The Meaning of Miracles

by Bharath Vallabha

I believe in the miracle that is at the heart of Christianity: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe Christ died on the cross, came back to life three days later and ascended to heaven.

What does it mean to believe in a miracle such as the resurrection?

When I entertain the belief, some images often pass through my mind: Jesus on the cross, being buried in the tomb, appearing to the apostles a few days later and floating up into the sky. These are the kind of things one sees in the movies. But these images don’t capture the meaning of the belief. I have no idea of the spatial location of heaven or even that it has a spatial location.

Moreover, when I think of a person dying and coming back to life three days later, my mind freezes.  It’s not just that I haven’t seen this happen, or that there are no non-religious reports of such events. That assumes the idea of resurrection is conceptually clear, but lacks empirical proof. But the idea is far from conceptually clear. When I entertain my belief in Christ’s resurrection, my reaction is akin to when I look at one of Escher’s drawings: my mind halts, as if I can neither comprehend nor disavow what I am seeing.

The idea of resurrection is not gibberish (like Chomsky’s “Colorless green idea sleep furiously”) nor logically impossible (like “2+2=10”). It has a resonance of possibility, and it feels like we can image it: it’s just like ordinary cases in which a person dies, except three days later he is alive. So far so good. But the trouble begins when we try to fill in what happened in those three days.

One can imagine all sorts of explanations for those three days. Perhaps Jesus, like an extreme magician, learned how to hold his breath and shut down key organs. Maybe there was a chemical anomaly where he was buried that had life generating powers, and so on. But no matter how complex such an explanation is, it wouldn’t be satisfactory. For the key element of the explanation will have to be what is central to faith: Jesus died a normal death, and God brought him back to life. Here is where my mind starts to sputter. Once God as an infinite power is introduced as a causal explanation for an event in the everyday world, it ruptures our normal understanding and makes it hard to know what to hold on to.

This rupturing of our ordinary categories is not a bug in the system of believing in the resurrection. It is the whole point. Most Christians downplay the rupture by insisting that everyone ought to believe in the resurrection, as if we would be wrong not to. But this gets things backwards. The point of believing in miracles isn’t that we should embrace faith regarding the causal explanation, so we can double down on our social identities as Christians and non-Christians.The point is to allow the rupturing to affect our rigidly held pieties and self-conceptions, so we can change as people and develop a faith that we will be the better for.

Normally, my mind hums along with the assistance of everyday categories of myself and how I fit into the social reality around me. I am permeated, consciously and unconsciously, with thoughts and emotions of pride, anger, frustration, shame, entitlement and so on. Theoretically, I know I am only a speck in the larger fabric of life: one of billions of people on a planet, with billions of other life forms, in a corner of the universe filled with thousands of other galaxies. From this cosmic perspective, my cares seem minute. But this is not how my life seems to me. In the midst of daily life, it seems all important that this person slighted or misunderstood me, that I achieved this or lost that. From the egocentric perspective, how I feel and think within the social matrix seems to capture reality as it is.

When I speak of my mind halting, I don’t mean my mind stops altogether. Of course, I still have beliefs and desires. I still perceive objects and colors and move about the world. I mean rather that my egocentric awareness is halted for a moment. Contemplating the miracle of the resurrection – the utter incomprehensibility and beauty of it – makes me step back from some of my deepest assumptions. In that moment, I hover in a kind of mental levitation, between the cosmic perspective where I am just a speck and the egocentric perspective in which I am the center of the world. It is as if I am able to hold both in view at the same time; to see the duck and the rabbit together; to partake of life and death at once, in a holistic awareness.

In that space of stillness, the last thing I want to do is tell others how they should be. How they should think or act. Belief in the miracle of resurrection isn’t a cudgel with which to force others to be like me. It is a self-applying balm through which the tight grasp of the ordinary categories of self and other on me is loosened. In the stillness, the rigid walls of the egocentric perspective give way to a more porous sense of our interconnectedness and our shared situation. Hate, anger, anxiety and shame turn into a healing and soothing peace. A shift in my basic emotional stance takes place, from a tenseness that relates to the expansiveness of the cosmic perspective with fear, to a beautiful vulnerability, which embraces it as wonderful. This is the living experience of the miracle of resurrection: dying to the egocentric perspective, only to be risen into a more expansive awareness.

There is nothing anti-natural or supernatural about the resurrection as I have just described it. No need for endless debates about how the laws of nature can be suspended or what magical powers enabled Jesus to come back to life. The scientific perspective and the belief in the resurrection of Christ aren’t opposed. Actually, they are similar, for both forgo the egocentric perspective to take on the cosmic perspective. Whereas science does it through the abstract language of mathematics, belief in the resurrection does it through the human-centric language of miracles. Belief in the resurrection is the scientific perspective with a human face.

If I could live my daily life while constantly having in mind the view of Earth from a space ship, I wouldn’t need the belief in resurrection. But I doubt whether most people can live that way. Affirmation of science isn’t enough to bring the cosmic perspective into the messy tangles of daily human anxiety. If it were, every scientist would be a saint, but this is no more true than the claim that every Christian is a saint. The abstract affirmation of the cosmic perspective is one thing. A lived reflection of such a perspective in one’s day-to-day interactions is quite another.

Of course, cultivating the cosmic perspective in one’s life doesn’t require belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Atheists might do it through Stoicism, Taoism, Buddhism and so on. Religious people who are not Christians might do it through Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc. Or one might mix and match any of these wisdom traditions, as I prefer to. To paraphrase Wittgenstein’s metaphor: what matters is not which ladder one uses, but that one climbs it and kicks it away.

To some Christians, my interpretation of Christ’s resurrection will seem too bland. If belief in Christ’s resurrection is compatible with science and other religions, what is left that is uniquely great about Christianity? One might object, “The resurrection means that Christ is greater than all things, and so greater than what non-Christians believe. The greatness of Jesus’s sacrifice means we have to submit only to it.”

This way of interpreting Christ’s uniqueness conflates the cosmic perspective of Christ with a tribal perspective. Instead of expanding our social categories to fit the mind-bending nature of the resurrection, it normalizes the miracle to make it just one more ground for our social battles. It’s like looking at the Grand Canyon, and rather than focusing on the majesty of geological time thinking, instead, “This is why America is special and better than every other country.” The power of this kind of tribal perspective is the root of fundamentalism: the ecstasy of spiritual growth is merged not with a cosmic perspective but with a limited, communal one, as if one could overcome the egocentric perspective by focusing on how others are the problem. But this is as futile as trying to cure one’s own illness by forcing others to take the medicine.

Some atheists might object to my view from a different direction. To them, a view of Christ’s resurrection that is free of metaphysical extravagances and institutional bullying might hardly seem religious. I can imagine them saying: “You are talking about something else than what most Christians are talking about. You are simply talking about a person being good. But Christians mean something more, and that is the trouble.”  But this objection is mistaken in two ways.

Certainly my interpretation of Jesus’s resurrection is different from what the majority of Christians believe, as they tend to understand it in a much more metaphysical way. I agree with my fellow Christians that Christ was resurrected, but think they are mistaken with respect to what that means. Fortunately, the meaning of ideas isn’t determined by what the majority thinks. Many Americans believe that American democracy means that America is a Christian nation, but that doesn’t make their interpretation of ‘America’ or ‘democracy’ correct.

Secondly, belief in Christ’s resurrection isn’t simply about being good in a moral sense. It is about the personal transformation involved in letting go of one’s egocentric perspective and cultivating a cosmic point of view. The relation of such a transformation to ordinary morality is subtle and complex. As Nietzsche argued, ordinary morality can often be a mode of a kind of groupthink that is contrary to the cultivation of one’s personal growth. But contrary to Nietzsche, that is not all ordinary morality is. Of course we shouldn’t torture living beings, kill wantonly or do any of the other things morality commonly forbids. Yet the practice of shedding the egocentric perspective is something more. Though it often leads to moral goodness, it is not defined by it.

The Christian and atheist objections to the non-metaphysical interpretation of miracles I have sketched are rooted in a shared assumption: that modern science poses a threat to Christianity. The only difference between them is that most Christians bemoan this, while most atheists applaud it.

In my view, modern science is one of the best things to ever happen to Christianity, as it helps brings out the true meaning of Christ’s purpose. When Christ spoke of his resurrection, his aim wasn’t to shed light on the inner working of the universe or of human biology. He meant that as he must suffer, die and be reborn, so must we, if we are to see the world free of our illusions.

Prior to the emergence of modern science, it was easy to conflate the meaning of the resurrection with causal-explanatory meanings, because the two kinds of meanings were not clearly separated. One achievement of modern science is to mark the separation, from the scientific side. Those of us who are religious now have to mark that separation from the side of religion as well. This doesn’t mean that science has defanged religion. It shows rather what the saints knew all along: that the struggle to follow Christ is first and foremost the personal struggle to allow oneself to be transformed through his example.

215 Comments »

  1. Bharath, this is fascinating stuff, but for me it’s more because of the insight it provides into your own consciousness than what it tells me about miracles themselves. What you have shown is the importance that the *idea* of the resurrection has for your picture of yourself, the world, and your place in it. The points regarding egocentrism and the importance of being able to escape that point of view strike me as spot-on, but I don’t see why anything supernatural or scientific or even philosophical is required for it. I don’t why anyone needs an “ism” or any other organized system of thought to effect a healthy self-awareness. The most ordinary things in life, like the devastating situation I find myself in right now, for example, seem more than enough to disabuse one of the notion that the universe revolves around oneself.

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  2. Put another way (and shorter), no one need have risen from the dead in order for the idea of the resurrection to have all the beneficial effects you have described. My further point is that even a belief in such a thing — whether it happened or not — is not required, as a general matter.

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    • “No one need have risen from the dead in order for the idea of the resurrection to have all the beneficial effects you have described.” This depends on if you mean “no one need have risen from the dead” in a metaphysical way or not. If you mean it in a metaphysical way, I agree. If in a non-metaphysical way, then I disagree; since the beneficial effects as I experience them are tied to my believing that Christ did rise from the dead.

      I think debating whether Christ rose from the dead is pointless, and so any discussion say between atheists and Christians which depends on such a debate is misunderstanding the nature of the belief. Now, I often ask myself, “Did Christ really rise from the dead, or am I imagining it?” The temptation I have as a reflective person is to take this question and debate it within myself. But I find usually the debate goes nowhere even within myself. What is more helpful is if I treat the belief like a tool, and endorsing the belief is like turning on the tool – the more I endorse the belief, the more powerful it’s effects for me.

      Of course others don’t need to use this particular tool. Fine. Just like I don’t use the tool of the belief that Mohammad was the last prophet, or the belief that the Goddess Kali is watching over me. Each person has to find the tool that works for them to cultivate their cosmic awareness. What I am denying is what Rorty called “the mirror of nature” view: that beliefs are mainly a tool for mirroring the world.

      “I don’t why anyone needs an “ism” or any other organized system of thought to effect a healthy self-awareness. The most ordinary things in life, like the devastating situation I find myself in right now, for example, seem more than enough to disabuse one of the notion that the universe revolves around oneself.”

      No “ism” is required. If you can do it without belief in Christ, or stoicism or taoism, great! There are people like that, who are like spiritual savants, or natural saints. But in my experience most people are not like this.

      It is one thing to know that the universe doesn’t revolve around oneself. But quite another to implement this in day to day life. I don’t mean wars and politics. Of course that, but more also just the emotional struggles involved with family, neighbors, colleagues, even one’s own self. For example, anger or stress is inevitable, but can one step back from that emotion when one is experiencing it and just see it as a passing thing? Most of the time I have a hard time with that. And doing it takes practice, like building a skill.

      Particularly difficult times like what you are dealing with now open up the horizon of consciousness. But it’s also really hard during the process. Usually for most people the horizon closes again once one gets back into the daily grind and get used to a new normal. Spiritual guidance, religious or atheist, provides a way to keep the horizon open, but also manage the stress of such an opening.

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  3. Thanks for this Bharath. However:

    “There is nothing anti-natural or supernatural about the resurrection as I have just described it.”

    That’s because you didn’t actually describe it. Rather, you described your state of mind while contemplating it. It seems clear to me at least that anyone can avoid metaphysics if they refuse to engage in a description of X and instead describe the practical benefits of thinking about X. I would have thought that those “endless” debates occur because people actually try to describe the resurrection and find themselves forced to say things that contradict a very standard understanding of how the world works.

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    • What would it be for me to actually describe the resurrection as opposed to my state of mind when contemplating it?

      When I try to describe it, I keep repeating the same thing over and over again: “He died, he came back to life, and somehow that happened.” The more I try to fill in the gap, the further I get from the belief as it actually helps me. For me as a Christian, I am not sure how much describing the resurrection is essential to my following Christ.

      This is why the debates get endless. Because there is no traction in them. As Wittgenstein says, “We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk… Back to the rough ground!” One can get back to the rough ground in one of two ways. Either by focusing on ideas which we can describe, like ‘apple’, ‘planet’, ‘genes’, etc. Or where describing the idea in an ordinary or scientific way is not the point, but using it in our life is the point. If one doesn’t do either, that’s a conceptual confusion – which is what most debate about religion is.

      I think Wittgenstein got somethings quite wrong, but religion he got right, in his early and late stuff. It’s basically that religious discourse is not like normal, evidence based discourse, but it is also not thereby gibberish or nonsense. The mystical is a third category, irreducible to the other two.

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  4. Bharath

    “Some atheists might object to my view from a different direction. To them, a view of Christ’s resurrection that is free of metaphysical extravagances and institutional bullying might hardly seem religious.”
    No; at least this atheist would say that there is no meaning to be derived from an event the only ‘evidence’ of which is a purported ‘eye-witness’ account written in a jumbled text several decades after the purported event, which our knowledge of physics and physiology tells us is highly unlikely if not simply impossible. Consequently, any ethical lessons derived from it would have the same literary status as the ethical commentary on any myth or fable. The ethical lesson itself may be worthy of consideration, but it doesn’t need the esoteric derivation from any particular myth, although it may be derived from any number of different myths..

    I point out that your interpretation is not all that heretical, but is consistent with beliefs held by more liberally minded Catholics and Protestants.

    “The scientific perspective and the belief in the resurrection of Christ aren’t opposed. Actually, they are similar, for both forgo the egocentric perspective to take on the cosmic perspective.” That’s not really what’s going on here. Science was never ‘opposed’ to the Christian mythos; but as a search for reliable knowledge of empirical phenomena, it simply made much of that mythos less and less likely, less and less useful. And science doesn’t have much to say about ego-centrism (except psychologically), and isn’t about a cosmic perspective (except, I suppose, the field of cosmology in physics).

    But perhaps I should stop here. “I believe in the miracle that is at the heart of Christianity: the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Since I don’t believe, and see no need for it, and no sign supporting it besides ancient texts and reiterations of faith – most of this I can’t use.

    However there is one thing your essay does do worth considering – it emphasizes what I’ve come to think is the fundamental component of faith – an emotional response to some internal or external experiences. So there’s no point in arguing the matter.

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    • Yes, my view is consistent with liberal minded (not political) Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, etc.

      Re ethical values: it depends one how wide you mean the term to be. As I say in the post, spirituality is not the same as ethics. It’s concerns are different from getting along with others.

      Science in one sense doesn’t have to do with overcoming ego-centrism. It’s not what is happening in labs. But science as a perspective on the world which is non human centric is very much of a piece with seeing the world in a more expansive way. Here I agree very much with Sam Harris, and in a different way Pinker, and other “scientistic” thinkers.

      Quite agree that if you don’t use beliefs re Christ, then there is no need to use anything I say. And also no point arguing. But still plenty of point in discussing and sharing our modes of wisdom practices. That is the reorientation we need I think: to get discussion of religion and atheism more away from debate to mutual sharing of which practices we use and why, and if we don’t use any practice and so forth. A kind of turn from debate to phenomenology.

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      • Bharath i agree with you in principle re: sharing vs. debating, on topics like this, but you do plenty if debating yourself in the piece, including describing other positions as “wrong,” so that’s why people here may be taking your ovservations as something worth contesting. Incidentally, one of the biggest diificulties seems to me the ahistorical treatment you give, which others have alluded to.

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        • I don’t mean to rule out debate altogether. Yes, after all, I am giving an interpretation of religious language. We can disagree, debate, argue. That is what we are doing. All good. I meant debate as it often happens. Analogy: I am bored to death with a lot of mind-body debate, but I also think the whole topic is hard and debate is needed; just new debates and better debates.

          I don’t mean to be ahistorical. Am happy to talk about textual evidence, or history, and enjoy that myself. But as long as we also keep in mind the broader issue of the nature of religious language, which is the focus of this post.

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        • I think distinctions between first and second order religious questions is important here. First order debates as they are presently conducted are often a waste of time simply because they are premised on an incorrect view of the point of the concepts that are contested, and this is precisely why the second order debate is necessary.

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  5. Thank you Bharath.

    I tend however to side with Dan’s view. I think the use of belief in a fixed idea or image as a tool for ego transcendence will always be prone to a particular problem. The problem is that the ego can all to easily become attached to the belief rather than being transcended by it. From the inside it can be quite difficult to discriminate the difference.

    The reality of our engagements in the world and the degree of ego-centrism that we bring to to those engagements I think is contingent on our skill and understanding relative to the medium that contains each engagement. I do think we can bring –and need to start– with a general intent to try to avoid self-deception in service of unselfish engagement, but success is largely dependent on skill mastery that allows for nuanced perception of the situations we engage.

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    • Absolutely agree with your second paragraph. Not sure how this is against what I say. We need tools to lessen our self-deception. My point is that belief in Christ’s resurrection is not, as you say, “a fixed idea”. The point of such a belief is that it is hard to grasp conceptually in the way we do with ordinary ideas, and that is exactly why it can be useful as a tool for breaking through the ordinary self-deceptive narratives we internalize.

      If we treat “Christ’s resurrection” as no different than “John’s home coming” or “Jane’s drive home”, of course the former won’t be a good way to break through our self-deception, which is mixed with our ordinary perceptions and ideas. Acknowledging that way religious concepts are different is crucial to have them do the different work they are meant to do of breaking us out of our ordinary mindset.

      This is why fundamentalism is so confused, and also appealing. It says religious concepts are super special, but then argues for that in a way which reenforces all of the ordinary categories which are exactly what cloud our perceptions.

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  6. You say: In my view, modern science is one of the best things to ever happen to Christianity, as it helps brings out the true meaning of Christ’s purpose. When Christ spoke of his resurrection, his aim wasn’t to shed light on the inner working of the universe or of human biology. He meant that as he must suffer, die and be reborn, so must we, if we are to see the world free of our illusions.

    Now let’s assume that there actually was a man named Jesus, who said the things that are attributed to him in the Gospels. The Gospels have been extensively studied by qualified scholars and they put Jesus’s message in the context of 1st century C.E. thought (we are all products of time) and what Jesus has to say according to these scholars does not have much to do with modern science at all.

    Now obviously you are free to see Jesus as a symbol of whatever you want to see him as a symbol of (and people have done that ever since his death), but Jesus’s (I see no reason to call him “Christ”) purpose, which you refer to above, can be ascertained by modern Biblical scholarship.

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    • “but Jesus’s (I see no reason to call him “Christ”) purpose, which you refer to above, can be ascertained by modern Biblical scholarship.”

      I don’t see why. No more than if we want to talk about the purpose of Alyosha’s life from the Brothers Karamasov, that is best determined by scholars of Russian literature. Yes, of course, scholars of Russian lit will shed light on things I can’t, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t equally think about it.

      “what Jesus has to say according to these scholars does not have much to do with modern science at all.”

      Great. That is my point as well. Jesus’s ideas are not in competition with modern science. Anymore than Socrates’ ideas.

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  7. Really interesting piece. Out of interest, what are your views in theological non-cognitivism? I ask because I’ve recently become very sympathetic to the view that a Wittgensteinian analysis of mind shows the traditional concept of God to be incoherent, and that religious language should not be understood as being primarily about fact stating. This would seem to open up the possibilities for religious pluralism, and probides a principled reason for eschewing metaphysics while holding onto religious commitment.

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    • I agree entirely with what you say! Great to see it expressed so briefly and clearly (at least to my mind).

      A lot turns on what “the concept of God is incoherent” comes to. I do think it is incoherent in the sense that it is a special kind of concept, one which functions at the edge of coherence. As I say in my response to Avalonian, I think Wittgenstein quite a lot right re religion, especially that it is not like science, but also not like ordinary discourse of fact stating, or even ordinary emotional discourse. It is a distinctive form of language use, with it’s own purposes. Before we can debate the virtue of that kind of language use, we need to just be clear about what it is. Most discussion of religion (even by religious people) I find to be like behaviorists talking about consciousness: they are kind of skirting the main issue and talking about something else.

      And love the point that non-cognitivism (in a special religious sense) opens up the way for religious pluralism. My thought exactly.

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      • https://youtu.be/blMIAjgAmvs This talk by Anthony Kenny takes up the issue brilliantly. Theism comes in at around 40 minutes.

        I think theism is incoherent if it is taken to be the metaphysical claim that there exists a disembodied mind that stands outside the spatial-temporal array of our universe, of which it is the cause by an act of willing. So I don’t think religious language can be legitimately used to provide causal explanations. This is because mental explanations are not causal and because, although mental attributes are not reducible tobehaviours, they can only be applied to living beings that can behave, and the ‘can’ here should be construed quite broadly.

        I also think that what it provides is closer to an interpretive framework, and it makes ‘worlds’ in a way comparable to poetic language.

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        • Great! Will check out Kenny’s talk.

          I really like how you link religion topic with philosophy of mind issues. That is how it is for me as well. I wrote my dissertation on a Wittgenstein inspired embodied cognition view, and was motivated privately by my more personal engagement with philosophy of religion.

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          • Thanks! This sort of thing is criminally neglected in philosophy of religion, and especially in discussions of Wittgenstein’s view on religion. It seems to me very odd to think that Wittgenstein believed in a God that was defined in terms of a conception of mind of which he spent half his philosophical career trying to disabuse us. And once we realise this it really opens up some interesting possibilities in regards to religion, albeit by closing off others.

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  8. Also, I really like that you emphasise the aesthetic and the experiential aspects of Christianity. This is largely why I find Orthodoxy and Catholicism more compelling than Protestantism. The breathtaking beauty of the iconography and the monastic chants is something that has made me have a soft spot for the faith despite having philosophical views that are deeply opposed to traditional Christian thought.

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  9. Hi Bharat

    The philosopher-logician-magician Raymond Smullyan once said: “Why should I be worried about dying? It’s not going to happen in my lifetime!”

    In my case, finality gets a day closer every day. I’d rather not think about it, but it is hard to avoid. Religion, especially “cosmic” religion, would seem to have some relevance to this brute fact. Do you have a view on this? Is there, do you believe, something more than “dying to the egocentric perspective, only to be risen into a more expansive awareness”?

    I’m inclined to think that the Resurrection meant so much to Jesus’s followers not just because their defeated hero had (briefly and enigmatically) returned (and then left again) but because his return seemed to promise something beyond this life. That is, something more than a more expensive awareness. Or am I being cosmically egocentric?

    Alan

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    • Suppose you are given this option. You can (a) come back after death to have another life with your normal level of cosmic awareness, or (b) you only have this one life, but your cosmic awareness is substantially increased so that you experience a heightened, transcendent state of awareness, where you are less pulled into all of your troublesome emotions, etc?

      I am saying “Christ’s resurrection” is best viewed in terms of (b), rather than (a). I see the “promise beyond _this_ life” as my life with my current limited expansive awareness, and with my more egocentric perspective. There is a death and a resurrection to be gone through not just at the end of my biological life, but in every moment – which is the point of a living faith. The latter is what matters.

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      • Bharath,

        From what I can see, you’re creating your own religion, which seems very interesting and I’m sure that you can find some followers among those who have a more religious nature than myself, but it doesn’t seem to have all that much to do with the teachings of Jesus, as they appear in the Gospels, our only source for what Jesus taught.

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        • Interesting, I was thinking the same thing. From what Bharath has said about it, I see no reason why it need be connected to the historical Jesus or the actual Biblical, Patristic, and other authoritative literature that followed.

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        • I am perfectly happy with the idea that I creating my own religion. After all, my belief in Christ’s resurrection is compatible with my belief in the miracles of Rama and Krishna, and many other figures.

          But I don’t see why it has not much to do with Jesus’ teaching as they appear in the Gospels. What I am giving is an interpretation of what he says in the Gospels, and what the Bible says. And I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, and identify as a Christian. What more is needed to lay claim to speaking about what Christ meant?

          I can certainly see many Christians, whose families were Christians for generations, being pissed off at me. Whose lives revolve around traditional practices of Christianity that I don’t particularly follow. To them I will seem like an interloper who is trying to take over their turf, and giving it all sorts of new meanings.

          My response: that is what I am doing, though I aim to be respectful of people’s heritages. But the Bible is part of our shared human heritage, no different from Plato’s works or the Bhagavad Gita, or Tolstoy. What matters to me is how do we take these shared heritage and create a more peaceful and enlightened life, individually and socially. The proof of that is for me in my own life, but also socially in whether it can catch on to multitudes of people and what makes sense to them. I think it can.

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          • Thanks for the link; I will check it out. I have read some New Testament scholarship, but certainly not my terrain.

            Out of curiosity, what information from the course or something like it do you think is needed for us to discuss what religious statements mean?

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          • Without New Testament scholarship how can we know what a 1st century C.E. Jew means when he says “I am the Way” or something like that? You seem to assume that there is an ahistorical category called “the religious statement” and that it was the same in 1st century Palestine as it is in 21st century U.S.A. Only by consulting New Testament scholarship or similar studies about the ancient world can we know what a religious statement meant 2000 years ago.

            Unless we know what religious statements meant in the ancient world, we can’t understand what Jesus was trying to communicate.

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          • The “religious statement” as I am using it isn’t ahistorical. It is rooted in our current historical moment – as in, what meaning of the statement is conducive to our flourishing now.

            Of course, When Jesus around 32ad said in Arameric “I am the way, the truth and the life” (call this the “Scholar’s meaning) that is bound to be different in all sorts of ways from when I read that statement now in an English bible. But these aren’t the only two options. There is the time and the language in which the New Testament was put together. Then there is all the commentary on it over the millenia, and also how people normally used it in different cultures and languages, etc.

            So the only options aren’t the scholar’s meaning or ahistorical meaning (God’s eye meaning). There are dozens of other meaning that are relevant to how Jesus’ statement is and has been understood. So when I read Thomas Kempis from the 1400s or C.S. Lewis in the 20th century, or listen to a local priest give a sermon in a local neighborhood (where? who is listening?), there are a lot of different meanings floating around.

            There is no way that the religious life of Christians has to somehow become dependent on the Scholar’s meaning, which the scholars themselves disagree about. The New Testament scholars do great work, and it sheds some light on the other all issue. But that light is not necessary for the spiritual life of Christian. If it were, it would mean Elaine Pagels is somehow more crucial to understanding Christ than St Francis of Assissi.

            Broader issue here is that Jesus is not only a historical figure. He is a mythological figure as well. Even if there was a clear, set scholars’ meaning of the historical figure, that leaves open the issue of what it means to interpret the words of a mythical figure.

            Confusion arises when these two modes are mixed together willy nilly, like making historical scholarship the main basis to understand Jesus but then also accept that Jesus performed miracles. It’s like mixing astronomy and astrology all together. Interestingly, both religious people and atheists do this.

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          • Bharath, at this point, I think it is your view that gives rise to confusion. It seems to me demonstrable that you have essentially invented a kind of Renaissance-style universalist religion that employs Christian tropes at its center. In many ways, it is reminiscent of the way in which Pico uses religion to ground the humanism articulated in his Oration on the Dignity of Man. There is nothing wrong with doing so, but to refer to it as “Christian” in any serious sense is to sow, as you describe it, “confusion.”

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          • I think that to understand what Jesus meant, we have to understand his historical context and the ruling zeitgeist at that moment.

            If you study Plato, someone is going to have to explain to you that Plato means something very different with the word “idea” than we do today. Similarly, if you study Aristotle, someone is going to have to explain to you that “virtue” means something very different to the Greeks than it does in the 21st century.

            So if we study Jesus’s thought, we need to know what “resurrection”, for example, means to him. Does he have the concept of a soul? The Greeks (Plato, for example) did believe in a soul; did the 1st century Jews?

            I assume that Christianity is a religion based on the teaching of Jesus, just as Platonism is a doctrine based on the teaching of Plato or Marxism is a doctrine based on what Marx wrote.

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          • Dan, not sure I follow.I read the Bible and gain a lot from it. I listen to the Christian radio and love it. I sometimes go to Church, though right now I am taking a break from that. But I am assuming going to a Church isn’t essential for being a Christian. I admire the Christian tradition in all its various forms, Catholic, Protestant, Mormons, and so on.

            So what is it that makes my view (or me) only use Christian tropes, and not really Christian?

            I should say also – not in response to anything you said – that when I spoke of views being confused, I don’t mean that a personal affront, as if people are silly or dumb. In the spirit of a lot of mid century analytic philosophy, I find the category of conceptual confusion a robust one. And I am fine with someone thinking that about my views. Just as I am sure many people will think my views are wrong, trivial, blasphamous, etc.

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          • I’m certainly not going to argue with you as to whether you are a Christian or not. I will leave that to Christians and regardless, I don’t think it really matters. What I will say is that the faith you describe, in which there need have been no actual resurrection and in which “Christ’s resurrection is compatible with my belief in the miracles of Rama and Krishna, and many other figures” is not one which is recognizably Christian to me, as someone with a degree in the history of Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity, alongside my philosophy degree. Christianity makes many very specific and exclusivist claims that are not incidental but rather essential to it. Indeed, your belief in these other gods and miracles is straightforwardly heretical and idolatrous, on Christian grounds. But again, not my business nor my concern. I just want to make clear why I find the essay somewhat incomprehensible from a Christian perspective. Now, from a Pico-like, ecumenical, Christian inflected spiritualist/humanist perspective? It makes perfect sense. But as the religion of Paul and Augustine and Aquinas , etc.? No, not in the least.

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          • If you study Plato, someone is going to have to explain to you that Plato means something very different with the word “idea” than we do today.”

            S. wallerstein, Of course, my understanding of Plato or Aristotle or Jesus needs to be and can be informed by historical scholarship. Agree. But that is different from saying that in order for me to read Plato, I need someone to explain what he meant by ‘idea’. I don’t think that is true. And also don’t think that is how public conversation is best fostered.

            Here is an alternate picture. People read Plato, and something in the works speaks to them, as they are now in their life situation and time, and their zietgeist. This is because the power of Plato’s ideas have seeped deep into our cultural consciousness, and resonates from within. So reading Plato becomes a way to unearth the ideas within oneself at the same time it is reading Plato. This process can be aided by – and ought to be aided by – ancient scholars’ knowledge of what was happening back then. But what the scholars’ discover is in the service of what any person can think about – not the other way around.

            I think the same about Jesus. Additionally, to engage with most Christians and have them think about my interpretation of the resurrection, I am not at all sure how historical scholarship will help me do that. Most Christians have no idea – and certainly much less sense than me – of the historical situation of Christ.

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          • It is probably true that most people who call themselves “Christians” believe in a doctrine that does not faithfully reflect
            what Jesus taught. In a similar way what the late Fidel Castro, a self-proclaimed Marxist, believed in is not what a close study of Marx would teach you.

            Anyway, my sense of how to read Plato or Jesus is different than yours. I think that a “good” reader of Plato or Jesus or of anyone worth reading should first try to ascertain what the thinker means in the context of his or her time (given the zeitgeist of that era) and then enter into dialogue with that thought from his or her contemporary point of view. Otherwise, the reader is just reading him or herself into the classic text, and if you going to do that, why bother to read the classic text, since in that case you’re only taking out of it what you already know?

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          • “the faith you describe, in which there need have been no actual resurrection”…. Again, my point is I am not sure what you mean when you say “no actual resurrection”. That makes it sound as if we have a clear idea of what it would be for Christ to have “actually resurrected”. To me, the feeling that we can make sense of that is like when someone says “2+2=7 could happen.” Or from some materialist perspectives, it only seems like we can conceive of a zombie world, but we can’t. My view is “Christ was resurrected” only makes sense in a mythological sense, and the rules, as it were, of the mythology game are different.

            Now, its true that a lot of Christians in the past and present didn’t think the mythological language game is different from an ordinary factual one. I get that. I think they are wrong. And I don’t deny that you have much more knowledge than me of what historically some Christians thought about what it means to follow Christ. After all, I didn’t study that history. All true.

            But it’s worth distinguishing three things:

            1) history of some/many/the founding Christians believed about what they were doing
            2) folk understanding of practicing Christians about what their faith means
            3) a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, where one talks to Christ and he talks back about what his sayings mean.

            You know more (1) than me. You could even have more (2) than me, though I doubt that. But I take it as an atheist, you don’t have (3). In fact, many Christians don’t focus on (3). For them Christianity is a cultural and traditional reality, rather than a personal, spiritual quest. Not judging. But for me (3) is central.

            I talk to Christ, and pray to Him, and ask Him to guide me about what he means. That is how I claim to know what he means. Doesn’t mean I have some special, absolute knowledge that other Christians don’t have. I don’t know what Christ tells or doesn’t tell other Christians. I can only go by what He tells me and what he asks me to share with others. How that plays out is open, and I have no idea myself often.

            Re Mormons, this is from their website: “Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints unequivocally affirm themselves to be Christians. They worship God the Eternal Father in the name of Jesus Christ.” My mormon friends say the same. I have no reason to get into a turf war between institutions. Not my concern. But when I think about it in terms of (3), for what it is worth, I agree with my Mormon friends.

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          • As you know, self-identification is not a suitable basis for social identities. I wrote an entire essay on this, called “Self-Made.” And a religion with Planet Kolob and an invented language “Reformed Egyptian” and American Indians being lost tribes of Israel is most certainly not Christianity in any meaningful sense of the word. Again, not my concern. Let the Christians sort it out. But you brought it up, so I am telling you my view.

            RE: the other point, Jesus was an actual historical man. If he was crucified and resurrected, then it means he was brought back to life. Now you might want to say, “No, he wasn’t resurrected, but rather, shmesurrected,” that’s fine, but again, it’s not any Christianity I recognize from my studies of the subject.

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          • I get what you are saying re self-identification. But I think it’s not that cut and dry. Re mormons, as is obvious from my post, I have a pretty loose sense of what it takes to be Christian.

            I do wonder how much my view is easier with some religions than others. Hinduism is famously very loose in terms of its Gods – no doubt, that being my cultural background, that affects me. As does the humanistic approach. And Christianity has so many denominations and forms. My view is easiest where mythology is not institutionalized or culturally bound.

            It is harder where the mythological and cultural practices are deeply tied together, like Catholicism, Judaism, some forms of Islam, even some Hinduism, etc. I can say I am a Christian and that Christ speaks to me without going to church. But not sure I can say “I am a Catholic” who doesn’t believe in Mass or partake of it. So since I don’t go to Mass, it might follow for some Catholics that I can’t be a Catholic and so not a Christian. But then again, I am very much influenced by thinkers like Thomas Merton, who was himself quite open to other religions.

            I am not saying these issues aren’t there. Or that I can wave them away by saying “I self-identify, so there!” or “Well, Christ talks to me, so that’s all that matters.”

            After all, by identifying as a Christian, I am taking on a social identity, and connecting to some people in a shared identity. Given that I have a moral liberal sense of Christian, I am taking on the work of dealing with those nuances and issues, and not waving them away.

            Nice you brought up ‘shmesurrection’. Right, My view is that people thought it was ‘resurrection’ but it was ‘shmesurrection’, and the cultural context made it hard to distinguish the two. The scientific revolution shed light on the nature of faith by making it clear it is ‘shmesurrection’.

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          • Your view is your own and works for you, so go for it. Nothing I have said was meant to suggest otherwise. But Christianity is based entirely around the resurrection of Jesus, not his shmesurrection, so it can’t be “mistaken” about that. It’s entire soteriology depends on it, and that is its chief raison d’etre. Otherwise, Christians could just go on being Jews. Put another way, resurrection — not shmesurrection — is an essential characteristic of Christianity, if what you mean is the religion practiced from Jesus to G.K. Chesterton and on. What you are practicing is Shmistianity. Again, that’s fine, but not to be conflated with an actual historical religion.

            The Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox split and the denominational splits within each are interesting but irrelevant to the question here. All forms of genuine Christianity essentially accept the basic elements of the Nicene Creed and some version of the idea of justification by faith. This is why Christianity isn’t Judaism.

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          • You have to remember that Jesus’s sacrifice replaces an annual blood sacrifice for the pre-Rabbinic Jews. Rabbinic Judaism replaced it with prayer, fasting, and other rituals performed on Yom Kippur. That replacement for Christianity, requires an actual sacrifice and rebirth, not a shmesurrection. Again, if one is talking about the actual, historical religion and not an invented one that employs some of its tropes.

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          • Dan, you are talking about religion qua institutional and social practices. It’s fine. Its very interesting and also important for some purposes. But it’s not the central aspect of faith.

            I pray to Christ and seek his solace during my troubles, I am not worried about “an annual blood sacrifice for the pre-Rabbinic Jews.” I never even heard of it. It sounds fascinating from an anthropological and history, and the history of concepts. But I don’t see what it has to be with my relationship with Christ.

            You might say, “But your concept of Christ was institutionally formed.” True. That’s true of every concept. But when I use math, I don’t worry about how it arose in Egypt, India, ancient Greece, etc.

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          • Dan, you are talking about religion qua institutional and social practices. It’s fine. Its very interesting and also important for some purposes. But it’s not the central aspect of faith.

            = = =

            This is false, if one is talking about the actual, historical religion, practiced from Augustine to Lewis, but I doubt there is any point in arguing about it. Call yourself what you like and do what you like. It is, as they say, a free country.

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          • Of course Augustine thought that resurrection was something “real” in the sense of not distinguishing between factual time and mythology. And he would have been mortified at the idea that the God he prays to is the same God that Hindus pray to.

            I think he was wrong on both counts. I just don’t see why he still gets to say what is “real” Christianity, and mine is the ersatz one. Did he do more for the spread of Christ’s message than me? Of course, by a billion percent. Does that mean he understood that message better than me? Not necessarily.

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          • When you ask whether Augustine understands Jesus’s message better than you do, you implicitly accept that there is a definite message that is possible to understand or misunderstand. And if it’s possible to improve our understanding of Jesus’s message, then a more than useful tool is the work of New Testament scholars who dedicate their lives to studying the original texts, with the all the tools of modern research, computer analysis of texts, our current knowledge of ancient Middle Eastern cultures and languages, archaeological investigation, etc.

            So once again I reiterate that if you want to understand what Jesus’s message was, it would be a wise idea to spend some time reading contemporary New Testament scholarship.

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          • And while nothing is necessary short of an analytic truth, yes, Augustine understood Christianity infinitely better than you do, for multiple reasons, many having to do with proximity to the initial events, as well as the relevant texts.

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          • Certainly I think there is a message Christ had which we can understand. The question is, where to look more to find that message. I am happy to look at scholarly work in history. But I think much more important is to look to people who focus on living that message.

            If I understand him correctly, this is what Kripkensteinsmonster303 was talking about in speaking of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of mind and its relation to his views on religion. Understanding Jesus’ message isn’t primarily a descriptive project, historical or otherwise. History is relevant and important. But more central is the interpretive act of catching “what he was up to” in such a way that one emulates that. That is not normative either in our modern sense of the term. This is one way the mythological (or the mystical as Witt called it) is neither exactly descriptive nor normative. It is a sui generis category.

            But we don’t need mythology to see there is a third category besides description and normative. For example, who better understood Socrates: Plato or Sextus Empiricus? Plato erected an amazing intellectual edifice around Socrates’ “message”. Sextus Empiricus much less so, but with much more explicit focus on reaching aporia as a kind of tranquility. So if I now want to know what Socrates thought, sure I can read Terry Irwin or Gisela Striker. But on its own it won’t lead anywhere in the direction of tranquility – at least it might not. Or better, even assuming for some people reading journal articles about Socratic scholarship is soothing, for many people that is not true, and so not necessary. Something like putting in practice in the way of Sextus Empiricus is more relevant.

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          • I think we — and perhaps, you and others — are arguing past one another. The problem isn’t with respect to Christianity, but rather, with respect to what a “religion” is. I don’t think we are working with the same conception, there.

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          • “Yes, Augustine understood Christianity infinitely better than you do, for multiple reasons,”

            Of course, you are welcome to your view. Since you don’t identify as a Christian, there are some limits on what your grasp of the concept can be in terms of how pliable the concept is, and how it can be changed. Self-identification doesn’t determine everything, but it is not irrelevant either. If by “Christianity” you mean a sociological thing, then happy to agree you are right. But I think there is much more to the concept.

            One way to see this is that though no doubt you are right that many Christians would find my view awful and confused, many Christians don’t. Even some Christians who might not have thought of it as I do before have said to me, “Yeah, that’s very interesting. I like it!” On your view, sounds like I should say to them: “Sorry, my bad. I don’t have a degree in Christian history. Let’s all go read that before any of us make claims about what Christ means to us, and see if we are actually Christians!”

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          • Since you don’t identify as a Christian,

            = = =

            Again, I entirely reject this sort of language in this context. As I do in the context of sex/gender. It is certainly fashionable language, today, but in my view expresses nothing relevant to the question at hand. So I don’t accept the notion that my failure to “identify” somehow renders me unable to understand. Indeed, the fact that I studied this material — including the primary texts — at a very high level, with some of the finest scholars in the field means that I likely understand it significantly better than you do, regardless of how anyone “identifies.”

            I doubt we are going to get anywhere beyond this point, productively, so I am going to bow out and leave you to discuss it with others. I appreciate the exchange!

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          • I am quite sympathetic to your views re the current “fashion”. Though I am inclined to see your stance here as throwing the baby out with the bath water. But happy to end this thread here for now.

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        • Absolutely we can. But again, it turns on what “life beyond this life” means. I think when one has – or focuses on – transcendence in this life, the concern about transcendence beyond this life, as you mean it, becomes kind of besides the point.

          Thanks for the link. Looks great!

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  10. Bharath,

    Thank you for that very poetic account.
    I see a few problems. Once you invoke an omnipotent deity acting causally, then you have unambiguously stepped beyond naturalism. Nothing wrong in itself with that of course (although, as a naturalist, I think it is a bad move), but why then insist that this is compatible with naturalism?
    Do you believe that Jesus literally, actually died, and then three days later was literally, actually alive in the flesh? Or is this a metaphorical resurrection, i.e. his thoughts and ideas, and then, in that sense, his spirit lived on? Or is it that he himself did not literally, actually die, but only died metaphorically, and then rose as a transformed, and perhaps transcendental being? Or is it for you the case, as it certainly seems to have been for the ancient Jewish people, that history itself, if only occasionally, plays out as a moral or transcendent teaching, such that that particular distinction; literal-metaphorical; has ceased to be meaningful? If the latter, then I’ll once again have to quietly insist that that is not compatible with anything I take to be naturalism. But it may still on its own terms be a coherent belief.

    Your account of this seems ahistorical, I would say, strangely ahistorical, but for the fact that this is commonplace. But it still baffles me. There is at least a case to be made that Jesus was an apocalyptic Jewish teacher (rabbi) who did not at all consider himself a transcendent being, the Son of God; that his followers came to believe he was the Messiah, that is, the rightful heir to the throne, and future king of Israel. And that in the historical context his death on the cross was a major crisis for that particular belief; not merely that he died, but that he died the way that he did, like a common criminal. Does it concern to you what biblical scholars like Bart D. Ehrman has to say? e.g. this lecture:

    Is the historical verisimilitude important? If it is, then how do you square accounts like Ehrman’s with your faith? And if it is not, then why at all insist that it happened? Wouldn’t it be just as good if it was ‘only a story’?

    You say that your experience is transformative. And I have no reason to doubt it. In fact, I too believe that such experience is possible, and therefore important. But how would you say that it impacts your daily life? Does it make you, say, more generous or compassionate? Is it true, as far as you can tell, that you become less egocentric, or is that a still ultimately egocentric experience of the interconnectedness of all things, with little bearing on how you conduct your affairs? The reason I’m asking is that I think I have good reason to be suspicious of my own experience in this regard. How do you know that this is not just ultimately another vanity?

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    • Fantastic comment with thought-provoking questions! Thank you. There is so much great stuff here, there is no way I can address all of it.

      Let me come at it this way. I believe Christ was resurrected. I also believe that Hanuman (the Hindu Monkey God) opened his heart to show Rama and Sita within himself. Now the latter is clearly mythological, but I also believe it. Does that mean that I believe there was a time in the past when monkeys could talk, and one monkey in particular had images of Rama inside his body? Where does all this fit into evolution, and also human history since the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago?

      My view: religious language is a distinct language game different from modern science, but also different from modern literature. It has things in common with both – like science, it makes claims about this world (not a purported fictional world), but like literature, it is primarily linked to our imagination and personal transformation. Mythology is when these two are fused together.

      Until the dawn of the axial age (about 500BC), with the rise of thinkers like Socrates, Buddha and Confucius, mythological thinking was the norm – so no separation between science and literature. But that doesn’t mean mythology was just a combination of the two. It has as a hybrid it’s own distinctive form. Now, the modern scientific revolution pushed beyond the axial age, and totally separated science and literature. And so making it seem like religious language now has to fall into one or the other category. But it doesn’t have to. We can now still embrace mythology as a third category in a nonmetaphysical way. To put it in Kantian terms, this is religion after philosophy becomes critical.

      So, what does this mean re Jesus’ historical situation? Of course I defer to people like Ehrman re history in one sense – in the non-mytholgical sense. I am not going to go to physicists and tell them about Genesis 1, and just like that I am not going to historians and tell them to take the Gospel of John as historical fact. Does this mean I don’t believe the Gospel of John, or Genesis? No. A lot turns on what “believing it” means. The fact that it is not history actually reduces the need for conflict.

      If I say I believe Christ walks next to me every moment, and I don’t in any way get in the way of science or my neighbors, is there a problem with my belief? I don’t see how. But the belief can have a very powerful impact on my life. That is the power of a mythology which is not metaphysical.

      Re your last paragraph, of course it helps me be more compassionate, etc. And often I worry about whether it is not just another vanity project. That is part of the struggle. But as the ancient skeptic Sextus Empiricus put it, there is a state of suspension of judgment which is not about morality or being good. It is a different kind of state of mind, of detachment from thoughts and emotions.

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      • I believe that Sherlock Holmes was a great detective who lived at 221B Baker Street.
        I also believe that no such person ever existed.
        Likewise I have no problem believing that Hanuman opened his heart, while also believing that no such event ever took place.
        I believe that Frodo took the Ring to Mordor, that Odin sacrificed himself to himself to gain the magic of the runes, that Quetzalcoatl brought back the bones from Mictlan; and all of it while also believing that none of it ever took place.
        Holmes, Hanuman and the lot of them are made up characters. They are exactly what their authors made them out to be, and the reason they can be this way is that outside the stories and legends where they feature, there is no fact of the matter.

        But Jesus of Nazareth was an actual historical figure. That is, there are facts of the matter, and there is no sense in which anyone can claim to be his author (or at least not anyone human). This is not the same kind of issue, no matter what the language game.

        The thing about making claims about this world is that there are facts of the matter. It is distinctly possible to say things that are simply not true.
        But is it really true, then, that religious language is in the business of making factual claims? If that was the case, then Dawkins is right, it seems to me, and that whole business is done for.
        Or is it rather the case that religious language is in the business of grounding and motivating religious practices?

        I may at times declare myself an atheist. But I still pray –

        You say that religion is a different language game, but wouldn’t it make more sense to say, then, that it is a different game altogether?

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        • Did Hanuman exist? It depends on what context I am talking in. If I am talking in the context of history in a factual sense, I would say, “no, of course not”. But if in a religious context, then I say, “Yes, of course. And yes, he did open his heart.”

          This marks the religious/mythological context as different from that of fiction a la Holmes. Because there is no context in which we would say, “Yes, Holmes exists” and have that go unchallenged. In fiction, we talk about things characters did without the assumption that they existed. Not so in religion. If I think “Hanuman never existed, but Human please help me!”, that is crazy in the way of a Moore’s paradox (“It is not raining, but I believe it”). Religious talk presupposes existence of God or the messiah or the prophet, etc. Now, even in the case where the person factually existed, as with Christ, the way we talk about his existence is different depending on whether we mean his actions mythologically or not. Of course, most of the time we run these two together, and ask, “Did the last supper really happen?” and “Did the resurrection really happen?” as if they are the same kind of question. Similarly, “Was Mary Jesus’ mother?” and “Did the virgin birth happen?”

          I don’t think they are. And more: I think the point of faith is to appreciate that they are not, and to focus more on the mythological meaning and not worry about the factual one at all – and so not fight with others about it. It is a way of not living for this world, but only for the world that is to come.

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          • Okay, I’m not trying to pounce on you. I greatly respect what you’re doing here, and I want to understand. But I think that no matter how much sense this makes to you personally, it is perhaps conceptually muddled, and a work in progress.
            If we are to talk of things that exist (or not), or that really happened (or not), in a religious/mythical sense, and in a historical/material sense; and then keep finding that we have to say that things that exist did not exist, and events that took place did not take place; perhaps then it is time to try to find another conceptual scheme for at least one of them.

            I believe it to be fairly commonly accepted that Wittgenstein was a Fideist; that is, he took the religious experience to be personal, and so profound that it is impossible to talk about, in that (some) language use is about making distinctions, and the experience itself is about erasing certain distinctions. Hence, his religious teaching is contained in the secret, unwritten half of the Tractatus.

            I think it is necessary for us to come up with some ways of talking about that of which we cannot speak, and I think the older Wittgenstein largely agreed with that assessment. But I am not convinced that this is necessarily a philosophical language. It may be that it is instead, say, a poetic practice, or a ritual, communal practice involving song, dance, prayer, procession or whatever it may be, but also, say, the practices of charity and compassion. And that understanding the religious must therefore begin by understanding these social, cultural, and individual practices.
            It is not, therefore, the case of a historical/material fact that, or whether, Christ died on the cross, and was resurrected three days later, because that doesn’t even enter into it. But it is the case that in certain practices that legend, and the stories that arose around it, take on a special significance, not predicated on whether it happened, but on whether we engage in those practices of worship.
            I believe the whole notion of religion as being predominantly a matter of personal belief to be a relatively recent aberration, and in that context I am compelled to say I am an atheist: of course I do not believe that that happened. But I’m still happy to sing the songs, and say the prayers, and give to the poor. What of? Why would that mean I have to believe anything?

            Keep up the good work, Bharath, and please feel free to respond, but I think I will rest it here.

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          • No worries about pouncing. More critique the better. Certainly these are thoughts in progress. I feel confident about my faith. What we are doing is the 2nd order task of understanding faith. I can have faith and yet misunderstand what it is to have faith, just as I can speak English, but don’t how I am able to speak a language.

            Also, I don’t take “conceptually muddled” as a swear word. Good philosophy skirts at the edge of sense often, and I might say nonsense, and so might the other person. Maybe my whole view is confused; I am open to that; after all I am saying some other views are confused. I always liked Wittgenstein’s thought: ” Don’t for heaven’s sake, be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense.”

            Re the bottom part of your comment: I agree with most of it. But I disagree with this part: “But it is the case that in certain practices that legend, and the stories that arose around it, take on a special significance, not predicated on whether it happened, but on whether we engage in those practices of worship.” If it works for you to do the practices while saying none of the stories (the miracles) happened, more power to you. Great by me. But I do think a very common way the stories work is by affirming they happened – that is central to the practice.

            Suppose I am worried about losing my job, and what it means for my family, finances, etc. The uncertainty is stressful, and the possibility of change frightening. Then I pray to Christ, and think, “He brought Lazarus back from the dead. He can do anything, and he is taking care of me.” Here the practice involves affirming the belief. You don’t have to do this practice. But my point is, you could, and it can be still be completely compatible with science.

            Just as I can do practices with chanting and dancing, as you say, I can do it with my thoughts as well. Just because I affirm something happened, that doesn’t mean there is only one context for evaluating that affirmation (the context of Truth with a view form nowhere).

            I very much like your claim that “religion as being predominantly a matter of personal belief to be a relatively recent aberration.” But as I see it, the push towards “personal belief” was created partly by the false assumption that “public belief” has to follow just one standard, all the time, everywhere. As if whether I say “Christ was resurrected” in a biology classroom or in a Church meeting, there has to be one mode of evaluating it – supposedly in terms of what “really” happened. But as Austin said really the sense-data theorist’s worries about whether “we can really see the chair?”, “really” is doing a lot of work here, and not in a clarifying way.

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          • You don’t seriously think that is appropriate talk for a biology course, do you? If the teacher said that in my daughter’s biology class, I’d raise a serious stink over it.

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          • Agree re those 2 causes of emphasis on personal belief. But the form that political liberalism took distorted what it can be to have public expressions of belief regarding religious matters.

            Here is my broader view of religion and liberalism in a nutshell: the way liberalism got set up forced religious beliefs into a mode of “personal belief”, which has repressed the religious instincts of the masses of people who were not elite/educated enough to embrace the liberalism of Locke and Mill. Hence though the West became more scientific in the last 300 years, it also became more religious in a fundamentalist way (which is the response to the repression). Unless that repression is removed, the religious instincts (from the right and the left; I take communism to be an atheistic channeling of religious instincts) will topple liberalism. So liberalism now requires a way not just to render religion private (as Kant and Wittgenstein do, let alone Hume and Rawls), but to create liberalism which can embrace public expressions of religion. A lot packed in, which people can object to. I plan to unpack it in a later post.

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          • Religion can be publicly expressed. I don’t know what you are talking about. It just can’t be expressed by the state, and never should be. Of course countries with state churches are a different story, but they also are less liberal in this regard.

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          • I certainly don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about resurrection in a biology class. That just comes out of the fact that religion talk is a different language game than science talk. The person who wants to talk about the Bible in the biology classroom is not just getting science wrong, but – more to the point that he claims to care about – is getting the Bible wrong, and getting wrong what following Christ is about.

            Re public expression of religion, of course, in many ways religion can be publicly expressed in our society. But also many ways culturally and in terms of social norms it often feels taboo to express it – and this has nothing to do with what the state says (which I agree in a liberal state shouldn’t affirm any one religion). This sense of taboo, especially re Christianity, is intense in the elite places. No doubt being in the Bible belt, you know this better than me how many people feel about this. But I certainly felt it as an academic.

            What is more, in my experience, in academia and also in popular culture it seems more cool to be Hindu or Buddhist than Christian. Frankly, I always hated this. It seemed, and continues to seem me, incredibly stupid. As if Christianity is just a space for backwardness, but going to India to meditate is great. It is only reverse orientalism. And deeply unfair to the Christian tradition, and in general to all the people in the West who live rich spiritual lives without getting that from the East.

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          • getting the Bible wrong, and getting wrong what following Christ is about.
            = = =
            It confuses me when you talk like this, as I thought your whole position rests on right/wrong with respect to religion ultimately being personal.

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          • “It confuses me when you talk like this, as I thought your whole position rests on right/wrong with respect to religion ultimately being personal.”

            Well, it is personal, but not subjective. It is personal in that the meaning of Christianity (the spiritual meaning, not the historical meaning) is rooted in one’s experiential transformations. The creationist is trying to root the spiritual meaning in the empirical realm, which is what I say is not just false but incoherent.

            Also, if I am in a biology class and I sucker punch the person next to me, that is wrong, but not because of science. I kind of think creationism is like that. The person who wants to use biology classroom to push his religious views is being unfair to his fellow classmates. That unfairness shows a failing in character and compassion for others – that is what I mean by saying they are getting the religion wrong. I believe in Christ, but if a bunch of people (Christian or not) are having a party to watch the super bowl, and I start talking about God wants the 49ers to win and when people object, I take offense and say “you are stopping my religious appreciation of the super bowl!”, I am pretty confused – and not mainly about football.

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  11. “to allow oneself to be transformed through his example”. For me, the problem here is what is the example you are following – that of an actual man educated in the Essene/Hillelic tradition who thought the world would end shortly? If the true history is irrelevant, why not the holy terror from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas striking people blind when they complain he killed their five year old, then raising other children from the dead? Not wise enough?

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    • ” If the true history is irrelevant, why not the holy terror from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas striking people blind when they complain he killed their five year old, then raising other children from the dead? Not wise enough?”

      It’s not that the true history is irrelevant. Of course, it is relevant in a sense. But it is also not the main point.

      I think many religious statements are not in competition with science. One can say them in a way which makes them competitive, as with creationism, but I think that is mistaken. Likewise, I don’t think religious statements are in competition with history. Religious statements are mythological, which is not history + magic, but rather: a different way of conceptualizing the world with the aim of linking it up to one’s personal life.

      Often mythology has historical terms, just like it has cosmological terms. But just as I wouldn’t go to Steven Hawking to help understand Genesis, I wouldn’t go to Bart Erhman to make sense of the spiritual meaning of the Gospels.

      But this is tricky, like doing brain surgery to separate neurons. When I think about Christ’s resurrection, of course my mind goes into the past, and so is prone to mix together (a) the spiritual meaning of it with (b) actual history, with (c) the mythological meaning that Christ’s resurrection used to have for Christians in the past, and so on. When (a) conflicts with (b), then it feels like I am fend off historians. When (a) conflicts with (c), I have to fend off other Christians, and many traditions. This is an ongoing struggle, with temptations for conceptual confusion I can fall into, and also battles I can fall into with other people which ultimately end up being more ego driven than shedding light.

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    • I don’t see anything wrong with the view that, whdtever the historicity of the texts may be, the canonical gospels are just of greater value than subsequent gnostic works. In fact, I think it’s true.

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  12. I also want to add that I think the “cosmic perspective” can be — and often is — very much overdone. It has to sit in a healthy relationship with the personal/egocentric, and the latter, ultimately, is the governing force. My point here is related to the point made by Bernard Williams in “The Human Prejudice.”

    https://theelectricagora.com/2017/12/02/course-notes-bernard-williams-the-human-prejudice/

    Many philosophers who work in ethics make the mistake of thinking that ethics can proceed from a neutral or “god’s eye” point of view, but it cannot. Ethics is the expression of distinctively human concerns and thus, will always be human-centered, no matter how much one tries to make it otherwise.

    I would say the same more generally. As Massimo and I discussed in our dialogue on Wilfrid Sellars, even the Scientific Image must ultimately be interpreted in light of the Manifest Image, and moreover, it depends on it in the sense that it originates from it.

    Bharath, your take here seems to commit this mistake. Or at least, runs the risk of doing so. More on this later.

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    • I agree 100%. That’s my point as well regarding religion being the scientific perspective with a human face.

      When I speak of cultivating cosmic awareness, I am not talking about walking around with a view from nowhere, or a God’s eye point of view.

      I am talking about developing an awareness that is less driven by the sense of me and mine. In fact, I mean “cosmic awareness” the way contemporary Kantians like Korsgaard mean “reflective distance” when one steps back from one’s emotions, instincts and thoughts. When one steps back, one isn’t taking on a God like stance, nor would we want to. Each person is who they are, and that is part of their perspective. But one is also trying to be a better me – better not just morally, but with a broader understanding of the world. I think Williams is right on. But someone like Korsgaard has tried to bring Kant and Aristotle together, so more in line with Williams. I am taking Williams and Korsgaard and putting them in a religious context. And in a more new age spirituality context.

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  13. “I think we — and perhaps, you and others — are arguing past one another. The problem isn’t with respect to Christianity, but rather, with respect to what a “religion” is. I don’t think we are working with the same conception, there.”

    Nice point. What is your conception of religion? Seems to me you are thinking of it more as a descriptive term only which concerns institutions and cultures. And I am thinking of it more as a personal experience of reality normally hidden to our ordinary awareness. Institutions and cultural practices can and do form around the personal experiences of masters of such awareness, but still, it is the personal experience that is primary.

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    • but still, it is the personal experience that is primary.

      = = =

      That is untrue of Judaism and of non-Protestant versions of Christianity. (And even of many of the Protestant forms). More than untrue, it is outright distorting; i.e. creates a version that is worse than wrong, because it is so misleading.

      Interestingly, your view is closest to that of the evangelical and Pentecostal Christians whom you disavow. It is they who emphasize personal experience above all else and de-emphasize the institutional and historical dimensions.

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      • “Because it is so misleading”. Re what, the nature of religion or what people think? I put a high value on personal experience in this context, but I also think what most people think can be wrong, since it is the concepts that matter. But as I have been saying, this is dicey territory, since ideas, experiences, identities, cultures, histories are all kind of run together in our normal discourse re religion. Disentangling that is hard work, which is what we are all trying to do here in these comments.

        Not sure if you want to end this thread as well. Fine with me. But some time would love to talk about Judaism, and its relation to the kind of pluralistic view I believe. Sounds like you think I would just be deeply confused about Judaism if I said, “I am Jewish” because I love the Old Testament and the God I pray to is the same God Jews pray to. I am actually unclear about this myself. Yes, I also think that sounds bizarre. But not sure why exactly. And here lack of historical and cultural knowledge seems to me much more relevant, since the Old Testament is so clearly about a particular people.

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          • I can see that. And I respect it. I believe that the God I pray to is the God of Moses, but I wouldn’t infer from that I am Jewish. That would be absurd.

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  14. “Anyway, my sense of how to read Plato or Jesus is different than yours. I think that a “good” reader of Plato or Jesus or of anyone worth reading should first try to ascertain what the thinker means in the context of his or her time (given the zeitgeist of that era) and then enter into dialogue with that thought from his or her contemporary point of view. Otherwise, the reader is just reading him or herself into the classic text, and if you going to do that, why bother to read the classic text, since in that case you’re only taking out of it what you already know?”

    s. wallerstein, Actually, I think the point is for the reader to read himself into the classic text. But not in the sense of making it whatever one wants, but in the sense of using the book as a tool for self-exploration. That doesn’t mean one is taking out what one already knows. Since one is taking out what one knows in some sense, but forget or overlooked or ignored. That can be illuminating as well.

    Of course, not saying this is the way to read all texts, or even the only way to read Plato or Jesus. But it is certainly one important way that isn’t beholden to doing the history first. If you prefer that, great. I don’t see it as an obligation on all readers as a condition for being a good reader.

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  15. I wonder if this claim of being a Christian isn’t a manifestation of an identitarian urge? It seems scarcely different from the Rajneeshis and their new ananda names. Obviously you can’t be a Hindu if you have not been born a member of a caste. Likewise there are some core criteria for ones recognition as a Christian such as being baptised and believing in the resurrection. I see your position as being like that of a Hindu who has Jesus Christ as his ‘ishta devatta’ (chosen form of divinity) but who at the same time regards all the other incarnations and perfect masters as equally valid paths.

    A metaphorical understanding of the resurrection as an aid to renewal seems no more Christian than Mill’s using of the poetry of Wordsworth for his personal rebirth might make him a pantheist.

    You are, I think, caught in a cleft stick between the rational and the irrational. That dilemma can be avoided by a focus on what Rudolf Otto in his book The Idea of the Holy calls the non-rational. Move towards the apophatic – The Cloud of Unknowing is the classic text. The Way of a Pilgrim is an utterly non-metaphorical beautiful story.

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    • Very interesting comment. Thanks!

      “Obviously you can’t be a Hindu if you have not been born a member of a caste.” I don’t see anything obvious about this; in fact seems wrong, since there are many people who become Hindus who don’t have a caste identification.

      “I see your position as being like that of a Hindu who has Jesus Christ as his ‘ishta devatta’ (chosen form of divinity)”. This is a great thing to clarify. Your way of putting it makes it seem like I am fitting Christianity into my Hinduism, and so as if I am primarily a Hindu (again, why, because I was born with a caste identification – Brahmin in my case?). This is more like Rajneesh and many Indian gurus, most of whom have deeply held views about India being the center of spirituality for humanity. I reject all such Indiacentrism, which presupposes deeply silly views about how the West is materialistic and the East is spiritual. My favorite Indian thinker of the 20th century – Aurobindo – unfortunately held something like this, seeing India’s rebirth as uniquely crucial for saving humanity from the materialism of the Western world. I don’t think this at all.

      Re identitarian urge: there is a much simpler explanation for why I am a Christian. First, I love Christ and all that he means to me and to many other people. Second, I am an American, and America has culturally been / still is a Christian country. I feel nonetheless Christianity has gotten a bad rap within the educated class and in the popular culture. And I want to do my part to remedy this, and support all the wonderful Christians in America and the West. The only thing I won’t do as part of is give up my equal love for Krishna, and for that matter, for many atheists like Nietzsche. But I think Christianity can handle that. Of course, it requires battling over the meaning of Christianity, which is what these conversations are about.

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      • You say that America is a Christian country.

        I’m sure you are aware that many of the founding fathers of the U.S. were not Christian, but deists of some sort.

        In fact, for those of us who are not Christian, the phrase “America is a Christian country” sounds a bit sinister, for it was and is one of the battle-cries of the most intolerant sectors of the far right. I know that is not your intention, but one is judged by the company one keeps after all.

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        • “America is a Christian country”. Not quite what I said. I said culturally America has been a Christian country.

          What I meant to say is: Most Americans have been Christians, and Christianity has played a greater role in American life than any other religion. I meant this simply as a descriptive claim. I certainly did not mean it as: the founding of America was an Christian act, or that the government of America ought to be Christian, and certainly not that a Christian American is more an American than a non-Christian American.

          I love political liberalism. Don’t think we should change the government structures of America. But I do think we need to change the cultural lack of appreciation, and looking down on Christians which is prevalent in the richest cities and academia. This doesn’t mean giving up liberalism or secularism. But it means having a more healthy and respectful cultural public life. The lack of that boils over into pressures on our liberal institutions.

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          • Bharath, I think that would be easier if those who are most strongly Christian would demonstrate respect for their non-Christian neighbors. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. And the intersection of evangelical Christianity with government, under the aegis of a number of Republican administrations demonstrates that the strong separation of church and state is essential.

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          • Dan, I agree completely.

            I am not a Christian for the political payoff of it, but I do think of it as a fringe benefit. How can ” those who are most strongly Christian … demonstrate respect for their non-Christian neighbors?” There are only three options as far as I can see. It has to come naturally from within themselves; I don’t see this happening. It has come from them being forced to change by their non-Christian neighbors; I also don’t see this happening, since the response to any such force (as they experience it) will be for them to be even less respectful of their non-Christian neighbors. The third option is that more Christians have to stand up and argue for what kind of Christianity is both intrinsically best and best for political governance. As a Christian, I can help contribute to this third project. Of course, that only works if I am a Christian, or am seen as one. Not saying that is why people should see me as a Christian; they can see me however they want.

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          • There is another option and it is the only one that will actually come to pass. Demographics will eventually make these Christians politically irrelevant. Every indicator points in that direction.

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          • I don’t think that will happen. Mainly because what the fundamentalist Christians are reacting to, many fundamentalist Hindus, Muslims, etc are reacting to the same thing. So these forces will actually join hands against their common enemy as they see it, of the liberal, secular “establishment”. We already see this happening internationally in terms of how alliances between right wing leaders is getting set up.

            I think it will also happen domestically, because many minorities – it seems to me – don’t have any greater grasp of liberalism than do white Christian fundamentalists, and when asked to choose between their religious identity and liberalism, they will choose the latter or at least be very tempted towards the latter. Right now they are not facing that chose since they are still as a group a minority and they haven’t been in power. But when America becomes majority minority, it’s not obvious to me they will just automatically embrace liberalism. Here the threat to liberalism from the right and the left actually kind of join hands, even as they bash each other.

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          • If you look at the statistics regarding the rise of those without religion, it is very clear in which direction the trends are going, and they will accelerate once the third world is fully industrialized and birth rates plummet. The future, ultimately, will be largely non-religious, and there really is no way to stop that. It is the inevitable outcome of material progress.

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          • Typo in last comment. It was supposed to “the former” instead of “the latter” in “when asked to choose between their religious identity and liberalism, they will choose the latter or at least be very tempted towards the latter.”

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          • I don’t see that academia looks down on Christianity or Christians per se. They don’t look down on the poetry of T.S. Eliot, John Milton and Dante nor the religious music of Bach and Handel nor the religious painting of the Italian Renaissance. They don’t look down on Martin Luther King or Thomas Merton. They look down on and above all fear fundamentalist reactionary Christians who reject Darwin and Freud, who are homophobic, who are misogynistic, etc.

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          • And what happens when as the rest of the world is fully industrialized, we have big natural disasters or nuclear attack or even greater mass migration? Not to mention as jobs go to AI. As I see it, people will fall back even more onto their religious identities. And if they think liberalism is in conflict with that, they will see it as so much the worse for liberalism.

            Part of the issue here is that I just don’t think most everyday Americans have thought or know a lot about their own tradition of liberalism. And for people in the East, the liberalism of the European Enlightenment will be tainted with colonialism (even though it shouldn’t be, but psychologically it will be). So I doubt what industrialization meant in Europe and America is a good indication for what it will mean in the rest of the world.

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          • If academics don’t look down on Christianity, how come in academic philosophy ancient philosophy and modern philosophy is so much more emphasized over medieval philosophy? And how come most academic philosophers are atheists? Maybe I am wrong, and academic philosophy is open to Christianity just as it is open to conservatives. But I doubt it.

            My take is there is a deep assumption that only ancient and modern philosophy is “properly” secular; and that Christian theology for example cannot be the foundation for a secular society. So it has to take a back seat. Here I agree that historically mideaval philosophy was not for a liberal society – that’s obvious. But I don’t think it is obvious that Christianity cannot from within itself provide the foundations for a liberal society. That is, the ideal of respecting other religions and also individuals rights doesn’t have to come from a non-religious framework, but can come from within a religious framework itself.

            In fact, I think that is the best foundation for a liberal society going forward.

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          • I studied literature, not philosophy, and we certainly studied many Christian writers. I imagine that most of my literature professors were atheists or agnostics (we didn’t talk openly about those issues back then) because they were all politically progressive, but they certainly did not exclude religious poetry from our syllabus. Academia includes more than philosophy.

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          • That was my experience as well. My undergraduate education was filled with Christian writers, philosophers, composers, painters, etc. As for academic philosophy, if it’s an analytic program, medieval philosophy is hardly the only glaring omission, so I don’t think that demonstrates anything.

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          • Bharath, regarding analytic philosophy, I see Christianity as having become more respectable since the 1960s, as positivism and ordinary language philosophy went out of fashion. I doubt there would have been much interest in people like Swinburne or Plantinga before that. Moreover, while atheists dominate philosophy as a whole, theists are a clear majority in the philosophy of religion.
            I agree with you about there being a bias against Christianity in some educated, progressive circles, where it is seen as more backwards than the Eastern traditions, but I don’t see that as being particularly institutional.

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          • The points made by all three of you re religion in academia are well taken.

            Let me try it a different way. Why do we say in classes, “Think about this and write your thoughts”, rather than say, “Pray about it and write your thoughts”? Is it because thinking and praying are very different types of things? I actually don’t think they are. Instead my guess is that “thinking” is seen – falsely I think – as a neutral description of higher cognitive activity which anyone irrespective of their religious views can do, but “praying” is something only religious people can do.

            I am not saying that atheists should be told to pray. But I am saying that if I am talking to a religious student, it seems to me perfectly fine to say, “Pray about Kant’s view and see whether you agree with him.” But I think people would probably throw a fit if I said that to a student in class – even though me and the student I said that to might be fine with it. This is just an example of the umpteen, subtle habits that if one is religious, one has to control for seemingly no good reason other than that it is assumed that religious discourse is controversial and dogmatic, and so has no place in a classroom.

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          • Dan, that’s just a blanket assertion. Certainly not an argument. My own take is that what matters is developing reflective lives, thinking and praying are just different names for doing that.

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          • I don’t have the energy to argue it, and I doubt I’d convince you. Perhaps someone else will, as I suspect most of the people involved in the discussion will think the difference is pretty significant as well.

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          • Whether thinking and praying are different types of activities depends on what you mean by “thinking”. “Thinking” is sometimes used to refer to any conscious mental activity (as in Descartes’s cogito) and praying is clearly conscious mental activity.

            However, if “thinking” is used to refer to reasoning, then praying is very different than thinking. I don’t quite understand what it would mean to pray about Kant’s view while it is very clear to me what thinking about (reason about) Kant’s view means.

            Bharath, you have a tendency to “stretch” the meaning of words. Just as you stretch the meaning of “Christianity” to refer to your own special (and interesting) views about a religious life, now you stretch the meaning of “prayer” to refer to
            situations where people don’t normally use the word. Praying might be a great metaphor for some forms of thinking, but a metaphor is precisely a comparison of two unlike things.

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          • I’m another who has been following this discussion, but without commenting until now.

            But I do think we need to change the cultural lack of appreciation, and looking down on Christians which is prevalent in the richest cities and academia.

            That does not reflect my experience. I have never looked down on Christians, nor have most of my colleagues in academia. Perhaps that’s because my areas are mathematics and computer science, which are rather orthogonal to issues of religion. But I have not seen much “looking down” in other parts of campus. There is, however, a strong preference for secularism.

            I love political liberalism. Don’t think we should change the government structures of America.

            Then watch out. The conservative Christians in America are trying very hard to change government structures, and to turn them into those of a very repressive state. Hmm, perhaps you see that as “looking down on Christians”. But my friends who are liberal Christians are just as troubled by conservative Christianity as I am.

            As for reasoning and prayer — I see those as very distinct. Reasoning is an important part of my life. But prayer always seemed like talking to a brick wall and expecting an answer — and there never was an answer.

            Maybe I should add that I was Christian from around age 11 to around age 23. And I have no regrets for that aspect of my life.

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          • No, I don’t see the point that conservative Christians are trying to change liberal institutions as looking down on them. I am probably like your liberal Christian friends. I am pretty worried about it as well.

            What I mean by looking down on Christians in something more like the following, which happened to me many times. I go to office hours, and ask a professor, “What do you think of Christianity (or Hinduism, etc.)?” He or she responds,
            “Oh, religion is just a delusion which leads to wars.” Awkward pause. I try a little more. Same kind of response. Change topic. In these cases, I was always struck by the fact that most professors who responded like this didn’t ask why I was asking, or what I thought of it, or engage in a conversation about it. They seemed to think it was perfectly fine, since I was asking their view that they can be dismissive, while not worrying about the power behind them in that interaction and the effects of that.

            But beyond that, there are broader institutional structures which make the kind of discourse that happens seem neutral or objective, but when it is neither. It is analogous to what conservatives think, or many minorities think, when they say that the structures are set up to create a bubble for the liberal elite to think they are being open minded when they are not.

            “But prayer always seemed like talking to a brick wall and expecting an answer — and there never was an answer.”

            I respect that. But here you are speaking of your personal experience. Which again is not what I am trying to do. When I speak of “prayer is like this….”, I am trying to give a description of the form of life of those who find prayer useful, and indeed central to their lives. True, I am connecting that form of life to the interior life of the people who pray, but that is not the same as me describing only my personal experience.

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          • Bharath,

            I’m genuinely sorry that your academic colleagues were dismissive of your questions about religion.

            However, when you use the phrase “liberal elite,” you’re using the dangerous language of rightwing populism.

            The elite are the people who control the country, the super-rich and those with political power. I’m not sure that they are especially liberal: in fact, they generally have no ideology except maintaining and increasing their own wealth and power.

            Rightwing populism, such as that used by Trump and his ilk, attempts to paint all liberal educated people as somehow elite, when actually liberal educated people include lots of individuals who are just middle class or lower middle class, for example, school teachers, untenured and even tenured university professors, free lance journalists and writers, librarians such as my sister, etc.

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          • Point taken. I get what you are saying. I certainly don’t mean to say there is just one center of elites. As you say, there is mainly the economic elite, and some of them are liberal, some conservative, some without any set ideology and possibly others.

            Still, I think “the liberal elite” is on to something. It has to do with the accumulation of wealth in the big cities, and the social and intellectual norms there, which presupposes a certain kind of diversity as being diverse over all. Just as I worry about how the conservatives might wreck liberal institutions, I also worry how silicon valley and Leiterific schools and Hollywood, etc. might be part of a bubble where the experiences and situations of the majority of America are not getting expressed.

            I see this happening in academic philosophy very clearly, and Dan has been quite right about how the top schools are turning a blind eye to the bigger problems in the profession (jobs, and social pressures on non-elite departments) to focus almost exclusively on creating a particular kind of diversity. Very much is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. That kind of narrow sightedness is what I mean by “the liberal elite”. I don’t mean to affirm any Trumpian populism. But Trump gets power because many people do think there is such a liberal elite, and unless we tackle that concern head on, he will get more power.

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          • First of all, the majority of Americans voted for Hillary Clinton, not for Trump. So so-called liberal institutions like Hollywood may well be expressing their experiences and values. As for Silicon Valley, my understanding is that people there tend to be more libertarian than liberal and there is a big difference. In any case, it’s not the business of Silicon Valley to represent the majority of the population, but to make a profit. By “Leiterific schools”, I assume that you refer to universities that are well ranked by polls run by Brian Leiter (it’s the first time I’ve seen that expression) and it’s also not the “business” of top universities to represent the general population, but to educate the most academically qualified people in diverse academic disciplines.

            If the people who voted for Trump feel “left out” as is often claimed, I sympathize with their dilemma. I don’t see that voting for con-men like Trump will help them. I’d tend to say that the U.S. needs real structural reforms such as a healthcare system that reaches everyone without regard for their ability to pay, a decent minimum wage, a government-financed jobs program, serious educational reform, etc., a political program which obviously betrays that I would vote for Sanders. Whether Sanders can deliver on his program or is just another political charlatan, I know not, but he’s worth a try.

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  16. Brarath has a point. It’s very common for educated liberals to have a much more positive view of Buddhism or Hinduism than of Christianity. And this isn’t just in America where you have this very in your face evangelical culture in parts of the country.
    I also think there are issues with Dan’s Marxist view that religion is inevitably going to wither away. There is polling data which shows a rise in church attendance and social conservatism amongst generation Z, and I don’t think that it’s at all implausible that a climate of economic uncertainty and less and less social cohesion is going to pave the way for a religious revival.

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    • He or she responds,
      “Oh, religion is just a delusion which leads to wars.”

      Well, you did ask what he thinks. You can hardly complain about an honest reply.

      If a student had asked me, I’m not sure how I would have responded. But I would not have said that Christianity is a delusion. I would probably have suggested that religious beliefs are a private and personal choice, and that I preferred to not discuss mine.

      When I speak of “prayer is like this….”, I am trying to give a description of the form of life of those who find prayer useful, and indeed central to their lives.

      I respect that. But that’s consistent with prayer being very personal and subjective. And it is also consistent with the words of Jesus in Matt 6:6 — that prayer should be in private and not part of a public exhibition.

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      • Your hypothetical response to the student makes sense. I don’t think religion has to be private in that sense, but I respect that kind of response. It’s honest and considerate.

        What was irksome about the way (some of) the atheist professors responded was they seemed to think they could have it both ways at once: that their atheistic perspective was somehow also the neutral perspective of rational discourse which is open to all views. When I see a movie like “God is not Dead” I cringe on behalf of the Christian view being portrayed and the depiction of the atheists, but I get where the movie is coming form. If you are Christian who wants to use the Christian intellectual framework developed over 2 millenia to make sense of the world, but also want to go to Harvard and study philosophy there alongside studying Plato, etc, there is no way to do that without feeling like the non-Christian philosophical tradition is much better. Or even that those Christians who are studied like Kant are best seen from a non-religious perspective for the most part.

        Much of my education was spent wondering “who decided that this has to be curriculum?”, and wondering that both from the curriculum’s eurocentrism and also its limited connection to Christian philosophy. A lot of it has to do with how the modern research institution got set up 200 years ago, which doesn’t track the overall history of philosophy.

        Not saying I know the answer here of what “full inclusion” looks like. Just highlighting what seems to me a problem. And here there is a lot of room for religious conservatives and minorities to team up in their dissatisfaction with the status quo.

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        • I agree with a lot of that.

          I strongly dislike the aggressive atheism of people like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne. I would prefer a world where we can all get along and respect our various disagreements.

          As to what goes into the curriculum — yes, much of that is a matter of tradition, and that tradition is, as you say, euro-centric. Such traditions can change, but are best changed by grass-root movements rather than from the top.

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        • I was a bit shocked to read what you wrote here about “God is Not Dead.” Where I live, in the buckle of the Bible Belt, that execrable film did tremendous damage to philosophy programs at every institution. It is the worst, most filthy form of propaganda and led to a drop of enrollments for us that took years to recover from and from which we likely never will entirely recover.

          Your bend-over-backwards attitude is starting to lose my sympathy, I won’t lie.

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          • I am not bending over backwards. It was my honest response to the film.

            As for what it did for enrollments, I see more happening in the future. Only as America becomes more majority minority, there will movies like that funded by, for example, rich Indian doctors and engineers who will complain how academic philosophy and academia in general is ruining their children’s Hinduism. I think this is what the left is not getting. The trouble for the Enlightenment values in academia won’t come only from the white, poor, rural areas. It is also going to come from many immigrants, even one’s who are rich and live in NY, like the many Indians in the tri-state area who in their Indian associations were pro-Trump.

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          • Then those people will destroy the civilization they tried so hard to get into. I guess if people are that stupid, then they deserve what they get. I am dealing with a similar kind of pig-headed stupidity here at home.

            Burn down the house. Those of us who remember what it used to be like will take what remains of our wealth and property and retreat to private places, out of reach. The rest can have Calcutta in NY if they want.

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          • Unfortunately, many are that dumb. It’s because most immigrants I know in my circles have very little grasp of America and Europe’s liberal traditions. For them America is mainly a land of economic opportunity, and not as much thought is given to it beyond that. So once they feel economically set, they will feel they ought to be able to express the cultural norms they already have, and will see – just like those in the Bible belt – the liberal tradition as stomping on their religious identity.

            This is one reason I jump up and down about eurocentrism in academic philosophy. Most of my generation in my family didn’t study the humanities, and so they never worried about how academia relates to their hinduism. But if they took philosophy classes, not all of them, but a nonnegligible percent of them would react like the Christians in that movie. Academic philosophy is not doing anything to reach out to them, to stop these instincts. If the idea is, “well, fuck them if they are so dumb,” then they will also be the ones to defund the departments.

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          • I understand, but you are expecting an awful lot from the people in the “host countries.” We have our own lives to lead, troubles to confront, etc. When my father and mother emigrated to this country, they didn’t expect the country to twist itself into pretzels to accommodate them.

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          • Am all for respecting the home country. Still:

            1) It is pretty messed up if the home country isn’t up front about why it is only teaching the philosophical traditions of its past: whether because it is ITS past, or because it is somehow universal. It twists one’s mind in all sorts of way trying to make sense of this confusion in the home country.

            2) At some point new immigrants also become part of the home country. While they have to respects the generations that came before, they also have to live their lives and can’t indefinitely be in a mode of accommodation.

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          • Okay. I guess i just dont see it the way you do. Neither did my parents emigrated, which they did twice. They neither found it “messed up” in Israel, nor did they in the US. Perhaps your perception of what constitute reasonable expectations is skewed.

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          • Perhaps the relevant contrast isn’t me with your parents, but me with you. My parents also were happy to fit into America, and didn’t feel any need to ask for more. As somehow who grew up here and wondering how to balance my Indian and American parts, I did ask for me. And I think I was justified to do so. Sounds like you didn’t. I respect that. Though that doesn’t address, let alone settle, the issue of what is more reasonable.

            One difference between our situations jumps out. By the 80s when you went to college, Jews being in academia, I take it, was much more common than it would have been 40 years before then. In fact, some of the top philosophers of post WWII analytic philosophy are Jewish. And some of them like Putnam were exploring Jewish philosophy by then. Not to mention in general the significant role of Jewish thought in Western civilization, and especially in the 20th century in terms of contributions to arts, humanities and sciences (it’s pretty remarkable). The contrast to an Indian-American teenager in the 90s trying to make sense of his relation to the West is pretty stark.

            I am not in any way trying to downplay your experiences, which I don’t know, nor that of Jews in general, which also I don’t claim to know. Just saying these kinds of issues between cultures and their relation to the West matter in thinking about home countries and what is reasonable.

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          • Is Jewish philosophy much studied in academia (outside of the Religious Studies Department) or are there lots of Jewish philosophers who have adapted to the Western Philosophical tradition, which really does not include much Jewish philosophy at all? While if you search hard enough you can find Jewish elements in, say, Spinoza, he makes an deliberate effort to follow in the tradition of people like Descartes, that is, in the mainstream tradition of Western philosophy. Undoubtedly, Jewish thought influenced early Christian philosophy, but that was almost 2000 years ago.

            As Jews emerge from the ghetto in the mid 19th century, they often gravitate towards academic careers of all sorts, but they assimilate and do their academic or scholarly work, not as Jews, but as academics without race, religion, creed or color, etc.

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          • No. Jewish philosophy is studied even less than Chinese or Indian philosophy, in philosophy programs. The reason no one realizes this is because Jews arent complaining about it or calling it racist (anti-semitic).

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  17. ” if “thinking” is used to refer to reasoning, then praying is very different than thinking.”

    s.wallerstein, I don’t think this follows. A lot of reasoning – and especially the more creative aspects of it – is about reflecting in the holistic sense of stepping back from one’s instincts and initial occurant thoughts, and creating breathing room, as it were, to see things anew. And the best forms of prayer are just like that. In reflection and prayer what happens is one cultivates a practice of tapping into the unconscious to process more deeply, so that one is not pulled along with one’s more conscious, surface level reactions.

    The broader point comes from a Wittgenstein view of the mind, where thinking is best understood not in terms of the thoughts one has, but in terms of being a thoughtful person. Contrast this with an atomistic or computational view where thoughts are seen as inner units, and a thinker is a creature which has that inner machinery. On the Wittgensteinian view, this atomistic view gets things backwards. Thinking is primarily not an “inner thing” but a mode of engagement with the world – thoughtfully as opposed to instinctively, reflectively as opposed to carelessly, etc.

    Once thinking is seen in this more holistic way, where it is a mode of being a thoughtful person, then thinking and prayer can be the same if being a thoughtful person and being a prayerful person are the same. If they are the same kind of skill one can cultivate. I am saying they are. Here we are very far from simplistic conceptions of prayer as just asking God for things, or entering into a brute, irrational state.

    One can disagree with all this. But it can’t be simply dismissed. Anscombe, Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre and others have fused Wittgensteinian and Aristotliean views to develop views of the mind along these lines, and connecting it to Aquinas. I think they have fascinating implications for how to understanding thinking and prayer.

    “Bharath, you have a tendency to “stretch” the meaning of words. Just as you stretch the meaning of “Christianity” to refer to your own special (and interesting) views about a religious life, now you stretch the meaning of “prayer” to refer to
    situations where people don’t normally use the word.”

    I think you are mixing together meaning with our ordinary understanding. I am offering views of Christianity and prayer that are different from how they are usually understood – as in what people think about them. But that doesn’t mean I am stretching the meaning. I am reorienting how best to understand them.

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    • “I think you are mixing together meaning with our ordinary understanding.”
      = = =
      Meaning *is* ordinary understanding — common usage — unless you are talking about technical or stipulated terms.
      = = = =
      “I am offering views of Christianity and prayer that are different from how they are usually understood – as in what people think about them. But that doesn’t mean I am stretching the meaning. I am reorienting how best to understand them.”
      = = = =
      Sounds like stretching to me.

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      • “Meaning *is* ordinary understanding — common usage.”

        But our ordinary understanding can be quite wrong. We might have an ordinary, folk understanding of, say, anger, but misunderstand it in all sorts of ways. A philosophical view of anger can shed light on what we thought we understood but getting to some of the deeper aspects of it – aspects which aren’t capture just by the meaning of the word “anger”.

        In fact, this seems central to what philosophy is – at least some parts of philosophy. Not science, but also not just stating our ordinary understanding of things, but also not just changing the meanings of what is being understood.

        “Sounds like stretching to me.”

        Guilty, if it means the skeptic stretches the meaning of “knowledge”, or Plato stretches the meaning of “recollection”, or Schopenhauer stretches the meaning “the will”. These are all ways of reconceptualizing our everyday life, saying, as it were, “Look at it this way, and it might shed more light on the overall web of our practices and concepts.”

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        • I thought you were a Wittgesteinian. so I presumed you accepted his general take on meaning. My mistake.

          As for the rest, well, yes, but the whole point of the pushback you are getting is that a lot of us don’t think your approach sheds much light on anything other than your personal experience.

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          • I do accept Wittgenstein’s theory of meaning (though I disagree with him on some other stuff – mainly I don’t think history of philosophy is nonsense, and also my view of what can be said sensibly in a religious context is wider than him). My point was “ordinary understanding” is ambiguous. It can mean (1) what we normally think at first blush is the meaning/use of a concept, and (2) a more perspicuous description of our ordinary use(s) of the concept. “Meaning is use” refers to (2), not (1). If it were (1), there is no need for philosophy in Wittgenstein’s sense, since there is no muddle we fall into that we need to get out of.

            So when you and s.wallerstein say, “Bharath, that is not our ordinary understanding of ‘prayer'”, my response is I agree as far (1) goes, but disagree re (2). Re (1), a lot of what we think about prayer (the surface understanding of the masses) is confused; even if they pray and are “good at it”, their self-understanding of what is prayer can be pretty bad. That opens up the need for (2), a more careful analysis of the uses of “prayer”.

            To do (2) one doesn’t need to be a believer. But unless one approaches prayer with some sympathy as an activity, hard to imagine one can do a good job of describing the more subtle uses of the concept in the religious life of believers. There is a richness to how ‘prayer’ is used in the life of a believer which most atheists don’t grasp, and which even most believers do an awful job of describing.

            I am fine with pushback. But it’s quite off to think what I am doing is describing just my personal experience. I am talking about a whole host of practices – the form of life of a religious community. And to describe it from within. Cavell has a great description of philosophy as the internal description and exploration of a collective we, and that this is different from describing a community from the outside.

            This is one reason a lot of discussion between theists and atheist goes nowhere. Their modes of description of both religion or atheism are as different as that between someone in love describing love and someone who has never been in love describing just the outer manifestation of other people’s love behavior.

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          • I can think while praying, and I can pray while thinking. But I can also think without praying, and pray without thinking. They are completely independent activities.

            If you ask to think about Kant, my response would be; “Okay, that’s rather a big subject. Anything specific in Kant you’d want me to think about?” And so we’d be on our way. But if you ask me to pray about Kant, my only response would be; “What? What do you mean?”
            I can no more pray about Kant than I can ride a bicycle about him. The request is meaningless. That doesn’t mean either of those activities, cycling, or praying, are meaningless. But to me, cycling is about cycling, and praying is about praying. And otherwise they are, to me, meaningless. The meaning is the doing.
            I think that interesting as this is, it is also in need of a good, hard rethink.

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          • They are not completely different activities if one prays that God infuse his spirit and guide one in all of one’s activities, including thinking. Then praying is not an act that one does and then goes on to baking and riding a bicycle. I agree we do talk and think of prayer that way. But in the religious life it is also very common to think of prayer in a wider, deeper sense, where one seeks to do everything in a prayerful way. The way that Ramanujan thought that his ideas about math came from the Goddess he prays to. In this sense, prayer is more the way of doing anything – say, mindfully, keeping God in the front of one’s mind – than one particular action.

            So which of these two ways of thinking of prayer (the one action as opposed to other actions view, or the holistic, living a prayerful life view) captures more prayer in a religious life? Big question. I am not saying I showed the latter to be correct. Just that if the latter is correct, and if one has a similar view of thinking, that brings out that prayer and thinking can be more similar than seems at first.

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  18. I have followed the thread, but was hesitant to comment further, because my position here has grown somewhat antagonistic, and I have struggled to find the appropriate language for civil disagreement.

    To understand why, let’s consider the suggestion that a more proactively Christian politics would be of benefit to this country. Even given the New Agey syncretic ‘Christianity’ Bharath argues for here, I would actively resist any such movement. I appreciate liberal Christians and liberal churches that are active in causes I share with them. I think their arguments, derived from their faith, are worthy of considering by others who claim to share their faith, and so have a real place in politics today. But this is not a Christian nation and will not be if I have any say in the matter. Their own beliefs aside, the separation of Church and State in the First Amendment was to throw that whole problem back into the states, because on a national level it would have destroyed us, as it had nearly destroyed so many governments in Europe.

    One thing Bharath doesn’t seem to get is that the rigid distinctions between different faiths – different believers – especially fundamentalists of various of those, cannot be resolved by appeals to a higher consciousness achieved through syncretic acceptance of the ‘best’ values and aspirations of every faith. That’s futile. A religious faith is a way of life that brooks no variation. When variation occurs, schism results. In a secular state, such as the US, the plan and the hope is that economic opportunity, and the liberty of behaviors constitutionally allowable, are such that the faithful learn to adopt the laws – as they must – in order to enjoy those opportunities and that liberty. If they cannot, it is in their interest to find some other nation amenable to their own rigid codes. That is as true for the religiously committed white supremacist as it is for the Islamic zealot. The law, and whatever system is set up to amend it or its interpretation, is the moral authority of the secular state. “But I do think we need to change the cultural lack of appreciation and looking down on Christians which is prevalent in the richest cities and academia.” I think we need increasing such “lack of appreciation.” Not in our reverence for the rich archive of cultural artifacts that the long history of Christianity has left us with, certainly; but in our continual deference to Christian norms and expectations. I wish there were a war on Christmas, I know which side I’d be on! And is it necessary for all politicians to be grilled on their religious beliefs, when the Constitution says directly that there should be no religious qualifications set for participation in government?

    But let’s walk our way back up to the OP. First, the categorical distinction between thought and prayer is quite clear. A prayer, as supplication, is always addressed to an other, usually a supposed spiritual being not immediately present. The address of a thought may take many forms – to one’s self, to imagined audiences, to no one at all, to the ideas themselves. Thinking through a mathematical formula has something in common with other thoughts; it has nothing in common with prayer. “But I am saying that if I am talking to a religious student, it seems to me perfectly fine to say, ‘Pray about Kant’s view and see whether you agree with him.'” Assuming you are suggesting that the student to communicate with a spiritual being or higher cosmic consciousness, then if you are speaking as friend or spiritual advisor, or at any church-run school, fine; if as professional educator, do that at any public school or state college in New York, and I would initiate a lawsuit. Professional educators in secular institutions have no right to use the authority of their positions to lobby students to perform any such acts of faith. Not even a believer, a “religious student” as you describe. If a professional gets to know that student, then, perhaps out of the class-room, conversationally, this might make sense. Otherwise, in the classroom, the professional would be suborning the student’s right to practice his/her faith -or no faith at all – as he or she deems fit.

    But if you are not suggesting any such communication with a spiritual other, then what would be the point? To whom is the student supposed to pray? What is the supplication? Greater insight into Kant’s view? Why not just think about it, or reason it through, or test its merits or limitations through thought experiment – or any of the dozen more common means of approaching Kant’s views in the hope of greater understanding?

    But the implication of much of Bharath’s discourse would seem to be that this cosmic spiritual other is always present to one, perhaps always already knows what we are thinking. All right for him to believe that for himself. To insist on it for others seems to me bordering on arrogance. It is what we used to call a “holier than thou” approach to social relationships, since it suggests that disagreement with this is predicated on some ignorance or lack of insight on the part of disagreeing others. On the contrary; could not the disagreement be the result of years of reflective thought, inquiry, comparison of differing views on the matter? Could not a ‘spiritual journey’ eventually lead into an a-spiritual realization of personal finitude, the discovery that any ‘cosmic consciousness’ would be devoid of content?

    As the comment thread here devolved into the problematic relationship between the OP’s syncretic New Age spiritualism, and the heuristics of established religions, my first response was that, at times like this I am so glad to be an atheist. Established religions have this advantage – they have long histories of traditional textual commentaries, communities in which well-rehearsed practices are passed on, generation to generation, a language of interpretation that marks out the limits of their discourse and the clarity and precision of their ideas. When these are denied, either by one of a different faith, or a non-religious lacking faith, the denial is clear and understandable, and the response of the faithful is expectable with the culture this occurs. In the US, I can look upon Catholicism and say, ‘I’m not having any of this!’ Catholics can respond by excommunicating me, damning me to hell, or simply shrugging their shoulders and saying, ‘well, that’s you’re right.’ We can even have some discussion of our differences, as long as it is well understood that I am merely explicating my reasoning, and they are merely explicating their faith, and there’s no effort to convert either party.

    But in the present instance, all that is wrong – in my opinion – with New Age spirituality and syncretism is on display. First, lack of conceptual clarity: ““dying to the egocentric perspective, only to be risen into a more expansive awareness” – what the heck does that mean? If I do this, will I become politer to others? Will I understand mathematics better? Will I acquire X-ray vision? “Transcendence in this life -” can’t that be achieved in an elevator? On the 14th floor, have I not transcended the street below. That’s a bit of sarcasm, sorry; but t also has this point. I know what transcendence means in relation to an elevator. I don’t know what it means “in this life.” I had a bowel movement sometime this morning; and if I wish to re-use my dishes after I eat, I’ll have to wash them. That is life. I stopped trying to transcend it years ago. The last time I smoked grass was in 1985. It was some good shit, but I was losing my short-term memory.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love prose-poetry in essays. I aspire to it. I love rhetorical tricks and turns of phrase and have been called on deploying these occasionally. They are useful for accommodating my readers’ frames of reference, while also hopefully expanding or retracting such frames to accommodate my ideas. But everyone knows the dangers of rhetoric. The primary danger is allowing mythopoesis to stand as claims to knowledge or experience, or as guidance to behavior. I get that “cosmic awareness” implies occasional mild euphoria induced as response to certain experiences, but it is not itself an experience, no matter how imposed it is on actual experience; because awareness is not anything that can be cosmic. I love it when Heidegger talks about “confronting Being,” because I know that what he’s really talking about is hiking through the Black Forest or skiing down a slope in the Bavarian mountains – learning to ‘throw’ one’s self into life – ‘with abandon:’ “releasement toward things.” But the “transcendence” or “cosmic awareness” written about here make no sense to me. There is nothing earthly to which it refers. It is not anything I would care to aspire to.

    Secondly, I hope this isn’t taken the wrong way, but frankly, the New Age spiritualism propounded here strikes me as profoundly ego-centric. Saying that the ‘cosmic consciousness’ allows one to transcend the ego-centric frame of mind, is an expression of the ego-centric mind, because of the afore noted ‘holier-than-thou’ arrogance it evidences. This New Age transcendence, this above-it-all spirituality, is promoted to the standard of human awareness, judge of human experience, measure of human knowledge, determination of human behavior. But it’s cosmic, man! It has achieved union with the forces of the universe, the possibility of consciousness and conscience at its point of origin, the heavens above! Every religion says so, in one myth or other, so every religion has been true in this; if we can only gather the ‘right’ myths or spiritual insights from each, blend them all together and come up with – hey! presto! – what these religions have really been saying all along, if they had only thought it through properly, or opened their minds to the cosmic consciousness, or whatever. ‘We now have THE answer they wasted thousands of years trying to discover!’

    The assumption that the past only occurred to prepare the way to one’s present awareness, thus allowing this awareness to reconstruct tradition and re-define interpretation, to the point where tradition ceases to be necessary or at least useful, is a dangerous egoism. As if god had only hinted in the past, at what is now revealed to enlightened ones. This tendency originated in the early Reformation, when the translations of the Bible into common languages allowed non-clerics direct access to what they believed to be the literal word of god, and thus led to the multiplication of differing interpretations, differing faiths. More than a thousand years of tradition were overthrown, and every reader became his (later her) own minister – his or her own prophet. The excitement must have been exhilarating. Apparently, it still is.

    Bharath, you replied to my first comment, in part: “But still plenty of point in discussing and sharing our modes of wisdom practices.” I can’t do that here with any degree of comfort. Readers here may know that I profess a secular Buddhism, derived from Theravadin sources (although with much sympathy for Zen). My faith is that life is dukkha; that there is a way to out of such continual disappointment, and that is practice of the Eight-fold path. Principally meditation and not thinking that there’s anything special about myself, or about the thoughts that travel through my head, sometimes at my direction, sometimes just as they will. That’s the limit of my “wisdom practices.”

    Finally, if, as some remarks in the comment thread imply, it is not even necessary that the Resurrection actually happened in order to believe in it – well, I’m lost – what is the point besides evidencing that it really is possible to believe in 13 impossible things before breakfast.

    After which – wash the dishes.

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    • Thanks for your thoughtful, if at times sarcastic and venting, comment. I appreciate talking about our differences, which are clearly big! You cover a lot of ground (part of what makes it interesting for me), so I won’t try to respond to all. Will focus on some of the main points.

      – As I already said in comments above, I didn’t say America was a Christian nation in the sense that its governance should be Christian. Just that a lot of Americans are Christians, and have been in its history. Nothing follows from this about what you need to believe as an American, or that politicians need to talk about their faith orientation. A lot of that is dumb, and not a part of my view. In general, you seem to think that my view has awful consequences, mainly by conflating my view with lots of other silly views.

      – Yes, I believe a new age pluralistic view of religion AND atheism. I think the religion vs atheism debate is badly formed, and we need to get away from that debate as it is usually had. This means most of the things you are worried about, which come from conflicts between religious fundamentalists and atheists, are side stepped by my view. I also agree that usual new age articulations of this kind of “all paths lead to the same place” view are half-assed and not well thought through – as if just love and peace is enough to make the view clear and what everyone should believe. I don’t think that. I am bringing my academic training and philosophical knowledge to the new age perspective, and trying to bring the academic and new age worlds together. That means combining the vision of the new age pluralists with the rigor of academic thinking. Again, this combination will side step many of your concerns, _when I flesh it out more_, though of course you might not be convinced.

      – “First, lack of conceptual clarity: ““dying to the egocentric perspective, only to be risen into a more expansive awareness” – what the heck does that mean?” I have long learnt that there is no way to answer a question like this. When I say something, and the other person say, “I have no idea what you are saying”, going on debating goes nowhere. So what if you don’t get it? Many other people clearly do get it. And perhaps I need to make it clearer. But my view and its defense doesn’t require that you need to understand it. If you find it interesting, engage with it. If you don’t, don’t engage with it. What you seem to mean is, “I have no need for this kind of talk of dying to the egocentric perspective.” Ok, great! I made it pretty clear in the post that not everyone needs to think the way I do. That one can be an atheist or a Muslim or whatever, and as someone who thinks all these wisdom traditions have a common source, I embrace all of it.

      – “One thing Bharath doesn’t seem to get is that the rigid distinctions between different faiths – different believers – especially fundamentalists of various of those, cannot be resolved by appeals to a higher consciousness achieved through syncretic acceptance of the ‘best’ values and aspirations of every faith. That’s futile. A religious faith is a way of life that brooks no variation.” Ummm…certainly this doesn’t link to any religious faith that I espouse. You make a lot of claims about how religion is set in stone, and Catholics think this, and atheists think this, and excommunication, etc. But surely there are many Catholics like Thomas Merton or Henry Nouwen, who had much more flexible and dynamics conception of faith than what you are talking about.

      – ” Saying that the ‘cosmic consciousness’ allows one to transcend the ego-centric frame of mind, is an expression of the ego-centric mind, because of the afore noted ‘holier-than-thou’ arrogance it evidences.” Again, ummm… this is pretty much part of the arrogance of any view that attempts to make claims about religion or the human condition. The problem isn’t the arrogance implicit in the conceptual act of talking about cosmic consciousness. It is the arrogance of when we think we are so right that we don’t want to listen to others, and more, want them to listen to us only. And it’s interesting that you smoked weed last in 1985, but I didn’t weed in any of my discussion. So I suspect half of your post was you conflating my view with some others views, even views that are similar to mine but which is not what I am saying. It’s like if I am giving my argument for dualism, and you respond by saying Descartes’ arguments are all awful.

      – Re what secular means, I think this might be the most fruitful part of our disagreement. But I will save that for when I write a post mainly on that. Since here I didn’t talk about it explicitly, it is bound to lead to misunderstandings.

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    • Let me add, I am not downplaying that my view of pluralism has some big consequences. If my view is right, the meaning of “separation of state and church” would be different. As will issues of what it is for classrooms to be neutral and open to all perspectives in the search for truth.

      When I left from Bryn Mawr College, it was at the end of my third year there. Before I resigned, I had put in a research proposal for what I would work on for my sabatical in my fourth year. My proposal was a Wittgensteinian defense of religious pluralism – roughly the kind of view I am defending here. Both the provost and the president of the college, both nice people, said that having seen my proposal and interests to merge academic thinking with spirituality, that perhaps my decision to leave makes sense. They were probably worried about exactly the kind of lawsuits that EJ is suggesting. Also, I think they were worried about me treating the classroom as a spiritual space – or even more confusing to them, a space where spirituality and rationality are all kind of fused together. Such a fusion is part of my view, and fighting for that part of my view, while worrying about publications for tenure was not worth it to me. Back then if I stayed in academia, I would have ended up “fighting” people on all sides: the Christians, the Hindus, the atheists, the social justice warriors, the conservatives. And in the process the focus would not be on my own spiritual and intellectual growth. Now I am more open to it, as I have a better sense of my view.

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  19. “No. Jewish philosophy is studied even less than Chinese or Indian philosophy, in philosophy programs. The reason no one realizes this is because Jews arent complaining about it or calling it racist (anti-semitic).”

    This is quite off. No one doubts, at least that I am aware of, there is such a thing as Jewish philosophy. Whereas it was common, and is still common, to hear there is no such thing Indian or Chinese philosophy. It is in response to the false idea – and implication – that philosophy is uniquely Western in the broadly Judeo-Christian and Greek sense, that people complain about Asian philosophy.

    It’s an interesting issue whether Asian philosophy is taught more than Jewish philosophy. If it is, it isn’t because Asians bitch more. The implication in your statement is absurd. It’s because culturally in the West in the last century the East was mythologized as the other of the West, and as somehow more spiritual – or spiritual in some other way to the West. As I have said before, I disagree with this way of looking at things. But if you are going to posit causes, maybe you should do it with more care, and not out of seemingly strong sense that some of us immigrants are just failing to be as rational as you.

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    • It is not off. Asian philosophy is taught much more than Jewish philosophy in philosophy programs. And i didnt say it was because Asians complain more. I said that no one *knows* this, because Jews dont complain. And no, Mainonides and Rashi arent considered philosophers by your typical contemporary philosopher than any Asian figure.

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      • Perhaps Jews should complain more then. And I am sure some do. But why don’t you, for example? Or why do you think Jews don’t? You seem to think the fact that you don’t or Jews don’t is a virtue. I am not at all sure of that. I sure as heck would have loved to learn more about Maimonides than being offered the same courses on Descartes through Kant (love them as I do) over and over again. Is it because you think it would be unfair to “the host country” if you complained? I don’t see it that way. If what we care about is philosophy as such, then not teaching Jewish philosophy – the most abstract reflections about the universe and the human condition by one of the oldest civilizations – as a regular part of the curriculum seems to me a great omission.

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        • I don’t mean to press too much. You are busy with a lot, and that you are engaging in comments and moderating is already kind of amazing. Am ok to mark our disagreement for now and leave it at that.

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          • No, it’s a fair question. I didn’t complain more, because I didn’t care, and I think most Jews don’t. Aside from a kind of “spot-the-Jew” pride — where Jews will point out celebrities who people might not realize are Jewish — I never noticed much interest among Jews in “representation” in curricula and the like. Jews have insecurities, just not that kind.

            As for personally, if you read my essay, “Adolescent Politics,” you will know that this sort of activism irritates me tremendously. I’ve always disliked it. And beyond that, I thought very highly of the education I received in philosophy — and in history, in which I also have degree, and which my specialization was not European, but rather, the ancient Near East. I never thought my education was lacking in any way, quite the opposite, and I still don’t.

            So, yes, I view this “Not enough of my peeps!” insistence as ultimately an expression of insecurity and quite annoying. So, I was hardly going to do it myself.

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          • I’d like to second what Dan K. says about “spot the Jew” pride. My father used to brag that the three men who had most shaped the 20th century intellectually were Jews: Marx, Freud and Einstein. You can differ about his historical judgement, but you get the idea and it is notable that all of them shaped history as secular thinkers.

            There’s a good essay by Eric Hobsbawm, the British (Jewish) historian, the Benefits of Diaspora, which is found in the London Review of Books online, which exudes this pride and narrates the emergence of Jews into mostly European
            intellectual life during the 19th and early 20th century, once more as secular thinkers and scientists.

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          • My point is not a “more of my peeps” variety. I am more sympathetic to that than you, but I do see the limits of that way of thinking. Hence my criticism as well of social justice warriors.

            My point is re clarity whether the philosophy education one receives is culturally bound (as in “this is Western philosophy”) or whether it purports to be more universal. If the latter, can it do that without teaching Jewish philosophy? It’s great for you that you were happy with your education – props to you, and if I were doing it over again, I think I could be happier.

            But the broader question of the aim of the philosophy departments at Michigan and CUNY, Cornell and Harvard, Missouri and Bryn Mawr remains. My main complaint is: the departments are just very confused about this and send mixed messages. What bugs me about this is not peeps, but just straight forwardly it seems conceptually confused – and I much prefer philosophy departments to aim for conceptual clarity.

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          • Sorry you weren’t happier with your education. And I just don’t understand being as worked up as you are about the question that you pose here, re: Western vs. Universal.

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          • I have realized my unhappiness when I was in school wasn’t all the fault of the departments. Cathertic for me to see that, and take some responsibility myself. I have done that, and continue to.

            But you and I seem to differ now on whether the Western/Universal issue matters in a conceptual way, as opposed to a political way. I very much think it does. And it baffles me that you seem to shrug it off. But to each their own. People don’t have to care about the same problems. You seem to care more about the gender identity stuff than I do, and so I guess it goes.

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          • Yes, such things are largely personal, something I also discussed in my “Adolescent Politics” essay. I got into the gender stuff, because (a) one of my friends was being attacked with regard to it and (b) I have a wife and a teenage daughter. Would I have cared as much when I was 25 years old and none of these things were true? Probably not.

            The reason it baffles me is because I see no implication for my worth or the worth of my civilization in the fact that a philosophy department’s curriculum doesn’t have much to do with them. That’s why I described such concerns as expressions of insecurity. Jews have many, but this sort of representation tends not to be one of them.

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          • “I’d like to second what Dan K. says about “spot the Jew” pride. My father used to brag that the three men who had most shaped the 20th century intellectually were Jews: Marx, Freud and Einstein. You can differ about his historical judgement, but you get the idea and it is notable that all of them shaped history as secular thinkers.”

            Thanks. In a way it underscores one of my points. Jews have other ways of seeing themselves as a part of Western civilization, esp in the last 150 years, that don’t have much to do with Jewish philosophy. But if you are an Indian-American, this is not present to you, unless one adopts a guru posture, which is far indeed from the kind of advances made by Marx, Freud and Einstein.

            No matter how secular Jews are or become as academic, the fact that they are Jews and that academia is a space for Jews is not a question in the last forty to fifty years. I mean, almost half the golden age of the Harvard department in the 80s was Jewish. So not teaching Maimonides doesn’t sting as much. But if you are an African-American or an Indian-American in a philosophy department like Harvard in the 80s, yeah, that’s quite different.

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          • If such things “sting” then it is. I see no reason why they must, unless one makes inferences about the implication that strike me as unwarranted. Certainly there is personal pride and the like, but those sorts of things strike me as calling upon us to work upon ourselves, rather than to look outside for solutions.

            Indians are among some of the highest achieving people in our society, and that has been true for quite some time. I have been spending a lot of time in an enormous university medical center, and there is testimony to that all over the place. Plenty of pride to be taken in that. Certainly more than the far less important population of philosophers.

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          • I should say, further, that in keeping with my overall view, I fully accept that my thoughts on this cluster of issues are personal. I have always quite enjoyed being a minority/outsider. Michigan had a Jewish Greek system that I scrupulously avoided. Indeed, I joined the most WASPish fraternity I could find, one founded back in the 19th century by Confederate Soldiers. So what are natural sentiments on this topic to you are odd to me and vice versa.

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          • The sting comes – at least this is how it was for me, and I don’t want to over generalize – from wanting to connect the Indian philosophy I cared about with the philosophy I was studying.

            Sounds like you didn’t care to connect your study of Plato or Fodor to Jewish philosophy. Great. But my point is that Putnam, Chomsky, Cavell, Goldfarb and so forth could talk to each other about that if they wanted. In fact, I am sure they did over dinner and lunches, and they just didn’t write articles about it. They had each other and the fact of the amazing and inspirational trail of Jewish intellectual life in the 20th century to help them balance their “home life” and their “school life”.

            I am not saying Jews had it easy. Please, that’s not my point. It’s just to say how the situation was different for Nozick in this one regard than it was for, say, Cornel West or B.K. Matilal in analytic philosophy in the 70s.

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          • I’m Jewish and I will admit that I have more Jewish friends than the percentage of Jewish in the general population in a random sample would indicate. All of us are more or less intellectual, but none of us ever talk about Jewish philosophy or theology or about Judaism as a religion. There are at times conversations about how Jewish culture in the broadest sense (which includes a lot more than Judaism as a religion) shaped us or our parents and there are increasingly conversations which are critical of Israel as a state, but I doubt that people like Chomsky dedicate many conversations to Jewish philosophy per se: that just doesn’t seem to be among his intellectual interests.

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          • Re Indian doctors, of course you are right about that. But here is where people differ. I spent most of my youth rebelling against the Indian doctor, lawyer, engineer mindset of most Indians, and especially of Indians in America. I am one of two people in my big extended family who studied the humanities – mainly fighting my father and grandmother and others to study philosophy because I wanted to contribute to the cultural and intellectual life of America.

            And then found that when I went to the philosophy classroom, there was a marked disinterest in my situation as a student. I often thought, “I am fighting my family to study this, only to also then have to fight my teachers. What the fuck.” And feel alone doing it because I didn’t know many other Indian Americans around me, at least not in the 90s and early 00s, who thought as I did.

            When I started at Cornell in 1995, the two most charasmatic young teachers to my mind there were Stanley and Gendler. They brought a freshness and excitement. I never heard them mention Jewish philosophy, but in retrospect it seems obvious that similarities in their backgrounds was something they could share outside the classroom. A lot of these young students who are doing the “peeps thing” are looking for that kind of comradarie to help them navigate their young intellectual lives. I don’t agree with how they are doing it, but I can understand the need.

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          • ” There are at times conversations about how Jewish culture in the broadest sense (which includes a lot more than Judaism as a religion) shaped us or our parents and there are increasingly conversations which are critical of Israel as a state, but I doubt that people like Chomsky dedicate many conversations to Jewish philosophy per se: that just doesn’t seem to be among his intellectual interests.”

            That makes a lot of sense. In a way those kinds of conversations are more important than about Jewish philosophy as such. The sjws are obsessed about what is on the syllabus because I think that is being treated as a substitute for the kind of conversations Chomsky and Putnam could have constantly as friends, and the kind you are talking about.

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          • The sjws are obsessed about what is on the syllabus because I think that is being treated as a substitute for the kind of conversations Chomsky and Putnam could have constantly as friends, and the kind you are talking about.

            = = = =

            I think there may be something to this, indeed.

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          • As you say, it’s the very inability of the SJW’s to have the kind of conversation that Chomsky and Putnam might have or even that we are having with Bharath that turns them into what they are. They (the SJW’s) don’t enjoy ideas and probably are not very good at them. Someone who is as good at ideas as Chomsky is could never be a SJW
            in spite of his very radical political views.

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          • That wasn’t quite my point. Though certainly hard to imagine Chomsky as a sjw.

            The point is that people need to be able to talk about how (a) their home/personal/overall life relates to (b) what they are learning in the classroom in order for their education to help them cultivate their intellectual lives. For some people the need for such a link is less, and for some people more.

            Of course, Chomsky and Putnam are greats. But it’s not magic they are like that. Unlike most people – I certainly didn’t have their kind of intellectual social life as a child – they were having the kinds of conversations you described having with your friends when they were very young, early teens. So when they went to college, the classroom didn’t have to play the role that their social structures played both pre-college and also with each other and their friends in college.

            Imagine an Indian-American kid who didn’t really think much about how his Indian family life relates to his American life – they were totally separate domains that he didn’t try to bring together. Then he goes to college and the philosophy class asks him to develop what _he_ thinks about big issues. That forces him to think about how his family life is related to his philosophy class. And it is the first time he is doing that, and he doesn’t anyone else in his family who did that, nor has friends in college who seem to be doing that. So where would he look for help? Naturally in the classroom. And he will say, “Hey, how come there is no Indian philosophy here that can help me connect it to the Western philosophy?” He won’t say that because he has such a burning desire to learn about some thinkers from a thousand years ago he never heard of but who are Indian. Mainly the motivation is as a way to help him have the kind of integrative conversations that Chomsky and Putnam were brought up in.

            My point is, saying to that Indian-American student, or African-American student, “I don’t care what your background is, or whether you have an intellectual community outside of the classroom, but leave all your efforts of integrating your worlds outside the classroom” – that is crazy and totally unhelpful. In fact, saying it to the conservative Christian student who is unfamiliar with the intellectual life of college is equally unhelpful.

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          • Good point above. A lot depends on whether the student has family and friendship networks outside of the university with whom he or she discuss the issues involved.

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  20. Bharat: As I see it, almost all English-speaking students who “discover” philosophy at university have at that point barely even heard of Socrates, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant or any other Great Philosopher. They are being introduced to something that has been absent from their culture and from their family formation. The excitement of the subject comes partly from the fact that to them it is all new. That was the case for me and others I knew. And most Western university students finish their degrees fully ignorant of anything to do with philosophy.

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    • Certainly, I agree. One issue, though, is what happens when students bring an alternate big-picture framework (religious, philosophical, etc.) which is not addressed in the classrooms.

      For example, if 18 year John who never heard of Socrates or Descartes, but is nonetheless raised in a mainly atheistic family, or just happens to be an atheist himself, then when he comes to a philosophy department like Harvard (or any number of similar depts), there is no “baggage” he has to shed or integrate into the framework of the classes. This is not (contra “God is not Dead”) because atheism is imposed on the students. It is because a non-religious framework is the norm, and if John is not worried about a religious framework, all good for him.

      But if Susan is coming from a religious family, or because she identifies with Christian or Hindu philosophies, then she has extra work she has to do that John doesn’t. Let’s leave aside the issue of whether this is fair to Susan in comparison to John. Better first to ask, Where can Susan get help with this extra work? If her family or community has no idea either about Plato and Kant, they are no help doing the balancing work. If the condition of the classes is that one should already ditch the other framework, then the professors are no help either. The work is thrust just on Susan herself. Fair or not, this can be very painful. And is my guess for my more people don’t take phil classes.

      What I said here re bringing big-picture frameworks re religion can apply as well to culture (Jewish, African-American, Indian, etc.), politics (conservative), etc. What I called in the comments above “the liberal bubble” is not seeing these blind spots.

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      • This is why I have always been careful to distinguish religion from philosophy. Even with someone like Aquinas one can distinguish the properly philosophical from the dogmatic elements, which hail from religion.

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        • You seem to be conflating religion and dogma. I don’t agree with that. More to the point, if Susan as the religious person doesn’t think of her Christianity as dogma, but as a framework for thinking about the human condition, what to you might seem like where to draw the line between Aquinas’ philosophy and religion might not be the same as hers.

          The line between religion and philosophy isn’t written into the universe. And surely dogma is more a matter of attitude than whether one is religious or not. We are all just marking these boundaries as they work. So if you mark it differently from Susan, and if your entire department marks it differently from Susan, where can she go to think through her views?

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          • Religion is inherently dogmatic. That is one of the chief lines of delineation between it and philosophy. It’s one of the first things I explain to my overwhelmingly evangelical students on the first day of Introduction to philosophy. As for what Susan thinks, the purpose of higher education is to challenge what students think, not affirm it.

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        • ” Religious people have to understand that if they are going to live in a liberal society, then their religion has to be essentially privatized.”

          This is the view I disagree with it. I think we can, and should, give up this privitization requirement, and still have a liberal society.

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          • Not possible. Hence, Rawls. Competing conceptions of the good are mutually exclusive. Perhaps not your Christian-inflected spiritualism, but the overwhelming majority of peoples’ religions entail mutually exclusive conceptions of the good. Hence the need for liberalism and purely procedural approaches to law. This was the hard lesson learned from the wars of religion. It’s what gave us liberal democracy. And it would be catastrophically foolish to abandon.

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          • I say, good luck with that Rawlsian view. It’s going to go down – I say that in a purely descriptive way. It is not connected to a the right view of human psychology. The communitarian objections to Rawls are very good in my view, and it explains why people will ditch liberal institutions rather than their religious views.

            I am trying to come at this the other way, by saying, “The Rawlsian view is toast for the majority of the population (left and right). But maybe we still have liberalism if we change how we think of religion and world views in general.”

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          • It may go down. And your view will be as unpalatable to the dogmatic religious masses — and that’s what they are, dogmatic, not new-Agey — as Rawls’s. Indeed, they will dislike it even more, *because* it confronts them with what they see as a weasely perversion of religion *in the public square.* The far better strategy is to get them to see that liberalism protects *them* as much as it protects the godless heathen. As I tried to do in this essay: https://theelectricagora.com/2018/03/10/the-liberal-consensus-and-the-orthodox-mind/

            But you’re right, it might not work. Your strategy, however, is even less likely to work. And more than that, it is one I — and I suspect most liberals — oppose, so we won’t be able to fight that fight together.

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          • I don’t think so. Because religion can do something that normal argumentation, the kind we teach in classes, can’t do – inspire in a communal way. This is of course also what makes religion easy to manipulate towards authoritarianism.

            Overall, as you said earlier, we have very different conceptions of the future of humanity.

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          • I am genuinely surprised that you think the orthodox and dogmatic are going to welcome your brand of public new-Agey religion. This isn’t just about differing conceptions of the future. It seems to me you fundamentally don’t understand the country you actually live in. And especially, its religious people, among whom I have been living for the last two decades.

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          • Not saying they will welcome it. But that down the line at least my view speaks their language, and so I can get more of them to listen to me, since I can listen to them in their language and share in their practices. You live among them, but doesn’t seem true of your ability to share in their way of life.

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          • Yeah, I don’t think you understand them at all. They share neither your language nor their practices. But I obviously am not going to persuade you. So, I guess we’ll see each other at the polling stations, as I strongly oppose the direction you want to take the country in.

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          • To be clear, they might kill me now as usurping their religion. But down the line, I think they or their descendents will come around based on how people with my kind of view react to their violence.

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          • We certainly can work together. After all, on my view, I am also an atheist! I fully respect your view and think not only think you are a good person, but more, a wise person. Doesn’t mean we don’t disagree. And I will fully stand by your right to think what you want, and to be an atheist.

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          • Even on the narrow question, why can’t we work together? Think of me as a fundamentalist who wants to talk, and who also doesn’t want to kill anyone or hurt anyone and who like liberalism! I am like a pipeline to at least all the Hindu Indian-Americans (and I think Christian, but we can leave that aside, since you don’t think I am Christian) who will probably ditch the liberal traditions. I am saying, if you and I can’t work together on this narrow issue, there is no way you will be reaching most of my family – and my family is more liberal than most!

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          • Bharath,

            You have nothing to do with the fundamentalists. They have authoritarian personalities, while you are a free-spirit with a religious side as was Wittgenstein. You are over-reacting against the trendy-atheism of your former academic colleagues, which turned you off, but that’s no reason to imagine that you have anything in common with rightwing Christian fundamentalists, who if they could, would burn you at the stake right after or maybe even before they burn me.

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          • s. wallerstein, I like that description of me. Thanks!

            Biographically not quite true how I came to my view. Though my broader family is Hindu in a straight-forward, traditional way, my parents espoused a more spiritual version of Hinduism, rooted not in the Vedas or the rituals, but in the Upanishads and the Gita. I was draw to this view in high school, and being in America, I just converted into also a more spiritualized version of Christianity which I found in thinkers like Thomas Merton, and later in college Kierkegaard and Tillich.

            So when I went to college, and encountered Socrates, et al, and saw how the department was set up as “this is philosophy as opposed to religion”, I was puzzled, then confused, then angry, then depressed, etc, since the spiritualized version of religions I loved as a teenager, and continued to love, was nowhere to be found. This made Wittgenstein a natural hero for me (except not his anger and paranoia, hitting little children and what not).

            Of course, you are right the fundamentalists would burn me at the stake before you – burn with me more glee and more anger. I don’t invite this – I like living. But, as I believe in Christ’s resurrection and know that God is taking care of me and this is not the ultimate world, I am not that perturbed by the possibility. Walking in Christ’s path is what being a Christian is all about, and in that situation, I wish I would do it with as much love and faith as Christ showed.

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          • But, as I believe in Christ’s resurrection and know that God is taking care of me and this is not the ultimate world, I am not that perturbed by the possibility.
            = = =
            Except you didn’t say you believed that in the literal sort of way that would be required to make it a reasonable comfort.

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          • Bharath,

            I’m glad that you like my description of you as a free-spirit with a religious side. I note that the religious influences that you cite are free-spirits too: Thomas Merton and Kierkegaard. I have a wonderful little book that I bought in a used book store years ago and which I cherish: Thoughts in Solitude by Merton.

            Anyway, if you’re a free-spirit, it’s wiser to hang out with other free spirits. Not all atheists are free spirits: Dawkins and the New Atheists are as dogmatic and group-thinking as they come.

            Sometimes because a certain situation or group of people are intolerable, in your case, the academic liberal atheists, one imagines that the opposite group of people are going to be tolerable, but they can be worse. That’s the story of life.

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          • That’s the whole point of this post. One doesn’t need the literal interpretation to find comfort. Maybe others find comfort only in such an interpretation, but I certainly wouldn’t find comfort with the literal interpretation, since I think it is conceptually confused.

            I believe in Christ’s resurrection in the way I described. It gives all the comfort I need.

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          • I suspect you might change your mind, if a local christian nationalist group was chasing you through the woods, but that is, of course speculation, as are your predictions of how you would react. None of us know until we are in the situation what will be a comfort and what will not. Your overall posture strikes me as overly assured and self-confident. Age, experience, and wisdom have very much beaten down my own self-assurance and confidence.

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          • But my confidence doesn’t come just from Christ. It comes from ancient skepticism, as well as stoicism, buddhism and toaism. It comes from the feeling that no matter who I am talking to, their deepest values are one’s I share as well. Any disagreement I have with someone on these issues, is an internal disagreement, not “your whole view is wrong”.

            I can’t speak to where I will be in a decade, which is how far ahead you are of me. And I am having my first child in a month, a daughter, and we will if that changes things. But I do value the Socratic idea of equanimity, even in the face of death. Seems like something to strike for, no matter the age or circumstances.

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      • And i dont think they are blind spots. Religious people have to understand that if they are going to live in a liberal society, then their religion has to be essentially privatized. Those who are not willing to do this have to live private enclaves, like the Hasidim in Brooklyn or the Amish, where they run their own schools, courts, etc. and it is a testament to the decency of liberal society that they are permitted to do this.

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        • The religion situation is pretty analogous to the conservative situation. A leftist who conflates conservativism with racism, will say, “I am fine with conservative philosophy, but it has to be seperated from the racism”, and then he will read a lot of the philosophy as racism. Here the blind spot just is conflating conservatism with racism, and so he fails to see the big scope for how they are be separate. Most atheists in academia do the same thing with religion and dogma, as you seem to be doing here – and then justifying it with what a liberal society requires.

          To the extent some of our liberal institutions are crumbling, I think that’s good, because this bad, religion needs to be private interpretation has got to go. Only I have to be careful to not let that go to ditching liberal institutions all together.

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          • There is no conflation. I know very well what I am talking about. Not only do I have the education to back up what I am saying, but nearly three decades of higher education teaching experience. So, I’m afraid I don’t accept your claim that I am “conflating” something. I am not. Rather, you are conflating your highly unusual and specific melange of Christianity and new-Age style spirituality, with the religious beliefs of the overwhelming majority of citizens. That is the conflation going on in the discussion.

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          • And as for cheering the crumbling of the institutions, I’m sorry but it is deeply foolish. It will turn NY into Calcutta, which is not to anyone’s advantage, least of all that of Indians seeking a better life here.

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          • Not questioning your knowledge. But all that higher education experience you have might not help when those very education structures start crumbling. Better to start planning for the alternatives. At least that is what I am doing, and want to do. Of course, to each their own.

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      • But if Susan is coming from a religious family, or because she identifies with Christian or Hindu philosophies, then she has extra work she has to do that John doesn’t.

        This is puzzling. I was still Christian at the time I was an undergraduate. I did not find that I had any extra work to do. Admittedly, I did not take any classes in philosophy, but I’m doubting that would have been any different.

        I had attended public schools, so I already had experience in an education system where people had different backgrounds. I would guess it is different for somebody who is kept in a protective religious bubble until college.

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        • It might not be a matter of being raised in a religious bubble, as much as how much one wants to bring one’s religion and the college education into active dialogue with each other. Did you want to do that, or where you a Christian who thought your Christianity was separate from what you were learning in classes? Both are fine. But the former does add extra work, especially if the professors don’t talk about your Christianity, and so it on you only to do the balancing.

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          • Did you want to do that, or where you a Christian who thought your Christianity was separate from what you were learning in classes?

            I saw them as pretty much orthogonal.

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          • That certainly would make it easier to focus on your classes as they are taught. Again, here I am not saying which way is better, treating them as orthogonal or not. Just saying, many people don’t treat them as orthogonal, and if they don’t have an intellectual community outside of the classroom to talk about it, and the topic is never raised in the classroom, where are they supposed to go to think it through? That feeling of lack of help turns into resentment, leading to movies like “God is not dead”.

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  21. “Sometimes because a certain situation or group of people are intolerable, in your case, the academic liberal atheists, one imagines that the opposite group of people are going to be tolerable, but they can be worse. That’s the story of life.”

    s.wallerstein, I don’t think either (a) that the academic liberal atheists are intolerable, nor (b) that religious person, especially the extreme ones, would be better. If given a choice between Christians who are insufferable and the professors and colleagues I had in academia, I would choose the latter everytime!

    Just because I am sympathetic to people who like “God is not dead” doesn’t mean I like them more than I like academics. I just think those religious people who don’t understand academia and see it as the enemy have a point. Not about everything. Just about how they are not being heard in academia. And we should care about it, because it is good to care when others are suffering. Doesn’t mean everyone has to care, but those want to care, should. I want to care.

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    • I meant to say above, “that’s the story of my life”, by the way.

      I didn’t see the movie “God is not dead”, but after you and Dan talked about it, I googled it, read the Wikipedia summary and looked at the trailer. It seems like pure propaganda to me. I don’t deny that there may somewhere once have been an atheist philosophy professor who threatened to fail a student because he or she was a believer, but from what little I know of philosophy and from my own experience in academia, 99% of academics, especially philosophers, welcome a good debate and in any case, the U.S., where supposedly the film takes places, has laws which protect free of worship and sanction discrimination on religious grounds. So the film is worthy of Pravda or Granma.

      Congratulations on the soon-to-arrive baby daughter. I’m sure that you’ll be a great father for her.

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      • Thanks for the wishes!

        I agree the movie is contrived and dumb. But still it is illuminating, for, contrary to your experience, I didn’t feel when I was a student that academics love a good debate about everything. What I felt was many issues I cared about got pushed aside, with structural moves like “This is religion, which is dogma, that is philosophy and open reflection” – without those moves being justified or held up for scrutiny. The assumption was that if only I were more educated or thought more, I would think about it just the way the professors thought. I didn’t believe it, and I still don’t.

        The path forward here isn’t who is right and only debating that. It is listening to each other. And academics are notoriously bad at it, especially when they are talking to non-academics, because they have a hard time putting their professor attitude down, and simply listening and learning about others’ feelings. Not that they can’t do it as people; I mean they are not trained to, or even encouraged to do it as professors. So the cycle continues, where many people feel unheard, and professors respond by lecturing to them how it will be clear if only they trusted the professors.

        The movie is a great symptom of the lack of trust that many people have towards professors. The question then is, what will it take to heal this distrust? I think that is one place the conversation in response to the movie should be going.

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        • I agree that universities which have lots of students from religious backgrounds could and should develop programs for integrating those students into university life, including into philosophy classes. That would involve modifications in the curriculum. You could write an article for us on how to go about doing that. That would be very welcome.

          By the way, I took an introductory philosophy course in the university, and in one of the first classes, the professor presented us with the ontological argument and defied us to disprove it. He knew all the counter-arguments and counter-counter-arguments and during that one hour class he successfully defended the ontological argument against all challengers. He never made it clear whether he really believed it himself or even whether he believed in God, but that wasn’t his point. No one even thought of asking him whether he believed in God or not. All of us students realized that it was exercise in argumentation, not an attempt to convert us to any set of religious beliefs.

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  22. Sadly, I’m inclined to believe that both Dan and Bharath are correct in their criticisms of each other’s visions for America’s future.
    On the one hand I don’t see people coming to share a common conception of the good to the extent that would allow us to do without procedural liberalism. Even if the religious abandon narrow dogmatism and atheists become more open to this new age stuff, I don’t see any reason to think this will lead us all to a shared understanding of values and meaning. In fact I don’t see why it wouldn’t just multiply disagreement by giving people more perspectives to choose from. Further, without procedural liberalism, we will be vulnerable to the authoritarian consequences of people becoming dogmatic and tribal in their approaches to new age spirituality, which can’t be dismissed, especially given the totalitarian and cultish direction many new age movements took in the 60s and 70s.
    However, I do think that as traditional religion declines, there will be a hole left in people’s lives that political ideologies with sweeping moral visions and teleological narratives about history are liable to fill, and those ideologies have a nasty habit of making the kind of prudential reasoning that Rawlsian liberalism rests upon unpeesuasive to their devotees. Moreover, this cultural change will likely to make the traditionally religious become more authoritarian and less succeptible to prudential liberalism.
    Ultimately, I think Dan’s approach has better prospects, but not very good ones. And the more I think about this, the more I have a very bleak view about the future of Western Civilisation.

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      • What do you think is the best way of surmounting the difficulties I mentioned for liberalism?

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    • Agree there will never be a shared conception of the good. My pluralism isn’t meant to say everyone will get on board with it; in fact, most people probably won’t. It is rather to say that the pluralism provides a better conceptual foundation for liberalism, than the “all religions are bound to fight with each other, and so they must be kept private” justification for liberalism. The private religion approach is great as theory, _if human psychology could work like that_. But for the majority of people it doesn’t work like that. So if we want a liberalism that is psychologically viable for the masses, I suggest the pluralism approach.

      My grandmother, or many in my family for that matter, aren’t going to go from having Hinduism being the central thing in their life to nodding along to Rawls. There has to be a middle step for them, where they first can see that liberalism can be justified in Hindu terms itself.

      Re the fate of Western civilization, I am much more optimistic. Some parts of the ediface will crumble more than others (I suspect academia will look very different in 20-30 years), but the overall march of the Enlightenment will continue forward.

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      • No liberal would want to tell people their religion can’t be a central part of their lives. In fact, I view the French model of secularism as being rather illiberal in many ways. However, what the liberal will demand is that religiously inspired moral convictions cannot count as public reasons for policy, and should be left out of policy debate altogether, and should largely be left at the door with regard to collective decisions about the form we want our national culture to take. The reasons for this are not themselves moral, but pragmatic. If people need some extra moral reason couched in religious language, then fine people like yourself can aid the cause of liberalism by providing that. But that this may be useful does not mean giving up the idea of the moral neutrality of the state that Is central to liberalism, or the further goal of a culture which is morally accommodating in a way which is naturally deeply unappealing to the religious.

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        • Certainly there has to be, as you put it, “the moral neutrality of the state that Is central to liberalism”. The issue is does that require “religiously inspired moral convictions cannot count as public reasons for policy, and should be left out of policy debate altogether.” I don’t think it requires that. It only requires it if we don’t embrace religious pluralism as a regulative ideal of public discourse. If a senator says, “Christ tells me to build wall along the border,” it seems to me fine if another senator can say, “Well, Christ is telling not to build the wall,” and if another senator can say, “Krishna is telling me X.”

          This kind of thinking is already what happens with a lot (most?) people. They just don’t admit it because it is taboo. They are making decisions about public life based on their sense of the highest good, and then resent having to translate it into some “neutral” language which they don’t understand who decided it was neutral. This leads to repression, which leads to authoritarianism. My approach says, let’s cut the repression, and let people express their religious views re policy as long as they let others do so however they way (“As an atheist, I think…”, etc.) Less repression there is, more open I think people will be to liberalism.

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          • Of course people are going to resent not being able to legislate according to their own personal faith and values, because after all they’re right and everyone else is wrong! But they would be no less resentful of having a morality they despise put into legislation by politicians who justify this by appeal to their faith. Ultimately, I just think that while the resentment that you speak of can be tempered by reflections on the pragmatic reality of modern society, the resentment that comes from having values that are alien to you being trotted out as the basis for public policy is likelier to develop into something dangerous.
            Also I’m not u fear any illusions that moral language will disappear from politics altogether. But any moral rhetoric used to justify legislation will have to be accompanied by the more neutral public reasons recognised by Rawlsian liberalism if it is to become law in a liberal society.
            And for what it’s worth, not only do I find the prospect of ‘Jesus is telling me to do x’ arguments in public affairs unappealing due to its being bad for politics since I’m a secularist, but I also think that if I were religious I wouldn’t like it, because I would see it as debasing religion. Heck, I do see this kind of thing as debasing Christianity and I don’t even believe it. And the negative consequences of this for religion are not purely a matter of subjective value; religion can really demonstrably suffer from throwing its weight around in politics. A great example of this is the decline of Christianity in England after the First World War due in large part to revulsion at the CofE’s public support for the war.

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          • When I say people should be able to say, “Jesus is telling me X”, I don’t mean that should be treated as indisputable. I agree that is how many people treat it. But I think that’s wrong. In my experience with religious communities, there is another use of “Jesus tells me….”, which is really in its use not that different from, “After reflection, I have come to think…” If someone says, “Jesus is telling me X…” and I respond with, “Well, are you sure? Because Jesus is telling me Y…”, then there could be more room for conversation.

            In general there is much more room for discussion and debate within a religious language than is acknowledged. Of course there are fanatics who don’t think so. And also many non-fanatics who don’t think so, because they have accepted (as have a lot of atheists) broadly that the only options are science vs an infallible, personal faith. But then the non-fanatics are not consistent with this because a lot of their practices and actions presuppose lots of middle ground between those two extremes. I am saying, let’s have that middle ground me more explicit, and it might be healing and productive.

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  23. Bharath,
    I’m re-posting a comment by Dan because I believe it to be an essential to the political issues your position raises:

    “Religious people have to understand that if they are going to live in a liberal society, then their religion has to be essentially privatized. Those who are not willing to do this have to live private enclaves, like the Hasidim in Brooklyn or the Amish, where they run their own schools, courts, etc. and it is a testament to the decency of liberal society that they are permitted to do this.”

    This is half your problem here. The other half has to do with this remark you made:

    ” But that down the line at least my view speaks their language, and so I can get more of them to listen to me, since I can listen to them in their language and share in their practices. ”

    No! Really, just no! You aren’t speaking their language, in which case you have no idea what they are talking about!

    In my understanding of the matter, Wittgenstein began his Philosophical Investigations and the work following in part because his utter failure as a grade school teacher, and the community’s reaction to it, led him to rethink how he listened to what others had to say. (Of course that was only a part of his incentive, but I’ve long suspected a major part.)

    To understand what a people mean by their language, you first have to observe what their language does. (This requires observing their features and behavior as well.) If they ask if you are going to church on Sunday, observe whether they show interest; whether their look is suspicious or welcoming; If you say yes do they then ask which church you attend, or go on to other matters? If you say no, do they distance themselves from you, argue that you should attend church, or turn away coldly? In short, is their question an articulation of inclusion, or a test for exclusion?

    When I was teaching a composition class in Waterloo, NY, I thought that I was facing a classroom filled with conservative Christians – which I was. So I assigned them to write an essay describing the importance of their religion to their life. It was an open question, I neither supported nor denied any religious view, I was simply trying to get them to engage exposition with what I thought would be a meaningful aspect of their lives. To my surprise – even shock – most of them disavowed any interest in belief in god; their main concern was that the church would teach their children morality more stringently than they could at home.

    This doesn’t mean that they would be more open to the kind of New Age spiritualism you offer here – it means precisely that they would not be open to it at all.

    “To be clear, they might kill me now as usurping their religion. But down the line, I think they or their descendents will come around based on how people with my kind of view react to their violence.” – Man, you are absolutely dreaming (and who needs another martyr?). That’s not what religion is or does, not among the non-elite who have to live it out and develop commitments based on their economic situation, their social status, the history of their peoples, the availability of education.

    Liberal faithful believe the spirit is the essential heart of the matter; conservative faithful believe it is the Church. Fundamentalists (of any religion) believe it is ‘the Text.’ Extremists believe the Text authorizes assault on non-believers. These divisions cannot be breached through argument. The same sort of fuzzy emotional high – or social commitment – that leads some to one of these faith positions is needed to change them from one to the other.

    Your discussion here has been a fascination, but it walks no ground, plants no roots. Don’t just ‘go back to Wittgenstein – go ;listen to what people actually say of their faith, its uses, its meaning within community.

    Finally – Efforts such as yours have been attempted across the centuries; they especially became a fad in the 19th century in Europe, and enjoyed some revival in the Counter-Culture ’60s. They have all been failures. What the ’60s spirituality accomplished was not only the development of the New Age travesty of Eastern religion; more importantly, it sent many ex-hippies into the Fundamentalist churches. Apparently a strong sermon has the same psychic effect as a dose of LSD – is that the ‘brown acid’ or a response to it?’

    Please – rethink this. You have too much to offer as commentator on the differences between professional philosophy and independent scholarship. Work that. The world doesn’t need a new religion right now.

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    • EJ, I really like your comments. Thank you. I think you are pressing at exactly the right place re the possible limits of my view, as are others here. But I am not convinced.

      I agree completely that just because I embrace Jesus Christ doesn’t mean I can go into a conservative church in Mississippi (or NY) and think they will listen to me. Their reaction will probably be, “Who the hell are you teaching us anything about what Christ meant? Get out.” And they might even look at me funny with my skin color and accent and see me as the people taking over their country. Espousing Christianity is not a magic pill that will change any of this. Because as you say, what they are mainly worried about is their “way of life”, where they see their life as the best and they want to spread that or retain it as it is. And my view is as much a threat to that as Richard Dawkins’ view.

      But I am not talking to them right now. I am talking to you guys, some highly intelligent, educated, articulate people who have thought about these issues your wholes lives, as I have. That is the audience I am aiming for in my writings. Even many in my family won’t be able to make much of what I wrote here, because they just don’t think that much about it. And if they did think about, many of them would reject it. My grandmother (who was very smart and fantastic) summed up her dismissal of my view this way (in my native language of Telugu): “You can’t even get people in the family to stop fighting, how are you going to get religions to stop fighting? Hindus and Muslims will never get along. Accept it.” I hear you as saying a more sophisticated version of that.

      Still, I hold out hope. Because I am not trying to change people “over there” who I never met, imagining a fantasy of comradarie with them. When I was at Bryn Mawr, I tried many churches, and was met with an incredulous stare when I expressed my view that for me the God of Christianity I pray to and Krishna were the same; they just looked past me, made it pretty clear I wasn’t welcome. Finally I found a methodist church with a progressive pastor, who was himself locked in a battle with his congregation for embracing a more liberal understanding of Christianity.

      I don’t go to church now, or to a Hindu temple. But me and my wife are trying to build a community where we live based on the idea of religious and atheistic pluralism. My hope isn’t to change people just through what beliefs mean – I agree, that would go against the Wittgensteinian idea of focus on forms of life. The hope is to create change in my local community, and through the intellectual community of my writings. Given that I am not engaging with the religious fanatics, am I glad that we have atleast the kind of private-religion liberalism we have. You bet I am! But that doesn’t mean the current liberal structures I take for granted can’t be improved, especially re how religion is understood.

      “Efforts such as yours have been attempted across the centuries; they especially became a fad in the 19th century in Europe, and enjoyed some revival in the Counter-Culture ’60s. They have all been failures.” I see what you mean. But I don’t think they have all been failures. I really don’t. I think of communities formed around people like Aurobindo, Merton, Eckhart Tolle, Thich Nhat Hanh, and many others, and I see a very robust new age philosophy community, which isn’t linked to the excesses of the 60s, the sex and drugs, and all that. I never though I would live in the suburbs, own a house, drive an SUV – am doing all that now, and will be more suburban with the arrival of my daughter. I am trying to blend the 60s hippie energy with more mainstream suburban life.

      How does any of this help with the religious, Christian fundamentalists? It doesn’t directly. But if people in the educated classes can be a bit more into the new suburban hippie pluralism, that might make the democrats I am mostly surrounded by a bit more sympathetic to both republicans in general, and to religious republicans. That might lessen the polarization in our society, which might make the liberal institutions we already have more secure.

      I am not dumb enough to think that if we blow up the liberal institutions (the foundation of which you capture in your latest piece), then we start anew and build better ones from scratch. No, if we blow it all up, the whole thing will go, and we are back to ground zero. So I want the core to hold, even as we change some of the main structures.

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