Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Internet and Philosophy

The Internet is truly miraculous. The other day I ran into an essay by Croatian philosopher Mario Kopić whom I met years ago in Dubrovnik. It immediately brought to mind our last meeting, at a wine bar in Dubrovnik's Old Port that served the loveliest mellow red wine from a small barrel on top of the counter. Over the years, I lost Mario's e-mail so when his essay reminded me of that meeting, I attempted to find him on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites that have helped me find other friends - alas to no avail.

Mario does not seem to write a blog, does not post his philosophical essays online and does not tweet. As he said in a rare interview to a Dubrovnik magazine, he clearly "lives apart." What little of his work can be found online is posted by others. It's not hard to guess why. Few of his essays - profound contemplations on cultural and existential themes - can be skimmed through quickly and superficially as we do most of our online reading. One that I found, titled Church and Nihilism would probably resonate with any online reader if they could understand it. It's not an easy read even for a Croatian native speaker and it's nearly impossible to translate. I will try my best to convey what it says.

The basis of the Christian ethos is love, which is also in the core of the Christian belief, says Kopić. This essence of Christianity has been obscured by the Church's efforts to achieve and maintain power and domination.  Mind you, this is a simplified, unauthorized interpretation of the original text. The author is much more sophisticated and nuanced. 

While he talks about Christianity in general, it seems clear to me that Kopić refers mostly to the Catholic and the Eastern-Orthodox Church. He says the Church has deviated from the Christian ethos of love for the divine to hatred of everything it perceives as contrary to its preaching. The Church also has taken away from man the right to act according to his own conscience. That right, Kopić asserts citing the Bible, was God-given to mankind through Adam, making the original sin, the birth of Christ and the Resurrection possible. By denying individuals their freedom of conscience, the Church assumes the role of lawmaker and law-enforcer, not unlike the state. In fact, the philosopher notes, the Church has, whenever possible, used the state to help impose its will on the people. By placing the church law above love, it has changed man's status from that of an autonomous God's creation to that of a church member. In this and many other ways, the Church annihilates man's God-given autonomy as much as the secular state does.

Furthermore, instead of promoting the sanctity of life except by banning abortion, 
Kopić notes, the Church even today tolerates death penalty and blesses armed forces, in some cases even war criminals. 

Kopić further states that no law or religion should replace individual conscience, but stipulates that conscience is not possible without awareness, i.e. understanding of one's own self and the rest of the world.  Human dignity, he 
argues in an elaborate fashion, results from a person's ability to contain his/her own desires out of love or deference for others. The ability to control oneself cannot be enforced by Agents or Supervisors appointed by the Church or the State, says Kopić and concludes that without love, neither God nor people have much of a future. 

The essay is about Christianity, but its basic ideas can apply to any religion. And Kopi
ć is not the only one to promote them. Years ago, I asked a renowned Muslim scholar, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Professor of Law at the University of California, how God judges a person who has been instructed by his imam to go and kill in the name of religion. Here is what he replied: “The Quran is very explicit about the individual accountability of each person, fully and completely, for their own actions and that they will not be allowed to say in the final day that ‘this person told me’ or ‘that person convinced me.’ That message of individual responsibility and individual accountability is critical [to Islam].” 

Fadl also said a Muslim has to make efforts to understand the Quran and he has to go out of his way to befriend non-Muslims. "God created different people because only through the understanding of human race in all its diversity can people gain true understanding of the Creator," he said.

Interviewed for the same story, late Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California said that Judaism, Islam and Christianity can be compared to different languages teaching the same basic things. The role of religious teachers is to facilitate communication among groups that use these different languages.

“All of us believe that God created the individual in his own image, regardless of race or gender or religion. We are invested with an inviolability - with a divine potentiality. We all come from Adam. And Adam, we must remember, was not a Jew. He was not a Christian. He was not a Muslim.”

Rabbi Schulweis said all men and women, regardless of their religion, are  created by God So "to love God, but to hate his creation, is not only a contradiction, it is the uttermost blasphemy.” 

Jewish or Muslim?
There is now near universal agreement among scholars that most world religions, especially the monotheistic ones, share common ethics, although the rites and traditions differ.  A Muslim might be surprised to learn that Christianity's New Testament requires women's subservience and invisibility, not unlike the strictest Islamic law. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul said that women must be veiled, and you can still see Catholic women in many countries covering their hair when they enter a church. It is believed that St. Paul also wrote  (Corinthians I, 14:33-35 ) "the women should keep silence in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home." Ultra-Orthodox Jews also require that women cover their hair and submit to the husband's rule. (On that topic I highly recommend the Israeli movie Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem).

It is the outward demonstrations of diversity rather than true religious differences that provoke tensions between religious groups. Catholic theologian James Wiseman, professor at The Catholic University of America, said there is something in the human nature that compels us to differentiate between "us" and "them". But he said religions do evolve with time and so in the 1960s, the Vatican affirmed for the first time the sanctity of non-Christian religions. “The Church has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although different in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all people,” said Wiseman.

The Internet could make inter-religious communication easier than ever. It even has translation engines to lower down, if not diminish, language barriers. But when did you last see a civilized intellectual discussion on any topic on the Internet? Most online exchanges, religious or secular, are controlled by "Agents" and "Supervisors," including anonymous commentators who revile in the crudest language anyone who disagrees with them, powerful groups that control the thinking of their members, purveyors of hatred and authors of clever and catchy phrases that promise to stick. Philosophers like Kopić reserve their thoughts for readers who would make more effort.

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