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Posts Tagged ‘theology

“Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens”*…

 

idea_sized-raja_ravi_varma_-_sankaracharya

You might think that digital technologies, often considered a product of ‘the West,’ would hasten the divergence of Eastern and Western philosophies. But within the study of Vedanta, an ancient Indian school of thought, I see the opposite effect at work. Thanks to our growing familiarity with computing, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI), ‘modern’ societies are now better placed than ever to grasp the insights of this tradition.

Vedanta summarises the metaphysics of the Upanishads, a clutch of Sanskrit religious texts, likely written between 800 and 500 BCE. They form the basis for the many philosophical, spiritual and mystical traditions of the Indian sub-continent. The Upanishads were also a source of inspiration for some modern scientists, including Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg, as they struggled to comprehend quantum physics of the 20th century…

Philosopher and Vaishnava Hindu theologian Akhandadhi Das. a member of the Science and Philosophy Initiative, explains how “Modern technology is akin to the metaphysics of Vedanta.”

* Jimi Hendrix

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As we muse on metaphor, we might send carefully-constructed birthday greetings to Donald Knuth; he was born on this date in 1938. A computer scientist, mathematician, and professor emeritus at Stanford, he made numerous substantive contributions to computer science, both practically and theoretically.  But he is probably best known as the author of the multi-volume work The Art of Computer Programming, which he began in 1962, began to publish in 1968… and has (via multiple revisions/additions) still not finished.  Called by the New York Times “the profession’s defining treatise,” it won Knuth the Turing Award in 1974.

That said, it’s surely worth noting Knuth’s other major contribution to our modern zeitgeist: his “Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures,” published in Issue 33 of Mad Magazine when he was 19 years old.

192px-knuthatopencontentalliance source

 

Written by LW

January 10, 2019 at 1:01 am

“There’s no such thing as an original sin”*…

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Paradise, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Still…

… The philosophical ideas behind the concept of Original Sin were explored in detail by St Augustine, developing the seminal thinking of St Paul, who saw Original Sin as a concept of radical equality; that no one speaks from a position of strength. All are flawed and when mankind seeks perfection, it is setting itself up, literally, for a fall.

Though fundamental to Christianity, the concept survived the Enlightenment, despite Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s argument that man was born innocent. The rationalist philosopher Immanuel Kant, for example, wrote of the ‘crooked timber of humanity’. Two centuries later, Sigmund Freud offered a secular version of Original Sin, tracing the  dark forces that lurk within the subconscious. Original Sin is a tenacious idea…

The fall of humankind and the concept of Original Sin: “Adam and Eve.”

Original thought is like original sin: both happened before you were born to people you could not have possibly met  – Fran Lebowitz

* Elvis Costello, “I’m Not Angry”

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As we sort out sin, we might recall that today is The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a solemn celebration in some form in most Christian faiths, of belief in the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.

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Mary’s holy and immaculate conception, by Francisco Rizi

 

Written by LW

December 8, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Religion is like a pair of shoes… Find one that fits for you, but don’t make me wear your shoes”*…

 

Procession of the Catholic Holy League on the Place de Grève, Paris, 1590-3 (oil on canvas). Such displays of intolerance became increasingly rare with the advent of the modern European state. [source]

Religious freedom has become an emblematic value in the West. Embedded in constitutions and championed by politicians and thinkers across the political spectrum, it is to many an absolute value, something beyond question. Yet how it emerged, and why, remains widely misunderstood.

According to the conventional narrative, freedom of religion arose in the West in the wake of devastating wars fought over religion. It was catalysed by powerful arguments from thinkers such as John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, Pierre Bayle and Voltaire. These philosophers and political theorists responded to the brutality of the religious wars with support for radical notions of toleration and religious freedom. Their liberal ideals then became embedded in the political institutions of the West, following the American and French Revolutions.

In broad outline, such is the account accepted by most political philosophers and social scientists. But the evidence does not support this emphasis on the power of ideas in shaping the rise of religious freedom, and underestimates the decisive role played by institutions…

Ideas were not enough to realise religious freedom. Crucially, it took political and institutional changes – specifically, the growth and strengthening of the ability of states to create and enforce rules – to make religious freedom in the West possible and appealing. It wasn’t the ideas of Bayle or Spinoza or Locke driving the rise of state power, it was the need to raise resources for governing and war. For the rising fiscal-military state, religious uniformity and persecution simply became too expensive and inefficient…

The first change was the transformation in the scale of European states. In the late Middle Ages, medieval rulers began to invest in building administrative capacity and to raise taxes more regularly. The most dramatic developments, however, occurred after 1500, as a result of developments in military technology that historians label the Military Revolution. This continent-wide arms race, brought on by the development of gunpowder, forced rulers to invest in greater fiscal and administrative capacity.

To pay for larger armies, new taxes had to be raised and a permanent system of government borrowing established. Moreover, there was a shift away from ad hoc, feudal and decentralised tax systems, and a move towards standardisation and centralisation. Rather than relying upon tax farmers, the church or merchant companies to raise taxes on their behalf, rulers invested in vast bureaucracies to do it directly. It was the only way they could pay for their ever-growing armies…

Economic changes complemented the rise of religious freedom, most notably the onset of modern economic growth. As in the Jewish example, greater freedom allowed religious minorities to flourish. French Protestants expelled by Louis XIV brought with them advanced skills and industrial expertise to England, the Netherlands and Prussia. In Industrial Revolution Britain, Quakers and other religious dissenters were overrepresented among businessmen, entrepreneurs and innovators.

The indirect consequences of moving from identity rules to general rules were even more important. Identity rules had limited the scope of trade and the division of labour. As these identity rules were removed – as guilds lost authority, and cities and lords lost their ability to charge internal tariffs – trade and commerce expanded.

The growth of trade, in turn, reinforced the trend towards liberalism. Trade, as Enlightenment thinkers such as Montesquieu argued, encouraged individuals to see the world through the positive-sum lens of mutual beneficial interaction rather than through the zero-sum lens of conflict. Religious freedom began to seem less like a recipe for social disorder and civil war, and more like a win-win proposition…

The history of how religious freedom came to be is a reminder that commitment to liberal values alone is not enough for liberalism to flourish. It requires a suitable political and economic foundation. As the experience of 1930s Germany suggests, religious persecution can quickly re-emerge. We cannot rely on liberal ideas alone to be effective. If we value religious freedom, and other achievements of liberalism, we must look to the vitality of their institutional foundations.

This fascinating essay in its entirety at: “Ideas were not enough.” (Note earlier examples of of religious freedom as both a tool and a result of statecraft, e.g., Genghis Khan’s building of the Mongol Empire.)

* George Carlin

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As we celebrate tolerance, we might send free-thinking birthday greetings to Tommaso Campanella; he was born on this date in 1568.  A Dominican friar, philosopher, theologian, astrologer, and poet, he was an early empiricist and a vocal critic of the Aristotelian orthodoxy (indeed, he wrote and published a defense of Galileo during the great astronomer’s ecclesiastical trial).  For his heterodoxy, he was denounced to the Inquisition and imprisoned.

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Written by LW

September 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

“God has no religion”*…

 

Your correspondent is off for his annual sojourn in the land of dunes and deep-fried food (this year, with a glimpse of the eclipse); regular service should resume on or around August 28.  Meantime…

Not since the angel Gabriel visited Muhammad in a cave around 610 AD, informing him that he is God’s prophet, has there been a new globally influential religion with hundreds of millions of followers. Though the world’s religions are very dynamic, and major faiths continue to shift and evolve in ritual and doctrine, the world today is dominated by the same four faiths that dominated the globe a millennium ago: Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. According to a 2012 Pew study, 92 percent of religiously affiliated people around the globe belong to one of these four faiths.

While some relatively recent faiths have succeeded in recruiting millions of followers—such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormonism), Scientology, and Baha’i—their numbers of adherents are dwarfed in scale by these earlier four. The Baha’i, for example, are a relatively numerous recent faith with an estimated 7 million adherents. That sounds impressive, but it still means that just 0.1 percent of humanity has joined Baha’ism—and the faith has been around for 150 years (since 1863).

Faiths, of course, don’t have to be numerous to deliver spiritual sustenance to their followers, or even to be influential, as Judaism (a religion of 14 million) shows. Still, the small scale of new faiths over the past 1,500 years since Islam raises a question: Why, if creating new faiths is an inextinguishable feature of the human condition, have new religions had such limited recent success?…

The story of one imprisoned prophet illustrates the difficulties of getting a “baby religion” off the ground: “Why Are There No New Major Religions?

C.F. also: Britannica‘s piece on New Religious Movements.

* Mahatma Gandhi

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As we direct our prayers, we might spare a thought for Genghis Khan, nee Temüjin; he died on this date in 1227.  The founder of founder of the Mongol Empire (which became the largest contiguous empire in history after his death), he launched the Mongol invasions that conquered most of Eurasia, bringing the Silk Road under cohesive political control.  Though renown for the brutality of his campaigns, he practiced meritocracy– and religious freedom.

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Written by LW

August 18, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Acedia est tristitia vocem amputans”*…

 

The Seven Deadly Sins may seem familiar and, with that familiarity, less a matter of life and death and damnation. Sure, greed and envy aren’t great, but who hasn’t overindulged in this or that without grievous consequences? But when the list of Christian cardinal sins was first created, they were a big deal: eight of the biggest threats to a devout life as a monk in the desert. Eight? One among those that isn’t included among the sins today, called acedia, was perhaps the greatest threat of all to those monks.

Acedia comes from Greek, and means “a lack of care.” It sounds a little like today’s sloth, and acedia is indeed considered a precursor to today’s sin of laziness. To Christian monks in the fourth century, however, acedia was more than just laziness or apathy. It was more like dejection that made it difficult to be spiritual, avoiding ascetic practices, boredom that led to falling asleep while reading, and frustration with life in a monastery—but the meaning is nuanced and has changed over time. The evolution of the word’s use shows just how much the concept of cardinal sin has shifted through the centuries…

Don’t worry, be happy at: “Before Sloth Meant Laziness, It Was the Spiritual Sin of Acedia.”

* “Acedia is a sadness that silences the voice”  a saying of Gregory of Nyssa, quoted by Aquinas

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As we work on our attitudes, we might send provocative birthday greetings to Jean Baudrillard; he was born on this date in 1929.  A sociologist, philosopher, cultural theorist, political commentator, and photographer, he is best known for his analyses of media, contemporary culture, and technological communication, as well as his formulation of concepts such as simulation and hyperreality.  He wrote widely– touching subjects including consumerism, gender relations, economics, social history, art, Western foreign policy, and popular culture– and is perhaps best known for Simulacra and Simulation (1981).  Part of a generation of French thinkers that included Gilles Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan, with all of whom Baudrillard shared an interest in semiotics, he is often seen as a central to the post-structuralist philosophical school.

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“Life could be horrible in the wrong trouser of time”*…

 

The challenge that the multiverse poses for the idea of an all-good, all-powerful God is often focused on fine-tuning. If there are infinite universes, then we don’t need a fine tuner to explain why the conditions of our universe are perfect for life, so the argument goes. But some kinds of multiverse pose a more direct threat. The many-worlds interpretation of quantum physicist Hugh Everett III and the modal realism of cosmologist Max Tegmark include worlds that no sane, good God would ever tolerate. The theories are very different, but each predicts the existence of worlds filled with horror and misery.

Of course, plenty of thoughtful people argue that the Earth alone contains too much pain and suffering to be the work of a good God. But many others have disagreed, finding fairly nuanced things to say about what might justify God’s creation of a world that includes a planet like ours. For example, there is no forgiveness, courage, or fortitude without at least the perception of wrongs, danger, and difficulty. The most impressive human moral achievements seem to require such obstacles.

Still, many horrifying things happen with nothing seemingly gained from them. And, Everett’s many-worlds and Tegmark’s modal realism both seem to imply that there are huge numbers of horrific universes inhabited solely by such unfortunates. Someone like myself, who remains attracted to the traditional picture of God as loving creator, is bound to find such consequences shocking…

How scientific cosmology puts a new twist on the problem of evil.  A theist wrestles with the implications of the “Many World” hypothesis: “Evil Triumphs in These Multiverses, and God Is Powerless.”

* Terry Pratchett

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As we calculate our blessings, we might send carefully-addressed birthday greetings to Infante Henrique of Portugal, Duke of Viseu, better known as Prince Henry the Navigator; he was born on this date in 1394.  A central figure in 15th-century Portuguese politics and in the earliest days of the Portuguese Empire, Henry encouraged Portugal’s expeditions (and colonial conquests) in Africa– and thus is regarded as the main initiator (as a product both of Portugal’s expeditions and of those that they encouraged by example) of what became known as the Age of Discoveries.

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“I think it would be a good idea”*…

 

Culture – like religion and nation and race – provides a source of identity for contemporary human beings. And, like all three, it can become a form of confinement, conceptual mistakes underwriting moral ones. Yet all of them can also give contours to our freedom. Social identities connect the small scale where we live our lives alongside our kith and kin with larger movements, causes, and concerns. They can make a wider world intelligible, alive, and urgent. They can expand our horizons to communities larger than the ones we personally inhabit. But our lives must make sense, too, at the largest of all scales. We live in an era in which our actions, in the realm of ideology as in the realm of technology, increasingly have global effects. When it comes to the compass of our concern and compassion, humanity as a whole is not too broad a horizon.

We live with seven billion fellow humans on a small, warming planet. The cosmopolitan impulse that draws on our common humanity is no longer a luxury; it has become a necessity…

From “There is no such thing as western civilisation,” an excerpt from the edited version of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s BBC Reith lecture, “Culture,” the fourth part of the series Mistaken Identities.

* Mahatma Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilization (widely quoted, but possibly apocryphal)

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As we take E.M. Forster’s advice (Howard’s End), “only connect, we might send recently-reformed birthday wishes to Augustine of Hippo, AKA St. Augustine; he was born on this date in 354. Augustine famously came to his faith later in life, after a youth filled with worldly experience… including a long engagement (to an underaged girl– to wit the length), for which he left the concubine who was the love of his life, “The One”– and which he broke off just before the wedding.

After his embrace of the faith, Augustine became a theologian and philosopher whose writings (e.g., The City of God and Confessions) were hugely influential in the development of… western civilization.

Imagined portrait by Philippe de Champaigne (17th cen.)

 source

Written by LW

November 13, 2016 at 1:01 am

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