Monday, May 20, 2019

AFI - The Great Disappointment

"While I waited, I was wasting away, hope was wasting away, faith was wasting away"

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A Christocentric Response to Vivekananda's Universal Religion

...if there is ever to be a universal religion, it must be one which will have no location in place or time; which will be infinite like the God it will preach, and whose sun will shine upon the followers of Krishna and of Christ, on saints and sinners alike; which will not be Brahminic or Buddhistic, Christian or Mohammedan, but the sum total of all these, and still have infinite space for development; which in its catholicity will embrace in its infinite arms, and find a place for, every human being, from the lowest grovelling savage not far removed from the brute, to the highest man towering by the virtues of his head and heart almost above humanity, making society stand in awe of him and doubt his human nature. It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognise divinity in every man and woman, and whose whole scope, whose whole force, will be created in aiding humanity to realise its own true, divine nature.
Indian mystic Swami Vivekananda made these bold claims in an 1893 address. In a sociological sense, the man was a prophet. The quotation reads like an affirmation from a liberal multiculturalist, with its emphasis on cooperation between fellow men and the abolition of labels that divide us. Some might say that it even sounds "postmodern," in the sense that it suggests that the same truths are capable of being derived from different religions. It cannot be "postmodern," however, because Vivekananda was proposing a solution to religious-conflict, and especially because he was speaking in terms of universals. Both of these would surely only stir the postmodern incredulity against metanarratives.

In any circumstance, the quotation is confusing. While it is beautiful for its pursuit of solidarity, Vivekananda seems to be verging on some sort of bizarre proto-relativism. Is such a reading uncharitable?

On the one hand, Vivekananda was a Hindu. It might initially seem that his belonging to a particular religious group might undermine his entire argument for the credibility of a universal religion. He is arguing for a universal religion but only from the perspective of a Hindu. However, this would just be resorting to the ad hominem tu quoque fallacy, so we can neatly brush that aside. On the other hand, universal religion clearly has not been recognized, as all of the religions mentioned in the quotation are still relevant in the contemporary world-at-large.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that it is not uncommon for Hindus to be pantheistic. Though this is not always the case (see the definitions section on Wikipedia), there seems to be some evidence that Vivekananda was a pantheist. Insofar as pantheism can be both defined as either "a doctrine which identifies God with the universe" or "worship that admits or tolerates all gods," the swami's words seem to fit quite comfortably. However, we need not use the man's words to say things he never actually said. If we are to conclude that he was a pantheist rather than a proto-relativist, he was not necessarily arguing that there are no internal contradictions between different religions en masse, but instead, that he was seeing the same God at work in different places.

For being a Hindu pantheist, it is strange how Vivekananda focuses on both God's transcendence and immanence. Discussions of pantheism usually begin and end with immanence. Again, he outlines a universal religion that defies space and time, mentions God's attribute of infinitude, and insinuates the necessary collapse of religious institutions; but he also explicitly mentions divinity residing in every man and woman. Evelyn Underhill, in the chapter "Mysticism and Theology," writes the following: "Unless safeguarded by limiting dogmas, the theory of Immanence, taken alone, is notoriously apt to degenerate into pantheism..." (Mysticism, page 99).

And yet, in some ways for Vivekananda, it seems that he was reluctant to accept God's immanence because he claims that God's "sun will shine upon the followers of Krishna and of Christ." In the Christian tradition, the transcendent God became incarnate in Christ Jesus. God is still transcendent, to be sure, but through Christ can be known in a more personal way. Underhill stresses this point on page 120 of the aforementioned work: "In the last resort, the doctrine of the Incarnation is the only safeguard of the mystics against the pantheism to which they always tend."

I should like to also note that when God is not understood in pantheistic terms, that does not necessarily separate God from the universe entirely. In fact, by intuition I would think that this is rarely the case. One theological option available is panentheism, which can be defined as "the belief that the divine pervades and interpenetrates every part of the universe and also extends beyond space and time." Colin Brown, on page 235 of Philosophy & the Christian Faith, labels Martin Buber as a panentheist. Buber writes in I and Thou: "Looking away from the world is no help toward God; staring at the world is no help either; but whoever beholds the world in him stands in his presence" (page 127). Sometimes panentheism has also been associated with open theism, a controversial but fascinating perspective on human free will and God's foreknowledge. Gregory A. Boyd describes open theism in Satan and the Problem of Evil as:
The view that the future consists in part of possibilities ... It does not have to dismiss as "anthropomorphic" the many passages in which God changes his mind, speaks about the future in terms of what might happen, tests people "to know" what is in their heart to do or experience regret, surprise or disappointment (page 426).
Another question worth asking: is it fair for Vivekananda to compare Krishna to Christ? Guy L. Beck, a religious historian, notes in Alternative Krishnas:
The empirical evidence of inscriptions, dated monuments, and original manuscripts is not perhaps as strong for Krishna as in some of the other examples of religious figures. However, most scholars of Hinduism and Indian history accept the historicity of Krishna ... Despite the obvious importance of Krishna for the history of India and Hinduism, there is as yet no serious "biography" much less a "standard" one (page 4).
Based on this account, the robustness of Krishna's historicity is ambiguous at best. However, regarding Jesus, the agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman writes: "He certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees" (Forged, page 285). That being said, Christ's crucifixion/resurrection is an issue which causes more division. Perspectives vary from a literal resurrection, to a stolen-body hypothesis, to a non-crucifixion altogether. Some of the common evidence in favor of the literal resurrection include the empty tomb, Jesus' post-mortem appearances, and the cause of the disciples' belief (all of which William Lane Craig discusses in this article).

I have included much data in the paragraphs above, but what kind of summary can be drawn? God is both transcendent and immanent, as Swami Vivekananda rightly notes, but I think he misses the mark on what God's transcendence and immanence actually refer to. The idea that different religious institutions ought to collapse and that an ultimate religion can be derived from them, as if they were numbers in a mathematical equation, is sociologically incoherent. I would also agree with Underhill that God's immanence is best found in Christ. In the final analysis though, my crude theoretical exploration is only successful in sorting details out. What is truly important is for the individual to accept Christ's meditation between them and God, and this I suspect is something that is not truly theoretical at all.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Communitarianism (Picture Summary)

Beyond Liberalism: Communitarianism

Charles Taylor and Communitarianism
Chapter five of George Crowder's Theories of Multiculturalism focuses on an alternative to liberalism, namely, communitarianism. As Crowder mentions, the main contention between these two social philosophies is that liberalism emphasizes the importance of individuals while communitarianism emphasizes the importance of community (page 103). Crowder discusses two components within this contention, both of which focus on values. What follows are the ideas of Charles Taylor and those who conform to his type of thinking. The first component has to do with how people come to have values. From a liberal perspective, individuals choose values for themselves, much like selecting a certain product from a wide variety of goods in a marketplace (103). Communitarians, on the contrary, believe that this is too individualistic and overlooks the effect that the whole (the community) can have on the part (the individual), not only in terms of values, but for other characteristics like language and culture (103). Crowder mentions an interesting objection on behalf of the communitarian here; this idea of choosing one's own set of values seems to assume a neutrality of disposition, that is to say, they are apart from any conception of what constitutes the good; but if this is really true, that an individual can exist without a conception of the good, then why is it inconceivable for the same to be said about the state (103)? Imagine a state without any ties to an ethical code, and you would surely get nothing but anarchy.

The second component has to do with whether or not community is intrinsically valuable. According to communitarians, the liberal ideology denies that community has inherent value, which is in opposition to their perspective. This is due, once again, to the individualism that liberalism endorses. Such individualism is not opposed to a confectionery of value sets existing within a single society, while communitarianism is more interested in the idea that there can be shared values among a society (103).

At this point I would like to turn to the next major category: recognition. The object to be recognized here is the unique claims of a particular group. The question, then, becomes: what is the correct way to approach these particular groups and their unique claims? Taylor brings forth the idea that individuals and groups should be understood as being equal in dignity though, at the same time, they should be treated differently (105-107). This approach, in short, is called the politics of difference (106). Such an idea is perhaps best understood when considering Taylor's place of residence, Montreal, Quebec. Unsurprisingly, he is in favour of Quebec being a politically autonomous province (106).

Based on my interpretation, Taylor thinks that other Canadian provinces are no better than Quebec and vice-versa. However, to provide my own analogy, each province can be imagined as a different game. No single game is better than another, but there are different rules which make up each particular game. Taylor hints at this attitude, as he has suggested that it is not wrong to assimilate minorities who want to become citizens of Quebec (i.e. by having them speak French) (108-109, quoting Lamey 1999:14). If you want to play a certain game, you have to play by its rules.

Catholic Community
So far, I have presented to you some of the ideas of Charles Taylor, but I have not yet given you an accurate depiction of the person. It is worthwhile to note that Taylor is a practicing Catholic, as mentioned in an interview published in Broadview a few years ago. The reason this implication is important is because of the common traits between communitarianism and Catholicism. Catholic blogger Joe Hargrave notes some of the ideas that have been transferred from the Church to the social philosophy. Pius XI, who reigned as Pope from 1922-1939, referred to individualism and collectivism, especially in relation to economics, as the "twin rocks of shipwreck." More generally, in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, the importance of community is very much accentuated: "The Christian vision of political society places paramount importance on the value of community, both as a model for organizing life in society and as a style of everyday living." A most important resource for Christians, Catholic or otherwise, is of course, the Bible. A verse that could be interpreted as amenable to communitarian principles is Mark 3:25 which says: "If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand."

If there is one sociological study which affirms the communitarian spirit of Catholicism, it would have to be Émile Durkheim's study on suicide, published in 1897. One of the types of suicide within his theory is egoistic suicide, referring to individuals who are not well integrated in society at large (see page 93 of George Ritzer's Sociological Theory). Two of the groups he considered were Protestants and Catholics; as Ritzer notes, Protestants were more likely to commit suicide because the former emphasizes individuality while the latter emphasizes community (94). Drawing upon the work of Morselli, Durkheim's chart of average of suicides per million inhabitants shows a stark difference between suicide rates in Protestant countries (Prussia, Saxony, Denmark) and Catholic countries (Spain, Portugal, Italy). The Protestant countries rendered a total of 190 while the Catholic countries only rendered a total of 58.

Structural Functionalism
It is interesting to note that this outlook is closely related to structural functionalism. Structural functionalism fits within the frame of consensus theories, and furthermore, these are in direct contrast with conflict theories. Consensus theories affirm the importance of shared norms and values, maintaining that these are key elements to a functioning society. By contrast, conflict theories focus on certain groups abusing power and ruling over others (Ritzer, 236-237). It is quite easy to see here that structural functionalism squares well with communitarianism, given the emphasis on shared values. To some extent, I think liberalism also matches with conflict theory, at least, the way in which it celebrates individuality. Individuality is the opposite of community, which functionalism promotes. In any society where groups are in conflict, individuality is suggested because for there to be conflict among groups there have to be differentiated interests, that is to say, interests that can be individuated to some degree. At any rate, it is strange that functionalism is generally perceived as an outdated theory (236) when communitarianism is carrying along quite well these days, not to mention any other ideology which promotes shared values.

Crowder's Defense of Liberalism
Crowder contends that it a mistaken interpretation on behalf of the communitarian that liberals believe that the values of individuals are not affected by their surroundings. The correct interpretation, rather, is that liberals believe that individuals ultimately have the ability to think critically about the value systems they are surrounded by and choose for themselves rather than merely being indoctrinated (103-104). The second objection addressed is that liberalism overlooks the importance of community. Freedom of association, for instance, is very much a liberal idea and that necessarily has to do with community because association denotes a relation, namely, one between two or more persons. Also, liberals do care about the social unity of the group, even though that care may not be as detailed as that of the communitarian. This is made evident through the way liberal states operate, that is, by the concern for the consent of a society's citizens (104).

Given Crowder's liberal perspective (see page viii), he states some of the concerns toward communitarianism which flow from his stream of thought. These concerns are devoted to relativism. It perhaps seems surprising that relativism is a concern, given communitarianism's emphasis on shared values. However, it manages to find its way into the theory in a few different ways. The first way is in relation to individual rights and liberties, which are tainted by inconsistency. On the first view, Taylor suggests that individual rights and liberties are more or less understood intuitively. As quoted by Abbey 2000, Taylor has stated that the rights to life, expression, and liberty "are so fundamental that we can more or less commit ourselves in advance to upholding them in all possible contexts" (105). On the second view, Taylor claims that an understanding of the human good is required to understand what constitutes rights and liberties, and not only that, but that particular cultures have this understanding while others do not. The important distinction to make between the two is that the first view makes an appeal to a universal understanding of rights and liberties while the second one only extends to certain cultures (105). This is to say that Taylor is relativistic with regard to the nature of rights and liberties because his ideas regarding that nature seem to be inconsistent.

The second way relativism creeps into communitarianism has to do with the theory's general premise. It is worth keeping in mind that what is central to communitarianism are not universal values per se (which are, of course, diametrically opposed to relativism), but instead, the beliefs and values that a community maintains (105). This abstract celebration of community results in a hodgepodge of value systems being endorsed simply because they promote solidarity, rather than being based on more robust standards (108). This brings to mind some of Crowder's discussion in chapter two, namely that it is or has been perceived as normal in certain cultures to endorse behavior such as imperialism, racism, and homophobia among others (27).

The third way relativism relates to the theory is through the notion of 'the relevant community.' The truth of the matter is that not all communitarians share the same idea of what makes up a good community, as there are sub-ideologies among communitarians. For instance, conservatives might posit that traditional communities are ideal, while Marxists might believe that egalitarian communities are better (105).