Monday, August 20, 2012

Qui Est Veritas?

So just what is "Truth" anyway? Well, that question might be too big for a blog post.
Today, rather, I want to ramble a bit about the issue of utility. My question, in a nutshell, is this: Could Christianity still be useful even if its claims weren't "true" -- and I mean "true" in the old-school, commensense sense. True in the sense of the "correspondence" theory of truth, if one must put it this way: My "true" statments "mirror" some external, "objective" reality. Truth in the sense upheld by the naive realist. True in the sense of the toddler who cries out, "Daddy, the bee stung me" rather than that of a  mediocre poet who opines, "Idaho is great!"

But I digress. This post is not going to be about epistemology, a thicket into which I'm not prepared to wade at this time. Let's just assume, for the sake of this post, the "commensense" notion of truth so I can get on with it. I mean true in the sense in which "I'm sitting at my desk" is not a metaphor for "I'm riding an aardvark", or vice versa. I mean true in the sense that the statement "Jesus rose bodily from the dead" cannot be confused as a metaphor for statement "He didn't."

I'm not really equipped right now to delve into the more constructivist notions of truth that one might find, for example, among pragmatist philosophers. So I won't do so. It would be impractical, and it would reveal rather painfully what a philsophical diletante I am after all.

So, then, "Qui Est Utilitas?"

(I don't read Latin, by the way, so if I've made a blunder, please cut me some slack. The internet deconstructs all grammatical conventions anyway.)

I once attended a discussion between two high powered intellectuals, who were both, at that time, faculty members at a prominent divinity school. The theology club there had invited the pugnacious atheist religious studies scholar Professor Eleanor Lane to join the theologians for a brown-bag lunch conversation. Representing the constructive theologians was Professor Penny Rigby, whom I great admire. (Names, perhaps even genders, have been changed to protect...well, me.)

Professor Lane, a Marxist and avowed secularist, is notorious for being adamantly opposed to constructive disciplines like theology and ethics having a place at the table in academic religious circles. For some reason, she had accepted the invitation -- I don't think lunch was provided, so it couldn't have be that.

Ms. Rigby argued very ably -- but rather ineffectually, I think, in this particular contest -- that Christian theology had a distinctive contribution to make within the context of the secular arts and sciences. Now this, on the face of it, seems resonable to me; yet this claim is not self evident to everyone who doesn't teach at the University of Virginia.

She gave a sort of pragmatic defense for theology as a discipline that might prove its usefulness by helping to promote human flourishing and social justice. Such an approach takes seriously and seeks to answer the common claim that religion as such is intrinisically oppressive.

Such a rehabilitation of theological discourse is promising. Indeed, it happens all the time. Intereligious discussions of ethics and justice come to mind. It's reasonable to expect theology to have some real-world value. This approach to theology appropriates one of the legitimate demands articulated by theologies of liberation: Make it real.

But is this really enough? For some of us -- even for Ms. Rigby herself -- theology means a whole lot more.
My question here is just how adequate a strictly pragmatic approach to the content of the faith could be, especially for the believer who has made a life-consuming commitment to this faith. I think my tentative answer has to be: Not so much.

At this luncheon, the atheist Professor Lane would have none of what Ms. Rigby and we bumbling theology students had to offer. In her view, she had nothing to discuss with the theologians. The  methodological vantage points and commitments of the secular theorist and the commited religious thinker were inherently contradictory -- or, as a postliberal might put it, incommensurable.

One of the theology students, a bright young man with long hair, seconded Ms. Lane's assertion:
Theologians are making claims based on an understanding of revelation. The secular oponent will never be able to concede this, so there is an impasse in the dialogue. We should all stick to an area in which we all could agree: The divinity school cafe had the best coffee on campus.

I found what this student said refreshing (Perhaps by now he's the star faculty member at some conservative Christian college, for all I know.)  Why is this? Possibly, in part, because we were in cramped seminar room where I had to sit on the floor, and I was a little grumpy. But maybe there's more.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that we conceive Christianity as a sort of salutary "myth." Here I don't mean "myth" in the more positive and nuanced sense often articuated in theology and religious studies; that usage, roughly, would conceive myth as conveying profound yet non-literal truths. No, I mean "myth" more in the sense of "I-can't-believe-you're-asking-me-to-swallow-that-crap." Like the myth that the Rothschild family secretly engineered the recent disasterious Facebook IPO. -- Okay, I just made that one up, but you get the basic idea. "Urban myths" aren't metaphors: They're baloney -- metaphorically speaking, that is.

Let's say one conceives Christianity as a kind of Santa Claus myth. (The last theological treatment of the Santa myth was in Miroslav Volf's superb book Free of Charge) Of course, all adults know that Santa Claus is not real (No, no, please calm down. I'm speaking hypothetically here). Common grown-up wisdom is that Santa is an imaginative construct in whom only young children -- and a few rather stupid teenagers, perhaps -- actually believe. Nonetheless, one might say, the Santa myth is worth perpetuating because it motivates children to behave, at least in the weeks following Thanksgiving. Santa is "real" in that Johnny believes in him and doing so makes Johnny behave well. Santa Claus doctrine and ethics have a certain social utility; therefore parents, toy manufacturers and advertizers are justified in perpetuating this myth.

(Actually, I think the notion that Santa faith actually makes kids act any better is more implausible than the actual story itself.)

Well, what have the critics of Christianity been saying? "Shame, shame, shame on you! What cynical people you are." Ludwig Feuerbach leads the chorus of whistleblowers, followed by his progeny: Freud, Marx and Nietzsche. Christianity is projected, all made up, manipulative, they say. And that's a bad thing. Words like "alienation," "wish fulfillment", "ideology", even "neurosis" enter the lexicon. Religion used to dupe and control a docile populace. Faith used to stunt your true potential. To avoid facing your mortality. False hope. False consolation. Pie in the sky by and by when you die. And so on.

Again, I'm not arguing about whether we can or should consider the positive, public, pragmatic potential of faith and theology. Of course we can. William James wrote that religious experience, in part, should be judged by its fruits. The Gospel of Matthew says something similar too, with a bit more gusto.

The question is whether such pragmatic criteria by themselves will be enough for the believer to be fully committed. What if it all turns out to be based on a lie? Is this a problem? I think so.

Christianity has a pesky way of conflating the good, the true and the beautiful. Something that isn't really true can't be ultimately beautiful, and the good subsists only in that which is true. And blindly following a lie leads you into a ditch, or worse.

Just check out the Gospel of John, for instance, where the Evangelist talks about "doing the truth." This "doing" flows from faith, and faith is rooted in the object of that faith, and that faith is Truth himself. And only within that Truth are faith and works -- and theory and practice -- ultimately unified.

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