A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Pope Benedict And Me, Part I: The Sleep Of Reason

As I promised in a post below, I have obtained the definitive collection of the writings of Pope Benedict XVI on the dialog with non-Christian religions, Truth and Tolerance. I am diligently reading it, and will share with you my impressions in a new series of posts. I would encourage anyone with any interest in religion to obtain and read this book, for what the Pope thinks about the other religions of the world is by no means a small matter in a world torn, as ours is, by much religious strife, and much strife between the religious, the areligious, and the anti-religious.

The most important thing to note in Benedict’s book at the start is that, as Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict was writing to Christians generally, and to Catholics in particular, concerning what they should think about dialog with other religions. He was not writing to Hindus, Buddhists, or Muslims, and he certainly wasn’t engaging in the dialog he was writing about. As Cardinal Ratzinger, and as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, there was no reason to expect him to do either of these. And, as we will see the next essay, I strongly suspect that as Cardinal Ratzinger he engaged in very little ecumenical dialog. But as Benedict XVI he must do this to some greater or lesser degree as a part of the job. Hence, from the Buddhist vantage point, Truth and Tolerance leaves many practical questions unanswered about how Pope Benedict will conduct that dialog.

It must be remembered here that there was no real difference between John Paul II and Benedict XVI about Catholic dogma, doctrine, or belief. Some of my co-religionists, at least, fail to consider this when evaluating what are essentially rumors at best and libels at worst about what Benedict thinks of us. I think some Christians fail to consider this also.

The dialog John Paul sustained with us during his Papacy had little to do with the central issues of belief, and much to do with how we are to get along with one another in a world where nobody’s religion is going to magically disappear. He talked with us, not to us, and most certainly not at us. And he went out of his way to reach out beyond the confines of the Vatican and the press of State and Church business, to explore the world and speak with the world, as much as to the world, and clearly not at the world. In Ratzinger’s phrase, John Paul largely talked with us about tolerance, not truth.

So the questions we Buddhists have, first, is whether Benedict will also proactively reach out, as did John Paul, and will he be talking with us, to us, or at us, if he does. Those of us Buddhists with a fair amount of balanced experience with our practices, will certainly try to remain friendly and tolerant in any case (though the less experienced among us may develop some aggression with being talked at). But we are realistic about the fact that being talked at is by no means “dialog”, and that being talked to is also not dialog, unless we are also being listened to. This is the heart of “tolerance”.

As to the component of “truth” in Truth and Tolerance, we Buddhists have a long history not only of dialog with other religions, but quite spirited debate with them in such cases when we can get them to share a set of rational and reasonable principles for such debate with us. On those grounds, I doubt that we have anything to fear from Benedict’s presumptive assertion of the truth of Catholic belief in any dialog he may now have with us.

The real difficulty for we Buddhists, however, is that the view of Benedict may very well be so fundamentally anti-rationalist that it renders any dialog at all impossible. His third conclusion in his essay “Truth—Tolerance—Freedom”, the final essay in Truth and Tolerance, is not reassuring in this regard:

We must also bid farewell to the dream of the absolute autonomy of reason and of its self-sufficiency.

Earlier in the book (“New Questions That Arose In The Nineties”) he had carried his criticism of reason, from the vantage point of Christian faith, even further, to establish why the notion of the autonomy of reason must be abandoned:

For human reason is not autonomous at all. It is always living in one historical context or another. Any historical context, as we see, distorts the vision of reason; that is why reason needs the help of history in order to overcome these historical limitations.

From the Buddhist point of view, to say this is essentially to say that any real dialog between Benedict and us can, at best, be a dialog of tolerance only, and not of truth. For if reason is so historically dependent that it cannot function as a neutral medium of argument, there must be a Christian reason that is different from a Buddhist reason and, therefore, effective debate between the two points of view, in the interest of establishing truth, must be impossible. And Benedict, who, so to speak, wishes to have his truth and dialog too, is probably not going to get this under those conditions.

Now such an absence of true dialog, in itself, might not trouble some of my Christian readers, but Benedict’s view also has some very peculiar and disturbing consequences even within the historical context of the philosophy in Europe and the European diaspora. Consider the problem of mathematics. The dominant trend in the philosophical study known as the Foundations of Mathematics has been the attempt to derive all Mathematics, in one fashion or another from the purely formal aspect of reason known as Propositional Logic, under the assumption that the formal truths of Logic are historically neutral. This is known as mathematical Logicism.

The roots of this notion reach back to Aristotle and the definitive articulation of it took place at the turn of the 20th century in the work of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell, with the corrective establishment of the limits of derivation of Mathematics from logic being articulated by the somewhat later work of Kurt Godel.

This field is far more complicated than we need to go into in detail, but the summary of the matter by R.B.Jones can be used to make the dilemmas of Benedict’s position clear:

Notwithstanding the arguments against logicism, no alternative account of the status of mathematical propositions is convincing. Philosophers throughout history have claimed that propositions such as: 1+1=2 are necessarily true.

This necessity flows from the meaning of the terms employed in the proposition. To the present day Mathematicians continue to work with methods which are appropriate only to the establishment of a priori, necessary truths.

As far as this Buddhist can see, if reason is not neutral and independent of history, as Benedict asserts, there can be no logically necessary a priori truths, and, therefore, no reliable Mathematics, whatever. One plus one can then be whatever the historical context makes of it, and, potentially, may be different for me as a Buddhist than it is for Benedict as a Catholic.

This strikes me as throwing the baby out with the bath water. Benedict feels that:

Because the claim to know the truth is widely regarded nowadays as a threat to tolerance and freedom, this whole question had to be taken up.

This may be so in relation to the “relativist” theologians he is at pains to combat, it may be so in relation to the secular culture of Europe and the European diaspora, or it may be so in relation to certain theological positions within his own Church. But it is certainly not so in relation to Buddhism. We have some claims to knowledge of the truth ourselves, so Benedict’s claims do not really bother us at all.

But his position regarding reason implies that the only possible truth that can be asserted is “revealed” truth granted to us by God. So since it has been revealed to him and not to us, how much is there, really, for us to have a dialog about?

In the next segment of this discussion, we will examine how much Benedict knows about our claims to know truth and how and why they differ from his own.


Blogger newc said...

Persue the dialogue.

1:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent comments! I certainly hope that dialog with Buddhists (and all faiths) can continue among all religions. Not to water any individual faith down to some amorphous every-faith, but, yes, to say, "We agree on THESE truths. Here we have common ground. Here we can work together."

I know that there are areas where faiths cannot converge. We have to be realistic. But St. Paul himself said that we ought to live in peace as much as it depends on us with those who do not believe as we do. Not by giving up our beliefs, but because we should be concerned with the well-being of even the ones who do not affirm all our truths. Certainly,that becomes easier if we can claim common truths about life and community and good and evil. :)

I like the idea of spirited debates between faiths. That IS part of dialog. And it's also part of the church's commitment to evangelism--getting the "good word" out, as it were. Paul engaged the Greeks on the areopagus, bringing news of "the unknown god". While I think the pope's emphasis in this era should be on clear challenges to the Christian faith (secularization, persecution in various nations, internal impurities and heresies) and on preaching the good news of salvation (which should always be the church's main global activity), there should always be time to engage in dialog, debate and friendly outreach.

Anyway, thanks for the comments.


4:21 AM  
Blogger craig said...

I would not take Benedict's statement as a claim that reason is not neutral and independent of history, but that our exercise of it cannot be divorced from historical and cultural circumstance. Benedict most certainly believes in objective truth, including the necessity of a priori axioms. I think his point is that "one plus one" can only mean the same thing in different contexts so long as both contexts share a common semantic definition, and it is particularly that semantic aspect that is colored by history and culture.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Joseph Marshall said...

The real question here is whether reason is truly structural and therefore neutral to history and beyond semantics. If, in fact, the meaning of 1+1 is semantic and historical then that meaning cannot be an a priori and universal truth.

There is, of course a semantic side to 1+1. It can be written as one plus one, and for "one" we can substitute "un", "uno", and so on. Or we can even express the arithmatic involved in binary notation. But for its meaning to be a priori and true in all cases, all of these linguistic variations must mean the same thing.

The alternative is that the meaning of 1+1 is merely emprical and no more than "in all the cases we know of 1+1=2, though there might be some case we don't know of where it doesn't".

Benedict is actually trying to get around Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and Kant's question of whether an objective knowledge of "metaphyical truth" through reasoning is even possible.

This is a tall order, for Kant did a pretty thorough job of answering the question with "no".

Benedict's reply is not that Kant was wrong, or that his position is incorrectly reasoned, but that Kant is "so late-eighteenth century!" I, for one, don't think that to be an adequate answer.

I am, of course, using the traditional Middle Way dialectic form of argument developed by the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, without explicitly saying so, and pointing out that whatever Benedict does or does not believe, what he actually says undercuts the ground from the possibility of a priori truth.

While this may seem exaggerated (and usually does to non-Buddhist readers) it is the best corrective for avoiding the chronic assumption in these matters that we "know" what Benedict means, even when he doesn't say it convincingly.

5:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you ever hear from Matthew Fox ?

11:19 PM  
Blogger Joseph Marshall said...

Not a peep. Last time I looked at his blog he was grandstanding in Germany by nailing some new theses to tht door of the Wittenburg Cathedral.

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