Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Unmoved Mover

I was sitting at my desk during study period and I didn't want to study or read, so I decided to write a rant about my frustration with modern views on religion. Keep in mind, I wrote it up in an hour and it wasn't thought out beforehand and is therefore fairly unstructured. I wrote whatever came to my mind. Here it is in its raw, unedited glory:
 One of the most frustrating aspects of modern religion vs. atheism debates is both sides' unwillingness to take each other seriously. As a Christian, I can only speak for one side of the debate. I'm getting rather tired of atheists resorting to snide, condescending remarks like "You believe in a magician in the sky" or (my favourite) "You believe in an outdated way of thinking when man was primitive. We've moved on from religion". The great theistic thinkers of of the past did not believe in a "magician in the sky". It's clear that the atheists I'm talking about haven't read the classic theistic thinkers and have no desire to. Instead they focus on the "fighting fundies", the holy rollers, and the doomsday prophets of the world. It isn't hard to make these people look absurd. Try C. S. Lewis, Thomas Aquinas, or Plato on for size and get back to the table with some intelligent arguments. Fundamentalism - the belief that the Bible is a literal historic/scientific document in its entirety, trumping anything that scientists or historians say and was brought about by the writers copying  God's whispers verbatim - seems to be a modern or noneducated (be careful to separate what the educated vs. the noneducated masses believed ) phenomenon. Indeed when the issue of anthropomorphism (e.g. God literally living in a castle in the sky) was brought to the early church, it was condemned. I blame this modern phenomenon on the fact that modern people (I don't pretend to be an exception) are clueless about mythology. In the modern mind the word "myth" is synonymous with the word "false". When we see something like the seven day creation, we either say it is true scientific fact or it is primitive rubbish. What else could it be? When I hear atheists talking about "magicians in the sky" it makes me sad because this is such a false conception how thinking monotheists view God. I've seen some people capitalize pagan gods as "Gods" to be politically correct and I think this is a good example of how we misunderstand divinity. When I use the lower case g for "gods", I'm not being a snarky Christian and doing it because they're "false gods". I have a deep respect for pagan mythology. Rather I do it because a god and God are two different things. Zeus isn't Yahweh in a different mask. If I didn't believe in any deity, I would still capitalize God and leave polytheistic gods with a lower case g. I don't capitalize a "god" but do capitalize "God" for the same reason I don't capitalize a "cloud", or a "human", or an "angel" but I do capitalize the characters from Little Bear as "Hen", "Owl", or "Duck". God and the gods are different ideas. Zeus is the king of the gods because he arbitrarily put himself there. He overthrew his father Cronus and took his place. He isn't the rightful ruler of Olympus (unless we assume that might makes right) and he certainly isn't a paragon of virtue (again I'm not being snarky - ask any ancient Greek poet). There isn't anything especially "supernatural" (i.e. outside of nature, metaphysical) about the gods. They're just really powerful. Their immortality is different from God's immortality. The gods live forever, but God is outside of nature, outside of time. He simply IS. Nothing can overthrow Him (Satan is a pathetic insurrectionist, not "God's rival"). Heck, we only use "Him" because it's closer to the mark than the alternatives Her or It. The question "Who created God?" is a nonsense question. He is eternal, the Uncreated, the Unmoved Mover. We use analogies like king, shepherd, father, husband etc. because it's the best we can do. How can you describe the indescribable? This isn't a "get out of jail free" card (though I can understand why it frustrates atheists). If you believe in the God I've been attempting to describe, it's a very small jump in logic to concede that that He won't fit into our categorization. Could a worm (or even a dog or a cat) conceptualize all the intricacies of human life? How much less can we put God in a box and say "this is what He is". We know about Him, but we don't know Him (certainly not the way he knows us or even the way we know each other). The question of God is one of the great questions of life. Please don't dumb it down.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Essays of Montaigne Part 1

These are my thoughts after reading various essays by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne:


Of Custom, and That We Should Not Easily Change a Law Received

Montaigne opens with some very interesting thoughts about custom such as how they can be good or bad, how habits in children continue into adulthood unless tampered with, and how odd customs of other societies can appear to us (and vice versa!). He used the example of a man who blew his nose with his hands who said that it didn't make sense to carry around a dirty handkerchief in your pocket when you could dispose of it then and there. His fellow Frenchmen reviled him for it, but Montaigne said that his logic couldn't be faulted. I've heard many customs separated from me by either time or distance. Some I dismiss as absurd or wrong, some I think are brilliant, and some, like the handkerchief example, though I can't fault the logic, I still find myself opposed to it. He makes a long list of bizarre customs of various places to show the variety of custom. The list, because of its sheer size gave me a flashback to Rabelais, only this time around the list is actually interesting and not just full of nonsense.

Montaigne's main point of this essay is that changes in custom should not be brought about lightly. Every culture is coloured by their own prejudices, and this can cloud their judgment when passing a new law or abolishing an old one. A passing phase can be mistaken for "progress". Changes in custom can also wreak havoc on society, causing dissension and civil wars. Montaigne also mentioned the inherent goodness of obeying your native government. Once again, I'm brought face to face with this issue. On one hand, I live in a culture of rebellion and have a fondness for characters like Luke Skywalker and Katniss Everdeen. It makes sense to me that if the government wrongs me, I act out against it. And yet... what if I think this only because of my modern North American prejudices? There's truth to the statement that I owe the government my life; it has allowed my parents to marry, my father to emigrate, and let me grow up in a safe environment. Just as significantly, two of my real life heroes (a rare thing in itself - most of my heroes are fictional), Jesus and Socrates, submitted themselves to the death penalty on a false charge. I honour them for it, but would I do the same even if I had the guts for it?

One thing that confused me was Montaigne's position on static moral law. Some times he seemed to affirm a natural law, and other times he seemed to dismiss it as being brought about by custom.

Of Pedantry

In this essay Montaigne railed against dumb "educated" people. People who spew the sayings of Plato or Aristotle to show of their "knowledge", but never have an original idea or think for themselves. It was entertaining and it, I'm not gonna lie, it made me think about myself and my quest to read the Great Books. He also mentioned the importance of learning virtue in addition to knowledge. A smart, bad man is not a good thing.

Of the Education of Children

After reading Of the Education of Children, I think me and Montaigne could have gotten along together fine. The idea of a mass school system like the modern west has is never brought up, and Montaigne assumes that education will be done by parents and tutors. I'm old school education-wise and I still think this is the best way to do it. I'm not sure when the modern school system originated, but I don't think it was an improvement.

Montaigne has many good ideas about how to educate children effectively. This essay continues Montaigne's dislike for pedantry and asserts that that a good education should inspire action and understanding rather than just the memorization and display of facts. He says that a tutor shouldn't merely spew information at his student, but dialogue with him and teach him to dialogue with those around him. Again, this type of attention is difficult for the mass-production style of the modern school system. Montaigne also says not to give children a book by someone like Aristotle and to accept everything he says simply because he's Aristotle™.  Rather he should be taught to question everything. After all what wisdom is there in quoting the masters when you can't formulate an opinion of your own? Interestingly, Montaigne also said that children shouldn't be guarded from pain (within reason, of course), because pain instructs, and hardens the body. I can't really argue with him there.

So overall, this essay was a very insightful view into the education of children. I'll be revisiting this essay when I, Lord willing, have children of my own, and I think the education system would be better if they listened to his advice.