Sunday, February 15, 2009

Open-minded? Not Me.

During a talk on Judaism delivered at a synagogue last week, I nonchalantly mentioned that I thought of myself as a humanist. I went on to define this as someone who assumed that all systems of belief were of human origin reflecting human biases, concerns, and limitations, and that religion told us more about the worshipper than about the object of their worship. I said that this is why I am so comfortable in interfaith settings—not because I believe all religion is true, but that I believe no religion is true.

The congregation froze at this remark, and the host rabbi leaped up to say how wonderful it was that I felt free enough to share my thoughts, and by doing so proving just how welcoming Judaism is to a wide range of opinions. As the rabbi put as much distance between my ideas and his as possible, I was once again surprised at the seeming rarity of what is to me common sense.

During the question and answer period people sought to reject (as opposed to rebut) my humanism and reaffirm their theism, and I did my best to honor their beliefs. I am always happy to clarify what I believe and inquire with real curiosity into what you believe, but I never argue. And because I don’t argue many people complimented me on my open-mindedness.

I didn’t say anything at the time, but the truth is I am not open-minded. While I rarely get upset when someone disagrees with me, the reason I don’t has nothing to do with being open-minded. Put it this way: I am convinced that the moon is a rock. If you insist it is made of green cheese, I won’t argue with you, but the reason for not arguing has nothing to do with my willingness to entertain the possibility that you are correct in your assessment of the moon. I won’t argue because arguing with someone who believes something so outlandish is simply a waste of time.

Applying this to religion, I do not for a moment imagine that any book is divinely revealed; that any religion is anything other than a human creation serving the socio-economic and political desires of those who created it and gain power and authority from it; or that any idea about god is God.

Do I believe in God? God for me is Reality, the IS-ing of things: that intrinsically creative process that manifests as everything and nothing. God is neither to be feared nor worshipped, but wondered at and marveled over and lived with deep humility, courage, and chutzpah. God is an ever-surprising, irreducible, uncontrollable, celebration of creativity worthy of the deepest respect, awe, reverence, humility, and even love.
God isn’t anywhere or anything; God is everywhere and everything. God doesn’t choose, reward, or punish. God isn’t conscious of me. On the contrary: I am a way God becomes conscious of God. Is any of this Jewish? Not exclusively so, but the language of Judaism works as a way of articulating my beliefs.

For example, I am convinced that Reality is an intrinsically creative process (In the beginning God created, Genesis 1:1); that Reality is a multi-pronged evolutionary experiment in life creation (I will be what I will be, Exodus 3:14), with a penchant for sentience (Let us make humanity, Genesis 1:26); that consciousness pervades all reality (the whole world is filled with God’s glory, Psalm 72:19); that some sentient beings are capable of discovering and consciously participating in the moral nature of Reality as humans perceive it (Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly, Micah 6:8); that the religious geniuses of all time have discovered and articulated the same ethic: Love your neighbor as your self (Leviticus 19:18), and that over time such people continue to expand our understanding of neighbor to ultimately include all reality (Love the Lord your God, Deuteronomy 6:5).

I also believe that just as birds build nests, and beavers build dams, humans make music, art, literature, science, ethics, philosophy, religion, and contemplative tools that sharpen our awareness of the grand play of life. This is why I love what I do, and am blessed to be able to do it. Just don’t imagine my joy at learning the myriad ways we humans make sense of reality has anything to do with being open-minded.


Grégoire said...

Dear Rabbi Rami,

Wow! What an excellent article. Thanks so much for posting it. It was a great way to start the day.

Do I believe in God? God for me is Reality, the IS-ing of things

A Muslim philosopher (I think it was that old contemporary of Maimonides, ibn-Rushd, but I'm not totally certain) said almost the same thing. Whoever it was gave Allah the name 'the fabric of reality'. I've always liked that. Sorta echoes Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, who called God 'the sum total of all the natural processes which lead us toward a more civilized life'.

You explained the idea in a more approachable way than either of those two old fuddy-duddys.

Best to you...


Rabbi Rami said...

Kaplan a fuddy-duddy? He was my teacher and I was in awe of him. I did my Master's thesis on him at McMaster University, and studied with for a year in Jerusalem from 1976-1977. I still find him one of the most creative and radical Jewish thinkers of the 20th Century.

Peter M. Schogol said...

Grégoire, dismissing Mordecai Kaplan as a fuddy-duddy does not become you. He may not be fun for you to read, but he is an enduring mainstay of progressive theology, Jewish and otherwise. It is, IMHO, a pity that the Reconstructionist denomination Kaplan was instrumental in forming has pretty much put him aside in its embrace of Neo-Hassidism.

Rami, you may think of yourself as a humanist but I would be surprised if many Humanists would make room for you on the "Group W Bench." You are still, to my way of thinking, a theist, albeit a naturalistic theist, and -- as Seinfeld would say -- that's okay. But as the tussle between theists and humanists (or religious naturalists) intensifies in liberal religions, the lines of demarcation are being drawn in increasingly indelible ink. Would/could you side conclusively with humanists in that conflict?

Rabbi Rami said...

Hmmm. Religious wars among nontheists. Man, our species is sick. Or maybe we live to fight even as we tell ourselves we fight to live. Anyway, you are probably right, Peter, that I am not strictly a humanist. Buber was called a religious humanist, and maybe I am in that category. Or religious naturalist sounds cool. Or how about "just a guy with a blog."

As for Reconstructionism and neoHasidism... I love Reb Zalman and find such richness in neoHasidism, and I was a proud member of the Reconstructionist movement during my twenty years as a as a congregational rabbi, but I too wish Reconstructionism had stayed with and developed Kaplan's original ideas. But maybe they have and I am just out of touch.

American Jewry has been blessed with more than a few spiritual giants in the 20th century: Heschel, Kaplan, Carlebach, Wine, Schachter-Shalomi, and Schneerson, to name six off the top of my head. Someone should hold a conference to honor these people.

Julie said...

god (little g all encompassing expression) I love this post. It makes me take a deep breath and release it slowly. And that is after drinking way too much coffee at Starbucks!

Once again, thank you for what you do :)

Grégoire said...

Uhhh, the fuddy-duddy comment was sarcasm. Kaplan and ibn-Rushd are two of my favorite religious writers. (Admittedly I've only read one of Kaplan's books - Judaism as Civilization - but I got a lot out of it.)

Very cool to find you knew him personally.

Rabbi Rami said...

Sarcasm! Damn it is so hard to do that in print, Gregoire. It happens all the time that people mistake my sarcasm and humor for something else, I am sorry I missed it.

Grégoire said...

It's all good. I'm sure my delivery needs work. It's a vague term that others might have taken as a general insult. To me it has always implied an unwillingness to experiment with new ideas - the opposite of Kaplan and ibn-Rushd.

Rabbi Rami said...

[Here is an email I received regarding this post. I share it with you with the permission of the author.]

Dear Rabbi:

Someone sent me your article, "I am not open-minded." I honestly cannot believe anyone wrote or published such bovine spoor (BS). I send you the comments I wrote for the person who sent me your article.

Are you sure you want to know what I think of the rabbi's article? Er . . . uh . . . he doesn't make any sense, and where he does make sense, he is plainly wrong. He says that "no religion is right." Does he mean that in the entire set of things a religious says, all of those things are false? Does he mean that in that set at least one of those things is false? It's like when people say, "The Bible is true." "Truth" and "falsehood" apply only to sentences about things, e.g., "The cup is yellow" is either true or false (right or wrong).

He says, "Applying this to religion, I do not for a moment imagine that . . . any idea about god is God." Does he mean that an idea about god is never true? If so, then how about "God is good," God is perfect," "God is all powerful." Are these ideas about God false?

Oh, and I love this quote: "God for me is Reality, the IS-ing of things: that intrinsically creative process that manifests as everything and nothing." What the hell does that mean? Pardon me for going off for a moment to observe the weather IS-ing around us today.

It's sad to see such poor understanding of very basic logic from a member of a group (rabbis in general) known for their logical prowess. He says, "God isn’t anywhere or anything; God is everywhere and everything." But logically speaking "anywhere" is the same as "everywhere." "Anything" is the same as "everything." Thus we can translate the good rabbi's claim to be this: "God is everywhere and not everywhere. God is anything and not anything." (If you disagree, then give me an example where "anything" cannot be substituted for "everything." For example, the claim, "I can paint anything in this room blue" means the same as "I can paint everything in this room blue."

Passages like his frustrate me because this is the kind of nonsense, designed to make everyone think it is profound, that so many philosophers engage in. I was reading a site on Asperger's syndrome the other day. A public school teacher/social worker type wrote that people with AS are as varied and different as people without AS. Now, you see, everyone is falling all over himself thinking, "My, how profound," when in fact it is nothing but unadulterated bullshit. Here we go: obviously the group with AS cannot be that different from each other because they all have AS! So there must be something common about them. Conversely, of course a group of people with AS are different, if you mean that each person occupies a different place. But the difference is completely unimportant. So people say things that sound nice and sound profound, but are in truth meaningless.

Max M. Thomas

Rabbi Rami said...

[I responded to Mr. Thomas and suggested he thought I was stupid, and asked him to share with me what he believed.]

I don’t think you are stupid because I have only this one article to judge, but I do think you are wrong in many instances. The very few rabbis I have encountered reminded me of Jesuits in their capacity for reasoning; I hold both in high esteem. But, I get annoyed whenever a teacher or leader seems to be saying something important, but closer analysis shows his claims to be trite or clearly false.

You claim to assume that “all systems of belief [are] of human origin . . . .” We are the only critters (I know of) who has belief systems. There are not rabbit systems of belief, nor systems of belief created by squid. We cannot think that God has a system of belief, or if he does I cannot imagine what it would be like. So, when you say that all systems of belief are of human origin, you’re not making any valuable claim or contribution, in so far as I can tell.

These systems of belief “reflect human biases, concerns and limitations.” If your claim is that things created by humans are influenced and limited by one’s being human, then your claim is true, but trite. Anything caused by an object is limited by that cause’s ability to produce the effect. We cannot expect that a cow could go beyond the limitations of being bovine to give birth to a human being. Sure, humans are limited by their being human, but what is the significance of that claim?

That “religion tells us more about worshippers than about the object of their worship,” isn’t a rational conclusion to what is said before, so perhaps you are offering an unsupported claim. Even if religion tells us more about the worshippers, your own claim allows that religion also tells us something about the object of worship (God). So, what does this claim tell us? If I study a religion perhaps 90% of that study tells me about the worshippers, and 10% tells me about God. And so?

Some religions teach that God is all powerful, all knowing, and perfect. But that tells me nothing about the worshippers. Your counter-claim might be worshippers must have some need to think that God is perfect and that they have invented this god to satisfy that need. But I think that claim is false. No worshipper needs God to be perfect or all knowing. We need only a god who is less imperfect and a little smarter than we are. God doesn’t need to be all powerful to strike down my enemies or cure my child of cancer. He needs to be a little more powerful than I am. Thus, many religions tell us that God is far greater than what we need to believe he is.

Primitive concepts of God held that he (or they) is (are) just a bit more powerful than we are. Zeus was not all powerful; he was just more powerful than me. Our current sophisticated concept of God arises from reason: What features are logically derived from the concept of the highest possible being? The highest possible being would be all powerful, not merely powerful enough to satisfy human needs and wants.

Somehow, and this really surprises me, you move from these premises to the conclusion that no religion is true. So, what am I missing? Your argument looks like:

Human belief systems are limited by the abilities of human beings.
Religion, a human belief system, tells us more about those human beings than it does about God. (Note: religion also tells us something about God, although this something is less than we learn about the worshippers.)
Therefore, no religion is true.

Not only is this a non sequitur, it is patently false.

Buddhism believes there is no god. Hinduism believes there are many gods. Christianity, Judaism and Islam believe there is only one god. Those are the only possible beliefs about God. Since these are the only possibilities, one of the three must be right while the other two are wrong. Thus, some religion is right.

Other than what I have written above, what do I believe in 25 words or less? I follow the thinking of Immanuel Kant.

Thank you for your response to my note. Feel free to post that response, this one or both on your web site.

Best regards,

Max M. Thomas

Patti said...

I guess you stirred his pot, Rami. It is what you do and you do it well. Sometimes the outcome is not acceptance but animosity. So what? He is one angry guy and you pushed his button for the day. Someone else will push it tomorrow and he will rant at them. And so it goes. I pray you keep up stirring and pushing and thinking. We believe that life's conversation is not about right or wrong, truth or is about pursuit. Keep it up.

Rabbi Rami said...

Thanks, Patti.

Karen said...

Unless I misunderstand (which wouldn't surprise me today...), Mr. Thomas believes that at least one of the religions must be right ("Buddhism believes there is no god. Hinduism believes there are many gods. Christianity, Judaism and Islam believe there is only one god. Those are the only possible beliefs about God. Since these are the only possibilities, one of the three must be right while the other two are wrong. Thus, some religion is right.").

First, he seems to limit religion to just the number of gods in which it believes, but what about all the other beliefs encompassed within those religions (original sin, resurrection, heaven/hell, etc.)?

Second, isn't it possible, given his limited view of religion, that NONE OF THE ABOVE are right? Or that, in some philosophically sophisticated (or unsophisticated) way, they are ALL right?

Rami, reading the responses to your blogs sometimes blows my mind because I feel so simpleminded compared to you and to those who respond in profound, philosophical, language-challenging ways. But I have found tremendous meaning, depth, and acknowledgement of my own knowingness from your blog, and I thank you.

Jeff said...

I am not a genius but I think I understand your position. The problem with Mr. Thomas' logic is the binary postion that something is either true or false, so if you say all religions are not true, then they are false.

You are clearly saying something else. You are saying that all religions are human constructs speaking about something beyond human constuct, so they cannot be true. This does not mean they have nothing useful to say, or that, at least if employed properly, they can point us toward ultimate truth. We just have to remember that a human creation is limited.

I say that everything we say about God is metaphor, and many metaphors can be be useful, even if different, but we should remember that they ARE metaphors, not ultimate truth.

Max M Thomas said...

In response to Jeff.

Actually it is not “my” logic any more than algebra is “mine” and nor yours, too. Logic contains the rules for all thought. So, if you think that squares are round or that triangles have four sides, then you are simply mistaken without regard to me or what I think. And you will be wrong long after I am dead.

In truth all propositions, sentences or judgments are either true or false. And in fact if something is not true, then it must be false. If there is a third possibility, then I would like to know what it is.

If by “human constructs,” you mean something thought by humans, then surely all religions are human constructs. There are no rabbit religions or squid religions. It is also patently true that no human construct can go beyond what a human can construct, though again this point is trivial. If your claim is that man cannot know anything beyond the limitations of our senses, then I disagree. We know that “7 + 5 = 12,” and we know that is always true everywhere. Is the question you and the rabbi are asking, “Can we say anything true about God?” (My question is genuine because I honestly have no idea what you are trying to say.)

First, you say that “everything we say about God is a metaphor.” So if I say “God is all knowing,” is that a metaphor, and if it is, then it is a metaphor for what? Secondly, if we make a metaphor for something, then we must know what the thing is. If I produce a metaphor for my being happy, then I must know what my happiness is in order to make the metaphor. For another example, I will make a metaphor for how you are feeling at this very moment, but I can’t do it because I have no idea how you are feeling. Thus, if we can know nothing about God, we surely cannot make metaphors for him.

Damn that binary logic.

Max M Thomas said...

For Karen:

The example you use from my comments is my effort to understand the rabbi’s claim that no religion is right.

What does that mean? Does it mean that there is at least one mistake in every religion? Does it mean that everything stated in every religion is false? The truth is that every religion probably gets some things right and other things wrong, but how does that help us to know that all religions are wrong?

I don’t know what it means to claim that every religion is wrong. Also I am not sure how one would prove such a claim. Rabbi Rami’s claim might be that human beings are far too limited to say anything true about God. If that is his claim, then my challenge is that there are only three possible beliefs about God: there is one, there are more than one, there are none. Since these are the only possibilities, then someone must be saying something true about God. (Sorry, all cannot be true nor can all be false.)

Then I think I must have misunderstood Rabbi Rami’s claim because he makes several claims about God and he suffers the same human limitations we all do.

More importantly, I think we must be able to know God’s will. If God has a will and if he expects and commands us to follow it, then we must be able to know what it is. No metaphor will help us here. We must be able to know exactly what God wants from us, otherwise it is irrational for him to expect us to obey.

Max M Thomas said...

Dearest Patti:

Life's conversation is about right or wrong, as when someone claims that no religion is right.

Max M Thomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AaronHerschel said...


You asked the significance of the rabbi’s claim that “all religions are human constructs… and reflect human biases, concerns, and limitations.” Many religious people believe that the texts central to their faiths are not human constructs, but the literal word of God, and therefore beyond human biases and limitations. It is precisely because of this that the claims in those texts are granted absolute authority as truth. To say that a religion is a “human construct” is, from that perspective, quite radical, because it undermines the authority of the text, and hence of the systems built on those texts. Moreover, it demands a more discerning approach to the texts: one that would historicize the moral and legal systems proposed therein and could, further, re-interpret or even reject various claims on an ad hoc basis.

The rabbi’s claim, then, comprises a mission statement: opposition to theological literalism, an embrace of historical perspective, and a willingness to parse religious systems for their wisdom (or madness, depending). The rabbi’s position reflects the interpretive practices common to critical reading in, for example, university English departments, but, despite its institutionalization in the West, it remains threatening to fundamentalist, orthodox, and conservative theologies everywhere.

I’d also like to respond to your question regarding what it means to say “no religion is right [i.e. correct].” You asked: “Does he [the rabbi] mean that in the entire set of things a religious says, all of those things are false? Does he mean that in that set at least one of those things is false?” I think the latter is what is intended here. Again, for many believers this is a radical claim. The belief in a religion’s absolute truth demands that all the things a religion says are true, and that (as a corollary) if any of the claims were false, that failure would invalidate the authority of the whole system.

While this is undoubtedly a fallacy, it is nevertheless a common one, or at least an unexamined one, and the rabbi is attempting to promote, as above, a more discerning approach to religion’s truth claims. Additionally, if one accepts this approach, one might also come to suspect that all religions may contain valid claims, and that they are, therefore, worthy of study. Too often, adherents to one or another religious system ignore other faiths, refusing to study them because, as members of the one true faith, they already know those other faiths are false. The rabbi’s approach, then, also promotes theological curiosity and a greater appreciation for a diversity of faiths.

Finally, let me clarify the difference between anything and everything/anywhere and everywhere. The words are not equivalent. “Any” indicates one, some, or several. “Every” indicates each member of a group without exception; that is, “every” indicates all. Typically, then, we use anything, anyone, or anywhere to indicate a single person, place, or thing when it is not necessary to be specific. But when we say everyone, everything, or everywhere, we mean to be inclusive. The difference is relatively clear in the sentences: “Eat anything in the fridge; eat everything in the fridge.”

To say that God is everywhere, rather than anywhere, or everything, rather than anything, implies that God cannot be contained in a single figure (person, thing, symbol) nor can God be contained in a single place (Jerusalem, Rome, Constantinople, etc.). Indeed, if God is everywhere, God cannot be limited even to the set of believers, as in the statement: God is with us, but not with them (a favorite amongst those who fight religious wars). The rabbi’s God infuses every single thing in the universe—indeed, “is” every single thing in the universe. It may be helpful in this regard to imagine God as an ocean, and individual things/people etc. as waves. God is the substance of, and the force that produces, all the myriad forms of existence.

AaronHerschel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AaronHerschel said...


I was rereading your posts and I wanted to respond again. This time on the issue of logic, truth and falsehood. You mentioned in one of your posts that "all propositions, sentences, or judgements are either true or false. And, in fact, if something is not true, then it must be false."

The linguist and philosopher J.L. Austin, in his 1961 essay “Performative Utterances” refers to the above as the descriptive fallacy: the belief, derived from logical positivism, that the chief business of sentences is to describe a state of being which may be classified as true or false with reference to the evidence of the senses. “The chair is blue” would be a typical example.

Austin notes that, first of all, very few sentences are in fact descriptive in this way. Exclamations, interrogatives, imperatives, etc. far outstrip declaratives in everyday conversation. Positivist philosophers were, of course, aware of this fact; but they largely felt that philosophical and scientific language at least should avoid these other utterances and concentrate on those that comprised statements of one kind or another.

However, Austin points out that not all statements are descriptive. A sentence like “I command you to shut the door” is a statement, but it does not describe a command; rather, it performs a command. Consequently, the statement cannot be classified as true or false. Even if the door remains open, this fact would not invalidate the statement. Performative statements are not true or false, they are felicitous or infelicitous: appropriate or not, forceful or not.

After playing around trying to establish a set of rules for performatives of this type, Austin comes around to the underlying point of his essay: an attack on logical positivism. He accomplishes this by undermining the truth-value of his own claims regarding the distinction between performatives and descriptives, noting that the statement “I am sorry,” is both descriptive and performative. It describes an emotional state and enacts an apology. The distinction between statements and performatives here begins to collapse.

To make things worse, even clearly descriptive statements must correspond to evaluations beyond simple truth or falsehood. “The chair is blue” may be true, but it is hardly an adequate description of the totality of the chair. The chair may also be wood, leather, or plastic. It may be an heirloom worth millions or a piece of junk at a garage sale. In fact, the statement “the chair is blue” is a metaphor: it is metonymy (the part for the whole).

The issue of whether the chair is or is not blue is thus only a part of the validity of the utterance. We must also determine how that description is relevant to the context in which it has been spoken. For example, if you asked “how old is that chair,” and I answered, “the chair is blue,” you would probably start to suspect that I was on something (not a chair) because my statement is so clearly inappropriate, even though it might also be true.

Of course, I might have said it just to annoy you and, if you were duly annoyed, my statement would be both appropriate and forceful. Stating, then, is also performative, and is subject to the same questions of felicity or infelicity as any other speech act. To focus only on the truth or falsehood of a statement is to ignore the context of the statement and the motives of the speaker, as well as the social force the statement might exert. True/false is a useful and important distinction, but it is not the whole story.

Max M Thomas said...

Dear Mr. Herschel:

I am so excited by your response and by your taking my questions seriously. I can hardly sit still. I have so many things to say in return, as you might imagine. My goodness, where to begin?

I appreciate your putting the rabbi’s comments to me in this fashion to help me understand them better. (My children, now grown and gone, often tell me they have to speak to me differently to get me to understand.)

For quite a few years I have been plagued by the problem of determining which biblical passages ought to be taken literally and which should not. Most of my experience is with fundamentalist or conservative Christians (choose whatever adjective appeals to you). In considering moral commands, these believers distinguish between cultural mores that do not apply to modern life and moral commands that still apply to us. So they feel no obligation to follow commands regarding Old Testament food laws. They also argue that Paul’s admonition that women should not dress like men is a cultural more that no longer applies. Yet commands forbidding adultery and murder are not mores; following these commands is still required.

I would like to find a standard for determining what commands are mores and what commands still apply. The objective of finding such a standard is to permit us to judge more complicated issues such as the morality of homosexuality, and to fortify anyone’s (everyone’s?) belief that women’s dress codes are not a true moral issue, but that marital fidelity is.

I think we can find that standard in the distinction between cultural mores and moral absolutes. And I think that standard must be understood in terms of Immanuel Kant’s moral theory. For Kant, an action is immoral if the objective is to use a person as an object. Rape, for example, is immoral because the rapist uses his victim as if she had no free will and thus as if she were merely an object. Slavery is wrong for the same reason. But whether or not my daughter puts on blue jeans and bobs her hair doesn’t use a person as an object and so these actions are amoral, perhaps with cultural values of some sort.

Now, if my argument is correct, we can see precisely which commands are divine (moral) and which commands are merely human (cultural). But my appeal to a Kantian standard only applies to biblical passages regarding commands. It does nothing to help us distinguish between fact and fiction.

Conservative Christians argue that anything sounding like a fact in the Bible is indeed true. So, when we are told that God created the world in six days, we are to think of that as being literally 144, sixty-minute hours. That fact conflicts with scientific evidence and so we have the debate between creationism and evolution. But suppose we ignore the conflict between the Bible and science, and instead focus on the conflict between what the Bible says about God and what we know of his true nature. Would this standard permit a rational means of determining fact from fiction?
Genesis tells us that God created the world in six days. It also says that he rested on the seventh day. But the fact that God rested conflicts with our knowledge that God doesn’t need to rest (and that God is not irrational and whimsical by resting for no reason). Thus, we may rightly decide that these passages are not meant to be taken literally.

I understand, as you point out, that some Christians want to hang on to the literal truth of everything in the Bible so that the important issues are not rendered questionable. The Christian belief in the virgin birth and Jesus’ arising from death are contrary to science, but they are not contrary to God’s nature.

My idea is sketchy and needs more work, but my intention is to find that standard by which rational people may understand when fact-like statements are to be seen as true and when these are to be seen as false. (I use the expression “fact-like” to avoid another run-in with Professor Austin.)

Lastly, I have no interest in the social-political issue of selling this idea to Christians. I had Lutheran friends who told me their church had no interest in anyone trying to resolve the dispute between creationism and evolution. I am trying to find a rational means (standard) for understanding some passages as being true and others as being false, without putting the passages about the virgin birth and resurrection, as examples, in doubt.

I don’t think you could feel yourself put-upon if you offered me anything in your refrigerator and found it cleaned out. It seems to me that if I may have anything, then I may take it all. If you want to restrict me to a singularity, then you must offer me one thing of my choice.

I hope I have made some sense here, and that I post this without too many errors. It is late and I am very excited to get it out.

AaronHerschel said...

We'll have to respectfully disagree on the difference between "any" and "every." I would feel a bit put out if you emptied my fridge. I make very little, and a week's groceries takes up a significant portion of my meager salary. Therefore, for economic reasons at least, I must insist on a semantic difference. Another instance, I suppose, of the social's impact on the linguistic.

I'm intrigued by Kant's moral theory. I know little of Kant, but you're description certainly makes the theory sound valid to me. Postcolonial theory takes this moral issue and runs with it: noting that one of chief crimes of dominance by a foreign culture is that it creates a kind of double-vision wherein the colonized psyche sees itself from its own perspective and that of the colonizer; that is, as both subject and object simultaneously. This sense of oneself as object functions to block the colonized from agency and self-determination.

As for developing a rational system for determining metaphor from fact, I'm not sure it can be done. As "the chair is blue" sentence suggests, a statement may be both fact and metaphor at the same time. The problem is that language itself functions metaphorically: it is system of representation, but the fundamental correspondence between word and world upon which it depends is a fiction. As Ferdinand de Saussure pointed out, there is no empirical relationship between the signifier and the signified. Language has meaning not because of anything intrinsic, but because linguistic communities agree to suspend their disbelief and act as if word and world were exchangeable. Languages, funnily enough, function by faith.

Of course, this isn't particularly helpful when it comes to interpreting text. For that, I like the Jewish practice of Pardes. Pardes is an ancronym for a four-tiered system of biblical interpretation. Peshat refers to the literal meaning; Remez refers to allegorical meaning; Derash is metaphorical; and Sod refers to a hidden, perhaps mystical meaning found beyond the text through inspiration or revelation. Pardes, though, does not really divide fact from metaphor, insisting rather that, because of the nature of language, they overlap.

Jeff said...

Just to add or clarify is the very idea of Pardes is that a holy text has many levels of meanings. The literal meaning is not irrelevant, but it is not necessarily to most significant, religiously.

The whole attitude to the text, it seems to me, is very different in even traditional Judaism from conservative Christianity.

AaronHerschel said...
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AaronHerschel said...


Oh absolutely. I didn't mean to imply that the levels of Pardes reflected levels of importance. Just as with literature, the actual words on the page (their denotations and connotations) are incredibly important, shaping the direction of any interpretation (except maybe sod).

Rabbi Rami said...

What a phenomenal conversation! I am grateful to all of you. Aaron Herschel really understands what I am trying to say, and says it more clearly than I do. And Max and Aaron's dialogue was fantastic. Thanks to you both, and to all of you who read and/or participate in this blog.