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Monday, August 5th 2013


Why I Am Not Bertrand Russell

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: Danke der Nachfrage

Why I Am Not Bertrand Russell.

In case you're not familiar with the history of English language philosophy, Lord Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was a leader and innovator in British analytic philosophy as well as in symbolic logic. He wrote his philosophy in a clear style that avoided both the pickiness of, say, John Austin, or the oracular introspection of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The Principia Mathematica, which he authored together with Alfred North Whitehead, though ultimately doomed to conceptual failure, was and remains to be one of the outstanding logical works of the twentieth century. I suspect that there are critics who are all-too-eager to invoke Gödel's "Incompleteness Theorem" on the book without understanding either him or Gödel. [See the article on Gödel's theorem by Nephew Michael and your bloggist in JISCA, vol. 1]. Russell continues to have a large following; biographical summaries of his life often read like hagiographies. But Russell was not a saint.  He was an atheist, and, as many atheists do, he fell back on a lame agnosticism if pushed on the matter. Then again he followed the logical consequences of his atheism by denying that conventional moral norms applied to him, which cost him a highly prized position at the City College of New York, though he was quick to censure other people for what he considered their failure to live up to the moral standards of which he approved.

One of his best-known popular essays is a lecture he delivered to the National Secular Society in 1927 entitled "Why I Am Not a Christian," which has been reprinted in numerous collections as well as served as title for one of the many anthologies of his writings. (Hence my unimaginative title for tonight's entry.) As a classic of early-twentieth century British philosophy, his essay deserves to be read, but it contains little of permanent value in content. You get a much better glimpse of Russell as social satirist in "Nice People" and of the self-destructive nature of his atheism in "A Free Man's Worship." A number of Russell's objections to Christianity in the 1927 essay are based on the character of Jesus. Unsurprisingly there are some of Jesus' teachings of which Russell approved, such as the well-worn verse taken out of context: "Judge not lest ye be judged." (See my recent exposition on that saying.) Still, on the whole, he took a low view of Christ as moral paradigm. In particular--and we're still hardly surprised--Russell severely objected to the fact that Jesus preached eternal punishment for sinners. Furthermore, he found a number of other occasions in the gospels where Jesus' actions were not acceptable to him. And thus, as awkward as this may sound, when I think of Lord Russell's essay, the "Gerasene swine" come to mind.

Luke Bible Study       

        Bible Reading:         Luke 8:26-39

v. 32: A large herd of pigs was there, feeding on the hillside. The demons begged Him to permit them to enter the pigs, and He gave them permission. (HCSB)

As we said last time, Jesus and his disciples had crossed the Sea of Galilee and now were in Gentile territory. There actually is a textual problem with regard to the name of the town where they went ashore. The reconstructions biblical scholars have come up with yield something like "Gerasa." Unfortunately, the ancient town that's been identified with Gerasa is miles away from the water, so it doesn't work. There are two options to take on such a problem. One is to assume that the gospel writers defied what they knew of local geography and wrote an implausible story; the other is to conclude that on the basis of current textual knowledge we do not yet have the real name of the location and let the details of the story determine which one may qualify, once we have a better candidate. For the moment we cannot do any better than to follow the text, which in our translation refers to the local inhabitants as "Gerasenes," and, thus implicitly, to the town as "Gerasa." (We shall see below that Russell used the alternative "Gedarene.")

The Gerasene welcoming committee was rather intimidating, consisting of one demoniac (or, according to Matthew, two) who lived in the area without clothes, sleeping among the sites designated for tombs, and generally creating unspecified havoc. It's possible that he was inflicting harm on himself in the process, and so the fact that the people had tried to put chains on him from time to time may have been an attempt at kindness, but it didn't work. The demons inside of him gave him a supernatural strength, which the chains could not resist. When Jesus asked him for his name, the demons indicated their number by saying "Legion," showing that there were several thousand of them.

Due to the demon's power, the man recognized Jesus as the Son of God and begged him not to torment him. A moment later the demons themselves specified what that phrase meant. They asked him not to send them to "the abyss," and then they begged him to be allowed to enter a herd of pigs on a nearby pasture. (I know very little about the life of demons, and cannot give further explanations.) Jesus granted the request, and, as Jesus purged the man of the demons, they entered the pigs and rushed down an embankment into the water, where the pigs drowned. Just to finish the story, the local folks, who were most likely pagans and not Jews, were spooked out of their hides and urged Jesus to get out of their area.

Bertrand Russell did not believe that this event actually occurred, but he used it to represent a part of the picture of Jesus in the gospels. Here is what he said:

There is the instance of the Gedarene swine, where it certainly was not very kind to the pigs to put the devils into them and make them rush down the hill to the sea. You must remember that He was omnipotent, and He could have made the devils simply go away; but He chose to send them into the pigs. (Touchstone, 1957, pp. 18-19)

It's always a good idea before you satirize a text to double-check what it actually says. Speaking for myself, there have been numerous times in the years of writing this blog that I've had to erase paragraphs after checking the accuracy of the source towards which I was directing my wit. Russell should have done the same; he weakens his case by getting the details all wrong, not that I imagine that the chaps gathered at the Secular Society that evening would have cared. 

Did Jesus put the demons into the pigs against the demons' desire? Did he make them rush into their watery grave? No he did not. He did not even send the demons into the pigs; he only allowed them to enter their short-lived porcine shelters on their own initiative. It seems rather odd for me to say that Jesus was being kind to the demons, but that's exactly what he was. Yes, being omnipotent, Jesus could have just sent the demons to the abyss, but he chose not to do so because of their entreaty. However, as Russell correctly sees despite the clutter of his factual mistakes, these concessions still did not work out for the good of the pigs.

So, do we rejoice for the man or mourn for the pigs? We need not assume that there was exactly one demon per pig, so the number of drowned pigs need not have been in the thousands or even hundreds. Still, it was a massive lot.

It is helpful here in assessing Russell's judgment if we are familiar with the essay to which I alluded above, "A Free Man's Worship." In this piece he makes it crystal clear that, in his opinion, the majority of rational philosophers agrees that human life is nothing but a temporary manifestation of the power of "omnipotent matter," which, having shown up in the universe for a while, will just as surely be annihilated again without any significance or meaning. In that case, there certainly is no reason to prefer the life and sanity of the man over the lives of the pigs, but--come to think of it--there really is no good reason to bemoan the "unkindness" to the pigs either. In Lord Russell's universe, it could be no worse than serving the roast before the fish. 

I don't want to lessen the worth of a pig's life qua a pig's life; however, a pig's life, or even a number of them, cannot measure up to the worth of a human being. Human beings are categorically different from animals; the latter are to serve as food for people, for example. In the Graeco-Roman culture in which this event occurred, pigs were being sacrificed regularly to idols, again making them merely tools for spiritual benefit. It is in this context that we need to gauge the worth of a pig for this story. 

Another point of criticism made by some people is that Jesus destroyed the property of local people and inflicted economic loss on them. One flaw with that argument is that the people themselves did not bring it up, and it is not really possible for us to assess the extent of the "damage." Moreover, we need to weigh that loss against the benefit of having the man be purged and cleansed and able to maintain a normal household again, witnessing to what God had done for him. A big barrier is, of course, that Russell and others like him see no value in spiritual benefits. But even if one were to construe the story as nothing more than a case of rather effective on-the-spot psychological therapy that was beneficial for the entire community, the price of the pigs was worth it. Do you know how much a psychiatrist charges these days, regardless of whether he or she provides real help or not?

We see two important qualities of Jesus in this narrative. We see his love and compassion for the possessed man, which even extends to granting the demons their wish to postpone their eventual never-ending judgment. But we also see Jesus as a divine authority figure, a man rightly to be feared because in his presence unrighteousness cannot stand against his will. The Gerasenes were definitely correct in sending Jesus away if they did not want to confront the awesome power of God. 

Let me think about that last statement a little bit more: Russell's argument here is a quite facile one. Could it be that Russell was also dismissing Jesus, particularly on such spurious grounds, because he did not want to confront the awesome power of God?

I know that I did not give you any good reasons as to why I am not Bertrand Russell. But that's okay; Russell did not give us any good reasons why he was not a Christian either.

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