Sunday, March 21, 2010

"How much more" -- logic, religion, and the big picture

How Jewish is it?

Jewish culture is not unique in developing standard formats for logical argument. Other cultures have also developed conventions about valid ways to reach a conclusion. For the format of argument we have been reviewing, the "how much more" (a fortiori) argument, we have seen that it was part of Jewish culture in Biblical times, part of the heritage of the early Christian church, and part of the standard way of reasoning about Scriptures during the writing of the Talmud. But it was not entirely unique to Jewish culture.

A form of that argument can be seen in Aristotle's Metaphysics, with the translation I have citing "all the more" reason (where our examples from the Bible and Talmud would say "how much more"). Plotinus' Enneads uses this form of reasoning regularly, again with the translation I have citing "all the more" reason. It was an accepted method of establishing a point in Greek schools of thought as well.

How is it used in the canonical and "alternative canon" documents?

With that as background, let's look at how often this logical argument is used in some particular types of writings:

In the Old Testament translation that I searched, the "how much more" style of logic appears in 6 of the 39 books, so that roughly 15% of the writings in the Old Testament have at least one occurrence. The New Testament documents also use this style of logic in 6 of the 27 books, so that roughly 22% of the writings in the New Testament have at least one occurrence. In the canonical gospels we see it more often, with 2 of the 4 gospels using it (50%, for those keeping track). It is worth noting that Matthew and Luke, the two gospels with the highest score on Jewish context, are the ones that use this method of reasoning. Each time they use this form of argument it is in the "red letter" sections quoting Jesus. If we take as given that Jesus spoke and taught and interpreted Scripture as a Jew of his era, it is not surprising to find that he would use the Jewish conventions of his day in his teachings.

What about the "alternative canon" gospels? What about the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of the Savior, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Truth, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Proto-Gospel of James, and the Gospel of Peter? Of these eight "alternative canon" gospels commonly cited by critics of apostolic Christianity, only one -- the Gospel of Philip -- displays an argument of that style (12.5% of these commonly cited non-canonicals, for those keeping track). Interestingly again, this particular "alternative canon" gospel has more Jewish context than others (though still lower than any of the four canonical gospels).

This format of logic is not unique to Judaism, but is so thoroughly accepted by Judaism that its use in a gospel correlates to other traces of Jewish influence and background.

The big picture

Logic -- the desire to reason -- is something close to a human universal. For present purposes, it does not matter how styles of argument in different cultures may have influenced each other, even though that question may be interesting in itself. My current point is that it was typical of Jewish culture to apply logic and reason to the area of religious belief and practice, and to expect religious belief and practice to be logically derived from what had gone before in such a way that the whole of religion rested on either revelation from God or what could be logically known from that. On this basis, the whole of religion was then considered logically sound and trustworthy insofar as it stayed within these boundaries.

In our present culture the call to "reason and logic" is often a call to exclude thoughts about religion, faith, or miracles; to deny them a place in our thought. In their culture, it was simply meant to allow for trustworthy conclusions to be drawn based on what was given at the outset. In Judaism the premises, the "givens", included miracles; the Jewish religion's list of premises had a number of prominent acts of God, revelations from God, or promises of God. Based on this foundation, conclusions were to be derived by logical and rational means. While the Jewish outlook on religion allowed room for speculation, there was seen to be an area of solid ground which consisted largely of these givens -- viewed as revelation from God -- and things that could be derived logically from them.

The use of this form of logical argument in matters of religion -- the acceptance of it -- tells us something about the outlook on religion common to that culture. Logical tools used by philosophers like Aristotle were employed in matters of belief. Religion was not seen by the founders of our faith as a matter of "faith instead of reason." Jesus himself used logical argument to drive home his teachings. Faith was seen as just one of many areas in which reason applied, where reason could help us understand more.

In Christianity all the way back to the root religion Judaism, there were certain "givens." In Christianity the new "givens" are fairly limited: they are things the earliest followers of Jesus had seen and heard first-hand. As with Judaism so with Christianity, the solid areas of our faith are seen to be those known through revelation from God in certain culturally well-known events, and in what can be reasonably concluded based on those events. This was considered the firm basis for belief; anything that built directly on that foundation with solid and reasonable interpretation could (and should) be believed with confidence by a reasonable person. On the other hand, anything that was not built directly on that foundation, or was not derived from it with sound methods, was considered to have no firm basis for belief. Things without a firm basis could not (and should not) be believed with confidence by a reasonable person.

That leaves a world of conversation still about what exactly constitutes a firm basis, and what exactly is a sound method for understanding what has gone before. My points, at the moment, are these:
  • Within Judaism and Christianity, there is an ancient religious tradition of starting with certain cultural events as "givens" and from there applying logical methods to establish what can be believed with confidence as true and real;
  • Not all religious movements have recognized a need to establish a solid basis that can be believed with confidence as true and real;
  • Those who acknowledge the need to establish a solid basis are likely to have a more solid basis than those who do not;
  • Those who acknowledge the need for truth and reality are likely to be much closer to it than those who believe it is irrelevant.
  • If the idea of a solid basis is recognized, then any religious belief must be able to answer the question, "On what basis do you believe that?", and it must be able to answer fully in terms of things that are known on a solid basis.
  • Apostolic Christianity has always recognized the validity of the question, "On what basis do you believe that?" and has from its beginnings set out to plainly account for the basis of its beliefs and to provide an answer for those with questions both within Christianity and without.
  • If any religious view does not recognize the validity of the question, "On what basis do you believe that?", then it has parted company with logic and rationality; something that has no basis -- and denies the need for a basis -- can only be baseless.
  • If a Christian religious view does not recognize the validity of the question, "On what basis do you believe that?", then it has parted company with Christianity as the apostles taught it and religion as Jesus knew it, and with Christianity's culturally Jewish roots.

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