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Reason, Revelation, Inspiration and Illumination – A Matter of Character or Degree?

In both philosophy and theology a distinction is often made between

  • knowledge obtained through reason

and

  • knowledge obtained through revelation

Many learned and pious discussions follow from this way of looking at things. But I believe the distinction, itself, should be examined. It is conceivable that ideas and their arrangement in a coherent argument could be revealed or, at least, partially revealed to a person from God.

Traditional Catholic theologians usually call this inspiration as a result of illumination, suggesting that the process somehow differs from receiving divine revelations.

But where do we draw the line?

In dream psychology, Carl Jung talks about big dreams and little dreams. Big dreams, according to Jung’s theory, involve the collective unconscious. Little dreams involve the personal unconscious. But the scope of dreams rarely, if ever, involve just me or everyone.

Dreams usually involve some mixture of the personal and the collective unconscious. So the dream type rests upon a continuum. Some dreams do seem bigger than others. But it’s still you dreaming them. Likewise, some dreams seem more personal than others. But they’re still coming from a mysterious source.

Could we not make a similar case with the distinction between revelation vs. inspiration and illumination? Instead of this or that, it seems more prudent to speak of a continuum.¹


¹ One of the great weakness of some aspects of Catholic theology, as I see it, is that its truth claims must fit – or appear to fit – with everything that came before. This makes some aspects of Catholic teaching a bit too close to politics and power, which is probably one of the main reasons why the Church is desparate for new priests and also, turning away many good, conscientious lay persons.

Related » St. Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Revealed Knowledge


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Charles Hartshorne – Does God Grow With Experience?

Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000) – Image via Wikipedia

Charles Hartshorne  (1897-2000) was an American theologian who developed Alfred North Whitehead‘s idea of an organic, interactive process into a version of Process Theology.

Wikipedia traces his views to the ancient Greek Heraclitus, who emphasized change with his famous line, “you cannot step into the same river twice.” Heraclitus also believed that religious signs could be received through the oracle at Delphi. But Hartshorne’s theological system arguably adds a bit more to the picture than mere change and signs (we don’t know what Heraclitus fully believed in because only fragments of his work survive).

Hartshorne upholds the idea that God has a separate existence but is also present in the world. To me this is explained by the already existing ideas of transcendence and immanence (not imminence). Wikipedia explains Hartshorne’s view:

One of the technical terms Hartshorne used is pan-en-theism, originally coined by Karl Christian Friedrich Krause in 1828. Panentheism (all is in God) must be differentiated from Classical pantheism (all is God). In Hartshorne’s theology God is not identical with the world, but God is also not completely independent from the world. God has his self-identity that transcends the earth, but the world is also contained within God. A rough analogy is the relationship between a mother and a fetus. The mother has her own identity and is different from the unborn, yet is intimately connected to the unborn. The unborn is within the womb and attached to the mother via the umbilical cord.¹

However, Hartshorne took on classical theologians by taking a more Jungian approach to God. For both Jung and Hartshorne, God is not omniscient but learns as s/he goes along. Unlike classical definitions of God’s perfection, Hartshorne believes that being perfect does not entail knowing everything. Rather, it means knowing and feeling more through experience.

God is capable of surpassing himself by growing and changing in his knowledge and feeling for the world.²

Myself, I think this is a flawed view, one born of a lack of intellectual humility. It’s fine to try to understand God and the workings of God. But whenever a human being makes some kind of definitive statement about knowing God, that’s where I draw the line.

However, if someone says they believe that God has certain qualities and behaves in such a way, I can take them far more seriously. In my view, everything comes down to belief in one way or another. But not everyone appreciates this idea. The human mind is easily hoodwinked into confusing belief with knowledge.

The statue of Plato in front of the Academy of Athens

The distinction between belief and knowledge goes back to another ancient Greek, Plato. Plato, however, held a different view than mine. He believed that knowledge (as justified true belief – episteme)³ was superior to:

  • an opinion that seems to be or may be true but is accepted on the basis of a weak argument (dogma)
  • popular belief (doxa)

By way of contrast, I maintain that for a rational, reflective mind, everything comes down to belief—true, false or partly true belief. We may say we have reason to believe but, as human beings, we can never really know. We have to believe.4

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Hartshorne

² Ibid.

³ This type of knowledge is differentiated from knowledge of a craft (techne). And some scholars rightly ask, what does full “justification” for episteme require? See a good discussion here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/knowledge-analysis/

4 To defend this view I’d probably have to go into a lengthy philosophical argument, and this entry is not the place for that. However, if anyone wishes to further discuss in the comments area, I will try to outline my position (providing I felt that the discussion was positive enough to justify the time and energy spent on it). I say this because I tried to explain my position once at the David Bowie site with a bookish “intellectual” hooked on a particular philosopher and found that I was just wasting my time and energy. As with most unproductive internet debates, we don’t always carefully read or reply to things we don’t understand, perhaps cannot understand, or consciously or subconsciously do not wish or believe it necessary to understand. And some apparently just want to win an argument rather than learn and grow from it. I’m not saying I’m immune to this pretty common situation. But I don’t waste time and energy if I see myself falling into it.


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The Scholastics

St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), the eponym ...

St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), the eponym of Thomism. Picture by Fra Angelico (c. 1395-1455). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The “scholastics” is what we call the leading churchmen-scholars in the Middle Ages.  These religious thinkers used the logical methods of their time to debate complex, often abstract theological issues, many of which were premised on faith. This is also known as Scholasticism.

The scholastics never asked “how many angels can stand on the head of a pin.” But this question is often cited to satirize their approach, which to critics seems arbitrary and metaphysically excessive.

The influential scholastic St. Thomas Aquinas adapted arguments from (the Greek pre-Christian) Aristotle into a Christian network of beliefs. Interestingly, Aristotle’s voluminous works were translated from the Greek into Latin by Arab scholars.

Duns-Scotus

Duns-Scotus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After some kind of direct encounter with God near the end of his life, Aquinas apparently said that his many writings were like a “house of straw.” In other words, worthless compared to direct experience. Nevertheless, his arguments, many of which seem to be couched in ancient and medieval ways of understanding, are often cited to illustrate and (apparently) legitimize Catholic teachings.

Perhaps the abstract intellectualism and intense quibbling of the scholastics lost sight of basic Christian teaching of loving God and one another. And for one person to believe he or she can definitively speak about God, no matter how cleverly, seems quite arrogant from a contemporary standpoint.

Some of the more noteworthy scholastics are St. Anselm, William of Ockham, Henry of Ghent and Duns Scotus

Related » Idealism, Nominalism, Ontological Argument, Universalism

¹ Wikipedia lists several more whom I’ve encountered but not really had the time to study.


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Erwin Schrödinger

English: Photograph of physicist Erwin Schrödi...

Erwin Schrödinger early in his professional career. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) was an Austrian physicist who attempted to overcome the apparent particle- wave duality with his now famous wave equation.

Various interpretations of Schrödinger’s wave equation have arisen. For some, particles are seen as wave packets. Others suggest that the particle is similar to a standing wave—a relatively stable energy formation that doesn’t travel through a medium.

While some like to see science as some kind of solid rock that tells us the “truth,” the ambiguity surrounding the interpretation of Schrödinger’s work tells us just the opposite. Science involves speculation, myth and a lot of limitation and uncertainty.

However, to sum up the latest consensus on what the wave equation means to people today, we could say that the whole idea of “matter” is recognized as a construction of the senses, mind and society. Underneath that social construction of reality,¹ we just have energy, for lack of a better term.

English: Wave particle duality p known

Wave particle duality (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

New Age enthusiasts tend to champion this idea, suggesting the entire universe is merely energy. Meanwhile, some old school theologians still talk about the reality of matter and the (supposed) indisputable authority of Aristotle‘s views on that topic. Some even go as far to say that animals do not enjoy an afterlife because they do not have souls and are made entirely of matter.²

A better approach, however, would consider the replacement of the old idea of “matter” with that of “energy” but also look to spiritual experience as somewhat mysterious yet qualitatively different from energy.³

For his outstanding work in quantum mechanics Schrödinger won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1933, sharing it with Paul Dirac.

Image via Wikipedia

¹ I’m alluding to the sociological classic, The Social Construction of Reality by Berger and Luckmann.

² Others say that animals do have souls, but still do not enjoy an afterlife. See these links.

³ What do I mean by this? Well, I recall conversing with someone who liked to work out. He enjoyed his endorphin rushes after vigorous exercise. I used to be a long distance runner, so knew what he was talking about. Since my running days, however, I have experienced what C. G. Jung and others call the numinous. And what Catholics (and other Christians) call the indwelling of The Holy Spirit. In those essentially spiritual experiences I have noticed a range of difference. And all of the spiritual experiences were qualitatively different from an endorphin rush (which we can assume more closely correlates to chemical changes than, say, sitting in a church).

Related » George Berkeley, Philipp Lenard, Particle, Wave, Thomas Young 


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Social Darwinism

Holding paw: Kia storm =(^.^)= PetoMarmitta & friends / Chiara

Holding paw: Kia storm =(^.^)= PetoMarmitta & friends / Chiara

Social Darwinism, often attributed to Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), is body of thought which claims that human social groups evolve according to Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolution—in short, society is the outcome of Darwin’s idea of “survival of the fittest.”

The first use of the phrase “social Darwinism” was in Joseph Fisher’s 1877 article on The History of Landholding in Ireland which was published in the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society.[11] Fisher was commenting on how a system for borrowing livestock which had been called “tenure” had led to the false impression that the early Irish had already evolved or developed land tenure;[16]  …Despite the fact that social Darwinism bears Charles Darwin’s name, it is also linked today with others, notably Herbert Spencer, Thomas Malthus, and Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics.¹

For some, Social Darwinism has an upside. Critics of heavy-handed government intervention believe that, if left alone in a free enterprise system, society will flourish. This is often called the laissez-faire attitude. As an ideology, laissez-faire has deep roots not just in Europe but also in the United States and in (Confucian) China.

English: "A Venerable Orang-outang",...

“A Venerable Orang-outang”, a caricature of Charles Darwin as an ape published in The Hornet, a satirical magazine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, the idea of social darwinism arguably has a dark element which is lacking in mere laissez-faire.  And the idea of social darwinism has been criticized from several angles. Detractors say that social darwinism

  • assumes the validity of Darwinian theory
  • grafts ideas about biological organisms, animals and the physical environment onto human beings and the social environment
  • ignores theological ideas about providence, intervention, revelation, infused knowledge, blessings, grace and intercession
  • may be used by elitist, supremacist, racist or brutish groups to try to rationalize unjust or even tyrannical social conditions and practices

As we see in the above image, Darwin himself did not escape a fair amount of criticism in his day. His own views about social darwinism are somewhat ambiguous. Apparently he at times seems against, other times in support of the idea.

Scholars debate the extent to which the various social Darwinist ideologies reflect Charles Darwin‘s own views on human social and economic issues. His writings have passages that can be interpreted as opposing aggressive individualism, while other passages appear to promote it.[8] Some scholars argue that Darwin’s view gradually changed and came to incorporate views from the leading social interpreters of his theory such as Herbert Spencer.[9] But Spencer’s Lamarckian evolutionary ideas about society were published before Darwin first published his theory, and both promoted their own conceptions of moral values. Spencer supported laissez-faire capitalism on the basis of his Lamarckian belief that struggle for survival spurred self-improvement which could be inherited.²

Regardless of his ambiguity to social darwinism, Darwin’s theory of evolution clearly hit a major nerve among the public, as evident in this remarkable series of caricatures.

First published in Fun, Nov 1872. Original cap...

First published in Fun, Nov 1872. Original caption: That Troubles Our Monkey Again – female descendant of Marine Ascidian: “Darwin, say what you like about man; but I wish you would leave my emotions alone”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even today, some Christian fundamentalist groups distribute flyers and post web pages with the message, “Don’t let Darwin make a monkey out of you!

¹ Abridged from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Darwinism

² Ibid.

Related » Sociology, Sociobiology

Seaside Commentary from Long Beach Island, New Jersey

 


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Soul

All Souls Night in Gdansk: Robin Hamman

All Souls Night in Gdansk by Robin Hamman

The idea of the soul is variously understood around the world and throughout history.

A distinction is often made between an individual soul and a world soul (anima mundi).

Some regard the soul as a multiple entity, as in ancient Egyptian religion or the contemporary views of the alleged trance channeler, Jane Roberts/Seth. Others insist the soul is single. And yet some say the soul is the conceptual “I” that apparently remains constant throughout one’s life (itself a highly debatable claim).

Plato viewed the soul as single but containing multiple functions.

Aristotle saw the soul as a partly rational and partly irrational function governing bodily needs, desires and actions that disappears at death.

Soul is also envisioned as a spiritual, self-motivating eternal agent or substance.

St. Thomas Aquinas insists the soul is united to the body but not of the body. For Aquinas it “operates through corporeal organs” with its “proper function” being “in the understanding.”

Deutsch: Thomas von Aquin

Deutsch: Thomas von Aquin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In much of Hinduism the soul reincarnates, ultimately to merge with God, as a drop of water returns to the ocean from whence it came. In this sense, individuality is temporary, at best.

However, Ramanuja‘s Visistadvaita school of Hinduism provides an important exception to this idea. For Ramanuja, individual souls (jivas) emerge from and ultimately rest within God (Brahman) but retain some aspect of their individuality, existence and, therefore, reality.

The anatman doctrine of Buddhism contends that the idea of a soul is just a conceptual illusion; for Buddhists, the soul does not really exist.

Catholics believe that the soul is created by God at the moment of human conception, a view that has sparked intense debate among pro-life and pro-choice groups. Concerning death and the afterlife, traditional Catholic believers say the soul might (a) rise to heaven (b) be purified in purgatory in preparation for heaven or (c) descend to eternal hell.

In pop culture “soul” refers to a musical form, originating in America, that blends gospel music with rhythm and blues. Although soul music was created by black Americans, its offshoots are composed and performed by anyone, anywhere.


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Teleology

Hegel

Hegel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Teleology (Gk: telos = end, purpose; logos = discourse)

Wikipedia begins its entry by saying that teleology is all about a thing’s purpose. So the teleology of the prongs in a fork is that it enables people to eat. The meaning of the prongs is that they facilitate eating.

I’ve never really thought about it that way, because in school the end point of some rational meaning was emphasized whenever teleology was covered.

For me, teleology always meant what a thing is headed for, at which point its ultimate meaning (supposedly) will be found. Teleology was a process. But not just some random, discontinuous process as so many postmoderns suggest.

The joy of Wikipedia is that we can see how lacking some university profs were back in the day. They’d grab some Coles or Sparks notes, and suddenly be an expert in their field.

So in my old 2009 entry at earthpages.ca, I said teleology is

the philosophical and theological idea that all of creation is directed toward and unfolds according to a meaningful and rational outcome.

Well, this is partly true, but the story is clearly more complicated, as it usually is in a history of ideas.

Philosophy

In philosophy one of the most popular teleologies is that of G. W. F. Hegel, who presumed a World Spirit guides human history through successive resolutions of contradictions.

According to Hegel, the main characteristic of this unity was that it evolved through and manifested itself in contradiction and negation. Contradiction and negation have a dynamic quality that at every point in each domain of reality—consciousness, history, philosophy, art, nature, society—leads to further development until a rational unity is reached that preserves the contradictions as phases and sub-parts by lifting them up (Aufhebung) to a higher unity.¹

Sociology

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Karl Marx (1818-1883) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In social theory, Karl Marx is said to have turned Hegelian theory “on its head” by creating an historical teleology devoid of spirituality, and which predicts the supposed inevitability of Communism.

Marx believed that human history passed and would pass through definite socioeconomic stages:

  1. Primitive Communism
  2. Feudalism
  3. Capitalism
  4. Communism

 
As we see with 3 and 4, Marx believed that Capitalism inevitably passes into Communism. But again, the actual picture of what’s going on in the world reveals a very different story. A far more complicated one.

Theology

In theology different teleologies have been devised. Some see God as an omniscient and external designer to creation. Hence, intelligent design. Others maintain that God is contained within the creation, learning and evolving as events progress through time.

Theologies, of course, are much harder to disprove than social theories. Maybe dead people can see where theories went astray. But down here on earth, we usually have no way to know too much for certain. So some theologians can lay guilt trips on freethinkers or ostracize them, simply for applying their God-given intellects and admitting uncertainty.

Needless to say, I don’t think this a good thing. I suppose a similar dynamic occurs in academic philosophy. For example, if a up and coming Teaching Assistant or Sessional Instructor doesn’t see things like the big cheese in the department, chances are they won’t advance too far. If anyone thinks small p (as in petty) politics don’t figure in academia, they’d probably do well to think again. And let’s not forget big E – economics.²

¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hegelian#Progress_through_contradictions_and_negations

² http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/most-university-undergrads-now-taught-by-poorly-paid-part-timers-1.2756024

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Related Posts » Determinism, Epicureanism, Fatalism, Free will, Providence, Soteriology, Theodicy