I have existentialist leanings and see myself as a humanist. As a Christian I have had a problem reconciling these three philosophies…

…Thank you for making the attempt. I like it. My question
concerns Paul Tillich’s critic of pure existentialism, stating that
our use of language is universal and points to essentialism. He argues
that Christianity is comprises a dynamic between essentialism and
existentialism. You need both. You can’t separate the two. Is it
really possible to state existence proceeds essence when we worship a
universal Christ, historically grounded? Hope you can make sense of my
confused thoughts. – Eric

Here’s the short version of the answer: Christian existentialism must be understood as distinct from the more familiar atheist existentialism of a Sartre or Camus. I would describe it as follows: In (and only in) the context of a relationship with God through Christ, no essential constraints of law, morality or identity are absolutely binding.

So in atheist existentialism, your existential freedom is absolute, but in Christian existentialism, it is your relationship with God that is absolute, and your existential freedom stems from that relationship. You can look at is as a recasting of the classic Christian belief that servitude to Christ is freedom from the world –i.e. “My yoke is easy…”

Hope that helps. My response is original, but heavily influenced by Kierkegaard, particularly “Fear and Trembling”.

How would you, as an Existentialist yourself, respond to charges that Existentialism is too relativistic and undisciplined for Christian faith? Also, how would you reconcile Kierkegaardian radical individualism with the traditional and Biblical idea of the importance of church and fellowship?

It’s fair to say that pure existentialism is unsustainable. The burden of radical free choice quickly become mentally and emotionally overtaxing, as though one was carrying the weight of the universe on one’s shoulders. My existentialism, therefore, is anchored by Christianity at one end and humanism at the other –as Kierkegaard, godfather of existentialism, intended.

For an atheist existentialist such as Sartre or Camus, the burden of choice extends beyond the self to encompass the entire world. If some facet of my world is not as I would have it be, I bear complete and undiminishable responsibility for that fact. I have chosen it to be that way, and must choose and act differently if I wish it to change. In effect, each person is viewed as having the same position of responsibility as the deity of his own universe.

A Christian existentialist is aware, however, that the universe rests ultimately in God’s hands. This removes the insupportable burden of perfection from our shoulders (although perhaps Matthew 5:48 may indicate the opposite).

Humanism comes into play on the other end of things –in relationship to the incompatibility of radical freedom with the basic fabric of human interactions, as epitomized by concepts such as discipline and fellowship. The key Kierkegaarian move is to realize that all our human affairs are meaningless in relationship to the all-encompassing importance of our relationships with God –but then to treat those affairs as though even the most trivial among them was filled with profound meaning. This produces another paradox from a philosopher who reveled in paradox: in that he argues that the highest use of radical freedom is to invest it in conventional institutions and values such as marriage and fidelity (see Kierkegaard’s Narrative).

The Kierkegaardian life, however, only appears on its surface to be as trivial and prosaic as the lives lived by less reflective or existential figures. On the inside it is radically restructured so that even the most programmed moment within it is a free choice, and every free choice is a prayer, and every prayer leads towards a deepening of the personal relationship with God. I do think Kierkegaard erred, however, in never extending this concept beyond the individual level to encompass a community. Even the Kierkegaardian marriage is only really considered from the perspective of one of the partners; and thus as a personal act, not a communal one (perhaps explaining why Kierkegaard failed so miserably at putting the idea into practice).

If we look to the Bible, however, we can view Jesus’ transformation of the basic communal act of sharing a meal into the the sacrament of Holy Communion as a model for a communal life lived in the same mindful way as the individualist life envisioned by Kierkegaard –and the lives of the early Christians as a example of that same concept in action.  In the end, what Kierkegaard was trying to teach us is not so different from one of the central lessons of Saint Paul –that Christianity can never be lived by a rulebook. It is founded on a living relationship with God through Christ, and the discipline it provides must come from within.

Would you agree with those such as Alister McGrath that Christianity is rationally defensible, or would you say that the rational aspect is unimportant? If the latter, how would you respond to charges of thoughtless fanaticism in your religiosity?

This is a fantastic question.

I begin my answer by noting that rationality is overvalued and its capacity overestimated. The ability of the human mind to apprehend what it considers is vast, but not unlimited. Not everything, therefore, can be understood in ways that make apparent sense and align with all the other things that we know. In particular, God would not be God if He could be fully comprehended. For this reason, I side with those who call faith unreasonable.

As a student of Kierkegaard, however, I also note that the central paradox of Christianity, of God present with us, is no more of a paradox than the paradox of existence itself. Why should there be something rather than nothing? Why does our existence mainifest in the shape that it has, rather than in some other form? Why does each of us individually and idiosyncratically exist, and why are we bound by space and time? These are questions that have no rational answers, yet we live with the paradoxes they imply because we lack the ability to do otherwise.

This leads me to what I take to be the key Kierkegaardian insight: The mystery of Christ is not only on a par with the mystery of existence, it is in fact the same mystery. The mystery of why God would enter the universe and suffer and die is the very same mystery as why that universe would exist at all, and why there would be suffering and death within it in the first place.

All this having been said, however, I think there’s a danger in dismissing faith as merely or dogmatically irrational. The believer, I would claim, is not simply a believer in defiance of all evidence –which would indeed make him the thoughtless fanatic of your query.  Speaking as a believer, I would say that God has demonstrated His existence to me with evidence that is plentiful and personally compelling –yet not of a sort that lends itself to conclusive depersonalized proofs.

My aim in making such a claim is not to present a case for God’s existence capable of convincing the non-believer, but to advance the argument that the intrinsic irrationality (or what we might call the “transrationality”) of faith does not necessarily imply that the person who embraces faith must do so in an irrational manner. One may safely assume that the person who believes does so for personally valid reasons, even if those reasons are not easily understood by the non-believer.

This, it seems to me, is the best way to approach the ontological proofs of theological rationalists like Aquinas and Descartes, the apologetics of someone like C.S.Lewis, or the calculated wagers of Pascal and his ilk –not as attempts to equate faith with reason, but rather as ways of demonstrating that faith and reason are at least compatible with one another; and therefore that the embrace of one does not necessitate the destruction of the other.

Is morality objective?

This is a terrific question. Historically, the dominant picture of morality was once one of absolutes. Things were considered either right or wrong, generally by divine decree, with little or no ambiguity. The main thing that changed this conception was a growing awareness that different societies –or the same society in different eras– have had very different moral standards. As an example, I am a Christian, and thus part of a moral tradition that extends back to the ancient Israelites. Yet some of my moral convictions (such as my affirmation of pacifism) are diametrically opposed to some of theirs (i.e. their warlike tendencies).

The recognition that moral judgments change with time and vary from place to place led to moral relativism, the idea that all moral judgments are subjective and contextual. At most, so the reasoning ran, one could be evaluated by his or her own moral standards and convictions. This too, however, seems wrong. Infanticide, cannibalism and slavery have been practiced in many times and places, yet we would hesitate to call them right, even for their own contexts. Similarly there are virtues –generosity, compassion, honor –that seem worthy of universal affirmation.

Observations of this nature led to a third approach to morality, often called the “perennial philosophy”, the idea that there are common moral principles affirmed in all great philosophies, regardless of time and place –such as the “Golden Rule” (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), variants of which are found worldwide. The problem with this idea, however, is threefold. First, there is no clear and uncontroversial way of establishing what actually belongs in the perennial philosophy; second, there is a danger of ending up with a washed-out “consensus morality” that offers no real guidance beyond base intuitions; and third, it seems to preclude all possibility of moral progress –the concept that our morals can get better with time.

My own opinion on the matter is that there are both objective and subjective aspects to morality. I think, objectively speaking, that each entity (such as a person or an animal) and each collective (such as a society, a culture, a species) has a “responsibility” to express its own unique existence, yet no less of a responsibility to promote the interests of all other denizens of the universe. From this kind of standpoint, we can even evaluate the morality of creatures very different from ourselves –judging (for example) a mitochondrion, which supports the functioning of almost all earthly life, as morally superior to a virus, which promotes its own interests at the expense of its hosts.

From a subjective point of view, however, it is clear that there is an ample amount of ambiguity and context-dependence inherent in evaluating even these simple criteria. What is the proper balance between self and society, between one’s own interests and the interests of the universe? And how can one know what serves the interests of the universe in the first place?

It is here, I believe, that religion reenters the picture. Religion –with its connection to the infinite –is what gives us the ability to navigate moral issues with confidence. Yet even faith in an unchanging deity does not mean that human societies, which exist in a changing and evolving world, might not experience changing answers to deep moral questions.

Is Lucifer interpreted as pining for the God he once loved and has been cast down by” sorry more of a theological question here (agnostic’s novel research)

Thanks for your question. One important thing to remember here is that with a few brief exceptions, the devil is barely mentioned in the Bible itself –and in fact, the one mention of “Lucifer” by name may not even refer to the devil at all. So from that point of view, there isn’t really an “official” answer to your question. The majority of the lore about Lucifer in the Western tradition comes from Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost, so if you want to be in tune with the general opinion, those would be the sources to check. Generally the understanding is that Lucifer was the best and brightest of the angels, until he tried to arrogate God’s place as ruler of the universe.

None of this answers your question, but given Lucifer’s extra-canonical nature, I think you’d be perfectly justified in exploring your own interpretation. You might also find it interesting to note that in the Islamic tradition, the devil is considered a “loyal” but misguided servant of God, whose chief crime is his jealousy and hostility towards mankind, and whose destiny is to be reconciled to God at the end of time.

Hi. If something is objectively true, does it have to fall within the realm of science, and does the fact that something does not fall within the realm of science prove its relativism? (Examples – art and ethics)

This is a great question. Unfortunately, the answer is surprisingly controversial and complex:

The first challenge is figuring out what “objectively true” means. Most –but not all!– people believe there is a universe “out there” that has characteristics which are independent of any particular person’s observations or perceptions. This is a position generally known in philosophy as “Realism.”

To find out if you are a “Realist”, try this thought experiment: Imagine you personally do not exist, and furthermore that other people don’t exist, and in fact, that there is no intelligent life in the universe. Do things such as stars and planets still exist? Does a proton still have the same mass? Does water on earth still freeze at zero degrees Celsius? If you think so, you are a Realist.

The majority of people, even if they aren’t sure that the things that exist actually have the forms and the nature that we think they do, believe that something exists objectively –which is to say, independent of any given subject. Unfortunately, this is impossible to “prove”, given that each of us is imprisoned, so to speak, inside our own experience. There is no way for me to show incontrovertibly that there is anything independent of my own personal experience.

In addition, Realism by itself doesn’t actually tell us as much as you might think –it says something exists beyond our perceptions, but not what that something is. If, however, you believe that the world is more-or-less the way it appears to be, then you are not just a Realist, you are a “Naturalist”, or a “Realist about Perceptions”. In other words, you think the familiar world of trees, sky, earth, stars, moon, sun, etcetera, exists generally the way it seems to.

This seems like a natural (no pun intended) step, but it runs into some problems. One is that it is vulnerable to the possibility explored in the “Matrix” movies that your perception of the world and all its objects are generated by causes quite different than the seeming ones –in the case of the Matrix, a computer, in the case of Descartes’ similar hypothesis, an malicious demon. It may seem far-fetched, but it gains plausibility when we think of how easily our perceptions can be shifted –a set of rose-colored glasses makes everything look pink, just as being told that a student is smart can change our perceptions of his or her classwork.

This leads us at long last to the starting point of your question. In general, scientists replace “Naive Naturalism”, the thought that the world is just as we perceive it, with “Scientific Naturalism”. In scientific naturalism, it is accepted that objects may have a “real existence” very different from our perceptions –for instance, who would guess that fire and water are both made of the exact same building blocks of electrons, protons and neutrons? The claim is made, however, that objective reality relates to our perceptions of it in orderly, rule-governed and consistent ways, and that those relationships can be discovered through the use of the scientific method.

The scientific method is not the only way of discovering truths or “Truths” about the world, but it does have many practical advantages, including the fact that the things it discovers are, by definition, reliable (they will work the same way each time) and fit into a general schema that fits together with all the other scientific truths.

If we take your question at face value, “If something is objectively true, does it have to fall within the realm of science?” the answer is no. Assuming we take a Realist stance, and agree that there ARE things that are objectively true out there, it is clear that some of those true things will be outside the realm of what science can tell us now –whether or not there is intelligent life on other planets, for example –and even that some of it might forever be outside the realm of what science can demonstrate.

I think what you really mean, however, is “does a proposition have to be tested by the scientific method in order to be a valid and reliable piece of knowledge?” That’s not a question that itself has an objective or uncontroversial answer. For example, we might say that there could be other methods –substantially different from our current science –that would give reliable answers. Would we consider those methods “scientific” because they were reliable? In that case, all we mean by “scientific” is “reliable”. But we can’t disprove that other such methods might exist –after all, much of what we consider as good science today would have been alien to scientists of the past.

Another counterclaim is that there are other non-methodical sources of truth. A religious person (such as myself) might be comfortable with the claim that religious revelation provides a source of truths that are equally or exceedingly “objective” as the truths verified by science, while a non-religious person would reject that claim.

As far as the second part of your question, what about things such as art and ethics? Are they intrinsically relativist, which is to say, are they irreducibly dependent on subjective and personal beliefs or characteristics that do not generalize?

On the one hand, we should keep in mind the fact that it might be possible that a “science” of art or ethics could be someday created, which is to say, that we could figure out ways to make statements about those fields that are as testable and reliable as those about fields such as physics and chemistry. In my opinion, however, that would first require not just a different understanding of art and ethics, but also a different understanding of science. Previous attempts to make a science out of such things have generally focused on reducing them to purely material terms, and have not resulted in any notable successes.

This brings up a final issue raised by your question. Do we live in a universe where everything is best explained in purely material terms –i.e. as the extended ramifications of the trajectories of protons, electrons, neutrons and other particles, or even in a universe where everything is capable of being explained in such terms? There are quite a large number of people who would endorse not merely the second statement but also to the first (please notice the differences!). But it should be made clear, such a statement is essentially a declaration of faith. It is not an independently provable proposition, and it is capable of being wrong.

Let me thus rephrase your questions: “Given the current state of human knowledge, is the scientific method the only widely accepted, internally consistent, controllable and reliable way of constructing new knowledge; and do fields such as art and ethics currently fall outside the realm of what science has thus far proven itself to be capable of considering successfully?” The answer to that question is a highly qualified “yes”.

Jedi Philosophy

For many people, the main appeal of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” movies is the “Jedi Way,” the philosophy/religion that guides the mystical Jedi knights. But where does this philosophy come from, and does it hold up under scrutiny?

At root, the Jedi Way is a synthesis of three Eastern religions or philosophies, with an overlay of courtly behavior drawn from the medieval knights of Europe.

The most important source for the Jedi Way is Taoism, an ancient Chinese philosophy whose name is generally translated as “the Way” or as “the Way of Nature.” The two main goals of Taoism are to achieve balance and to exist in harmony with nature (and with all living beings). There is no deity as such in Taoism, which conceptualizes ultimate reality as a primal energy. This energy is expressed in the world in the form of two equal and opposing forces, the “yin” or passive female force, and the “yang” or active male force. These forces are neither good nor evil, and what is desirable is that they be in balance at all times.

The tension between yin and yang creates “qi” (pronounced “chee” and sometimes transliterated as “chi”) or life energy. Qi is found in all things, but particularly living creatures. The manipulation of qi is at the root of many traditional Chinese practices including acupuncture, feng shui and tai chi. According to legend, command of qi flow (as practiced by “qigong” masters) brings many mystical powers similar to those of the Jedi, such as the ability to move objects with the mind. In the movies, the name of Jedi Master “Qui-Gon Jin” is probably a deliberate reference to “qi gong.”

(Since Taoism is more of a philosophy than a religion, it is often combined together with religious beliefs from other traditions, such as Buddhism or Christianity.)

The second major source of the Jedi Way is Buddhism, specifically Zen, a variant found largely in Japan. As with most forms of Buddhism, Zen preaches “non-attachment,” the letting go of emotional bonds to people, places and things. The ultimate goal is to reach a selfless state of dispassionate compassion for all living things. Like the Jedi knights, Buddhist monks are ascetic and celibate. Zen monks are known, at least in the popular imagination, for developing a particular ability or craft to the point where it can be practiced with no conscious effort and nearly superhuman skill.

The third major source for the Jedi worldview is Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion which viewed the world as an eternal battlefield between the forces of good and evil. Although Zoroastrianism has only small pockets of practitioners left in the modern world, it was a major influence on many other philosophies and religions. Echoes of it are present in many places, including the way many modern Christians conceptualize the devil as a force opposite and nearly equal to God.

Finally, the Jedi philosophy is overlaid with a code of chivalry based on that practiced by the medieval knights of Europe, who operated by a code of ethics including strict rules for combat, high standards of courtesy, warrior virtues such as honor, loyalty and bravery and a veneration of courtly love. The knightly facet of the Jedi is exemplified in the movies by their preference for the “elegant” light sabers as opposed to the “barbaric” blasters.

The remarkable synthesis Lucas achieved in placing together these disparate elements has proved compelling for more than one generation of viewers. However, as a workable philosophy it has major flaws.

The first and most subtle of these is the conflict between Taoism and Buddhism. Although often linked in real life, Taoism and Buddhism do not always line up. In the first chapter of the “Tao Te Ching” (the chief text of Taoism) it says “let go of desires in order to observe the source, but allow yourself desires in order to observe the manifestations.” This indicates that both “attachment” and “nonattachment” are seen as having value in Taoism, as opposed to Buddhism. In addition, the Buddhist seeks to transcend the world and earthly existence, whereas the Taoist seeks to be fully integrated into the world as a part of nature and natural existence. In the movies, this becomes an issue in the way that the Jedi Council is aloof and independent from politics, yet simultaneously also deeply involved in the galactic political landscape.

The second conflict is between Taoism and Zoroastrianism. There is no “good” and “evil” in Taoism, only balance and imbalance. Neither Yin nor Yang is preferable, and both are necessary, as apposed to Zoroastrianism, where the ultimate goal is the triumph of good and the eradication of evil. This disconnect shows up as a major plot point in the second series of movies (I, II & III), where the prophecy of “balance in the Force” may possibly mean the rise of evil.

The third conflict is between Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. Again, the concept of a fight between good and evil is somewhat alien to Buddhism. A fallen Buddhist would not be an equal and opposite force to a good Buddhist, but simply someone who had become too caught up in the illusions and the material temptations of the ordinary world. A person of this sort might be cruel, venal and selfish, but would not be expected to have any particular spiritual power. This creates a paradox in the movies, in that the Jedi draw power from controlling their emotions, but the Sith draw power from their inability to control their emotions. In addition it creates another instance of cognitive dissonance as the wise and dispassionate Jedi choose over and over again to resolve their problems through violence.

The final conflict is between Buddhism and chivalry. Buddhism preaches non-attachment, but one of the key characteristics of the medieval knights was passionate attachment. Loyalty to one’s lord and to one’s comrades-in-arms was among the highest virtues, and a courtly, romantic (and theoretically chaste) love between a knight and his lady was celebrated as an ideal. Also, in as much as chivalry stems from Christianity, it carries the idea of love as a powerful redemptive force.

This disconnect creates some of the most powerful paradoxes in the movies. In the first series (IV, V & VI) Yoda and Obi-Wan counsel control of emotions, and warn Luke against the dangers of his affection for his friends, and his unreasonable love for his father. Yet it is Luke’s decision to ignore this seemingly wise advice that provides most of the high points of the first series. In the end, Luke is proven right when his ill-advised love for his father finally uncovers the good left in Darth Vader, and brings about the final end to the Sith. Therefore, love is ultimately shown to be even more powerful than the light side of the Force (which failed to conquer its counterpart in all five chronologically previous movies).

Conversely, the second series suffers from taking its doctrine of non-attachment too seriously. The Jedi Council consequently comes across as cold and uncaring –a fact which drives Anakin into the more hot-blooded arms of the Dark Side. In addition, this set of movies is in the strange position of positing love as the enemy. Although Anakin clearly has psychotic tendencies, the movie insists on blaming his moments of indiscriminate slaughter on his “love” for his mother and his wife. Even Obi-Wan’s platonic love for his padawan does nothing except cloud his judgment.

It is this too-fully-realized disdain for emotion that, more than anything else, makes the second series inferior to the first.