Friday, July 17, 2009

Man, the [adjective] Animal

Omissions, corrections

Aristotle may have gotten a lot wrong, but I have to join MacIntyre in recognizing the Nicomachean Ethics as presenting a fundamentally sound way of approaching ethics. This is why I was profoundly disappointed by the way After Virtue dismissed the discussion of human nature and human goods found in book 1 of the NE. MacIntyre points out (rightly) that it is neither practicable nor desirable for a modern to accept Aristotle's teleological biology, but fails to offer any sort of replacement or updated biology--the tradition takes on the role that the biological teleology had.

This is a serious error. Aristotle did not open his discussion of ethics with a discussion of human nature for no reason and at random. He clearly and distinctly understood that a discussion of human goods has to begin with what humans are--if humans were something else, what is good for us to do would likewise be different. I am strongly tempted to generalize this and say that all ethical systems begin with, are underpinned by, and presuppose some particular view of what humans really are. Figuring out whether this claim holds up would be quite a challenge, but if it does, I think that it might elucidate in a yet clearer way why modern moral debates are in such disrepair--e.g., why it is so difficult to find a compelling reason to prefer utilitarianism over deontology or vice versa. But I digress.

In doing a bit of research and reading for this post, I was gratified to find that MacIntyre has changed his tune on this topic. In the introduction to his latest book, Dependent Rational Animals, (Thank you, Google Books!) MacIntyre falls back from this error, and outdoes himself in correcting it, spending the next 150 pages or so sketching out the philosophical importance of understanding that we are, in fact, animals. (And animals dependent on others, frequently subject to pain and illness) I regret that I have not yet found the money and time to acquire and read this book.

The various Paganisms each have their own approaches to answering what sort of thing a person is, and there are significant variations along with commonalities. Not all of these answers are equal; some are quite insightful, and some are thoughtless and perhaps even a bit dangerous.

The task of laying out exactly what humans are--what makes us distinctly "human"--is by its nature quixotic. Even to ask the question is to commit to certain epistemological and ontological ideas that could easily come under question. And while many of the aspects and faculties of humans are obvious and not very controversial, their relative ranking of importance to the human constitution (if there be such a thing) and how they are related to each other and to the whole are not at all obvious. And perhaps especially depressing, nearly every attempt to date to answer the question of what a human is has been astoundingly narrow, universalizing aspects of a particular culture to all humans.

Nonetheless, I would like to take this task in hand and give at least a broad answer.

We're Animals

I think MacIntyre is right in exploring the philosophical implications of our "animality." For millenia, philosophers have downplayed this aspect of ourselves, but it almost disappears from the philsophical consciousness of the West in the modern period. For Descartes, all bodies extended in space and time were passive, only reacting to external action, either fr0m other bodies or from mind. Animals, he believed, utterly lacked mind, and were nothing more than complex machines.

Still later, Immanuel Kant went even further, going so far as to say that all true ethics must be grounded in an understanding of personhood that has absolutely nothing to do with what kind bodies we have. What is moral for a human is the same thing that would be moral for space aliens, computer intelligences, or spiritual beings like angels.

Such short-sightedness is appalling, but not to be entirely unexpected. After all, preceding the modern period was the Medieval period, in which the Christian cosmology dominated the world. In the creation of the world, the animals were made on the fifth day, and humans on the sixth. Only to humans were given the gift of souls and eternal life, and the world would someday be destroyed and remade to give the righteous humans a place to live, while all animals would perish. In the wake of a milieu so pervaded with human exceptionalism, it is not surprising that Aristotle's simple observation, that man is an animal, was given little place.

Like on the Discovery Channel

Few thinkers have given due attention to this most fundamental aspect of ourselves. Even speaking about us as "embodied" is misleading; it almost implies a subterranean suspicion that we are in fact fundamentally disembodied, that we only have bodies, and are minds, in a kind of Cartesian dualism. I know of only a few modern thinkers who have given due consideration to it, particularly Merleau-Ponty (with whom I am less familiar than I would like). John Gray's Straw Dogs, for all its faults, is grounded in a keen awareness that we are animals.

Even so, when the awareness that we are animals arises, it is always with the consciousness that there is something different about humans, something exceptional. There is always some adjective. Man is the rational animal, the social animal, the spiritual animal. Man is the game-playing animal or the laughing animal. Man is the tool-using animal.

The adjective always refers to our advanced mental abilities, our perception and logic, our complex social arrangments or the subtle spectrum of human emotion. This is the realm at which morality, for the most part, operates. Advanced moral capability is at the very least part and parcel of our sociality and rationality. But we must be careful. All too often, in our moral reasonings and social negotiations, we forget entirely that we are animals--or at the very least, we fail to come to terms with some of the implications.

The whole range of implications is too broad for this post, which has already grown too long, so I will narrow my focus. I first want to clarify one thing that is not an implication: the importance and value of our cultural creations, philosophies, religions, and so on. Art is no less beautiful, the transport of mystic insight no less significant, that they are done by animals. We need to rid ourselves of the idea of "just" an animal. The Darwinian discovery that we share our ancestors with the rest of the living world ought not tell us that we are less valuable; rather, we ought to recognize that the plants and animals around us literally are (however distantly) our cousins, aunts, and uncles and treat them accordingly.

The implication I want to focus on is that we must take seriously that humans are just one element in a larger ecology, that we occupy an ecological niche and depend on the web of life to sustain us. If the virtue of justice is to be considered as giving to each his due, there is much that is due to the non-human world. Without necessarily advocating for their position, I want to point out the deep ecologists as an example of one way to work out this revised understanding of justice.

But how does this relate to Paganism? How can a polytheistic or earth-centered religion work this out? I'll see if I can put the pieces together in something like a coherent way in the next post in my series on MacIntyre.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Idolatry of Monotheism

I'm not yet done with MacIntyre, but I'm putting it on hold for a post or two.

There is something a little off about Aquinas' famous distinction between the truths of faith and the truths of reason. In the latter category, one finds those truths known to the ancient Greeks--especially Aristotle--while those peculiar to Christianity are to be found in the former. While certainly not all theologians would agree with Aquinas' system of classification, its profound influence in Christian theology since then indicates, I think, that it points at something profound at the heart of Christianity.

The very names of the categories are suggestive Christianity is not, at bottom, a rational religion. The most one can say is that it is compatible with reason--at least, with certain conceptions of reason. This is not unique to Christianity, but it is in Christianity that it becomes a problem to grapple with, a dilemma that demands a solution.

I believe this is a dilemma at the heart of all the great monotheisms. And I believe I have an inkling as to why.

The Language of the Cosmos

Mathematics is the most universal language that we know of. Every culture seems to have had some form of it, however primitive or advanced. The striking thing about it is that, no matter how old a mathematical proof might be, it will never--if it is indeed a real proof--be overturned or denounced by experts in the field. Mathematics is the only field which can find anything like this certainty. Though ambiguities, I am given to understand, seem to present themselves at the more abstruse and difficult levels, this is probably to be expected given the complexity of the subject and the relative feebleness of the human mind.

Mathematics is indeed so universal that it may well be the language of the cosmos. At the very least, the physical world seems to be governed by mathematics at the deepest depths we have plumbed. Though mathematics, humans have been able to make and interpret measurements up from estimates of the relative weights of protons and electrons to the vast distances between the galaxies.

It is no accident that mathematics is the most rational language we have, as well. There seems to be a direct relation between how universal a discourse is--or at least, how universalizable--and how rational it is. Though Chinese philosophers might be in many respects less fully rational than the ancient Greeks, the same logical principles underlie many of Confucius' arguments that Aristotle categorized and and formalized. And unless certain rational elements were found in nearly every society, it would be almost impossible for us to communicate and live together, let alone come to anything like a mutual understanding.

Against this rationality the irrational and particularistic elements of our nature work. I was raised on standard American fare, so I usually prefer hamburgers to sushi--for no good reason, that I can tell. Likewise, I'm more likely to say "um..." when deciding what to eat than "etto..." I would sacrifice a kidney for my mother, but probably not your mother, even if yours needs it more.

Our irrational, particularistic, and tribal sides are not to be gotten rid of. They are what make community possible. Nor is reason to be gotten rid of; tyranny and warfare will inevitably result. But there is a conflict between them--a creative conflict if we manage it well. While not all human universals are rational, and not all irrational aspects of us are particularistic, it seems to be overwhelmingly the case that rationality and universality are intimately linked, and irrationality and particularity are likewise, if less strongly, linked.

The Irrational God

Religion seems to be one of those areas where particularity and irrationality are most strongly linked. The religious practices of one era or people can seem strange or even laughable to another. The Greeks were astonished by Egyptian religion, and those certain aspects seem to have garnered great respect, many Greeks scoffed what they took to be the worship of animals, creatures lower even than humans.

This is a problem for monotheistic religions. The mono-God of the Christian and other traditions do have elements that are rational and/or universal in character--omnipotence, omniscience, ubiquity, and so on. But at the same time, there are particularist and irrational elements essential to the character of particular monotheistic religions. Thus, Aquinas perceived so keenly the need for a distinction between truths of faith and truths of reason.

By their nature, reason cannot convince people of the truths of faith--whether that faith be Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Yet this presents monotheistic religions--or at least Christianity, Islam, and a few more recent faiths--with a problem; their doctrines are by nature universalistic, intended to apply to all people in all places. All people, eventually, are to bow before Allah. Christ commissions his followers to preach to all the nations.

The practical consequence of this is that the religion spreads, not through the rational appeals that give, e.g., Platonism and many forms of Buddhism their power to convince, but through an exertion of the will over the minds and hearts of others. Whether through bribes, persuasive speech, or force and intimidation, the religion is spread by whatever means necessary. Frequently, competing religions are condemned and sanctions are placed on their followers--up to and including death for attempting to practice or spread their religion. I can think of no better way to characterize the hegemony that Christianity gained over Europe, or Islam over the Middle East, than as the exercise of the will of the religious leaders over the minds of the people.

I don't mean to say, of course, that all conversions to a monotheistic religion are impelled by others in this way. But I do not think that the tremendous success that these religions have had in imposing themselves across multiple cultures is attributable, as many of their proponents would have us believe, to the persuasive power of the religion rather than the zeal of inquisitors and devout rulers.

So much for one major practical consequence. There is also a theoretical consequence: idolatry.

Bait and Switch

While it is entirely beyond my (or anyone's) ability to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt otherwise, it does not seem credible to me to say that the source of all being (however we might characterize it) has the sort of special relationship to humanity posited by Christianity and, to a lesser extent, Islam. In both religions, the final destruction of the world is centered around humans; in both cases, humans alone are resurrected. The point of the destruction is the creation of a new world in which the righteous will be blessed and rewarded. In Christianity, humanity is even further elevated; the Supreme Being deigns to incarnate himself as human.

This strikes me as improbable in the highest degree--nearly unthinkable, I had better say. However, the common objection I have heard from Christians to this judgment is that I am illicitly presuming that God must follow my own limited human notions about what God must be like. I find this response rather astonishing from people who believe that the world will one be destroyed for the sake of humanity, who believe that God himself took on human form--and only human form, and only once. I understand that this apparent illogic is the result of the cultivation of an attitude of submission to Christ (of which a part is submission to the doctrines of the faith), but that does not make it any more reasonable; it only makes it somewhat more believable in a practical, living faith.

If idolatry is to be understood as replacing a grand truth with a shoddy image, easier to perceive and understand, then surely the religions that cry the loudest about idolatry--that created the concept as a category of sin and wrongdoing--are the very religions that commit it the most blatantly. It is one thing to suggest that there are divinities below the highest and most divine creator that have dealings with humans (and if one looks at, for instance, Platonism, the relationship is further and further subdivided, as gods do not communicate with humans directly, but use daemons as intermediaries). It is quite another to say that the font of existence is personally concerned with our species above all others.

Final Thoughts

I do not want to be misunderstood. I am not saying that the irrational has no place in religion. But it is in our personal relationships and our particularity that it has its place. It is in the way we relate with the world and have dealings with it. But I would follow innumerable thinkers in noting that, to understand the divine, to attain all its qualities, one must attempt to abandon human limitations--one must liberate oneself from human assumptions and prejudices. So it is that the great contemplatives of India have ever sought to look behind Maya, the world of merely human perception, action, and emotion. But for everyday religion, for living religion, the irrational is indispensable. Without it, I don't know if any social projects would succeed.

I also want to praise modern Paganism for a recognition that few (if any!) of the ancient Paganisms seem to have made in rejecting the total centrality of man in the world. The recognition of the immanent divine in the natural world, in the complex interrelation between plants, animals, the soil, bacteria, etc., in the great web of a living ecosystem, utterly explodes the hubris of both ancient and modern society. We are not simply a halfway point between the lower animals and the gods above; we are on an even footing in fundamental ways with the rest of life, and the highest attainments are to be found at least in some significant part in how we harmonize and reconcile ourselves with the rest of the world, as a peer and not as a dominator and exploiter.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Perils of a Single Vision

Monolithic, Up To a Point

One of the elements of the Aristotelian tradition is the view that the ideal-typical human is of a singular type. There is one best way to be, one way to be perfectly virtuous. This coheres well with the view that there is one best way for the State to be, and finally, on Aristotle's view, a single Unmoved Mover whose fundamental unity is the telos--end or function--toward which all things aim. The world, for Aristotle, is a cosmos, an ordered unity. And so it is that Aristotle, like Plato, believed that there is one kind of best man, the man that has all the virtues. And importantly, the virtues will never come into conflict with each other. Confusion about what to do is confusion about what the good is, and it can be remedied with the application of clear thinking and philosophizing.

This view of ethics is more than a little optimistic. For MacIntyre, the tradition more or less takes the place of the cosmos and the Aristotelian biology. Telos is provided by common agreements about what constitute the good for man. And it is never entirely self-consistent; as I noted in my last post, the struggle to clarify and understand the good is an integral part of the tradition.

Nonetheless, even for MacIntyre, differences about what constitutes the good--and thus what constitute the virtues--seem to be framed in terms of conflict. One might suppose, from his scanty words on the topic, that whichever conflict is present at the moment is not irresolvable, for the conflict presupposes certain broad agreements, and the terms used by the various sides are commensurable. Though resolving this conflict will lead to another, it can be resolved. And it remains the case that all interlocutors within the tradition agree that there is some best way to display the virtues in a particular time and place, even if they cannot agree what that way might be.

That MacIntyre would seem to take this view is unsurprising. Much of After Virtue is dedicated to the task of showing that the abandonment of the Aristotelian tradition by society as a whole underlies the fractured and irresolvable nature of modern ethical conflicts. For instance, in the middle of his discussion of Sophocles, MacIntyre writes:

There is a sharply contrasting modern tradition which holds that the variety and heterogeneity of human goods is such that their pursuit cannot be reconciled in any single moral order and that consequently any social order which either attempts such a reconciliation or which enforces the hegemony of one set of goods over all other is bound to turn into a straightjacket and very probably a totalitarian straightjacket for the human condition... I take it that this view entails a heterogeneity of the virtues as well of goods in general and that choice between rival claims in respect of the virtues has the same central place in the moral life for such theorists that choice between goods in general does. And where judgments express choices of this kind, we cannot characterize them as either true or false. (AV 143)
This way of characterizing the idea is typical within After Virtue. While MacIntyre does not say outright or explicitly that he believes a tradition is to be characterized as the sort of unity I outline above, he certainly implies it. I wish I knew if he wrote more clearly on the topic elsewhere; I can only assume, since he has characterized himself elsewhere as having an Augustinian Thomist viewpoint on moral theory, that my interpretation is more or less correct.

But even within After Virtue, there are indications that this understanding is not the only position that the savvy virtue theorist might be able to support.

Pleasures, not Pleasure; Goods, not the Good

MacIntyre at one point presents a blistering critique of utilitarianism. He attempts--and, I think, succeeds--to show that it is not possible to simply add up the various pleasures and subtract the various pains to determine an action that maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain. How does one compare, he asks, the pleasure of drinking coffee on a bright sunny morning with the pleasure of swimming in the ocean? As he points out, there is not merely quantitative but qualitative differences between various pleasures. They are incommensurable.

Likewise, the goods internal to the various practices can be incommensurable. The goods internal to playing chess are not the goods internal to playing basketball--though there may be commonalities and similarities. The goods internal to practices--and thus what might be considered virtues specific to those practices--might even come into conflict.

MacIntyre seems to view the tradition as unifying the virtues, reconciling all those characteristics that might be considered virtues under a single notion of the Good--or at least, the notion that there might be a single Good. But why must there be a single Good that everyone strives toward? Why must there be only one way to be virtuous?

I believe that pagan traditions both ancient and contemporary present a potential rejoinder to MacIntyre's view of a monolithic--and not irrelevantly, monotheistic--tradition. The very notion of polytheism seems to present a contrary view of tradition. Worshiping shining Apollo is not the same as worshiping the Great Mother--but why should they be? Polytheistic traditions seem to present a way to reconcile the various ways of being virtuous without reducing them to each other.

Exactly how this might work out within a contemporary paganism deserves to be worked out more carefully, but the necessary groundwork has not yet been worked out. There is at least one more topic that I will have to address--in my next post.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

MacIntyre and Virtue Ethics

I've finally finished something I have been meaning to get around to for months. A night or two ago, I finished reading Alasdair MacIntyre's important book After Virtue. Within, MacIntyre sets out to vindicate a broadly Aristotelian tradition within ethics. Though he comes from a Catholic perspective, I think his perspective on ethics might not be unprofitable to Pagans.

In this post, I'm going to sketch out and more or less regurgitate what it is that MacIntyre means. I'll spend the next couple of posts analyzing what I see as strengths and weaknesses within the account of After Virtue, as well as laying out how I think his ideas might and might not apply to modern Pagans and Paganism.

Aristotelian ethics is the paradigmatic example of virtue ethics. Unlike popular modern ethical theories like utilitarianism, virtue ethics is not concerned primarily with particular actions, but with becoming the right kind of person--the kind of person who possesses the virtues. Not all systems of virtue ethics are Aristotelian, but the majority owe at least some great debt to the Philosopher. Though virtue ethical systems--at least, systems consciously conceived as virtue ethical--languished for most of the modern period, there has been a resurgence of interest in virtue ethics beginning in the late 1950's.

MacIntyre's notion of an Aristotelian ethic is fairly broad. He does not mean that such a system must be a commentary on Aristotle or a straightforward description of how to apply the Nicomachean Ethics. Rather, he means to indicate that there has been an ethical tradition beginning with Aristotle extending up through the medieval world that shares some basic characteristics established by its founder.

There are some serious theoretical considerations that must be dealt with before any attempt like MacIntyre's can get off the ground. The first is that Aristotelian ethics--indeed, all ethics, as MacIntyre argues, and I can't help agreeing--are dependent in large part for their character on the kind of social system in which they are embedded and find their expression. If we are to take this seriously, then it means that we cannot simply take a list of virtues from Aristotle and apply them to our world as Aristotle meant them to be applied to his own world. Furthermore, Aristotle's virtues are rendered sensible by a particular cosmology and a certain view of a teleological biology. No person raised in the modern world could hold to an Aristotelian cosmology or biology and remain intellectually honest.

But these concerns raise the larger question of how to identify virtues in the first place. What distinguishes a virtue from other character traits? Are they merely character traits thought to be desirable in a particular time and place? Could ruthlessness or greediness in business ventures ever be virtues, or are they always vices? MacIntyre merely sketches out the answers by identifying three traits he believes to be essential to a virtue:

Practice: For MacIntyre, virtues are intimately related to what he calls "practices." MacIntyre's definition of a "practice" is long and complex: "By a 'practice' I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established coopreative human activity though which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended." (AV 187)

That is to say, a practice is a complex sort of cooperative activity that has "internal goods"--that is, there is something about it that makes it worthy of pursuing in itself--and puts into practice and extends wider ideas about excellence and goods. Chess is a practice. Checkers is not. A virtue, for MacIntyre, is a personal quality which enables one to attain those goods, and without which one cannot attain them.

A moment's consideration will reveal that the classical virtues become prerequisites for most practices. Justice, for instance, the virtue of rendering to each his due, of not cheating, is quite obviously necessary. A chess player will not attain the internal goods of chess if he constantly cheats in order to win; he will only attain external goods like praise for his victory.

Unity in Narrative: MacIntyre argues that the unity of one's life--the identification of one's present self with one's past and future selves--is not to be found in logical strict identity, but the unity of a character in a narrative. He argues that narrative is not something imposed upon human events by storytellers after the fact, but an integral part of human life as it is actually lived.

As a result, virtues cannot be seen merely as character qualities which allow for the attainment of the goods arising from practices, but as qualities which make a life seen as a whole, in the sweep of its narrative arc, wholesome or defective. The virtue of justice is not exhibited merely in fairly dealing with others within a practice or profession, but in all one's dealings. And what constitutes fair dealings depends on the intersections of the various narratives involved in those dealings, and which narratives one is attempting to play out. Any action one takes is not to be taken as the atomic unit of ethics, but only becomes intelligible--and thus ethically significant--within a broader narrative context.

Tradition: No life is lived alone. Our own narrative context is embedded within a much broader narrative, one that began long before our own births. This larger narrative sweep, with its inherited notions of various goods, and various notions of how to achieve them, MacIntyre calls a tradition. He locates himself within a broadly Aristotelian tradition, running from Aristotle himself through the Middle Ages up to such figures as Jane Austen. No tradition, he notes, is entirely monolithic, and indeed the conflicts and struggles within the tradition to define itself is an integral part of every tradition; without such struggle, there could be no life, no narrative. These traditions provide us with the apparatus we need to live a good life--though what that is can only be found within the tradition itself.

To qualify as a virtue, a personal quality or characteristic must pass each of these three steps: it must be necessary to achieve the inner goods of a practice or practices, it must be locatable within the narrative unity of individual lives, and it must have a place within the larger tradition.

I will deal with some of these ideas in my next few posts.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Challenge of Piety (Filial Piety part 2)

I was somehow unaware when I started on this topic that June has been dubbed International Pagan Values Blogging Month. It's synchronicity, I suppose, that I started on the topic of a particular virtue just as a huge chunk of the Pagan blogosphere takes up the topic.

In my last post on filial piety, I briefly outlined a couple good reasons to think that 1) filial piety was important in the ancient world, 2) we have reasons to keep it in mind in the modern world, and 3) it has theological implications. Each of these topics deserves much more attention than I gave them--especially the presence of something identifiable as filial piety in the West--but I'm going to be moving on just the same.

Before I go on, I should probably state from the outset that one problem I do not wish to undertake is the problem of parental abuse or gross misconduct. I lack both the wisdom and the experience to say anything on the topic that would not run grossly astray or cause offense.

The very idea of this kind of piety--and that it might be a kind of piety--might seem offensive to many Pagans. While I suspect that the idea will be much less problematic to reconstructionists and recon-oriented Pagans, I do not expect a great deal of agreement--at least initially--from those oriented toward more contemporary religious expressions. Though I could be wrong.

In fact, the very word piety is almost unused outside recon circles. It is not difficult to understand why. With the last fifteen hundred years of Christian dominance, the word "piety" has taken on connotations that are not at all pleasant. The worst members of that religion have been said to "piously" defend the grossest violations of human life--both of the body and the mind. I would ask any readers who find the term "piety" difficult to set these connotations aside and remember that, just as in Homer Achilles was known for his might in battle and Odysseus for his wiles, Virgil writes about the unflagging pietas of Aeneas. Piety, when I use it, is not the mendacious cover for wrongful thoughts and deeds that it has been used for, but the virtue of properly discharging one's duties especially to the gods, but also to other entities and institutions of great importance. (Patriotism could be construed to be a kind of piety, for instance.)

There are a number of problems that arise when trying to apply ancient ideals of piety to the modern world. Pagans deal brilliantly with some of them. Others require close thinking through.

As I mentioned last time, I believe the primary motivation behind filial piety is gratitude--showing rightful apprecation for the tremendous benefits we have received from our parents. Pagans have been at the forefront of recognizing our duties to the Mother who bore us all, who continues to feed, clothe, and comfort us--and who daily suffers the depredations of our thoughtless exploitation. The importance of protecting the Earth has not been lost on us. Though it is all too easy to give in to complacency and laziness, we should all continue to seek ways to minimize the damage we do in our daily lives and implement them.

Another problem is more difficult, and it is a question that I deal with frequently. The contemporary Pagan movement tends to be made up of rather independent people. We seek out our own paths, are sometimes reluctant to make commitments, and keep our own counsel--though groupthink can rear its ugly head anywhere, and often does within particular communities. This independence is not a bad thing. It gives Paganism its vibrant diversity and prevents spiritual stagnation.

But independence has its prices. For some of us, it may be more difficult to see the benefits that we gained from where we came from. After all, very few of us were born into Pagan families. We took up our respective Pagan paths for good (hopefully) reasons. This can make it difficult for us to see the ways we may have benefited from how we were brought up. And some of us (alas, myself) may sometimes find it difficult or unpleasant to look on ways that we have depended on or benefited from others in the past.

It can be easy to forget our parents, especially given the mobility of the modern world. We might find ourselves half a continent away. In America, we do indeed have certain days set aside for remembering and honoring our parents--Mother's Day and Father's Day. It is my recommendation that, as people who recognize and honor the immanent divinity within a world birth, death, and rebirth, we remind ourselves of those responsible for our own particular births, and honor the way that the Great Mystery worked to bring about our lives.

Of course, this kind of filial piety is not the same kind that existed in the ancient world. It cannot be; one aspect of filial piety in those times was carrying on the religious traditions of the family. Not a live possibility for most of us, I suspect. But in keeping that ancient aspect in mind, we might be reminded that religion is important. Perhaps it is unwise to step away from the tradition we grew up in without good reasons. At the very least, we should avoid the spiritual consumerism that plagues American culture in general, including Pagan culture. Being Pagan ought not be a facile identification to give our lives a veneer of purpose without any substance or real work underneath. (Which all piety--and not just the filial kind--requires)

Speaking of putting substance to our words, my great aunt is very old, and is not getting on as well as she used to. I have too often been negligent in going to see her these last few months, so I will leave this post at that, and pay a visit.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Nuclear Family, Cosmic Family (Filial Piety part 1)

If there is any idea fundamental to modern Paganism, it is that the ideas, values, and religious expressions of the ancient, pre-Christian world have something valuable to contribute to the present day.

I am not alone in seeing the virtue ethics of Aristotle as a profoundly important contribution to the world. Even if the precise virtues important in Aristotle's day turn out not to be quite as relevant, the framework itself is extremely useful. Today, when a panoply of seductive choices are presented to us, many of them very bad for us, hardly anything could be more important than cultivating a character which tends toward making better choices.

While I cannot speak for anyone else, I believe that pursuing the virtues is an essential part of my religion. How can I adequately honor the gods if I cannot keep my own life on the right path? What is my veneration worth if I show myself unable to choose the good over the bad in the other areas of my life? And furthermore, I believe that as we become more virtuous, we will be more inclined to religious observances. (Which is not, of course, to say that as we become more inclined to religious observance, we become more virtuous. There are countless counter-examples.)

To show what I mean, I would like to use the example of a much under-appreciated virtue in modern life: filial piety.

I realize that the application of the term to the ancient Mediterranean whence so much of Paganism derives is not entirely historically proper. The term "filial piety" entered the English lexicon not from the writings of the Greek philosophers, but from translations of Confucian texts. Nonetheless, I think it is perfectly appropriate. Archaeological and textual evidence shows that it was an essential part of both Roman and Athenian society. Veneration of one's ancestors was an essential part of the household religious ceremonies. One of the great defenses of traditional religion in the ancient world against skepticism (and against Christianity) was that it had been passed down from ancient times by the ancestors. In Latin, the word "maiores"--literally, the greater ones--was a common term for one's ancestors. And the Greek terms for "piety" and "impiety" are from time to time used to refer to proper and improper treatment of one's fathers, as in Plato's Euthyphro.

It would be very easy to disregard filial piety as unimportant for modern life. Many people would laugh at the idea that it should be given greater focus in the modern age, and many others would consider the idea to be dangerously authoritarian, the sort of thing that perpetuated slavery and continues to perpetuate racism. There is some justice to these claims. Whatever a modern filial piety might look like, it cannot look like ancient piety; in today's society, such a thing would be difficult at best, and damaging at worst. And it is indeed important to gain discernment not to perpetuate the harmful attitudes and behaviors of one's parents.

But on the other side of the coin, the lack of filial piety in America is a significant problem. Far too many Americans tuck the elderly away in nursing homes, where they will cease to be an inconvenience (though I understand that in today's work world, the time and money to care for an elderly mother or father is sadly becoming a luxury). And the mother complaining about how her children never even give her a phone call is an image so common as to be a pop culture trope.

I find these trends rather disturbing. There is something deeply ungrateful about such an attitude. Our parents gave us life, if nothing else. I myself have been fortunate enough to have wonderful parents who have bent over backwards to provide for their children and raise them well. (And I'm sure this colors my attitude to the subject; I may not be quite as happy with the idea had I been poorly raised or even abused as a child.)

Gratitude, I think, is the underpinning of filial piety. The gift of life is the greatest gift anyone could give. It is the gift that makes receiving any other gifts possible. Without my parents, I wouldn't be able to enjoy a breezy spring afternoon or pore over an interesting book. Had they not raised me around books and ensured I paid attention to my schoolwork, I might not have graduated with academic distinctions from a good college.

It is the same sort of gratitude that, in the ancient world, motivated sacrifices and festivals in honor of the gods. The gods were honored as responsible for the continued health and prosperity of the people, as founders or patrons of the city, and for some families in Rome as actual ancestors themselves. In the Greek myths, later appropriated by the Romans, the gods created humans. Plato drew upon this widespread belief in the creation myth of the Timaeus.

To honor the gods, then, is in a sense to take one's rightful place as the descendant of the gods in the cosmic family, which includes not just the gods but worthy ancestors. While this is not the only way to approach religion, I think it's a good and useful one.

In my next post, I'll take a closer look at the questions that arise in applying the concept of filial piety to life in the modern world, especially for Pagans.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Passing the Outsider Test

Atheist and skeptic John W. Loftus spends much of his time "debunking" Christianity. As I've stated elsewhere, I think it's important to grapple with the claims of atheism. Intellectual honesty demands it.

One of the tactics Loftus uses most often is exhorting Christians to take the Outsider Test for Faith. While not a particularly new argument, it is rarely given the kind of primacy Loftus not unjustly gives it. A summation of this argument can be found on the Internet Infidels:

... I propose "the outsider test for faith": Test your religious beliefs as if you were an outsider, subjecting them to the same sort of skeptical evaluation that you would give to the beliefs of the followers of other religions. If you don't approach your own religious beliefs with the same dose of skepticism that you apply to others' religious beliefs, then you are using a double standard. The outsider test is no different than the strategy of the prince from the Cinderella story, who might question 45,000 girls, all of whom claim to be the girl who lost the glass slipper at the ball last night, to determine which one (if any) of them really is that girl.
As he unpacks the argument, it becomes clear that his goal is twofold. First, it is to convince Christians that they ought to be substantially more self-critical about how they examine religious truth claims. In this sense, it is less an argument and more of an and second, to defuse arguments like those of Alvin Plantinga, who state that one can be justified in believing in Christianity even without evidence. On Loftus' analysis, the a priori assumption of the truth of Christianity's claims is a kind of special pleading.

So what does this have to do with Paganism? If my previous analysis is correct, not much. If the question has to do with truth claims, then Paganism--at least in general--is exempt, as it is not a matter of truth claims, but of approaching the Numinous or the Divine.

But nonetheless, Pagans and polytheists themselves (myself included) often do make truth claims about the gods, though Paganism does not demand this, most common among them that they are immaterial or supernatural beings of immense power and beneficence, and they can be known (in some sense) by humans.

While I think that Loftus is quite right in claiming that Christianity tends to fail the Outsider Test, I also think that Paganism, in its many forms, tends to pass it on both counts.

There is certainly a dearth of critical thinking in the Pagan community. When one reads the writings of many Pagan authors, one often cannot help but get the impression that the author perhaps has not thought things through very carefully. But this is not an irreversible problem. Real critical thinking is emerging even now, as Pagans and polytheists begin to tackle real problems in ethics and theology.

The second fork of the Outsider Test is the one with real teeth. Do Pagans, polytheists, reconstructionists, etc., commit special pleading? While I'm sure that many do, I can't think that it's a problem as systematically endemic as it is in the dogmatic monotheisms.

And I do think it's a problem for monotheists. The bloviations of so-called "evidentialist" apologists aside, the evidence for the truth of Christianity is no greater or less than that for the truth of Islam or Judaism. And these options are mutually exclusive. If the New Testament instructs correctly, then Mohammad was at best deluded, and Moses' understanding was incomplete. While one might prefer one of these three for philosophical, aesthetic, moral, or experiential reasons, historical evidence cannot decide between them. But the claim that, because one felt inspired and uplifted at a Christian religious service, Muslims run the risk of damnation, is I think indefensible. Muslims, too, feel uplifted at their religious rites and gatherings. Likewise, philosophical defenses of any particular religion are, by their very nature, complex and controversial things, and in general come to conclusions that can be reasonably disputed.

But I don't think it's a problem for Pagans in general. I, for one, have no problem with the idea that religious revelation is temporally and culturally bound--packaged and understood in terms understandable and relevant to its recipients. I have no problem believing that revelation is constant and ongoing. I have no problem believing in Amaterasu or Vishnu--though I may suspect that followers of Shinto and Hinduism are wrong about some things. But then, I suspect that I'll have to make some corrections in the future myself.

Does Paganism pass the outsider test? As I understand it, it does. And my own approach certainly does.