Category Archives: religion

The Deep Slumber of Decided Beliefs

 

John Stuart Mill argued in his book On Liberty that Christian faith had been impoverished as a result of not being sufficiently challenged in his country (England in the 19th century) Those beliefs were once firmly and genuinely held in the early days of Christianity. Then Christians had to constantly defend those beliefs from attack. Christians had to know the reasons and justifications for those beliefs. Over centuries of acceptance by rote, the beliefs have died in their minds. They are what Mill called dead beliefs.  Or dull and torpid beliefs. At one time the beliefs were vibrant, now they are mere forms.

Mill claims that because these beliefs are no longer truly held, the Christians have such difficulty in propagating their faith in foreign countries.  It is hard to convince others of a belief that is not obviously believed. If you don’t believe it, why should I? It is like a Chevrolet sales representative trying to sell a Chevrolet when the customer knows the sales representative owns a Toyota. Actions speak louder than words.

Mill describes these faux beliefs this way,

“The sayings of Christ coexist passively in their minds, producing hardly any effect beyond what is caused by mere listening to words so amiable and bland. There are many reasons, doubtless why doctrines which are the badge of a sect retain more of their vitality than those common to all recognized sects, and why more pains are taken by teachers to keep their meaning alive; but one reason certainly is, that the peculiar doctrines are more questioned, and have to be oftener defended  against open gainsayers.  Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post, as soon as there is no enemy in the field.

 

And that is why free speech is so important to learning truth. It’s the contest for truth that is vitally important. This reasoning of course applies to all beliefs, not just religious beliefs.  All languages and belief systems are chock full of observations and directives about how adherents are to conduct themselves. People hear them and believe that they do in fact believe them. They are genuine about their claims. Yet most people only learn the meaning of them when they painfully have to implement them. That makes them real. The pain reminds the “believer” of what he or she should have known and believed.  As Mill said, “there are many truths of which the full meaning cannot be realised until personal experience has brought it home.”

For beliefs, the best way to bring the belief home is to hear it argued pro and con by people who understand it. As Mill pointed out so wisely, “The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful, is the cause of half their errors.  Mill said that a contemporary author has well spoken of “the deep slumber of a decided opinion.”

In the search for truth, slumber is an impressive and pernicious barrier.

Are Christian beliefs ineffective?

 

John Stuart Mill continued his robust defense of free speech in his book On Liberty by saying that even true beliefs benefited from challenges that free speech can bring. For example, since Christians seem to strongly believe the tenets of their religion, but they could benefit from vigorous challenge. How is that?

According to Mill, Christian beliefs, even fundamental beliefs are actually held without passion that John Stuart Mill he gave in his book On Liberty, surprised me. These were Christian beliefs which I always thought, in the middle of the 19th century, when Mill wrote, were very strongly held. Mills suggests otherwise:

“To what extent doctrines intrinsically fitted to make the deepest impression upon the mind may remain in it as dead beliefs, without being ever realised in the imagination, the feelings, or the understanding, is exemplified by the manner in which the majority of believers hold the doctrines of Christianity. By Christianity I here mean what is accounted such by all churches and sects—the maxims and precepts contained in the New Testament. These are considered sacred, and accepted as laws, by all professing Christians. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it, is the custom of the nation, his class, or his religious profession.”

 

In other words, according to Mill, people really believe the customs they have adopted, but their professed religious beliefs not so much. Customs actually govern our actions, not our professed religious beliefs. This is really just another way of saying actions speak louder than words, and when it comes to all of these profound and important religious beliefs they are not really effective in guiding our actions, according to Mill.  They have become stale by being the products of indoctrination and not robust debate.

Mill suggests that our actions are based on local customs that we unconsciously accept and allow to override the genuine religious views that we have:

“He has thus, on the one hand, a collection of ethical maxims, which he believes to have been vouchsafed to him by infallible wisdom, as rules for his government; and on the other a set of every-day judgments and practices, which go a certain length with some of those maxims, not so great a length with others, stand in direct opposition to some, and are, on the whole, a compromise between the Christian creed and the interests and suggestions of worldly life. To the first of these standards he gives his homage; to the other his real allegiance.”

 

Mill goes on to list many examples of beliefs that are genuinely believed but do not actually determine how we action:

” All Christians believe that the blessed are the poor and humble, and those who are ill-advised by the world; that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not lest they be judged; that they should swear not at all; that they should love their neighbour as themselves; that they should take no thought for the morrow; that if they would be perfect they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor.  They are not insincere when they believe these things.  They do believe them as , as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed.  But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct they believe these doctrines just up to the point  to which it is usual to act upon them. The doctrines in their integrity are serviceable to pelt adversaries with; and it is understood that they are to be put forward (when possible) as their reasons for whatever people do that they think laudable. But anyone who reminded them that the maxims require an infinity of things which they never even think of doing, would gain nothing but to be classed among those very unpopular characters who affect to be better than other people. The doctrines have no hold on ordinary believers—are not a power in their minds. They have an habitual respect for the sound of them,  but no feeling which spreads from words to the things signified, and forces the mind to take them in, and make them conform to the formula.  Whenever conduct is concerned, they look around for Mr. A and B to direct them how far to go in obeying Christ.”

 

Mill argues that Christians have these sincere beliefs but actually they do not change how they act. When it comes to acting, people look around to see what their peers are doing and then act accordingly.  That has a marked impact on what they do.  Professed beliefs are weak in comparison.

Yet according to Mill the early Christians were deeply affected in their conduct by religious beliefs that now people claim to believe, and actually do believe though weakly without life and those beliefs do not affect how we actually live.

As Mill said,

“Now we may be well assured that the case was not thus, but far otherwise, with the early Christians. Had it been thus, Christianity never would have expanded from an obscure sect of the despised Hebrews into the religion of the Roman empire. When their enemies said, “See how those Christians love one another” (a remark not likely to be made by anybody now) they assuredly had a much livelier feeling of the meaning of their creed than they have had since.

 

 

These doctrines that Mill selects are not mere ancillary aspects of Christianity. They included core beliefs. For example, that Christians should love others like themselves. What is more fundamental than that? Yet Mill concludes Christians claim to believe these fundamental doctrines but these claims have no substance. The beliefs are weakly held. Often, or should we say usually, they do not lead to action.  People like to hear themselves mouth these words. But they don’t really mean it when Christians say they mean them. There are of course, many more beliefs that Mill could have selected for similar treatment. And importantly, Mill says that the reason these beliefs are endorsed formally but not existentially is that Christians have not had to defend them against others. Christians don’t remember why these beliefs are important? Christians don’t remember the reason for the maxims.  Their beliefs are no longer real. Their beliefs have become empty husks no matter how often professed.

 I would invite my Christian friends to say why Mill is wrong. Or is he right?

Sacred Truths

Some people believe their “truths’ because they have faith in them. Others rely on hunches. Some rely on the authority of parents, teachers, or experts. None of these according to John Stuart Mill are solid grounds for action. This is what Mill says:

“There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting  and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for the purpose of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.”

It is for that reason that we don’t believe Putin is right when he says he was justified in invading Ukraine. Or we don’t believe the Ayatollah that Salman Rushdie should be killed? Or that gays are bound for hell because the Bible or the local preacher the says so.

Mill makes it clear that no opinions should be exempt from this process. He points out that there are some who urge that some principles are so certain that we should not be permitted to question them. But Mill disagrees. All opinions and all principles, even fundamental principles should be subject to challenge in this way. Only then can we really be certain. Or at least as close to certain as we can get. This is the result of living in an age that Mill says some call “destitute of faith, but terrified of scepticism in which people feel sure, not so much that their opinions are true, as that they should not know what to do without them—the claims of an opinion to be protected from public attack are rested not so much on its truth, as on its importance to society.” Of course, as Mill points out, this just shifts the problem, for it is just as important to have an infallible judge to determine which opinions are noxious or useful as to determine those that are true or false. In either case, the opinion must be allowed to be free to defend itself.

The real problem, Mill says, is not feeling sure of a doctrine, which he calls the assumption of infallibility, but rather the undertaking to decide this question for others, without allowing them to hear what can be said on the contrary side. This must be denounced no less when it is done to “protect” solemn convictions. All opinions must be free to defend themselves, even the sacred ones that are most important to us.

All truths should be subject to debate and argument. None are exempt. Not even sacred ones. That is what free speech means. All “truths” can be freely challenged.

Genocide Repudiated

 

The Indian Residential Schools established by the Canadian government under the provisions of the Indian Act were instruments it used, often through its church partners,  to ensure dominance over indigenous people. Even if the Popes had disavowed the Doctrine of Discovery, the basis of these notions were also the foundation of that doctrine, which I have called vile.

Here is what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’)  said in its report to the Canada in 2015,

“For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.””

 

Since that report was delivered many critics have said the TRC was too gentle with Canada. They suggested the word “cultural” should be dropped from that destruction. They say, Canada was guilty of genocide. Pope Francis on his recent visit to Canada said he thought it “genocide.” The subsequent report of the 2019 Inquiry into Missing and Murdered  Women and Girls, said the actions reported on in that report amount to “genocide.” There was no qualification. It may be that the reticence of the TRC was a consequence of it not being authorized to accuse people of crimes, and genocide is a crime.

The TRC said this about genocide:

“Physical genocide is the mass killing of the members of a targeted group, and biological genocide is the destruction of the group’s reproductive capacity. Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.”

 

 

And then the TRC added, “In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.” If Canada did all 3 things necessary to be classified as genocide, then the TRC is saying, Canada committed genocide in its dealings with its Indian Residential Schools. According to the TRS, and was amply justified by the evidence revealed in its report,

 

As if that was not enough the TRC also said this,

“Canada denied the right to participate fully in Canadian political, economic, and social life to those Aboriginal people who refused to abandon their Aboriginal identity. Canada outlawed Aboriginal spiritual practices, jailed Aboriginal spiritual leaders, and confiscated sacred objects. And, Canada separated children from their parents, sending them to residential schools. This was done not to educate them, but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity.   In justifying the government’s residential school policy, Canada’s First prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, told the House of Commons in 1883:

When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

 

But as if that was not enough the TRC added,

“These measures were part of a coherent policy to eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct peoples and to assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will.”

 

Who can possibly deny that taking children away from their parents for such a vile policy is not genocide? I think the conclusion is clear and unassailable.

In my opinion these genocidal policies are incompatible with the statements made by Pope Francis in Canada. He spoke plainly and clearly. This was a most welcome message from a Pope.

 

A Call for Love, Truth, and Justice

 

Friends have asked me what I thought of Pope Francis’s recent words in Canada during his pilgrimage of penance. As I said earlier, it is up to indigenous people to say whether or not the apology is satisfactory, but I want to comment on some of his other statements.

 

The vicious Doctrine of Discovery, has for more than 500 years held that it is justifiable for Christians to steal land from indigenous people and brutalize and murder them in the process and then force them to be become Christians. What could be worse than that? Even if the doctrine was dismissed by former Popes, the doctrine was used to exploit indigenous people right up to the 20th century. Pope Francis while in Canada was implored to reject that doctrine  And guess what?” He did it! At least that I is my interpretation of his words, for what he said is clearly incompatible with that doctrine.

According to Niigaan Sinclair, writing in the Winnipeg Free Press, “Pope Francis has rebuked over 500 years of how the church and Catholics treated Indigenous people.” Sinclair pointed out how in 1550, almost 500 years ago, a trial took place among Catholic leaders at Valladolid where the question was: are Indigenous Peoples human? Today, it seems incomprehensible that such a question could even be asked, but in 1550, the idea that indigenous people might be human was radical. Until then, the Popes had declared that indigenous people could be robbed of their land and must be converted while authorizing the use of brutal and even murderous force against them. It was a heinous doctrine that required a heinous world view—white male supremacy—to found it. It was not confined to Catholics but was the common European attitude to indigenous peoples everywhere.

Catholic leaders had a hard time coming to a final decision on the issue and hence acquiesced in violence, evangelization and yes, even genocide for the next 500 years. At least that was the case until now. On July 28 in Quebec City, Canada, Pope Francis asked a monumental question: “How about our relationships with those who are not ‘one of our own,’ with those who do not believe, with those who have different traditions and customs?”

 The question is astoundingly simple and yet astoundingly profound. Then the Pope gave a very clear answer to his own question: “This is the way: to build relationships of fraternity with everyone, with Indigenous brothers and sisters, with every sister and brother we meet, because the presence of God is reflected in each of their faces.”

 Pope Francis gave a theological answer to the question. I would have given a more naturalistic answer. I would have said, this is because ‘we feel the humanity in the indigenous people as we feel it in our ourselves.’ But either way, the answer really is the same.

 Niigaan Sinclair said this in response: “In a simple statement that rebuked over 500 years of Catholic doctrine, the Pope had pronounced Indigenous cultures and traditions are valuable, worthy on their own terms, and represent “the presence of God.”

Sinclair explored the idea further by speculating what this revolutionary idea of Pope Francis means in practice:

 “Bishops and priests must now “build relationships of fraternity” with Indigenous ways, instead of forcing us to give up our songs, stories, and traditions. Because, finally, after 500 years, the church finally recognizes us as human. Forgive me if I don’t give the Pope a standing ovation — as the priests and bishops did — but I do recognize a step when I see one.”

 

So far, I have not read any other pundit who has recognized the significance of Pope Francis’ remarks, but Sinclair has done so. This is how he characterized those remarks: “The impact of Pope Francis’ new doctrine is nothing short of a game-changer for Catholicism in Canada (and, I guess, the world).

Sinclair showed how significant the Papal comments are:

“It means Indigenous languages, cultures and ceremonies must be recognized as legitimate spiritual expressions by every member of the Catholic Church. It means any effort to destroy Indigenous traditions is to attack the “presence of God.” It means the purpose of the Canadian residential school system — to eradicate “the Indian in the child,” to use an infamous phrase — was invalid in the eyes of this Pope.”

 

I acknowledge that I scoffed at the suggestion that the Pope would discard 500 years of Catholic history—even ignominious history such as the Doctrine of Discovery—but that is exactly what he did. It was a historical moment! Indigenous people should be proud of what they have achieved. It is truly, deeply momentous.

Pope Francis summed up his thoughts in Quebec this way:

 Thinking about the process of healing and reconciliation with our Indigenous brothers and sisters, never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others.”

 

I am not aware of any more profound remarks made by any Pope in the past 500 years and they were made in Canada at the behest of the indigenous people of Canada! This was a great day.

So forget about the Pope’s apology, forget about the doctrine of discovery, what Pope Francis said in Canada was a miracle.  It was magnificent.   I think in his own humble way, without fancy words, Pope Francis did do what Niigaan Sinclair wanted him to do—he called for truth, love, and justice.

The Doctrine of Discovery Moves from Religion to Politics and Law

The Doctrine of Discovery originated as policy in the 15th century as a result of Papal Bulls (decrees) to the monarchs of Portugal and Spain.  According to According to Olive Patricia Dickason and William Newbigging in their book A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations this amounted to a “virtual declaration of war against all non-Christians and an official sanction of the conquest, colonization, and eventual non exploitation of non-Christian people and their territories.”

Yesterday, I promised that I would opine on the historic comments of Pope Francis in Quebec last week.  I have decided to make a few more comments on the Doctrine of Discovery today before I do that tomorrow.

As a result of a conversation yesterday, with a friend who is a professor of Religious studies, and clearly knows a lot more about the Doctrine of Discovery than I do, and says that the Doctrine of Discovery was repudiated by Catholic Popes and church leaders more or less from the beginning. However, the attitudes that underpinned it, namely white supremacy and its corollaries, dominated western thinking for centuries. Those attitudes allowed the people from Europe to believe they had an inherent right, if not a religious right, to dominate the people of what they referred to as the New World. According to Olive Patricia Dickason and William Newbigging,

 

“The main principles of the discovery doctrine was accepted by European colonizers and remained an unspoken assumption until the famous U.S. Supreme Court case of Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823. Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Marshall noted that the European colonizers had assumed dominion over North and South America during the Age of Discovery, and that the indigenous peoples had lost their rights to absolute sovereignty, but they did retain the right of occupancy in their own lands. In addition, Marshall claimed that the United States of America, upon winning it independence from Great Britain, simply assumed this right of discovery and the authority of dominion from the British. Succinctly put, the colonizing powers assumed the right to claim possession of the Americas by virtue of their belief in the superiority of Christianity and its adherents . In turn, the US Supreme Court ruled that they had inherited their right of possession, by way of the British, from the doctrine of a fifteenth century pope who was attempting to curry favour with the King and Queen of Spain.”

 

The basis of the policies that flowed from the doctrine were based on a fundamental assumption of European superiority over indigenous people. That attitude poisoned the relationship between Europeans and Indigenous peoples for centuries even if Popes repudiated it.  The religious leaders could not erase the attitudes of assumed European supremacy.

 

Doctrine of Discovery: As Vile as Vile can Be

People have been asking me what I think about the recent apologies of Pope Francis. Some were complaining it did not cover everything he ought to have covered. Others told me they hate apologies. I have been resisting a reply as I consider an answer.  I know this is not like me. I usually allow whatever inane thought has entered my head to plop out ungraced. This time I wanted to do better. I am glad I waited because on his second last day in Canada, Pope Francis made a momentous statement, which in my opinion dwarfs all else. He got to the root of the problem and he apologized for that and said we must do better. Frankly, it was a shocking statement that many have not taken note of. He has effectively ended, in words at least, more than 500 years of an important plank of white supremacy and hate that has been a stain on western civilization that urgently required redress.

 

First, about the apology I don’t claim the right to tell indigenous people what form of apology they should accept or what wording is good enough. That is for them to decide.  I think however I can comment on what Pope Francis has done to remove a deep dark stain on so-called western civilization for the benefit of beneficiaries of that civilization like me. Pope Francis made some astounding remarks about the foundational notion of white male supremacy and its corollary doctrine of discovery. Few have commented about that.

I have often said that Pope Francis is my Pope. I have never been taken seriously in comments because I not a member of any organized religion and certainly not the Catholic Church. So I have no claim to ownership of the Pope.  Part of the reason I have been opposed to organized religion is that it has been used for so long to buttress the thinking that produced the Doctrine of Discovery. That doctrine is based on an underlying philosophy of white male supremacy, which is the real original sin.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a doctrine as vile as vile can be and it was produced in the name of religion by Catholic Popes starting in the 15th century. In those days statements by the Pope were important. They were almost like laws. To many they were laws because  all of Europe was Catholic. But on July 28, 2022, in Canada, the current Pope poked a hole in it so deeply that it is bound to sink. This was a truly historic moment. I applaud the Pope.

To begin with, we should note that the doctrine of discovery (or discovery doctrine) is a concept of public international law that was produced by the Roman Catholic Church and adopted by the European monarchs in order to justify and legitimize the colonization and evangelization of lands outside of Europe. These lands were often ludicrously described as “uncivilized” or “savage.”  The inherent dehumanization of non-Europeans in the eyes of Europeans was used to legitimize the theft of foreign lands by Europeans by giving a thin veneer of legality and religion to that organized theft.

This doctrine was used from the mid-fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century to permit European countries to seize land that was inhabited by indigenous people around the world and in particular in the recently contacted western hemisphere.

The idea of the doctrine was that any land not occupied by Christians could be seized by Christians for their own uses. This idea was the basis of colonization. It really was doctrine invented by Popes and European monarchs to try to justify (weakly) their invading, of the western continent, and raping and pillaging its inhabitants  in the name of the Catholic Church and European monarchs. it really was a doctrine that authorized exploitation.

The doctrine was often promulgated by written statements made by Pope that were called Papal Bulls. A papal bull is a type of public decree, such as  letters patent, or charter issued by a pope of the Catholic Church. It got the name from the lead seal the Popes used to make their statements look official.  Most of now think of them as bullshit, but actually for centuries those decrees were very important and had serious consequences attached to them because of the prestige of the Popes.

The doctrine emerged during the Age of Exploration. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued what was called, most appropriately, a Papal Bull, Dum Diversas that authorized Portugal to conquer non-Christian lands seize the inhabitants as slaves and consign them to perpetual servitude. Is it possible to imagine a viler doctrine that this? In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued another Papal Bull that permitted Spain to claim the lands visited by Christopher Columbus on behalf of his patron Spain. In 1494 the two competing Christian nations concluded the Treaty of Tordesillas that divided the western “New World” between the two of them. As if they had the right to do that. It showed the extreme arrogance of Christian Europeans that gave them the confidence that they could own and control the world while ignoring the wishes of people that already lived there.

France and England, for a while at least, also used the Doctrine of Discovery to justify their dubious claims in the New World even though they refused to recognize the Spanish-Portuguese hegemony. Francis I of France said he wanted to see the “testament of Adam” that divided the world between Spain and Portugal. When Christian nations quarrelled over disputed western territories, they sometimes asked the Pope to arbitrate the disputes. Inhabitants of course, being savages, had no say in what was decided. Their lives did not matter.

After the English Reformation when England no longer recognized the supremacy of the Papal Bulls, it retained the Doctrine of Discovery to sanction its own bloody deeds. It was just that after that the English monarchs had the supreme authority, rather than the Pope but it did not cede jurisdiction to local people. The effect on indigenous people was the same.

In 1537 Pope Paul III issued a Bull Sublimis Deus that forbade the enslavement of the indigenous people of the Americas that he called the “Indians of the West and the South.” The Pope stated that “Indians” are fully rational human beings who have the rights to freedom and private property even if they are not Christians. That was a radical idea. It was so radical that European monarchs often ignored it.

The Doctrine of Discovery continues to this day to be referred to in American and Canadian judicial decisions and it continues to influence American treatment of indigenous people. The doctrine was expounded upon by judges of the U.S. Supreme Court in a series of cases most notably Johnson v. M’Intosh in 1823. In that case, demonstrating the poverty of American common law, the Supreme Court Justice John Marshall had large real estate holdings that would have been adversely affected if the case were decided in favor of one of the litigants, Johnson, so rather than recusing himself, Justice Marshall wrote the decision of the unanimous court in a manner that protected his personal interests. The court ruled that the ownership of land came into existence by virtue of discovery of the land which in that case was discovered by Great Britain and then lawfully transferred to the United States, again without consent by the indigenous inhabitants.

The Doctrine of Discovery has been roundly criticized as socially unjust, racist, and in violation of basic human rights. In 2012, the UN called for a mechanism to investigate land claims. Speakers at the UN conference noted how the doctrine had been used repeatedly over centuries to allow for the transfer of land from indigenous people to colonizing authorities or dominating nations without consent of the indigenous.

Numerous religious bodies have condemned the doctrine, including the Episcopal Church in 2009, the Unitarian Universality Association in 2012, the United Church in 2013, the Christian Reformed Church in 2016, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) also in 2016 and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In November 2016, a group of 524 clergy publicly burned copies of Inter caetera, a specific Papal Bull that underpinned the doctrine as part of the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline protests near Standing Rock  Indian Reservation.

The Canadian bishops have called on the Catholic Church to issue a new Doctrine of Discovery and stated that they “reject and resist the ideas associated with the Doctrine of Discovery in the strongest possible way.”

Finally, in July of 2022, without mentioning the doctrine specifically, Pope Francis during his penitential pilgrimage to Canada  made some profound comments that seriously undermine the legitimacy of the doctrine. It really was a historical moment. I will get to that in my next blog post.

Tragic Wisdom of Cornel West

 

In my last post I talked about Cornel West’s tragic vision which was enriched by the poetry of Giacomo Leopardi who wanted to find truth for the sweet ship-wrecked mind. I also mentioned in that post that the philosopher Jeff Sharlet talked about his friend Cornel West. Sharlet talked about how West maintains optimism when, as West himself has said, “we are immersed in a culture of superficial spectacle that generates weapons of mass destruction?” That is a bleak view.

 

How can West remain optimistic in the face of it? West according to Sharlet said “hope is not predicated on the future getting any better. That is the difference between hope and optimism.” West reminds us that he comes from a people that were terrorized, stigmatized, and traumatized for 400 years! They have learned a lot about trauma and know a thing or two about dealing with.

 

West, who is proudly African American, pointed out that it would have been natural for slaves in such a position to lose hope.  He did not say there was an easy way out. As if there could be an easy way out of slavery. West said many of his people just decided they would live a life of honesty, decency and integrity no matter what happened. They took the position that this is what they are called here to do and said to themselves we will just do it. They had no choice. They were not “immigrants” to North America as Ben Carson suggested.  They had been brought to this continent in the most brutal way imaginable. This reminds me again of my mother who had a little framed saying on her wall in her small apartment she lived in before she died: “This is all I have so this is all I need.”

 

West says he tries to emulate that response to injustice even when it seems impenetrable. Sometimes there is nothing he can do about it.  Whether there are consequences that flow from that choice to make this a better a world or not is beyond his control. He will just do his part no matter what. What a great attitude. “There does not have to be a direct connection between being a decent person and there being more decency prevalent in the world,” West told Sharlet.  Sometimes In some moments in history things happen that we cannot control it. That does not mean we should not choose to live a decent life. We just dissent from the injustice if that is all we can do.

 

West said he learned a lot from the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who West calls the greatest literary artist of the late modern world. According to West’s interpretation, “Chekhov said it is just a matter of bearing your truth to the world and doing all you can in your brief journey from Mama’s womb to tomb. We should try to pass that on to the next generation.”

 

West also warned that we might be headed towards an environmental implosion. Corporate greed (fueled by individual demands)  makes it difficult to have a conversation about important issues. If there is no way to fundamentally overthrow or transform the greed of oligarchs and plutocrats, supported by their minions,  and if the patriarchy wants to continue to obliterate women, if straights want to continue to dominate the gays and lesbians and transsexuals, they will do that. I don’t have to be a part of that he says. I can resist. I might not change the world, but I can be a decent person if I choose to be one. The white world can continue to be hegemonic and racist, our mistreatment of indigenous peoples can carry on, but let them carry it on without us. As West said to Sharlet, “I still want to be a person who fights against the period, and I want to fight with others, and if we lose so be it.”  We have no guarantees. What an inspiring thoughtful man! As an indigenous woman at the University of Winnipeg where I heard West speak, told him, “you uplift my spirit.”

 

T.S. Eliot was according to West a right-wing ideologue. But he acknowledged, that even right-wing ideologues have to be right once in awhile. Eliot got it right when he said, in the Quartets, “Ours is in the trying. The rest is not our business.” We are only here to bear witness and to try as much as we can. Or as Samuel Becket said, “Try again. Fail Again. Fail Better.”

 

West, who also said he wants to teach people how to die, asked us to consider what people will say about us. At our funeral will they say we failed?  We made misjudgments. We made mistakes. Hopefully they will see we tried, we held on, we did the best we could. As West said, “We are not pure, but will we lead a trail behind us of integrity, honesty, decency?  If so we have not really failed at all.”

 

To Cornel West resistance to evil is a religious imperative.  He always comes back to religion. He does not waste time talking to us about a personal relationship to Jesus. Instead, he says this is a world of overwhelming oppression, deception, insults, attacks, and brute force repression but will we resist? That is what it is all about for West. We have to rebel against it. But that’s enough. It is enough.

 

Prophetic Pragmatism and the Problem of Evil

 

Brother West had a unique answer to the problem of evil. The problem of evil for those who are not familiar with the argument goes something like this:

 

  1. God is all-knowing
  2. God is all- powerful
  3. God is all- loving
  4. Evil Exists
  5. Therefore God does not exist

 

I first heard of the problem of evil when I was 17 years old in 1967. It was an incredible year in my life. I finished high school. I travelled with 4 buddies to Expo 67 in Montreal with my summer wages that were intended to put me through first year of University (most of which disappeared on that memorable trip) and I went to University. My life changed forever.

1967 started with a trip to the University of Manitoba courtesy of our High School. It was part of an introduction to the university offered by the University of Manitoba to all grade 12 students who had an interest in it. I did and I went.

I went to 2 classes. One of them I have entirely forgotten. The other one I remember vividly to this day.  We were “taught” the problem by Professor Arthur Schafer who had recently returned to Manitoba from Oxford University. He said he would prove to us that God did not exist.  Then he presented the argument brilliantly and then fended off all counter arguments from the mostly horrified grade 12 students. It was scintillating. I was mesmerized. I was hooked. I wanted to study philosophy and could hardly wait to graduate.

The best version of that argument that  I have read or heard since was presented by Dostoevsky in the wonderful novel Brothers Karamazov. I intend to go there on a future part of my religious quest in the modern age. West too dealt with the problem of evil.

 

Brother West is a Christian.  But he does not deny evil. Nor does he shrink from it.  We must accept that there is evil in the world and it is real and must be faced. That is fundamental West philosophy though it has not shattered his faith. In fact, it has deepened his faith. Faith that does not acknowledge evil to West is unreal faith. It is fake faith. It is at best comforting illusion and West wants no part of illusions. He wants the hard task of confronting evil. Just like he wants to confront death and says the most important thing to learn is to learn how to die. That is what he wants to teach to his students—how to die.

Brother West is a man of many parts.  A Renaissance man in other words. He is part philosopher, part theologian, or professor, or bluesman. Sometimes he calls himself a “cultural critic” By that he means a man “who tries to explain America to itself.” He has also called that American theodicy an odd expression but by that he means a man concerned about a “central obsession, the problem of evil.  If God exists, why does he or she permit evil? One of West’s mentors, James H. Cone, said that this idea was the fundamental concept in West’s own spiritual quest. According to Cone, West explores the problem of theodicy not in the abstract of heaven nor in the abstract of philosophical debate, but rather in the concrete here and now of the world around him.  He asks: “How do you really struggle against suffering in a loving way, to leave a legacy in which people would be able to accent their own loving possibility in the midst of so much evil?”

As I said earlier, West calls his philosophy prophetic  pragmatic. West does not consider the problem of evil from the perspective of trying to prove that God does not exist. Rather he tries to figure out how do we live in a world with evil and yet maintain not just our faith, but our obligations to others?

The Classics: Wisdom Speaking

Cornel West wrote an article in the Washington Post in response to Howard University and other universities getting rid of their Classics Department.  Walter Isaacson interviewed him on Amanpour and Company about that. said that he believes it is important to preserve and read the classics. He  emphasized that, it important to read the classics:

I am convinced we are living in a moment of spiritual decay and moral decrepitude in the American empire. We have to come up with countervailing forces and countervailing weight against the rule of money, rule of mediocrity, rule of military might, rule of narrow conformity, and rule of indifference and callousness. The best classics of any civilization, of any empire, of any culture have to do with trying to convince ourselves to get involved in a quest for truth, and beauty, and goodness, and then for some of us like myself, a Christian, the holy.

 

That is what the classics can help us to do. That is part of West’s religious quest in the modern age. West believes there has been a deep moral decline in the west and a deep intellectual narrowness has crept in, and that the classics can help us to resist this trend. He says, the reason it does that is

“The classics force us to come to terms with the most terrifying question we can ever raise which is what does it mean to be human? The unexamined life is not a life of a human according to Plato in his Apology in line 38a. “Human” comes from the Latin humando which means burial, we are disappearing creatures. We are vanishing organisms on the way to bodily extinction. Therefore, the question becomes, ‘who will we be in the meantime?’ What kind of virtue can we enact? What kind of vision will we pursue? What kind of values will we try to embody? And once you raise that question what it means to be human, then you begin to see on the one hand like Shakespeare and Dante have taught us, like Toni Morrison, and John Coltrane have taught us, it’s dark in our history! Most of our history is the history of domination and oppression. The history of hatred. The history of contempt. It is the history of fear driven cruelty. What is the best of our history? Counterweights against that. And that is everywhere you look. Every civilization. Every continent. Every race. Every religion. Every gender. Every sexual orientation. And once you come to terms with that, then the question becomes how do you become equipped? What kind of spiritual and moral armour do you have that allows you to think critically? That allows you to open yourself to others. That allows you to act courageously.”

 

Now if that is not a spiritual quest, I do not know what is. That is what I have been seekiing on my quest. I think I have found it. West used Frederick Douglas as an example of a man who did that. He discovered  truths from foreign languages as well as anyone can do. He was already a freedom fighter, but the classics of other countries helped him to find the truth, beauty, and the good. According to West, “He teased out an eloquence. And what is eloquence? “Eloquence is wisdom speaking,” say Cicero and Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (often referred to as Quintilian) a rhetorician and educator.

 

According to West, the essence of wisdom speaking is having the courage to know how to die by questioning your presuppositions. Every time you let a presupposition go that is a form of death because it allows you to be reborn. It allows you to grow. It allows you to develop. It allows you to mature.

As West said,

“We live in an empire my brother that has grown powerful and rich but has not grown up. F.O Mathieson used to say, “America would in some way be distinctive because it could move from perceived innocence to corruption without a mediating state of maturity.” The nation believes it is innocent. How can you be authorizers of devastation of indigenous people and African slaves and then view yourselves as innocent? James Baldwin said that innocence is the crime before you commit the crime. We need to grow up. This is not Peter Pan. This is not Disneyland. We gotta be mature. It is possible for any human being to be innocent, naïve, to be mature and separate childishness from child-likeness. Child-likeness is a sign of maturity. Childishness? You need to grow up.”

The classics taught West how to find truth, beauty, moral goodness and the holy. That is the spiritual quest in the modern age.