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A Response to Stuart Aken’s Blog on “Why are we required to respect religion?”

Images of Religious Symbols courtesy of Wikimedia

Images of Religious Symbols courtesy of Wikimedia

Writer Stuart Aken, in his blog entitled I’d Like to Know: Why? #3 Religion, asks the provocative question: “Why are We Required to Respect Religion?” This question is of interest to me as a Christ-follower (even though I would not characterize myself as religious—I know other people would characterize me in that way).
As I thought about Mr. Aken’s blog, it led me to think about how the phrasing of the question channels the responses that this question elicits. It’s always handy to set up a contest or a discussion so that only one side is given the bows and arrows while the other is left only with a shield. It’s like a Canadian or American football game where the rules of the contest allow only one team to play offence (and hence is best set up to score points) while the other is perpetually on defense. I think such a rule-based asymmetry is neither sporting nor does it readily necessarily let the better team prevail.

If one looks at the question in its current form, then Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and other adherents of a religion are on trial to justify their beliefs and explain why their beliefs merit respect, but atheists, agnostics, materialists, and secularists are excluded from scrutiny by the form of the question itself.
It seems to me a more instructive and fairer form of the question would be: “Why should I respect the World View of others when their World View differs from my own?” In this context I use “World View” to mean how I and others view reality. I think this re-configuring of the question has important advantages:

1. Now everyone, religious and agnostic alike has a chip in the game and has beliefs that may be called into question.
2. It ought to be understood that everyone intrinsically believes that their World View best explains the real world (material and spiritual).
3. Any criticism that is leveled at another World View can also properly be asked of one’s own. So if one asks if religious world views are prone to violence, one has to ask if one’s own World View is different in this regard and why.
4. In this kind of a discussion, if one begins to believe that many of the key things one genuinely believes about the nature of reality are wrong, this will be a very unsettling development for everyone who experiences it—not just religious people.
5. Finally, I think it prevents participants in the discussion from making the disastrous mistake of assuming that all religions are really the same, merely because they are religions. Even within a religion there may be substantial differences in World View by adherents because of differences in emphasis, in interpretation of sacred texts, in theology, or by reconciliation with other sources of evidence.

Thank you Mr. Aken for raising this important topic. Perhaps as time becomes available, I will be able to give my perspective on some of the other follow-on questions you raised in your post.

Personal Thoughts on Peter Kreeft’s BACK TO VIRTUE.

I have previously published my review of Peter Kreeft’s excellent book, Back to Virtue. In this post I wanted to provide a more personal view of how the book changed or perhaps broadened my thinking. At one point, Kreeft talked about how Christianity brought together the best of what Hebrew, Greek, and pagan thought and tradition had to offer. This is depicted in the diagram below (reworked to capture my own musings on this important idea from a similar diagram in the book).Christian Nexus

The Hebrew Foundation

If one reads the New Testament, one can’t help but notice how Christianity is grounded on, and grew forth from Hebrew history, revelation, and practice. All of the very early Christians were Jewish. The Old Testament is cited again and again in the New. Even the Christians called out of Greek and pagan backgrounds were steeped in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. When Paul spoke in 2 Timothy 3:16 about “all scripture,” he was primarily referring to the Old Testament.
Jesus had to be born into Jewish society because they had a high view of God: his Oneness and His creation of the world out of nothing. Had Jesus been born in Athens, as pantheists and polytheists, they would have happily put Jesus alongside Zeus and so missed the whole point of the incarnation. The shocking incredulity of the Jewish mindset to the incarnation was absolutely necessary for us to get the message and import of what was taking place.
This Hebrew ground or environment for the incarnation did not come without cost or loss. As far as I can tell from my reading, the first century Jewish people were remarkably free of idolatry. A by-product of this achievement was a complete lack of development of some of the arts such as sculpting and painting because they were too closely associated with idol worship. Kreeft helped me realize how this temporary omissions were build back in to the Christian community after the significance of the incarnation and resurrection of Christ were recognized.

The Greek New Testament

The use of Koine Greek (the lingua franca of the Mediterranean and Middle East) as the language of the New Testament had profound consequences. Not only did it bring the Good News in the common language of the Roman Empire, but it could make use of the nuances of language and thought brought into Greek by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. So for example it enabled the distinction between the old nature (flesh – sarx) from body (soma), drawing a clear distinction between Gnosticism and Christian teaching by putting a high value on the body as well as the spirit (Gnosticism values only the spirit). It also made God-guided reason an important way of testing truth claims and made reason an integral part of understanding teaching.

Pagan Imagination

When viewed as a religious system, pagan polytheism was simply a branch of pantheism. But pagan practice had given rise to stories, plays, and poetry that showed a wonderful imagination and a longing for truth. Here again, it seems to me Christianity was able to keep the good. Much if not all of the ancient literature was preserved by the Church as the Roman Empire collapsed and the anarchy of the Dark Ages replaced it. The use of imagination as an engine of the written arts and also of science has played a significant role and life of the church.

So What Does This Mean to Me?

Kreeft’s analysis and synthesis has allowed me to see a number of things in a new way. Here are some of them:
1. God is always working toward the summum bonum, the greatest good.
2. Sometimes because of our weakness and frailty, we miss out on some things as the Israelites did as they were learning to avoid idolatry and so gave up some of the arts. These temporary omissions are part of our growing process.
3. In the end all genuine good comes from God and we as his people are not wrong to seek it. You cannot go far wrong if one truly seeks the good.
4. My own Christian walk is founded on my personal interaction with the Lord Christ through His received word and His Spirit. Imagination and reason play an important role in that interaction.

Note Added on “Reason”

In The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, Kreeft points out the differences in the way the word “reason” was used by Aquinas and how it’s used by modern philosophers. Aquinas and other ancients used reason to denote knowing, judging, as well logical processes such as inductive and deductive analysis. Modern philosophers, according to Kreeft, tend to use it only in the third sense.

Review of Peter Kreeft’s BACK TO VIRTUE

Back to VirtueBack to Virtue by Peter Kreeft
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another thoughtful book from Peter Kreeft with many valuable insights. Of particular significance to me was his observation (and my realization) that our society speaks of “having values” rather than “pursuing virtue.” This crafting of our language supports the subliminal indoctrination that channels us into believing or even espousing the idea the “the good or what is right” is not a real quantity like the natural laws but rather is made up or invented by people. Kreeft calls us back to pursuing virtue and abandoning the relativism that plagues us with moral equivocation. He sums up this idea by stating that society cannot long exist without virtue and virtue cannot long exist without religion.

A second important insight for me had to do with the strands of thought and practice that were brought together in Christianity. He argued that as Christianity built on it’s Jewish foundation, wrote it’s ideas using the Greek language and gradually brought more and more gentiles under it’s wing, it brought together three strands: conscience from Judaism, reason from the Greeks, and imagination from the pagan gentiles to craft the fabric of the faith.

Having said that, I will read this book over and over again because of the powerful and significant ideas it advances. I am less enthusiastic about the writing style. Kreeft often uses short sentences and the ideas do not flow well but rather come out like a machine gun barrage. I overlook the stylistic deficiencies because of the content.

View all my reviews

G. K. Chesterton on Paganism

The Everlasting ManI have been reading G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. This book, first published in 1925, has much to say to a 21st century reader. For me, the early chapters generated one of those wonderful intellectual events, when on reading Chesterton’s account, a number of disparate puzzles coalesced for me and came together in an ‘ah hah’ moment.

Let me explain. In chapters V-VII, Chesterton describes three strands of paganism which ran side-by-side: mythology with all of its fantastic stories; philosophy, particularly post-Socratic philosophy which has given our civilization so much; and those strands of paganism which worshiped demons and were linked with human sacrifice such as Moloch worshipers in Palestine and the Aztecs in the new world. In one sense these three strands were contradictory. How could philosophically rigorous thinkers participate in rites and observances related to Bacchus? How could peoples who at least believed in objective values, as Lewis calls it, the tao (The Abolition of Man), degenerate into human sacrifice?

Chesterton showed how these strands really represented three attempts to connect with the spiritual. Mythology was an act of the imagination. Philosophy was an act of reason, but the two always remained separate, if parallel, strands of connection to the spiritual Other. The darker strand of demonology and human sacrifice, was more pragmatic than the other two. At some point, reason and imagination were abandoned and people sought for what worked. And so dark powers were invoked, requiring hideous sacrifices, all to a pragmatic end – they’ll give us the power that we want.

Chesterton goes on to point out that synthesis between the philosophical strands and the imaginative yearning for mystical experience were only thoroughly synthesized in the Middle Ages. From my own reading I can see how Thomas Aquinas was able to bring reason, faith, and mystical experience together. Perhaps this is why pagan societies, for all their shortcomings, were often very open to the Gospel. The imagination, reason, along with objective value had prepared them.

One final point. In my last post, I discussed the book Living at the Crossroads. It was interesting to see how in our current age the imaginative strand and the logical strand have parted company again. We have Postmodernism (imaginative strand) and Modernism (logical, data-driven strand) existing side by side. We yearn for the beauty and meaning of Postmodernism and yet fall back to the sterile world of data and logic because in some sense it is more connected with reality and outcomes. We have lost the synthesis.

If you have read The Everlasting Man, I would appreciate hearing what you thought of it.

Thanks for reading,