The Consolation of Philosophy

Within the space of a few days, one of my close relatives turned eighteen, another turned fifty-five, and a third turned ninety. The last celebration in particular brought the extended family together around the close of the Christmas season, having a Christmas gift exchange one evening followed by a lavish meal, then assembling in a restaurant the following night, culminated by an open house the next afternoon for friends from the neighborhood and the congregation.

This, then, was how I spent my Christmas vacation, sleeping in the house of a relative and eating food cooked by that same relative. Vacation schedules are always out of step with regular life—especially at this relative’s house, where breakfast is served late in the morning, lunch is served well after noon, and dinner might not reach the table until nine o’clock at night. (At home I usually eat breakfast around seven a.m., lunch at 11:30 or noon, and dinner at 5:30 or 6 p.m.) My reading pattern adjusts to fit the new schedule. When I wake up at this relative’s house, I get dressed and grab a cup of coffee, then start the day reading from the Bible and from some devotional book. (At home I often don’t do that reading until after dinner.)

My devotional reading for 2018 is selected portions from the Christian writers of medieval Europe. Many Christians today neglect the medieval writers, skipping from Augustine to Luther, with perhaps a nod toward secular writers like Chaucer. I delight in the literature of the Middle Ages, from the Authurian legends to the songs of the Niebelung (the source material for Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle operas), Beowulf, Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. The theologian/philosophers of that time are equally awesome, from the mystics to the scholastics, with many beneficial teachings about the Bible and about Christian living.

So it happened one morning that I was sipping coffee and reading Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy (written in the year 524) while my host studied the morning paper and my hostess was at work in her kitchen. The coming open house was intended to be a stunning display of her home itself, but also of her culinary skills. She was preparing more than a dozen finger foods, from fruit skewered on a stick to fancy hors d’oeuvres like her mother used to make. I had already sifted through family photographs to select dozens of images of the birthday guest at various stages of life, and these were also scattered around the house. Various family members were enlisted at various times to help prepare the food and the house. Furniture had to be rearranged to accommodate the guests and to hold all the food that would be served.

Here is a sample of what I was reading that morning: “Wealth cannot give a man everything and make him entirely self-sufficient, even though this is what money seems to promise. But I think it most important to observe that there is nothing in the nature of wealth to prevent it being taken from those who have it…Therefore, a man needs the help of others to protect his money…But he wouldn’t need it, if he had no money to lose… The situation is upside down, for riches, which are supposed to make men self-sufficient, actually make them dependent on the help of others… Don’t the wealthy become hungry and thirsty; don’t they feel cold in the winter? You may argue that they have the means to satisfy their hunger and thirst and to protect themselves against the cold. Nevertheless, the needs remain, and riches can only minimize them. For if needs are always present and making demands that must be met by spending money, clearly there will always be some need which is unsatisfied… Though the rich man has a flowing torrent of gold, his avarice can never be fully satisfied. He may decorate his neck with oriental pearls and plow his fertile lands with a hundred oxen, but biting care will not leave him during life, and when he dies his wealth cannot go with him.”

A call from the kitchen reminded us that help was needed, certain tasks still needed to be accomplished. My host sighed, set down his Wall Street Journal, and left the room to pull a serving table out of storage. I also set aside my reading for a more opportune time and checked to see how I could be of service. J.

Advertisements

Six versions of reality

What is real? What things truly exist, and what things are part of our lives only due to our own imagination?

Most of the college classes I teach are world history surveys, but occasionally I get to teach a comparative religions class or an introduction to philosophy. In the latter, the students and I explore the question of what is real. We consider the three views of reality that are commonly held in western philosophy, but I also raise three other views of reality that accompany the usual three views.

One view of reality is called materialism. In this context, materialism is not dedication to money and the things money can buy; materialism is the belief that nothing is real unless it is scientifically detectable. Materialists do not believe in God. They do not believe in angels, demons, or djinn. They do not believe in a human soul or spirit. Anything that might be considered a human soul or mind is regarded as a function of material events. Materialists do not deny the existence of intangible qualities such as love or justice, but they point out that love and justice cannot be described apart from the interaction of material beings. For love to exist, there must be a lover and a beloved. Both those individuals can be studied scientifically to find material explanations for the experience that is called love.

Another view of reality is called idealism. In this context, idealism is not dedication to a cause with the firm conviction that it is right and will prevail; idealism is the belief that only minds and ideas are real. What people experience as the material world does not consist of material objects, but of ideas that have taken a tangible form or expression. Idealists like to show that the material world and its rules are logically impossible. For example, motion is impossible, because to reach point A I must first reach point B which is halfway there; to reach point B I must first reach point C which is halfway there; in the end, I must travel through an infinite number of points before I can arrive anywhere. Idealists express the concept of “mind over matter.” They say that the problems we perceive are part of our thinking, not part of the real world. When we change our thinking, we can overcome sickness, poverty, sorrow, and any other problem that we think exists.

A third view of reality is called dualism. Dualists believe that the material world is real, but they also believe that the world of ideas is real. Dualists speak of God and creation. They speak of the human soul or mind and of the human body. They describe reality as the intersection of the material and the spiritual. Many western thinkers are dualists. Opponents of dualism sometimes describe the dualist view of a human being as “a ghost in a machine.” They refuse to accept a universe with two sets of rules; they are convinced that either matter is truly real or spirit is truly real. The opposite, they say, is only imaginary; it does not really exist.

A fourth view of reality denies the existence of both matter and spirit. While this approach is rare in western philosophy, it is often encountered in Hindu and Buddhist thought. The senses seem to perceive a material world, but the Hindu or Buddhist says that world is only an illusion. The Hindu or Buddhist goes on to say that the sense of mind, of thinking, or of the sense of a self is also an illusion. The practice of both religions involves the effort to escape both illusions—to stop thinking of the human body and the material world as real, and also to stop thinking of the human mind and the immaterial self as real.

Along with these four possibilities—and anyone who acknowledges the first three should really make room for the fourth as well—I have suggested two more possibilities to my students. Both are variations on dualism, but in each possibility one reality is more real than the other. One is the source of the other, and the second cannot exist alone—it is contingent on the first.

In the first possibility, the material world is fundamentally real, but the world of mind and spirit is also real. Mind and spirit cannot exist, though, without matter. Whatever we define as mind or spirit or soul is real, but its cause still comes from the material world. No mind could exist without a body to house that mind. God can exist, but he requires the material universe in which to exist; without the universe, according to this possibility, there could be no God.

In the second possibility, the spiritual world is fundamentally real, but the world which is scientifically observed is also real. Matter cannot exist without spirit. All that we perceive in the material world is the result of a spiritual origin. God is spirit, but he called the material world into being and still interacts with it. He is responsible for the laws of nature, but he also has the power to break those laws whenever it pleases him to do so.

All six of these views of reality are internally consistent and are capable of interpreting the universe without contradiction, based on the presuppositions of each system. Thinkers can compare the systems and debate them, but each requires postulates that proponents of the others might not be willing to grant. As far as I can tell, though, the final system (in which the spiritual world is fundamentally real and the material world is real but contingent) best matches the universe as described in the Bible and in traditional Christianity. J.

Soren Kierkegaard

He was a theologian, a philosopher, a poet, and a public figure. He tried to use his personal experiences as metaphors for the life of Christian faith. He sought to reform Christianity in his homeland, but he ended up confusing both believers and unbelievers. He is called the father of existentialism, although he probably would recognize no relationship between his writings and the existentialists of later generations.

Soren Kierkegaard was born in Denmark in May 1813. By virtue of his birth in Denmark and his baptism, he was officially a Christian citizen of a Christian land. The state church in Denmark was Lutheran, but its schools of theology and philosophy were heavily influenced by the great thinkers of the time, particularly Hegel. Many common Christians reacted against the state church with a movement called Pietism, which stressed an inner, emotional relationship with God. Kierkegaard’s family was drawn toward Pietism and it is reflected in his writings; but Kierkegaard opposed both the philosophic Christianity of the state church and the sometimes shallow and prosaic thinking of the Pietists.

Kierkegaard wrote his Master’s thesis on The Concept of Irony, with regard especially to the person of Socrates. Much of the rest of his writing, both published and private, reflected his interest in irony. Kierkegaard wrote many of his greatest works under pseudonyms, which was not unusual in the nineteenth century—Samuel Clemens wrote as Mark Twain and Charles Dodgson as Lewis Carroll. But Kierkegaard employed a series of pseudonyms, each using a different approach toward communication and toward understanding truth. In this way, he experimented with various ways of dealing with the conflicts within the Christian teachings of his time, without necessarily committing himself to any one approach. If Kierkegaard were alive today, he likely would have six or seven WordPress accounts, each under a different name, each publishing different messages, and probably debating one another in the comments of each blog.

Under his own name, Soren Kierkegaard published “Edifying Discourses” throughout his writing career. These were devotional essays, not in the sense of one or two page reflections on Christian topics, but more as lengthy (twenty pages or more) approaches to faith and Christian living. He wrote in the style of his time, not with short declarative statements, but with complex sentences that enabled him to relate a number of intertwined thoughts and themes. Although his writings are not easy to understand, they are worth the effort to read, for much of what Kierkegaard wrote nearly two hundred years ago applies to faith and Christian life today.

At the same time of his “Edifying Discourses,” Kierkegaard wrote a series of works that were semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical, somewhat philosophical, and somewhat theological. These include Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, Reflections, and Stages on Life’s Way. Kierkegaard’s relationship with Regina Olsen, to whom he was engaged for some weeks, apparently inspired much of his thinking about total commitment to God, renunciation of the world, the meaning of Christian faith, and the power of love—human love and God’s love. Fear and Trembling also marks the first of three great pre-Freudian psychological works, also including the Concept of Anxiety and The Sickness unto Death. In these three books, Kierkegaard explored the meaning of faith in the life of a sinful man, the need for God’s grace to bring, not only forgiveness of sins, but reconciliation to God and discovery of the true self.

Kierkegaard’s towering great works are the Philosophical Fragments and the ironically titled Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, which is several times as long as the work to which it is a postscript. The Fragments was Kierkegaard’s clearest statement of the meaning of Christianity to that time, although it is often overlooked in favor of the Postscript. In these works, Kierkegaard stated that “truth is subjectivity.” This does not mean that truth is relative, or that it is different for each individual. It means that truth is not significantly true if it does not matter to the believer. For example, if you are not Japanese and have no dealings with the government of Japan, the truth that Tokyo is the capital of Japan is probably not significant to you. You know it is true, but you do not treat it as a Truth. Kierkegaard spoke against those writers who contemplated the truths of Christianity without treating them as significant truths, but merely used them as starting points to wander into deep thoughts far removed from Christian Truth.

Kierkegaard did not believe that it is necessary to prove the existence of God. He found every such truth to be evidence of a lack of faith rather than evidence of Christian faith. In so doing, Kierkegaard compared Christian faith to a leap into the unknown, trusting the promises of God without requiring proof as a prelude to faith.

At this point in his career, Kierkegaard became a public figure in Denmark much as the Kardashians are public figures today. People did not understand what he wrote, and they did not try to understand. Instead, the newspapers mocked his posture, his wardrobe, and other aspects of his personal life. Instead of defending himself, Kierkegaard used the experience of public ridicule to expose the problem of what George Orwell would later call “groupthink.” Kierkegaard insisted upon the importance of the individual against the demands of society. This led him to emphasize the Pietistic notion that individual faith matters more than church membership. As a result, Kierkegaard’s later writings constitute attacks on what today would be labeled “organized religion,” although these attacks were interspersed with continued devotional discourses which contain some of the most beautiful and meaningful expressions of faith and Christian living that he ever produced.

Kierkegaard is considered difficult to read today. He used the writing style of his time, and often parodied that style in his effort to undercut the prevalence of Hegelian thinking among the professional writers of his time. At the same time, no reader can understand Kierkegaard without first comprehending the Biblical themes that inspired him, as well as the writings of Martin Luther and of the Lutheran theologians who followed Luther. Kierkegaard’s writings cannot be meaningfully reduced to a sentence-a-day calendar. Many of the quotes of Kierkegaard that appear in later writings are taken out of context, ignoring the approach of the pseudonym under which he was writing, or missing the surrounding context which supplied meaning to the individual statement of a single sentence.

For those interested in starting to learn how Kierkegaard wrote, I recommend two of his shorter works. The first is Fear and Trembling, written during the time that Kierkegaard was obsessed with the Christian significance of his broken engagement. Using the account of Abraham, who was commanded to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to the Lord, Kierkegaard discussed the significance of doing what would otherwise seem wrong because the Lord commanded it. The second is The Sickness unto Death. Here Kierkegaard discusses the meaning of sin, of redemption, and of faith, all in context of his earlier writings (including the Concept of Anxiety and the Philosophical Fragments), but in a way that successfully stands alone. Read with the presupposition of the truth of Christian teachings, and with confidence in the truth of the books of the Bible, these works express a genuine and deep Christian faith and a thorough understanding of what it means to exist as a Christian in a largely-unbelieving world.

The twentieth-century existential writers considered themselves heirs of Kierkegaard, although he would have disagreed with most of what they wrote. Drawing on the themes of the importance of the individual, and the need for a subjective relationship with the Truth, those writers overlooked the Christian and Lutheran voice in Kierkegaard’s works and largely miss the real meaning of what he was communicating. In one sense, Kierkegaard would feel vindicated by this reaction; he frequently reveled in the knowledge that he was widely misunderstood. On the other hand, Kierkegaard appreciates the “single individual whom I can call my reader,” one who patiently follows Kierkegaard on his winding paths of communication and finds the treasures of Christ’s Gospel hidden in various places along those paths. I hope that, for this title of his reader, I am qualified. J.