Archive for the ‘Humility’ Category

A Response to Bergson’s “Laughter” (pt. 3)

August 19, 2020

III. Conclusions


The derivative nature of aggressive humor: Bergson’s theory is that laughter is intended as a social sanction. We mock the person who has fallen into habit and “mechanical” behavior, particularly when that has reached the point of impairing the person’s functioning as a living and social being. Self-deprecating humor is derivative of this; for example, I might tell a joke about my absentmindedness as a way of chiding absentmindedness itself, and thus all others who fall into my habitual failing.

Toddlers show us humor that is neither self-deprecating nor aggressive; it is simply without a strong sense of self-consciousness at all. There seems to be an innate desire to provoke laughter in others, and the young child will do whatever gets a laugh. It is only later, when we develop a sense of shame and thus an immediate tendency to try to hide our flaws, that we can consciously choose to violate normal standards by intentionally calling attention to our faults in deliberately “self”-deprecating humor. Humor is one of the ways we bond with one another. We share a laugh the same way we share a hug, or a compliment, or a snack, or our ancestors shared a session of grooming: social actions giving pleasure to another and thus strengthening social bonds. Aggressive humor, using humor not just to strengthen some bonds but to break others and to exclude some person from our fun, is what is derivative.

Because of course, as Bergson shows, some humor does chide or punish the socially deviant or harmful person, either to pressure that one back into society or to utterly exile. But the fact that something can be used aggressively does not mean that is its primary use, or even a worthy use. Children laugh together, but at some point they learn to laugh at another, most usually without regard to whether that causes pain. And as we mature and begin struggling for dominance among ourselves, humor becomes another weapon, first to tease and bully an individual and then to bully a group, or even a race. The ability to communicate gives us the ability to lie; likewise the ability to laugh gives us the ability to mock.

Sex, Death and More: “Oh Death, where is thy sting?” asks the prophet and the apostle; and while it may be faith that promises full victory, it is laughter that provides the first defense for many.[1] We often laugh at things that are the most important to us, because they are so frightening and/or tempting. The internet search to find the funniest joke in the world found a death joke; and here it is:


Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?”. The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guys says “OK, now what?”[2]


One of the oldest jokes I know, from the Vikings, is also a death joke, or more accurately a joke told at a death. Several men planned to kill a famous warrior and sent one of their group to scout ahead and see if their quarry was home. When the scout came back they asked, “Well, is Bjorn home?” He replied, “I don’t know if Bjorn is home, but his ax certainly is,” and fell over dead. I’ve read that a lot of Viking humor was like that: dark and violent. Death was a constant threat, and they dealt with it not only with the promise of Valhalla but also by making light of it. If you can laugh, it isn’t as terrifying.

Maybe that’s why there are so many jokes about sex. Sex is a prime motivator for much human activity, to say the least. Our nation spent the last several decades spilling more sweat and treasure to research impotence cures than preparing for the next pandemic. The TV show “Ally McBeal” used to refer to the penis as “the dumbstick.” This reflects several things about sex, most obviously that it’s funny. Much of the show’s humor revolved around the ridiculous situations characters got into because of sex, or the ridiculous sex they got into because they were such characters. Second, men and women seem to both agree that men are particularly controlled by the dumbstick. And for men, this seems to be psychologically problematic; they want sex and they are fascinated by it, but also somewhat afraid of the lengths they will go to and the risks they will take for it and in particular afraid that they are being manipulated by the women around them. The sex drive is powerful, and that power makes it frightening. Sex itself is also powerful. If God is that which creates ex nihilo, then sex is the closest thing we humans have to divine power: the ability to literally create life, so that two become three or more. The genders generally find each other mysterious and at times bizarre, but also indispensable and attractive; and this in itself generates tension. And often we relieve this tension with humor, sometimes good-natured and sometimes seemingly barbed.

There are also a lot of jokes about poop, something that is quite the opposite: repulsive rather than attractive, something we seek to be rid of rather than pursue, and which is the very opposite of creation, the waste products of life. It is not “important” in the way either sex or death is, but no one who has seen the beans scene in “Blazing Saddles” can be ignorant of the comic potential there. I’m not a big fan of scatological humor myself but I find it fascinating that it even exists.

All three of these are generally somewhat “taboo” in adult “polite” conversation. In different ways, all are psychologically powerful. And often, when something is “unmentionable” but also unavoidable, we use humor to discuss it more obliquely, taking the sting out. Bergson might say that each of these brings something “mechanical” to a human life, something controlling rather than controllable by the individual, and it is that tension between the lively expression of the individual and the universalizing and irrational aspects of life that provokes laughter. My hypothesis is again to look at the child. We learn to speak before we learn what things are supposed to be unspeakable. Children blurt out whatever strikes them in the moment, often in ways that would be judged wildly inappropriate for an adult. Sometimes this is because of the child’s ignorance. One story goes like this: Sally wouldn’t stop eating acorns, so her parents told her that if she didn’t stop she’d become very fat. One day in the park Sally saw a pregnant woman and said, “I know what you’ve been doing!” The humor relies on the fact that the child does not know; what would be merely gross if spoken by an adult is funny when said by a child who does not understand. My grandson finds farts hilarious, particularly if they come from an adult. When he loudly said “Uh oh!” when someone broke wind, it was funny because he understood what had happened but not that we don’t usually talk about it; “polite” conversation just tries to ignore it. At some point, a child is going to unconsciously voice some double-entendre, or announce some fact with a directness unforgivable for a serious adult, and the adults around will laugh. The child may have no idea what is funny but will still want to be part of the fun, and will want to repeat it. We thus learn what topics those around us regard as funny, and also (a little or a lot later) learn which topics we are not generally supposed to just discuss directly when making “small talk” or “polite conversation.” Some of us learn to discuss this topics more indirectly with humor, simultaneously raising the tension by presenting these taboo topics and releasing it through laughter. Others may memorize jokes to share about these topics, so as to be able to share laughter with each other even if one lacks the creative wit to create humor oneself.

I suspect (though I know no way to test this) that comedians are allowed more leeway in society precisely because there is something childish in humor. Whether a professional comedian or “the life of the party,” some people are particularly good at raising serious or even taboo topics in a way that evokes laughter, and we react in a way analogous to the way we react to a child saying something otherwise inappropriate: “Well, the tyke didn’t really mean it, so it’s okay.” The child can’t really mean it, since the child lacks the discernment; the comedian likewise doesn’t mean it, because he or she is only a comedian and therefore not “serious.” But sometimes the comedian “crosses the line” and says something the audience finds so repulsive that no humor can excuse it.[3] Gilbert Gottfried notoriously derailed his career with a tweet comparing the Fukashima nuclear disaster to a Godzilla attack. At that point it didn’t really even matter if the joke was funny; it was “too soon,” too painful, and no amount of humor was able to deflect attention from the human suffering. But generally Gottfried is able to say what would otherwise be terrible things in a way that provokes laughter rather than outrage. The successful comedian may say something that is taboo, or insulting, or otherwise generally not what we’re supposed to say, but does it in a way that evokes laughter; and that laughter seems to cause us to take it as “only a joke” even if we simultaneously see real truth in what is said. It is similar to the way we can “laugh it off” if a child says something true but also unmentionable; we sort of treat the comedian as not really “serious” even when we say, “Still, you know, she’s got a point.”

Maybe we allow comic discussion of topics that we avoid seriously discussing because in some way we take the adult comedian as in some sense a child, and give the comedian a similar leeway to speak the unspeakable—so long as it is accompanied by laughter. Without laughter, we remember that we are listening to an adult and judge by adult standards.

Humor and humility: Bergson claims that art aims to capture the individual reality or liveliness of its object. Too often our “utilitarian” concerns cause us to see everything as a tool, raw material, or obstacle to fulfilling our own desires, instead of seeing things and people as realities independent of ourselves. Art aims to break the dominance of utilitarian thinking by presenting its object apart from all functionality. The goal of a still life is not to sell apples or to stimulate the appetite; it is simply to present the viewer with the beauty to be found in a simple bowl of apples, existing for its own sake. Bergson says that comedy, by contrast, does not depict individual unique realities but instead depicts stereotypes and generalities. A good drama can be named after a particular person, such as Othello or Hamlet, and the drama’s quality will largely depend on how well the playwright presents the particulars of the protagonist’s personality. We want the dramatic protagonist to be “believable,” to seem like a real person. A comedy by contrast can be named for a type or generality: “The Jealous One” in Bergson’s example, or perhaps “The Jerk” to cite a more recent example. The comedic protagonist does not have to be “realistic;” in fact, that can get in the way of the comedy, particularly if it leads us to have too much sympathy for the character. It is more than enough if the comedic character is sketched in broad strokes, so we can recognize the type and the “mechanism” that is being lampooned.

But this claim that comedy is rooted in social structures depends on Bergson’s prior claim that humans are the only animal that laughs, or is laughed at; and scientific evidence indicates that this claim is wrong. Other animals have humor, small children have humor, and the essence of humor is much more basic and fuzzy than Bergson suggests. Laughter is a reaction to something that gives joy, and often what gives joy by virtue of being funny. We say “it’s funny because it’s true,” meaning that something seems funny because it expresses or reveals a truth in a surprising and generally oblique way. No one laughs if you simply state that men and women often do things differently; but entire comic careers have been based on comically stating specific different reactions of men and women, or the comedian and his or her spouse. But we philosophers don’t need to visit the comedy clubs to see this saying illustrated; we have our great hero, Socrates, the world’s first stand-up philosopher, who went down in history for his use of irony to reveal the absurdities of the social assumptions of his day and the presumptions of its leaders. Chuang Tzu also used humor to raise epistemological or metaphysical points.

Just as humor can be self-deprecating or self-aggrandizing, friendly or aggressive, so too it can be revelatory, falsifying or neither. Racist humor is aggressive and relies on false stereotypes, intending to dehumanize its target. Python’s “Banker Sketch” is closer to Bergson’s ideal; it relies on stereotypes not merely to dehumanize the target but also to rehumanize. One can see that sketch and laugh at those rich snobs, or see oneself in the Banker and resolve not to be like that. The joke that makes us laugh at ourselves, or at one of our idols, can be supremely revelatory. If art is supposed to reveal truth by presenting its object outside our usual framework of desires and tools, then humor can do so by presenting to us ourselves. We immediately perceive the world in orbit around ourselves, with everything either a tool or an obstacle. We can step away from that solipsistic perspective when we are caught up in our appreciation of beauty or harmony, in art or music; but we can also do so through learning to laugh at ourselves, and thus learning humility.

Why do authoritarians hate humor? As The Doctor said, “the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common: they don’t change their beliefs to fit the facts, they change the facts to fit their beliefs.”[4] Authoritarians want authority over everything, including—-especially—-true and false. They want to be able to control others, by forcing them to accept the despot’s version of reality or, failing that, to at least force them to act as if they do. And they don’t want to be challenged, and any independent truth-claim represents a challenge to their power.

Despots can use humor to reinforce falsehoods or to undermine truth, and often do. They use racist and ethnic humor to dehumanize The Other and give their followers an inflated sense of self-worth which derives entirely from being on the good side of the despot. This is not essentially different than the actions of the schoolyard bully who humiliates one kid to put fear into the others that if they don’t laugh at the victim, they could be next. It is more dangerous, and more wicked since an adult should have a moral sense, but the social mechanics are identical. But humor can turn against the despot too. Humor exposes our pretensions.   As Bergson points out, the gap between empty ceremony and human life is particularly funny. President Ford fell down once due to a knee he injured playing football, and Chevy Chase made an industry out of his “Gerald Ford impression” pratfalls. The physical humor itself was funny because Chase could do the seemingly unnatural without injury and then shout, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” but the idea that the President of the United States is a mere human being subject to gravity and fleshly weakness like the rest of us added another layer of comedy. That was part of the social function of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner Roasts, which used be a major yearly event. The President of the United States, and other powerful leaders, would allow himself to be laughed at, and would even join in the laughter. The President would respond with humor at the end, but only when he had shown he could take a joke and make a joke at his own expense could he make one at another’s. An authoritarian cannot stand to be laughed at, because an authoritarian does not want to be merely human; he or she must seem like a mortal god. Someone made a comment about President Xi being round and chubby like Pooh Bear, and now pictures of Winnie the Pooh are illegal in China. The authoritarian doesn’t mind being hated, but cannot stand to be laughed at, because when we laugh at anything we cease to fear it,—at least for a moment,

Humor also, as we saw, is a mechanism for social bonding. Authoritarians want to be the only center of social groups. Just as romantic love becomes a rebellion unless it is yoked to the authoritarian in a State-sanctioned marriage, so too when a group begins to laugh together they become a potential center of power. There is nothing so infuriating to an oppressor as the sound of the oppressed laughing among themselves; it means they’ve found joy that the oppressor did not control. If they can feed their own spirits and find joy in life without the permission of the authoritarian, what other rebellion might they find possible? Authoritarians always attempt to control anything that feeds the spirit, that brings joy to the lives of the people, whether it be art, or religion, or knowledge, or sex, or humor.


There is no virtue more beneficial than a sense of humor, and no divine gift more blessed than laughter. When we are overtaken by the goodness of life, and our whole being overflows with joy, we laugh. When the terrors and griefs of life threaten to overwhelm us, we laugh at our fears and cut them down to size. When our own egos threaten to outrun our capacities, we laugh at ourselves and again learn humility. When self-important leaders seek to humiliate and subdue us, we laugh at them and remember that they are mortal, the same as us. Gratitude and contentment, courage and endurance, humility and confidence, are all boosted by a proper sense of humor. And, it makes you laugh! What other virtue can say all that?

[1] Hosea 13:14; 1 Corinthians 15:55

[2] Alva Noë, “What is the Funniest Joke in the World?” NPR March 7, 2014 (

[3] Sometimes the joke simply falls flat and the audience doesn’t think the comedian is funny or even trying to be. One notorious example of this comes from the 2016 presidential campaign, during the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner .[3] Traditionally part of the event has long been a roast, presenting opposing candidates the chance to trade some good-natured barbs with one another. It is not surprising that sometimes this gets a little close to the bone, but Trump took his routine to such an extreme of negative directness that the audience of polite Manhattan society began to boo and even heckle him. He didn’t so much make a joke that Hillary was corrupt as simply say, “She’s so corrupt you should vote for me; and she hates Catholics too.” At one point Trump said to Clinton, “I don’t know if they’re booing you or me,” and someone in the audience shouted back, “You!” Years later commentators pointed to this as one example of Trump’s lack of a sense of humor. He may say things that some find funny, but he is said to fundamentally lack two elements of genuine comedy: the ability to take a joke about himself, and the ability to tell a joke about another in a way that even the target has to admit is funny.

[4] “The Face of Evil,” Doctor Who

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 6, conclusion)

June 17, 2019

Personally, I do not completely agree with MacIntyre’s communitarian ethics. I do think that his critique of Enlightenment and Modern thought offers the best argument for the conservative project. The political rhetoric of today’s Republicans, whether it is named “emotivism,” “nihilism,” or “bullshit,” reflects a loss of faith in the existence of an objective reality or truth. Nietzsche seems to have described this stance pretty well: God is dead, and they killed him, but they don’t quite recognize themselves that he is dead so they continue to make universal pronouncements about how right they are and how foolish and wrong their enemies are while rejecting the validity of logic, objective facts or expertise, all things once prized by conservatives. My own preference is for an epistemology resting on receptivity coupled with a humility regarding our ability to attain complete truth, the whole truth and nothing but: an epistemology and an ethics more rooted in Hamann, Kierkegaard and Diogenes Allen.[i] Humility was the cardinal virtue, and pride the original sin, according to St. Augustine of Hippo; and there is too much pride in the reliance on “alternative facts” and spin and will-to-power and bullshit and threats and actual violence coming from the Republican Party today.

It is that which causes so much concern in the LGBTQ community, the African American community, the immigrant community, all religious groups outside of the Christian Religious Right (especially non-Christians but also those non-“Evangelicals”) and virtually all others who are not white, conservative Fundamentalist males. Almost everyone outside the Trump base suspects that the supposedly necessary and neutral fact-finding panel is merely cover for narrowing the human rights of everyone who does not fit a very narrow and ideological vision of “human nature.” Perhaps more troubling, the very language of the announcement of this new panel suggests a fundamental abandonment of the whole concept of “human rights” in favor of a conception “American rights.” Instead of looking at humans as a class and declaring that they are valuable in and of themselves, entitled to certain rights, the announcement of this committee’s inauguration said it would found its notion of rights on specifically American history and values. This is abdicating the defense of “human rights” versus attacks by China, Saudi Arabia and other nations that have insisted that in fact there are no “human rights” and that Western nations have simply been attempting to impose their own values on everyone else. Instead, those nations have wanted to say that some people don’t matter, because they are the wrong religion, or wrong gender, or wrong ethnicity, or have the wrong politics. With this declaration, the Trump administration has thrown its lot in with other nations that seek to impose a government-mandated, government-allowed standard of “human” on others, suiting some for exaltation and others for persecution and humiliation, rather than accepting all people as they are, as people, and treating them first as people.

[i] For more on this, see my blog under the category “Humility”

Article on Humility

March 15, 2019

Article on Humility


St. Augustine said that pride was the first sin; in his book Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? Alasdair MacIntyre identifies this identification of pride as the deadly sin and humility as the cardinal virtue as distinguishing characteristics of the Augustinian moral tradition.

Much later, Kierkegaard made humility a central concept in his epistemology and ethics also.

Later still, Diogenes Allen identified humility as the cardinal virtue, and again linked its epistemic and ethical aspects.

Sadly, we don’t live in an era where humility is treated with respect.  Instead, as Harry Frankfurt points out, we live in an era of bullshit, where arrogance is admired and the greatest, most respected leaders and pundits are the ones who neither lie nor speak truth, but who simply make noise, without regard or often even knowledge of whether what they say is true or false, simply to get noticed and have influence:  the very apotheosis of arrogance.

In his article, “Vices of the Mind,” Quassim Cassam offers his reaction to the book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.  In this work author Thomas E. Ricks discusses the planning (and lack thereof) of the invasion of Iraq by the George W. Bush administration.  Repeatedly the political leaders were advised by career military officers with experience and expertise that hundreds of thousands of troops would be necessary to establish order once the Ba’athist regime was overthrown; but not only was this advice ignored, the generals who dared speak truth to power were belittled and undermined by Rumsfeld and Wolfowiz in particular. Having had successful political careers, they were self-assured to the point of arrogance; and lacking the relevant military knowledge, they were incapable of raising any questions themselves.  Ricks concludes that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowiz were “‘arrogant’, ‘impervious to evidence’, and ‘unable to deal with mistakes’.”

For Cassam, what this points to is the dangerousness of intellectual vices.  These four men in particular combined power with pride. Their career success proved to them that they knew more than the experts, and didn’t need to listen to anyone else.  They were simply so smart in their own eyes that they didn’t feel any need to check their own assumptions.  When the generals who were experts proved right, their political bosses couldn’t process the clear evidence and change course quickly enough.  The vices of these individuals led to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the misery of millions, creating two failed nation-states and a terrorist caliphate that makes us long for the days when Ba’athism and al Qaeda were the worst we had to worry about.

This article is a powerful example of why philosophy matters.  The supposedly dusty and obscure writings of Aristotle on vice and epistemology, and the esoteric research of psychologists like Dunning and Kruger, explain one of the greatest foreign policy blunders of our nation and the one that took the promising end of the 20th Century and turned it into the clusterfuck of Republican administrations in the 21st:  an international economic collapse we are still recovering from, increasing environmental disasters that continue to surprise everyone except those who paid attention to “An Inconvenient Truth,” humanitarian nightmares in Yemen, Syria, Myanmar and elsewhere, international terrorism by white nationalists, all while the government of the most powerful nation on the planet fixates on whether late-night comedy and Twitter parody sites should be censored.  The common thread is that in all these cases, expertise and ethics are rejected, while unfounded confidence and will-to-power are allowed to run unchecked, causing chaos and decay while demanding veneration.  Intellectual humility is treated as uncertainty and weakness, because we have long since ceased teaching our children and future leaders to recognize virtue and vice.  We need to learn to embrace the intellectual virtues that will allow us collectively to recognize and value truth, for without it we cannot hope to find successful solutions to the many dangers we face.

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt. 8)

February 12, 2018

I have tried to show here that the stereotypical Christian position on ecology is not the only one, or the oldest, or even the majority opinion. It is a rather recent innovation, which has become prominent in recent years because of a well-orchestrated campaign heavily funded by business interests and driven by social-political concerns, that is, “The Culture Wars.” It is a position that owes more to John Locke than to the Biblical heritage, interpreting Scripture through the lens of Locke’s views on property and a libertarian version of Christian Dominionism. Because it is well-funded, it has a loud voice, and is currently very politically influential. However, it is not the only Christian voice. The other voice I have sought to call attention to is much older, and more widely influential. It begins with St. Augustine of Hippo, and thus is foundational for much of Western Christianity both Catholic and Protestant. While it originated in the conversation between Neoplatonism and the Christian Biblical tradition, its moral and epistemological concerns reach beyond that metaphysical framework. It is a theological vision that sees love as the fulfillment of human life, humility as the cardinal virtue to live the life of perfect love, and pride as the deadly sin that turns us away from the live of love which should be our destiny. This tradition is often drowned out today in the press, but it is not silenced; it continues to speak through Christian thinkers directly or indirectly influenced by Augustine’s insights. This theology offers Christians the best resources to contribute helpfully to facing the ecological crisis brought on by human abuse of our environment, abuse at times abetted by Christianity itself and by the same heritage of John Locke which gave us our Revolution.

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt. 7)

February 12, 2018

I’ve tried to lay out two significant moral traditions that express themselves in two very different Protestant theologies. One begins with the earliest days of Western Christianity, and continues through religious and even nonreligious thinkers. It is a tradition that sees the greatest moral danger as pride, the cardinal virtue as humility, and the fulfillment of human existence as loving God with all one’s heart and mind and strength and one’s neighbor as oneself. The other crystallized in the English Enlightenment, and influenced European and American thinking, most prominently in the American Revolution, which was justified by appealing to its principles. This tradition sees conflict and oppression as the greatest evils, reason as the greatest virtue, and individual liberty and happiness (understood as a calm, sustained pleasure) as the best human life. I want to point out that there are resources within the Lockean moral tradition to start a conversation on environmentalism. Specifically, Locke’s defense of private property is limited by what he calls “the law of reason.” While a person has a natural right to whatever property his or her work has acquired and he or she can use, a person does not have a right to what cannot be used before it spoils.[1] He also discusses how some lands may be held in common for the good of all the people of a village or nation, which would justify public parks, federal forests and so on, with restrictions on the use of these by individuals.[2] But in the theological current flowing from Locke through Rushdooney into today’s federal government, it rarely does so. I would suggest that there are two main reasons for this; first and most obviously, much of the theology is being funded by large corporate donors, and they donate to amplify the voices that are the most business-friendly; and second, there is a hermeneutical blindness that prevents many preachers and theologians from properly critiquing Locke’s writings. When Locke writes, for example, “God , …has given the earth to the children of men,” it is easy to see this as some sort of divine command which would therefore have no limits; the will of God transcends human reason. In fact, Locke means no such thing. His primary theological writing, The Reasonableness of Christianity, makes this clear. He vigorously rejects religious extremism, or as he calls it, “enthusiasm,” and argues for an understanding of God that is reasonable: no miracles, no arbitrary commands, no resurrections and no one person paying for the sins of everyone. The scissors Jefferson used to edit the Bible were forged by Locke. But to a fundamentalist super-patriot, like Rushdooney or Jerry Falwell, Locke’s words go from being a rational argument capable of rational limits to a divine fiat which treats any question as rebellion. And that is how environmental questions about this “subdue the earth” mentality are treated. As one example, I would point to Kathleen Hartnett White, nominated by Trump to head the Council on Environmental Quality, who claimed that the belief in global warming was “a kind of paganism.”[3]

But even at its best, a social contract philosophy like Locke’s can only treat Nature as a resource for the enjoyment of humans, since only humans enter into the contract. And that is the real problem for theology in swallowing this philosophy, or any philosophy, without some hermeneutical consciousness: that one will try to build an understanding of God on a foundation that does not fit. The Augustinian moral tradition, by contrast, begins with an essentially spiritual foundation: the Platonic belief in the reality of transcendent Good, which makes itself known to those who are willing to receive it, coupled with the Abrahamic belief in one good, loving, personal God who created the world out of love, because it was good for these things to exist. From this perspective, the extreme individualism that Enlightenment social contract theory takes as its starting point is simply the first sign of pride, not an essential reality. The reality, or as Allen puts it, the moral perspective, is that humans are one part of the created order. They do not create order out of chaos by imposing or founding a social contract; they discover their parts as particulars among billions of other particular things, each of which is good in its own way and each of which is perfectly loved by God.

As I have indicated, this is not the theology underlying current U.S. government policies or much of Evangelical thinking. But it, or something like it, does underlie the environmental ethics of other strains of Christianity. The ecumenical National Council of Churches regularly publishes Earth Day liturgical materials, including a 2011 suggested Prayer of Confession which reads:



God, in all your Creation you have revealed to us the fragile interdependence of life. We confess, at times, we have rebelled against you with ideas of self-sufficiency and extreme individualism. We reap without sowing and do harm without knowing. Open our eyes and hearts to your Creation and all who labor to offer us daily with food, water, energy, and sanitation. Help us to build a just, sustainable community of equitable sharing, solidarity and gratitude.[4]



While NCC materials tend to focus on human needs and on preserving the environment to better protect the most vulnerable of us humans, they consistently emphasize human interconnectedness, first with one another but also with the rest of Creation, versus “our individualistic culture that is set up so that we will neither notice each others’ struggles, nor bear each others’ burdens.”[5] In Allen’s theology of perfect love, this extreme individualism is the de facto perspective; as he write, “My consumption of resources is well out of proportion to the available supply for mankind, yet I rarely give serious attention to the suffering of those I have never seen, even though I know in theory that their suffering is as real as any I have ever had.”[6] In both the primary religious task is seen as decentering oneself, turning away from excessive concern for oneself and consideration for the worldwide community. This is the Augustinian virtue of humility again, pulling the individual de facto person back from prideful self-love to make room for the moral life of perfect love of others.

An even clearer call to what Allen calls “perfect love” appears in “Earth Care Congregations: A Guide to Greening Presbyterian Churches.”[7] It states:



Our faith urges us to strive for eco-justice: defending and healing creation while working to assure justice for all of creation and the human beings who live in it. This call is rooted in the human vocation of “tilling and keeping” the garden from Genesis 2:15, as well as Christ’s charge to work with and for the most vulnerable. Because of their love for Christ who is the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15), churches are challenged to live in a manner consistent with God’s call to not only care for creation, but commune with creation.[8]



I don’t have any reason to think that the writers of this document had read Allen, but it seems clear they speak from the Augustinian moral tradition that he exemplifies. I find it remarkable how closely this justification for eco-justice follows Allen’s list of ethical implications of the experience of perfect love. The call to defend justice for “all creation and the human beings who live in it” reflects the humility of perfect love. Humans are to see themselves not as the beneficiaries of creation, those for whom all other things were created, but rather as one part of the vast created cosmos. The love of creation is referred back to the love of Christ, and all things done to harm or heal the Earth are seen as harming or healing Jesus himself (fourth on Allen’s list of five ethical principles). While some theologies discuss the believer in terms of ruling over Creation (an apocalyptic reference to the place of the saints in glory after the final judgment), the Earth Care statement discusses humans as servants, “tilling and keeping” God’s garden, not ruling over creation but “communing” with it as equals. As Allen said, we should not see ourselves as living in glory before our time; in this live we are de facto persons who are inclined to exploit, but in the afterlife we will be freed from this bondage to our egos and able to rule creation as God rules it—without selfish need, out of perfect love alone, as moral persons—-though of course without the omnipotence, still humble servants only.

All these documents we have examined so far have been supplementary educational materials. While all were available through my home denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA, some were originally published by the National Council of Churches and mention Episcopal, UCC and Lutheran leaders. This gives us some glimpse of the broad influence of the Augustinian moral perspective on environmental thinking within Christianity. Nature is valued and to be protected not merely because it is good for humans, but because it is good in itself. The last document I would like us to look at is the “Brief Statement of Faith” found in The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) pt. 1: Book of Confessions. It states:



Ignoring God’s commandments, we violate the image of God in others and ourselves, accept lies as truth, exploit neighbor and nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care. We deserve God’s condemnation. Yet God acts with justice and mercy to redeem creation.[9]



Again, the emphasis is not solely on human interests; instead, exploitation of both human and nonhuman creation is condemned, and God is said to act to redeem all creation.

[1] John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, chapter V, sect. 31-

[2] Locke, sect. 31-41

[3] Veronica Stacqualursi, “White House to Withdraw Environmental Pick’s Nomination.” CNN February 3, 2018 (


[4] National Council of Churches, “Where Two or More are Gathered: Eco-Justice as Community;” National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Programs (2011) Bulletin insert

[5] “Where Two or More are Gathered,” p. 6

[6] Allen, p. 77

[7] PC(USA), Earth Care Congregations: A Guide to Greening Presbyterian Churches, version 3, 2013 (

[8] Earth Care Congregations, “Why Should We Care for the Earth?”

[9] The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) pt. 1: Book of Confessions (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church USA, 1996) 10.3: 34-40 (emphasis added)

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt. 6)

February 12, 2018

There is a start contrast with today’s white Evangelical mainstream and Allen’s Christianity of perfect love. The Evangelical theology, which is now at least unofficial U.S. government policy, is that the world is not made up of ineffably valuable particulars. It is made up of individual human beings with inalienable rights as Locke said, particularly the right to property; no living or nonliving thing has any rights or value at all except as property of some person. Those humans who have God’s favor, by dint of proper fundamentalist Christian theology and proper conservative politics, are loved by God; other particulars exist only to serve their needs. Effectively, this fundamentalist position rejects the experience of perfect love because it sees God as loving the de facto person and catering to that person’s desires for comfort and control. These desires are fulfilled largely in this world, as tithes are rewarded with material prosperity and legislation that regulates individual behavior while deregulating business is rewarded with national sovereignty over other countries.

Allen has one other imperative, which seems to be a corollary of the previous five: we are not to ask God to do for us what we are able to do for ourselves.[1] Again, this is at odds with much of today’s Evangelicalism. To expect God to give us what we can give ourselves is to try to make God orbit around us. In claiming to be a humble petitioner, such a person is the most prideful. We are created to be free and independent agents, with wills, minds, hearts and bodies of our own. We may have different capacities, but everything thing that is, is an independent focus of whatever its natural activity is; and for humans, that entails what we generally subsume under the concept “free will.” If we have the ability to do something, we should thank God for that and use that ability. If we have the ability to understand the world, or to preserve it from destruction or to make it more viable by cleaning up the damage we have done in our selfishness, we ought to do it. Again, this is at odds with the current theological vogue, which argues that anyone who supports defending the ecology is actually at odds with God.[2] As Dr. Willis Jenkins writes, “Contempt for earth has become a mark of faith.”[3]

It seems a bit odd, perhaps, to claim that the theology that says “we humans can’t do anything to affect the environment, it’s all in God’s hands” is the one that is the most prideful and selfish, while the one that says we humans have a responsibility to try to understand and care for the Earth, and even repair it where we have damaged it, is the one founded on humility and perfect love of God. The Augustinian moral tradition would respond that love is expressed in humble service. To care for the Earth is to love it because God has created it, and to love it because one loves God and glorifies God by loving what God has created. From that perspective, to say “We humans can’t do anything!” as the anti-environmentalists often do, is not unlike the child who refuses to clean up his or her room because the mess is too big and the job too hard; relying on the parent to do it all is not acknowledging the parent’s superiority, it’s turning the parent into a servant—-which we recognize since the usual parental retort is “I’m not your maid!” To love God is to have perfect love for all that is; to love perfectly is to care for all that is. Perfect love is servant love, whether that means visiting a sick person in the hospital or cleaning up a sick waterway.

[1] Allen, pp. 111-116

[2] O’Conner, Brendan. “How Fossil Fuel Money Made Climate Change Denial the Word of God.” Splinter 8/8/2017 (

[3] Jenkins, Dr. Willis. “Contempt for Creation.” Religion and its Publics April 13, 2017 (

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt. 5)

February 12, 2018

The experience of perfect love is relevant even though it is rare, because it is the truth. In addition to being an epistemological and ontological claim, this has ethical implications, which are relevant “in this time of ecological crisis.”[1]  The first is the need for attentiveness.[2] We should strive to consider each thing in its own particularity, for whatever exists is special and has value just by virtue of existing. In particular, we should consider that living things are not only of value, but also vulnerable; and being vulnerable, they call out for care. Everything that exists is its own center of activity, doing its own thing, and thus has potential to cause and to suffer harm to other things; living things are particularly susceptible to harm since they can so easily be turned into nonliving things. Most suffer some sort of fear and pain, but even the least can lose its most essential quality, life. To a large degree, this is inevitable; living things need to eat, and often do this at the expense of other living things, either by eating them or competing for resources. But we can start our moral lives by learning to pay attention. Since our fellow humans are so vulnerable and so unique, we can start by paying attention to the needs of our neighbors. This includes attending to our relationships with them as well as any needs they have as particular individuals. But even beyond attending to people, and to living things in general, we can attend to whatever is, and learn to see the beauty in all things and in nature as a whole. Beauty, as Plato said, has the power to turn our attention (however briefly) away from our selves, and towards the goodness around us; and it is when we cease to be so self-occupied and full of ourselves that God can find a way into our lives. Allen writes:

If we then seize the opportunity created by the recognition of beauty, we can steadily train ourselves to move away from a de facto stance in relation to all things, even when we are not at that moment aware of their beauty. In this time of ecological crisis, such attentiveness is exceedingly relevant; for we have been so mesmerized by the glory and grandeur of wealth that we have been unable to regard the earth as a reality which has, merely as a reality, some independence of our wants and desires and hence is worthy of respect. Our self-centered, solipsistic relation to nature now promises to reap what it has sown.[3]



Allen says that even the scientific study of nature, when done to understand what is simply because it is rather than for some ulterior goal, can be a religious act even if the researcher is unaware of this.  Just by really attending to particulars, without any attempt to draw them into your orbit but simply to appreciate them for themselves, is to practice the perfect love God has for creation, in our own limited way. And in attending to the world and to particulars, we learn to appreciate not only their beauty, but also their vulnerability and need for our care.

Allen discusses four other ethical imperatives which he believes flow from the experience of perfect love.[4] He believes we ought to realize that we ourselves are objects of God’s perfect love. This awareness entails that we ought to be humble, recognizing that this love is undeserved and indiscriminate; God loves us as God loves all that is, because “God looked at all God had created, and behold, it was very good.” But to say we are no better than anything else God has made, just one among countless billions, is also to say that each of us is of inestimable worth, valued and loved in our particularity by God. We ought also to not seek to live in glory before our time. To live in this world, as flesh-and-blood people, is to be de facto persons primarily concerned with ourselves, only partially and fleetingly able to adopt the moral standpoint. To become a moral person is our task in this life, but it will not be a reality until the next, when our awareness will be so filled with God that we finally cease to be self-centered. In one of the few really explicitly Christian imperatives, Allen says we should pay attention to Jesus, not from our de facto perspective of what he can do for us personally but as the incarnation of the God who humbled himself in willing that other things should exist, rather than remaining the only reality. For God, the de facto position of being the center of everything was the true one; God chose to allow other existences to take place and to follow their own nature as independent centers of existence. And just as Jesus is said to suffer for the sins of the world, the Jesus of Scripture suffers when others suffer due to the greed of the powerful and the environmental depletion this causes. For Christians, Jesus both makes visible the nature of God and lives the perfect human life, both telos and role-model; and in both roles we see a figure that embraces poverty to enrich others, showing care for the humblest person and even for the birds of the air and lilies of the field. And lastly, Allen says we ought to forsake the world, not in the sense of ceasing to care about it but in the sense of ceasing to control it or expect it to satisfy our deepest longings. The world is what it is, a lot of particulars that are beautiful in themselves, but finite, independent, and thus incapable of giving us what we really need: to be perfectly loved. That can only come from God, and will only be fully experienced after death frees us from our de facto existence to exist as moral persons.

[1] Allen, p. 72

[2] Allen, pp. 69-73

[3] Allen, pp. 72-3

[4] Allen, pp. 73-80

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt. 4)

January 31, 2018

In the 20th Century thinkers such as Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch developed philosophies influenced by Platonism and a non-theistic religiousness, again emphasizing the distorting effects of pride and the need for humility to receive truth. I came to know their writings through the teaching of Diogenes Allen, former professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, and it is his development of this line of thought that I find particularly helpful regarding development of a Christian response to the anti-environmentalist theology of the Christian Reconstructionists. In the book Finding Our Father, Allen sets out to distinguish the religious perspective versus the more immediate, default standpoint, or the “moral self” versus the “de facto self.”[1] The de facto self is the place we all start. From infancy, we are aware of our needs and strive to meet them, at first instinctively and later with more deliberation. The world as we perceive it centers on ourselves, quite literally as far as perception goes, as well as psychologically; the world is made up of objects of desire, of obstacles and tools. Later we may rationally conclude that there are other persons beside ourselves, but we still tend to think of them as they relate to our own needs: friends or foes, lovers and beloved, strangers or acquaintances, foreigners versus neighbors. We may rationally know that this is not an accurate picture of the universe, that in fact we are but momentary atoms in a very large cosmos, but that is not what we experience most of the time. Normally, and naturally, we experience ourselves and our own needs most strongly.

Despite the rarity of an experience of the independence of reality, Allen does believe it is possible. He describes it first as it is depicted in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Unicorn, where an extremely self-centered young man, facing inevitable death, finally lets go of his egoism and senses the beauty of all things. This, Allen says, is “perfect love” of the world. The young man realizes that his whole life, people and things have been around him that were wonderful in themselves, regardless of how or whether they affected him at all. Allen writes:


This experience of love is something that happened to him; he did not seek it, prepare for it, or apparently even know that such an experience was possible. The novelist stresses that it occurred “quite automatically.”… This nearnesss of death enabled him to become full of the presence of other sthings and to lack self-consciousness because by its nearness he became aware that he had no power or control over them. He will die and cease to have power over anything, and yet other things will continue to be. They thus become recognized as realities because they are independent, utterly independent of himself. This is the death of the self as the one reality, the only reality one recognizes, with all else subordinate, orbiting about oneself, having significance and value assigned unrealistically because assigned primarily in terms of its relation to oneself.

It is the withdrawal of power or control, then, which is fundamental to a recognition of the independence of things, and with their independence, they can confront him with a compelling, beauteous radiance.[2]


Allen then goes on to discuss whether such an experience is possible in reality, outside of the confines and improbable conditions of a novel. He cites the writings of Simone Weil, the French philosopher writing in Vichy France, and Laurens van der Post, a World War II POW expecting summary execution as the war was ending, as two real-life examples of this same experience. In both cases, people who had given up or lost control of the world found themselves moved spontaneously to experience and to love that which was entirely independent of themselves, to love what is simply because it is, and to forgive even what was crushing them.

So this experience of what Allen calls “perfect love” exists. Why do we not experience it more widely? And since it seems so rare, what is its relevance to the rest of us? The first question points towards the second. The reason we don’t generally experience perfect love is that we are all experiential solipsists. Each person, indeed each existing entity, is a unique center of activity. Each self has ontological priority for itself; I know myself first and immediately, experience my own needs and the effects of the world on me. Allen calls this the life of the de facto person. The de facto person lacks ontological humility. Each of us can see the world as orbiting around us, and we do so quite naturally. Elsewhere, Allen identifies this as the source of the original sin, not sin itself but temptation and possibility. As long as anything exists as an independent thing, it has its own inner activity. Since we are each aware of our own inner activity (and not of any other), we can experience reality as it orbits around us. But this is a distortion of reality. I am not the only center of activity; there are other minds and other objects. I know this, but even knowing it does not mean I experience it. Therefore, if I am to experience the truth, I need to seek to move beyond my standpoint as a de facto person and to strive to become a “moral person… one who is aware that he is but one reality among many realities.”[3] This is a position that none of us is able to occupy more than fleetingly, if only because the pressure of being an existing reality which knows its existence is threatened is so strong; it seems that the only way one could sustain the awareness of the moral person would be to be able, as God is able, to be aware of other things without being dependent on them or threatened by them. Such an experience would only be sustainable for someone who has moved from the de facto perspective to the place of one who knows he or she is perfectly loved by God, and has ceased to think about his or her own existence because the experience of God’s love has become central. (In a somewhat complicated way, this becomes an argument for the belief in the coming Kingdom of God.[4]) It is self-centeredness, or pride, which distorts the person’s experience of God and existence; and it is ontological humility that makes perfect love and a true experience of reality possible.

[1] Diogenes Allen, Finding Our Father (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1974) pp. 21-48

[2] Allen, pp. 23-24

[3] Allen, p. 31

[4] In Kant, the moral demand together with the impossibility of perfectly realizing the moral task in this life made it reasonable to believe in an afterlife, where one could forever strive to more fully fulfill the requirements of morality. For Allen, the awareness of perfect love, plus the knowledge of the truth of the moral perspective, together with the impossibility of sustaining moral personhood in this life suggests that there must be another sort of existence after this one, in which the de facto person indeed dies but the moral person lives on, perfectly loved by God and perfectly loving all things and God, so that the awareness of reality actually matches the nature of reality.

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt 3)

January 23, 2018

This is what puts Hamann in the Augustinian moral tradition, despite the great differences between them in other areas. For Hamann as for Augustine, humility is the cardinal virtue, and pride the original sin. Humans turn away from God out of pride, a prideful desire to be the center of their world rather than created beings glorifying their creator. This in turn also turns them against one another, as each individual becomes a competing center of value striving to put the others in orbit around it. But humility is also necessary for knowledge. Humans must receive truth; they cannot create it. Their pride tends to lead them astray as they see things as orbiting around themselves rather than seeing each thing as it is in its own right. Furthermore, even without the distorting effects of pride, we are limited beings and our senses are imperfect, as is our judgment. We will make mistakes. All our knowledge is therefore only an approximation. It takes humility to admit that one is not the center of the universe, that things and people have value regardless of how they affect you, and that you must be content sometimes with uncertainty and probability; but if one has the humility to do this, one can also have the knowledge that is there, offering itself. Humility is thus not only a moral virtue, but the essential epistemological virtue.

Hamann’s writings had a profound influence on Kierkegaard, as is clearly seen in his repeated references in Philosophical Fragments. Kierkegaard’s focus was very different, largely because he and Hamann had different philosophical opponents. Hamann’s two targets were skepticism, championed by Hume, and the idealism of his friend Immanuel Kant. Of the two, his preference was for Hume. His major move against skepticism was to emphasize the role of the will in belief—-again, a notion with roots in Augustine. Against Kant, and against the rationalism with which Kant claimed to be breaking, Hamann argued that human pride leads us to create our own truths that can exceed the truth given to us by God through our senses, but which have no actual basis in reality. Hamann believed that it is pride that keeps us from accepting the truth, and that pride expresses itself both when it asserts claims that are not true but are satisfying, and when it rejects truths that don’t measure up to its standards of proof. Kierkegaard’s target was Hegel and his historical idealism. Kierkegaard did not read Hume or English at all, and seems to have not been fully aware of what Hamann’s points were in his critique of Hume; but he did famously take up Hamann’s argument that knowledge of all questions of existing reality involves a movement of the will, to accept the evidence of the senses despite their inherent incompleteness. In his “Philosophical Interlude” in the Fragments, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes Climacus argues that even to accept the truth that one is seeing a star includes an act of will. The individual must choose, at some point, to stop questioning the evidence and to accept the evidence as it stands, to close the books and reckon the account as paid in full or not. Doubt will never end until the individual chooses to let it. In his attack on doubt, Kierkegaard (again, using his pseudonym Johannes Climacus) focuses first on Descartes, and then on the modern heirs of Descartes, particularly Hegel, who said that doubt will inevitably run its course and absolute knowledge will, eventually, emerge. Climacus says there is nothing inevitable about knowledge; there is always an element of freedom, even when it is not noticed. This becomes most obvious when the object of knowledge is God’s presence in Jesus Christ, a notion that combines the inherent uncertainty of all knowledge of existence with the added obstacle of defying our norms of human reason. Again, it is pride that is said to motivate this unwillingness to accept God’s self-revelation. As Climacus describes it in his discussion of offense, Reason chooses to set itself up as the judge and standard to which God must conform; a revelation that does not fit reason’s standards is judged to be inferior. By contrast, if God is the standard, then it is Reason that is being judged. Again, it is pride that holds us back from accepting the truth, and humility, specifically the humility to accept reason’s shortcomings and to let God be God, that allows us to accept the truth that gives itself.

Through this 1400 year evolution of the Augustinian tradition, while we have not said much specifically about environmentalism, we have laid a foundation for considering it as a religious and moral issue.   Humility tells us that we are not the center of the universe, either individually or collectively; God is the center, and it is God who decides what is valuable by choosing to bring it into existence. The individual’s task is to accept this. It is pride that leads us to think that people or other beings have value only insofar as we choose to value them. This pride is not only a moral vice leading to other injustices and sins, but also an epistemological vice that distorts our view of reality, and of ourselves.


Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt 2)

January 19, 2018

The biblical witness is, as far as I can see, mixed.   True, Genesis gives ““Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” as the first commandment God gives to humans; furthermore, wilderness is often depicted as a place of danger for humans, with wild carnivorous beasts. But the nonhuman world is also commonly depicted both as glorifying God and as the object of God’s care; both the Psalms and the Gospels assure us, for example, that God feeds the birds. The birds don’t exist solely or even primarily for our benefit; yet God cares for them just as God cares for humans. How can we proceed, and what can we say that might be helpful to all people as well as true to the biblical witness?

The Augustinian theological tradition is one of the oldest and most fruitful of Western Abrahamic monotheism, if only by default since it was the first real systematic theology to make much inroad in European culture. In doing so it prepared the ground for later religious developments as well as providing its own unique insights, and in later history it continued to echo even in humanistic philosophies like existentialism. As Alasdair MacIntyre discusses in his book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, the mortal vice in this tradition is pride, and the cardinal virtue is humility.[1] It was pride that led Adam to rebel against God.[2] This has moral and epistemological significance. To be in communion with God is to be in communion with truth, since God is Truth. In seeking to become “like God, knowing good and evil” for himself, Adam turned away from the Truth and sought to become the source of his own truth. Instead of seeing himself as part of the created order, Adam tried to take God’s place at the center. In doing his Adam, and with him all humanity, not only disobeyed and rebelled against cosmic justice, but also lost knowledge of God, of reality, and particularly of our place in reality as creatures of God. By contrast, the life of faith is good not only because it gives God his due, as justice is commonly defined, but also because the faithful person allows God to give truth about God first, and about the believer himself or herself, and about the rest of the world.

Jumping over 1400 years of Western thought, I come back to Hamann. Metaphysically, Augustine and Hamann could not be more different. Augustine set out to reconcile Neoplatonic philosophy with Christianity, on Christianity’s terms. Hamann set out, more or less, to reconcile Hume’s empiricism with Christianity, again on Christianity’s terms. But in important ways, they converge in their moral and epistemological interests. Augustine argued that Truth (that is, God) gives itself to the human mind directly. If one accepts this divine illumination in humility and obedience, one can have true knowledge, not only of God but of the world as well. If one, moved by pride, rebels and seeks instead to find one’s own truth, or to be one’s own truth, one will remain in ignorance of God, of the world, and of oneself. Hamann accepted Hume’s empiricism and his argument that human knowledge of existence is uncertain; but he claimed that it was pride, and a demand for an impossible level of certainty, that held Hume back from accepting the truth God offers us. Hamann said that God gives us truth, about the world and about God, through our senses. We know about the physical world because we see and hear and taste and feel; we know about God because we hear the prophets, we see God’s actions in history, or as the Psalmist says, “Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Ps 34:8).   In short, Hamann says we learn truth through experience. Hume holds back from this in what he calls “mitigated skepticism:” refusing to admit knowledge of anything, accepting only probability claims.   Hamann says that the refusal to accept a truth is as bad as accepting a falsehood; in his fear of being mistaken, Hume ends up denying himself the knowledge that finite, fallible beings like ourselves can know. Kant (Hamann’s friend) by contrast turns away from the world, and seeks knowledge in transcendental critique, essentially making the object of knowledge one’s own mind, rather than the physical world. Again, Hamann says, it is pride to demand a higher degree of certainty than is humanly possible; and this pride leads Kant to rethink Christianity in ways that conform to his philosophy rather than conforming his philosophy to God’s revelation; or as Kant put it, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone.

Hamann’s model for epistemology is the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, eternal Truth becomes physical, and God’s nature is expressed not through philosophical argumentation or direct mental noesis, but physically to be received through the senses. Hamann thinks that any philosophy that denies sensory knowledge of the world, whether it’s Hume’s skepticism or Kant’s idealism, will either abolish religion or pare it down to fit whatever gap philosophy has been kind enough to leave. But of the two, Hamann prefers Hume, because Hume’s empiricism asserts that there is a real physical world that we have access to through our senses. Hume himself said that believing in miracles is to believe something so improbable that it would take a miracle to believe it; Hamann accepts this jab as literal truth. Religious belief is a miracle; but it is also a miracle that one must choose to accept.

[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN; University of Notre Dame Press, 1988) pp. 146-63

[2] St. Augustine, City of God, Book XIV, chapter XIII