Friday, December 6, 2013

Reason As The Unity Behind All Religions

There was in a recent TNR a long essay by a Harvard history prof, I think a historian of intellectual history, Peter Gordon, which focused on reason as the essence of God and the means of people, as divine in their souls, that divinity marked by reason, apprehending God. That essay spawned a number of interesting and civil conversations on the subsequent thread. Here's my comment addressed to a couple of nice guys, which I think is self contained as to its meaning, if anyone's interested. Highly unlikely. The link follows my comments.

Jack, Wayne:

I agree with both of you on the general insufficiency of "just a story" in characterizing the great religious texts. But, to be a bit contrarian, I can imagine instances when, depending on context, that phrase might be apt, and it could be apt in context with reference to the great texts of literature as well. But it's poor in denying the riches of those texts, even as one comes at them as a non believer, as I do.

I'm interested in Gordon's concluding paragraph in relation to Jack's last comments

....This breakup of the old philosophical union between God and Reason is another name for the great disentanglement in the history of ideas that some theorists still call secularization. The breakup may strike us as irrevocable. But if Fraenkel is right, then the story of philosophical religion reveals a painful irony: the democratic sentiments that now inhibit us from distinguishing between non-philosophers and philosophers have also made it increasingly difficult for us to look past the literal contents of various religious traditions to a shared philosophical commitment within. Our own egalitarianism, in other words, is an obstruction to the kind of contextualist pluralism once upheld by the most subtle thinkers of the Abrahamic religions. The most zealous advocates for religion today are populists and literalists, and they have abandoned the principles of interpretation that made philosophical religion a possibility. Nathan’s is a lonely voice in the midst of war.....

I find a paradox in these comments that goes with a tension in the very theme Gordon presents about the underlying unity of the great religions despite their apparent differences, that unity, in a nutshell in Gordon's words, "...the essential sameness of ethical aspiration..." Gordon traces the argument that when religion had a mind, reason, philosophers, that is to say, could see through superficial variation to the underlying unity: "...But for those who are philosophers like Lessing himself, the variations will seem unimportant...We grow intolerant when we take notice only of the outward forms, but the truly wise will discern the unity within plurality."

The paradox in the general presentation of Gordon's argument for me lies in the simplicity, no less profound for that, of the truth of the content of that unity. For what the story of Nathan tells us, I'd argue, is of the expansive nature of benevolent goodness: "...The judge admonishes the sons to model themselves after their father in unprejudiced affection, each to strive to outdo his brothers in benevolence..." That "ethical aspiration" is the key; and the forms of religion are its husks. So unless Gordon has a different notion of "philosopher" in mind than what the term is usually taken to mean, the different notion perhaps equating wisdom with philosophy, I'm hard pressed to understand why it takes the subtle intellectual capacity, the ability to make logical distinctions, see through the fallacies in arguments, reason rigorously, and so on, I associate with philosophy, to understand that simple though profound unity. I'm hard pressed to understand why that simple but profound truth isn't accessible to most of us non philosophers, why for us "noble lies" are the ticket.

The related paradox in Gordon's concluding paragraph is of the same order: why, if democratic notions of the day command us, in their aim for correctness, to treat all philosophers and non philosophers alike--even granting that doubtful and over-general proposition--is it, again, that most of us can't take in the simple truth of that unity? What need have we, really, for "...the kind of contextualist pluralism once upheld by the most subtle thinkers of the Abrahamic religions?" I can't see how our insistence on egalitarianism--even granting that insistence, which I don't save for the sake of argument here--obstructs our ability to get to that truth.

And isn't Jack making this point when he says,

....Just stories...... without going into apologetics or scientific theorizing I believe these Just Stories can and often do contain comprehensive lessons to include emanating implied material more encompassing and complete than any philosophical dispensation might reveal. Sometimes the unwashed are more constitutionally intuitively informed than the best philosophizers or scientificizers. As a child better disposed to the simple truth....

I'm sure there are answers to these paradoxes and I'm interested in getting them. For me, as I think about it right now, we all understand ethical aspiration and our falling short it every day, every way as the "Satan" in us so inclines us away from it, that we generally resent, suspect and recoil from the type of person we describe as the "do gooder." The world, for me, is too complex for the shining profundity of ethical aspiration. My notion of things is caught by the idea of negative capability, in the words of Wallace Stevens:

The imperfect is our paradise.

Note that, in this bitterness, delight,

Since the imperfect is so hot in us,

Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds,

in the pervasive and often tragic clash between "right against right," such that these complexities belie the simplicity and applicability of the ideal of ethical aspiration.

After all, whose ethics and whose means of achieving them?

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