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Faith, Freedom, and Reason in Changing Times

Walter J. Geldart



Individual faith, freedom, and reason are the first three religious principles of the new American Unitarian Conference. Individual faith, freedom, and reason are three God-given gifts that are the birthright of all human beings. The development of these gifts and their application for the benefit of humankind using religious, philosophical, and scientific knowledge is the story of civilization itself. The interplay of faith, freedom, and reason with progress in religion, philosophy, and science is considered in this article.

The creative emergence and development of human civilization and culture would have been impossible without language. Indeed the Bible and other ancient scriptures report that creation of the world itself was accomplished by God through the utterance of sounds or words to represent the creator's intention. The face of the earth was made different by human words and human efforts over thousands of years. People continue to transform the landscape for better or for worse to the degree by which they are guided by faith, freedom, and reason.

The face of New York City was permanently changed on September 11th. Many of us were watching television as the twin towers fell before our astonished eyes. Our faith, freedom, and reason are tested in times of great change and destruction. Although there has been magnificent progress in the march of knowledge from ancient to modern times, the capacity of human being to commit destructive evil acts against their neighbors near and far has not changed significantly. Only the scale of destructive acts has changed, as for example with the holocaust against European Jews in World War II. Yet the purest acts of kindness and compassion have been part of our moral legacy for several thousand years from the teachings of Moses, the prophets, Buddha, Socrates, Christ, Mohammed, and so on. The essential religious imperative to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself is expressed in similar ways in the world's great religions. What more is there to say about the highest principles of human interaction? We can say that much remains to be learned about the practice of these principles by people when they act as individuals, or when they act as leaders and rulers of institutions and nations. This is the moral imperative for our times today - to act respectfully, cooperatively, compassionately and lawfully towards others. This prevents suffering by others.

The Experience of Faith, Freedom, and Reason

Individual faith, freedom, and reason are tested in changing times. Life is lived in the present. Joy or sorrow, courage or fear are experienced directly by the individual as life unfolds in everyday moments of existence. The Buddha pondered human fate 500 years before Jesus, and offered a remedy. Buddha observed that suffering was intrinsic to the human condition, that it had selfish individual desire as its root cause, that selfish desire could be removed, and that this could be accomplished by following the eight-fold noble path as a practice. The law of love from the Jewish tradition was taught to be the greatest commandment by Jesus. In the Christian tradition, if an individual loves God and neighbor (regardless of group or caste) and has a sense of his own self-worth, selfish desire will be impossible. The Biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is the  prototypical description of "sin", or wanting something for yourself that is not yours to have. "Sin" is selfish desire, and the explicit root cause of suffering in many of the world's great religious traditions. The opportunity to live selflessly without selfish desire is presented everyday to all people in their daily living. The advantage of a religious tradition is that it gives the individual faith in both the theory and practice of ideal human living, and a community of faith in which to live it out. Individuals can live well and die well - with faith, freedom to act, and reason to discern and decide in the situation at hand what needs attention. Here is the story of two flight attendants who acted with faith, freedom, and reason as their hijacked plane flew towards New York City on September 11th.

On the morning of Sept. 11, American Airlines ground manager Michael Woodward received a phone call that immediately got his full attention. "Listen, and listen to me very carefully. I'm on Flight 11. The airplane has been hijacked," said the voice on the other end. The caller was Amy Sweeney, a flight attendant on board American Airlines Flight 11, which had just been hijacked on its way from Boston to Los Angeles. Over the next 25 minutes, Sweeney, a 13-year veteran with the airline, calmly relayed information that would later be crucial in helping the FBI identify the men who hijacked the plane and flew it into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

Another flight attendant, Betty Ong, who had been with American Airlines for 14 years, also called colleagues on the ground. Sweeney and Ong were in the coach section of the plane. Using crew telephones, they made the calls to their colleagues on the ground, Sweeney to Woodward, a flight services manager at Logan Airport, and Ong to the airline's reservations line in Raleigh. N. C.

About 15 minutes after the women first called, the plane suddenly lurched, tilting all the way to one side, then becoming horizontal again. Ong said the plane was flying erratically, and Sweeney said it had begun a rapid descent. "For a flight attendant to say rapid descent, it's rapid and it's quick. We don't use those terms very loosely," said Woodward. They were now nearing New York and the World Trade Center, but on board the plane it was quiet. "You didn't hear hysteria in the background. You didn't hear people screaming," said Minter.

Woodward asked Sweeney to look out of the window and see if she could tell what was going on. "I see the water. I see the buildings. I see buildings", she told him. On the line to Raleigh, Ong said over and over again, "Pray for us. Pray for us." Gonzales and Minter assured her they were praying. Sweeney told Woodward the plane was flying very low. Then, he said, "She took a very slow, deep breath and then just said, 'Oh, my God!' Very slowly, very calmly, very quietly. It wasn't in panic." Those were the last words Woodward heard. "Seconds later," he said, "there was a very, very loud static on the other end." The ground staff who spoke to the two flight attendants were astonished by their professionalism and courage. Ong showed no fear at all during the 25-minute conversation. "It was never about 'Help me, pray for me,'" "It was about 'Pray for us, help us.' That's a totally selfless person."

The Practice of Faith, Freedom, and Reason

Amy Sweeney and Betty Ong acted with faith, freedom, and reason to meet the needs of the moment in service to others without selfish desire. They knew what to do and acted courageously. Good and evil often appear on the same stage, or the same airplane as this real story shows, and as much of human history shows. Yet, there is faith that good actions will overcome evil actions, and knowledge in the mind will overcome ignorance in the mind. Humans have the will-power to choose a particular course of action, but people must have right knowledge, faith in that knowledge, and the ability to reason with that knowledge to act effectively when they exercise their freedom.

There have been fundamental changes in the knowledge available to people since the invention of cuneiform writing on clay tablets in ancient Sumeria to the invention of computer chips on much smaller silicon wafers today. Oddly enough both advances make use of sand. Religious, philosophical, and scientific knowledge over six thousand years have changed the way individuals, families, groups, and nations understand their role in life and its meaning and purpose. The creative emergence of human civilization and culture would be impossible without language. The face of the earth was changed by words, and humans continue to transform their physical and mental landscape for better or for worse by the degree by which they are guided by faith, freedom, and reason. Just as fish naturally swim under water, and humans naturally walk on land and breathe air, so there is knowledge that seems natural to us today that was foreign or unknown in ancient times, and vice-versa. We will recall some milestones of this human knowledge adventure using "A History of Knowledge" by Charles Van Doren as a guide. Two of the most significant explosions in knowledge occurred in Greece in the 6th century BC and in Europe in the 14th and 15th century AD. Both presented new ways of looking at the world based on individual reason. Both profoundly changed people's lives forever.

To be a religious person in the 21st century AD is different from the past few hundred years, or in the past few thousand years. Gone are the Sumerian ideas from 3500 BC of an assembly of invisible, anthropomorphic, superhuman, immortal beings or gods that controlled everything and kept everything in working order according to their fixed rules and regulations. Today the individual has a role to play in life that has meaning and religious or spiritual significance. Now knowledge from science and philosophy can explain the workings of the material world of matter, motion, and its change. Knowledge and personal experience are understandable in the three contexts of religion, philosophy, and science. Today one of the last frontiers of science is the psychology and philosophy of human consciousness itself, not only the observable, real, external world known by the observer's senses, but in the inner world of the observer's mind and its higher reaches. Here we are guided by religious traditions and their principles and practices.

The Greek Knowledge Explosion

The paradigm shifts introduced by four Greeks in understanding the world around us are summarized below.

Thales (b. 625 BC) has been called the first philosopher and the first scientist. He proposed that the observable world of nature and its changes could be explained by one underlying primordial substance that had qualities analogous to water. Hypothesis formation is a key step in the scientific method that was fully developed by European natural philosophers and scientists 2000 years later. That Thales' concept was wrong is not important. What was important is his conviction and faith that the human mind was capable of understanding the observable workings of nature without assuming that a governing body of greater or lesser gods was responsible for the everyday working of nature. Thales demonstrated the fundamental difference between humans and lower animals. Humans have the natural ability to use language to express concepts by which they try to understand how and why things happen as they do in the real, material world.

Pythagoras (b. 580 BC) could be called the first mathematician in the modern sense. He discovered that a rational principle related musical notes and their harmonics on a musical instrument with vibrating strings. Quite simply, the musical vibrations were related to the length of a string as ratios of two whole numbers - hence the term rational. He and his followers came to believe that things were numbers and numbers were things. Pythagoras's theorem is known by school children today. It relates the lengths of three sides that form a perfect right angle triangle in terms of the areas or squares formed from each side. Unfortunately the number for the diagonal of a simple right triangle whose component sides are each one unit long is an irrational number; it can not be expressed as a ratio of two whole numbers. They could not understand why there could be such as thing as irrational numbers. The Pythagorean researchers had a mystical belief that things, including the world itself, are numbers simply. Scientists and mathematicians today know that numbers have a different kind of existence from things, even though numbers and things continue to show the intimate relationship that the Pythagoreans were the first to recognize. Reasoning mathematically was a new way of thinking; it took a few thousand years to work out some of the details and discover many kinds of numbers (whole, rational, irrational, transcendental, imaginary, etc.). Unfortunately, Pythagoras' wrong idea of the musical of celestial spheres (planets) became associated with orthodox Christian theology to the extent that scientists 2000 years later were prevented from writing against that theory at the beginning of the European Knowledge explosion.

Democritus (b. 460 BC) continued in the steps of Thales to explain the workings of the knowable world using the reasoning power of the mind. He assumed that every material thing was made up of discrete particles of matter called atoms. It was the joining together and separating of these atoms that accounted for the coming into being and the passing away of material things. The atoms were infinite in number and eternal, and move in space that is empty of atoms. Democritus' intuitive hypothesis was confirmed by scientists 2500 years later and is a remarkable example of human reasoning power applied in a highly original way. Modern atomic physics has gone further and cracked the atom to find numerous sub-particles and waves. Atomic bombs have been used as weapons of war.

Aristotle (b. 384 BC) followed in the philosophical footsteps of Plato (b. 427 BC) and his teacher Socrates (b. 470 BC). Their philosophical ideas influenced Christian and Muslim theology, and Aristotle's writings in science and philosophy became the standard for almost 1500 years.

"Aristotle taught us to reason about the world we see and know; he invented the science of logic, which gives us the rules of thinking, as grammar gives us the rules of speaking and writing. His ideas did not stop there. He also invented the division of the sciences into fields both by their subject matters and their methods, and he made many useful observations about natural things, like fish, men, and stars. Despite his deep interest in the natural science, which he would have called natural philosophy, Aristotle shared with Plato, as Plato shared with Socrates, an overwhelming concern and fascination with politics and morality. None of them ever questioned the idea that the most important being in the world is man. Mankind, in the abstract, for only men, they agreed have rational souls. Real men, also, because with them we must live, our happiness or misery depends on how well or how badly we do so".

Aristotle's philosophical thinking on the three great ideas by which people judge (descriptive truth, prescriptive goodness, and admirable or desirable beauty) and on the three great ideas on which people act as a group (justice, liberty, and equality) influenced the American Declaration of Independence, and have been popularized in recent decades by Mortimer Adler.

The European Knowledge Explosion

The paradigm shifts introduced by several European scientists and philosophers are summarized below.

Nicolaus Copernicus (b. 1473) found the Ptolemaic-Aristotlean theory of the planets and heavens was too complicated and could be explained by simpler theory that was contrary to church theology. Tycho Brahe (b. 1546) observed a new star that theoretically could not come into being under Aristotle's theory. Johannes Kepler (b.1571) discovered laws of planetary motion and agreed with Copernicus that Aristole's earth-centered model of the world was wrong. Galileo Galilei (b. 1564) constructed a telescope and observed that the surface of the moon was not smooth, that Jupiter had its own moons, and that the surface of the sun had spots that changed. This was unacceptable to orthodox church theology because the heavens were supposed to be perfect and unchanging. The Bible and its interpretation by the church was the authority on how physical reality worked. Galileo claimed the authority of reason based on mathematics and experimental observations, but he was ordered by the church to remain silent about his heretical ideas.

Rene Descartes (b. 1596) invented the language for describing positions of stationary or moving objects with Cartesian coordinates. He showed that the Book of Nature could be described by mathematical characters that were simply numbers. Every real point in the real world can be represented by number coordinates. His short book "A Discourse on Method" used the principle of doubt to proceed by reasoning towards certainty. He recalled how he began to doubt whether what he had been taught in his Jesuit education was true or not, and he continued to doubt until he concluded that all could be doubted, except that he, the doubter, existed because he was able to doubt. (Dubito ergo sum - I doubt therefore I am). He used this method combined with mathematics to prove the existence of God and how God had created the world that would run forever without assistance. The new Cartesian method gave scientists a new tool with which to speak with some degree of certainty about the real world of material objects, but it reduced theology (the former queen of the sciences) with authority for dealing with the immaterial world of spirit and soul, but with no authority to describe the material world in a rational manner following principles of reason and observations. Descartes showed that God-given gifts of individual faith, freedom, and reason can be used to advance knowledge of material reality. If truths about the world of observable nature are found by individuals that contradict collective wisdom, then the later must change and make way instead of the truth being silenced as was so with theocratic governments of the middle ages before the Protestant Reformation swept Europe.

Isaac Newton (b. 1642) was a scientific genius who synthesized the available information on the motion of bodies, discovered the law of gravitational attraction, identified Newton's three laws of motion, and invented a new mathematical language (differential and integral Calculus) that was necessary to describe the simultaneous effects of force, momentum, velocity, and acceleration acting when a body moves through space. Newton found the Aristotlean concept of inertia to be entirely wrong. Aristotle and the early Greeks considered that the normal condition of a body was at rest, so that any motion at any time required a force or impulse. Based on this, Zeno's paradox had concluded that Achilles could never catch up with a turtle who had a slight head start. Such is the silly effect of wrong concepts with right reasoning. Newton correctly reasoned that a body at rest will remain at rest, and a body in motion will continue in motion unless disturbed by an outside force. Newton was a Unitarian Christian.

Where Does the Human Stand in the Modern View of Science?

The success of science, mathematics, physics and technology has been truly amazing as we stand and survey the scene in 2002. But we find something disturbing about the scientific method as applied to the laws of nature that have been found by detached investigators. A mind-body dualism has removed the human observer as a free active subject-agent in the scheme of things and replaced him by a mere passive observer. Despite the power of mathematics, Newton's calculus and Newton's laws of motion - a trick has been played on us by the "experts". Newton's laws apply perfectly well to planets and matter without mind and will,  provided God is willing to stand aside and not alter the original creation. But the power of the human to exercise control and move out of harmís way from a falling rock or speeding car is omitted. Human will power is implicitly denied. We cannot expect to find it in the physics of moving objects because Newton's laws only account for acceleration that is felt due to forces that are acting on a passive bystander. An active subject-agent exercises his freedom to choose otherwise in an emergency as the need arises. This is mathematically equivalent to the third derivative in Calculus, and it is a higher order effect than the second derivative in Calculus that describes external forces and changes in momentum of mindless material objects that do not live and breathe.

The philosophical dualism of the past few hundred years has been misapplied to the study of human nature itself. Progress forward in the material sciences with the benefit of sound mathematically based language has not been accompanied by progress in the description of human nature and human consciousness due partly to unsound philosophical language. As Mortimer Adler explained it - human beings can hold three types of objects before their minds: real, subjective, and intentional. Real objects are public objects known by any conscious observer; subjective objects are private objects (such as a tooth-ache, fatigue, a personal memory, etc.) known or felt only by the conscious subject-agent as observer. These two provide subject-object dualism where private objects are unknowable except by the subject experiencing them. The third type of object that can be held in mind is the intentional object type by which the media of language is used to move information from one mind to another mind with conversation and dialog. Only when there is a meeting of two or more minds is the intentional object type created. This is the Biblical creation by the word by which culture and civilization have developed over thousands of years and by which knowledge is transmitted with language from one generation to another. The Greek philosophers knew of all three types of objects; their philosophy was sound in this respect. This knowledge was passed on by Muslim philosophers and returned to the Christian tradition via Thomas Aquinas. Following Descartes and finally following Kant's "Copernican" revolution in philosophy, the intentional object type was lost in Western philosophy. The result is that consistent and complete language statements are frequently not constructed to describe the authentic human being. The cold objectivity of the scientific method does not naturally capture the warm heart of human nature. However, if we move towards the language of ordinary people, poets, artists, priests and ministers, and the great literature of our religious traditions, then the richness of human experience is revealed. Both the highest acts of good and the lowest acts of evil that occur in real life are reported in the pages of history and newspapers.

Human Potential, Virtue, and the Seven Deadly Sins

Channing's Harvard Divinity School address in 1819 signaled the official beginning of the Unitarian movement in the United States. New England Unitarianism in particular and the spirit of the times in general held an optimistic view in progress onward and upward forever - until the experience of 20th century World Wars demonstrated that human individual and collective moral nature, and the human heart with its selfish desire had not changed in a fundamental way. Each new generation must learn the principles and practice of right living in the context of the changing times, with the guidance of knowledge from the past in its religious, philosophical, and scientific traditions. The language of virtue and the seven deadly sins provides a sharp contrast for observations of human behavior.

The plural intellectual virtues and singular moral virtue give contexts for applying faith, freedom, and reason in daily living. "There are five intellectual virtues, three in the field of knowing (science, understanding, and wisdom) and two in the sphere of making and acting (skill and prudence). It is possible to have one or more of the intellectual virtues without having all of them. There are four cardinal aspects of one integral moral virtue (temperance, courage or fortitude, justice, and prudence). Moral virtue is one habit of right desire that has four inseparable aspects. Moral virtue is acquired and formed by repeated morally good acts. Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is the only sound, practical, and un-dogmatic moral philosophy in which the pivotal notion is habit. It is a moral philosophy without rules." (Adler's Philosophical Dictionary - Mortimer Adler).

Knowledge of human weakness and selfish desire and the associated seven deadly sins (wrath, pride, envy, avarice, gluttony, lust, sloth) were taught as part of Christian theology for over a thousand years. In the last few decades a nine-fold human personality type system, known as the enneagram, has been popularized by the Jesuits and become part of popular psychology. It includes fear and desire, plus the seven deadly sins, to describe nine characteristic personality types whose behavior covers a range from healthy to unhealthy .

Solomon Schimmel, professor of Jewish education and psychology at Hebrew College in Massachusetts, a psychotherapist, and author of The Seven Deadly Sins, explains why psychology must incorporate many of the ethical and spiritual values of religion and moral philosophy if it is to effectively address the emotional problems faced by modern men and women. Schimmel provides a detailed analysis of each sin in terms of Bible characters and Jewish and Christian ethics and morality.

It is possible to act with faith, freedom, and reason amid changing times in a way that demonstrates intellectual virtues as well as an integrated, moral virtue, guided not only by knowledge from science and philosophy, but by knowledge from our religious traditions that have stood the test of time. Jesus said "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." It may not be easy, but it is in the moment that life is lived and choices, through faith, can be freely made to serve the needs of others with faith and without selfish desire or riches of any sort. It is at those times that we see ordinary men and women facing death on hijacked planes become heroes and heroines.

© 2002 American Unitarian Conferenceô