Friday, February 15, 2013

Pragmatist Scripture: Peirce and The Book of Acts

A few months ago a friend who is interested in both scripture and philosophy asked me which scripture mattered most to Charles Peirce.  One obvious answer would be the writings of John, the gospeller of agape love, since agape plays such a great role in Peirce's philosophy.

The Book of Acts has recently come to mind as another strong candidate, for several reasons.  I plan to write about all this in more detail soon, but I'll use this space to jot down my thinking quickly, in order to make it available to anyone who might be interested, in the Peircean spirit of shared inquiry.

The Greek title of the Book of Acts is Praxeis Apostolon, or the Deeds of the Apostles.  We guess that the author of the text was the same as the author of the Gospel attributed to Luke.  The title might well have been added after the book was in circulation for a while, but that's probably inconsequential.  It occurred to me recently that this text begins with reminding us that the author wrote a previous book about "the things Jesus began to do and to teach," and then it narrates, without further introduction, the things that the first Christians did after Jesus' death and resurrection.

In other words, it is a book of acts, of deeds.  It is a book of narratives about what people did.

Which is to say that it is not primarily a book of prayers, or of songs, or of doctrines.  It tells a story, without much attempt to interpret that story.  And it is the story of a community learning to work together, and learning how it must adjust its doctrines in light of the community's expansion across and into cultures, and in light of the surprising things they find the new community is empowered to accomplish.

This is appealing to Pragmatists like Peirce, who are more concerned with the way decisions lead to actions than with fixing metaphysical doctrines and whose notions of truth, ethics, and metaphysics are more experimental and transactional than systematic and permanent.  Pragmatists are given to the idea that it is good for communities to work with tentative, revisable and fallible tenets, ever striving to improve their practices as the community grows.


Peirce is not exactly easy to read, which helps to explain why most of what he wrote remains unpublished even a century after his death.  Nevertheless, the patient reader of Peirce is often rewarded by a writer who took words very seriously.

Some of the words he used to great effect in his lectures and essays are derived from the Book of Acts.  Among these phrases are a phrase he uses in his 1907 essay "A Neglected Argument For The Reality Of God," and one that comes at the end of his Cambridge Conference Lectures of 1898.  The phrases are "scientific singleness of heart," and "things live and move and have their being in a logic of events."   See Acts 2.46 and 17.28 for the sources of these two phrases.  (The first one might also have come to Peirce through the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, as I have argued elsewhere.)

Two such phrases are not enough to make the case that Peirce was dependent on the Book of Acts, but thankfully that's not the case I'm trying to make.  Peirce was well read and he cited other portions of scripture and, of course, many other books, after all. I only want to suggest that Peirce might have found the Book of Acts to be a scripture that resonates with his Pragmatism.


That being said, I wish to point to one figure in the middle of the Book of Acts who might be taken to be a kind of Pragmatist saint: Epimenides.

I won't belabor that point here, as I have already written about it elsewhere.  I'll only add that Epimenides appears to be the unnamed source that St Paul appeals to and cites in Acts 17.28.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Cost of War

What is the true cost of war?  It is not the cost of the materiel, training, salaries, and post-war reconstruction.  It is not factored in costs of healthcare, in the rise or fall of GDP or due to manufacturing losses or gains.  The true cost of war - which I cannot begin to calculate - must be in the dreams of those who survive.


My grandfather wore a .45 caliber pistol at his hip when he fought in the Pacific theater in WWII.  The trigger guard was shot off.  He kept that pistol until he died. It was a kind of reverse sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward, invisible wound, of a bullet that nearly ended his life, of the bullets and bombs that ended so many others.  To me, he was a hero, but I wonder if he was ever able to see himself that way.

As a young child I asked him, in wonder, if he had ever seen a man die in war.  I did not know what I was doing.  He was a good man, and a kind one, but that question drew from him the most anger I ever saw in his eyes or heard in his voice.  "Of course I have!" he shouted.  He got up from his chair and left the room, leaving me with my firmest impression of war, of anger and pain stored up for thirty years, like the shrapnel in his back that set off airport metal detectors until his death in the late 1980s.


My neighbor Bob died a little while ago.  His father fought in the first World War, and when Bob wanted to sign up to fight the Germans, Bob's father begged him not to go.  Bob went, and entered the war at the Battle of the Bulge, "my baptism by fire," Bob once told me.  When Bob's son signed up to fight in Viet Nam, Bob begged him not to go.  Jim went anyway.  Three generations of men survived wars, each one eager never to see it again.

I sat next to Bob at a Christmas party ten years ago.  On his other side sat another veteran of the Great War.  They huddled close and whispered loudly, as old men do, thinking I could not hear.  I looked away to preserve their imagined secrecy, but could not help hearing bits of the stories they could speak of only with one another.  The war was sixty years behind them, but their voices still trembled as they unburdened themselves in that moment only brothers in arms can share.  I recall Bob saying this:

"...I checked on my men, and they were fine.  I turned and began to walk away when the shell fell, right between them in their machine gun nest.  All three were killed instantly.  I had been speaking to them just a moment before, and now they were gone...."  Both men were silent for a while after that.  The men were gone, but their deaths lived on and on in Bob's dreams.


That cost, that's what I find impossible to calculate: the cost of asking men to carry in their hearts and in their dreams all of the deaths of other men.  I do not know how they carry it all. I do not know how we can lightly ask others to carry it anew.


If you don't know his work, let me recommend Brian Turner's book Here, Bullet.  He's a young veteran and a brilliant poet who writes about his experience as a soldier in Iraq. 

All Your Deeds

I just read the seventy-third psalm.  I don't understand much of it, but it begins with a complaint about injustice, and I certainly feel like I get that part.

The last line caused me some trouble, though. In it Asaph, the psalmist, says "I will tell of all your [God's] deeds."

Okay, what exactly are those deeds?  What can we ever reliably say about God's deeds?  If God had done something in history that were not open to historical doubt, there would be no atheists.

The tradition gives us stories about God, and a century of biblical criticism calls those stories myths.  Still, as I have argued elsewhere (here, and here, for example) myth is not - or should not be taken as - a synonym for falsehood.  Stories may be myths and true, even if not historically true.

As Howard Wettstein argues in his Significance of Religious Experience,
The Bible’s characteristic mode of ‘theology’ is story telling, the stories overlaid with poetic language.  Never does one find the sort of conceptually refined doctrinal propositions characteristic of a doctrinal approach.  When the divine protagonist comes into view, we are not told much about his properties.  Think about the divine perfections, the highly abstract omni-properties (omnipotence, omniscience, and the like), so dominant in medieval and post-medieval theology.  One has to work very hard—too hard—to find even hints of these in the Biblical text.  Instead of properties, perfection and the like the Bible speaks of God’s roles—father, king, friend, lover, judge, creator, and the like.  Roles, as opposed to properties; this should give one pause. (108, emphasis added)
The stories may not be about historical "deeds" but may be about the character, the roles of God.

Which makes me wonder: what roles does God play in my life?  What "deeds" may I speak of?
The preface to the complaint in Psalm 73

Before I reply, let me hasten to say this: I am often reluctant to write too strongly about this sort of thing because I do not want to say that others must believe what I believe If God has led me to belief, (grant me that for the sake of argument for a moment) God has not strong-armed me into belief but allowed me to arrive at my beliefs over time, letting them be shaped by experience.  I do not see why I should allow you less liberty than God has allowed me. 

So I write the following admitting that I do not know what I am writing about.  As Augustine confessed, when I speak of my love for God, I do so simultaneously wondering what I mean by "God."  What can I compare God to?  What is God like?  I do not know how to answer those questions, except by telling stories, expositing roles. So here goes:

When I was a child, belief in God motivated a family in my neighborhood to care about me and to welcome me into their home when my family was falling apart. Without that love...I shudder to think what I would be today.

God gives me a name for what I pray to.  God gives me a focal point for my attention in the vast cosmos, and God gives me a sense that in such a cosmos persons matter.  And because persons matter, justice matters.  This is not to say one cannot be just without belief, or that belief makes one just - far from it! - only that I find for myself the two ideas closely bound together.

God gives me solace in my mourning and hope when I pray. My mother is dead, but when I speak to God about her, she is not lost.

God gives me a story about the centrality of nurturing love.  A reason to think all things are related.  Someone to thank.  Someone to be angry with.  Rest for my soul.  Quietness, and in it, trust.

God gives me a story about giving, and why giving and receiving should matter so much.

A story about why, and how, to turn a guilty conscience into repentance.  A reason to forgive, and, very often, the strength to forgive.  And to hope that I too am forgivable.

A reason to hope that no one is beyond redemption, beyond all hope, completely unworthy of love.

Belief that every person matters.  More than that, belief that a teenage girl could be a vessel of the divine; that a third-world martyred prophet could save the world; that an inarticulate foreigner could be a world-historical lawgiver; that a persecuting zealot could get hit so hard by grace that he lives the rest of his life to preach good news for all people everywhere.

Hope that prison doors could be opened, that tongues could be loosed, that great art and great music might be signs of the divine.

I could be wrong about all of this, I know.  I know there are other explanations of what I have written above.  I also know those explanations apply to music, too, and I'm not interested in hearing about them there either if the reason for offering them is to help disabuse me of my love for good music.  I know that people use the same word I use here to justify violence, self-interest, and hatred.  I cannot help but feel angry and disgusted when it is used for those ends, ends which seem so contrary to what the word means for me, ends that make me think someone has read the wrong script, mis-cast the character, not known what deeds God has done.