Monday, March 26, 2007


Every Saturday evening when I am not sick or out of town, I drive thirty miles up to Toledo and bring back from a restaurant there at closing-time a load of left-over bread and pastry which is divided between the local home for battered women and their children, and the liberal Protestant campus ministry, where the bread is a staple of student dinners. At the Toledo end, I usually deal with a petite bright-eyed brown-haired young woman named Stephanie who looks forward to being a professor of English literature some day. That is an unwise ambition, but I have never said so to her; she might make it work, and I have no wish to discourage her. Occasionally we chat about aspects of academic life; my philological qualifications are strong enough to intrigue her (she is happily married, I hasten to say). Once, after taking the evening’s gleanings out to my station wagon, I thanked her for her help, as I always do. She answered “I do it for the same reason that you do, for the greater glory of God.” Actually, I do it so that women and children whom life has betrayed will not be hungry, but I managed to acknowledge her statement somehow and went on my way.
“For the greater glory of God”, or in the original Latin “ad majorem Dei gloriam” is one of the fixed motifs of Western European religion. From Bartlett’s “Familiar Quotations”, where the phrase is attributed to Pope Gregory XIII, I learn that the phrase appears in the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), and it is somewhat better known as the motto of the Jesuits, founded in 1540. The Council of Trent was the embodiment of the Counter-Reformation, of which the Jesuits were an instrument. When a phrase appears in two sources so close together in time and place, there is no way to be certain what was its ultimate origin, although it can be seen to have been in the air.
Is there any ultimate difference in meaning between my view of my Saturday evening activity and hers? I doubt it very much. Her expression is more general, and refers to a broader class of acts; perhaps it would also include the rainbow, which also surely may be seen as one of the glorious gifts of God. Stephanie’s background is certainly Christian, and reflects one stream of a broader point of view in Judeo-Christian tradition. In my copy of the Babylonian Talmud, the discussion of the requirements of communal charity is joined to the treatment of the laws of partnership. That is, what is economic fairness in respect to two or a few partners is generalized to the whole community. This provides a different but important perspective.
I cannot attribute much importance to the series of recent books declaring the failure of religious concepts of God. Within my lifetime, they have been preceded by another series declaring the death of God. The concept is hardly new: in the eighteenth century, the advent of the scientific world view removed the need to call upon the hypothesis of a divinity to explain mechanical phenomena. From the other side of the abyss between religious and scientific world-views, Albert Einstein would talk of the laws of the universe as the workings of God, a metaphor which the physicist Paul Davies has taken up in a rewarding way in our own days (“The Mind of God”, 1992). This sort of metaphor is congenial to me. For the rest, when I was about seven years old, I realized that noone in a long robe was in view playing a harp when our DC-3 aircraft emerged above the clouds; that view of God has never had much hold on me, and its failure does not trouble me.
I belong to a UU congregation in which some 70% of the members were originally Catholic, and many of them are so bitterly reactive that they wish to hear nothing of organized religion. This is an obstacle both to the development of the congregation as an organization and to possibilities of constructive interaction between our congregation and other congregations whose members respond to the world in terms which are different theologically, but with little practical difference in action. The solutions to hunger, pain, disease, and ignorance rarely differ depending on the religion of those who suffer from them. Although I have never been a member of a Christian church or a Jewish synagogue, and I do not expect that I ever will be, neither do I feel that their core religious conceptions, so far as they are important in practice, obstruct constructive ecumenical interaction which embodies the values of our respective religions. On this generalized level, I do not hesitate to join my theistic colleagues and say “Heis theos, God is one”. This was not always possible, and is not always possible; even today, these same colleagues will not always reciprocate in attributing value to my religious views. It was not true for those who burnt Servetus, but in terms of our daily life today it has broad truth, and the expectation of reciprocity is my working assumption when I advocate or participate in ecumenical work.


Lilylou said...

Woowee, good post, LF. Your observation about Stephanie's "greater glory of God" reasoning and yours "help those who need it" brings to my mind the words from Micah: "what does God require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly". Seems to me you're both doing that.

Comrade Kevin said...

I heard an interview on NPR the other day that reminded me of what you said. Science is a religion in and of itself. Nothing has been proven, or rather, few things have been proven.

Science is rather humanity's way to explain the unexplainable.

I find myself moving more and more towards a Christian dimension to my private theology and I think we would be remiss in neglecting that Christian heritage of which we owe much.

LinguistFriend said...

Thank you, Ms. Kitty. I like that Micah quote; it is one of the many parts of the Hebrew Testament to which I have never given due attention.
Kevin, many scientists compartment their minds and follow some mainstream variant of Judaism or Christianity, seeing no conflict with their scientific work. Many others follow a generally humanistic point of view without thinking a lot about it. One of my teachers, the psychologist B.F.Skinner, reduced the aims of science to being able to predict and control the world of natural phenomena. I do not recall that he had much concern for religion, and he was there when I visited the college humanist group. I would prefer a more integrative approach, as I discussed last year in an earlier post about the positivism of Richard von Mises, who wanted to see systematic connections between science and epistemology, justice, religion, love, etc. I have much respect for both Judaic and Christian currents in Western thought, but I cannot look at either from inside, although I have a fairly detailed knowledge of the Greek texts of the core Christian books. LinguistFriend

Anonymous said...

comrade kevin said, "Science is a religion in and of itself. Nothing has been proven, or rather, few things have been proven.

Science is rather humanity's way to explain the unexplainable."

I disagree. Many things have been proven, it's just that the world is so complex that few incidents follow the scientific "rules" all the time, because the contributing factors are far more complex and multitudinous than we consider in a necessarily-simplified scientific experiment.
Further, it isn't that "Science is rather humanity's way to explain the unexplainable," --that's religion. Science tries to explain the explainable.

LinguistFriend said...

For Kim and Kevin:
For some people, science is certainly a religion in terms of the absolute absorption involved. I think of the English physicist Kelvin who at age fourteen slept with Fourier's treatise on the parabolic differential equations of heat conduction under his pillow. Others undertake science as a businesslike and systematic manipulation of specialist colleagues who know more than the manipulator and do better work but have less political or organizational skill. Every wrinkle exists.
Considering two routes to scientific knowledge, inductive logic which goes from empirical facts to theory is necessarily imperfect, hence it is usually paired with probability. This does weaken the idea of proof. Moreover, my teacher in logic, Willard Quine, would point out that there are always multiple theories to account for a given set of facts. This weakens the idea of explanation. But they are still enormously important.
Deductive logic is more satifying for some; but there are many deductive systems (math, logic, computer languages) and it never can be comprehensive, so it is imperfect, even beyond the fact that it needs an empirical input.
But the fact that computers work, involving both inductive (physical, electronic) and deductive systems (computer languages and programs), indicates that we can prove things to a high level of probability, although it is not perfect.
I think that Kevin did slip and meant to say that religion is humanity's way to explain the unexplainable. That is a common view. But I prefer the view of Bonhoeffer, about which I wrote here a few months back, that religion needs to be based on what we know, not on what we do not know. Otherwise it is likely to become a cop-out and refuge for inadequate thinking, and potentially destructive when it is backed by great organizations with funding and political power.