Sunday, February 28, 2010

Students and Colleagues and God

I continue to work hard with my students (in two of my classes, actually) to help them understand God and religion in new ways.

Here are some of the latest moments:

In Modern Philosophy, we are now reading Leibniz, and went over his version of the Cosmological Argument (the argument that says there has to be a "First Cause"). To my surprise, some of the students were impressed with this argument. One then said, "Ok, I'm convinced that there has to be some uncaused cause as a first cause, but why call this 'God'? What does the notion of 'first cause' have to do with heaven and hell?"

"You are assuming that some notion of heaven and hell is necessarily part of the concept of 'God'?" I asked, for clarification.

"Well, doesn't it have to be?" the student replied, bewildered.

That launched us into a discussion about the meanings of powerful words, that led to questions such as "what does 'God' really mean?" "what does 'religion' really mean?" and "what does 'Christianity' really mean?"

There's a lot I could say about how I tried to reply to these general questions of meanings of words (very short summary: I keep trying to tell my students that philosophy teaches you to be multi-lingual in your own language, to hold tentatively to definitions of key words and be open to the variety of ways that others define these terms, and be clear about your own definitions when you use these words), but I'll fast forward to a particular moment in this discussion that amazed me.

While we were talking about "religion," I was trying to get students to see past what I described as the "abuses" of this word, when religion is used to scare people and control their behavior. "That's not religion itself -- that's an abuse of religion!" (Yes, I was departing in this moment from my flexible stance towards words, but that was because the students were so locked into their own cynical attitude towards the word, and I wanted them to see that that's not what religion meant to some of the philosophers we were studying.)

One atheist student was stunned and almost angry. He exclaimed in outrage, "how can you say that's not what religion is?! Of course that's what religion is! That's exactly what religion is -- wielding power to control what other people think and do!"

"No," I insisted. "That's the abuse of religion. Religion itself is something else entirely!" I then described it as a quest for understanding the nature of ultimate reality and humans' relationship to that reality. I described it as the questioning of whether the universe is just an accident, indifferent to life and consciousness -- or infused with consciousness, maybe even ultimately caused by consciousness, pervaded with love and care.

"But we can never answer these questions," one student said.

Another added, "I appreciate all that, but that's just 'thought' -- not religion!"

"Yes, let's just nix the word 'religion'" a third suggested, "and call what you are describing, 'thought.'"

I sighed. "Ok, we can nix the word, and replace it with a new one, but then people will seize onto the power of whatever new word we choose and abuse that one too. So we'll change it again. And again. And what happens every time we do that? We lose our history. We make a break from the earlier, nobler, original meanings of the words. In fact," I went on, "this tragedy has already happened -- and your inability to read the nobler meanings of these words when you are reading these philosophers demonstrates this tragedy. Why should we let the abusers of the language have the power to blind us to the nobler meanings? Why should we let the abusers of the language cut us off from really understanding the wisdom that history can teach us? Why should we be complicit in giving them this power?"

Class, unfortunately, was now over, but the students were buzzing as they left, bewildered, intrigued, and in some cases maybe even outraged. This is a lot harder than I would have thought!

Next incident: I go to a gospel concert. It is an amazing event. The singers represent many forms of diversity: not only black and white, but Native American and Asian. Young and old. Mentally handicapped, mentally ill, and highly functioning, highly successful. All sexual orientations. (I know all of this because I know many of the people.) All of these people are smiling and singing together. Their affection for each other is obvious. The message is love, freedom, and radical acceptance of each other. "Now that's Christianity!" I find myself thinking, wishing my Modern Philosophy students were there, and my peace studies students, but, sadly, none of them are there, except one peace studies student in the choir.

But even if they were there, it is doubtful that they would get it...

As I depart, I hear some murmuring from some of my friends and colleagues in the audience. "I liked the music, but I had a hard time with the words."

I considered the words again. Then I realized what was going on. And I was astonished. How could English professors, and liberal pastors, not be able to grasp the intended meanings of these words?

Looking again at specific phrases, I realized that the only way they could be offended was to read "God" as "human oppressive power," instead of reading "God" as "goodness" or "love." Why do they insist on doing this?

For example, one phrase from one song was "God is mighty."

Yes, "Human oppressive power is mighty" is problematic.

But, "Love is mighty"? "Goodness is mighty"? Don't these phrases inspire hope, and give strength in times of struggle?

Or: "Order my steps in your word."

Yes, "Order my steps in submission to human oppressive power" would be ridiculous, but look where this song comes from: descendants of slaves! Are they going to be meaning this? Of course not! Simple hermeneutics then indicates that there must be something wrong with this interpretation!

So, try this instead: "Order my steps along the path of love," or "Order my steps on the path of goodness." Now the meaning changes. It's about holding strong in real love, because love is hard. It's about looking for strength not to fall into the temptations of hatred, bitterness, and despair.

How can smart, thoughtful people not get this?! Why do they cling so tightly to a negative image of God, equating God with the worst of human oppressive power?

Third incident (this from a few years back, in another class): I ask the class which concept is supposed to be tied most essentially to God. They offer all sorts of suggestions, some promising, others alarming, but never mention the one I was thinking of, so I finally offer it myself: "goodness."

The class is stunned. "What does 'goodness' have to do with 'God'?" one asks, genuinely confused.

This student's image of God was that of a stern supernatural power, insisting that we play by a hidden book of rules: rules not at all easy even to find, and when you do, almost impossible to follow -- cutting against all that we find natural, enjoyable, meaningful. Unless we can figure this out, and live in the constant pain and suffering of this "obedience," we will suffer the divine punishment of going to hell.

Once I realize that that is what some (many) students think God is, I understand why they call themselves atheists! When I try to tell them this is not what everyone means by God, they think I am just making that up.

Final incident: I recently applied for a grant to work on my book project of reconciling science and religion, but didn't get the grant. One of the reviewer's comments said, in effect, that "religion is on its way out. Such a project is irrelevant." Most of the others reflected a similar sentiment, if not so directly. I wondered what planet they were living on. Meanwhile, at Harvard, someone recently proposed instituting a religion requirement because it is so important to have a basic understanding of world religions in order to understand events in the world, but this proposal was cut down on the grounds that it is not the role of universities to teach "faith" -- universities are to teach "reason." Not only does that argument rely on really problematic misunderstandings of "faith" and "reason," but it totally misconstrues the intended purpose of the requirement! The requirement is not to indoctrinate into faith, but just to give students a working sociological and cultural understanding of world religions in order to understand, for example, the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam.

So, no wonder I am having so much trouble. I had thought that the academic world was opening up to a reconsideration of religion, even a reclamation of a more sophisticated view of religion than the highly problematic caricatures offered by the media. This may be so, but the change is not happening easily or quickly.

So I understand why I am having the difficulties I do have.

But I am sad about this.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Students and God

In Modern Philosophy, my students keep wanting to believe that the philosophers of the 1600s didn't really believe in God: they just had to pretend that they did, to avoid the wrath of the Church. I think my students really perceive all the God-talk as fake, meaningless, even maybe childish or primitive. They say they are "put off" by it.

I really try to challenge their preconceptions. I tell them that they are anachronistically reading on meanings that these philosophers did not intend. I encourage them to delete the word "God," and look in a new way at what they are actually saying: "What concepts are they associating with this word?" I have them labor over the text, while I write their findings on the board: "orderliness of the universe," "creator of all" (which I help translate as "the deepest grounding of all existence"), "omniscience" which I help translate as "everything that is is ultimately knowable by some consciousness," etc.

Then, I ask, "Do you believe any of this? Do you believe that the universe is orderly? How do you explain why there is something rather than nothing? What is the source of all being? It just accidentally came into being? How is that an answer and not a cop out? Do you think that everything that exists is at least theoretically knowable? What would it mean to exist but not be knowable at all, by any kind of consciousness?"

My students seem intrigued, or maybe even disturbed at the implication that their deepest beliefs might be something like belief in God. So, by the next class, they come back to the view that these philosophers don't really believe in God, or that's not really want "God" means, etc.

Or, even more bizarrely, they try to get around thinking about this by coming back (yes, back) to questioning Descartes' earlier claim, "I think, therefore I exist."

"You really question that?" I ask, showing my astonishment. "You really think that that is the most problematic aspect of Descartes' proof?!"

They try the Buddhist denial of Self.

"Descartes says nothing about 'self,' here!" I point out. "The claim he is making here is not the claim that Buddhists deny. Buddhism objects to sharp individuation, in favor of a view that emphasizes the interconnectedness of all being. That's very different from what Descartes is doing at this moment in his proof."

With reluctance, they turn their attention back to the God question then.

I thought it would be fun for them to realize that the notion of God may mean something more mysterious and interesting than they had originally thought, but their attitude suggests almost a moral stance against considering this in any way different from the blanket dismissal that they have been trained to make.

I am having more fun with this than it may seem. And I am certainly not trying to "convert" anyone -- I tell them "I'm not saying you have to believe this; I'm just saying you have to understand it before you are even in a position to decide whether you believe it or not."

But I am distressed at how dogmatic is their disbelief, especially when they think they are preaching against dogmatism!

This is going to be an interesting class. The students will find that the God question never does go away during the Modern period of philosophy (roughly 1600-1800). They will find that it is still not clear by the end of this time period that the notion of God is obsolete. The idea of a purely mechanistic universe develops by then, but many remain unconvinced -- and, anyway, by the early part of the 20th century, that image of the universe is found not to work because it is denied by quantum physics. The universe just is very strange--none of the oversimplified attempts to finally explain it completely have ever worked!