Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Notes for young philosophers IIB: Perfection, judgement and feelings

This is a response to a comment from my nephew Matthew on an earlier post (apologies again for the delay, blogger ate my speel and then I got sick!) - I've put it up as a separate post as it is too long to fit in the comments box.  You can read the exchanges so far over there, but I'll put in some extracts (out of order) of the latest response to make it easier to follow.

1. Public vs private religion

"I don't know if this is the way it should be, but from a distance, the only noticeable difference between my religious and non-religious friends is that some of my religious friends are above-averagely kind and caring. It's true that they'll invite their friends to their churches and social groups and so on, and occasionally they'll quietly offer to pray for someone who needs it (if they think it'll be appreciated), but often when I learn that an acquaintance or a friend-of-a-friend is religious, I'd had no idea."

You are probably right that to outsiders Christians don’t always seem that different to non-Christians. A lot of the times the reasons we do things aren’t necessarily going to be clear to others. But I guess what I was trying to get at is that even if it isn’t always obvious to bystanders, for the Christians there isn’t really a divide between their public and private lives – they are all manifestations of a life motivated above all by their belief in God. Their faith does in fact determine how they act publicly, and what causes they take up.

In terms of that outward persona being kinder and more caring – you are lucky in your friends, but there have been some pretty grumpy saints in history (my personal favourite being St Jerome), and lots who were scorned by their contemporaries for all sorts of reasons!
2. Gentle Jesus meek and mild…

"Ok, you've got a good point there: "be nice to everyone" is a bit of an oversimplification, and there is such a thing as being too nice. Certainly, there are times when you have to be cruel to be kind, but like you said, we've had "love thy neighbour as thyself" since Leviticus. Most of the time, Jesus was a pretty nice guy.

Reversing the Golden Rule gives you "an eye for an eye", which is not at all Christ-like...

I’d have to say that while compassion is certainly a Christian quality, I’m not sure that many of his contemporaries - including his disciples - would have characterized Jesus as ‘a pretty nice guy’.
Personally I think those who see a disjunction between the God of the Old Testament and Jesus in the New have been mislead by some bad theology.

It is true that Jesus went well out of his way, even beyond the bounds of proprietary, to help the poor, sick and suffering. People were naturally drawn to him, attracted by his charisma.

Yet it is also clear that his disciples and many others found him extremely intimidating (and for good reasons – take a look at the story of the calming of the storm in Mark chapter 5, and the withering of the fig tree in chapter 11). His teachings were often hard to understand (see the discussion of the parables in Mark chapter 4). When he did speak clearly, his teachings were so hard to stomach as to cause most of his disciples to desert (John 6). And his arguments with the recognized teachers and authorities of his time as reported in Scripture included a lot of name calling and fairly full on tricky debate!

As a result of what I see as the soft-soaping version of the life of Jesus, I think our ideas of what constitutes perfection are often a bit warped – Jesus is our model of perfection, and the Gospels record him weeping, getting angry, struggling with fear, and much more. Perfection doesn't mean we have to live in a world of soft and soapy nicencess!

3. So is God condemning all non-Christians to torture?

"In my opinion, how we live our lives matters either way. If God exists, He's either going to condemn billions of wonderful non-Christians to eternal torture — which rather goes against His loving, fatherly image — or He'll be reasonable enough to accept people who, although they may not have spent their lives striving to figure out what it is He wants them to do with their lives, were pretty decent nonetheless."

Jesus was pretty upfront about the need for conversion and belief in him in order to get into heaven: the last chapter of Mark for example includes the summary line: ‘Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.”

But of course, that isn’t necessarily quite as simple as it sounds!

First, it is important to be clear that heaven is not a right, it is a gift offered which we can reject through the choices we freely make. It is inherent in our nature to seek God – if we choose not to, that is our decision, not God’s.

Second, the most important thing you need to know about the nature of hell is that its most important aspect, the biggest punishment of all, is simply the absence of God. What we are choosing when we sin is to reject the good, the right and the true. And if we stay fixed in that choice by the time of our death, what we lose out on is the sense of his loving presence, a sense we have only weakly now, but can enjoy in its fullness in heaven.

The medieval writer Dante actually described a hell where the lowest level – for what he viewed as ‘righteous pagans’ – was actually quite pleasant, a kind of limbo, where all - but the all important all - that was absent was love. All up he constructed nine circles of hell, with increasing levels of punishment depending on the sins people committed. It isn't a bad way of thinking about it.

However even Dante admitted that some non-Christians could make it to heaven. The Catholic Church recognizes lots of Old Testament figures as saints for example (even Adam and Eve made it eventually according to tradition!), as well as people who wished to become Christians but were martyred before they were formally baptised.

The reality is that there is a lot of theological debate about just who else can make it into heaven. It is pretty clear that if you explicitly know about Christianity and deliberately reject it, on the face of it you are in trouble (though some theologians still find some wiggle room!).

But what about the many people who grow up in societies where they had no chance to learn of it?

Many catholics would argue that if they genuinely seek God, and do good, they may be covered by the idea of ‘baptism of desire’. But it is one of those areas where the Church simply says the only certain mechanism we know about is baptism, and that is why we must evangelize!

4. Perfection and respecting other people’s feelings

"I don't want to be a saint. I may not have worked out what I want to do with my life yet, but I know I'm not perfect and I'm not going to try to be. I basically work on a combination of gut feeling (which I suppose has been pretty strongly influenced by my upbringing) and empathy. I've become pretty sensitive to how other people feel and react, and I'm also really analytical, so whenever I do something that makes someone else feel bad I think about it later and see if I could have somehow responded better. I regularly decide to change some part of my personality, whether by stopping doing a certain thing (e.g. pointing out flaws) or by trying to start something new (e.g. complimenting people's appearance).

I don't think I have a framework as such, other than the basic social norms of my community. In the crudest of terms, something's wrong if it makes other people feel bad. Punching one of the boys on the arm is ok, because we all do that and understand the context and no one minds, but punching, say, one of my sister's friends on the arm is not ok, because she'd be hurt and offended. Teasing someone about a crush is ok, because unless they're sensitive about it they'd understand that it's all in good humour and respond in kind, but teasing someone who's overweight about their weight is generally not ok, because they'd usually be pretty hurt. Does that sort of explain where I'm coming from?"

So lastly you say you aren’t trying to be perfect. In a way though, it sounds like you are – from what you’ve said you’re using your intellect and observation to improve your ability to be as sensitive as possible to other’s feelings, learning from experience what will offend and what won’t? Learning and improving whatever we think is ‘virtuous’ is really what I mean by a commitment to perfection.

That said, I’d have to say I really do think taking as your guiding principle, the virtue you have made of  of not hurting other people’s feelings, is not actually a moral code that is going to stand up very well to scrutiny.

Because how do you decide whose feelings should get the most weight when two people’s preferences and desires clash – as they inevitably must as some point? And what about when their desires and feelings clash with the greater good of themselves, the group, town or society?

Should doctors not tell their patients to lose weight for example, in order to stop them from feeling bad about themselves? Should teachers give all their students As so they feel great about their work even if it is crap?  Would you continue let someone sing or play in your band if they were completely destroying the groups's performances to avoid hurting their feelings?

I suspect in reality you also have some other principles that you draw on - so the thing to do is understand what those are and whether when you think a bit about them, they are really principles you want to keep using.

5.  What's next...

"I'd be very interested to hear your perspective on some of these modern issues, and I suspect that'd start a good solid debate or two"

Once you've replied to this one, perhaps you could name your preferred topic and I'll have a go!


Matthew Edwards said...

Regarding the character of Jesus, I don't agree that your stories support your point. Certainly people are intimidated by him, but I would interpret that more as their legitimate fear of the supernatural than as an aspect of his personality. Is the story in John 6 not Jesus declaring himself the Son of God and most of his disciples disagreeing and leaving for something less controversial? I'm not saying he was some beatific, emotionless machine, but he was certainly compassionate and caring! And how can you say the Old Testament god has the same personality as Jesus? The Old testament was full of plagues and famines and holy wars and smiting, and then Jesus came along with his God-given message of "disregard that!" and started preaching forgiveness and love thy neighbour, socialising with the outcasts of Jewish society, and washing people's feet...

What's your actual position on who's going to hell then? You've given a whole lot of different perspectives and ideas, but is there one in particular that you believe?

I disagree, trying to improve oneself and trying to achieve perfection are not at all the same thing! I'll always have flaws, and there'll always be things about me and things I've done that I'm not proud of.

On the other hand, I did oversimplify things as far as morals go, and you've done a good job of giving a basic illustration of the dilemmas of modern ethics. I can't really say much more than I have about how I try to act; I suppose I'll have to give that some thought...

Matthew Edwards said...

As for where to go next, do you think abortion or homosexuality would be the most interesting topic to debate? I'm leaning towards homosexuality, but I'll leave it up to you :)