Posts Tagged ‘epistemology’

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”


Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 4)

June 11, 2019

In a curious way, this nihilism offers a possible justification for an attempt to reestablish the notion of “human rights” on a firmer foundation.[i] The moral theory of human rights, as outlined in such documents as The Geneva Conventions and The International Bill of Rights, is an attempt to establish a universal moral framework for international statements and action on behalf of the rights of all persons. This theory holds that all people are essentially equal, and have equal rights to such things as freedom of conscience and expression, freedom to live without persecution due to religion, ethnicity or other relevantly similar condition, and so on. As a universal ethic, it is not dependant on any religious or philosophical creed, but simply on a set of moral principles or axioms that are, to coin a phrase, held to be self-evident. However, writer Michael Perry (and some other philosophers) question whether this ethic is in fact as purely secular as it claims. Nietzsche proclaimed the “death of God,” the demise of a universally-accepted morality and foundation of value; but Perry argues that we have by and large simply ignored his critique and proceeded as if in fact we all were on the same page. In this view, “human rights” is founded on a concept of human equality drawn from religion, or perhaps from several religions, and includes such ideas as “we are all equal before God,” “we are all children of God,” the Golden Rule, and other moral principles that seem to be (or at least are taken to be) found in all major religions. But what if this equality is, despite the generations of secular usage, still implicitly a religious notion, with no rational secular foundation? In that case, human rights morality itself has no foundation. This does not mean we have to stop using it; we could simply declare that human equality is an axiom like “straight lines do not intersect,” and go from there. But at least one possible response to the death of God is to deny the claims of self-evidence, and to insist that human equality and human rights be established on other, more rational grounds. The creation of a panel of ethicists to find such grounds, with the idea of basing national policy on human rights upon their conclusions regarding the rational grounding and nature of those rights, would seem to be a reasonable action.

However, Perry’s questions about the ethics of human rights rest on a premise which most American social conservatives would find unacceptable: the death of God. If God is not dead, then there is no reason to believe human rights are dead, either. Nor, in fact, is there any great need to rethink the notion of human rights morality. If our conception of human rights is in fact rooted in beliefs about God, human nature and the relationship between them (that God created all people as essentially good and equal, that God loves everyone and wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves, etc.) then we don’t need to fundamentally redefine human rights at all. We might run into problems with those who simply reject the entire religious framework and with it reject human equality, in which case we might run into the problem Wittgenstein is said to have faced when asked how you can rationally argue that a Nazi is morally wrong. He supposedly responded, “You don’t argue with Nazis. You shoot them.”[ii] But with anyone who is willing to accept the moral axioms of equality, dignity and such, we can viably carry out moral conversations.   We could even say that human rights ethics IS a form of natural law morality, and natural law legal theory: a moral system deriving moral principles and guidance from human nature and nature in general, and a legal theory that our national and international law should be based on such moral principles.

It seems that by saying that we need to rethink and reestablish the entire conception of human rights, the Trump administration is saying that God is dead, therefore belief in human equality is dead, and thus we need to establish our notion of human rights on some other grounds. More traditional American conservatives (like Paul Ryan or Rand Paul) might have chosen to start with Ayn Rand, and the Objectivist definition of humans as innately selfish and rational, so that the richest people are the most rational and since to be rational is also to be just and not to seek unfair advantage for oneself we should just let the rich and powerful do what they want with no government interference. The failure of such ethics when attempted proves, or at least strongly suggests that this view is based on a faulty anthropology; so we can be grateful if Trump relies on Robert George, who seems more inclined than Rand to listen to Kant and other reasonable philosophers.[iii] It seems more likely, for reasons I shall argue later, that Objectivism was passed over not because it was a flawed philosophy, but because it was too consistent. Rand in fact rejected religion, and the Christian ethic of love; she denied the personhood of the fetus and therefore allowed abortion; she was doubtful about the death penalty; and in short, while she opposed “socialism” and consistently conflated democratic socialism with Stalinism, she also stuck to her principles and in doing so took a knife to many conservative sacred cows. If you want to make sure your “independent panel of moral experts” comes out in favor of Republican ideology, you need to stock it with people other than honest Objectivists.

(It may seem strange that Ayn Rand has for decades been such a darling with conservatives, given her expressed contempt for Christianity, Ronald Reagan, and other idols of American conservatism.  After examining comments from politicians and others who express deep love both for Jesus and for Rand, I have concluded that in fact many who love Ayn Rand have never really read her, or at least have selectively read snippets out of her fiction without regard either for the overall message of her novels, or the explicit statements in her philosophical essays.  This has led to absurd statements such as the one from the congressman who required all his staff to read Atlas Shrugged but who was surprised to learn that Rand was an atheist.)

To be continued….

[i] Michael J. Perry, “Morality and Normativity;” in Morality and Moral Controversies, ninth edition, ed. by John Arthur and Steven Scalet (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc. 2014) pp. 56-64. Originally published in Legal Theory 13(3-4) 2007; pp. 211-55;

[ii] I can’t find the source for this story. I was told it was a BBC interview with Wittgenstein. But it makes sense to me; on Wittgenstein’s terms, his game theory of language would imply that there is no way to communicate with someone like a Nazi who simply refuses to join in any shared project or values with you; furthermore, you are making a conceptual mistake to try. The proper language-game to play with Nazis is not “Rational Debate,” but “War for Survival.”

[iii] Denise Cummins, “This is What Happens When You Take Ayn Rand Seriously;” PBS Newshour Feb. 16, 2016 (

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 3)

June 11, 2019

We may seek to anticipate the likely conclusions of Pompeo’s human rights panel by looking at the experts who will be on it. One prominent name that has been mentioned is Robert George. As mentioned above, he has in the past used Kantian logic to explain himself; however, he is a conservative Catholic who has used the term “natural law” in a more Thomistic way to attack homosexuality and abortion, for examples.[i] But I think it is likely misleading to look to the commission itself for predictions as to how our nation’s international policies will develop. In general, President Trump and his supporters, including Administration and Republican leadership, have expressed contempt for “experts” and have pointed to their policy of bringing in people “who were not ‘qualified’ in the conventional sense.”[ii] And when their own experts, hired by them to determine the truth of some matter, have presented facts that were distasteful to them, they simply reject those findings.[iii] The real question therefore does not seem to be what “natural law” means or how it is defined, but how the term is used in an environment where facts, words and values are not fixed realities.

The true philosophy of the Trump Administration, and functionally of the Republican Party as a whole, is not “natural law” of any sort; it is empirical relativism leading to moral nihilism (or perhaps they would prefer the term “realism”). Even this may be too imprecise. In the last two years, the “leader of the free world” has denied mocking a disabled reporter, when literally thousands witnessed the act and millions saw the recording; he has claimed that more people attended his inauguration than attended Obama’s despite clear photographic evidence to the contrary; he has denied calling Tim Cook “Tim Apple” when in a room full of people who heard him do it and wondered why on Earth anyone would lie about something so obvious and so petty; he has asserted that protesters were in fact cheering for him while they gathered around a giant statue of him sitting on a golden toilet; and so on. He has called for the death penalty for five black kids even after they were proven innocent of the crime of which he accused them, and another person was proven guilty. The birtherism, conspiracy theories and so on aren’t just ignorance or racism; they are proven real-time denials of common reality. The Republican party has become the party of “alternative facts:” the denial of objective reality and its replacement with truth-claims that are more convenient. As Harry Frankfurt has argued, this isn’t really even lying. The liar is concerned about truth; he or she wants to avoid a particular truth, to deceive for some purpose. The liar depends on other people accepting that what they see and hear is generally true, just as the counterfeiter depends on the existence of real money in order to pass the fake money he’s made as real. Republicans today operate without any regard for the concept of “truth.” The standard form of verbal communication for this administration is neither honesty nor lying; it is “bullshit.”[iv]  The bullshitter is not engaged in conveying information or communication; it is some other sort of verbal activity, oblivious to the existence of truth. That seems to be the most accurate description of what we see today coming from the highest levels of government and those of the press who serve as its promoters: verbal activity that does not bother to worry whether or not what is said is true, because the point is not to speak truth but to promote the president, to belittle some person, or to attain some other goal. As Frankfurt says, bullshit is more dangerous to truth than lying, because bullshit attacks the entire concept of communication. The liar is still committed to the notion that we communicate with one another to convey information; it’s just that the liar hopes to slip some false information into the mix. The bullshitter denies the relevance or significance of communication, and asserts instead that we talk or shout or tweet or write for other purposes: to emote, to self-promote, to roar, to whine, whatever will best forward the bullshitter’s will-to-power.

In this view, there simply is no such thing as “objective truth” or “reality.” Literally everything you think you know is up for debate, and what will count as “fact” is resolved as nothing more than a contest of wills. From an epistemological perspective, you could call this “relativism;” as Protagoras said, man is the measure of all things, of that which is that it is, and of that which is not that it is not. If I say the Mueller report totally exonerates Donald Trump, and refuse to read it or listen to you tell me what it says, I can hold onto my belief like a Japanese soldier guarding his jungle hideout even as the Americans raise their flag over the island; and as long as I do this, I haven’t surrendered. For many people, it is more important to “stand up for what I believe,” i.e. to assert his or her own version of reality, than to be “lose the argument,” to be defeated and forced to accept objective reality. This view, which is increasingly common among self-proclaimed conservatives, seems to resemble Nietzschean pragmatism more than any other epistemological stance I can think of. What will count as “real” is what promotes my goals, serves my ends, or makes me feel more powerful and more comfortable.

The fact that this sort of aggressive pragmatic relativism, this construal of reality as a battleground for wills, has become the operating epistemology of the Republican party has profound ethical implications. If I can simply declare that I never said someone was “nasty” despite eyewitnesses and recorded evidence, if I can simply create new realities, then I can also create new moral realities. What is “true” is what I want to be true, and my saying it is my attempt to create a new truth; therefore, what is “good” is what I like, and my moral claims are merely my own will-to-power, my attempt to bend others to accept me as the moral center of the universe. If there is no truth, there is no moral truth, and all morality collapses into nihilism.


To be continued….

[i] Conor Finnegan, “State Department to Redefine Human Rights Based on ‘Natural Law’ and ‘Natural Rights’”; ABC News 5/31/2019 (

[ii] Chris Cilizza, “The 29 Most Eyebrow-Raising Lines from Jared Kushner’s Axios Interview;” CNN 6/3/2019 (

[iii] Coral Davenport, “Trump Administration’s Strategy on Climate: Try to Bury Its Own Scientific Report;” New York Times 11/25/2018 ( As another example, the Republican response to the Special Counsel’s report on Russian interference in U.S. elections has been to reject, bury and ignore the conclusions of all the legal and forensic experts hired to uncover the facts.

[iv] Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005) pp. 19-24, 29-34

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.

“God of the Gaps”?

February 27, 2018

In the 17th century (the Scientific Revolution) there was a rise in attempts to prove God’s existence.  Until that time, most “natural philosophers” (early scientists by our standards) were also religious persons, seeking to understand the world as God’s handiwork; but in the 1600s there was a rise in concern over atheism.  (How much of that was due to the rise of science, and how much due to disillusionment after a century of religious warfare, is hard to say.)  These efforts to prove the existence of God often relied on showing that God provided the foundation for science and answered unanswered questions:  the so-called “God of the Gaps.”  If Saturn and Jupiter seemed to be changing speeds, for example, God must be causing it.  The problem with a God of the Gaps is that as science improves and answers those questions, the gaps close, and God gets squeezed out.  You can see how that could lead scientists towards atheism.   A century later, the mathematician LaPlace was presenting his latest astronomical calculations to Napoleon, who asked him what part God played in his book.  LaPlace replied, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”   When God is reduced to a tool, or hypothesis in the system, then God is liable to be laid aside like any other tool that is no longer required.

Dr. Diogenes Allen writes in Finding Our Father:

     To study nature as a scientist, if it is done humbly, with the desire to understand it as a focus of value in its own right and not just for its utility, is a religious act.  It is to participate (whether knowingly or not) to some degree in the kind of love God bestows on his creation…  The more we are able to recognize other things as irreducible particulars, worthy of regard for their own sakes, and free of our own orbit, the more we can understand God’s creation as an act of perfect love, and participate in bestowing that kind of love ourselves. (Diogenes Allen, Finding Our Father, {Atlanta, GA:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1974}, p. 56

He explains further:

     According to the religious world view we have presented, our study of the workings of nature (as we briefly mentioned earlier) is a God-given task.  Scientific investigation deals with realities which as such are worthy of attention and understanding.  The universe is not a stage for a drama of salvation to be played out, as it has so often been portrayed in theology, but our very investigation of nature—the desire to see it as it really is—is a moral and religious task.  The study of nature is not an extra tacked onto the real business of being religious; it is integral to the religious task.  We are to seek to perceive clearly the realities of the natural world.  Our very moral growth, our sanctification, takes place in this endeavor.  (Allen, pp. 71-2)

The “religious task,” as Allen sees it, is to learn to see reality as it truly is:  completely independent from myself, beautiful and valuable regardless of whether it is useful to me or not, beyond my control and outside my orbit.  We may perceive reality as orbiting around ourselves, defining others as good or bad based on whether they are friend, foe or stranger, or valuing nature only insofar as it provides us with resources; but in fact, that which is, is worthy of existence, simply because it does in fact already exist.  We cannot usually experience this reality, even though we know rationally that we are each just momentary atoms in a vast cosmos; in practice, we are naturally psychological solipsists, experiencing everything as it pertains to us, and ourselves as the center of the universe.

Allen would say that the “God of the Gaps” is something different than we usually understand the phrase.  God is.  We are too full of ourselves to experience God, or God’s creation, as anything other than extensions of our own interests.  We need to open gaps in our self-centeredness, to experience that which is independent of ourselves and beyond our control, to let God into our lives and our consciousness.  Science can do this, by showing us a world that is beautiful, glorious in itself, and totally independent of us.  Science shows us that we are not the center of the world, be we are part of a beautiful world.   This view of the world teaches humility, the essential moral and epistemological virtue, which can allow us to experience perfect love (even if in this life we experience it imperfectly, fleetingly).


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. 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

January 18, 2018

This is the working draft of a paper I am preparing for a local Earth Day conference, but see no reason to wait until then to start a conversation.



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



Abstract:    In this paper I shall discuss the concept of humility, as discussed by Augustine of Hippo, Søren Kierkegaard and Diogenes Allen. In the Augustinian tradition, pride is the original and deadly sin, from which all others derive; humility is the cardinal virtue of not thinking more of oneself than is the truth. Through Kierkegaard and Allen, this theological virtue becomes an epistemological virtue as well, providing a basis for ways to think about the environment beyond the man/property/wilderness framework often found in fundamentalist theologies and libertarian economic ethics. Finally, I shall use the concept of humility to analyze and critique the environmental pronouncements and policies of my own religious tradition, the Presbyterian Church (USA).



The 18th century philosopher Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) once said that the fundamental mistake of modern theologies was their tendency to take over the dominant philosophies of their day, and try to talk about God based on those constraints. The problem in Hamman’s eyes was that these philosophies began from a more or less atheist starting point; building on this flawed foundation, any theological edifice was bound to be unstable. At the risk of anachronism, I would claim that much of 20th century Protestant American Fundamentalism falls into this trap. The philosophical foundation for writers such as Rousas Rushdoony and Jerry Falwell is a libertarian political philosophy rooted originally in John Locke. Locke’s philosophy, particularly as laid out in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, profoundly shaped the thinking and the direction of the American independence movement, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that he was the grandfather of the American Revolution. His thinking influences our culture still in ways most of us scarcely realize, and I am grateful for most of it. But when it comes to environmental thinking, his thought is unhelpful and, in its current incarnations, downright dangerous. I want here to briefly survey how Locke’s views on property and nature affect much American thought, including Fundamentalist theology. Next, I want to go back to the Augustinian tradition, and look at how the Augustinian concepts of pride and humility can give us a new starting point for discussing our relationship with nature. In particular, I will be discussing the book Finding Our Father, written by one of my favorite professors in seminary, Diogenes Allen. I will be writing this primarily as an exercise in or examination of Christian theology, but I hope the treatment will be interesting and helpful for others as well.

In his Second Treatise on Civil Government, John Locke lays out some very radical political theories. Having argued in the first treatise against the divine right of kings, in the second he argues that political power is in fact the expression of the will of the majority of the people. A nation, he says, is a group of people who have agreed to live together and work together to solve their disagreements peacefully and to protect each others’ life, liberty and property. They achieve this by creating a government which therefore ought to include representatives chosen by the people to make decisions on behalf of the rest, and who are subject to replacement by popular vote. In an era where the people were often treated as property of the monarch as much as the land they farmed was, the idea that the king, courts and Parliament existed to serve the people and carry out their will was quite literally revolutionary: it was born in response to the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, and it led to the American Revolution a generation later. Instead of considering individuals first as subjects ruled by others, Locke said each was essentially the ruler of himself or herself. No rational being owned another; rather, each owns his or her own body. Nature, by contrast, is not consciously rational, so natural resources such as water, fruit trees in the forest and so on are unowned, or common property. But if some person adds his or her own effort to the natural object, say by gathering the apples from the tree into a basket, then that formerly unowned resource is not a mixture of the natural and the efforts of some person’s body, and thus becomes by extension that person’s private property. Whenever a human shapes or changes nature, that human adds a little of his or her own body to it, and it becomes private property.

Locke does have some constraints on this natural acquisition. Importantly, he said that no one has a right to more of anything than he or she can use before it spoils. It would be irrational, a violation of the law of Reason which rules even in nature, for one person to gather all the food and hoard it until it spoils while others starve. But essentially, Locke treats the natural world as having worth only as it affects humans. People turn nature into property, and have an inalienable right to do so. Locke’s Second Treatise had a powerful influence on America’s Founding Fathers, and his philosophy both explicitly and covertly influenced our culture and still does. Explicitly, it shaped the Declaration of Independence, and Locke’s idea for a tripartite government is the foundation of our Constitution’s division into executive, legislative and judicial branches. Less explicitly, his views of property were very congenial to colonial and frontier farmers/plantation owners, justifying their wholesale conversion of wilderness to private farmland. Locke basically assumed that Nature was inexhaustible, an idea that was questionable on the British island but which seemed obviously true to the Englishmen and later Americans looking west towards apparently limitless horizons. And even today, this view of Nature is powerful, particularly in the business community: nature is raw material, and essentially limitless, unless pesky regulations get in the way.

Locke often used religious language in his political writing, referring to the law of Nature, Reason and the will of God more or less interchangeably. This made it easy for later American religious conservatives to take over his philosophy and incorporate it more or less unaltered into such theologies as Christian Reconstructionism. This represents a major and important misunderstanding of Locke’s thought, one that in turn delegitimizes this entire theological project. In his primary theological work, The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke argues that the true heart of Christianity is a moral monotheism. He has no real use for miracle stories, or the idea that one guy could die for the sins of others; his religion and thus his God is philosophical, ethical, and like the title says, reasonable. But at least since Rousas Rushdoony and continuing through Falwell and others, as well as countless Evangelical Protestant preachers, this idea that humans have a “divine” right to treat nature as an inexhaustible source of human wealth has been treated as an Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not hinder private property. For Locke, saying this was divine law was the same as saying it is reason’s law; thus, we can use reason to interpret it. For some conservative Christians, the “law of God” is more like the absolute eternal pronouncement of the Divine Lawgiver, so far beyond all human reason that even to hint that we might be harming the Earth is literally said to be rebellion against the LORD. Not only is Nature treated as an unlimited resource with value only as human property, but to say otherwise is, in some theological circles, literally a sin. And while this attitude is not the majority opinion of religious people, it has an outsized influence on American politics through the influence of well-financed lobbyists and media organizations supporting and supported by religious celebrities and mega-congregations.   Returning to Hamann’s observation, rather than start with a religious standpoint, derive their ecological theology from that and then dialog with American culture, a large swath of American fundamentalism adopted a humanistic attitude towards nature derived from Locke’s views on property as these were expressed through American culture and particularly American business culture; then, tacking on a fundamentalist Divine Commander to the rationalist foundation, they derived a theological approach to Nature that severely limits what religion can say to humans that they are not already happy to say to themselves. There can be no prophetic voice when the theology is merely an echo of the interests of economic and political powers.