Friday, April 01, 2011

The "Double-Truth: Universe Part 2

This post is a follow-on from my earlier post, The Double Truth Universe Part 1. Both posts are extracts from my 2009 publication The Twilight of Liberalism in which I discuss the rise of modern secularism.

Gotthold Lessing (1729-81) was an important figure in the German Enlightenment. Lessing is probably best remembered for his play, Nathan the Wise, and the message of religious tolerance that it preaches. However, beneath the message of tolerance is another more subtle message which relates to the concept of truth and faith. To fully appreciate the significance of this, however, some background information about Lessing will be helpful.

In 1774, Lessing published the first of six extracts, collectively referred to as Fragments of an Anonymous Author. These extracts were taken from an enormous manuscript written by the lately deceased Hermann Reimarus (1694-1768). Reimarus had not published this work while alive because of the hugely controversial nature of its content. The book, an outright attack on the Bible, suggests that Jesus was an imprudent Jewish agitator whose messianic dreams came to nothing, that the disciples faked the resurrection for political purposes, and so on. Not surprisingly, when Lessing began publishing sections of Reimarus’ work, the Lutheran clergy were scandalized. A fierce debate ensued between Lessing and a few Lutheran pastors, in particularly the pastor Johann Goeze. In the course of 1778, Lessing wrote eleven diatribes to attack Goeze’s views. While Goeze upheld the inerrancy of Scripture, which Reimarus had attacked, Lessing argued for a separation of the spirit of the Bible from the letter of the Bible. In this way, Lessing hoped to clear away the mud in order that the “true Christianity” of the Bible might flourish, disengaged from the inessential and damaging doctrines also found in Scripture.

For all Lessing’s high-minded ambitions, the debate with Goeze turned into little more than a mud-slinging match, with the famous champion of tolerance accusing Goeze of everything from hypocrisy to barbarity. Indignant, Goeze approached the Duke of Brunswick who ordered that all Lessing’s future works be submitted to the censor. The result of this restriction was that Lessing simply began to promote his ideas through more subtle, innocuous means. Thus it was that in 1779 Lessing published his most famous work, Nathan the Wise.

Because the play takes place in Jerusalem at the time of the Crusades, Lessing is able to have interaction between all three of the main religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The portion of the play that is most famous, as well as most significant, is a parable that the wise Nathan relates to the Sultan. The Islamic Sultan had asked the Jewish Nathan to tell him which religion was the true one. Suspicious of the Sultan’s motives, Nathan answers with the parable of the three rings.

In this parable, there was once a rich man who possessed a magic ring. This ring had secret power which caused the owner of the ring to gain favor in the sight of God and humankind. Now the owner of this ring took precautions to keep it in his family, ensuring that it was faithfully passed on from generation to generation, from son to son. Finally, the ring reached a man who had three sons, whom he loved alike. As the father drew near death, he was in a quandary as to which son he should leave the ring, since he had promised it, in turn, to each.

As a solution, the father secretly contracted a craftsman to make two identical replicas of the ring. Unable to distinguish the original from the replica, the father left each son with one of the three rings. Of course, when the father died disputes arose immediately among the sons, each of whom believed he possessed the genuine item.

At this point, Nathan pauses to say that just as it was impossible to determine which was the correct ring, so  we cannot trust ourselves to distinguish the grounds on which the different religions rest.

Each of the three sons believes his ring to be the original one, since each had received his directly from the hand of his father. In the end the brothers take their problem before a judge. The judge enjoins the brothers that what is more important than knowing the truth about their rings, is the motivation and inspiration each will gain through believing that his ring is the genuine article.

Thus ends the parable that Nathan used to answer the Sultan’s question, namely, which religion is the correct one. The important thing is not what is true but what you believe to be true. There are many things we could say in response to this tale. We might point out that in actual fact the religions of Islam and Judaism are quite distinguishable from Christianity. Or we might say that since one of the rings actually was the correct ring, it follows that two of the brothers would have spent their life believing a false proposition. However, such observations miss the whole point Lessing was trying to convey. His point is that truth doesn’t matter. There is something far more important than questions of truth and falsehood in the narrow, letter-of-the-law sense. Stop trying to defend what you believe is true, he seems to be saying to us, and instead concentrate on letting your belief motivate and inspire you. There is no need for factual coherence to be antecedent to religious belief as it must be with scientific truth; rather, the nature of religious belief is such that it can exist on its own, without needing to appeal to historic grounds. In fact, Lessing saw the very attempt of Christians to defend the historical veracity of their faith as intolerant since it failed to recognize that all the major religions, if rightly understood, were equally valuable routes to God.

Lessing’s parable illustrates the Enlightenment commitment to relegating religious belief to the realm of the subjective, private and unverifiable. This idea began to gradually affect popular thinking from the 18th century forward, even among those who had never heard of Empiricism. This divided epistemology invited people to view religion and worship of God as a personal matter – a solitary experience between the individual and God that had little relevance to the objective world. What you believe is up to you, and whatever you do, don’t let that infringe on public reality. To seek objective verification about a matter of faith was now almost to commit a category mistake, since the “truth” of religion had now become a personal truth discontinuous from the fixity of the external world of science, history and public life. Nancy Pearcey well described this aspect of secularism:

Religion is no longer considered the source of serious truth claims that could potentially conflict with public agendas. The private realm has been reduced to an “innocuous play area,” says Peter Berger, where religion is acceptable for people who need that kind of crutch – but where it won’t upset any important applecarts in the larger world of politics and economics.

In his survey of the Western mind, Tarnis speaks of the “double-truth universe” that followed the advent of secularism:

Thus arose the psychological necessity of a double-truth universe. Reason and faith came to be seen as pertaining to different realms, with Christian philosophers and scientists, and the larger educated Christian public, perceiving no genuine integration between the scientific reality and the religious reality.
The corollary of reducing religion to a personal and private affair, divorced from the concerns of the objective, external world, was that now humans could run the world however they liked without being accountable to the Trinitarian God. As N.T. Wright pointed out in a lecture presented at Asbury Theological Seminary, kicking God upstairs like that always was a way for humans to claim power over the world. Naturally, when humans seek to augment their power base, they will favor political models such as the maternal paradigm discussed in the previous chapter. And there is a certain consistency to that. After all, if ultimate power does not rest with God, then it is hard to argue why omnipotence should not rest with the State. If God is an absentee Father, then there is a power vacuum which Mother State will rush to fill.

Thus emerged the idea of secularism. Originally secularism was not about getting rid of faith so much as simply making sure that it remained in its place (i.e. a personal and private affair). This is where many Christians often misunderstand the real threat that secularism poses. As David Wells puts it,
It is axiomatic that secularism strips life of the divine, but it is important to see that it does so by relocating the divine in that part of life which is private. Viewing the process from one angle, one can quite validly say that secular humanism is irreligious in its effects; from another angle, it is equally valid to say that it allows for a cohabitation with religion under certain circumstances. Those who have become alarmed by its first aspect, attacking “secular humanism” for its irreligion in the public sphere, may sometimes have done us a disservice by failing to acknowledge its other aspect, its effect in the private sphere, its religiousness.

In the 19th century, this approach was taken up and defended by theologians themselves, who supposed they were defending the faith by asserting that its central ideas could be maintained mythically even while they were undermined objectively. For example, in 1835, the great German theologian, David Strauss, wrote in his Life of Jesus:
The supernatural birth of Christ, His miracles, His resurrection and ascension remain eternal truths whatever doubts we may cast on their reality as historical facts. . . . When we have finished critically studying the history of Jesus what remains is to re-establish dogmatically what we have destroyed critically . . . . According to the mythical interpretation I do not see in the evangelical narrative any actual occurrence but yet retain a sense and purpose of the narrative….Despite the negative conclusions of historical research all that the Scripture declares and the church believes of Christ will still subsist as eternal truth, nor is there any need for one iota of it to be renounced.

Nancy Pearcey has observed that Secularism effectively privatized Christianity as “‘sectarian,’ while secular philosophies like materialism and naturalism were put forth as ‘objective’ and ‘neutral,’ and therefore the only perspectives suitable for the public sphere. . . . Faith is often reduced to a separate add-on for personal and private life – on the order of a private indulgence, like a weakness for chocolates – and not an appropriate topic in the public arena.” (Total Truth) This created a hitherto unprecedented gap between the sacred and the secular spheres, with religion having increasingly less relevance to everyday life in the real world. It is unprecedented because, as Irving Kristol noted, “religion that is a merely private affair has been, until our time, unknown in the annals of mankind. . . . Such religion quickly diminishes into an indoor pleasure, a kind of hobby of one or more individuals, like reading a book or watching television.”

Lesslie Newbigin made the same point in his book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society:
The sharp line which modern Western culture has drawn between religious affairs and secular affairs is itself one of the most significant peculiarities of our culture, and would be incomprehensible to the vast majority of people.

We see this sharp line most clearly in political debates over medical ethics. Every time that an issue such as abortion or euthanasia returns to the forefront of public discourse, secularists routinely dismiss the arguments of their religious opponents, not because their arguments have been found wanting on the scales of logic and fact, but because it is assumed that religious arguments, by definition, cannot be weighed on the scales of logic and fact. For example, in 2006, when the issue of euthanasia was hotly debated in England, The Sunday Times published an article by Minette Marrin in which she cast aside all arguments rooted in religious ethics on the erroneous grounds that religious arguments are not falsifiable (because, as everyone knows, they are simply personal convictions like my preference for Jane over Mary). As Marrin wrote,
. . . religion ought to be kept out of political decisions. You cannot argue with religious belief, or with holy writ; scriptures and edicts and personal convictions are knockdown arguments. You can, however, argue on secular questions. Secular thinking is open to change and compromise. . . . The point about the scientific, empirical worldview is that it is open to evidence, it can be publicly tested and it can be shown to be wrong.
The sure sign that secularism has become fully entrenched in society is when we are precluded from even asking whether a particular religious belief is true or false, since it is a universally accepted axiom that faith is completely outside the realm of rational discourse. In such a society, the real crime of the Christian is not what he happens to believe, but that he claims objectivity for his beliefs in the first place. As David Wells points out:

Critics of the Christian faith used to set themselves in opposition to it on the grounds that this or that tenet was unbelievable. Today, postmodern critics oppose Christianity not because of its particulars, but simply because it claims to be true.

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