Posts Tagged ‘naturalism’

Ralph, Bart, & Jesus

December 14, 2012

I thought it was pretty much all over but the grading, except for one last exam yesterday. But we also had one last report presentation: Jesus!

Jacob, standing by his man and citing C.S. Lewis’s weird and cryptic statement about prophets who claim to be poached eggs etc., said we finally have just three basic belief options:

  • Jesus was not who he claimed to be, God (the, not just a… like Phil Connors) and he knew it. Or,
  • He was sincere but deluded. Or,
  • He was the real deal.

Well, I told the class, at least two more options leap instantly to mind: he was misrepresented, and he was misunderstood. Call them the Ehrman* and Emerson options, respectively.

Ehrman contends that the New Testament is riddled with contradictions about the life of Jesus and his significance. He has provided compelling evidence that early Christianity was a collection of competing schools of thought and that the central doctrines we know today were the inventions of theologians living several centuries after Christ.  Commonwealth Club

Ehrman has lived those contradictions. He was “born again” at 15 in Kansas (where he was a pal of my colleague Mike Hinz, btw, which is why Bart spoke on our campus February before last), a religion student at arch-conservative Moody Bible College (where all his teachers were required to sign an oath to represent only one perspective on the question of Biblical literalism and “inerrancy”), Wheaton College, and Princeton, and a devout Christian well into his career at Chapel Hill. The problem of suffering ultimately disabused him of his faith and made him a “heretic.” He came to understand that we shouldn’t follow anyone or anything with unwavering, unquestioning obeisance. We’re all individuals. We all have to think for ourselves.

rweJesus Christ estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, `I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.’ But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! …`This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man’ …He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain. Emerson, “Divinity School Address

We could do a course on this Emersonian sort of naturalized religious sensibility. Throw in the Jefferson Bible, along with some other ways of moving naturalism forward. Some Jamesian pluralism, some Deweyan natural piety, some humanistic science.

Maybe we will.

*Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed  the Bible and Why

Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible

Forged: Writing in the Name of God-Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are

God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question-Why We Suffer

“We are not a part of nature, we are all of nature”

March 12, 2011

My head’s back, sorta.

Thinking this morning about my impending presentation at the 16th annual Conference on Baseball in Literature and Culture, about the great Sidd Finch, and about the Buddha on nature.

“He specifically said it was a sin against right living for anyone to claim to have supernatural powers,” Jennifer Hecht reminds us. But,

Once Buddhism was out of the Buddha’s hands, the ideas of prayer and worship, a universal mind, magic, gods, and, of course, karma began to creep into many of the Buddhist sects that arose across the centuries…

Including Finch’s, evidently. Even “The Natural” couldn’t hurl a ball faster than a speeding bullet. What Sidd did in 1985 (in George Plimpton‘s fervid imagination) literally defied nature, not to mention credulity.

But there’s a larger point here:

The Buddha invited us to use our human consciousness to realize that we are not a part of nature, we are all of nature. It was a transcendent secularism, an empirical guide out of the limitations of the human mind… Buddhism is a nontheistic graceful-life philosophy and a nontheistic transcendent program. JMH

“We are all of nature” means we already possess the tools (as big league scouts like to say) to free ourselves from self-centered worries and fears.

This situation of ours is bliss… you are a collection of thoughts amid the universe, with nothing to do but be delighted with that surprising truth, and with the whole range of experience, without preference, without hurry, without dread. Every moment is a marvel of being.

“Nothing to do” is a stretch. Nothing but grade those papers, prep those classes, finish that conference talk (last year‘s & the year before)… Being “all of nature” is a full-time job. But Spring Training was awesome. Wish I was there.


January 6, 2011

If I were the sort of person who looks for signs and portents, I’d have been spooked by yesterday’s convergence of two events:

(1) the arrival at the public library of four titles I’d requested & held, and

(2) the malfunction of my shiny new Kindle, to which I’d only just begun to form an obsessive attachment.

The four titles:

  • Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age
  • iBrain: surviving the technological alteration of the modern mind
  • The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future
  • Distracted: the erosion of attention and the coming dark age

But I’m not that sort of person, as I told Younger Daughter who last night was researching a social studies assignment on her family’s religion. “My Dad’s a naturalist,” she wrote, “a person who thinks that what we call magic is just facts we don’t understand.”

Facts we don’t understand yet… I begin to understand, though, that the magic so many of us have been seeking in our various handheld gizmos is unreliable.

Also a fact: printed & bound books are still the most reliable handheld vehicle for text, and probably for connectivity too.

Excuse me, I have a stack of reading to attend to… and a new Kindle book on the iPod. It’s All Things Shining.

wisdom of Solomon

April 13, 2010

We finish Solomon’s Spirituality for the Skeptic today. I find much to admire in his approach, though I’m not so willing to spin “poor Nietzsche’s antipathy” as sympathetically as he. [reviewPigliucci]

“I am dynamite!” is more than simply the announcement of an audacious new brand of spirituality, it is the defensive ego-blast of a lonely, insecure hermetic misanthrope. But it’s still fun to read:

I am not a man, I am dynamite. And with it all there is nought of the founder of a religion in me. Religions are matters for the mob ; after coming in contact with a religious man I always feel I must wash my hands; I require no “believers,” I am too full of malice to believe in even myself. I am horribly frightened that one day I shall be pronounced “holy.” I refuse to be a saint, I would rather be a clown. Maybe I am a clown… and the mouthpiece of truth. But my truth is terrible; for hitherto lies have been called the truth. The Transvaluation of all Values, this is my formula for mankind’s greatest step towards coming to its senses– a step which in me became flesh and genius. My destiny ordained that I should be the first decent human being… I was the first to discover truth… Ecce Homo

And the next thing we know, he’s hugging a horse and proclaiming himself Jesus and Alexander. You can call it spirituality if you like, I call it syphilitic madness. A fruitful madness, though, with plenty in it worth talking about. But this guy should be nobody’s role model, pasted on no disaffected teenager‘s bedroom wall.

Consider: as Nietzsche scratched out those lines in his Swiss garret, announcing his unique superiority to all other members of his species, James was wrapping up Principles of Psychology and delineating the common organic  threads that bind us all together. What a contrast. He writes:

The mood of a Schopenhauer or a Nietzsche, though often an ennobling sadness, is almost as often only peevishness running away with the bit between its teeth.  The sallies of the two German authors remind one, half the time, of the sick shriekings of two dying rats.  They lack the purgatorial note which religious sadness gives forth.

And then James cites an extended passage in Genealogy of Morals, and then is moved to deplore "poor Nietzsche's antipathy." But he also adds: "but we know what he means," and acknowledges the seriousness of the issue at hand.
For Nietzsche the saint represents little but sneakingness and slavishness.  He is the sophisticated invalid, the degenerate par excellence, the man of insufficient vitality.  His prevalence would put the human type in danger... "The sick are the greatest danger for the well.  The weaker, not the stronger, are the strong's undoing. if health, success, strength, pride, and the sense of power were in themselves things vicious, for which one ought eventually to make bitter expiation.  Oh, how these people would themselves like to inflict the expiation, how they thirst to be the hangmen! And all the while their duplicity never confesses their hatred to be hatred." [VRE]
Solomon is spontaneously humane and compassionate, precisely where his hero is hard-hearted and insensitive and disgusted by "weakness." Nietzsche was not a great-souled man in the Aristotelian mold, nor is it clear how the "greatness" of wanting nothing different than it is can be distinguished from stoicism or resignation.

However, let us not get stuck in more small antipathies. His persevering embrace of hardship and the polemical energy of his pile-driver prose can be stirring. What I like about this book:

Following up the ch.4 aside about professional philosophers who are rational, reflective, and devoid of passion and spirituality, note my snarky invidious comparison the other day. For the record, and as James would say: I was probably missing the whole inward significance, for my classmate, of the epistemology enterprise. We don’t all wear our passions on our sleeves. Fair enough. But still, there are relatively passionless scholars out there. Lots of them, in fact, and most would happily renounce any interest in spirituality. Their perfect right.

Ch.5. Solomon says the naturalistic version of the problem of evil is marked by the insufferable “why me” whining of those who consider themselves entitled to the universe’s particular solicitude. Good point. But is it really true that there is no problem of evil at all for those who hold low or no expectations for the world’s goodness? Evil and suffering are existential problems for us all, and an added challenge for those meliorists who seek meaning and purpose in their progressive diminution.

Solomon likes James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis and notes with approval its affinity for the Taoist quest to harmonize with (and as part of) nature.  Dawkins, we saw in Unweaving the Rainbow, considers the whole thing too New Agey, and now Lovelock apparently agrees with him. But isn’t there some sense in developing this metaphor, so long as we don’t imagine Mother Earth literally to have a mind of her own? Aren’t we it, in fact, the only developed consciousness on the planet? Earth has an ecological intelligence, we can say metaphorically. But we have the brains, and we’re the only ones with a vested stake in the continuance of human beings on this rock.

Nietzsche’s declaration that he was an “atheist by instinct” srikes an interesting contrast to those (like Michael Shermer in the Wall Street Journal last week) who contend that we’re hard-wired to seek God. There are instinctive atheists for whom the God hypothesis entirely fails to resonate, no? Whole cultures and traditions of them, in fact. Didn’t we learn that from Jennifer Hecht?

Time and space grow short. Some stubs:

Ch.6. Dennett, Vonnegut, determinism vs. fatalism, luck, chance, scientism, eternal recurrence… “People die before their time.”

Ch.7. Socrates hated life? Or was it Plato? In any event, Solomon is right (isn’t he?) to say that the meaning of death comes down to the meaning of life. That’s the better frame, as James and Spinoza would agree. And death indeed is not the end, if we can transcend our narrow little selves and identify with the species. Why can’t we?

Ch.8. Curiously, Hegel and Nietzsche are teamed to make a case for the wider self of “Geist, ” for a compassionate community of souls together breathing life into Spirit and the zeitgeist. Sure looks like Fritz is being bent over backward to fit the kinder, gentler dimensions of this program (caring, love, reverence, trust).

But if that’s what survives his dispatch of “soul atoms,” maybe it’s not so important whether he gets with the program in all its details. Or if his “hypersensitive nature” throws up a rhetorical smokescreen behind which lurks a hidden pussycat.  It’s too late, under the moving finger of fate, to worry much about Nietzsche’s status and legacy. The more pressing question: can you and I enjoy a naturalized spirituality as we live forward in our time, and cultivate a thoughtful love of life?

What have we got to lose by trying? The tremendous effort to discover or realize our better selves is what spirituality is all about. This naturalized notion of spirituality is, in this narcissistic and materialist age, something well worth striving for.

Superman, though, is not.


January 21, 2010

Today in A&S we’re considering the recent trend towards advocacy and movement-building among non-theists, among whom there clearly has been a discernible push to “come out” and be counted as a constituency. This is reflected in the titles of recent books we might have read this semester: The Atheist Manifesto, Philosophers Without Gods, 50 Voices of Disbelief. Alongside the Center for Inquiry’s “Declaration* in Defense of Science and Secularism,”  the Secular Humanists‘** Declaration, the upstart Brights‘# initiative to expand their base of visible public support, and the  case for naturalistic spirituality## advanced by the Center for Naturalism, the cumulative effect of these statements is to suggest a sharp turn towards proselytism. Evangelical atheists? Can that be good?

Well, it’s one thing to seek converts aggressively, and another to announce and celebrate  one’s own conversion. Julia Sweeney falls into the latter camp… Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with the former. Let’s talk about that in class, and about how she quickly moderated her intemperate outburst at Deepak Chopra. Maybe her position is the mirror of Kristin’s: she likes Coors, but is prepared to coexist peaceably with those who prefer hand-crafted ale. And maybe (like Groucho and Woody) she doesn’t really want to belong to any club that would have someone like her for a member. Non-theists and free-thinkers really aren’t very clubbable.

(But on the other hand, the original Humanist Manifesto$– the one John Dewey signed– goes back to 1933. Everything old is new again. Here’s the latest version$$).


*Unfortunately, not only do too many well-meaning people base their conceptions of the universe on ancient books—such as the Bible and the Koran—rather than scientific inquiry, but politicians of all parties encourage and abet this scientific ignorance. It is vital that the public be exposed to the scientific perspective, and this presupposes the separation of church and state and public policies that are based on secular principles, not religious doctrine… We maintain that secular, not religious, principles must govern our public policy. This is not an anti-religious viewpoint; it is a scientific viewpoint. To find common ground, we must reason together, and we can do so only if we are willing to put personal religious beliefs aside when we craft public policy.

**As secular humanists, we are generally skeptical about supernatural claims. We recognize the importance of religious experience: that experience that redirects and gives meaning to the lives of human beings. We deny, however, that such experiences have anything to do with the supernatural. We are doubtful of traditional views of God and divinity. Symbolic and mythological interpretations of religion often serve as rationalizations for a sophisticated minority, leaving the bulk of mankind to flounder in theological confusion. We consider the universe to be a dynamic scene of natural forces that are most effectively understood by scientific inquiry. We are always open to the discovery of new possibilities and phenomena in nature. However. we find that traditional views of the existence of God either are meaningless, have not yet been demonstrated to be true, or are tyrannically exploitative. Secular humanists may be agnostics, atheists, rationalists, or skeptics, but they find insufficient evidence for the claim that some divine purpose exists for the universe. They reject the idea that God has intervened miraculously in history or revealed himself to a chosen few or that he can save or redeem sinners. They believe that men and women are free and are responsible for their own destinies and that they cannot look toward some transcendent Being for salvation. We reject the divinity of Jesus, the divine mission of Moses, Mohammed, and other latter day prophets and saints of the various sects and denominations. We do not accept as true the literal interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, the Koran, or other allegedly sacred religious documents…

#A bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview. A bright’s worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements. The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview… The movement’s three major aims are: Promote the civic understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview, which is free of supernatural and mystical elements. Gain public recognition that persons who hold such a worldview can bring principled actions to bear on matters of civic importance. Educate society toward accepting the full and equitable civic participation of all such individuals…

##Spirituality properly understood has nothing essentially to do with the supernatural, and is far too important a matter to leave to religionists and new-agers. To do so would have naturalists ignore central questions of life’s meaning and purpose, of how we can best live together given the ultimate nature of things, and what our relation to that nature is. None of this requires or implies god...

$We assert that humanism will: (a) affirm life rather than deny it; (b) seek to elicit the possibilities of life, not flee from them; and (c) endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few. By this positive morale and intention humanism will be guided, and from this perspective and alignment the techniques and efforts of humanism will flow.

$$Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner. Thus engaged in the flow of life, we aspire to this vision with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals. The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone.


January 17, 2010

That’s the countdown to the new baseball season, my great symbolic annual thaw, my “return to life”: it’s about thirty days, give or take, ’til pitchers and catchers start to report to Spring Training. I’m angling to get there myself, possibly with Older Daughter in tow, en route to a philosophy conference in Charlotte, NC. We’ll see.

The countdown has experienced a hiccup, though, with the Mark McGwire rehab story coming out of St. Louis. I experimented with supporting Joe Torre’s Dodgers in the last postseason, if things don’t improve I may have to think about adopting a new team and switching allegiances permanently.

Well, clearly I am “thinking about it.” Actually doing it is probably impossible, given the coercive power of childhood indoctrination. But I’ve never been a Tony LaRussa fan, and his protests of ignorance about McGwire’s steroid abuse remind me of Tricky Dick Nixon. What did he know and when did he know it? And, as Senator Baker also used to ask, if he didn’t know it, why  in the world not? He was the President [manager]!

I’ve been more down on football than usual of late, because of new research showing that it’s even more brutally violent than meets the eye; and I still feel a general antipathy for collegiate athletics, for compromising the academic mission of the university. Baseball has always been my safe harbor as a sports indulgence that seemed at least relatively semi-defensible, compared to the others. But this performance-enhancement scandal continues to vex.

The  submission deadline for this year’s Baseball and Literature conference in March looms (the extended deadline, thankfully). It’ll be good therapy to hammer out a presentation addressing these issues.  The big-name guest speaker this year is going to be Ferguson Jenkins, the old Cub pitcher whose name reminds me instantly of my childhood favorite: Bob Gibson. A question to explore: were those guys really better heroes than the scandal-ridden Steroids Era players, McGwire and Sosa et al? Or were we, are we– meaning we fans of many decades– just naive? And does it matter?  Can we appreciate athletic excellence for its own sake, on the field, without worrying about what kinds of persons (and with what “enhancements”) are wearing the uniforms?

I’m thinking this last question mirrors an issue raised in class the other day: is a philosophy’s worth to be evaluated independently from the character and the biography of the philosopher? Does it matter that Heidegger was a Nazi, that James was prone to depression, that Nietzsche had trouble relating to women?

Of course it does. And it matters that a record-breaking season was juiced. Does it matter enough to make me question my continued interest in the game, or re-consider ancient admirations formed in childhood? Can’t wait to talk to Fergie about that.

***          ***          ***          ***          ***          ***

NOTE to A&S students: I’ve posted another little Carl Sagan selection for you to take a look at before Tuesday, and if you want to read ahead for Thursday you can begin with the Center for Inquiry’s “Declaration in Defense of Science and Secularism”  and the Secular Humanists‘ Declaration too. Then, have a look at the Brights‘ site.  Which reminds me to remind you:

Narrow path

August 17, 2009

A new spirituality site has launched. It’s like Beliefnet but “more academic,” says a review. But if academic is supposed to mean scholarly and comprehensive, it’s not. It fails to recognize a wider spiritual universe beyond the usual mainstream religious suspects. There is a “pagan” portal about Wiccans and such, but I had to hunt for the barest sliver of attention to humanism. Nothing either on the Brights, or on naturalism.

Our Spring spirituality (and atheism) c0urse clearly has important gaps to fill.


July 12, 2009


But seriously, Jesus and Mo, and Atheist Barmaid, are you ok with naturalized spirituality? I understand being impatient with equivocal agnostics and ecumenical Unitarians and pseudo-scientific superstition mongers and would-be Red Sea-parting miracle workers, but can’t we acknowledge the reality of geist and still fully affirm our commitment to “the scientific image”?

Can’t we still admire the rainbow, as Dawkins has said, even after we’ve learned something about light spectra and the visual  cortex?

Can’t we admit our own materiality while yet treasuring its human instantiation? William James: “To any one who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after. . . . That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.”

“To any one who has
ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact
that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought
to make matter sacred ever after. . . . That beloved incarnation
was among matter’s possibilities.”

More on this soon…