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Monday, August 28, 2006

Peity as a Point of Contact

Here's a famous quote from CS Lewis (more or less) from the Screwtape Letters:

"There are two mistakes one can make regarding the Devil; one is to deny that He exists and the other is to have an unhealthy fascination with him."

It has struck me lately that this is a common feature in various aspects of religion according to the Scriptures. It is clear that the Bible does not deny the realm of the demonic but equally clear that it does not indulge in any speculation about it. A similar example is the biblical attitude toward prophecy and eschatology (as I understand it). The Bible does not deny the reality of historical prophecy but it also does not indulge in runaway apocalyticism. (For example it does not really support the kind of dispensational and millenial accounts like Dade, Scofield, or the Millerites.) Yet another example is miracles. The Bible refuses to indulge the demand for no miracles such as found among the Sadducees and the Greeks but also refuses to indulge all demands for miracles such those of the Pharisees and the "Jews". Something similar could be said about the charismatic gifts as well.

I also notice that this pattern is characteristic of the classical and Aristotelian account of virtue as the mean relative to a context and between two extremes. For example, courage is a virtue between the vices of cowardice and rashness. One extreme involves a deficiency of courage and the other an excess of it. In the present case, call the virtue in question "peity", that is the fear of the Lord. It looks like an apt word for the defect of peity is "impeity" or obstinate irreligiosity, and an apt word for the excess of peity is "fanaticism". To be clear we have to distinguish. How could it be possible that one could fear the Lord too much? The answer lies in the distinction between posessing the virtue of peity as a virtue as opposed to having the vice of an excess of peity. To say that you cannot fear the Lord enough is to say that you cannot possess the virtue of peity too much. This is the difference between fearing the Lord and being so heavenly minded that you are no earthly good.

Further I note that this understanding of peity is not unique to the Biblical tradition but is similarly found in the religious traditions outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The appeal to Greek thought here already illustrates this but it is also commonly found among Hindus, Confucians, Buddhists, Taoists, and Zorasterians. (Islam is a special case since it obviously depends on the J-C tradition.) The sources of those religions exhibit a similar tendency to support the middle way between extremes in religious observance. They also provide their own examples of cases of healthy religion (such as the formulations of theistic scholasticism in Hinduism and the social ethical teachings of Confucius) versus cases of degenerating cultified expressions of the religion on the one hand (soccery among Taoists and the Kali cult of the thuggi in Hinduism) and jaded secular movements on the other hand (the elite intellectualist philosophes found in all religious traditions and the Theravada school in Buddhism).

It thus seems that the virtue of peity is of a piece with the nature of man as homo religious and that the phenomena points to a natural law of appropriate belief formation in all humanity which is part of the divine law written on the human heart, the universal religious a priori. This finds a ready explanation in the Christian perspective as the phenomenalogically palpable effect of general revelation and common grace restraining human sinfulness. Given the inescapable vagueness of the tension between common grace and depravity in any particular person, this may give us a sufficiently precise way of formulating the point of contact between the gospel and the heart of non-believers, viz., that we have a point of contact with the gospel to the extent of the manifestation of peity in the hearts or the culture of non-believers.

This allows for a differentiation between various non-believers that allows us to give a differentiated answer to the question of what the Christian attitude should be to non-Christians and their faiths. To the extent that the religion manifested among non-Christians is the vice of excessive peity, we hold that it is the work of Satan and that the gods thus identified and worshipped are demons in disguise. To the extent that a religion manifests a defect of peity, it is a case of the fool who says in his heart that there is no God and is satanic in virtue of being subject to Satan's deceptions. But in so far as it is an expression of the virtue of peity, then we can see it as a work of the Holy Spirit in his ministry of providing for all a general testimony of the truth of God, as a preparitia evangelica, and that it may even teach something about the truth of God to those who already trust in Christ.

An important aspect of this account is that we do not just conveniently define what is and what is not true peity by the degree of identity with the Christian message. The account assumes that the religion is already internally differentiated by its own lights into these three catagories and that we can recognize what is good in a religion as convivial with true peity in our religion independently. This also means that those aspects that Christianity would find to be satanic would also encounter a prior criticism from their own religion and thus that the starting point for the prior plausibility of Christian faith is in each religion's own self-criticism.

One important feature of this relation between religion at its best and Christain faith is that it is potentially recognizable that aspects of that religion and Christianity have some features similar to the relation of Biblical Judaism and Christianity, such as the relationship of substitution where something better has come along, as in the case of the replacement of passover for communion. A possible example of this is ancestor worship. Many eastern faiths for example Japan hold strongly to the veneration of ancestors. In this they express the belief in an afterlife in survival after death and that the state of the dead is one of personal consciousness and interaction. The practice fosters an attitude of continued respect and devotion for the dead and the past and is in many ways similar to the veneration of saints in Catholicism. But this is put aside for the superior promise of immediate recourse to God in evangelical faith, but this is a case of the good being eclipsed by the better. The substitution is reasonable and appreciable and is intelligble to the one considering making the substitution. In the absence of a theology of unque mediatorship which could only come by way of the recognition and acceptance of a special revelation, ancestor worship is a respectable good and can be an expression of true peity.

Finally, the virtue of peity has its mirror virtue. An example of a mirror virtue is the relation between magniminity and humility. Aristotle famously considered humility to be a vice and spoke of the virtue of being a great man. This at first seems to put Christianity which makes humility a supreme virtue out in the cold. But when we do an Aristotelian analysis of humility as a virtue and compare it with a similar analysis of magniminity we discover something interesting. If magniminity is a virtue it has a vice of excess and a vice of defect. The vice of defect of magniminity is something like self-depreciation while its vice of excess would certainly be pride, egotism, or hubris. If humility is a virtue, it also has a vice of excess and a vice of defect. Not enough would certainly be pride but what would too much be? Certainly it would be self-depreciation. In other words, humility as a virtue mirrors magniminity as a virtue, to have a defect in one is to have an excess in the other, just as in a mirror the reflection of my right hand is my reflection's left hand. So there is compatibility between them but also a tension between them. This illustrates the yin-yang character that exists in the unity of virtues.

In the case of peity then I think the mirror virtue is human excellence or the virtue of being pro-human. And in general I think that religious virtues (Love, Faith, Hope) mirror the humanistic virtues (Courage, Wisdom, Temperance). This means that the point of contact may be expressed in apparently humanistic ways. For example, we may express Neitzcheanism as too humanistic amd fundamentalism as not humanistic enough, while fundamentalism might also be characterized as too pious and Neitzcheanism as not pious enough. There is a Christian humanism as well as a Christian theism. In fact the argument need go no further than the great success Christian theology has had already in accommodating to Greek humanism. And so genuine Christian peity is "naturally" compatible with genuinely humanistic science.

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