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Eternal Matters–A Look at Eastern Philosophy

One of my philosophy professors in college said that he had once asked an Indian man about how the Hindus answered the questions of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. The man looked back at my professor and said, “We wouldn’t ask those questions.”

Eastern and Western philosophy, as well as Eastern and Western religion, are miles apart. Not long ago I gave my youngest brother one of the poems in the Tao Te Ching to read, after he demanded why I was looking at “Chinese stuff.”

He began: “Heaven goes on forever./ Earth endures forever.” He made a face. “No it doesn’t!”

“Keep reading,” I said.

He started again. “There’s a reason heaven and earth go on enduring forever:/ their life isn’t their own/ so their life goes on forever.” He scrunched up his nose again. “That’s not true!”

I told him to save his comments for the end. He finished reading and repeated his objections. I then had the pleasure of trying to explain Taoist beliefs to an American ten-year-old. He liked the idea of having the same essence as his dog (he loves animals), but telling him the same thing about girls did not go over well.

If the Tao Te Ching can be believed, there were at least a few Chinese adults who had a similar reaction. At any rate, the idea of a life force that encompasses being and non-being seems like something that almost has to be intuitively grasped. A rational explanation can only carry you so far.

When I was ten or so, I read a magazine article about the yin-yang symbol. The article explained that is symbolized there was always a little bit of bad in the good, and a little bit of good in the bad. It was a children’s magazine; and, based on my brother’s reaction, a full explanation would have probably confused most of the eight-to-twelve-year-old readers. Still, the explanation he got was probably a little more accurate. In Taoism, everything, whether good or evil, existent or nonexistent, shares the same essence.

The most interesting thing about Eastern philosophy (at least to me) is that it doesn’t really conflict with a naturalistic view of the universe. Someone could easily hold to Taoism and atheism at the same time. From both points of view, there is no ultimate Source of life outside of the world-system.

Another professor of mine described a discussion he had with a group of Chinese students. They contended that believing in an eternal God was irrational. The professor’s response? “I believe in an eternal God. You believe in eternal matter. How is that any more logical?”

That may be the best summary of the differences between Christianity and Eastern philosophy that I have heard.

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Posted by on May 14, 2014 in Philosophy

 

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Narrative Consciousness?

I was taking Cultural Anthropology the semester a missionary to southeast Asia spoke to the student body at the college I was attending. My roommate found his messages—on the importance of narrative truth—to be a little odd. He argued that a propositional approach to witnessing only works in a thoroughly Christian culture. In southeast Asia, and even in America, that approach may not work. You’ve got to explain who God is and what sin is through the Biblical narrative, or people will not understand what you are saying.

Unlike my roommate, I had already encountered some of the ideas in Cultural Anthropology (by the end of his first message, my professor was one of his biggest fans). Narrative had come up in my philosophy class, too, in the context of free will and determinism. I loved the emphasis on life as a story. Who wouldn’t?

Quite a few people, actually. What I didn’t realize was that not all people consider their lives in a narrative context. Our own culture, in fact, may be losing that emphasis.

Consumerism is part of the problem. Thinking about ourselves as beings with a past and a future won’t help us engage in all of those short-term pleasures that make so much money for certain gigantic companies.  Technology is another factor—we expect everything now. Or we click half of the links in an article, read them all, and only then get back to the text that was supposed to have been our focus in the first place. (Wikipedia, I love you, but you have made me terribly guilty of this.)

Rod Dreher recently wrote an interesting article about the problem. He argues that the fast pace of our lives prevents us from understanding our own lives in a narrative fashion–as “stories, with a beginning, middle, and end.” Another writer offered the counterargument that Americans clearly understand what narrative is, but that assertion is one with which I assume Dreher would agree. We know what stories are. For that matter, so do people in cultures with extremely cyclic views of history. People can understand the concept of narrative without viewing themselves in that context. If not, the missionary I heard would have been better off appealing to his southeast Asian hearers using propositional arguments.

I recently finished Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue. The book covers a lot of territory, perhaps too quickly; but it emphasizes the importance of narrative in understanding our lives. MacIntyre, writing some thirty years ago, saw our practical grasp of narrative fading before anyone ever dreamed of Facebook. So is there a solution?

Some people might not consider our changing views of narrative to be a crisis. From many points of view, they aren’t. But Christianity does teach that history has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Without narrative, history lacks meaning. For a Christian, that’s a big deal. Why else would that missionary to southeast Asia emphasize narrative with people whose religion placed little value on narrative? It is no mistake that what we call “the Gospels” were composed as narratives, or that Paul’s exposition of the Gospel in I Corinthians 15 takes the form of a narrative. As Robert Jenson wrote in his 1993 article about the weakening of our narrative consciousness: “It is the church’s constitutive task to tell the biblical narrative to the world in proclamation and to God in worship, and to do so in a fashion appropriate to the content of that narrative.”

There is good news for those of us who are worried about weakening narrative consciousness. As C.S. Lewis noted in The Discarded Image, even cultures that hold to more cyclic views of history have some understanding of the more linear, narrative view. The Church has a story. Our task, as individuals, is to embody that story.

 
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Posted by on February 28, 2014 in Philosophy

 

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Gnawing on Books

I sometimes joke that the original meaning of the word “philosopher” was “really bad writer.” While philosophers do count a few great stylists among them–Plato and Nietzsche are the two that come to mind–some philosophers seem to struggle expressing their (admittedly complex) ideas. At any rate, there’s no chance of reading quickly through most philosophy books. And that is why my post this week will necessarily be short. I’m trying to get through a book of moral philosophy by Alasdair MacIntyre before interlibrary loan comes breaking down my door. I think I’ll succeed. Probably.

The book, After Virtue, reminds me of when I picked up C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man back in high school. I was fifteen and thought I ought to read one of Lewis’s more serious works and picked up Abolition because it was short and therefore, I thought, easy. Years later, I learned that it is considered one of Lewis’s more difficult works. I struggled with it, trying hard to follow Lewis’s train of thought, especially in the first third of the book, which deals with emotivism. MacIntyre writes on the same topic, opposing the same group that Lewis did–people who argue that statements of value are simply statements about personal feelings. (For example–to an emotivist, “That is good” would be more accurately phrased “That gives me good feelings” because goodness is not rationally demonstrable.)

MacIntyre’s book is proving a bit of a challenge to me now, just as Lewis’s book did when I was fifteen. But I no longer have so much trouble understanding Lewis, and I hope that I can grow enough to understand MacIntyre similarly well.

I’ve read that Mortimer Adler argued in favor of students reading difficult books, even books that they could not completely understand. It’s like a puppy gnawing on a bone, he said. The bone may not nourish the puppy yet, but it will strengthen the puppy, which is more important in the long run.

I want to keep gnawing.

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2014 in Philosophy

 

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On Names, Naming, and Being Named

“I’ve told you. A Namer has to know who people are, and who they are meant to be.”

A Wind in the Door

Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door is not one of my favorite books, largely because it focuses more on philosophy than on dramatic action. But, whatever its dramatic pull, its focus on names fascinated me. L’Engle writes of an earth and a little boy, Charles Wallace Murry, being attacked by the Echthroi (“those who hate,” according to the book). The only way for Charles Wallace’s sister Meg to save him is by learning to Name–an act of creative love that protects the identities of the Named. The cherubim in the story, about the Echthroi: “War and hate are their business, and one of their chief weapons is un-Naming–making people not know who they are. If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate.”

Thus said the storyteller. The philosophers, on the other hand, have attempted to be more specific. J.S. Mill argued that the names refer directly to those who carry them. While Mill’s definition works in many contexts, there are some exceptions: for example, the name “Charles Wallace Murry” refers to a person who does not actually exist. If Mill’s theory of names is to be followed directly, then the name Charles Wallace Murry is attached to nothing–which is clearly not the case.

Bertrand Russell and others tried to compensate for Mill’s weaknesses with the descriptive theory of names–that is, names are attached to the description of a person or thing, not to the person or thing itself. Yet the descriptivists had their own weaknesses. If names refer to one thing, descriptions can refer to many things. “Meg’s little brother” describes Charles Wallace. It also describes her other brothers, Sandy and Dennys. Also, descriptions can be attached to the wrong thing: calling Charles Wallace Meg’s cousin, for example. But making that descriptive mistake would not “un-Name” Charles Wallace.

A third group of philosophers, attempted to avoid the mistakes of the first two name theories, adopted the causal theory of names. In causal theory, names are attached to a person or thing by another person. After the original naming, others borrow the name to refer to the person or thing. And thus the name and its object become identified with one another. But this theory, although it avoids the mistakes of the other two, does not fit perfectly, since names can be changed. Byzantium became Constantinople. Constantinople became Istanbul. Istanbul may become something else, given a thousand years.

Perhaps the only conclusion to make, without running into all the difficulties of the philosophers, is that Naming is a mystery.

But it is a mystery known by a Namer. One of God’s first acts was to give names. “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (Genesis 1:5, ESV). God continued naming things as He created. Naming was the culmination of God’s creative acts. And then God gave man the authority to name.

“Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field” (Genesis 2:19-20, ESV).

Since God gave man that authority, man has continued naming. And, like other gifts of God, man can abuse the privilege. But naming in and of itself is a good thing–another proof that humans are made in the image of God. Animals do not name.

But, however great our pleasure in naming, in exercising our creative power, humans are first and foremost creatures. Greater than our need to name is our need to be named.

“To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17, ESV).

How many of us have read those verses, wondering what that name will be? Under sin’s curse, like the Mr. Jenkins of L’Engle’s writings, we do not fully know who we are. Our true selves were lost in the Fall, and we now assume that the way we are is the way we were supposed to be.

Only one person knows differently; and that he is our creator should be no surprise. What other person could know “who people are, and who they are meant to be”?

But God’s creative acts are not complete; that is, He is still changing those of us who have repented of our old ways–those new ways gotten through the Fall–into Christ’s likeness. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (II Cor. 3:18, ESV). God is, after a fashion, still creating us. And part of the culmination of that creating will be when He names us. Not with the changing and uncertain names of the philosophers, but names with the fullness and knowledge of the one who sees through the dark veil woven by the Fall.

George MacDonald asked, “Why know the name of a thing when the thing itself you do not know?” We can rest in remembering that the God who knows all things is the keeper of both.

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Posted by on April 14, 2012 in Fantasy

 

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