Saturday, August 29, 2009

Jung and the fairy tale

A brief review of Jung and applications of his ideas

I'm a big fan of Carl Jung, twentieth century psychologist and head of a movement twinned with, and in internecine conflict with, Freud and the Freudians. The latter call themselves psychoanalysts, and the former, analytical psychologists! There are places Jung goes where I can't follow- he was a bit mystical at times, positing a new physical principle of reality (synchronicity), and maintaining a perpetual ambivalence whether religion was purely psychological, or whether his psychology touched on transcendent dimensions, indeed even put us in touch with God.

Like a true prophet, Jung's output was prodigous (22 volumes of collected works) and wildly uneven. Reading through even his best work, one is struck by a regular cycling between lucidity and obscure meandering. At his best, he is penetrating and eminently quotable. His therapeutic system offers a kind of salvation, which he termed individuation, that accomplishes the full flowering and maturation of human potential by coming to a balanced tension between the various poles of our psychic existence- conscious/unconscious, light/dark, male/female, etc. Getting there involves dredging up unconscious contents arriving through dreams and other avenues, and the involvement of the therapist in a sort of chiropractic realignment / inspired interpretation of those contents.

Noll's "The Jung cult" recounts even darker sides to Jung's life and legacy, and is on my reading list. But all that said, (and I'm no expert), I also find a great deal of good in his approach, including, in his more sane moments, a thoroughly psychological theory of religion as a sort of art form, and an appreciation of the spiritual impulses of humanity that, while irremediably supernatural in their psychological expression, have no supernatural origin. Jung was not really doing science, (at best, a sort of pre-science), but was developing a language to describe the psyche and its dynamics, drawing shamelessly on the mythologies and symbologies of countless other traditions, ancient and modern.

Along with Freud and many others, Jung thought that simply bringing unconscious contents to light is enough to set us free, like the gnostic theme of redemption by knowledge so common in mystical religion (not to mention modern science!). But what is in the unconscious was not just the nasty repressed stuff that Freud was so fixated on, but also beautiful, positive and powerful messages and themes that have healing power for a psyche out of balance. That is to say, it holds the fundaments of *meaning and of religion in all its senses, positive and negative. Jung also presented the idea that the unconscious provides a sort of counter-weight or corrective to the conscious stance, which can lead to harmony if only we listen to it. The phenomenon of PTSD might make one leary of such simplicity, but in the hands of positive cultivators and interpreters, a great deal of good can come out of such engagement with products of the imagination.

Though the psychological movements might partake in some ways of the forms of religion, their real significance is that they give us tools to understand all religion, and much else besides. Thus Jungianism might be termed a meta-religion, since, much like his student Joseph Campbell's work on myth, it works to lay bare the psychological, typically symbolic, language underlying the expression of human meaning in the arts and in the allied forms we call myth and religion. "Lay bare" might be putting it a bit too strongly. Perhaps it is better to say that Campbell and Jung used the kaleidoscopic range of its specific expressions to talk about the contents and dynamics of the unconscious (as did Campbell's student George Lucas). My view is that this work will re-emerge with time as cognitive science develops deeper understandings of mental function from a more reductionistic direction.

The foundation of Jung's system was an appreciation of the unconscious as a huge and deep edifice, with which consciousness is in constant dialog and tension. The layers range from simple cultural indoctrination to the deepest instincts like fear of snakes and other phylogenetically ancient patterns. These patterns, consituting an internal cosmos of sorts, are accessible or spontaneously expressed to different degrees, from Freudian slips to art, religion, and dreams. Whether dream content is meaningful is hugely controversial, and I don't take a firm position. But its imagery is very suggestive of messages with coded symbolic meaning, which have from ancient times been treated with high respect. Even if they lack intrinsic meaning, dreams are rich objects of interpretation, like vivid Rorschach blots that might be bent to positive or negative meaning, given one's frame of interpretation, itself the product of unconscious and social influences.

At any rate, the unconscious at its most lucid seems to speak in symbols and feelings, not in prose. Thus the arts are filled with symbolism and raw emotion, not to drive college students crazy with their layered lapidary depths, but to express the inner reaches of human nature. Included in the arts should be such pre-sciences as alchemy and astrology, with their incredibly symbol-rich, if data-poor, systems of thought. The iconoclasm of modern art has been a remarkable proof (in the breach) of this rule. We now miss the gargoyles of architecture, the warmth of representational painting, and the rhymes of lyric poetry. But we can not have them back, because they would betray too much of our humanity, which modernism has repressed after coming into such startling contact with its depths through the wars and psychological insights of the twentieth century. It would now be too naive, obvious, unironic, unrefined, and simplistic!

Religion also has felt the brunt of this modernist repression, where logic forbids giving in to superstition, however deeply felt and inescapable from a psychological perspective. So, we have to go back in time to find truly rich representations of unconscious currents- to Homer, to the romatic poets, to Raphael, to pre-modern art of all kinds.

One of the most interesting and perhaps surprising sources of unconscious contents in their most pure and concentrated form are fairy tales, such as those collected by the brothers Grim. I am working here (in extremely crude outline) from a set of podcasts by a Jungian therapist in Vancouver, John Betts. His segments on temperament/typology and individuation were relatively weak, but his segments on the interpretation of fairy tales were outstanding. He treated the tale "The Nixie of the mill-pond".

Fairy tales take place no where in particular, and no time in particular. Their characters are undeveloped and undetailed, existing only to further an archetypal story. Which is to say, a story consisting of themes and symbols all of unconscious significance. What details they do have are clearly symbolic, not realistic. Fairy tales have a superficial simplicity, yet are uncannily gripping and durable, being products of a long cultural process of pruning and selection. Their meaning is subtle and not obvious, but their lessons stay with us, because they speak to the inner self. Incidentally, they are ideally suited to the animated cartoon format, with non-realistic art matching their non-realistic content.

The drama of a fairy tale is one of individual psychological development, portrayed in an unrelenting stream of symbols- in this case, the pond, the golden comb, the moon, the old wise woman, the three heroic tasks, the magical flute, circumambulation, people turning into frogs. And on and on. The tale is told as a loosely connected set of symbols, which in this case have a strongly feminine tone (moon, flute, spinning wheel, sheep, crone, roe deer). Thus it seems that this tale, though its ostensible main characters are the miller and his son, is about their relationship to the feminine principle, embodied in the Nixi (a kind of powerful water-sprite, such as the Rhine-maidens of Wagner), and the son's wife.

The Nixie takes possession of the son in consummation of a deal the miller made with her after losing touch with his own psychological foundations (represented by a run of bad luck, a sort of midlife crisis). Enduring severe magical and heroic tests (whose solutions are communicated to her through a set of dreams), the son's wife saves him from the clutches of the Nixie by giving the Nixie a series of symbols of femininity, only to lose him again to years of amnesia. But the flute ultimately reminds each of them of their true natures (gnosis), after which they live united, happily ever after.

It may be possible to put other, more mundane interpretations on fairy tales. But to me the symbolic and psychodynamic interpretation, as a sort of waking dream with deeply psychological dilemmas and resolutions, seems far and away the best, plumbing the depths of the tale's dynamics, and explaining its power and meaning, expecially to those who are young and more psychologically open than adults. The reason why we treasure tales of psychological development and fulfillment, which are of course also the bread and butter of all kinds of narrative art- novels, sitcoms, cartoons, and films- is that this is what we seek in our own lives- not just material sustenance and success, but personal meaning found through the trials and tribulations of life.

  • Arch-Freudian Edward Glover spits invective at Jung in 1953: "What sexuality is to Freud the number four is to Jung." (Jung was into numerology along with everything else mythic).
  • Freud and religion
  • Is peak oil a mirage? That would, frankly, be a terrible situation for the climate. And I doubt the rosy scenarios depicted here. US oil production continues to decline, despite all the technological wizardry.
  • Gosh- whatever happened to IBM?
  • Whence morality?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Wish upon a star

Review of Eric Reitan's "Is God a delusion?"

Thanks to the local Catholic library, I got the opportunity to read philosopher Eric Reitan's book, Is God a Delusion? (a reply to religion's cultured despisers). Finely written and extremely temperate and sincere in its impulses, it marshals a variety of arguments against Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and its ilk. (In fairness, I'll note that of these new atheist books, I have read only Dennett's, and didn't like it much.) I apologize for the length of this review, but the book was remarkably pleasant to read and interesting to engage with, in marked contrast to other books in the field. I recommend it highly, while disagreeing with it extensively.

Chapter one takes us through the obligatory "What, me?!" defense. If I may paraphrase... Dawkins's target is not recognizable as my religion or my God. My religion is very liberal, even mystical. God is good and has nothing to do with hell. Indeed, here in Oklahoma, I have to drive my family an hour just to get to a church I like (take that, God's creation!). Thus, not only is Dawkins completely wrong, but most Christians in America are wrong too. I'd even say they aren't truly religious! (Take that, fundamentalist heretics!)

(Me again...) What this demonstrates most directly is that, going by the numbers, Dawkins hits the nail of popular religion far better than does Reitan. It also is a fine example of how no one really knows what they are talking about when they talk about God. Which might lead a skeptic to a very simple conclusion- that it doesn't exist.

Chapter two extends the discussion of what God is. Dawkins is apparently mistaken in positing that God is complex. Anselm told us that God is simple. Thus for Reitan God is simple, despite his creating the universe and all the creatures, being all-seeing and all-knowing, listening to all our prayers, contacting us through schizoid experiences, and blogging on the side through more or less exemplary prophets. Now Reitan disavows most of these properties imputed to God (though his God remains personal by mystical contact), but he is not clear which ones. Does he believe the Bible to be completely human in origin, or semi-inspired? Being against inerrantism (as he is, vociferously) is all very well, but then what, if any, of scripture is sound or reflective of God at all? This utterly arbitrary theological approach to God simply reinforces the theme of Chapter one, indicating that no one knows the least thing about it, once again leading the skeptical observer to the hypothesis that ... it may very well not exist.

In this chapter (and continuing on through chapter three), Reitan also arrives at his own definition: "'God' names that which, in our intuitions and numinous visions, suggests that our ethico-religious hope is not in vain." As a specimen of wishful thinking, one could hardly do better. There is nothing objective even proffered. Whatever we think is good, there is God. Whatever we think not so good, (like much of the Old Testament), there God is not. This turns God into a totem of liberal do-goodism and feel-goodism, which as an atheist I entirely understand and applaud, but which surely must make serious religious believers feel rather adrift, if not hostile.

So why is God believable when there is no serious evidence, a complete lack of knowledge, an extremely tenuous definition at variance with common belief, and psychological clues aplenty to its very human origin? Chapter four delves into the unique scope of the God hypothesis- that since it presumes to run the whole universe and exist outside and prior to it (i.e. it is transcendant), it is more believable than your garden-variety undisprovable celestial teapot and its many mocking colleagues. In big lie parlance, the very size of the lie should inspire respect, if not awe and belief. (I'll treat transcendence more directly below.)

This chapter also offers a minor God-in-the-gaps argument from chance events like quantum indeterminacy- that possibly the transcendent realm may interface with ours through non-random twiddles, applicable both to our souls, through brain effects, and perhaps to other worldly effects. Unfortunately for this hypothesis, when physicists say "random", they mean it. Really random, not pseudorandom. If random events, such as matter spontaneously coming out of the vacuum and going back in, were twiddled by God, it would leave traces of lack of conservation of energy/mass/information, which have not been observed. Much like the other gap arguments that occupy the rest of the book, this one is not strong, and is also susceptible to progressive gap closure by way of continuing observation and study. Reitan even spends a paragraph on why it is not a gap argument, because it accepts current science rather than exploiting a gap in understanding. Yet current science not only finds quantum indeterminacy, but also deals with its predictably random consequences, expressed quantitatively in probability distributions rather than in, say, occasional biasses towards prayed-for outcomes.

Chapter five really gets Reitan's blood going, impeaching Dawkins for not reading Aquinas's Summa Theologica. But Reitan himself devotes only a few pages to the issue, and does not have very good things to say about its arguments either (aside from the basic cosmological argument, dealt with below), so it is unclear why the supporting material would be terribly helpful. He is certainly right that Dawkins misunderstood Aquinas, (using web resources to do so!), but if his many later sympathetic interpreters thought so little (or could make so little) of Aquinas's arguments, then it is not clear why Dawkins needs to go the extra mile here. Biologists are not against reading Darwin, for instance, but we strongly recommend the profusion of more modern treatments first, since they both present the arguments more efficiently, and benefit from later developments in data and theory. Doesn't theology progress in similar fashion?


Reitan's core arguments (chapters 6, 7, 8) boil down to two, which are first the cosmological argument, and second, the argument from mysticism. To put it extremely briefly, these are both God-in-the-gaps arguments, offering the possibility, or "hope", of God in what currently remain as the two prime mysteries of our universe. But these mysteries are mysterious to quite different degrees.

The bare cosmological argument says that the origin of our universe has no good explanation as yet, and might as well be due to some super-being creator as to a multiverse, an odd vacuum fluctuation, or the super-string tango of more regular speculative physics. That we really don't know is hardly in dispute. This classic deism, very common among the founders of the United States, has no terribly strong arguments against it, positing a clockwork universe that was set in motion by this marvelous Being, continuing unmolested to the present day. While such a system may be benevolent in the most distant and ultimate sense, it is hardly a source of personal hope to wish upon.

It has no terribly strong arguments for it either, of course, since as Hume pointed out most trenchantly, the origin of this deity would be itself a mystery to be solved, it being simply unacceptable to wave it away with the classic theological mantras of the uncreated creator, the unmoved mover, the self-sufficient being, and so forth. At any rate, if evidence (better than the so-called "proofs" of Anselm and Aquinas) crops up on the matter, I'll be the first to pay attention.

Deism also offers no support for the florid fixations of popular religion, such as hell, the answering of prayers, the enjoyment of sacrifices, and the twiddling with evolution, tribal politics, international relations, the weather, and so forth (which Reitan decries with some passion as well, going so far as to state a preference for the astringent nullity of atheism over the absurd elaborations of fundamentalism and of orthodox theology more generally). One can't even responsibly call this originating cause a "Being" to invoke anthropomorphic shades, as Reitan habitually does- it might be something like the electron, or other ur-particle or force field. One look through a telescope indicates the extreme improbability that we humans have any special place in this deity's massive work, unless that deity be embarrassingly inefficient, slow, and wasteful, as it has been all over again in the wantonly brutal process of evolution here on earth. Deism appears to be the thinnest of theological gruel.


The other great mystery of the universe is that of the human mind and particularly the personal mystical experience. Here Reitan really hangs his hat, drawing on Simone Weil, William James, and Friedrich Schleiermacher for support. However, as gaps go, this one is narrow and getting narrower all the time. Already in James's time, he concluded that there really was no way to intellectually defend religion- that it arises from feelings first, with intellectual theology added for ornamentation. And secondly, various mystical experiences, while not routinely explicable, were close enough to the common run of mental deviations and defects that these also were scant grounds for belief, whether citing the experiences of others or one's own.

James ended up with a wan and labored decision, eked out with little conviction, that he could in some good conscience hold to an unjustified and uncompelled "over-belief" in Christian theism to keep himself sane and happy (and in his academic and social positions, one might add).

Schleiermacher, a hundred years before James, similarly founded theism on the bare religious feeling, which Reitan agrees with and likens to the Einsteinian position of simple awe and wonder. However, Schleiermacher had fewer doubts that this all somehow adds up to Christianity, even in the teeth of his own generation of atheist "despisers" and the perennial problems of the very same impulse finding expression the world over in fundamentally different theologies and Gods. Reitan's hope rests here, in the end, that these experiences, the fundament of religious feeling, mean what we think they mean, instead of being bare emotions, conveniently interpreted through the lenses of indoctrination.

In our time, the brain is a highly contested space, poked and prodded with some disregard for its sacredness, not to say for propriety. Its operations are fundamentally bounded by materialistic theory as far as the scientists involved in its study are concerned, and thus it is an ever more unlikely source of transgressive and revelatory contact with the "other side", transcendent reality, or God. That is not to say that it can't feel that way- who hasn't done a few too many mushrooms from time to time? But no objective sign has yet emerged that the mystical experience connects with anything other than our internal psychological depths.

But Reitan sticks with Schleiermacher, and claims:

"At the root of our experience, in our awareness of our own existence, there is a seminal awareness of a transcendent reality upon which our entire being depends.
when we do, [notice it], why should we doubt its veridicality any more than we doubt our other feelings? When we don't doubt it and focus our attention on its object, a rich vista of insight opens up as surely as when a scientist trusts her senses and begins to explore the empirical world."
pp 161-162

Where to start? Whether most people experience a seminal awareness is open to question, but that it reflects a transcendent "reality" (rather than just seems that way) is even more open to question. To go with Descartes, I think therefore I am. Thus if I no longer think, I no longer am, implying directly that my ability to think lies at the heart of my being. Whether my ability to think is mechanical or partakes of the divine, the dependence is the same, and thus for me as a thinking being, whatever founds my ability to think and experience will seem/feel equally transcendent, however mundane its actual workings.

This is the crux of the issue- that the feeling of transcendence can not say anything about the nature of that transcendence. As I view current cognitive science, which is hastening to complete the anti-narcissist revolutions of the enlightenment which removed humans successively from the center of the solar system, from their divine pedestal above biology, from the center of the universe, and even from the sovereignty of our own minds, the workings of the mind give every (objective) evidence of being astounding, remarkable, and incredibly intricate, but also entirely material.

There is also every reason to directly doubt the veridicality of spiritual feelings and their content. Not that they don't exist or feel powerful, but that they imply the reality of culturally entrained concepts such as Christ, God, Allah, the creator of the universe, Bodhisattvas, or other such notions. Human history is littered with claims of great "insights", even seminal insights, that descended on recipients of such experiences. At best such insights amount to love, which is ever in short supply, but not a novel idea. Other examples include such horrors as the Book of Revelations, which we can all be thankful was far, far, far from veridical. No instance has granted insights that could not have come from the dreams and thoughts of the subject. Personally, I see great artistry in such visions, like those of Hildegard, and we should give their originators their due as creative geniuses, whether willing or unwilling. But as does all art, they plumb the inner psychological depths of humanity, not the parameters of the universe.

Lastly from the quote above, if focusing on such mystical objects leads as surely to insight as does engagement with the empirical world, then why has their objective return been so paltry (as opposed to their artistic return)? The simplest reason is that Reitan's claim is incorrect. Indeed, it is slandering scientists to liken their "trusting of her senses" to faith in spiritual impressions from religious experiences. Scientists do not trust their senses- they calibrate them, they double-check them, they invent new ones to take the place of our built-in unreliable and limited ones. They critique relentlessly, based on evidence coming from all possible calibrated senses. Whatever the scientific method is, it is first and foremost a matter of psychological insight, about our gullibility and suggestibility. Trust gets science nowhere, and nowhere is trust less merited than in issues of "faith" and mystical emotion.


There is fascinating formal relation in this book, and in theism generally, between the transcendence invoked for brain functions and the transcendence invoked for the cosmos as a whole. Each are systems which theoretically must arise from external causes which can not be perceived by inside observers, leading to the label of "transcendent". (This follows, as Reitan explains, from the principle of sufficient reason, PSR, which I mostly agree with.)

In the case of the mind, glimmers of transcendent feeling are, to a naturalist and brain scientist, clearly the sense of, as Schleiermacher would put it, "absolute dependence", on the brain substrate, especially when whacked out of its nomal rut by hallucinogens or meditation, etc. Subjectively, minds are dependent on their substrate and can know nothing about that substrate from their internal perspective. In this case, however, there are two escape hatches- our senses are pointed outside the mind system, allowing some amount of external, self-observing perspective, and we live in a world of other brains which observe each other in increasing scientific detail. So this kind of transcendence is now not at all mysterious in principle, even if all its internal feelings (i.e. consciousness, mysticism) have not yet been fully demarcated from the outside perspective.

Likewise, the universe as a whole including energy, mass, space, and time itself, originated at a point, and thus has some cause of which we as yet know nothing, and about which it may well be impossible to know anything from our entirely inside vantage point. (Note that in the absence of time, the idea of causality itself may be problematic, which may have some impact on PSR, if one wants to be highly speculative.) Labelling this cause 'God' hardly does us much good. If we lived in a multiverse society of other universes which we could see and converse with, we might be able to figure out exactly what was going on, just as in the case of brains. But alas, that is not the case, and we probably have to settle for not knowing at all, whether we label that state ignorance or deism.


Reitan does not claim to argue for theism conclusively, but only to open a space for the philosophical acceptability of theistic belief, in view of the cosmic unknowns and the mystical experiences of life. If one wishes to stake one's beliefs on things unknown instead of known, then this is a theology with some attraction. But as the domain of the unknown dwindles, slowly but steadily over the years, it would seem to be an increasingly barren and isolated outpost.

The underlying project of the book, of course, is to preserve a sense of hope, religion being in the words of Marx, "the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions". Hope and meaning are the inner resource by which we live, and atheists, with their smug intellect and heedless destruction of all that others hold sacred, are thus, even if right, enemies of humanity in this sense. (Unless religion is not, after all, our only hope.) Marx hoped that his worldly revolution would redeem us:

"The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.
Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower."

Unfortunately, communism failed utterly to cast off the chain of capitalist struggle and mundane existence, so our choice may well be between bearing the chain without flowers and bearing it with flowers. Philosophers should probably choose the former.

Chapter nine transitions to the "sell" part of the book, where the imagination tools (as the new agers here in Marin like to put it) get revved up in service of the Christian message. No longer is belief just putative or reasonable in the face of uncertainty. It is probable. And not only that, it is the only thing that stands between a horribly, unimaginably abused and destroyed person (Reitan provides grisly scenarios), and total despair.

Now, it escapes me why, just when the world has kicked a person in the teeth, Reitan would like to tell her that the world is, by his philosophy, intrinsically good and looking out for them. That would seem palid, even insulting. Perhaps this is a matter of temperament, or it may presume cultural indoctrination that also has little to do with truth or philosophy. At any rate, I would think that the hope we live by should have solid foundations- in us, as hoping beings doing good- not fantastical ones, pulled out of tenuous theological arguments. Reitan admits that theodicy- the resolution of evil- is not theology's strong point, yet by his narration it is also its main point, providing essential hope and sustenance against the evils that abound. In short, we end up where we began, swirling within an enormous exercise in wishful thinking.

Chapter ten makes a plea for the worth of organized religion as the leading way to integrate positive spiritual emotions with the negative ingroup-outgroup dynamic inherent in human nature and human communities. I agree fully both that divisiveness and xenophobia is perhaps humanity's leading defect, and that the spiritual/pan-empathic emotion is humanity's best and opposite emotion. It is ironic that Reitan is happy to trot out an evolutionary explanation for the former (with which I agree), but not for the latter, which Chimpanzees apparently experience as well. Since he takes the intuitive appearance of experience seriously for positive mysticism (as being "veridical"), then he should also accept reports in the vein of "the devil made me do it" for less positive emotions. But that would admit a dark deity, which is contrary to Reitan's wish/definition of God as all-good. Such imbalances pervade the book, despite its extremely sincere efforts to leaven its apologetics with an understanding and appreciation of the other side of the argument.

And not to put too fine a point on it, it is theology that transmutes the better emotions of love/agape into the worse emotions of group identity and competition, by devising fabulistic group-specific narratives and interpretations that harden into "truths", which one group "knows", and others don't, based on celebrity prophets and their lineages of interpreters. Reitan is well aware of this dynamic and offers only the most brief and personal endorsement of the Christian story with Jesus as its star as the best of all elaborations of the pan-empathic impulse (as did James and Schleiermacher before him). But why indulge in such preferences at all?

We feel drawn to symbols of the unseen and dimly understood inner life, and rightly treasure communal and artistic expressions of these deep currents, of which the spiritual/pan-empathic emotion is the very best. Reitan is correct to put prime emphasis in his theology on its source in dreams, visions, and mystical experiences- the personal transcendant function (or more simply, the unconscious). But it is mistaken to equate this with the cosmic transcendent function, firstly because we know nothing whatsoever about cosmic origins or of any remotely plausible connection between the two phenomena. And secondly because such vastly inflated and inflating claims feed the logically unbounded, grandiose, and divisive aspects of religion.

There was a time I used to reject those who where not of my faith. Now,
my heart has grown capable of taking on all forms.
A pasture for a gazelles, a convent for Christians.
A temple for idols, a Kaba for the pilgrim.
A table for the Torah, a book of the Koran.
My religion is love. Whichever the route love's
caravan shall take, that path shall be the path of my faith.
-Ibn Arabi

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Pauline Marxism

Borg and Crossan proclaim the revolutionary nature of Paul's version of Christianity

I've enjoyed a short book (The First Paul) by a couple of liberal theologians (Marcus Borg and John Crossan, or B&C), reconstructing the history of Paul of Tarsus and his message. Their readings of Paul seem a little strained in places, but on the whole, the book is very convincing and also quite uplifting. Little of what they say is new (liberation theology and all that), but it is very well presented with penetrating historical insight, and also worth remembering in this time when the most vocally religious among us bleat about the horror of socialized medicine, among other communitarian evils.

B&C write quite concisely, so I will follow them and summarize some of their main points:

- Only about a third of Pauline writing in the new testament is authentic. Later writings diverge increasingly with time, until they become diametrically anti-Paul.

- Paul reached an agreement with his fellow apostles in Jerusalem that he should preach to gentiles without the requirement of keeping Jewish law, while the others (Barnabas, James, et al.) would convert Jews and maintain the law.

- Paul's mission ended up being a systematic approach to gentiles who were already "attached" to synagogues in large cities of the eastern empire. About half of Antioch's synagogue attendees, for instance, were counted as gentiles not keeping the law, but interested in the god of the Jews. How they were attached is not entirely clear, though this may have something to do with the Essene and Therapeutae movements mentioned in a prior post. Gandy and Freke liken these relationships to Madonna's latter-day dalliance with the Kaballa.

- Paul did not preach Jesus's sacrificial atonement for individual human sins, nor for original sin. Instead, he preached the horror and injustice of Jesus's sacrifice- that it held a mirror to the injustice of the world, contrasted with the new world possible through love.

- Paul's core teaching was a rejection of the ambient Roman ethic of peace through violence, terror, and hierarchy, in favor of peace through egalitarian distributive justice and love, arising from what B&C term "a spirit transplant" from Christ crucified.

- Communities that Paul founded were "share" communities, where all were supposed to help others in need, share equally in sacred meals, and contribute what they could. Freeloaders became a problem early on, exemplifying the classic economic problem of monitoring who is freeloading (who is truly a widow, for instance).

- Paul's gentile communities were supposed to contribute monetarily to the Jerusalem-centered Jewish Christian communities that represented "true" Christianity (characterized as "utopian" by B&G). A falling-out between Paul and his Jerusalem colleagues at the Jerusalem temple seems to have resulted in his being packed off to Rome for imprisonment and eventual execution, eerily echoing the fate of Jesus himself, though B&G only piece/surmise this together- it is not reported directly in Acts.

Most striking of all this is the proposition that Paul's agenda was strongly social and explicitly revolutionary. Not only were the reigning gods and emperor of Rome left by the wayside with the repeated and insistant cry of "Jesus is Lord", but the reigning power-ethic of Rome was turned on its head, with slaves and women given equal status in the new communities. The Corinthian community, with substantial inequality of wealth, found this quite hard to swallow, leading to heated remonstrations from Paul.

It is this agenda that explains why the new Christian community was persecuted so consistently. Their doctrine as well as practice was an ongoing rebuke to the powers that be, whose reply was to use their default ethic of oppression and expurgation to blot them out. Yet it also accounts for the attraction Paul's communities held for the rootless and exploited of the urban empire (the alienated proletariat, one might almost say), especially when he dropped the need to follow Jewish law in all its own oppressiveness.

Paul's program (partly channeling Jesus), was a critique of the ambient Roman system, much like Communism was a critique of our ambient capitalist system. Rome's hierarchy reached from the emperor-gods at the top to the most cruel mining slavery at the bottom. It depended on military conquest to get slaves, to subjugate competitors, to gain resources and markets. And it was unthinkable to change this system which combined church and state with an antique, time-honored ethical system. (Though as I have discussed, gradual amelioration was also happening in the empire, apart from Christian influences).

In our own day, Communism has been the most radical and sustained critique of capitalism. Heaven knows that capitalism needs a critique- it is cruel and heartless, alienating to its workers and destructive of social decency. The elevation of greed as its outstanding moral guide is repugnant, and the relentless gravitation of every sphere of life into its maw of commercialization is also disturbing, if not appalling. While through a great deal of work and struggle for amelioration we have arrived at a more moral point than the Roman ethical system of antiquity, (with depressingly frequent backsliding in the antebellum American South and elsewhere), we still live mired in a system that divides our souls and fails to give us the elemental happiness possible in the most primitive family/tribal settings.

Yet economics must have its due. The communist/socialist critique, however trenchant in the hands of Marx, Jesus, Paul and others, has not provided a replacement to take us to the promised land. Communism was particularly deficient in this regard, and one might make a similar point about Christianity. As early Christianity spread, Rome's economic basis was shrivelling from ongoing corruption / concentration of economic power by leading landholders and from lack of new resources via conquest. While Constantine, Theodosius and successors saw Christianity as a new hierarchical glue to hold the empire(s) together, it was not a helpful economic glue. Quite the opposite- its preoccupations were doctrinal and otherworldly, leaving this current world largely to rot. Its charities ameliorated in some small degree the harshness of economic failure, whether ancient or modern, but its doctrines were and remain disinterested in, even antithetical to, vibrant economic activity (excepting, perhaps, the controversial Protestant view of salvation through hard work).

Squaring the circle of morality, ethics, communitarianism, and economic performance remains the great pending work of modern political economy, and this work is actually becoming more and more interesting as we learn more about man's irrationality and basic unsuitability to classical economic theory.

  • The New Yorker does Judas.
  • More on those death panels.
  • Gawande reinforces his message on health costs.
  • Health care in the larger picture.
  • The WSJ (John Mackey) does health reform. Most charming quote: "Many promoters of health-care reform believe that people have an intrinsic ethical right to health care—to equal access to doctors, medicines and hospitals. While all of us empathize with those who are sick, how can we say that all people have more of an intrinsic right to health care than they have to food or shelter?"
  • Leading "Intelligent Design" scientist William Dembski asks students taking "Christian Faith and Science, masters course" at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to (and I am not kidding): "provide at least 10 posts defending ID that you’ve made on “hostile” websites, the posts totalling 2,000 words, along with the URLs (i.e., web links) to each post (worth 20% of your grade)".
  • Jerry Coyne writes another dispatch vs religion, in TNR.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


The Trotsky trilogy by Isaac Deutscher
Running dog lackey of the imperialist exploiter (Soviet edition)

This survey of Leon Trotsky's career is one of the great biographies of the twentieth century. Lovingly written and researched by a highly sympathetic author, (Deutscher claims to have been the first member expelled from the Polish Communist party for Trotsky-ism, in the early 1930's), the three volumes are a fascinating read of delirious Boshevism as seen through the battered, if still-rose-colored, glasses of mid-century international communism.

I confess I am only half-way through the set, but the narrative is harder and harder to bear as the story of Stalin's rise to power plays out in all its horror. (Stalin's agents eventually assassinate Trotsky, exiled in Mexico, in 1940). So I thought I would offer a quick review now, before I forget some of the pivotal themes. The climax of Trotsky's career occurs late in the first book, as the October 1917 revolution succeeds, carried off virtually single-handedly, as Deutscher would have it, by Trotsky's oratorical prowess in front of the Petersburg Soviets and a few other forums, such as the sailors of Kronstadt, near Petersburg.

In the quote below, Deutscher describes Trotsky's position a few years after the ensuing civil war, circa 1924, as Stalin was starting to collect all the levers of power and outflank the man who played such a leading role in the 1917 revolution. Unlike Trotsky, Stalin assiduously built a network of personal patronage in the nascent Soviet government, which then allowed him free reign over his subordinate's loyalty, thoughts, and eventually, lives.
"The Bolshevik [Trotsky] felt alienated from his own work- the revolution. His own state and his own party towered high above him. They appeared to have a mind and will of their own which bore little relation to his mind and his will and to which he had to bow. State and party appeared to him as blind forces, convulsive and unpredictable. When the Bolsheviks made of the Soviets 'organs of power' they were convinced, with Trotsky, that they had established 'the most lucid and transparent political system' the world had ever seen, a system under which rulers and ruled would be closer to one another than ever before and under which the mass of the people would be able to express and enforce its will as directly as never before. Yet nothing was less 'transparent' than the single-party system after a few years. Society as a whole had lost all transparency. No social class was free to express its will." p.262, volume 2

While Deutscher contributes perspectives like this and writes exceedingly well, he also shares in the grand delusion, being a dedicated communist himself, if exiled to England (England!) while working for the Economist magazine (the Economist!). Working in the 40's and 50's, he did not know exactly how decrepit the Soviet system would become, and how completely history would sweep its dreams into the proverbial dustbin. But he did know and suffer from Stalin's Orwellian depredations on truth and history, specifically on the memory of Trotsky, and he thus offers this labor of love to set that record straight.

Trotsky's story has the ingredients of Greek drama, except that his failings brought untold misery and death to tens of millions, not just himself. One can, in the end, have scant sympathy for him. He lived very much by the sword, both in his vigorous political agitation for the revolution, and in his brutal conduct of the civil war afterwards. That he then died by the sword of the revolution he did so much to create is ironic, but far from surprising. He shows a shocking lack of reflection on the lessons of history that were freely available in works like the Federalist papers. There is no appreciation (as indicated in the quote above) for the delicate art of founding a working government, such as our own founders evinced. That would be altogether bourgeois! This lack of grounding in political science shows in his (and all the Bolshevik's) marination in Marxist and Leninist dogmas- what was in essence a messianic eschatology almost completely divorced from a realistic appraisal of human nature.

Trotsky was a fierce intellectual and the leading thinker of his circle, and this makes him relatively sympathetic compared with the scoundrels and psychopaths who accompanied and followed him in power. As co-founder of a new government of a great nation, his duty was to heed historical experience and general prudence. In this, he was an utter failure, as were Lenin and colleagues. They viewed governing as some kind of parlor game where the best argument, penned in long "works" of obscure Marxist litany, pursuaded friends ensconced in an idylic post-revolution dictatorship (of the proletariat, one hastily adds). Little thought was given to the ongoing structure of political conflict, to checks and balances, let alone democracy and openness. All eyes were glued to the brass ring of power, with nary a thought about how power had corrupted every previous government in history.

Most of all, they had no time for legitimacy by popular appeal (and popular vote). They ascended to power on the back of the worker's unions (the soviets, i.e. the proletariat), conscripted the workers to fight the civil war, which in turn destroyed the industry that employed those workers, and finally expropriated them politically through the inexorable logic of single-party discipline (termed substitutionism by Trotsky) that concentrated power, step-by-step, at higher and higher levels. Expropriation happened because the party inherently represented a minority and had to close ranks to remain in power. It happened because, in the absence of a structured opposition and an overarching commitment to majority rule (another bourgeois concept!), let alone freedom of expression and journalism, no line could be drawn between dissent and disloyalty. Later, a few looked back wistfully to a time before the revolution when every party and party faction had its own freely published newspaper!

Something similar, of course happened in the case of the Catholic church and its own messianic eschatology, which also ended up concentrating power in an infallible father figure with the power to re-write history and burn opponents at the stake- in this case the pope on the Apostolic throne of Peter, instead of Stalin atop the Kremlin mausoleum.

One might ask whether the difference between the durability of the Catholic church and the Soviet system has something to do with an underlying humanism inherent in the former that was absent in the latter. (Not to mention the awesome power of religious, superstitious propaganda.) The Bolsheviks were atheists, as were all good communists and Marxists, but that was not the real problem, as shown by the functionally atheist countries of Scandinavia today. The Bolsheviks were deeply humanistic in theory, seeking the best possible world for all people. Yet it was a twisted and unsophisticated humanism, common to utopian visions, where the future they were certain of was more important than the present they were transcending, leaving them adrift and all too easily corrupted by their first brush with power.

It is a credit to the Catholic church, in a way, that its vision of heaven and the kingdom to come on earth has always been secondary to its own temporal hierarchy, power, pastoral relationships, and sophisticated vision of the human condition. And, perhaps, that its messiah was not a crackpot economist, whatever his beef with the moneychangers!

  • Hitchens revisits his old friend, Marx
  • The DPRK keeps up the delightful art of political invective and sycophancy
  • Another view of native americans
  • Remarkable example of Republican spin, by Senator Charles Grassley, on health care. At all costs, we must save the private health insurance industry!
  • One more sad comment on our rape of the oceans

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The soul of Francis Collins

Soon-to-be NIH director Francis Collins believes in souls and miracles

President Obama has nominated Francis Collins to be the next director of the NIH. Since the NIH is by far the largest funder of biomedical research in the US, (and the world), this will make Collins the leading voice and leading policymaker in this area of research and in medicine generally. Collins is an excellent researcher, and a top-notch administrator and politician. He will do well at the NIH, and 97.2% of his decisions will be good for the agency and the country.

However, there are a few looming problems. Collins holds the philosophical position (which I will refer to as compatibilism; also related to Stephen Gould's NOMA) that science and religion do not (or at least do not have to) conflict. He has been loudly vocal in his faith in Jesus, and in the compatibility of miracles, resurrections, and other articles of faith with the scientific corpus. A staunch defender of evolutionary theory, Collins sees no problem with the idea that human moral traits were specially implanted by god, rather than a product of the rough-and-tumble of .. well, evolution. Well versed in physics, he also believes that the total lack of contemporary miracles fails to impeach the fundamental violation of physical law that Biblical miracles represent. For, if one leads by faith, then all things are possible and god would, a priori, have no difficulty suspending physical law for the resurrection of his son or the multiplication of fishes and loaves.

The Stanford review put it this way, after a talk Collins gave on campus: "After evolution had “prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’” in the human being (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of free will, good and evil, and a soul. God used DNA as an information molecule; thus DNA is the language of God."

Collins is not alone in this position, of course. The National Academy of Science takes an official compatibilist position as well- that while evolution (among other theories) is absolutely, categorically, true, there are many scientists who find a way to have faith and think scientifically as well. Perhaps not at the same time, but definitely in the same brain. This is politically astute, even imperative, though it involves the Academy in adjudicating between more or less literal faiths, a position of some delicacy, not to say incoherence.

However incoherent, it would be harmless enough if it were not passed off as the promising reconciliation of faith and reason the West has been awaiting for a millenium. But so it is, and with the funding of one of leading religious philanthropies in the US- the Templeton foundation- Collins has founded a website and organization called Biologos to spread this gospel of compatibilism. As an effort against biblical literalism and fundamentalism, it is certainly positive. But quite a bit of Biblical literalism remains behind in a cherry-picked mix of the holy and the profane.

The Templeton foundation is based on a pile of money left by the mutual fund pioneer John Templeton, in order to strengthen religion in the US and worldwide. Their current motto is "Supporting science, investing in the big questions". How do they support science? They fund an annual prize given to the scientist they believe best supports religion (which they term "spiritual reality"), or to the most long-winded philosopher who works to denigrate science (e.g. Charles Taylor).

The foundation funds conferences devoted to bordeline science and religion ("Water of Life"- a two-day symposium to explore the gap between the investigation of fine-tuning in physics and cosmology with the investigation of fine-tuning in chemistry and biochemistry; "Spirit in the World"- The Dynamics of Pentecostal Growth and Experience; "Evolvability" The Evolution Of Evolution Conference , which dealt with limitations of evolutionary theory).

The foundation also grants money to people and organizations far and wide susceptible to compatibilist theology (Princeton Theological Seminary awarded "Science for Ministry" grant; Forgiveness Illuminated: Forgiveness, Resiliency and Survivorship Among Holocaust Survivors; "Science of Virtue" University of Chicago scholars will use two-fold definition of science to better understand human virtue; "Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health" Duke University Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development.)

Templeton's project seems basically one of giving megaphones to the small slice of the scientific community that is willing to mix religion with science, and with their money subborn scientists, journalists, and scientific institutions to propagate a compatibilist theology that does not bear close examination on either theological or scientific grounds. Its work is far more subtle than that of the Discovery Institute, which explicitly declares science to be the enemy of religion, to be denegrated through a "wedge" strategy of politicization, sophistry, and culture war.

The Templeton fundation does good work in many fields. It even does some honest science funding, like of a study of intercessionary prayer that found (and published) zero effect from such prayer on the health of heart patients. It exhibits strong internal tensions between supporting what its staff knows to be theologically true, and supporting science that finds what is actually true. Their internal tension is reflected in their public face and effects, muddying the boundaries between rigorous intellect and faith. To me it seems somewhat dangerous for one of the nation's leading scientists to be in bed with such an organization, entangled both financially and philosophically with its questionable methods and aims.

Collins has promised to be "minimally involved" with Biologos- to step down from its board and not speak on its behalf when he is director of the NIH. But his wife is and will remain on the board. And Collins himself is clearly in the running for one of those rich Templeton prizes for the reconciliation of religion and science. His voice in science policy and ethics will be weakened by this association and by his conflicting attitudes in general, as onlookers suspect firstly that his thought process is not entirely sound, and secondly that ulterior motives may be at play in some kinds of decisions. In his book, Collins declared that the origin of his belief lay in a mystical experience of seeing three waterfalls in a frozen state. He puts it in an interview:

"I turned the corner and saw in front of me this frozen waterfall, a couple of hundred feet high. Actually, a waterfall that had three parts to it -- also the symbolic three in one. At that moment, I felt my resistance leave me. And it was a great sense of relief. The next morning, in the dewy grass in the shadow of the Cascades, I fell on my knees and accepted this truth -- that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief."

On the other hand, with most of the nation sharing his faith, he may have greater influence than otherwise on societal ethical and medical issues. The quality of his influence, however, depends on his positions being well thought-out and based on knowledge and reason, which is undermined by this underlying philosophy.

The science of the NIH is largely well-insulated from the whims of the director, except for some pet projects/initiatives (the NIH even hosts a congressionally-mandated institute of alternative and complementary medicine). Extensive layers of peer review will continue to direct money to the best research, judged on social and scientific merit. The current time is a golden age of biomedical research in many fields, including genetics, evolution, social science, and neuroscience.

One of the ironies of this appointment is that neuroscience is steadily chipping away at the idea that the mind is due to anything other than the brain- that supernatural entities such as "souls" are needed to explain the wonder of consciousness. Likewise, our moral senses are being ever more firmly situated in inborn traits and quantitative evolutionary origins that belie a special qualitative status for humans, let alone require the intervention of dieties for their implantation. Perhaps Collins will preside over a research enterprise that will do away for good with some of his most cherished, if wrong-headed, sentiments.

  • An alternate view of the Templeton foundation's work, from the inside.
  • Outstanding set of podcasts on Beethoven's symphonies
  • Cash for clunkers- obviously, the government could have gained far more environmental benefit for its (our) money.
  • Health care status quo, anyone?