God demands that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac. Why? Kierkegaard tells us that God requires of Abraham a "teleological suspension of the ethical." In this essay I explore the meanings of the Ethical, God, and Faith in an effort to make sense of this phrase, and, more broadly, of the biblical story itself.
The purpose of my paper is to show the derivation of what is sometimes called the ‘new liberalism’ (or ‘progressive liberalism’) from the basic principles of classical liberalism, through a reading of John Locke’s treatment of the right to property in his Second Treatise of Government. Locke’s work sharply distinguishes between the natural right to property in the ‘state of nature’ and the societal right to property as established in a socio-economic political system. Whereas the former does not depend on (...) the consent of others, it is qualified by strict limits on the amount of property that may be rightly acquired. The societal right to property lifts these limits but is justified only under the principle of universal consent. This principle, I argue, implies the Rawlsian difference principle; i.e., that the regulation and distribution of property must be such as would elicit the freely proffered consent of society’s least advantaged members. (shrink)
Religion, especially Western religion, calls upon us to 'believe' on the basis of 'faith.' But in what way can faith serve as a justification for belief? In this essay, I distinguish between 'belief in' and 'belief that' and argue that faith, properly understood, entails the former, not the latter.
Whence comes suffering? If the divine reality is a reality of bliss, and all is derived from this divine reality, how can suffering arise? Does the reality of God contain suffering? Might suffering be understood as a mode of bliss? These are the questions I take up in this essay. I suggest that the various states of suffering may best be understood as fragments of bliss, progressively resolved as fragmentation is overcome. Spiritual life is the progressive movement from the suffering (...) of ontological fragmentation toward the bliss of reunion. (shrink)
If a Zen Master kills a kitten, and does not hear its scream, does it make a sound? In this essay, I use the Zen story of Master Nansen's killing of a kitten as an entree into a reflection on the Zen experience of enlightenment. I argue that the story of Nansen and the cat, as presented in the Zen tradition, raises many questions and problems that must be resolved if we are to envision the enlightenment experience in a clear (...) way. (shrink)
In this brief essay, I argue that Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God achieves its effect through the verbal equivalent of a magician's "sleight-of-hand." More technically, the argument commits the informal fallacy of equivocation. I provide a brief analysis of the argument's text to demonstrate this.
In this essay I argue for the need to restore our recognition of the importance of philosophical truth in our endeavor to understand our world and our selves. In particular, I note that the physical sciences have no way of examining the axiological dimension of being - i.e., that dimension from which values spring - whereas an appreciation for, and understanding of, our values is crucial to the conduct of our personal, interpersonal, and political lives.
Sut Jhally begins his essay “Advertising at the Edge of the Apocalypse” with the following provocative claim: “Advertising is the most powerful and sustained system of propaganda in human history and its cumulative effects, unless quickly checked, will be responsible for destroying the world as we know it.” Jhally argues that the advertising industry, in fostering an association between human aspiration and desire for consumable goods, creates an artificial demand for such goods that is, at once, far in excess of (...) what is needed for human flourishing and catastrophic to the global environment. Jhally sees capitalism as the ultimate culprit. In a system in which wealth is defined as a “vast collection of commodities” (Marx, Capital), those who produce such commodities have no other choice but to promote excess consumption. Hence the advertising industry emerges as the propaganda arm of capitalism. My paper argues that, though Jhally’s analysis of the problem is both compelling and alarming, his diagnosis fails to reach its heart. Indeed, it is not Marx but Plato who provides us with the terms needed both to understand and respond to the problem Jhally cites. My paper provides a Platonic analysis of these issues and concludes with some suggestions as to how to address them. (shrink)
What constitutes a true human-to-human relationship? What is its importance and value for human life? These are the questions I explore in this talk on Aristotle's philosophy of friendship, originally presented as part of Boston University's Core Curriculum lecture series.
Whence comes the evil will? My paper examines Kant’s notion of radical evil and Kierkegaard’s analysis of sin in order to uncover the existential-ontological dynamic of the evil will. Ultimately, I argue, the evil will arises in response to the anxiety inherent in freedom itself. I conclude with an examination of Kierkegaard’s ‘formula of faith’ as a solution to the dilemma of freedom, and consider the role faith may play in freedom’s moral maturation.
I write as a Jew who has come to see the Jewish and Christian religious movements as complementary, at least as each may be ideally envisioned. This complementarity does not entail the ‘supersession’ of Judaism or the negation of Judaism. It does not in any way imply that Jews should abandon Judaism. On the contrary, rightly seen it can lead to a greater affirmation of Judaism and of the teachings at Judaism's heart. In this article I discuss the nature of (...) this complementarity and argue that its recognition can help further and deepen the spiritual missions of both traditions. (shrink)
"Crooked people deceive themselves in order to deceive others; in this way the world comes to ruin." This quote from a medieval Confucianist expresses the ethical danger of self-deception. My paper examines the psychological proclivity for self-deception and argues that it lies behind much social and interpersonal injustice. I review Hitler's Mein Kampf, as a premiere example of such cognitive duplicity, and Socratic dialectic, as an example of the cognitive hygiene necessary to combat it. I conclude that a robust educational (...) program of Socratic-style critical thinking is crucial to the furtherance of a just society. (shrink)
In this essay I argue that Darwinian theory, far from supporting a philosophy of metaphysical materialism, actually calls materialism into question. Once this is recognized we see that evolutionary theory, for all its successes (which are considerable), is more limited than is generally supposed in its ability to reveal or explain the ultimate thrust of life.
Computers can mimic human intelligence, sometimes quite impressively. This has led some to claim that, a.) computers can actually acquire intelligence, and/or, b.) the human mind may be thought of as a very sophisticated computer. In this paper I argue that neither of these inferences are sound. The human mind and computers, I argue, operate on radically different principles.
The Book of Job is often read as the Bible's response to theodicy's 'problem of evil.' As a resolution to the logical difficulties of this problem, however, it is singularly unsatisfying. Job's ethical protest against God is never addressed at the level of the ethical. But suggested in Job's final encounter with God is the possibility of a spiritual resolution beyond the ethical. In this paper I examine the Book of Job as a response to the spiritual problem of despair; (...) despair engendered by the ethical problem of evil. My reading is informed by Kierkegaard's analysis of despair in The Sickness unto Death, and Stephen Mitchell's extraordinary translation of the Book of Job, as well as his insightful commentary. (shrink)
William Alston has written that religious belief is justifiable because it is based upon epistemic practices similar to those justifying belief in sensory facts. In this paper I argue for a different understanding of religious belief. What is called for in religious belief is not affirmation of factual truth-claims but devotion to God. The significance and validity of creedal formulae lie in their capacity to elicit and express such devotion, not in their factual and/or informational character. My paper considers four (...) fundamental questions with respect to religious belief: 1. What is a religious belief? 2. What is the basis upon which one should adopt a religious belief? 3. What is the relation between belief and salvation/sanctification? 4. What attitude should one adopt toward alternate belief systems? I argue that these questions are best answered when we recognize the radical dissimilarity of creedal formulae to empirical truth-claims. (shrink)
In the Pledge of Allegiance we pledge our loyalty, not to the United States as it may exist at any particular moment, but to the flag and what it represents: an ideal United States that maintains "liberty and justice for all." When we say the Pledge we commit ourselves to this ideal, and to the ongoing struggle of bringing our actual nation into alignment with it.
In this essay I argue that the ethical and political position known as libertarianism is logically incoherent and, as such, cannot serve as a sound basis for either political theory or public policy. Given that the libertarian position is frequently used to provide the rationale for many of the economic (if not the social) policies of the right, a recognition of this incoherence is especially relevant to us today.
Question: How do you turn a democracy into a tyranny? Answer (as those familiar with Plato's Republic will know): Do nothing. It will become a tyranny all by itself. My essay argues that for democracy to function it must inculcate in its citizens something of the moral and intellectual virtues of Plato’s Philosopher-Kings, who identify their own personal good with the good of society as a whole. Only thereby can Kant’s ideal of the ‘Kingdom of Ends’ - a society in (...) which each citizen willingly affirms a duty to respect the freedom and dignity of every other - be realized. The alternative to this, as Plato understood, is a society of appetitively driven individuals competing each with the other for dominance, in which those most skilled at the arts of grasping and manipulation will eventually seize power. In this way, as Plato foresaw, democracy will degenerate into tyranny. (shrink)
What is the relationship of human desire to divine love? Spiritual traditions teach us that human desire achieves its true aim only when elevated into the life of divine love. In this essay, I provide a reading of three sayings from three spiritual traditions - Buddhist, Taoist, and Christian - in order to explore the meaning of this.
In December of 2013, my Dad died of advanced Alzheimer's and a condition called Myasthenia Gravis. This is a selection of journal entries I made over the course of the two years leading up to my Dad's death. It is not a philosophical essay, but a personal reflection, in "real time" so to speak, on the nature of the dying process in relation to questions of faith, hope, despair, and the meaning of a man's life. I offer it here for (...) any who might find it worthwhile. (shrink)
Theology Without Walls is a project that seeks to understand the nature of divine reality through an exploration of all the world's religious traditions, without confining itself to any one in particular. In this essay, I discuss why theology has traditionally been done within the boundaries of specific traditions and suggest that, in our time, we are called to a new, more comprehensive, approach to theology.
In this brief paper I reflect upon the Bible's portrayal of God as pointing beyond itself toward a notion of divinity many religions can embrace, but one only imperfectly expressed in the biblical portrait itself. I argue that a fuller recognition of the *fallibility* of the biblical portrait can lead us to a deeper and more satisfying appreciation of the Bible itself.
"An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind." This quote, often attributed to Gandhi, suggests the illegitimacy of the retributive urge. On the other hand, many feel a strong intuitive sense that "justice must be served" and that violators of justice must be fittingly punished. In this paper I examine the urge for retributive justice and argue that, at its base, it is rooted in a profound desire to have a wrongdoer see the nature of his or (...) her wrongdoing, with the ultimate aim of inducing the repentance and reformation needed for a genuine healing of relationship. In this way, the urge for retributive justice may be seen as having, as its true end, the restoration of wholesome relations between wrongdoer and wronged. (shrink)
In this very brief piece I suggest the possibility of regarding the Bible as both revealed and fallible, by outlining a theory of revelation that sees it as conditioned by the limitations of those who receive it.
This article examines the flaw in the libertarian conception of the right to property. It argues that libertarians fail to recognize that, in a settled society, the right to amass property must be qualified and limited by the right of all people - including those without property - to have access to sufficient property for a satisfactory life.
The paradox of 'the One and the Many' might, more generally, be understood as the paradox of relationship. In order for there to be relationship there must be at least two parties in relation. The relation must, at once, hold the parties apart (otherwise they would collapse into unity) while holding them together (otherwise relationship itself would cease). It must do so, further, without itself becoming a third party which would then, itself, need to be related. This paper considers this (...) paradox as we find it manifest in the theories of quantum physics, the Socratic pursuit of universals, and, finally, at the very heart of human personhood - where we discover it at the core of interpersonal relationships, existential anxiety, and social distress. It is suggested, in the end, that though reason cannot resolve the terms of this paradox, there is a potential solution to the existential problems that spring from it, a solution lying in what Jesus calls, simply, 'faith.'. (shrink)
In the tenth book of the Republic, Plato famously writes: "There is an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy." In this essay I reflect upon this "quarrel" through an analysis of a passage from Dante's Inferno. I conclude by suggesting that, when employed well, poetry and philosophy complement each other in helping us reflect upon the deep issues of life. (This paper was originally presented at the 19th Annual Conference of Association for Core Texts and Courses) .
Can we find a phenomenological basis for the ethical 'ought'? This essay addresses this question through a reflection on Husserl's fifth Meditation. In the fifth Meditation Husserl endeavors to show the manner in which I constitute the other through an associative pairing of the other with my own subjectivity. This essay argues that this same associative pairing forces me to acknowledge the other as a person of intrinsic worth insofar as I recognize myself as one. Having acknowledged the intrinsic worth (...) of the other in this way, I cannot but acknowledge my obligation to treat the other as I would like to be treated. Thus, the ethical imperative, in the form of the Golden Rule, proves to be implicated in the very constitution of the other in his or her otherness. (shrink)
Moral violation often takes the form of material harm, which might lead us to suppose that it consists essentially in the harm done. And yet we might suffer the same harm through nature or accident without feeling morally offended. If a hurricane destroys my property, I suffer harm but no offense. If another person deliberately damages my property, I am offended. But why? Wherein lies the difference? My essay employs Arthur Schopenhauer’s ethic of egoism and Paul Tillich’s theology of love (...) to explore the ontological basis of moral offense. I argue that moral offense has its roots, not in a concern for material well-being, but in a fundamental drive for Unity, unity with others and with our own ontological ground. This drive is both conditioned by, and frustrated by, our ontological separateness as individual beings. (shrink)
How does Christ's crucifixion and resurrection help to effect a reconciliation between a human being and God? Traditionally, Christ is said to 'pay the penalty' for human sin, and thus provide 'satisfaction' to God for human trespass. In this article I argue that this juridical interpretation of Christ's atonement is deficient in substantial ways and offer a transformational, or 'mystical,' interpretation in its place.
“Whoever does not love abides in death,” writes John in his first epistle (1Jn 3:10). This statement presents us with a paradox. Death, so we suppose, is precisely that in which one cannot 'abide.' Our first thought is to interpret this as metaphor. John is saying that a life devoid of love is a life somehow like death. But, having never died, how do we know what death is like? My paper explores these questions with the aid of two philosophical (...) interpretations of the meaning of death: Heidegger’s in Being and Time and Kierkegaard’s in The Sickness Unto Death. Having looked at these I then seek to grasp their relation to the Christian idea of agapic love as presented by John. (shrink)