Philosophy 0200d: Description

If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth." When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls. Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives' conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. (1 Peter 2:20-3:2)

Mostly [my husband] is a good man. But sometimes he becomes very angry and he hits me. He knocks me down. One time he broke my arm and I had to go to the hospital. ...I went to my priest twenty years ago. I’ve been trying to follow his advice. The priest said I should rejoice in my sufferings because they bring me closer to Jesus. ...He said, "If you love Jesus, accept the beatings and bear them gladly, as Jesus bore the cross." (Lucia, quoted in Proverbs of Ashes)

Faith is frequently characterized in such a way as to make it the antithesis of reason, and Western history provides ample evidence of this conflict. Over and over again, people have opposed scientific claims for reasons founded on their religious beliefs: The Catholic church's persecution of the aged Galileo and contemporary opposition to the theory of evolution are two familiar examples.

A similar conflict arises from the classical "problem of evil". According to much of the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is supposed to be omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing), and perfectly good. But the world in which we live is anything but perfectly good. Human beings do unspeakably awful things to one another, even in the name of that same God; and nature itself wreaks havoc on innocent human beings who are simply trying to survive. As said, this is a very old problem, but in the twentieth century it presented itself in a particularly acute form: How could God have permitted Hitler to murder six million Jews and to subject millions more to inhumane and degrading lives tantamount to extended torture? The problem is especially pressing for religious Jews, whose faith teaches that it was God's "chosen people" that Hitler was trying to exterminate. Is the very idea of God threatened by the continued existence of evil? or is it our understanding of God that must change?

The problem arises in other forms, too. Both Judaism and Christianity are "historical" faiths. That is to say, they are founded, at least traditionally, on certain historical claims, e.g., that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead two days after he was executed by the Romans. But historical research does not always validate such claims. For example, there is little independent evidence that the Jewish people were ever enslaved in Egypt in large numbers; nor is there much of their 'exodus' from Egypt under Moses's leadership, though much is known about the Egypt of that time.

Similarly, it would have been extremely unusual for a crucified person to be buried. Part of the point of crucifixion was that the body would be left upon the cross to be devoured by beasts and birds: a fate, in the ancient world, that was truly regarded as worse than death. And there is no indication in the historical record that the Roman curator Pilate was the sort of person who would take mercy on anyone. Are historical faiths subject, then, to empirical, scientific refutation? or is it ultimately a mistake to ground faith on history?

Finally, religious tradition is very often enmeshed with moral claims. But the sorts of moral claims our own traditions make may often be ones that seem to us, on other grounds, to be implausible. Here one might think of the conflict many women feel about being excluded, on religious grounds, from full participation in their own traditions; or the conflict gays and lesbians often feel, growing up within traditions that regard them as aberrant. Or one can read the quotations at the top of this page and wonder whether one really wants to endores the model of self-sacrificing love Peter found in Jesus's life and death. More generally, does religion have any special claim to moral truth? or are there other sources of moral knowledge, ones to which we might appeal in shaping faith itself?

We will explore all of these themes through contemporary writings on history and theology. Our goal will in large part be to understand what it might mean to live a life that is both faithful and thoughtful, that is, to consider whether and how it might be possible to engage with these sorts of problems from within a faithful life.

Richard Heck Department of Philosophy Brown University

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