Sunday, June 23, 2013

Philosophy and Its Enemies

In a review in the New York Times today we find the Jurisprudence professor Robert George’s conclusions about religion:

‘Religion, he reasons, should be thought of as “conscientious truth-seeking regarding the ultimate sources of meaning and value” and, therefore, “a crucial dimension of human well-being and fulfillment.”’

George presents religion as a form of philosophy, not a revealed certainty: something that asks and discovers rather than just knows and then tells us. What kind of truths can this inquisitive religion discover about “the ultimate sources of meaning and value”? Are they actual discoveries or just confirmations of the happy old truths it already knows? Conscientious truth-seeking is ready to let the consequences be damned: a conscientious person accepts the strongest arguments whether or not they make the person happy, an important point whether or not it confirms their prejudices, and admits when things are not yet clear.

On marriage, George relies on “philosophical ideas” that, according to the sympathetic reviewer, “predate the modern concept of sexual identity.” What are George’s premodern “philosophical” ideas? That
marriage unites husband and wife across all levels of being, physical, emotional and spiritual. Male and female complementarity allows them to unite “organically” as “a single procreative principle.” Note the word “principle”: whether they actually procreate or not, men and women are engaging in “one flesh unity.”

But the principle that we were intended to procreate and become one flesh comes not from any kind of “inquiry” but anonymous stories, so traditional that they have no known author. In Genesis 1, God creates men and women together, last of all animal life, and endows them with the procreative principle: "He blessed them, saying: 'bear fruit and become many!'" They begin together, at the pinnacle of creation. In Genesis 2, on the other hand, a pointedly single man is created, first of all animal life, and the Lord begins creating animals, one by one, to find one that will be a suitable partner for the man. Frustrated, the Lord aenesthetizes the man and performs surgery on him, cloning a new being out of his body:

And the man said, “This is the right one, bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh! I will call her woman because she was taken from man!”

This is why a man leaves his father and his mother and joins to his wife and they become one flesh together.

The narrator never tells us how he knows what knows with this perfect certainty: that man was in fact created first, not last, of all living things. He makes no mention of why he differs with Genesis 1: that men and women join together in fleshly embrace not because God declared in words that they do so, but rather that the Lord surgically built one out of the other.

These two stories may be true or something else, they may be good for us or something more. What they are not is truth-seeking inquiry, and anyone who wishes to present them as that may be trying slyly to replace it with something else. Such people are not philosophy’s friends.

2 comments:

lawson_stone said...

Well said. Reminiscent of C. S. Lewis' Lord-Liar-Lunatic trilemma.

John Hobbins said...

What a pleasure to discover this post! It's been too long, Seth, since we've spoken.

George is a Catholic, and he studied under John Finnis and Joseph Raz. You are certainly right that religion is not at all summed up in the words of his you quote; nor, for that matter, is religion summed up well in your own words.

Religion, or at least, healthy religion, has always been a multi-colored dream coat.

My point would be that religion and philosophy are not antithetical in some strands of the first; to that extent, George is not far off.

As for what Genesis 2 is, I think Wendy Doniger explains the function of myth with great acumen. Or do you know of a better meta-commentator on this genre?

As for Genesis 1, its genre is something else. It is more like a primitive scientific treatise expressed through a highly conceptualized metaphysical narrative.

As for what these texts want to do, there is no doubt that they intend to express absolute truths. To be a Jew or a Christian has always meant to work on that assumption. Or am I being too apodictic?