Jesus, Socrates, and the Problem of Human Blindness

Our whole business in this Life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen. – St. Augustine

SOCRATES: Imagine this: People live under the earth in a cavelike dwelling. Stretching a long way up toward the daylight is its entrance, toward which the entire cave is gathered. The people have been in this dwelling since childhood, shackled by the legs and neck… because they are shackled, they are unable to turn their heads around. A fire is behind them, and there is a wall between the fire and the prisoners. Some light, of course, is allowed them, namely from a fire that casts its glow toward them from behind them, being above and at some distance. Imagine that a low wall has been built the length of the walkway, like the low curtain that puppeteers put up, over which they show their puppets.
GLAUCON: This is an unusual picture that you are presenting here, and these are unusual prisoners.
SOCRATES: They are very much like us humans, I [Socrates] responded.
– From Book VII of Plato’s Republic

If it is possible for one story to perfectly describe the human condition and the central problem of our existence, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave does just this. The journey from darkness to the light is an obvious metaphor for man’s passage from ignorance to wisdom. But this process is not so straightforward as we might expect. If any one of us were to fall into a deep, black pit, we would surely struggle with all our might to make it back to the light of day. But what if we were born in the pit? What if we have grown up in a cave, and, knowing nothing else, lack the ability to recognize our own blindness? What if we have grown so comfortable in our dimly-lit surroundings that we resist all efforts to be freed from our chains?

If we are honest with ourselves, we all have blind spots. We all lack wisdom. But some of us are so ignorant as to fancy ourselves wise. What made Socrates the wisest man in Athens? This simple insight: “I know that I know nothing.”

In the book Sophie’s World, the philosopher describes three types of people: the rare Socrates aware of his own ignorance, the people who think they already know enough, and the people who simply don’t care to think about anything too deeply. If my newsfeed is any indication, most of us fall into the latter two groups. I certainly have spent a great deal of my life in the know-it-all camp, a genuine cave-dweller.

What do you do when confronted with evidence that contradicts a previously-held belief? Quite simply, you can either modify your belief, or ignore the offending evidence. And so I have attempted to adopt the latter course. I have witnessed enough hypocrisy and lived through enough disappointment to distrust the idea of quick fixes or black-and-white dichotomies.

I believe now more than ever in the need to apply the same strict standards of truthfulness to all claims, regardless of from which “side” they originate. When it comes to matters like taxes and gun control, we should avoid the knee-jerk reaction to defend our existing beliefs and actually consider what others have to say. We don’t have to accept or reject 100% of their position. Perhaps 20% of what they are saying is valid. So let’s agree with that 20%. And while we’re at it, maybe we can admit that we are only 80% sure that our own current position (whether it be stricter gun laws or lower corporate taxes) would yield the desired result. The truth is, no one knows the exact outcome of any proposed policy until it is implemented. We are all trying to do the same thing that weathermen do — predict future outcomes — but with much less scientific rigor and much more personal bias.

When it comes to politics and economics, a healthy dose of humility is warranted. But when it comes to the things that really matter — to how we are to live our lives — what do we do when we cannot trust our own sight? Consider this passage from Matthew’s Gospel:

Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the great log in your own? And how dare you say to your brother, “Let me take that splinter out of your eye,” when, look, there is a great log in your own? Hypocrite! Take the log out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye. Matthew 7:3-5

Jesus instructs us to examine our own vision before criticizing that of others. We cannot expect those still living in ignorance to understand, as this is like “casting pearls before swine.” We are to beware false prophets, the “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Not by their appearances, but by their fruits are we to judge them.

Why does Jesus speak in parables? He answers:

The reason I talk to them in parables is that they look without seeing and listen without hearing or understanding. So in their case what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah is being fulfilled: Listen and listen, but never understand! Look and look, but never perceive! This people’s heart has grown coarse, their ears dulled, they have shut their eyes tight to avoid using their eyes to see, their ears to hear, their heart to understand, changing their ways and being healed by me.
But blessed are your eyes because they see, your ears because they hear! Matthew 13: 13-16

And what about the rich young man who wanted to follow Jesus? When he was told to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, “he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth.”

He was like the cave-dwellers who could not part with something of lesser value (material wealth) to gain something greater, though initially more difficult (the chance to be Jesus’ disciple and live with him forever in Heaven). Is this not the very definition of ignorance and blindness?

Jesus healed the blind and restored their sight. But as for the Pharisees, the “blind guides,” he declares:

You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look handsome on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of corruption. In just the same way, from the outside you look upright, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Matthew 23: 27-28

The Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is much like the Socrates of Plato’s writings; so much so that the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche famously dismissed Christianity as “Plato for the masses.” But one man was wise enough to reconcile the two traditions in a brilliant synthesis that has served as the foundation of Christianity ever since – St. Augustine.

In his Confessions, Augustine describes his own blindness as it persisted through young adulthood:

What profit was it to me that I, rascally slave of selfish ambitions that I was, read and understood by myself as many books as I could get concerning the so-called liberal arts?…I had turned my back to the light and my face to the things it illuminated, and so no light played upon my own face, or on the eyes that perceived them.

Augustine’s journey out of the cave was long and difficult, and only possible thanks to the constant prayer of his mother, St. Monica. But Augustine never dropped his admiration of Plato. Observe Plato’s influence in Augustine’s description of sin:

Sin is to a nature what blindness is to an eye. The blindness of an evil or defect which is a witness to the fact that the eye was created to see the light and, hence, the very lack of sight is the proof that the eye was meant… to be the one particularly capable of seeing the light. Were it not for this capacity, there would be no reason to think of blindness as a misforture.

Now consider these other famous quotes from St. Augustine:

It is no advantage to be near the light if the eyes are closed.

And I entered and beheld with the eye of my soul… the Light Unchangeable… He that knows the Truth, knows what that Light is; and he that knows It, knows Eternity.

I knew that most people never see this reality because they attach to the material aspect of the world. Illusions of self and other fill their vision. I also realized there are those with little dust limiting their vision.

Jesus and Plato and Augustine seem to be telling us the same thing — that our primary task is to stop viewing the world through the materialist lens and see things as God sees them, down to their true essence.

What happens when one has emerged from the cave long enough to see things as they actually are and discard his past misconceptions? Returning to Plato’s tale, he feels the obligation to return to the cave and free the poor souls still trapped there. But how is he received by those who have not yet gained their vision? Plato knows just what danger awaits this returned exile:

SOCRATES: Now if once again, along with those who had remained shackled there, the freed person had to engage in the business of asserting and maintaining opinions about the shadows… would he not then be exposed to ridicule down there? And would they not let him know that he had gone up but only in order to come back down into the cave with his eyes ruined — and thus it certainly does not pay to go up. And if they can get hold of this person who takes it in hand to free them from their chains and to lead them up, and if they could kill him, will they not actually kill him?
GLAUCON: They certainly will.

Of course, this is exactly what happened to Socrates himself, Plato’s beloved teacher, who was forced to drink hemlock for corrupting the youth of Athens. It is the same fate suffered by Jesus: condemned by the angry crowd, abandoned even by his closest followers; although His death was followed by the glory of the Resurrection.

What does all this say about us? We are so desperate to cling to our illusions that we are willing to condemn an innocent man to death. We like to think of ourselves as loyal Christians, but we are just like the Pharisees, just like the murderous cave-dwellers, just like the crowd that chanted “Crucify him!”

So how about we work on removing that log from our own eye, so that we might help our neighbor with his splinter?

God, grant us the humility to recognize our own blindness and the courage to venture out of this cave of ignorance into the light of your truth.

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A Question for Atheists

In 2012, a Gallup International poll found that 12% of global respondents identify as “convinced atheists.” In China, the figure is 47%, followed by Japan at 31% and France at 29%. In the United States, self-identified atheists have risen from 1% in 2005 to 5% in 2012. While this is still a very small figure, atheism predominates in certain metropolitan areas and career fields. A friend of mine living in Seattle recently expressed her frustration over the intolerance of the secular Left: “Up there, people think you’re an idiot if you believe in God.”

Make no mistake, even the historically religious United States is becoming increasingly atheistic. Since 2005, America has seen best-sellers on atheism by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and others. Religion is routinely mocked on social media and television, while atheism is portrayed as mature, rational, and tolerant.

America’s religious divide is also generational. Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) are the least religious demographic in America, and they are bucking past trends by becoming less religious as they age. Even writing from the Bible Belt, I have observed signs of a rising atheism amongst my high school students. A couple years ago, I was surprised when nine or ten students in a single class decided, unprovoked, to proclaim their atheism (I would never question students about their personal religious beliefs; we happened to be discussing the role of religion in early societies). Their line of reasoning went something like this: “Religion is great for people who find comfort in all that ‘God’ stuff, but as an educated person, I know better.”

Which leads to my question for atheists: where do you get your faith?

I understand people who believe in God, but have been turned off by organized religion. Periodic scandals, perceptions of moral hypocrisy, and revulsion over past misdeeds may be enough to discourage potential followers. On the other hand, a culture steeped in secularism or just general apathy might prevent someone from going to church, though they still believe in God and even pray on occasion. These are the unaffiliated believers, and their position (though not one I would endorse) makes a certain sense. It offers a starting point, at least, from which to move towards a deeper encounter with God.

I also understand people who feel that we humans simply cannot reach definitive conclusions regarding the divine, including some agnostics. Catholicism teaches that the exact nature of God is a mystery beyond humanity’s power to fully comprehend. The Trinity and the Incarnation cannot be rationalized without losing an essential part of their Truth. This makes some people uncomfortable, and they would rather not even attempt to understand something beyond the limits of human reason.

But to look out at creation and proclaim: “I know there is no Creator!” is beyond me. How do you know?

Imagine that I were to place a sealed up cardboard box in front of you and ask you what was inside it. You could shake, smell, and feel the box, but not open it.

If you were to hear clucking and the flutter of feathers, you would rationally suspect that the box contained a chicken. Even if no noises were to come from the box, you would be unable to rule out the possibility that it contained something very light or inanimate.

An atheist is someone who looks at the box and confidently proclaims: “There is nothing inside that box!”

Really? How do you know?

Merriam-Webster defines atheism as “a disbelief in the existence of divinity” or “the doctrine that there is no deity.” Both positions contradict logic and experience, but the latter is just absurd. How can one ever be 100% convinced that God does not exist?

Here’s another popular thought experiment. Imagine the world is made up of little cardboard boxes. You open the first to discover a red ball. You open the second and find another red ball. This goes on for hundreds and even thousands of boxes—all contain red balls. Just as you are about to open the millionth box, I ask you what it contains. “A red ball,” would be your likely answer. But what if the millionth box contains a white ball? You have no way of knowing until you open it.

Atheism is thus unscientific. It presupposes not only that mankind has never discovered support for the existence of a Creator, but that it will never discover evidence of a Higher Power at any point in the future. In fact, much of science already points to the existence of God. The most persuasive of these arguments is the sheer improbability of life in the universe. Scientists used to believe that the only necessary conditions for a planet to support life were size and distance from a star of sufficient warmth. But they have since discovered a multitude of other conditions, the absence of any one of which would render life on Earth impossible. It’s almost as if Earth was designed for life.

Atheists cannot explain the origin of the universe. The Big Bang theory supports the idea of a Creator by positing that all matter originated from a single point. In fact, if one little thing had gone differently at the moment of the Big Bang, none of the elements would have been able to form.

Atheists cannot explain the origin of life. They would rather believe that life originated from an improbably lucky accident or outer space (which, if so, how did it get there?) than entertain the possibility of a creator God.

Ironically, atheism is not without its crowned saint – Charles Darwin. His theory of evolution has long been atheism’s best argument or most cherished dogma, depending on your point of view. Never mind that atheists cannot explain how the universe or life originated; they claim to know that human life evolved from the most basic single-celled organism over millions of years by pure chance.

While persuasive on some level, this argument still has several holes. We can observe natural selection at work, or the process by which a species better adapts to its environment. But, to use the classic example, the fact that more black moths survived to reproduce that white moths in industrial Britain does not in any way refute the existence of God. What we have never observed is a species becoming another species. Currently the best theory as to the mechanism of evolution on a macro scale is random genetic mutation. But this explanation cannot account for the fact that most genetic mutations are harmful and/or can’t be passed on to offspring. The theory of Intelligent Design seems a persuasive alternative to me, but to many atheists this position is no better than Creationism; to be taken seriously, one must deny any role for God at the outset.

So what explains atheism’s appeal, especially among the young, urban, and educated?

My guess is that some people are just confused. They would like to believe in God, but falsely believe God has been disproved by science. Others are apathetic; they just don’t care. But for others, atheism fits nicely into their secular worldview. If there is no God, then I get to be my own god. If I was made not by a Creator, but by a series of lucky mutations, then there is nothing to keep me from remaking myself in the image of my choosing. I get to set my own rules, unconstrained by divine teaching or natural limits. Furthermore, I get the elitist’s satisfaction of believing myself superior to the ignorant masses, along with the occasional chuckle at their expense.

Atheists like to point to all the wars that have been fought over religion, but they ignore the far greater number that have been fought over just this sort of hubris, including the worst tragedies of the 20th century. The Nazis and the Soviets both rejected God, whether explicitly or implicitly, and decided to take human evolution into their own hands. They sought to remake not just society but mankind himself, with disastrous consequences. In the case of the Nazis, they even quoted Darwin in the process.

This is not to say that atheists are bad people—far from it. There can be and have been many good atheists or agnostics, just as there have been religious people who nevertheless committed heinous crimes. To worship is natural, and so is to doubt. But to categorically deny the existence of a Creator is unscientific, and atheism requires far greater faith than Christianity. My question once again for atheists is: where do you get your faith?

Giving Up Our Natural Rights for Artificial Ones

It’s been a long time since there has been this much fundamental disagreement in America over the nature of liberty. Judging by recent events, many Americans no longer value our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Where did this disregard originate, what worldview underlies it, and how can we fight it? These are the questions I plan to address in this post.

First, there is a reason that freedom of speech and religion are combined in the First Amendment. While freedom of religion involves the right to pray and worship as one chooses, religion is not a strictly private matter. It is not enough to say, “Believe what you want, just keep it to yourself,” a new twist on “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Religious freedom is primarily the freedom to live according to the dictates of one’s own conscience. We don’t surrender this right when we step out of our mosques, churches, synagogues, or private homes. Even atheists and agnostics have the right to come to their own conclusions on moral issues, to not be compelled by the state to participate in behavior they find morally questionable, and to voice their opinions on matters of conscience.

So how can Americans, whose country’s very existence was founded on the belief that we are endowed with rights by the “Law of Nature and of Nature’s God,” be so quick to denounce and even condemn them?

I believe the answer to this question is two-fold. First, a people will only voluntarily surrender a right if they believe doing so is necessary to secure a greater, more important right. Second, one’s conception of liberty depends on one’s understanding of truth itself. There is a deeper moral and philosophical conflict underlying our political debates.

Every high school government class is likely to contain some discussion of how certain rights can often conflict with others. It is the role of the law to define and adjudicate where one person’s rights end and another’s begin. For example, one could reasonably renounce the “right” to steal from one’s neighbor in exchange for the right to be secure in one’s own possessions. But this only shows that the right to steal is not a God-given, inalienable one, or else it could not by definition be forfeited.

What “rights”, then, are so important that a bill entitled the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” could possibly become the subject of a national debate? Since when did religious freedom become controversial?

To hear the outcry in the media, one would think RFRA proponents were claiming the unlimited right to religion, but this is clearly not the case. One has only to read the text of the law, going back to the original bill signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1993. RFRA laws simply state that if the government is going to impinge upon your right to religion, it must have a very good reason to do so, a “compelling government interest.”

For example, it is illegal in this country for people under twenty-one to consume alcoholic beverages. Yet children as young as seven receive Holy Communion at Mass. The government has correctly judged that keeping a child from having a sip of what many would consider wine (but that Catholics regard as Christ’s holy blood) is not a compelling enough interest to prevent the practice of a crucial aspect of the Catholic faith.

On the other hand, it is easy to envision a scenario in which the government might reasonably conclude that one’s right to freedom of religion does not include the right to polygamous marriage (as in the case of Islam and Mormon fundamentalism) or the traditional Aztec practice of human sacrifice. The government has a compelling interest in protecting the well-being of children and the lives of would-be victims.

Again, nothing too advanced here. The reason religious freedom has fallen out of vogue is not its complexity, but rather its apparent conflict with the gay rights movement.

Unfortunately, the focus of the gay rights movement has shifted from defending the rights of gay Americans to embrace a homosexual lifestyle free from discrimination and persecution– to live and love as they choose– to the right to do so without anyone voicing so much as a word of criticism or objection. After considering (and rejecting) a strategy that would have promoted civil unions as a legal protection for gay and lesbian partnerships, liberals now claim the right to redefine marriage, an institution as old as human society itself, to suit the sexual and emotional needs of homosexual adults.

Anyone who so much as breaths a word of caution at what would undoubtedly be one of the largest social experiments in human history is mocked as backward, bigoted, and “on the wrong side of history.” Anyone who dares defend the traditional understanding of marriage is roundly chastised on social media, subjected to intimidation and threats, and targeted for financial ruin.

Despite earlier promises and reassurances, the power of the state is now being used not only to silence religious opposition to the redefinition of marriage, but to require participation in what amounts to government-mandated speech. Baking a cake, photographing a ceremony, and even arranging flowers are forms of speech requiring the creative energies of the baker, photographer, and florist. Declining to participate in same-sex ceremonies, or any ceremonies for that matter, is not discrimination; it is the constitutionally-protected right of every American citizen.

Why is this so difficult for people to understand?

It is a sad reality that college campuses, which should be the most open to debate and even controversy, have instead led the charge in the attack on freedom of speech. Many young Americans no longer see the importance of protecting speech they and their friends in the echo-chamber of liberal elitism disagree with. It is easy to picture the fervent nineteen-year-old student tilting her head in confusion at the notion that even unpopular views deserve protection. “Why would you want to protect the right to be wrong?”

All sorts of excuses are given for limiting unpopular (usually conservative) speech. The first is to label it as “hate,” reducing traditional Christians to the level of Neo-Nazis and the KKK. (In Canada, it is now a hate crime to advocate a traditional definition of marriage or to quote the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality.) The second is to trot out the lie that appeals to traditional morality are dangerous and intolerant, as they may damage the fragile self-esteem of anyone who is not a “privileged” heterosexual white Christian male.

But scratch beneath the surface, and one discovers a radical metaphysical and epistemological shift underlying the culture wars. Traditional Christian morality rests upon an understanding of natural law, the idea that reality is absolute and that objective truth can be discovered outside of one’s subjective feelings using the human faculties of reason and observation. On the other hand, those who share a progressive worldview regard reality as just a powerful illusion, and truth therefore a social construct. It is not fixed or eternal—not handed down by a divine Creator. Rather, we are the collective creators, and truth is whatever the majority of people in a society say it is. To borrow a line from Orwell, using this standard, 2+2 can equal 5.

Because the liberal basis for truth is so tenuous, resting on such a fragile foundation as popular opinion, all dissenting voices must be singled out for ridicule and then silenced, lest they supplant liberalism as the dominant narrative. Inconvenient facts must be suppressed in the name of whatever generally agreed-upon Higher Cause. Dogmas are propagated in the absence of biological or physical evidence (for example, the notion that a man can become a woman, or that a fetus developing in the womb is not a person).

On the other hand, the best conservative and Christian thinkers are not afraid of challenges to their positions. They can rest assured that the truth will not change, regardless of whether they lose this particular debate on this particular day. Moral relativists enjoy no such reassurances, resulting in a cauldron of insecurity and doubt simmering under a veneer of artificial confidence. Tolerance is not enough; all must be active participants in the creation of this artificial “truth.” This metaphysical insecurity explains the paradox of the intolerant Left, which only tolerates relatively insignificant differences in appearance, but not the more meaningful differences in belief. They will accept any combination of sexual and gender identity (hence the diversity designation LGBT-QIA), but not a difference in opinion, especially if it comes from a member of a specially-protected victim group.

In conclusion, our natural rights to life and liberty are being subverted. In their place, Americans are being offered an array of artificial, man-made “rights,” mainly the “right” to engage in any and all sexual activity (pre-marital, homosexual, polygamous, adulterous) while being freed from the consequences of said activities (contraception, abortion). But this is only symptomatic of an erroneous understanding of morality, based not on a rational understanding of natural law, but rather a “might makes right” approach to truth itself.

What is needed now is not just a reordering of the hierarchy of competing rights, but also a proper understanding of where those rights originate.

I began this post by observing that it has been a long time since Americans were this divided on the nature of liberty, but this is by no means the first time. Just over a hundred and fifty years ago, serious individuals actually debated whether a person had the right to own another human being. A slave’s right to liberty was considered by many to fall below the slave owner’s right to own property.

Our rights come not from society or even the law, but from our Creator, as clearly stated the Declaration of Independence. We can discover these rights using our God-given faculties of reason or “common sense”; they are thus “self-evident.” It does not take a doctoral degree in philosophy to understand that people are born and have a right to be free, but it takes a clever perversion of the law to argue that a man can own another man. Even a child intuitively knows that the life of a brother or sister growing in his mother’s womb is a human being worthy of protection, a “baby,” but it takes decades of social conditioning and some very convoluted Constitutional jujitsu to fabricate the right to end that life, often for no better reason than convenience.

Those who today speak with such confidence about being “on the right side of history” would do well to recall that abolition and emancipation were once unpopular and controversial views that many sought to silence. The loudest voices demanding an end to slavery were not secular ones, but Christians who felt compelled to carry their moral convictions into the public square. In the end, the natural right to freedom prevailed; not because it was popular, but because it was right in its conformity to natural law.