Acknowledging Prayers Offered On Our Behalf

On 30th July, I hiked up to Corbet High Camp–operated by Jackson Hole Mountain Guides–in Wyoming’s Teton range in the Grand Teton National Park–to begin an attempt to scale the Grand Teton on August 1st. There, at high camp, my climbing partner and I met another pair of climbers, young lads from Louisiana, headed up the Grand the very next morning; we would be sharing camp with them for the afternoon and evening. We chatted and exchanged pleasantries; many notes of excited and nervous anticipation made the rounds; we each confessed to the peculiar state of excitement and apprehension that seemed to possess us. Later, as time for dinner approached, the older of the two lads asked us if we would mind if he offered a ‘mountain blessing’ before mealtime. We said we had no problem with him doing so.

And so our new friend took off his hat and bent his knee in prayer. He asked his Lord and God for protection on this mountain; to aid him with good luck as he attempted to climb the mountain with his cousin; to bless all those he had met today and made friends with and who would also be climbing the mountain; to lay his protective hand over all of them alike. As he spoke, we laid down our spoons and forks and waited; when he had finished speaking, we all thanked him. (I cannot, in this text, recapture my friend’s distinctive Louisiana accent, but it was present, and it added a little touch of the South to the Western alpine setting.)

I’m an atheist; I do not pray. But I was unambiguously grateful for the prayer that had been offered on my behalf; my thanks were sincere. They were so not because I expected benedictions to now flow my way but rather, because I was deeply appreciative of the gesture of kindness that had just been directed at me. I did not doubt the sincerity of the faith of that young man from Louisiana; he believed all right. And if he did, and had the relationship to his faith that I thought he did, then his asking for blessings to be sent my way which would protect me on the mountain and return me safely to my family were an expression of genuine concern and friendship on his part. Up there on that mountainous perch, the majestic Middle Teton and its enormous snowfields clearly visible, I was conscious of my own insignificance in the face of nature’s grandeur and might; my friend’s blessing was a fortification of my humanity in the face of such natural power, it was a reminder that when we climb mountains we always seek to return to those who love and care for us, that friendships and companionship are ever more important on the mountains, that I would need the help of the others to get up and down safely. Acknowledging the sincerity and warmth and these diverse messages of that blessing, the gesture it made, was the only right thing to do. Even for a non-believer.

‘Silence’ And Shūsaku Endō’s Christianity

Shūsaku Endō‘s Silence is a remarkable religious novel, one whose close reading and discussion in a philosophy classroom pays rich dividends. This week marks the concluding sessions of my Philosophical Issues in Literature class’ discussion of Endō’s novel; I can enthusiastically recommend it–in whole or in part–for use in classes on epistemology and philosophy of religion. This is because the novel–ostensibly a historical work set in seventeenth century Japan as the systematic persecution of Christians commenced following a brief flourishing of the faith–is at heart about the nature of faith, its relationship to knowledge and belief, the nature of ‘commitment’ to religious ideals and beliefs, the possibility of voluntarism about belief, the relationship between belief and action, the relationship between organized and ‘personal’ religion, between moral sentiments and religious strictures, between geographically and nationally specific cultures and supposedly universal belief systems, and so on.

Endō’s novel also proves the truth of the wisdom contained in the claim that the doubts of the religious and the agnostic or atheist are more interesting than the certainty of the believer. In this regard, observant Christians will find the book just as provocative as atheists or agnostics might. As Charles Peirce had noted, doubt is that irritation which leads to inquiry. And that is certainly one thing that Endō’s novel does; it prompts inquiry and investigation. It creates more doubt in turn, and prompts that most useful activity of all: self-examination. (My classroom discussions with my students about the philosophical issues the novel raises and examines have often been quite rich even as I suspect that, as usual, some students are simply not keeping up with the reading and are thus unwilling and unable to participate or contribute.)

Silence is the story of Sebastião Rodrigues, a missionary who travels to Japan to ‘rescue’ a Christianity sought to be driven out from Japan, and finds himself the latest target of the campaign to do so. Rodrigues takes inspiration from Christ through his trials and travails at the hands of his Japanese tormentors–even as the events around him shake his faith like never before. The determination of his inquisitors to make him an apostate makes Rodrigues sense he will become, rather than Christ, Judas instead; he will not be the defender and promulgator of his faith, but its betrayer instead. As his greatest trial approaches, Rodrigues comes to understand that the man he had imagined the Judas to his Christ is closer to him than he had imagined, that his dislike for him, his failure to feel sympathy or empathy for him, is his greatest failing as a Christian.The novel’s provocative claim–under one interpretation–is that he becomes a better Christian by becoming Judas. And that is because in doing so, he is better able to understand someone, Christ, and something, Christian faith, that he had imagined himself, arrogantly, to understand all too well before his trials began.

Rodrigues worries that God is silent; his most powerful realization is that God speaks through man, and man alone.

Robert Merton On The Importance Of Knowledge For Analyzing Social Actions

In ‘The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action” (American Sociological Review, Vol. 1, No. 6 (Dec., 1936), pp. 894-904) Robert Merton writes:

The most obvious limitation to a correct anticipation of consequences of action is provided by the existing state of knowledge. The extent of this limitation may be best appreciated by assuming the simplest case where this lack of adequate knowledge is the sole barrier to a correct anticipation. Obviously, a very large number of concrete reasons for inadequate knowledge may be found, but it is also possible to summarize several classes of factors which are most important.

It is not a trivial matter that Merton begins his analysis of how a hopefully-scientific study of social actions can go wrong with an invocation of epistemic limitations; he is doing nothing less than acknowledging the centrality of our epistemic positioning for our various projects of inquiry–and the claims that they sanction. The most exalted and the most humble of them is–or should be–always indexed by an assessment of how confidently they may be asserted and under what conditions they would be retracted. The esoteric metaphysical claim that the universe is indeterministic may, on closer inspection, may turn out to only be the claim that the universe’s workings–as revealed to us–are indicative of such indeterminism; its alleged metaphysical attribute turns out to have been an indication of the limitations of our knowledge. Or consider the claim, central to Buddhism, Jainism, and even Stoicism, that while we have no control over the impressions the world directs at us, we can, and do, exercise control over our judgments. Those judgments–the inferences we draw–are crucially reliant on what we know and believe.

In Merton’s analysis, the social scientist is reminded that both the internal and external domains of his inquiry are shrouded by epistemic uncertainty, an ever-present feature of our human situation: the social subject does not have all relevant information available at hand that may be used for evaluating a course of action, while the social analyst is similarly handicapped in his external assessment of the action. Merton’s analysis thus speaks to the importance of information flows, and introduces a political wrinkle here in so doing. For we might well ask: Where and how may we acquire the knowledge needed to evaluate and plan social action and strategies and tactics? Who controls these sources of information?

Note: In the section preceding the one excerpted above, Merton had made note of how our understanding of ‘rationality’ demands an indexing by epistemic state as well:

[R]ationality and irrationality are not to be identified with the success and failure of action, respectively. For in a situation where the number of possible actions for attaining a given end is severely limited, one acts rationally by selecting the means which, on the basis of the available evidence, has the greatest probability of attaining this goal and yet the goal may actually not be attained. Contrariwise, an end may be attained by action which, on the basis of the knowledge available to the actor, is irrational (as in the case of “hunches”).

Jed Perl On The Supposed Necessity Of Doubt For Art

In the course of a ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’ style review of a retrospective of Jeff Koons‘ work–staged at the Whitney Museum last year–Jed Perl writes:

Dada—whatever its deficiencies, and the fact is that it produced relatively little enduring art—was part of a tradition of doubt about the possibilities of art that is woven deep into the history of art. You can trace this tradition back to the accounts in Pliny and other historians of the struggles of ancient painters to disentangle the relationship between the natural world and the pictorial world. The tradition runs through Michelangelo’s Neoplatonic worries about the conflict between the material and spiritual powers of art. And it reaches a first tragic climax in Chardin’s statements about the uselessness of artistic training as a preparation for the real challenges of art and his haunting confession that painting was an island whose shores he doubted he even knew.

There is not a shred of doubt in Jeff Koons. And where there is no doubt there is no art. [links added]

I’m willing to grant Perls that there is ‘a tradition of doubt about the possibilities of art that is woven deep into the history of art’–he is the art critic and historian, not me. And it certainly is the case that much magnificent art has issued from artistic doubt–understood here as that species of psychic unease which spurs creators on to exploration of the world and their place in it through their art. But I do not think it follows that ‘where there is no doubt there is no art.’

Art can issue from certitude. The firm conviction that an artistic statement–of a particular kind, couched in a particular form–needs to be made can be sufficient motivation to bring an artwork into being. Most prominently, the rich history and tradition of religious art is often underwritten by a kind of deep and abiding faith, one not infected by doubt about the existence and attributes of the objects of its desire and longing. It is this faith, this fixity of belief, that often gives this species of art its distinctive emotional and intellectual appeal. (Other examples, drawn from other genres, can, I think, be readily supplied.)

Perhaps Perls’ confusion lies in thinking that only doubt may spur us on to meaningful, directed, and purposive action–there must be an irritant that impels us to move away from it, to find relief in  investigation and action.  (In the case of art, through expression in visual, verbal, and musical media.) But knowledge may provide a clarity that is similarly compelling, for after all, the counterpart of inquiry sparked by doubt–and art is a kind of inquiry–is paralysis, a zone of stagnation and fear. Firmly fixed belief may provide a speedier passage through this domain.

All of which is to say that it is unlikely that something quite as contentiously defined and demarcated as art–and thus interesting!–will find its groundings expressed by means of a formula as reductive as the one that Perl attempts to provide.