Sunday, April 29, 2007

The light

Philosopher Stephen Law writes about a debate with Bishop of Edinburgh Brian Smith about whether "Jesus Christ is the way the truth and the life." Law highlights Smith 's core position:
In our quietest moments, [Smith] said, each one of us – yes, even a cynical atheist – is aware, deep down, of a light. It’s an awareness of something fundamentally good, of a yearning to be something better than we are. This something is... Jesus.[1]
Law wonders,
How do you respond to that? Get all logical and sceptical on him, and you come across as a coarse bully, someone insensitive to one of the deepest insights available to humanity, an insight that, yes, even a cynic like me has, though I might try to deny it.
Law offers his response and asks, "How could I have done better?"

I don't know if my answer is better, but here it is.

Smith's position is fine, up until the very last word, which should be omitted and replaced with a question mark: "This something is...?" What is this "light"? What is this awareness? I have my suspicions, but I don't know. Maybe it's trivial, maybe it's important. But if it really is important, we shouldn't just guess, we should know.

Whatever this feeling is, human beings are feeling it, and it is therefore a human feeling, susceptible to the full range of human investigation. Let the philosophers argue, the scientists scrutinize, the poets rhyme, the polemicists exult and condemn. Let even the advertisers bullshit, the business executives commercialize, the pundits bloviate and the politicians speechify. And what the heck, it's a free country, let even the theologians... well... do whatever it is that they do.

We must not, however, grant theologians a monopoly on this feeling. Whether they are speaking in intimate whispers or thundering from the pulpit, we must not let them demand that this feeling must be Jehovah, Abraham, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, or Krishna. We must not let them demand that to be an atheist is to deny this feeling. We must not let them demand that science cannot talk about this feeling: If human beings can feel it, science can investigate it. We must not let them offer guesses and speculation as truth and certainty. And, most importantly, we must not let their remarks escape critical scrutiny simply because they wear funny hats on Sunday.

Even if this feeling is about something real, even if this feeling is important, it's a thin foundation indeed, far too thin to support the massive edifice of lies and bullshit churches and theologians have erected for millennia.[2] It's no wonder that theologians evade critical scrutiny: When subjected to the most superficial scrutiny, 99% of theology—and the professional careers of the priests, bishops, popes and theologians who promulgate it—is revealed as egregious bullshit: God talk does not explain, it mystifies. Perhaps 100% of theology is bullshit; perhaps there's philosophical gold somewhere in the 1%. Regardless, not only does no mode of thought deserve a monopoly a priori, theology has demonstrated a posteriori time and again its incompetence to monopolize anything—even bullshit.

It's a free country, and if it pleases you to call yourself a theologian, and do whatever it is that theologians do, you're free to do so. Who knows, maybe something good will come of it: Who knew that a queer pain-in-the-ass too-smart-for-his-own-good painter, Galileo, would usher in a new mode of thought, science, that would lead to centuries of technological and social progress? Maybe theology, all evidence to the contrary, really does have potential.

But "potential" means "you ain't worth a damn yet." Religion and theology have no claim on this feeling as their own exclusive magisterium. Theologians are just as entitled as anyone else to ask the question, but they are not entitled—not now and perhaps not ever—to answer it with Smith's unquestioning confidence.

Update: Due a (hopefully temporary) failure of reading comprehension on my part, I mistakenly attributed Bishop Smith's position to Professor Richard Swinburne in Law's original post. The references have been corrected.

[1] Since Law does not put these words in quotation marks, he's probably paraphrasing Smith's actual remarks.

[2] It's arguable that this feeling is a latecomer to theology, after logic, sensibility and the ravings of schizophrenic "prophets" have entirely lost their credibility as theological support.


  1. Go Dan Dennett! er...I mean, Barefoot Bum!

  2. Steelman: Are you praising me by comparison or accusing me of plagarism? '-)

  3. "God talk does not explain, it mystifies"

    Dead right. And the mention of Swinburne reminds me of his line that an omniperfect god is the simplest hypothesis. But it isn't the simplest, it's just the most simplistic.

  4. Actually, Swinburne's omnipotent god—simple or complex as may be—is not an explanation at all, because it does not logically entail that which is being explained.

    I'll write more on this later.

  5. BB: I'm praising your effort in the process of deep, philosophical meditation you've obviously gone through to arrive at such profound conclusions, while wondering if you and I haven't simply been memed by Santa Claus.

  6. It's certainly true that Dennett has in general profoundly influenced my own philosophical development.

    I've not read everything Dennett's written, and this particular argument is my own, but it's not surprising that ::ahem:: great minds might think alike. '-)


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