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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Intolerance - Why Is Saying "You Might Be Right" So Difficult?

The history of the Early Church is interesting because during the Second and Third Centuries Christian theologians debated the principles of the religion that most people today take for granted.  The Trinity, the nature of Christ, the doctrine of grace, the meaning of Christ’s suffering and the remission of sins; and the ineffability of the Word were all debated and little was settled until the Council of Nicaea in the latter part of the Fourth Century.

Vigorous debate is not surprising given the complexity, subtlety, and often opacity of the many allegories and parables in the Bible. Christ deliberately made his parables abstract and allusive in order to challenge the belief and faith of his followers. The synoptic Gospels are consistent, but quite different in tone, style, and often content.  The Gospel of John reflects the core principles enunciated by Matthew, Mark, and Luke but is more purely theological, explaining the nature of the Word, God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.
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Paul in his role as evangelist for the new religion was instrumental in setting forth a code of principles based on the Christ’s teachings; and early theologians of all schools used his Epistles as the point of departure for their own exegetical interpretation. Paul’s letters to the Romans, Ephesians, Galatians, and others, although consistent in theme and purpose, were each different, for he tailor-made what he wrote to place Christ’s radical ideas within the familiar context of Jewish tradition, Roman polytheism, and Greek logic.

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The point is that Donatists, Monatists, Neo-Platonists, Gnostics, and Marcionists – as well as the traditional and orthodox Augustine, John Chrysostom, Jerome, and Origen – all based their philosophical constructs on reason.  The legacy of Ancient Greece and the logical tradition of Plato and Aristotle was alive in well in the early centuries of Christianity; and early Christians knew of no other way to construct a theology. Whether one believed that Christ always existed, or was created by God was a matter of interpretation and logic.  What were Greek and Mesopotamian antecedents of creation,  pre-existence, and divinity? 

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Gnosticism was perhaps the most radical departure from Christian orthodoxy:
In the Gnostic view, there is a true, ultimate and transcendent God, who is beyond all created universes and who never created anything in the sense in which the word “create” is ordinarily understood. While this True God did not fashion or create anything, He (or, It) “emanated” or brought forth from within Himself the substance of all there is in all the worlds, visible and invisible. In a certain sense, it may therefore be true to say that all is God, for all consists of the substance of God. By the same token, it must also be recognized that many portions of the original divine essence have been projected so far from their source that they underwent unwholesome changes in the process. To worship the cosmos, or nature, or embodied creatures is thus tantamount to worshipping alienated and corrupt portions of the emanated divine essence (The Gnosis Archive)

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Possible image Demiurge, www.en.wikipedia.org
Plotinus (Third Century) gave a vigorous reply to the Gnostics, and contested their notion of good and bad emanations:
He answered the challenge of accounting for the emergence of a seemingly inferior and flawed cosmos from the perfect mind of the divinity by declaring outright that all objective existence is but the external self-expression of an inherently contemplative deity known as the One (to hen), or the Good (ta kalon). Plotinus compares the expression of the superior godhead with the self-expression of the individual soul, which proceeds from the perfect conception of a Form (eidos), to the always flawed expression of this Form in the manner of a materially derived 'personality' that risks succumbing to the demands of divisive discursivity, and so becomes something less than divine (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
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Paul, especially in his Letter to the Galatians, sets for the principles of the Doctrine of Grace, essential to the theology of Martin Luther and the Calvinists many centuries later. He went to great pains to convince the Galatians that good works were not essential to salvation, and that it was only through God’s divine grace and the compassion of his son, Jesus Christ could it be attained.  This was not an easy sell, because unless Paul expressed his idea with precision and care, one could be left with the impression of a capricious God, one who decided willy-nilly who was saved and who wasn’t.  The doctrine of grace flew against intuition – most human activities were either rewarded or punished; and therefore how could belief and faith be enough to attain the Kingdom of God?

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His arguments are those of a logician, a rhetorician, and a a salesman; and his well-constructed, logical exposition formed the basis for one of the most fundamental principles of Protestantism.  Yet centuries later the Catholic Church dismissed Paul’s interpretation of Christ’s words and made it clear that not only were works important; but that they were more important than faith.  This conclusion was again the result of Biblical exegesis, disciplined logic and interpretation, and rational analysis.

Twentieth Century popes have spoken out against Protestant ‘cultism’ on many occasions, stating that the way to Christ and to salvation is through logic and faith and not irrational histrionics. A complete, thorough, and comprehensive understanding of the principles of the Church only makes faith more satisfying.  Appreciating the subtlety and complexity of the Word, the Trinity, Christ’s humanity, and the nature of suffering and free will provides the foundation for ultimate faith.

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Tolstoy grappled with the question of faith for decades.  He studied philosophy, mathematics, logic, history, science, and literature to try to discover insights into the meaning of life.  He could not; but realized that blind faith was no answer either.  In A Confession, his biographical memoir about the road to faith, he describes how he finally comes to faith.  He realizes that if billions of people have and do believe, there must be something to it. However, after A Confession Tolstoy wrote The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a novella about a man like himself who at the end of his life grapples with the meaning of life and death. Christians have interpreted the ending of the story as proof of his new faith; but just as many others have seen a return to his old Nihilism.

In any case, Tolstoy could never reject logic as a means to revelation; and as much as he may have found faith, Ivan Ilyich shows that he was still intellectually and logically debating it.

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Why then, are progressives so unwilling to accept Christian belief? Anyone with only a cursory reading of the Bible can appreciate the religion’s sophistication, complexity, and universality. It is not enough to dismiss fundamentalist beliefs as exaggerated misinterpretations of the Bible.  While the fundamental theological principles of all religions have been distorted to justify personal or political ends; given the disciplined and rational efforts that have resulted in religious canon and the logical principles that underlie it, critics should at least grant the possibility that a fundamentalist Christian position is right.

Perhaps the Trinity is more than just a theological construct and is a model for an ideal human configuration.  Christ’s relationship with his father was both as a human son and a divine one. Mary was his mother, but although the Catholic Church has sanctified her, other Christians have not and follow more closely Christ’s own words which emphasize the more important paternal relationship.  Should these principally male relationships be completely dismissed in the light of the evolution of secular thinking?  Should key passages of Jeremiah, Psalms, Genesis, and Exodus which refer to the sanctity of life be ignored? Should the injunctions against homosexuality in Deuteronomy as ‘an abomination’ be dismissed out of hand?

In short, it is not enough to say, “I respect what you say and will defend your right to say it”.  Only “You may be right”, will do.

Conservatism and liberalism each have a long, storied, and complex history; and the origins of both can be traced back millennia. The most important distinction between them is philosophical.  Conservatives believe in an ineluctable, permanent, and unvarying human nature – one that is self-interested, self-protective, territorial, aggressive, and ambitious. As the Shakespeare critic Jan Kott has observed, history is a Grand Mechanism, constantly revolving back upon itself.  If one were to lay out and read all Shakespeare’s Histories in chronological order, one would find the same expressions of human nature albeit by characters of different name, title, rank, and status.

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Liberals believe in the perfectibility of Man and that there is no such thing as permanence. They reject the evidence of history, the more pessimistic interpretations of The Fall, and the repetitious examples of the same acquisitive human nature at the level of family, community, town, region, and country.  There is no evil in the world, said Augustine, trying to justify misery in a world created by a just and compassionate God. Only the absence of good; and based on this optimistic conclusion, liberals have felt that there is hope after all.  Man can repopulate the world with good.

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Yet, despite the logical conclusions of theologians, philosophers, historians, geneticists, and social scientists, neither side can say, “You might be right.”  Liberals cannot possibly entertain the idea that human nature is immutable; and that the only meaningful relationship there can possibly be within that construct is that of the individual with God.  Nor can they admit the rationality of the Hindu caste system which goes against their core beliefs of secular societal progress but which was devised by the Aryans as a means of attaining enlightenment.

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Conservatives are so convinced of the rightness of their beliefs – how can anyone see progress in a world which has become even more violent and predatory? – that they refuse to admit that perhaps the right configuration of individual-community-society-government has not yet been aligned.  “You might be right”, is an inadmissible statement.

People have trouble focusing on the logical center of arguments, and conflate the illogical excesses on the extreme margins with the mainstream.  Those who value and promote individual freedom and personal liberty as Enlightenment principles, for example, are confused with the crazy militias holed up in northern Idaho who are preparing to fight the invasion of Obama’s army. Because America is awash in unfounded conspiracy theories, insanity infects the logical core from which they are derived.  It is harder and harder to say, “You might be right.”

Nevertheless “You might be right” is the most important first step to reducing intolerance, and it is worth a try.

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