Saturday, May 07, 2005

Geisler, Aquinas, Dogen, and I

I have nothing profound to blog this weekend, but this post from Carter gave me a smidgen of fodder, a paen to Norman Geisler.

First of all, I'm a bit suspicious of any religious figure who owns his own domain name. Does Benedict XVI own his own domain? Nope, as Richard Bennet points out, somebody beat him to it. The Dalai Lama? Surely you jest. On the other hand, Jerry Falwell does, and redirects you here, a McDowell site.

These guys with their own domain names, I think, already have their rewards, as somebody once said.

Of course, one could say that I have my own domain name, sort of. But that shows you exactly where I'm coming from. ;-) Sometimes you gotta put up a big neon sign, I think.

When Geisler's name comes up on the net, the first thing I'm drawn to is this bit on the Internet Infidels:

On January 27, 1987, I was led as a lamb to the slaughter, having been set up to debate the Rev. Dr. Norman Geisler of Dallas Theological Seminary on the subject, "Humanism vs. Christianity." Dubbed by its promoters as "The Main Event," the debate was held in the ballroom at Auburn University, a room overflowing with perhaps 2,000 people, some of whom had been bused in, courtesy of local churches.

Geisler had trouble staying on the general topic, focusing rather on abortion, in the most grisly terms. Humanists, he tells, are right in there with the Nazis in disregard of human life. Their despicable deeds are made likely, if not inevitable, by their moral relativism. How much firmer is the ground under Christians, who stand on moral absolutes!

During rebuttal, I said that my favorite moral absolute in scripture was in Luke 6:30 where Jesus is reported to have said, "Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again." I then turned to the Rev. Dr. Geisler and asked him for his money. Since it was not forthcoming, I knelt on one knee and begged for it, trying to cover all spiritual bases.

With a pale look about his gills, he finally pulled out a dollar bill and waved it wanly at me to which I said, "No, not a dollar; I want all of your money. But I'm not mean; I won't keep your wallet or credit cards." Geisler did not, in fact, comply with the moral absolute in Luke 6:30 (also see Matthew 5:42 and Luke 6:35). If he had given me his money, I would have taken it and kept it. Thus, we would both have been blessed, I with extra cash and he with a clear conscience for having met the challenge of obeying a moral absolute of his lord. I fear his conscience still troubles him over this episode, something I would gladly have spared him by keeping his money.

Bibliolaters are so fond of moral absolutes that I believe the rest of us should oblige them by giving them every opportunity to act thereupon. When you next hear a Christian extolling the rock of moral absolutes upon which he or she stands, go for the cash. It has a sobering effect that may in the long run be beneficial.

I keep hoping Geisler will come back to Auburn.

But let me go a bit deeper than that, so I can write about the purported title of this post.

I've heard a lot of Geisler on the radio, and of course on the 'net. I've read McDowell's book on "evidence demanding a veridict" or what-not which quotes Geisler as an argument from authority extensively, and McDowell's book is the sloppiest, most intellectually dishonest book I have ever read on any religious topic, with the possible exception of various passages of scripture (I'll leave you to infer which. I'm not an expert on Hinduism.) Geisler is a key ingredient in McDowell's tome, which helps achieve the summum bonum of le bad theology in much the same way as Bela Lugosi helped Ed Wood's "Plan 9 from Outer Space" make it the standard for le bad cinema.

Geisler is a useful read because - and soley because- he helps hone one's skills on critical thinking, in much the same way as Thomas Aquinas, to whom Geisler is credited with mushing into evangelicaldom. From one of Carter's commenters:

I have studied with Dr. Geisler and it is correct to say that he writes many popular level works yet is an erudite thinker...especially in Thomistic philosophy.

Ah, so. So Geisler's brainy 'cause he explains Aquinas to these guys?
Uh, I never understood why Aquinas was so revered, either, frankly. Bertrand Russell wrote about him in A History of Western Philosophy:

In all Catholic educational institutions that teach philosophy his system has to be taught as the only right one; this has been the rule since a rescript of 1879 by Leo XIII...

In most respects, he follows Aristotle so closely that the Stagyrite has, among Catholics, almost the authority of one of the Fathers; to criticize him in matters of pure philosophy has come to be thought almost impious. This was not always the case.

I am also, I'd note, inherently suspicious of any philosopher who's taught as the "only philosophically correct" philosopher. As I note below, when one tries to use techniques that aren't involved in debating one on their points, (and putting Aquinas as "the theologically correct philospher" is one of them) clearly that is an indication of weakness.

So is, I might add, voting Democrats out of a church, which has jumped into the MSM today.

Anyway, back to Aquinas: you can read him on-line here. But Russell demolished Aquinas, as have many others over the years.

I always find it interesting that Aquinas was a contemporary (born 1225 or 1227; died 1274) of Dogen (born 1200, died 1253), with a gap of about 27 years, and both lived around 50 years or so.

So the greatest philosopher of Catholicism, and of many evangelicals was a contemporary of one of the greatest philosphers of Japan and Zen Buddhism.

Dogen's thinking, though while sometimes focused on the practical and instructional, very often is highly non-linear and abundnant in metaphors, especially when compared to Aquinas. In fact, you could say that all of Dogen is metaphorical, but he'd hit you and say, no every last bit of it is logical and literally true. From the last link:

Now in Great Song China there are careless fellows who form groups; they cannot be set straight by the few true masters. They say that the statement, "The eastern mountains travel on water," or Nanquan's story of a sickle,* is illogical; what they mean is that any words having to do with logical thought are not Buddha ancestors' Zen stories, and that only illogical stories are Buddha ancestors' expressions. In this way they consider Huangbo's staff and Linji's shout as being beyond logic and unconcerned with thought; they regard these as great enlightenments that precede the arising of form. "Ancient masters used expedient phrases, which are beyond understanding, to slash entangled vines."*: People who say this have never seen a true master and they have no eye of understanding. They are immature, foolish fellows not even worth discussing. In China these last two or three hundred years, there have been many groups of bald-headed rascals. What a pity! The great road of Buddha ancestors is crumbling. People who hold this view are not even as good as listeners of the Small Vehicles* and are more foolish than those outside the way. They are neither lay people nor monks, neither human nor heavenly beings. They are more stupid than animals who learn the Buddha way. The illogical stories mentioned by you bald-headed fellows are only illogical for you, not for Buddha ancestors. Even though you do not understand, you should not neglect studying the Buddha ancestors' path of understanding. Even if it is beyond understanding in the end, your present understanding is off the mark. I have personally seen and heard many people like this in Song China. How sad that they do not know about the phrases of logical thought, or penetrating logical thought in the phrases and stories! When I laughed at the them in China, thy had no response and remained silent. Their idea about illogical words is only a distorted view. Even if there is no teacher to show you the original truth, your belief in spontaneous enlightenment is heretical.

This is from a man, understand, whose own spontaneous enlightenment story- "spontaneous" of course after years of practice- is well known. At each word, Dogen challenges us to examine our preconceived notions about everything. Aquinas tells you like he sees it, and pronounces himself as saying only this way.

So, in my estimation, Dogen is the greater philospher, since Dogen is more concerned about the real inquiry than Aquinas, who just wants to tell you his answer.

Aquinas's brand of philosphy is not worth an hour's trouble, as Pascal would have said, but Dogen's brand of philosophy is something to help you live and to be an active participant in your life.

On the other hand, I'm Rinzai and not Soto but those are differences without much distinction.

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