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 A few days back I posted about a conversation Dan Fincke and I have been having. This was inspired by some comments Justice Scalia made, using Christian teaching to explain why he (or possibly just Americans generally) didn't seem so bothered by the death penalty. That quickly sprung off into a debate about the proper use of Christian metaphysics or theology in situations like this. I argued that this incident proved we needed a better theology; Dan said this showed why people shouldn't be religious at all.

That post I made on Friday was basically about utility: the fact that the quickest, easiest, and surest way to change someone's beliefs was to use their more-established beliefs to criticize newer ones. Of course that's not always possible, and that's when you should turn to a more thorough critique. But in the course of his follow-up reply (which, again, I thank him for), Dan argued that we shouldn't do anything to increase peoples' reliance on theology. In fact, he compared theology to an idea from Plato's Republic: the "noble lie."

Dan gives a thorough summary of this concept, and I really encourage you to read this if you haven't already. I'll just stick to the high notes. In the Republic, Plato describes what he considers to be a perfectly-just city (in many ways an allegory for human nature), in which the philosopher-kings are in charge of governing. This is similar to a meritocracy, but not quite. There aren't any privileged positions that go to the best qualified. Rather, each individual goes to the role they are best suited for, and thy are happiest (and most fulfilled) wherever they are.

Humans are naturally jealous of what they don't have. The philosopher-king, being wise, won't envy the farmer (not because his current position is better but because he knows it's most appropriate to him). But how can we convince the farmer of this? To convince him of the truth rationally, you would have to turn him into a philosopher, which he's not well-suited for. But Plato also isn't too keen to let the farmer make his own decisions without having wisdom. He needs a way to make the farmer content in his station without forcing him to become something he's not. For this, Plato uses the idea of a noble lie.

Plato suggests the philosopher-kings tell the masses along these lines: when the gods created man they gave some men golden souls, others silver ones, and others bronze ones. These different qualities in effect create three different sub-species, all of which excel at different things. This does not set up a genetic caste (sons of farmers could have gold souls, and would be identified and trained as philosophers; or vice versa), nor is it a judgmental claim (golden souls are not better than bronze ones, just different). This story is a lie since the philosopher-kings know souls aren't made out of metal. But it is a lie with a truth at its core. It's a simple way for the non-philosophers to understand they are uniquely suited for their work (which is true), without them having to learn philosophical concepts like telos and essential nature.

Dan argues we shouldn't tell lies, even noble ones, for several reasons. Because this post is going to be long as it is, I'm going to focus on just one of those reasons. I may come back and discuss the other sin separate posts, time allowing, because Dan really did give me a lot to chew on. The specific criticism of noble-lying I want to discuss is this:

It intrinsically damages the flourishing of the average person to actively thwart her abilities to think for herself as much as possible and to be autonomous as possible and the truly wisest who truly loved the good would value the potential autonomy and wisdom of even ordinary people, even at the risk of arrogance and incorrigibility among other ordinary people. ("A Critique of Noble Lies," §2)

Now, autonomy has a long history in German philosophy, which is I believe Dan's specialty. It's certainly far from mine (I am much more of an Aristotelian and a medievalist). That means there's a real possibility I will have misunderstood what he means here, but as I understand it, autonomy is basically freedom of choice. What Dan is saying is that the ability to choose well is a big part of what it means to be a fully flourishing human being, and so if someone is a good ruler trying to promote human flourishing, he will naturally want people to have that choice, as much as possible. So this ruler will "risk [the] arrogance and incorrigibility among the ordinary people," in an attempt to encourage them to become more reflective.

I'm sympathetic to Dan's view. As a teacher I encounter some students who Plato would probably describe as bronze- and silver-souled. I have some gold-souled ones, too, but also people who would not study philosophy even if they thought it would get them a job on graduating. And I feel driven to push them to become as reflecting and as philosophical as they can, even in light of their lack of interest. I don't feel justified to lie to them, to cheat them of the chance to make choices. But I also recognize two cases where people can't be autonomous - where we rightly restrict peoples' choice. I think the noble lie is appropriate in at least the second of these choices.

First, there's the people who have made a choice in the past that limits their future choices. Sometimes those choices are good, sometimes not. For example, you may have heard of Rose Marie Belforti, the town clerk in Cayuga Co., NY, who has refused to register same-sex couples since New York passed its gay marriage law. Most people (rightly IMO) think she is being derelict in her duty to carry out the law, and that she can't choose which laws to enforce. She made a choice to be town clerk, and now she can sacrifice the position or do the job, but she can't have it both ways. This isn't a limiting of autonomy, though. It's honoring it, since when we require someone to accept the consequences of their choices we treat them like someone capable of a true choice. (Incidentally, that's why Kant thought there were some crimes where people had to be executed; anything less would be an insult to their autonomy.)

The other case is trickier. Children are routinely denied their autonomy, nor are people new to some situation. My students are not able to decide whether or not philosophy is good for them until they have tried it. Similarly for calculus. That is why their core curriculum is set for them. Similarly a young child cannot set his bedtime or choose not to eat his sprouts because he doesn't het know what's really good for him; his parents do. The freshman's and the child's lack of maturity isn't there fault, it doesn't flow from some past choice.

By Dan's argument, we should be trying to help these people grow into their autonomy. Yet every year around this time, parents the world over tell one of the most common noble lies. (Parents, avert your children's eyes.) I'm talking about Santa Claus. Just like the philosopher-kings know our souls aren't made of metal, adults know there's no jolly fat man living at the North Pole. And just like the first noble lie had a true moral – that people had different natures and were suited to different kinds of work – the same is again true with Santa. It teaches kids that Christmas is a time for overcoming our selfish natures and being generous toward people they don't know. Kids being kids, they learn this lesson better through a model (true or false) than they would if their parents just told it to them directly. And I know that when I learned there was no Santa Claus, it softened the blow to learn there had been a grain of truth under it all.

Now, I can well imagine Dan would go along with this when it came to Santa, since kids haven't yet become autonomous. He could still argue back that adults have become autonomous, or should have, and it's the responsibility of the people in authority to help them along that path. It is. But these are really two separate issues, often but not always related. If the lie keeps the people being lied to from exercising their autonomy, it's obviously wrong. But that doesn't apply with the Santa Claus example. (And to be clear: it's not just chronological children who lack the capacity for autonomy. It's very easy to grow in age but not in wisdom.) But if a person doesn't have any autonomy to interfere with yet, I don't think the lie in itself is bad. It can be helpful or hurtful, depending on whether it encourages the person to grow.

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Now to the heart of the matter: is theology a noble lie? And if so, is it a permissible one? That's a fiendishly hard question to answer, because people use the word "theology" in lots of different ways. I've come up with at least three ways, and there may well be more. One of these approaches is clearly wrong, both by the standard I've described above and by the Bible's own lights. (Since I'm most familiar with Christianity, I'll speak of Christian history, the Bible, and so on, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if this thinking can be applied to other faiths as well.)

First, there's what I call static theology. This is probably the most common kind of theology in practice – it's what you see on display when someone says in a debate over (say) LGBT rights or abortion or feminism or whatever, that "you're not disagreeing with me, you're disagreeing with God." Under this approach, theology is a set of beliefs, usually the most commonsensical interpretation of a certain Bible verse, or the one that goes back in history the furthest. The problem is, even the Bible doesn't follow this model. Take the Sermon on the Mount, in particular the antitheses ("You have heard it say ____, but I tell you ____.") Those verses aren't saying the first interpretation is wrong, but that there is a second, less obvious interpretation that is true at the same time.

This static kind of theology can turn into a lie, quite easily. Biblical verses are misinterpreted or, more likely (and more troublingly), they are interpreted one way and the faithful deny that the interpretation can progress. But since our interpretations of the Bible do progress, the old views can easily turn into a lie. And since there's no challenging, nothing to strain against, there's no potential for growth. As I said, this is a common approach in practice, meaning a good proportion of the people filling up the pews approach the Bible this way. It's simpler – but in most cases it's also wrong. That's why I tend to fight against this approach to theology.

Then there's the dynamic model. This is the idea that theology consists of a group of beliefs, but those beliefs are always changing and are always imperfect. In a lot of ways this approach is similar to the idea that science is progressive. We describe DNA as strands of molecules that coil around each other and are connected by (IIRC) hydrogen molecules, and scientists operate as if that description is true. But it's always understood that the model could still be disproved, and the model will have to be revised.

Similarly, under the dynamic model theological beliefs are always open to revision. I say God is powerful because the Bible says so at various points. But what does power mean? What does knowledge mean for God? What does goodness mean? All of this can change, and we understand our beliefs more fully through a few methods. There's Aristotle's endoxic method, which is alive and well in the Methodist denomination I grew up in. That's largely due to the Wesleyan quadrilateral, which says among other things that revelation, tradition, reason, and experience do not contradict each other. When they do, we need to reexamine our interpretation, and maybe revise our first-glance interpretation of one of the elements. And that includes Scripture. Scripture itself isn't made false, but the way we read it can be.

The only way to really lie here (let alone lie justly) is to think you have a better handle on things than you really do. To think what you believe now is the end of the story – basically, to slide back into the static model. That may be a necessary lie (say, with children or the newly converted), but as soon as possible you get people to thinking about the "truth" like an approximation. There are still beliefs here, and those beliefs can be critiqued so bad ones are thrown out and good ones are built upon.

Finally, some people approach theology more as a process than a set of beliefs. I find myself increasingly drawn to this approach, though I'm still finding my way in it and am not sure I'm completely comfortable with it. It seems the height of hubris to think that something like God could be boiled down to easily-understood propositions, and I'm not sure to what extent our normal words should be applied to God. This approach would look a lot like what I called dynamic theology, only without the possibility of any beliefs ever being true.

I'm not sure how it could critique Scalia or his ilk, which is a major reason I'm only wetting my toes in this idea. It seems a lot like agnosticism that leans toward theism rather than agnosticism that leans toward atheism. I'm not against that in principle, though it does seem to lose a lot of the advantages of theism, But whatever else you could say about it, I think this much is clear: without any actual beliefs, or belief-like statements, it's impossible to lie.

**********************

Having said all that, I can imagine Dan asking why we should bother with theology at all. That's a very different question than what we've been saying about noble lies, and it requires at least a new blog post if not a whole book to do it justice. (Something can avoid lying without it being useful.) But I will try for the ninety-second version, and if people are interested I will try to expand on this another time. Though it won't be easy – I've been trying to work out lately where I fit regarding theism, atheism, and all the varieties in between, and so I don't always have a pat answer to why I believe what I believe.

Anyway: ninety-second version. I know that I have a tendency toward being a "know it all." It goes with the territory of growing up a bookworm, and teaching has only encouraged that tendency. So I am likely to believe that I completely understand things, that there is nothing to know or relate to beyond my comprehension. Given that, I need what I call epistemic humility: the idea that I don't know it all. Having something I can't wrap my mind around completely is morally helpful. It also gives me something to struggle against, which I think encourages character growth.

As far as I can tell, reason hasn't been able to make it more or less likely that God exists, and (for various reasons that would take significantly longer than ninety seconds to explain) I think that where reason is silent, we are free to believe what we choose. Given my personality, I get real benefit from believing there is something external to myself that I need to struggle to make sense of. Theology is that struggle. I could perhaps find that struggle in philosophy, psychology, and the rest, but believing this struggle has an anchor I didn't create is helpful to me, so I keep believing until someone proves me wrong.

(That of course doesn't mean I'm not disgusted by the abuses of religion. I am. But I can reject bad religion without rejecting all of theology along with it.)

This entry was originally posted at http://fidesquaerens.dreamwidth.org/22065.html. Please comment there using OpenID.

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