Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Theological Trade-Offs

Just a note to myself for further development.

When it comes to the analysis of religious claims there is a trade-off between content and credibility, universality and practical import. Theological stakeholders want to make the case that religious claims are believable--in particular, that they can and should be believed with a high degree of conviction. They also have a vested interest in establishing that these claims are of universal interest and that they are of serious practical import for the lives of individuals and the social good.

If however they are interpreted in the traditional way, as metaphysical claims about the supernatural, then they do not have these desiderata. All metaphysical claims are controversial: there are good arguments for for a variety of different positions and smart people on every which side. That's philosophy--like history, argument without end. So no one with any sense will hold any metaphysical belief with any high degree of conviction. If religious claims are to be held with the highest degree of conviction then they can't be interpreted as metaphysical claims.

So the strategy of revisionary theologians in the teeth of legitimate skepticism is to reinterpret religious claims so that they can be more readily believed. So, as we were told 40 years ago, "I believe in God" really means "I am committed to an agapistic way of life" or "I affirm Being as gracious." I have no idea what the latter affirmation comes to, but it doesn't seem to commit one to anything controversial--or in fact to anything at all. As for commitment to an agapistic way of life, I suppose this means that I believe that we should try to be nice. I guess I can buy that. In either case, "I believe in God" has been detoxified in the interests of greater credibility, so that religious belief can be taken on by more people and with greater conviction. Indeed, I believe with the highest degree of conviction that people should be nice rather than nasty.

Theological revisionists are also concerned to make the case that religion is of universal interest and great significance. Neither of these things are true of metaphysics--which is of no interest to most people and has no practical import whatsoever. Strange as it seems to me, metaphysics, my specialty area, just doesn't interest most people. It doesn't even interest most philosophers. And one reason why it doesn't interest most people is that it is completely inconsequential. In particular, it doesn't deliver the goods many people expect out of philosophy: answers to questions about how to live the Good Life, profound truths about the human condition, edification and a variety of other things that I find boring or unintelligible but which seem to interest a great many people.

So, in the interests of making religion universally interesting and significant, theological revisionists reinterpret it as some hybrid of ethics, psychology and existentialist "philosophy."

But why bother--unless of course you're a priest whose livelihood and self-importance depends on it. Why not just admit: religious belief is very, very controversial. No reasonable person can believe in God with a high degree of conviction--the best we can do is guess and hope. And why not admit that religion, like metaphysics, is just not of universal, or even wide, interest. It's a special taste, like the taste I have for metaphysics. Some people, like me, just plain enjoy religion: we have fun with the metaphysics (in my case identity puzzles concerning the Trinity doctrine especially), enjoy liturgy and religious art, and are interested in mysticism. Most people however find all this a bore and, in the absence of social pressure, cannot be expected to bother with religion. So let's just say that there's no reason to imagine that everyone should be religious any more than there is to think that everyone should collect stamps or enjoy recreational math puzzles or knit.

This of course suggests that religion is an inconsequential hobby, that people can get on perfectly well without it. And that I believe is the case.

So let's admit it. Instead of reinterpreting religion so that the salt loses its savor, revising and minimizing so that it's no more than a self-help program or do-good project, let us admit that religion, that is metaphysics/liturgy/mysticism is a specialty item that only interests a minority of people and that religious claims, like all metaphysical propositions, are both controversial and inconsequential.

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