible. With his amazing background in Greek philosophy and multiple languages, along with such admirable openness, he is perhaps the greatest figure to ever study other cultures. And just to cite one of his accomplishments, he estimated the circumference of the earth with a margin of error of only 18 miles (compared with 2013 measurements). Al Biruni is a great hero for EIN professors and students. Another figure worthy of such acknowledgment is Krister Stendahl, former dean of Harvard Divinity School.
Dean Stendahl challenged scholars who study traditions they do not share to follow three principles: First, give attention to the adherents of the tradition. What do the adherents have to say? Consult them before consulting the opponents or enemies of a tradition. Second, do not compare their worst adherents or examples to your best. If you are comparing traditions (as Al Biruni did), compare the best of your tradition with the best of theirs. Third, leave some room for what Stendahl called ‘holy envy.’ This is when you allow yourself to admire the virtues of other traditions, perhaps with a longing that your own tradition had the same.
Critiques of Christianity are easy to come by. From its very beginning, some Roman imperial sources critiqued Christianity as a form of atheism that practiced cannibalism and incest. This was probably because early Christians rejected the gods of the Empire; they celebrated the Eucharist in which bread and wine is spoken of as the body and blood of Christ; and early Christians promoted opposite gender (male-female) friendships in which persons are called ‘brother’ and ‘sister.’
In fact, it is not rare to find that, in any given age, some of the most serious critics of Christianity are Christians themselves. This what we find in the Reformation, in the works of Luther and Calvin, as well as in the Counter-Reformation, when the Roman Catholic Church brought about radical changes in the Council of Trent. Pascal was another brilliant Christian (as well as a philosopher, mathematician, and physicist) who wrote excoriatingly of Christian hypocrisy. The Danish Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, whom St. Olaf College honors with a center for the study of his thought and life, was one of the leading critics of the Christianity of his day. He targeted the Danish State Church, which outraged him with its lazy, official “Christian” status, which he found inauthentic and oblivious to what it actually means to be a Christian. In the 20th century the journalist, essayist, novelist and Roman Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton went so far as to claim that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” Of course, there is also a long tradition of criticism by non-Christians, from the Roman Stoic Celsus on up to Voltaire, Diderot, Hume, Bentham, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Bertrand Russell, Mary Daly, and more.
If you are interested in critiques of Christianity, I would like to recommend God or Blind Nature?, edited by Paul Draper from Purdue University. Draper is an agnostic and a serious critic of Christian theism in light of the problem of evil (if God exists and is all powerful and all good, why is there so much evil?), but he is completely fair and makes no disguise of his respect for Christian faith. The following site, which contains debates between theists and non-theists, is also a good resource: Infidels.org
Draper and I co-edited the Blackwell Companion to Philosophy of Religion, second edition.
I also highly recommend the recent Debating Christian Theism thatpairs Christian philosophers with non-Christian philosophers, who debate everything from the problem of evil to fine-tuning arguments for theism.
Before getting to the first three questions, it is worth pointing to some statistics from the PEW foundation on the size of memberships of religions:
“The demographic study – based on analysis of more than 2,500 censuses, surveys and population registers – finds 2.2 billion Christians (32% of the world’s population), 1.6 billion Muslims (23%), 1 billion Hindus (15%), nearly 500 million Buddhists (7%) and 14 million Jews (0.2%) around the world as of 2010. In addition, more than 400 million people (6%) practice various folk or traditional religions, including African traditional religions, Chinese folk religions, Native American religions and Australian aboriginal religions. An estimated 58 million people – slightly less than 1% of the global population – belong to other religions, including the Baha’i faith, Jainism, Sikhism, Shintoism, Taoism, Tenrikyo, Wicca and Zoroastrianism, to mention just a few.”
There is also an interesting sociological account of European secularism. The sociologist Rodney Stark argues that secularism in Europe has nothing to do with modernity or the implausibility of faith. Stark offers this overview:
Rather, the apathy of Europeans toward religious organizations is the expected result of highly regulated and constrained religious markets that effectively prevent healthy competition. Virtual atheism is quite commonly and openly expressed by leading church figures in many European nations, especially in Protestant societies. By contrast, when Americans confront denominations and church leaders of this sort – and they do – they have many attractive alternatives. So, rather than cease going to church, as Europeans have done, Americans simply cease going to those churches and switch their affiliations. The point is that people will switch rather than quit whenever churches actively compete for their support. (Stark 2006, 64)
Stark’s work and other sociological accounts are well worth considering. Charles Taylor’s book on the nature and growth of secularism, A Secular Age, is also worthy of attention.
A minor, yet significant point about the importance of literacy in terms of world religions as a whole: while what follows is oriented toward enhancing and inviting an engagement with Christian theology and ethics, there is a massive need (as noted in the Introduction to this site) for all of us, but especially Americans, to develop a literacy in non-
Christian religions. While I am unable to disclose my source, I know from a first-hand participant that some of the persons in the Situation Room in 2003, at the highest level of power in U.S. government, who were trusted with the decision of whether to invade Iraq, did not know the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. This is a deep and profound deficit. Maybe they would defend this oversight on the grounds that the Mongols in the 13th century never could figure out the religious differences of the lands they conquered (they appear to have lumped together Judaism, Christianity, and Islam into one group called something like “middle-east-ism”). But when you think of the thousands of people who have died in Sunni-Shi’ite conflict in Iraq (essentially, the US invasion created a civil war), this ignorance borders on being inexcusable.
For an interesting look at the overall impact of religion in general, I highly recommend the book, Is Religion Dangerous? by Keith Ward.
FIRST QUESTION: What might a Christian or a non-Christian gain from studying Christian theology and ethics?
This question is briefly addressed in the Introduction to this site. Although there may be some overlap, please consider the following points:
A non-Christian has just as much reason to study Christianity as a Christian has for studying non-Christian ways of thought. This is partly because, as the global community becomes more aware of the plurality of traditions and alternative worldviews, it is vital to understand one’s neighbors or, come to that, to understand one’s self. Many of us have been shaped by traditions of which we are unaware. Christianity itself, for example, is not only shaped by its relationships with Judaism and Islam, but by Asian traditions, the European Enlightenment, African cultures, and so on. Christianity has taken different shapes on different continents, and contains elements that run parallel with strands in other religions. For example, you may find the debate in Christianity between the importance of faith and works very similar to certain debates in Hinduism and Buddhism. While Buddhism was originally non-theistic, there are cases of the Buddha himself being considered divine, an object of prayer and worship. While Hinduism is largely monistic (all is Brahman), there have been theistic strands in which the divine is considered theistic or personal. Furthermore, there have been monist strands within Christianity as well (especially from mystics like Jacob Boehme and Meister Eckhart). And while it might seem that belief in reincarnation is only found in Asia, this is not true. Plato and some neo-Platonists believed in reincarnation, and some Christian theologians have been quite sympathetic to the belief. On some views of the afterlife, Christian philosophers and theologians posit that the ‘resurrection body’ is not the re-assembly of the body you possess at death, but a new creation or re-creation of the body, which is not unlike reincarnation.
Moreover, Christians might welcome the idea of reincarnation more than it may appear. A 2009 PEW survey estimates that 24% of American Christians expressed a belief in reincarnation, 31% of regular observant (churchgoing) Catholics in Europe expressed a similar belief. Even the great Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria may have been on board with reincarnation.
Another note regarding the crossover of these traditions: At the Meditation Center in Minneapolis there was an extraordinary reading of the Sermon on the Mount by a Hindu Guru.
One may learn of the tension between faith and reason in Europe during the late medieval era, and also learn about it in Persia (Iran) within the context of the tension between the Baghdad School of Theology and Al-Gazali. A similarity with the Christian stress on grace can be found in Sufism (a form of Islam) and Pure Land Buddhism (as well as Judaism and Christianity). There may also be a similarity between the Christian doctrine regarding how the merit, or sacrifice, and goodness of Jesus absolved humans of sin, and some forms of Buddhism, in which this sort of “transfer of merit” is also adopted. CLICK HERE for more about this concept.
Inter-religious dialogue in partnership with Christianity also might make sense if you are a Muslim, for Jesus is considered a prophet in the Islamic tradition: he is mentioned twenty-five times in the Qur’an, in which it is affirmed that Jesus was born of Mary virginally, performed miracles, and, although he did not die on the cross, it is said that Allah “raised him unto Himself.” Some Hindus have thought of Jesus as an avatar of Krishna or Vishnu.
If you are a secular thinker (atheist, agnostic, or non-theist), what you might gain from studying the Christian tradition and ethics is an appreciation for certain Christian values you might wish to appropriate for yourself. The atheist Bertrand Russell expressed a deep appreciation for what he called “Christian love” in his autobiography. This worried many of his followers, and near the end of his life he offered this clarification:
“When, in a recent book, I said that what the world needs is “love, Christian love, or compassion,” many people thought this showed some changes in my views, although in fact, I might have said the same thing at any time. If you mean by a “Christian” a man who loves his neighbor, who has wide sympathy with suffering, and who ardently desires a world freed from the cruelties and abominations which at present disfigure it, then, certainly, you will be justified in calling me a Christian.”
We note below that some atheists (such as Gordon Kaufman) value elements of Christianity so much that they are self-identified Christians. If these figures are able to find value in a tradition in which they at least seem to deny its principle assertion (that God exists), then perhaps you might too.
One of the most famous existentialists, novelists, and philosophers of the 20th century, Albert Camus, was invited in 1948 to a Dominican Monastery in France to answer the question, ‘What does the world expect of Christianity?’ Camus began by clearly identifying himself, an atheist, as an outsider. And yet he added this call for Christians to live a life dedicated to protesting injustice:
What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today. The grouping we need is a grouping of men/women resolved to speak out clearly and to pay up personally . . .We are faced with evil. And, as for me, I feel rather as Augustine did before becoming a Christian when he said: ‘I tried to find the source of evil and I got nowhere.’ But it is also true that I, and a few others, know what must be done; if not reduce evil, at least not to add to it. Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you don’t help us, who else in the world can help us do this?
Between the forces of terror and the forces of dialogue, a great unequal battle has begun. I have nothing but reasonable illusions as to the outcome of that battle. But I believe it must be fought, and I know that certain men/women at least have resolved to do so. I merely fear that they will occasionally feel somewhat alone, that they are in fact alone . . .
It may be that Christianity . . . will insist on losing once and for all the virtue of revolt and indignation that belonged to it long ago. In that case Christians will live and Christianity will die . . . What I know–which sometimes creates a deep longing in me–is that if Christians made up their minds to it, millions of voices–millions, I say–throughout the world would be added to the appeal of a handful of isolated individuals who, without any sort of affiliation, today intercede almost everywhere and ceaselessly for children and for men/women.
One more point about why some non-Christians are fascinated with the concept of God. Here are some lines from probably the greatest living historian of ideas, Anthony Kenny (who is an agnostic):
If there is no God, then God is incalculably the single greatest creation of the human imagination. No other creation of the imagination has been so fertile of ideas, so great an inspiration to philosophy, to literature, to painting, sculpture, architecture, and drama. Set beside the idea of God, the most original inventions of mathematicians and the most unforgettable characters in drama are minor products of the imagination: Hamlet and the square root of minus one pale into insignificance by comparison.
But why should we focus on Christian theology and ethics at St. Olaf College? This is, in part, a historically contingent matter. If you had enrolled at the University of Tokyo, there might have been courses in Christian theology, but the main focus would have been on indigenous religious practices in Japan, China, and Korea. It might be added, though, that throughout Asia there is a strong interest in Christian theology and philosophy.
St. Olaf College was founded in 1874 by Lutheran Norwegian-Americans, named after the King and the Patron Martyr Saint Olaf II of Norway. Today, the St. Olaf community includes many persons of diverse religious heritage (Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, etc.) and many who are secular, while still retaining and reflecting its Lutheran foundation. As such, it is natural that the College should desire that its graduates have some grasp of Christian theology and ethics, whether the student or professor is a practicing Christian or not.
Further related reasons why non-Christians can gain from studying Christian ethics and tradition are offered at the outset of Christian Ethics Part II.
SECOND QUESTION: Is Christianity, in any form, defensible from the standpoint of reason, or is it all blind faith?
This is something you will need to determine for yourself. There have been advocates of the view that religious faith is NOT something that is subject to evidence or argument. This position is sometimes called “fideism” (akin to “faith-ism”). Something like fideism is defended by John Bishop in his book, Believing by Faith: An Essay in the Epistemology and Ethics of Religious Belief.
But it is important to note that John Bishop (like others who are considered fideists, like Tertullian and William James) do not believe that faith is “blind” or utterly impervious to evidence. What Bishop and others defend is that it can be intellectually responsible to “treat as true” or believe something on the basis of passion and values when the evidence for such a belief is ambiguous or cannot be decided solely on intellectual grounds.
The classic, forceful statement of the case for having some beliefs that cannot be evidenced solely by reason is laid out in William James’ famous essay, “The Will to Believe”: CLICK HERE to read it.
I suggest that we are familiar with numerous cases in which reason alone cannot decide matters. Imagine that the evidence is ambiguous concerning whether the person you love now will be a life-long partner, or you cannot decide on the basis of reason alone whether to go to law school or become an art historian, or you can only do one of two things to avoid an accident and the correct decision is unclear…these situations are many. In these cases, we may well do something random, or follow a hunch or intuition. Of course, when it comes to serious beliefs about the meaning of life it would be undesirable to rely on randomness, or hunches and intuitions. But James proposes that in some cases you cannot avoid making decisions even when reason alone will not guide you. One plausible case is the decision whether to believe in free will or determinism. Imagine you hold this position:
If determinism is true, then my whole sense of freely loving others is an illusion. I believe that I am in a loving relationship with Pat because I want to do so out of love. I might have decided not to commit to Pat, or I might have been indifferent. But if determinism is true, then this was not something that could have been otherwise. My loving Pat was necessary, given antecedent and contemporary events and the laws of nature.
Under these conditions, according to James, you face a choice of what to believe – the evidence does not decide matters for you. So, imagine you have some evidence that determinism is true, and some evidence that it is false. If believing in free will enables you to live more fully and deeply, James thinks you have reason to embrace that belief, even if this kind of reason does not support the truth of your belief.
Kierkegaard, the nineteenth century Danish philosopher we honor here at St. Olaf College, is a fascinating contributor to thinking about faith. But evidently, it is not only religious believers who possess what we can rightfully call faith. Perhaps Richard Dawkins had faith in his position when he claimed that he was unsure that God does not exist: CLICK HERE to read more.
Even if Dawkins is unsure that God does not exist, he must have faith that God does not exist in order to set out his position as follows: “I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, whatever they have been or will be invented.”
In any case, Christians for the last two thousand years have purported to believe in God and live a life of faith for good reasons. It should be noted, as some of these reasons are considered, that “belief” in a Christian context – as in many non-Christian contexts (religious or secular) – is not only belief as in “assent,” or the same as believing, say, that today is Saturday or that your car is parked by Holland Hall. “Belief” in a religious context is much more like trust.
What are the main reasons that have historically and contemporarily been appealed to, as to why Christian belief is true or worthy of trust?
Reasons for theism have included the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, teleological arguments, arguments from the emergence of consciousness and morality, the existence of good and evil, miracles, religious experience, or, more specifically, the experience of Jesus Christ as the risen redeemer who calls us into relationship with God and with others. For an overview of these reasons, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry.
Probably the most widespread reasons for embracing Christianity are experiential: the conviction / intuition / belief that the cosmos seems purposive or (despite all the suffering and evil) fundamentally good.
In terms of theism providing an account of the cosmos that is more promising than secular naturalism, the following is a plausible version of the cosmological argument: CLICK HERE.
The cosmological argument takes as its starting point the question of why the cosmos exists, or why this cosmos with its laws of nature exists. The question has an appeal that is widespread. J.J.C. Smart, a life-long atheist (he died last year) reported: “My mind often seems to reel under the immense significance this question has for me. That anything exists at all does seem to me a matter for the deepest awe.”
Actually the most recent theistic argument, and the one that changed Antony Flew’s mind (who went from being an atheist to being a theist) is the argument from “fine-tuning”. Here is a link to the latest work on such arguments and replies to objections: CLICK HERE.
Does the ostensible experience of some divine or sacred reality give one reason to think there is such a reality? A number of philosophers think the answer to is ‘yes.’ Probably the best current defense of such a position is the book, The Rainbow of Experiences, Critical Trust, and God: A Defense of Holistic Empiricism, by Kai-man Kwan.
Appealing to experience is not at all unphilosophical! In ethics some appeal inevitably has to be made to the observation or experience of goodness or wrongness, the justice or injustice of events. I will give an example of this after offering a bit more information about religious experiences.
Reported experiences of the divine often have a very affective, or emotional, dimension. An
example might be helpful. The British poet W.H. Auden reports the following experience:
One fine summer night in June 1933 I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues, two women and one man. We liked each other well enough but we were certainly not intimate friends, nor had any one of us a sexual interest in another. Incidentally, we had not drunk any alcohol. We were talking casually about everyday matters when quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly – because, thanks to the power, I was doing it – what it meant to love one’s neighbor as oneself. I was also certain, though the conversation continued to be perfectly ordinary, that my three colleagues were having the same experience. (In the case of one of them, I was able to later confirm this.) My personal feelings towards them were unchanged – they were still colleagues, not intimate friends – but I felt their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and rejoiced in it.
I recall with shame the many occasions on which I had been spiteful, snobbish, selfish, but the immediate joy was greater than the shame, for I knew that, so long as I was possessed by this spirit, it would be literally impossible for me deliberately to injure another human being. I also knew that the power would, of course, be withdrawn sooner or later and that, when it did, my greeds and self-regards would return. The experience lasted at its full intensity for about two hours when we said good-night to each other and went to bed. When I awoke the next morning, it was still present, though weaker, and it did not vanish completely for two days or so. The memory of the experience has not prevented me from making use of others, grossly and often, but it has made it much more difficult for me to deceive myself about what I am up to when I do. And among the various factors which several years later brought me back to the Christian faith in which I had been brought up, the memory of this experience and asking myself what it could mean was one of the most crucial, though at the time it occurred, I thought I had done with Christianity for good.
These kinds of experiences have been widely reported across cultures and times. Here is another case from St. Theresa of Avila:
It is as if a person were to feel that another is close beside her; and though, because of the darkness, he cannot be seen, she knows for certain that he is there. This, however, is not an exact comparison, for the person who is in the dark knows that the other is there, if not already aware of the fact, either by hearing a sound or having seen him there previously. But in this case nothing of that kind happens: though not a word can be heard, either exteriorly or interiorly, the soul knows with perfect clearness who is there, where he is, and sometimes what is signified by his presence. Whence he [God] comes, and how, she cannot tell, but so it is, and for as long as it lasts she cannot cease to be aware of the fact.
For a classical source that surveys the wealth of testimony about the ostensible experience of the divine, see Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism or, for a more recent source book, see Timothy Beardsworth’s A Sense of Presence and David Hay’s Religious Experience Today. Beardsworth provides many reported experiences, including some that are remarkably similar to the account of St. Teresa. The following is representative:
Then, in a very gentle and gradual way, not with shock at all, it began to dawn on me that I was not alone in the room. Someone else was there, located fairly precisely about two yards to my right front. Yet there was no sort of sensory hallucination. I neither saw him nor heard him in any sense of the word “see” or “hear”, but there he was; I had no doubt about it. He seemed to be very good and very wise, full of sympathetic understanding, and most kindly disposed towards me.
In theistic religious traditions, this reality is experienced as God, the Creator, merciful judge, and redeemer. Estimations of the extent of such experiences and their clarity vary widely. Some reports of this encounter with the divine seem very general and some are quite specific, involving revelations (either in propositions, visions, or the inspired imagination).
A range of philosophers, including Keith Yandell, William Alston, Richard Swinburne, Jerome Gellman, Gary Gutting, Carol Davis, William Wainwright, and Kai Man Kwan, believe that we should trust such experiences unless we have strong reason to doubt their authenticity (sometimes called “defeaters”). A defeater is a reason to think that some piece of evidence is false. Presumably, when we ask a stranger what time it is, under normal conditions, it seems we should trust his answer. This trust would be undermined if we heard reports that the stranger had a reputation for being deceptive, and this would be the “defeater”.
Of course, the argument from religious experience has many critics, including Matthew Bagger, J.L. Mackie, Michael Martin, William Rowe, and others. A good book by William P. Alston that considers a host of objections is titled, Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience.
Overall, there are respectable philosophers who defend theism today: Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Walterstorff, Richard Swinburne, Brian Davies, Eleonore Stump, Linda Zagzebski, Katherine Rogers, Jorge Garcia, and more. Quinton Smith, an atheist philosopher of science, noted what he refers to as “the desecularization of academia” that evolved in philosophy departments since the late 1960s:
Naturalists passively watched as realist versions of theism… began to sweep through the philosophical community, until today perhaps one-quarter or one third of philosophy professors are theists, with most being orthodox Christians…. In philosophy, it became, almost overnight, ‘academically respectable’ to argue for theism, making philosophy a favored field of entry for the most intelligent and talented theists entering academia today.
I suspect that estimate of theists is a bit high. But it is interesting that probably the greatest
living philosopher today, Thomas Nagel, writes that he has a fear of religion:
I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
What is interesting is that if Nagel “hopes there is no God,” he evidently does not claim to know there is no God. We rarely hope for something to be true if we know it is true.
Actually, a recent observation by Nagel provides the occasion for making a final point about religious experience here. In recent book reviews, Nagel noted that he and the theist Alvin Plantinga agreed entirely on the inadequacy of current secular accounts of the cosmos, and the emergence of consciousness and values. Here are their two books, Mind and Cosmos and Where the Conflict Really Lies.
Nagel, an atheist, noted that a key difference might be that he (unlike Plantinga) has had no sense of the divine. He went on to claim that if he did have such a sense he would think he was having a psychological breakdown. Nagel writes:
It is illuminating to have the starkness of the opposition between Plantinga’s theism and the secular outlook so clearly explained. My instinctively atheistic perspective implies that if I ever found myself flooded with the conviction that what the Nicene Creed says is true, the most likely explanation would be that I was losing my mind, not that I was being granted the gift of faith. From Plantinga’s point of view, by contrast, I suffer from a kind of spiritual blindness from which I am unwilling to be cured. This is a huge epistemological gulf, and it cannot be overcome by the cooperative employment of the cognitive faculties that we share, as is the hope with scientific disagreements.
Nagel makes a good point, but this may be partly due to how bizarre it would be for someone with zero inclination to recognize the existence of God, let alone Christianity, could be flooded with the feeling that a highly complex ancient creed is true, complete with its technical theological language. Perhaps only decades of familiarity with such language, and some experience of how it might have practical consequences, could enable the experience of its truth. For Nagel to have a sense of God there would have to be some intersection with what matters to him. The following would make more sense than the experience he suggests. The following fictional account is put in the first-person:
Something very puzzling happened yesterday. I was on my way to the seminar, trying to focus on my graduate student, Pat. Pat had just been diagnosed with cancer, and was given about 6 months to live. She is a Christian theist who has prayed for healing. What a waste! But then in the middle of Washington Square I paused for some reason. I had a nagging feeling that it would do no harm if I said a kind of atheistic prayer. This is what I did. I said aloud: ‘I do not think you are there or here or anywhere, God, and I do not know whether you are good or evil. But if you are, and you are good, look with mercy on Pat.’ I thought I might be going crazy when I said those words, but something changed. The seminar went well. Waking up the next day, I actually had a sense of being surrounded by the presence of some kind of loving reality (I will not use the word ‘God’). All of this is probably nonsense, but it has made me re-think a few things. I thought aloud: ‘I am not sure what is going on, but if you are kind, please have mercy on Pat, and not just on Pat, but on all those I love and care for, and on all people.’
THIRD QUESTION: If Christianity is reasonable, does it follow that all forms of non-Christianity are unreasonable?
This is not at all obvious. Incompatible positions on any number of topics can be reasonable. A Buddhist may reasonably believe that the evidence for her beliefs and practices are reasonable, while a Muslim may be reasonable in embracing Islam, and an atheist may be reasonable in believing there is no God.
But if you believe your religion (or your denial of all religions) is true, aren’t you claiming to be superior to other people? Isn’t that sort of arrogant?
There may be no philosophical position on anything that is immune to arrogance. A person might be arrogant about not being arrogant. But if someone claimed to be justified in believing something to be true (in ethics or religion), it is still possible for the person to be humble – she may think that the reason for her belief is that she is actually not the smartest, most imaginative, or insightful person in the room. She might think that it was actually her disabilities that enabled her to realize something that others were ignoring. This could be the case when a physically disabled person brings to the attention of “able bodied” persons that they are ignoring the needs of their fellow citizens. Humility and justified belief can go hand in hand.
Also, if you do have reason to believe you are right about something, and you do not share this, it may be a failure of kindness and consideration. Let’s take a bizarre example, but one that is based on a true case. A Chinese sage was concerned that so many people in his community seemed scared of angry ghosts. He came up with a number of effective arguments, at least against the kind of ghosts that his neighbors were reporting. One of his arguments was that if you were a disembodied being or ghost you would have no need of clothes. But all the ghosts seemed well dressed. Imagine he did not share his objections and his neighbors continued to live in fear of imaginary angry ghosts. In that case, we may well think that he was neither kind nor generous.
There is a great metaphor worth considering that sheds light on how various religions can have equally justified beliefs. John Hick and some others have proposed that many different religions may actually affirm or be directed on the same reality (Hick called it the REAL) but they are seeing and experiencing it from different points of view. Thus reality might be thought of as a large elephant, each religion a blind person inspecting (by touch) only that part of the elephant that is within their immediate grasp.
Let us now consider a variety of themes that may emerge in the course of considering Christian ethics and tradition. (WHAT FOLLOWS WILL BE EDITED AND EXPANDED)
RELATIONAL REVELATION VS PROPOSITIONAL REVELATION: Some theologians have thought of revelation as involving a relationship between the divine and its creatures. This is partly to juxtapose the idea that revelation is a matter of simply transferring information. However you wish to conceive of revelation in a Christian context, there needs to be some attention to the testimony of people who discover what they believe to be a relationship with God through the Bible. Consider the recent testimony of Phan Thi Kim Phuc (born in 1963) on NPR. She is probably best known as “the girl in the picture” of her and other youth running from an American napalm attack during the Vietnam Conflict in 1972. When she was in a hospital recovering from horrific wounds, she began reading the Bible, and reports:
I spent my daytime in the library to read a lot of religious books to find a purpose for my life. One of the books that I read was the Holy Bible.
In Christmas 1982, I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior. It was an amazing turning point in my life. God helped me to learn to forgive — the most difficult of all lessons. It didn’t happen in a day and it wasn’t easy. But I finally got it.
Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed.
Napalm is very powerful but faith, forgiveness and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope and forgiveness.
If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you?
A philosophy or theology of revelation needs to take such uses of the Bible seriously in an overall account of religious experience.
THE TRINITY: There are about a dozen philosophical / theological models of the Trinity, but perhaps the two most vital are referred to as the Latin and Greek views.
The Latin position stresses the oneness of God and tends to diminish the numerical distinction between the divine persons. So, followers of the Latin stance hold that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, but there is still only one God. This is further refined as the belief that God is one in substance, but three in person. It is called “Latin” because it was upheld by many of the theologians who spoke and wrote in Latin, such as Augustine. There is not a technical contradiction in the Latin model, for it does not affirm that there are three persons and only one person, but that there are three persons and one substance. Some extreme Latin models promote what is called “modalism,” according to which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three “modes” in which God is manifested. The blessing, “In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Holy Spirit,” or variations on this are prime examples of modalism in Christianity.
*Side note, we are using the traditional terms of “Father” and “Son,” but one can use gender-neutral terms as well – the arche (for the Father) or the begotten (for the Son), and so on.
One of the implications of modalism is that the Trinity is held to be about the relationship of God to creation, rather than a revelation of the inner life of God. The Greek model focuses more on what may be termed the inner glory of God. On this view, there is the external glory of God (God is experienced as worthy of awe, worship, love, etc.), as well as the inner glory of God. That is, within the Godhead there is a relationship of love between the three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is sometimes called “social trinitarianism.” On this view, the Godhead is not homogeneous, but contains a plurality of persons who are numerically distinct and yet are so inter-woven or “co-inherent” that they constitute one divine reality. One of the traditional arguments for this view of the trinity is an argument from perfect love:
P1. According to revelation, God is perfect love.
P2. If God is perfect love, God’s very nature must contain the three perfections of love.
P3. The three perfections of love are: love of self, love of another, and the love of two for a third.
P4. If God were only one being or person, then God would only have the perfection of self-love within the divine nature, and so would not have the full internal perfections of love.
P5. There must be an “other” in the divine nature, if God is to have the second perfection of love (love of another), but then God would still lack the third perfection of love.
C. If God is triune, then God embodies the three perfections of love; so when God creates (the love of three for a fourth), creation is seen as the pouring forth into creation a reflection of the inner glory and love of the Godhead.
How is this different from polytheism, the belief in multiple gods? First, on the Greek view the trinity is not composed of finite beings like Zeus or Thor with limited power, knowledge, values, etc. In speaking of God in terms of “persons” there is no affirmation that God is like a bearded old man, or the like the younger androgynous beings in Rublev’s icon of the Trinity (shown here).
Still, the three centers of love and being are linked, such that each “mind” or “center” has complete access to the others (knows the others with perfection) and the three together are so united in perfect goodness that their wills are in perfect unity. The Triune God acts as one, and can also act in numerically distinct ways (for instance, when God the Son becomes incarnate). The above reasoning was explicitly formulated by the 12th century mystic and Christian theologian Richard of St. Victor, and it is defended today by many (but not all) Christian philosophers such as Stephen Davis and Richard Swinburne. A Christian philosopher who opposes the Greek model is Brian Leftow of Oxford University.
Here are two passages from Richard of St. Victor:
That love must be mutual is required by the fact that supreme happiness cannot exist without the mutuality of love… a further analysis of the nature of true charity reveals that three persons, not two, are necessary. For charity to be excellent, as well as perfect, it must desire that the love it experiences be a love shared with another… Thus charity is not only mutual love between two; it is fully shared love among three.
When one person gives love to another and he alone loves only the other, there certainly is love (dilectio) but it is not a shared love (condilectio). When two love each other mutually and give to each other the affection of supreme longing; when the affection of the first goes out to the second and the affection of the second goes out to the first and tends as it were in diverse ways– in this case there certainly is love (dilectio) on both sides, but it is not shared love (condilectio). Shared love (condilectio) is properly said to exist when a third person is loved by two persons harmoniously and in community, and the affection of the two persons is fused into one affection by the flame of love for a third. From these things it is evident that shared love (condilectio) would have no place in Divinity itself if a third person were lacking to the other two persons.
An example of this kind of love may be found between the Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. At the beginning each had self-love, they loved each other, and they loved a third thing: the English language. Near the end of their lives, sadly, Coleridge’s self-love faltered, Wordsworth’s self-love evolved into vanity, and they lost the glory and freshness of their youthful, dynamic love (or so we suggest).
On the Greek model, within the Godhead there is ecstatic love out of which creation takes place. Creation is the love of three for a fourth, and when you love yourself (not in vanity, but as amour-propre), love another, and love a third (i.e. a thing, person, object) you mirror, and in a way participate in, the love that characterizes the Godhead.
Catherine LaCugna summarizes this conception of the Godhead in relational terms:
The life of God –precisely because God is triune –does not belong to God alone. God who dwells in inaccessible light and eternal glory comes to us in the face of Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit. Because of God’s outreach to the creature, God is said to be essentially relational, ecstatic, fecund, alive as passionate love. Divine life is therefore our life.
A further word on ‘glory’: In English today, we seem to reserve the term ‘glory’ for religious purposes, but the term and concept have a long history. The Greek term for glory in Homeric poetry is kleos, which can be read as the awesome, dreadful awe that is due to a hero who has done some great dead. Kleos concerns reputation, honor, and praise. In the Homeric context glory is a zero sum game. One obtains glory through victory in battle (think of the battle of Thermopylae, in which the Spartan soldiers fought to the death against the Persian army).
In Hebrew the term for glory is kabod. It can be used the describe persons, but (as in Pslam 24:7-10) God is understood to be the “King of glory”, thus making worldly glory (reputation, honor, praise) subordinate to that of God. Probably the greatest description of the shortcomings of worldly glory is the Book of Ecclesiastes (Hebrew Bible / Christian Old Testament). In the New Testament, the Greek term for glory is doxa, which suggests magnificence, splendor, brightness, or an awesome uplifting. Throughout the Christian tradition one can find examples of tension between worldly glory and what may be called God’s eternal glory. (So The Song of Roland may be draped in the language of divine, Christian glory, but one may read the poem in very pagan, Homeric terms).
IS CHRISTIANITY ANTHROPOMORPHIC? ‘Anthropomorphic’ means, literally, “in the form of humanity.” This question is complicated. Reasons for thinking the answer is ‘yes’ might be found in Biblical verses when God is described as walking in a garden or wrestling with Jacob or as having a face, hands, and arms. But these are almost entirely taken by Jews, Christians, and Muslims to be metaphors or perhaps references to a theophany (God using an appearance) or epiphany (a manifestation), not a reference to God as a vertebrate!
Any assessment of whether Christianity is anthropomorphic needs to take into account two matters. First, we must ask, what does it mean to claim that human beings are made in the image of God? This has been variously interpreted, but on one account it is taken to mean: God is everywhere present, all knowing, all powerful, all good, the loving Creator and sustainer of the cosmos, and humans possess these attributes to a lesser degree; while we are not everywhere present, we may be present at some place, while not all knowing, we can know some things, while not omnipotent, we can do some things, we can be good and loving and creative. So our resembling or sharing in some minor portion of God may be seen more in terms of our being like God than God being like us.
Second, the attributes noted above that Christians have identified in terms of what makes humans created in the image of God do not have any essential connection to the human species. That is, if what makes us image-bearers of God is our power to know, act, love, and so on, there could be other creatures on our planet or extraterrestrials in the next Galaxy, Alpha Centauri, that are equally image-of-god-bearing. Some Christians have speculated that there really are other image-bearers of God, and that other planetary systems may be sites of a divine incarnation.
THE GOODNESS OF CREATION: Much of Christian ethics historically affirms the goodness, or at least the original goodness, of creation. This is affirmed in a natural reading of Genesis 1. There is also some suggestion that the goodness of creation is not something that is assigned by God, but something recognized or seen by God. Affirming the goodness of the creation has been a major theme in Roman Catholic theology in which, according to Thomas Aquinas, the role of divine grace is to perfect nature (bring about its flourishing) rather than destroy it. There are, however, serious strands in Christian thought which see humanity (and sometimes nature as a whole) in a state of depravity or sin which requires divine grace to overcome and be redeemed.
THE LOVE COMMANDMENTS: In Christian value theory one is to love God with all of one’s heart, mind, and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. If you love God wholly, however, how can there be any love left for self and neighbor? Many believe that one can love God through having love for one’s neighbor and self. We do not have to choose: do you love God or the creation? One can love both.
SIN: This is the biblical and theological term for the violation of God’s will and nature. So, when one wrongly abuses another person, this is a violation of the other person as well as God, whose will is that the creation flourish and that all creatures seek to care for one another.
CONFESSION, FORGIVENESS, AND RECONCILIATION: It is widely held in Christian theology that wrong-doing must be confessed. This might be done in prayer or, ideally, to the person wronged, though conditions might exist that would make a confession result in great harm. Imagine you have committed adultery with a person in a country that punishes adultery with death. If you publicly confess the sin, the person you cheated with may be executed.
There is some disagreement about whether forgiveness requires the prior confession of a wrong-doer, but it seems that Christ forgives those who crucify him, who do not confess any sin.
Forgiveness involves releasing the wrong doer of blame, condemnation, or resentment.
In repentance, the wrong-doer must resolve to lead a new life.
Ideally, the wrong-doer needs to make restitution for what is lost. This may not be possible, but God may be able to make the restoration.
There are different accounts of the atonement. In the Christus Victor model, the repentant sinner comes to be unified in Christ’s restoring of creation.
Here is a brief outline of the Christus Victor model: CLICK HERE
In a chapter co-authored with a student, Rachel Traugher, we defended the Christus Victor model in the book, The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy.
ORDER OF LOVE: Many Christian ethicists and theologians believe that there is a proper order of love (ordo amoris) that defines a healthy, mature life.
For terrific expositions on the order of love see the work of Max Scheler and Deitrich von Hildebrand.
It may be difficult for we human beings to resist worshipping something (our egos, desires, nations, etc.) Worship of God is taking delight and expressing awe for supreme goodness itself. As such, it is not focused on an ego, but the embodiment of goodness.
For a general praise of praise, note C.S. Lewis’s observation:
But the most obvious fact about praise –whether of God or anything – strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise… The world rings with praise –lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their game… I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is appointed consummation.
THE POSSIBILITY OF THE AFTERLIFE: CLICK HERE to read about physical annihilation, spiritual preservation, and what ‘life after death’ could possibly mean. (Taken from a publication by Charles Taliaferro)
MIRACLES: Is it possible today to believe in miracles? German theologian and biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann wrote: ““It is impossible to use electric light and wireless … and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.” CLICK HERE to read more about the concept of miracles. (Taken from a publication by Charles Taliaferro)
INCARNATION: To read about the concept of incarnation (God becoming man), CLICK HERE. (Taken from a publication by Charles Taliaferro)