Friday, July 30, 2010

The Philosophy Group: A Revisitation Through Gutierrez and Benedict

I realize a decent amount of time has expired since our last philosophy group. I haven’t gotten around to summing up the night’s discussion, along with posing provocative (and usually either opaque or meaningless) questions. Instead of racking my memory to achieve that goal today, I intend to present two quotations that I think represent two divergent perspectives on the issues surrounding our meeting. The first is by Gustavo Gutiérrez, from the text we discussed during the meeting. The second is by Pope Benedict XVI, from his Introduction to Christianity. (It’s actually from his newest introduction to the book, which was written within the last five years or so.) I guess the idea is to see, first of all, whether or not they disagree with one another; and, if so, to pick apart the disagreements in light of our own readings of history, Church teaching, sociology, theology, and our own personal experiences.

1. Gutiérrez, from his A Theology of Liberation: “The construction – from its economic bases – of the ‘polis,’ of a society in which people can live in solidarity, is a dimension which encompasses and severely conditions all of man's activity. It is the sphere of the exercise of a critical freedom which is won down through history. It is the universal determinant and the collective arena for human fulfillment.”

(If I remember correctly, this specific quotation was discussed throughout the night. This sounds extremely Marxist – and, by the way, I’m not presupposing that this means it’s incorrect, or even off base at all. I’m simply pointing out that Gutiérrez gives the economic and political spheres of man primacy in all of his interaction. In some ways, we can’t discuss man, according to Gutiérrez, outside of these spheres.)

2. B16, from his Introduction to Theology: “Now Marx appeared to be the great guidebook. He was said to be playing now the role that had fallen to Aristotle in the thirteenth century; the latter’s pre-Christian (that is, “pagan”) philosophy had to be baptized, in order to bring faith and reason into the proper relation to each other. But anyone who accepts Marx (in whatever neo-Marxist variation he may choose) as the representative of worldly reason not only accepts a philosophy, a vision of the origin and meaning of existence, but also and especially adopts a practical program. For this “philosophy” is essentially a “praxis”, which does not presuppose a “truth” but rather creates one. Anyone who makes Marx the philosophy of theology adopts the primacy of politics and economics, which now become the real powers that can bring about salvation (and, if misused, can wreck havoc)” (“Preface to the New Edition” in Introduction to Christianity 14-15).

(In particular, the end of this quotation seems to contradict Gutiérrez. The very idea that our consciousness is rooted in the economic sphere – and is, therefore, necessarily political – is what B16 seems to find problematic in liberation theologies. By the way, B16’s argument isn’t contained in here. You really need to read his whole book if you want that. I highly, highly recommend it. I suppose the same comment can be applied to the Gutiérrez quotation.)

So, in conclusion, do these two ideas cross each other out? Is one of these two inherently incorrect, or misguided? Discuss amongst yourselves.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

“Leaps of Faith:” The Scientist’s and the Religious’: Part #2 in the Series “Science and Beyond Science”

I will not be expounding or discussing the regular use of the phrase “leap of faith.” Instead, I intend to argue that every line of thinking, everything formulation of an idea, takes its own leap of faith. I intend to shift the burden of proof to the scientist – or, at the very least, to somewhat even the playing field.

What we often refer to as a leap of faith is nothing more than recognizing the plausibility of the following statement: “I do not have enough faith in science and physics to accept that all of reality can be known through the narrow confines of the scientific method.” Why would it be the case that all that is true and real can be epistemologically proven? We go outside of epistemology to make this sort of statement.

Let me use an analogy. Let us imagine a house that is a mile away from us, the viewers and observers. Let us imagine that we have certain tools, like binoculars and computers – we even have a heat-sensing tool that allows us to discover somewhat of the nature of certain things through the walls. Now we observe. We can see through the windows quite easily; we see certain people as the pass the windows. We can see the outside of the house; we can see people if they come outside, or anything they bring outside. We can use the heat-sensing tool to recognize other forms of things within the house. But there is a limit to what we can see and observe from our position. Let us imagine that there is a dresser in a room, and this room is without windows; the dresser exudes no heat. With our tools, we would not be able to scientifically posit the existence of the dresser. This would be the case for many of the items within the house. However, it would be somewhat foolish to assume that only what we could prove empirically from our one-mile distance actually existed. There are things within the house that necessarily cannot be sensed or proven using the tools that we have. Now, it may be reasonable to state the claim, “I only accept the existence of something within the house that I can prove empirically.” This is rational. However, that does not translate into claiming the overstatement: “Only what I can prove empirically exists.” This is nearly as ridiculous as another observer, without any reason whatsoever, claiming that there exists a clown in the basement.

I think this is like empirical proof. Our tools for sensing and understanding the material world around us are vastly powerful. But they are only able to understand reality as it conforms to their abilities of sensing. Just as the dresser in the house was necessarily outside of the reach of the tools, so too might there exist other properties of reality that are outside of the reach of the empirical sciences. Like with the analogy, I think it a reasonable claim to say, “I do not believe in what I cannot prove empirically;” but to go beyond this and claim only “what I can prove empirically exists” is not logical.

I’m not boiling down the “leap of faith” to a statement of logic or probability. However, I’m reassigning the onus of proof. If a scientist wants to claim that nothing exists but what can be known through the sciences, he is making his own leap of faith – a leap, I may say, that is not scientific. A religious person, on the other hand, who makes his own leap of faith, at least makes one in line with religion. His leap is one based on moral and religious conviction. In other words, the religious man’s leap of faith is justified by his set of rules – belief, religion, faith – but the scientist’s leap of faith, in this instance, is not justified by his set of rules, such as the scientific method, laws of physics, etc.

As with every analogy, this one limps; however, how it limps can be helpful to additionally understanding the subject. In the said example, the dresser undetected by the tools of investigation was a completely different object than, say, the people that had walked past the window. This would seem to argue that there are, perhaps, invisible objects that our senses cannot detect. Now, I’m not saying that this isn’t the case; but at the moment, that’s not the objective of my argument. I’m more concerned with understanding that there may be principles of objects we can detect by our senses that have non-material properties – properties of final causation, purpose, or moral order, for example. There may be principles and structures of reality that do not conform to empirical diagnosis – and, not only would be it outside of the bounds of science to say these don’t exist because they can’t be empirically proven, it will also be a self-proving point. Science cannot make the claim that only science can make claims about reality.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Materialism and Radical Materialism: “Why Science Can’t Say Only Physical Matter Exists:” Part #1 in the Series "Science and Beyond Science"

I constantly have abstract arguments and logical syllogisms racing through my head – or, more appropriately, blindly knocking around my head, heedless of their all-too-often nonsensical and inconsequential nature. Recently, one of the central debates raging inside the corridors of my often-miscalculating mind has been the dispute between what I’m calling science and beyond science.

To be more specific, I have been contemplating the wonder, mystery, and limits of science. I am sure to blog about a whole bunch of these thoughts, as well as a number of tangential topics. As usual, please feel free to point out my flaws. Most of this occurred strictly within the confines of my single brain, and I have known many brains acting solely (and may I add solipsisticly) to come to wacky or misguided conclusions via flawed assumptions or undue emphasis of certain things – and my brain is most definitely not an exception to this observation.

For this first thought-process, I am stealing very exorbitantly and without compunction from an American fantasy writer, John C Wright. I recently began a trilogy of his after running across his name on a list of current Catholic writers. Besides being very entertained by his books – I’m now on the second one – I was reading some of his online blog. He writes a lot concerning free will, and how free will does not contradict or pose a problem to physics. In one of his posts, he distinguished between materialism and radical materialism. Materialism is a simple acceptance that there is physical matter, and this matter is guided by rules and laws. We can use things like physics, empirical data, and the scientific method to help understand the physical matter within our universe. However, radical materialism takes it one step further: it states that all of the universe – all of reality, in fact – is composed of matter. Wright goes through why he thinks materialism does not explain the totality of reality, etc. He ends up showing how free will fits into this narrative without rattling any findings in physics or elsewhere.

However, Wright’s early dichotomy between materialism and radical materialism got me thinking about something I was discussing recently in a medieval spirituality course I’m taking at Drew. We were discussing John Wickliffe’s (rather new for the time) idea that everything Christian must have its basis in the Scriptures. In many ways, Wickliffe is an obvious predecessor to Luther. In class, we were discussing how the idea of solo Scriptura is somewhat contradictory – or, at the very least, lacking plausibility. [I’m sure people have an answer to the argument I’m about to outline; but remember, the point here is materialism, not religion.] There is nothing within the Scriptures that says the Scriptures are the only thing that contain truth; you must posit an outside idea, belief, or revelation that argues that solo Scriptura holds water. But the problem should be obvious: you are using an outside idea or revelation to make the point that no outside ideas or revelations should be trusted, only those that find their root in Scriptures.

Let me draw the analogy. There is nothing within materialism, within the physical sciences, that allows it to posit radical materialism: to say to there is only material in the universe. It is simply not within the scope of what science or materialism can do. This is not to belittle or scorn science, but to simply point out its necessary limitations. You can’t use a method that only studies physical matter to claim that there is only physical matter. This is akin to using a specific lens that only reveals certain colors to prove that only those colors actually exist. Well, the lens is only made to see those colors, so obviously it cannot see the rest of the colors. And so with science: of course it can only find or prove that matter exists, for all science can talk about it physical matter. This is a somewhat obvious point, but it often seems to go unnoticed.

It is outside of the bounds of science to discuss non-material existence – free will, intention, real emotions, real thought, metaphysics – and so it should be an obvious logical syllogism that allows us to state, even before science does, that science does will not prove or discover any of these things. If any of these things are non-material, then science simply cannot prove them. But the irony lies in the fact that scientists and materialists repeatedly sit upon the their scientific chairs and claim that material is all that the universe is composed of. This leap is, how shall I say, non-scientific?

To return to the analogy of the lens that only recognizes certain colors – let’s say blue and green – someone may object and say, “Yes, but the scientist in this case can simply put down his lens, and see that the world exists in more colors than blue and green.” My response is, yes, it is obvious that reality extends beyond the colors of blue and green. But I think it equally obvious, even if less appealing to a scientific world like our own, that there exists more to reality than physical matter. Everyone experiences free will; everyone has experienced emotion – love, fear, regret, guilt, or loss – as something beyond its physical properties. Now, I’m not saying these “experiences” prove the existence of non-material reality; what I’m saying is that they point to, even in an empirical sort of way, something beyond materialism.

One may claim that our emotions are completely connected to or dependent on the physical matter of our brains – but even this sort of connection or dependence cannot then make the bold claim that, therefore, there is only material in this universe. If there is connection between my emotion of loss – say, when a person close to me dies – and something physical going on in my brain, then all you are proving is that the specific emotion is not purely non-material; you are not, however, proving that all of emotion is physical. This, quite simply, is outside the bounds of what science can say.

Rightfully so, an objector may ask the following questions: A) Knowing what we know of science, what actually points us in the direction of the existence of non-material reality? OK, so science can’t say “only material exists,” but what would lead us to say there is stuff beyond matter, other than long-held superstition? B) If you’re claiming that empiricism cannot truly discuss the non-material, then how is one to talk about it?

To answer B, I say, “Philosophy.” Pick up and read Aristotle. The man is not a dualist who believed in non-material Forms like Plato, but he is definitely discussing the existence of non-material reality. Answering A takes more time, and perhaps that’s what I’ll work on next: for I truly think our basic experience of the world around us points us beyond radical materialism 100 times a day; but in a scientific world, we either don’t recognize these moments, or we are afraid of claiming them as such. I plan on stepping beyond these fears very soon.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Ramblings of an Incoherent and Unqualified Sailor, part #1: The Mystery of the Origins of the Universe

I don’t intend to get uber-philosophic here; nor do I intend to get swamped by scientific fact. I have even less of a claim to this latter knowledge, even considering the very little claim I have to the former. Perhaps not diving too deeply into either of these disciplines is problematic when discussing this topic, especially the absence of pertinent and contemporary scientific data; and perhaps this will prove to be the downfall of my overall idea or conclusion. Perhaps. You can be the judge of that. I simply intend to ramble in a slightly more than incoherent fashion. Using an analogous image, I sort of see the direction and pertinence of my ideas as a drunken sailor attempting to teach himself calculus, while barely having a footing in algebra one. Here it goes.

No matter how you figure it, the answer to the questions surrounding the origins of the universe is a bizarre one. There’s no way around it. If you categorize the different possibilities by placing them into groups, perhaps you could come up with three or four distinct classes of answers – perhaps more. (I will be attempting to categorize them in a few moments.) What I see as present in each of the possible answers is two things: 1) an encounter with something eternal or non-material, or at least different from the temporality of everything else we experience on a material and scientific level; and 2) an answer that is distinctly different, both in terms of logic and empirical conclusions, from any other subject or question we pose – especially in the scientific field.

The interesting part of this is the fact that one of them must be correct. The universe does in fact exist; I exist. (Yes, I’m telling you to take your Cartesian doubt and flush it down the toilet for a moment: there are things that exist, independently of whether or not we can prove them empirically.) The very existence of anything whatsoever has such bizarre consequences.

Allow me to attempt to break down the different classes of answers to the following question, “How is it that the universe, at least the material universe, exists?”

Answer One: God. Here I place all answers that deal with a deity or deities that can create ex nihilo, out of nothing. These answers are somewhat simple, at least to begin with. How is it things exist? Easy: there is a being or beings that can create matter, space, mass, etc. from nothing. Of course, this answer only brings up a separate, similar question: what sort of being is this? This post does not intend to answer this question, or even categorize the different types of answers to this question. Let me simply say that this being must be non-material, at least in a certain sense – for if the cause of all matter in the universe is material, then it wouldn’t be the cause of everything material in the universe; therefore, it is non-material. Besides the fact that we are now discussing something non-material, something not able to be discussed in scientific terms – science can only deal with things empirically, and non-material beings cannot be dealt with in this manner; science necessarily deals solely with the material – we are dealing with answering a question, an important question, in a bizarre sort of way. We are positing that the cause of everything that is physical is something non-physical. No matter what way you spin it, this is bizarre. (By the way, bizarre in the way I’m using it here is closely aligned with the terms awe-inspiring, mind-boggling, or beyond our intellectual reach.)

(There are two good responses to this: a) Well, this being could be material; and something else could have been the cause of it; etc. ad infinitem. This sort of infinite regress theory will be addressed later; b) Well, this being could be material; but it could have been the cause of itself. On the one hand, all we know about matter and material is that it can’t be the cause of itself. However, the theory of a self-created universe will also be discussed later.)

Two: The universe has always existed; therefore, we don’t need to find a cause for it, since there is none. This, of course, gets us into problems with the philosophic idea of “sufficient reason:” Does everything need a sufficient reason for being the way it is? Does everything need a sufficient cause for existing? I would throw the idea of infinite regresses into this category. For everything physical and material, there must be a cause for it. Instead of taking this line of reasoning and coming to the conclusion Aristotle and many others have, saying there must be a Unmoved Mover for we can’t keep finding a cause behind every effect, there must be a stopping place – instead of this, the proponent of infinite regresses says that there is always a reasonable explanation behind each physical effect, and it is simply the physical cause behind it, and this “tracing back” can go on infinitely. Although I disagree with the idea of infinite regresses existing physically (as opposed to mathematically or abstractly), I grant them their space here is this discussion.

But despite allowing them their place, this sort of answer is bizarre in its own way. Somehow the universe, and everything physical within it, is eternal. What caused the big bang? Well, what caused that? Ad infinitum. Even if we allow this sort of reasoning, the answer remains bizarre. Scientifically, we are always looking for causes and effect – but this answer simply says, there is no real cause of the universe as a whole. Science can deal with individual pieces of the universe, but never its entirety. (Side note: My favorite question relating to this sort of answer is this: Why, then, does the universe exist at all? Why is it that something exists, instead of nothing? This isn’t a philosophical rebuttal to this second theory. It simply shows the problems and complexity of this theory as to the universe’s origins – just like all of the theories have bizarre-like complexities.)

Three: The universe is self-causing. There was nothing – and out of this nothing, something came to exist. I find this argument the least intellectually grounded; but it is an argument nonetheless. I hope the bizarre ramifications of this sort of thinking are apparent. Everything has a cause, science argues; however, in this line of argument, essentially nothing has a cause. If everything came to be at once, everything has no cause.

At the moment, I can’t think of a fourth explanation or category. If I’m wrong, please correct my error.

Reasons one and three go beyond science, as we know it. They purport something being created from nothing, which is in direct contradiction to the basic tenants of science. Reason two is probably the most scientifically based, but it too steps beyond our basic grasp of science; it regards the world as essentially eternal or infinite – and it allows the chain of causes to find no beginning. For everything in the world as we know it, we can ask, What is the cause of this? and science can give us an answer – or at least potentially it can. This works on a micro-level – what is the cause of the leaf on this tree? – and a macro-level – what are potential causes of the big bang? But according to theory two, science cannot answer the question, What is the cause of the universe? Hence, in all three, we have the limits of science.

I recognize that the scientist arguing for theory two can attest, in relation to my most recent comments, that science does in fact answer everything in the universe. For every single, physical thing, there is a physical and scientific answer. Asking the larger question of what is the cause of the universe as a whole is an artificial or contrived question. Evening granting this scientific sidestep, the idea that we cannot answer the question of the ultimate origins of the universe is bizarre, especially since theory two attests there are no ultimate origins of the universe, for it is eternal. At the very least, we can say that the universe operates on a scale different than anything else we discuss, since the idea of cause-and-effect don’t apply to it.

So what is my ultimate conclusion of this line of thinking? I’m working out a few responses. For one, it reminds me of the ultimate mystery of the universe and existence. Even cold-hard scientists that despise the idea of mystery must purport a theory that rests ultimately on mystery – a theory that ultimately answers a question in terms that no other question can or has been answered. Second, it is often the theist that is criticized for his bizarreness, his faith in a superstitious being that is non-material and has the power to create things. But isn’t the belief that the universe created itself, or the idea that the universe has always existed and is eternal – and that the universe exists simple because, well, because it is exists – isn’t this just as bizarre as accepting the philosophical argument that infinite regresses cannot exist in physical matter, and therefore there must exist some sort of Unmoved Mover?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Lived Truth: Destroying the Myth of the Objective Seeker

There have been many points in my life when I’ve internally uttered the following statements: “I want to seek truth in a genuine and authentic manner. I want to – as objectively as I can, putting aside all previous biases and assumptions – seek that which is. And no matter where this journey takes me, I will follow it. I want to judge a way of thinking, a series of analysis, simply on the grounds of logic and reason, and not be tainted by my former prejudices and beliefs.” There is a drive in me for authenticity of knowledge, experience, and personal decisions. Even if I think something is true, if it’s been “preached to me” by another person, my reaction is to discover it on my own. This is simply the person I am.

Of course, there are problems inherent in this type of thinking. How does one recognize authenticity, even in oneself? Does this authentic searching involve reading? If so, aren’t we being influenced by what we’re reading? But in my opinion, the biggest hurdle in trying to seek pure objectivity is the problem Descartes ran into; in some ways, in Descartes’ search for pure objectivity, he revealed the deepest flaws of this line of thinking. No matter how hard you try, you cannot find perspective-less reasoning. Descartes’ hyperbolic, steamroller of doubt crushes all in its path, and there is no hope of rebuilding a coherent city of logic in its wake. You cannot think without making assumptions. At the very least, my statements above made the assumptions that there is truth, that I can find it with reason, and that is it good to search for it.

I must make two points in relation to this sort of thinking. First, the idea of truth-seeking is not completely released to abject and illogical subjectivity on account of this. There are still alive the categories of “more objective” or “less objective.” We may not find an assumption-less position, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be open and genuine about what assumptions we are making. Second, this conclusion of modern philosophy is often seen as depressing and nihilistic. However, as the saying goes, “We only bemoan the absence of something when we feel it should be there.” We only find the conclusion of our reading of Descartes as disheartening if we feel there should be a perspective-less, purely objective way of thinking. But we are humans within three dimensions; we are necessarily limited by our place in space and time. Just as we must look at an object in space-time from a specific point of reference, so must we view all of truth-seeking from a specific point of reference. However, this is not to say we don’t distinguish between seeing an object fifty feet in front of us through fog, and seeing that same object right in front of our eyes, along with cameras that can show us all of the angles of the object at once. Even though both perspectives are “trapped” within space-time, we are allowed to refer to one as more objective than the other.

Although this sort of thinking used to trouble me, I find it rather comforting these days. There are two major reasons for this. First, I wondered why people didn’t find the same objective truth as much as they should have. To return to the opening statements, I know that there are thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people who have expressed the same attitude. Why, then, do these people come to so disparate conclusions? If we all want to find the truth and accept it no matter what – if we are all so desirous of authenticity – why then do we not arrive at the same conclusions – or at least similar ones? Well, one of the major answers lies in the fact of our station in space-time. I don’t discount the fact that many people, like myself, truly want to find out what really is; but we don’t all begin at the mythical perspective-less, assumption-less point zero. Nowadays, this gives me comfort, rather than disquiet.

[On a bit of a side note, I have a separate theory as to why we don’t all come to the same conclusions, despite our protestations, genuine they may be, that we seek truth no matter our former prejudices or beliefs. I ran across a wonderful line in a truly enjoyable book, The Quiet American, by Graham Greene: “Perhaps truth and humility go together; so many lies come from our pride.” My theory runs as follows: Most people who are prompted and able to ask the “big questions” of life, to seek objectivity, are intelligent, on one level or another – and with intelligence comes a strong pull toward the ego, pride. Intelligence may be a prerequisite to genuinely deep thinking; but it also threatens the individual to a worship of pride. This was the answer I arrived at years ago in college studying philosophy. I wondered how so many brilliant people could espouse just as many different philosophies of life. What I also sensed in their writing, deeper than their intelligence and acumen, was a tendency to pride. Perhaps later I will write a full post on this idea.]

The second reason I find the idea that seeking truth always comes from a perspective or assumption engaging rather than perturbing is connected to a thought that has been floating around my head a while these days. (There’s a lot of room for things to float around in my head.) This is the idea that truth is lived, not learned; truth must experienced, not arrived at abstractly. This idea is very related to my encounters with religion and philosophy, so the best way I can explain myself is to recount certain aspects of my experience.

I have a similar experience a few times throughout my life. There is something I have a problem with in terms of Christianity or Catholicism – or religion in general. The skeptic in me finds an apparent flaw in an aspect of my belief system. My usual approach is to step back from the situation and to try and view it as objectively as possible. Now, there is nothing wrong with this – and a few times I have stumbled upon an answer in just this fashion. However, more times than not, if it was a more powerful doubt, simple engagement of the faculty of my reason did not quell my uncertainty. Here is where my more recent paradigm shift comes into play: When I pretend to stay objective and authentic, I am disallowing the deepest truth to enter my self. There are so many things, and I would argue the most significant things, that can only be fully grasped when they are lived.

So I don’t understand intellectually the idea of prayer? So what. I immerse myself in prayer, and in this experience, I learn the real truth of prayer. It’s almost as if truth can only be fully understood from the inside. Philosophy, while it is great, necessarily stays on the outside. Only a leap of faith can get us to the inside. I can’t understand fully prayer unless I am doing it. Although this may have sounded in the past to me like an excuse or a rationale for the irrational – “I don’t actually understand this, but do it anyway because I say so,” or “because that’s what tradition has taught us” – I recognize this as necessary within the inherent subjectivity of our position here on earth. It’s not as if we’re accepting there is no objective truth; but it’s simply saying that you can’t encounter the objective truth unless you take that leap of faith. Remember, there is no staying neutral. You can’t take the cold scientific approach and say you’ll only believe what you can prove. Besides other things, this train of thought is making the assumption that all truth can be proved in an empirical sort of way. But this is an assumption, for there is no assumption-less position in space-time.

To make this more specific, Christianity can be analyzed intellectually. It can be found as reasonable, or perhaps unreasonable. But the real truth of Christianity can only be found in abandoning oneself to it completely; it can only be found in complete surrender. And this happens through experience of the person of Jesus. Can this be approached through logic and reason? Yes. Can its deepest reality be approached through logic and reason? No. This happens solely though throwing oneself as the foot of the Cross and experiencing the power of the Creator’s love.

I’m not sure I find myself at the Kierkegaardian position of making the leap of faith because it’s rational. All I’m saying here is that truth can’t be experienced without that leap of faith. In fact, nothing can be truly experienced without the leap of faith. The myth of the cold, hard sciences – or the authentic searcher for objective truth – no longer holds water. And this isn’t because we’re trapped in a subjective world where we can trust nothing and no one. No, this is the case because truth was never intended to be approached in this cold, hard way – it was intended to be lived and experienced.

The Philosophy Group: Social Justice & Liberation Theology


I have given too much space between the night we discussed social justice and the time I spent actively categorizing and meditating on our discussions, ramblings, disagreements, and conclusions. Therefore, permit me to admit that I will probably, more than once, misinterpret someone’s idea or main point. I am sorry.

Church’s Teaching on Social Justice

We digressed often from the, nominally speaking, main topic: the Church’s teaching on social justice. Here are three simple points that stuck in my head: 1) Every person must be given what he or she needs to develop as a person. Although I understand the often vagueness used by the Church (in order for Her not to overstate Her case, or so that the Truth can apply to all places, peoples, and times), there is a problematic indistinctness here. Who is “in charge” of making sure all people obtain what they need to develop as persons? Is biological subsistence enough to fit within this definition, or are we discussing an individual’s need to fit within a cultural level too? (Do people have a right to broadband Internet?) Are we speaking on a national or global level? Etc? 2) Private property is enormous part of a society’s insurance that it is potentially just. Regardless, this isn’t an “absolute” right. For example, your individual right to a specific piece of material property can be trumped by a greater good. 3) Giving “charity” to people who actually need it – i.e. food, water, shelter – isn’t charity, but justice. Giving people something they have a right to is justice. This is a hard truth for us.

I sped through that preliminary work to get us to what I found most engaging: the discussion of liberation theology, why it gets such a knock, how it (potentially) changes our perspective on salvation, and whether or not we can take Marxist analysis at all – I add a further section on my reflections on these matters.

Arguments Against Liberation Theologies: “Straw Men”

As Mike Clemente so aptly explained, perhaps B16’s and others’ criticism of Liberation Theology are straw man arguments. (I am not well-read enough in this area to give personal opinion.) This is the way this story goes: Yes, there are bad, violent liberation theologies; and these were and are incompatible with Church teaching. Rightfully so, the Church came out and declared these theologies as incorrect. However, this is only the extreme liberation theologies. There are more moderate ones, ones that are comparable with the Church. However, when people preach against these moderate theologies (I’m not sure moderate is the correct word, but it’s all I have recourse to at the moment), they are essentially arguing against the violent, bad theologies. Therefore, in the end, they aren’t actually making arguments against the liberation theologies, as they are espoused by, say, Gustavo Gutiérrez. Mike C said that B16’s arguments fall into this “straw man” trap. Of course, what needs to be explored, if this narrative holds water, is a more in-depth analysis of the good (moderate) theologies – those compatible with the Church. We obviously didn’t have time to go into too much depth here; however, we did discuss one of Gutiérrez’s major points concerning our perspective on salvation and the afterlife. I will get to that in a moment.

Using Marxist Analysis Within a Catholic Framework

Another problem Mike C saw in B16’s analysis is that Benedict categorically rejects any analysis that sounds as if it comes from Marx. More specifically, Gutiérrez uses Marx’s analysis of class struggle, and places it within a Catholic framework. Because Marx was a deep-set atheist and his conclusions were anti-religious, B16 distrusts anything related to Marx, and that includes some of his more basic analysis. This is an interesting question – and it goes beyond. Can we use analysis from any thinker who arrived at conclusions we disagree with? I think this is a case-by-case question. For example, a lot of Freud begins with the assumption that our sexuality is analogous to our desire to eat. His analysis that proceeds from this assumption is bound to be flawed on some level, since I believe man’s sexuality is so much more than a desire. Although it may express itself sometimes simply as a desire, it is, in my opinion, one of the deepest connections between the physical and transcendent aspects of ourselves. Because Freud looks only at sexuality’s materialistic side, he misses half of the story. On the other hand, with some of Freud’s other analysis, such as his perceptions about the unconscious, are fine to examine and use, trusting that we aren’t unknowingly accepting assumptions we find as false. Back to the discussion at hand, I think it is fine to use a portion of Marxist analysis, since I don’t find the entire critique rests on a theory that is necessarily materialistic and atheistic – some of it, definitely; but not all of it.

The Salvation Narrative as Singular

Now back to Mike C’s quoting of Gutiérrez. I know I’m doing a huge injustice to the both of them, but I must continue. Gutiérrez wanted people, and the Church, to see salvation not simply as something for the afterlife, or that there are two different modes/avenues/roads of salvation: one for this world and one for the next. Instead, our salvation story is singular – and, therefore, salvation here on earth is essentially the same as the salvation we refer to when we discuss heaven. Although I initially reacted poorly to this idea – on an emotional level, I’ll admit – I think my problem is centered more on how I view certain people can use or interpret this. This is similar, perhaps, to Mike C’s reaction to my point that life’s goal is to “get as many people in heaven as possible.” This idea could be interpreted as a complete ignoring of anything temporal or physical, i.e. “Don’t worry about the physical position of the poor since all that matters is whether or not they get to heaven.” However, this is not what the first sentence necessarily implies. Despite my acceptance of Gutiérrez’s statement (I actually find the idea quite powerful now), I will end this entry by pointing out some of my potential issues with its possible interpretations, as well as some thoughts on liberation theology in general.

My Thoughts

There is only one story of salvation, and an integral part of that narrative is Christ’s death on the Cross; therefore, it is essential (and almost obvious) that our salvation story here on earth is the same as the salvation story of heaven. In this way, I full-heartedly agree with Gutiérrez. However, what is our salvation? Fundamentally, it is a freedom, but a freedom from sin. Our salvation story is not a story about Jesus coming to ensure material success or material freedom: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Of course, I understand that there are shortcomings of focusing too much on this side of the story, i.e. “Let’s not worry at all about poverty or people’s status in society, since the kingdom is not of this world.” Regardless, humanity’s essential poverty is not a poverty of material goods, but a poverty of spiritual goods. These are two exclusive categories.

This comes down to putting Gutiérrez’s comment into practice. Yes, the salvation story is one and not two; but what part of the salvation story here on earth means trying to work for material equality here on earth? Is salvation essentially about material equality? (By the way, I’m not saying working for equality isn’t good.) I guess what I’m driving at (and I’m still working out a lot of this in my own head) is this question: what is the relationship between spiritual and material poverty? I don’t see, as some medievalists may have seen, these as two completely mutually exclusive groups. But what part of working for salvation here on earth means working for material equality or fairness? Of course, some of it is connected. A person must be treated with the human respect and dignity that his intrinsic value requires. But how else does material poverty or success or fairness actually affect the salvation story? To return to Gutiérrez, how is freeing the oppressed in a poor country working toward Christ’s salvation? I’m not saying there isn’t an answer; I just can’t think of a cogent one at the moment. I’d prefer someone else who can think beyond my limitations to let me know where I’m wrong.

My final thought on liberation theology: Because spiritual poverty is distinct from material poverty, what I sometimes find potentially problematic in liberation theologies is that the rich get overlooked. (Yes, I see the irony in this statement.) What I mean is that those who are spiritually poor but materially well-off – or at least materially comfortable – are forgotten. Now, I understand that not everyone can fight for everything, so this problem doesn’t mean that liberation theologies are in any way incorrect. However, what I see as problematic is when material poverty is emphasized more than spiritual poverty. This, of course, gets back to the connection between the two poverties. Somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind, I recognize that there is a deep connection between these the poverties, but I can’t put it into words or even emotional utterances.

Encouraging Dialogue

At times, I overstated what I believe (or overemphasized certain aspects of what I believe). But the point was so that people who disagree with me will feel led to respond. The salvation story is essentially the Christian story; it is the heart of life. I seek a better understanding of this story, but I recognize that this comes in dialogue. Where my intellect and experience ends, another’s can inform me.

{By the way, what is life’s goal? I may sum it up by saying, like Mike C, it is to show people who they truly are. However, considering we are made in the image and likeness of God, to show people who they truly are is to introduce them to Christ. If I wanted to have an eagle know what it truly was, if I didn’t mention that it could fly, or if it didn’t figure this out on its own, the eagle’s knowledge of itself would be lacking.}