Living According to a Story

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29 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    If you haven’t checked out A J Jacob’s _Year of Living Biblically_, you might want to. He starts the book by saying that he was Jewish in the same way that Olive Garden is an Italian Restaurant but he spends a year following (or trying to follow, anyway) the Commandments in the Bible.

    It’s an interesting journey.

    • Avatar Kyle Cupp in reply to Jaybird says:

      I’ll have to check it out. Thanks!Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        It starts off masquerading as a humor book. (The introduction discusses beards and how guys with beards silently acknowledge each other.)

        Despite all of the humor, I find it to be one of the most serious discussions of post-modern faith that I’ve seen. I recommend it to pretty much everybody.

        (Also, if you haven’t seen the original theatrical version of Eric the Viking, I recommend that as well.)Report

  2. First of all, I really liked this post, and it will take me a while to absorb what you have said in order to appreciate it fully.

    I do have one comment–maybe it’s more of a musing–on one thing you have written:

    As atheist writers have noted, in the course of human history, many a supernatural explanation has been replaced by a natural explanation, but as of yet, no natural explanation has given way to a supernatural one. Given this trend, I find it unwise to hold on to God as an explanation, for sooner or later, what I use God to explain will likely be revealed to have a different basis.

    It does seem to me that the “natural” has an inherent difficult in explaining “why’s” and “should’s / ought’s” It seems to me that the act of seeking the natural explanation for anything does not even purport to explain those things. (Not that it’s important, but I’ll admit upfront that I identify as an agnostic who sometimes leans toward theism and that I am not very competent when it comes to philosophy.)

    Again, though, thank you for writing this.Report

    • During a discussion of the philosophy of science, at one point, a professor of my acquaintance threw out a curveball at some of the moralists in the room (sociology students).

      “Let us assume for a moment that we can indeed describe the causes of war scientifically. That is to say, at some point, someone has observations of accurate enough measure to say, ‘If you do (this set of things), you can prevent war.’ Is this ‘good’ knowledge, or evil knowledge?”

      Several students said it was good knowledge, I waited for his deliver of the punchline.

      “If we assume that this is actually accurate knowledge, then it is quite likely that there is a converse set of knowledge… that is, there is (another set of things) that one can do it *cause* war to come about. If we study one… ‘how to prevent war’, it is likely that we will discover as well ‘how to cause war’. We have therefore created evil knowledge, during the process of creating ‘good’ knowledge, if we accept your premise that knowledge itself can be ‘good’ or ‘evil’ as an essential property.”

      Science isn’t really about a metaphysical “why” or “ought”. It’s a structural “how” or a causal “why”. The explanatory domain of science isn’t really going to contain the answers to the questions you’re asking.

      Stick to the philosophy 🙂Report

    • Thank you. I wouldn’t look to science for an explanation of why one ought to act in such and such a way, but nor do I think one need necessarily turn to religion for an explanation for why X is morally right and Y is morally wrong. Ethics provides answers to these sorts of questions.Report

  3. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    I once read a grandmaster claim that there were five no-question-about-it good first moves to the game of chess: c4, d4, e4, Nf6, and g6. Other moves were either just plain bad (Nh6), or else interesting, but still inferior to the five good ones (f4 is actually quite playable, but it might not be my first choice in a really important game).

    Ultimately, what matters in the opening stages of the game is not which one of the big five moves you choose. In fact, you can get away with many of the “inferior” initial moves too, provided that you follow a sound strategy otherwise: develop the pieces without delay; occupy or at least influence the center; make no needless exchanges; put the king in a safe position. If you can do all that in ten to twelve moves, you’ve survived the opening.

    I think a lot of arguing about religion is analogous to arguing over which initial chess move is best. Good people — good at chess, or at life — have chosen all of the big five, so to speak, and sometimes some of the lesser ones too.

    Bobby Fischer called e4 “best by test,” and I think he may just be right. Yet plenty of awful players also play e4. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James made much of the biblical saying “by their fruits ye shall know them” — meaning, for him, that the outcome of religion was more important than the dogma. It may be that outcome is all that matters.

    If he’s right, we might not need religion-as-dogma at all. But it still feels good to play the very same move as Bobby Fischer, no?Report

  4. Avatar Pinky says:

    This might seem like a small point, but as I understand it, faith and hope (as well as love) exist in the afterlife. If heaven is spent getting to know and love God, then as the old song says, after 10,000 years we won’t be any further along in knowing the infinite God than when we began. You can spend an infinite amound of time pondering the infinite. And yet, that whole infinite time you’re going to be acting on faith (because without full knowledge, there can be no certainty, and the affirmation of an uncertainty is faith) and hope (because, again, without completeness we are still on a journey, and the anticipation of a future good is hope). But the greatest of these is love, which is God, the object toward which our faith and hope are directed.

    So I think that’s why we need to develop all three while still on earth.

    I’m not sure if what you’re describing is faith. It’s definitely not certainty. It’s said that there are four approaches one can have toward knowledge – certainty, faith, skepticism, or denial (certainty of the opposite). The subject of God doesn’t allow certainty as one would be certain of a potato. (What can I say, I’m eating lunch, and it’s hard to be more certain of anything than of a potato.) So that leaves you with faith or skepticism. Whatever you are, you’re not in certainty against God, so there’s room to grow in faith.Report

    • Avatar Kyle Cupp in reply to Pinky says:

      I seem to distinguish more than you between faith, which I’d define as a range of meanings from a believe in things unseen to a response to a God who reveals, and knowledge. Where you describe faith as an approach to knowledge, I consider it a different kind of act from knowing, though both may be aimed at truth.Report

      • Avatar Pinky in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        I put that badly. Where I said “four approaches one can have toward knowledge” I should have said “…toward a fact or a truth”. I realize that blurring the distinction between knowledge and a knowable thing is a rookie mistake in philosophy.

        I think you’re right that faith is both a response to an unseen thing and a response to the entity which communicates about an unseen thing. My response to a claim on Wikipedia is going to be an assessment of both the claim and the site making the claim. The Abrahamic faiths have always stressed that the claims about God weren’t being made by Moses, Paul, etc., but by God himself.Report

  5. Avatar Francis says:

    As best I can tell, the human mind has an almost infinite capacity for compartmentalization. One point I found curious: your belief regarding the reliability of 2000 year old evidence. Given your desire to believe, and the desire to believe of all the intervening retailers of the tale between then and now, maybe you should have a little more doubt. As scientists know (or should) the easiest person to fool is yourself.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Francis says:

      Indeed. As a skeptic (that’s my initial move, you know), I’d remind you that strong claims demand strong evidence.

      I have no trouble believing that a Jewish preacher named Jesus lived 2000 years ago. I have no trouble believing that the Romans crucified him. Asked to affirm the Resurrection, I’d have to answer that we need a lot more to go on.Report

      • Avatar Francis in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        Just one Jesus? I’m fond of the idea (because it confirms my beliefs) that the Gospels are varying attempts to tell stories about a time in which radical preaching was popular, then suppressed. The differences between the various gospels, including the heterodox ones, is explained by the different messages the writers of the gospel are trying to convey. But they all refer to a common Jesus as a literary device, not as an attempt to be historically accurate.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Francis says:

          I could believe that as well. I think the evidence doesn’t rule it out, anyway.

          There’s a strong parallel here with the life of Socrates. How much of what Socrates said is Plato’s invention? How much comes from the master himself? We’ll probably never know. The same appears true of Jesus.Report

        • Avatar Pat Cahalan in reply to Francis says:

          From a biblical history standpoint, it’s pretty evident (to me) that Mark is the only Gospel that was written *about* Jesus.

          Matthew, Luke, and John were all written *for* an audience (in each case a particular different audience). Thus the discrepancies.Report

        • Avatar Pinky in reply to Francis says:

          Some of the gnostic gospels seem to use Jesus as a literary device, but the four most prominent gospels all characterize Jesus as a doer as well as a speaker. Jesus is a believable character when the four gospels are read together. Some of the gnostic writings portray Jesus differently – as different from the four gospels’ description of him as dialogue-Socrates is different from Republic-Socrates.

          Another difference is that no one tortured Plato to make him admit that his later Socrates wasn’t authentic. A lot of the gospel writers and their friends died rather than say that their Jesus wasn’t real. And their deaths indicate a confidence in, not just the words depicted in the gospels, but in the actions.Report

      • Alas, there are situations in which we have very little to go on and so in which we must make a choice to believe or not believe with what little we have.Report

        • Avatar James K in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

          I’m not sure what you mean by choice. However much or little evidence one has, that evidence will point toward one hypothesis as being more likely than the alternatives. If you don’t then go with the probabilities implied by the evidence then what you are choosing is to me more wrong than you need to be.Report

          • Avatar Kyle Cupp in reply to James K says:

            The evidence I have at a given moment may point to hypothesis X as more probable than hypothesis Y, and yet if I’m missing key evidence or what might be key evidence, then my choosing X because X is more probably at the time could be a choice against what is real. In the case of the Resurrection, I’m not sure that we can gather conclusive evidence one way or the other, so at the end of the day, I either choose to believe it happened or I choose not to believe.Report

    • Avatar Kyle Cupp in reply to Francis says:

      Oh, I’m good friends with doubt. On some days it seasons my faith; on others it’s the base ingredient. As I mentioned in the post, I admit that my faith may not be true and it may not even be faith. I willingly remain open to those possibilities.Report

  6. Kyle, I really enjoyed this post. A few considerations:

    1. My wife is a Buddhist and I am a Catholic, and I actually find a lot more in common between the two traditions than between say Catholicism and evangelical varieties of Christianity. In particular are the ideas that salvation is found by living a virtuous life, the importance of ceremony and ritual, deference to authority, respect for the natural world, obsession with death, monasticism, humans as dust, etc…

    2. You say: “As atheist writers have noted, in the course of human history, many a supernatural explanation has been replaced by a natural explanation, but as of yet, no natural explanation has given way to a supernatural one. Given this trend, I find it unwise to hold on to God as an explanation, for sooner or later, what I use God to explain will likely be revealed to have a different basis. If I believe in God because God explains this, that, and the other thing, then I can be almost sure to have a belief that’s not long for this world. When science or philosophy answers this, that, and the other thing, what will be left of God? Nothing may be impossible for God, but a god used to explain the world may well, in the end, be reduced to nothing.”

    I think you’re guilty of accepting the atheist’s crude reductionism as the only lens through which it may be acceptable to view the world. Science as we know it is part of the Cartesian program, which means it’s all about cutting off and isolating elements in order to understand them. As a metaphor for this process, consider the human body: we may understand the processes underlying the cell, or we may understand the mechanism of some disease, but that doesn’t tell us anything about the person; in fact, scientific knowledge only increases the amount of questions we feel compelled to answer. 10,000 years ago, before culture really took off, the big questions which we felt compelled to answer were along the lines of “what are the seasons?” and “why do we die?” We’ve answered the first question. but in so doing opened up a Pandora’s box of (literally) cosmic questions. We still don’t have a satisfactory answer for the second question. So you’re right that no natural explanation has been replaced by a supernatural one, but each natural explanation we unearth has dramatically expanded our awareness of just how much we don’t or can’t know.

    3. Have you read Life of Pi?Report

    • I should clarify that I don’t rule out all supernatural explanations. I don’t think you can give a scientific or philosophical explanation of sanctifying grace that sufficiently covers the territory. What I mean to say is that I don’t approach God as the explanation for what I cannot explain by other means. The existence of God may explain a great deal, but I don’t approach the divine within that framework.Report

    • And, no, I haven’t read Life of Pi, though the title sounds familiar.Report