Saturday, January 18, 2014

Philosophy and Theology WAR! What Is It Good For?

Absolutely NOTHING! Say it again...

Sam Harris in Moral Landscape said:

"Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. There are two reasons why I haven't done this: First, while I have read a fair amount of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of mind. Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like “metaethics,” “deontology,” “noncognitivism,” “antirealism,” “emotivism,” etc., directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe. My goal, both in speaking at conferences like TED and in writing this book, is to start a conversation that a wider audience can engage with and find helpful. Few things would make this goal harder to achieve than for me to speak and write like an academic philosopher. Of course, some discussion of philosophy will be unavoidable, but my approach is to generally make an end run around many of the views and conceptual distinctions that make academic discussions of human values so inaccessible. While this is guaranteed to annoy a few people, the professional philosophers I've consulted seem to understand and support what I am doing." (Note 1, Chapter 1; emphasis mine)
I stood up and applauded when I read that. Well, mentally, anyway; I read most of the book in the break rooms at my job while I ate lunch, which means a literal standing ovation-of-one would've been awkward.

If I may repeat the gem here, in paraphrase: 
Academic philosophy "directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe." That's a fact!

The boredom property of philosophy impacts it's relative value to human well-being, since that which bores gets ignored. That's another fact. I'm sure that professional philosophers must highly value their work, and who am I to judge them unworthy of their pay, since no one is forced to pay them (except undergrads required to take Philosophy 101)?

But my twenty-year teaching career left me with the impression that if you want your lessons to be remembered (and thus impact your students and through them the world) then your first priority must always be to NOT. BORE. THEM.

And haven't most of us had to endure a boring teacher? Or two? What positive or empowering impact did they have on us? Couldn't we all agree that the time we spent ignoring boring teachers was time wasted?

It's common sense, perhaps, that what is boring gets ignored, and certainly the advertising and visual mass media and video game industries have learned this lesson. Knowledge transmission to unmotivated learners is a thorny problem every teacher faces (excepting perhaps human sexuality teachers and military ordnance instructors; humans are pathologically obsessed with sex and weapons).
When I was a Christian, I was taught one doctrine more consistently than all others: God’s #1 priority is saving sinners, and He wants you to share His priorities.

While teaching Christian doctrine for twenty years, I wrestled with that thorny problem mentioned above. I studied theology with the intent of communicating Bible teachings to distractible, often religion-averse teens. My conclusions: say it fast, say it simply, and repeat it often. Otherwise, you might as well not bother saying it.

When I wasn't teaching Christian beliefs I was teaching history classes-- another area to which the average teen comes prepared to be bored by yet another worthless (to them) subject. And the majority of tools available to high school history teachers make no attempt to capture the ever-dwindling attention spans of social media saturated teens. The poor teacher is left with the task of creating their own tools for transmitting critical knowledge to his or her students.

Having to face that task week after week, in four or five different subjects, and in my tiny school often having the same students in two or more classes-- pressuring the teacher to change up their strategies for every single class-- this is often simply a physical impossibility.

The biggest single sense of relief I've ever experienced was when I finally got off that maddening treadmill, and no longer had to personally feel responsible for the knowledge, and moreover the eternal salvation, of each new batch of students sitting in my classroom. Quitting teaching was the best thing I ever did for my own sanity.

The problem with theology and philosophy is that boredom thing Sam Harris so eloquently stated above. The first post in the first blog I ever made (, which I maintained between 2005 and 2010) was titled "Theology is Worthless." I was still a sold-out Christian, deep in the delusion, when I wrote it. Most of it appears below, for your reading pleasure (please remember, what follows is my former Christian believer self talking, and as such does not reflect my current atheist perspective):

Teaching high school kids is what I do. My job is to get across to them ideas about God and about history... Not an easy task.

Attention deficit is a disorder they all have. Some more than others. Without real energy and creativity put into a lesson, it simply will bounce around the room and never enter their minds. It’s gotta be practical, it’s got to have some usefulness that THEY can perceive to their immediate future. And why shouldn't they demand that?

Mission work is something else that I have done. And occasionally still do. There, too, is an attention problem, but rooted in the weaknesses of translation. If it can't be put into a simple form, they can’t get it, because the translator cannot take it from your language and put it into theirs.

Between mission work and teaching high school I have learned this: if you can't say it simply, it isn't worth saying. Which calls into question much of higher learning and theological studies. I’m not talking about science or math, here; just the humanities, especially my areas, history and religion. Most particularly, religion.

I believe that the highest priority of God for human beings is that they be saved. I think their eternal lives are the number one priority for Him, and should be for those who take His name in connecting to a religion.

... The high school in which I strive to teach teenagers is owned and operated by the SDA church. And in the twenty years I've been called a member of this denomination, I think many of my fellow members see this high priority of God the same way I do.

So, if the first priority is saving people for eternity, and the message must be simple enough to communicate to teenagers and to translate across all languages, then someone needs to explain to me why we waste so much time dissecting Biblical theology. When Jesus came, He quoted often from the Bible, but He didn't say things that I can’t grasp. But many Bible teachers, preachers, and especially theology professors, speak in terms that I can’t fathom. I was taught the terminology, and research methods, and even a little Biblical Greek, but it never figured into my work with teens or in the mission field.

Many in my church pride themselves in being amateur theologians. I think they would even balk at being labelled amateurs, but I only use that term to distinguish them from the ones who get paid... There’s no shortage of amateur publishers and bloggers and preachers and teachers out there, investing enormous sums of money and hours and days cranking out material that never really saves a single soul.

What a tragedy, I think... meanwhile, the world is getting more and more crass and perverted and hard-to-reach. And what are the theologians busy doing? Wasting time, wasting money, diverting energy and funds from the number one priority, and often confusing people.

So this question remains, and weighs heavy on my mind: If you took Ockham's razor and applied it to the academic disciplines of philosophy and theology, would anything remain? If the most salvific (what a stupid made-up theological term, eh?) way to express the Gospel and the most impressive and meaningful way to answer philosophical questions is the SIMPLEST way, then why bother with most of the pompous, technical, boring output of these twin disciplines? Wouldn't Ockham's razor cut away 99% of what philosophers and theologians have produced?

If there is a heaven, and any human is lucky enough to make it there, I wonder how many of its citizens will give testimonials of gratitude for the theologians and philosophers who helped them get there?

Sorry if I bored you.

1 comment:

  1. One year while I was an undergraduate, I was the Editor In Chief of the student newspaper. The University had close to 30,000 students. I convinced two philosophy professors to write a weekly "Point Counterpoint" type debate. They were both excellent (and hilarious) writers and the columns were extremely popular and generated about 50 percent of the Letters to the Editor. One night they convinced me to go to the monthly Philosophy Club meeting where the all of the professors in the department felt they were morally obligated to get drunk with their students. I had no idea I was getting into a vicious ambush.

    My Rhetoric degree was in the University's Communication Department, which had one of the world's foremost Frankfurt School critical communication theorists, which essentially worships the work of Jürgen Habermas. They spent the whole two hours hounding me to change my major to Philosophy, and ravaged the Comm department, calling the Frankfurt guy an ignorant bozo. I decided to sponsor a public debate between the Philosophy Department's loudest critic and the Comm's Habermas guy. Sort of a gladiator event for people with IQs of 200 or so.

    The shocking part was, more than 500 students showed up for this debate. Each professor presented a long 15 minute opening salvo pre-written ahead of time, and then each spent 10 minutes extemporaneously on rebuttal. It got a 10 minute standing ovation at the end. It was wildly popular.