Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Foolishness to the Greeks

James Hall is a likeable guy. He has the gift of teaching, and one can quickly understand why the Teaching Company recruited him after retirement for a course on Philosophy of Religion. Now the rest of us can experience, as we already have with Ehrman, what undergraduates have as they get civilized by their confessionally agnostic college professors. Like metal detectors at an airport, surely such courses are necessary lest a Christian's overly serious beliefs infect the American body politic with the unfounded, dangerous and possibly genocide-inspiring conviction that what they believe is actually true.

Make no mistake, I enjoyed this course. It's hard to think of a more effective way to have buttressed my wonder and appreciation of the Trinity, which because it's not logical, Hall can't accept; and for exactly the same reason, I can. Hall has an unpretentious style which makes for good listening, but one only wishes his style would extend to his rather condescending conclusions. (Something avoided by Phillip Cary's similar course.) For though Hall critiques the slash and burn method of teaching philosophy religion which aims to destroy faith, what he does is, one might argue, even worse - lull the listener's convictions to sleep with an "agnostic Episcopalian" lullaby. The course ends (after compulsory intonations against the usual scapegoat of the religious right), with the following illustration: Even though there may be no Santa Claus, it's still good to hang up your stocking and get that happy Christmas feeling. Hall's point (I think) is to keep going through the moral and liturgical motions, while surrendering hope for grasping whether or not any of this God-talk has a referent. I suppose that is intended as a concession to those of us who really believe stuff.

There's lots of good in the course before the arrival at this dead (and dull) end. I'm with the good professor in his insistence that the ontological, cosmological and teleological arguments, though interesting, do not provide iron-clad certainty for God's existence (hence faith). I'm also with Hall in his insistence that the dysteleological argument, i.e. the problem of evil, does not deliver a certain verdict against God. But when covering the matter of transcendence, Hall simply loses his nerve. He cannot accept the possibility of transcendence without surrendering any and all relevance to the here and now. By so doing Hall denies any possibility for revelation, and therefore any possibility for belief in the Christian God to be properly entertained in his course.

To illustrate, he recounts a debate with a Calvin College philosopher where Hall cried foul because the speaker said, (rightly I should add), that the laws of logic don't always apply to the divine. This is just too much for Hall. He says that if moves like that are allowed then any and all conclusions are possible. Hall's example of such an unworkable paradox is the claim that God is transcendent, wholly other, while yet answering prayer and working in a believer's life. Halls logic:
"Unless something can be both transcendent and immanent, then if X transcends Y, X and Y must be totally irrelevant to each other."
What about the Trinity? Did it not strike a professional philosopher of religion that the dominant concept of God in the largest religion in the world (one that Hall claims to be a part of) directly addresses this dilemma by claiming both God's transcendence (Father) and immanence (Son and Holy Spirit)? But I guess that's too much for Hall.

While unwilling to venture beyond the safe, warm womb of logic, Hall nevertheless charts a path through postmodern terrain. In a well narrated turn, Hall explains how Thomas Kuhn pulled the rug out from under the logical positivists by showing how the standards of the discipline by which they were judging religion - science - was itself subject to severe fluctuation. So inspired, Hall moves (with help from Rudolf Bultmann, and of course John Hick) to the value and power of story - and only story. But even here Hall's love of logic betrays him. He compares Jesus' parable of the fig tree to the boy who cried wolf. Hall doesn't get the first story, but does get the second one. Only the second one, he concludes, can be significant, and the former, we presume, must be full of wind and piss.

Though ending with the concept of "fabulation" while insisting he's not talking about mere fables, Hall still refers to interpretation of stories that retain an actual referent (in what was perhaps a slip) as "silly" and "vacuous." Instead, he extracts the moral principles from select Bible verses in a Jeffersonian hack job, confidently declaring, "That's what really matters." He then commends the prophetic (versus the priestly) strand of religion as holding true promise, giving us as it does liberal "progress" within our given paradigms. But fairminded as Hall is, next comes a ringing defense for those who actually believe this stuff, because though their beliefs can lead to intolerance and genocide, at least they at times are led by their mistaken certainty to unwittingly assist those who know better in the worthwhile goal of progress. Again, I suppose that is meant as a concession.

Professor Hall is a committed adherent of his agnostic Episcopalianism, and quite an evangelist for it as well. The last lecture comes off almost as an altar call. I got the sense I was supposed to come forward and confess that I'm really not so sure about faith as I thought I was, and so perhaps preventing the next genocide. He advised me to pursue the Christian agnosticism of Leslie Weatherhead, who not actually believing all that stuff, still went ahead and did good things. (Incidentally, I have my own brand of this, which sounds like it would displease both Hall and Weatherhead). I couldn't help but think however that though there certainly may be a few agnostics who end up doing good things, one suspects there are a good bit more believers who have done extraordinary things, and refrained from bad ones, because they actually believe that there is a God who so commands.

Strangely, perhaps the greatest philosopher of the 20th century and one of the heroes of Hall's course, might have been one of them. Wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein:
"What inclines even me to believe in Christ's resurrection? If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like any other man. He is dead and decomposed. In that case he is a teacher like any other and can no longer help and once again we are orphaned and alone. So we have to content ourselves with wisdom and speculation. We are in a sort of hell where we can do nothing but dream, roofed in, as it were, and cut off from heaven. But if I am to be REALLY saved, what I need is certainty - not wisdom, dreams or speculation - and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not my speculative intelligence, for it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind" (Culture and Value).
Still, I suspect that's too much for Hall.

Did I mention he's a likeable guy?