Divine Inversion: Power in weakness

I am stirred to ramble a bit as something I read this morning reminded me of the fantastic picture of the New Jerusalem in Revelations chapter 21. For the sake of those who avoid reading this book because of its imagined incomprehensibility, let me repeat what a preacher recently clarified as being the simplified message of the book. It is, ‘Jesus wins!’

Chapter 21 pictures a grand finale towards which God orchestrates his purposes. It is a brilliant show of His sovereign will that brings to completion what He began in Genesis. As though it is a mirror image of what the world- here and now- is witnessing, there is a change from a farming Eden to a mega city. Eden is pictured with its rivers, trees, animals and birds; precious stones of gold, bdellium and onyx are yet raw materials. But unlike Eden, where the divine-human sharing of spaces couldn’t be sustained, the holy city is pictured as the dwelling place of God with humans, made of “pure gold, clear as glass.” Raw stones are polished sidewalks!

Besides this new city being impressive, is the more spectacular testimony that in God’s economy, no human error is wasted! Edenic fall—disobedience, dishonesty, lack of trust—is a story that ends differently: “to the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life without payment.” So then, as we specialize in messing up, God specializes in turning our mess around, almost assuring us that our mess were necessary blocks for God to showcase his power. Perhaps we could even say, thanks to the fall, we have the holy city.

This is divine inversion! That human sin, which brought death does not end in deprivation but with the glorious New Jerusalem that is far more splendorous than the Garden of Eden. While historical errors could be done without, they are nevertheless not wasted. The worst within humanity is turned into a splendorous opportunity for God as His ‘power is made perfect in our weakness’ [2 Cor 12:9].

Grace, Works and Kierkegaard

Now that we have fully embraced Sola Gratia (by grace alone) and have left behind a penitential version of Christianity, we love to hate the term ‘works’. Unsurprisingly, we have various phenomena such as ‘free grace’ and ‘hyper-grace’ that are shaping the theological landscape of the contemporary church, where only ‘grace’ finds a mention within its vocabulary. One may ask how the concept of grace can be overstated given how central it is to Christian faith. After all, isn’t Christianity all about grace?

The error is not in the emphasis on grace in the life of a Christian, but in how today the term is construed to mean something totally different. To many a Christian, ‘grace’ seems to mean a ‘lack of requirement’, which, at the practical level, often translates into a casual approach to Christian formation or a license to define sin in culturally acceptable terms.

“There was a time” (read, before Luther) Kierkegaard writes,

when the Gospel, grace, was changed into a new Law, more rigorous with people than the old Law. Everything had become rather tortured, laborious, and unpleasant, almost as if, despite the angels’ song at the advent of Christianity, there was no joy anymore either in heaven or on earth. Through petty self-torments, they had made God just as petty—in this way it brings its own punishment! . . . . Everything had become works.[1]

As a corrective to a culture of ‘earning’ redemption through atoning penitential works, Kierkegaard thinks, Luther’s Sola gratia was necessary.

The error from which Luther turned was an exaggeration with regard to works. And he was entirely right; he did not make a mistake—a person is justified solely and only by faith. That is the way he talked and taught—and believed. And that this was not taking grace in vain—to that his life witnessed. Splendid![2]

However, 300 years since Luther, Kierkegaard fears the world of Christianity has swung like a pendulum to the other extreme– the exaggeration is with regard to grace. “The world”, writes Kierkegaard, “is like a drunken peasant, who, if you help him up on one side of the horse, falls off on the other side.” He laments that unlike Luther, the Danish church had lost “the conception of the unconditioned requirement.”

The moral reasoning of Kierkegaard’s times is echoed by contemporary Christians today. So we ask, “of what use is the biblical requirement, since no one, after all, fulfills it?” It has become “the impractical, a foolishness, a ridiculousness, so that they, mutinously or conceitedly, reverse the relation, seek the fault in the requirement and themselves become the claimants who demand that the requirement be changed.”[3] In short, we have changed the goal post and redrawn the rules of the game, morphed Christianity to look like secular humanism; we have abandoned the transcendent and have turned Christianity into an immanent human project.

Correlation between Grace and Guilt

Characteristic to today’s culture of autonomy and individualistic thinking, we define the ‘requirement’ of God according to our likes, tastes, and orientations. When self-interests conflict with the scriptural teaching, we either pretend indeterminacy of scriptural meaning (this, of course, is easier if you have a PhD! Continue reading

Can we ban Religious Conversions? A Response to Jaideep Prabhu

I couldn’t help but notice the irony in Jaideep A Prabhu’s strong critique of Nehru’s political imagination when my quick search informs me that he is the Jawaharlal Nehru Professor of Business and Enterprise at the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge. His article, Is religious conversion really a fundamental right, or can we ban it? is undoubtedly argued with a certain flair. And given that its primary appeal is the political incorrectness of the Abrahamic religious nuances, his argument would appear quite persuasive to many. However, his assumptions and rationale beg several questions.

Prabhu’s principal argument is that religious liberty as imagined within the Nehruvian secular framework of the Indian Constitution a) neither originates from the Dharmic faiths nor is compatible with it, and b) does not provide a level playing ground for Dharmic systems vis-à-vis Abrahamic faiths. Given these, Prabhu argues for “a complete ban on proselytism and religious conversion in India . . . ,” which “is only a ban on religious thought of an exclusivist and binary nature . . .” Now, even a cursory look at his argument would immediately accentuate the ignorance of an inherent “binary” and “exclusivism” that is presupposed in his very suggestion.

Let us leave aside his use of a Western construct of a unified Hinduism to delineate the character of Hinduism as essentially plural. More seriously, the author is blissfully unaware of the totalizing nature of his prognosis that imagines individuals bereft of freedom of belief. What sort of human nature does such a view presuppose? At a personal level, it presupposes that individuals have no freedom of belief and concurrently denies its causal prerequisite—the freedom of conscience. The argument is perhaps that one ought to just take whatever life offers, as one’s karma. While this line of thinking is fine for someone in Cambridge, it doesn’t exactly bargain a rosy picture for a Dalit who is inescapably caught in the viciousness of his karmic thinking.

It was for this reason that Ambedkar argued that change of belief was the only vehicle to escape from awful life conditions. Ambedkar’s thinking affirmed that religious beliefs have socio-ethical implications. At a systemic level, curtailing of religious liberty and controlling of one’s beliefs are best seen as instruments to subjugate an already oppressed people.

A closer look at the question of religious liberty informs us that our view about it stems essentially from how we construe our nature as human beings. The secular system, which Prabhu rightly credits as being rooted in the Judeo-Christian theology, defines humans as possessing essential freedoms. The reason why religious liberty is central to the freedom of conscience is precisely because, religious beliefs, more often than not, function as core beliefs that define who we are, in terms of our origin, purpose, morality, and destiny. If there is such a thing as ‘freedom of conscience’ that is worth its salt, it has to include religious liberty.

Any form of control over beliefs would amount to repression of the freedom of conscience. In fact, the freedom a) to speech and expression, b) to assemble peaceably that are guaranteed in Article 19, presupposes freedom of conscience and freedom to believe. That is, freedom of speech & expression and freedom to assemble have no meaning unless there is freedom to hold beliefs that one is persuaded to believe in.

Further, the Ambedkar/Nehruvian construct of the secular state is not a result of the “disdain for Hindu traditions” as Prabhu claims; rather, it is a pragmatic proposal of what they believed as the best possible vehicle for justice and fairness to all, especially for the lower castes and the Dalits. In their opinion, true equality was not conceivable generically from within our soil. (I presume that Prabhu would not throw out the notion of equitability itself as a secular imposition upon the Dharmic faiths.) How else would Nehru and Ambedkar ensure any sense of equality to the 60% of the population comprising 40% OBCs and 20% Dalits, except through a liberal understanding of justice?

To be fair to the Nehruvian blueprint for the nation, one could ask what other systems could have worked equitably to the whole population of a newly founded nation whose diversity is unmatched anywhere else in the world. Regardless of the moral order presupposed in a secular constitution, our quest ought to be moderated by the question, “what is the right thing to do?” In short, a moral order is not to be pronounced wrong, merely because it has Semitic origins. It would be wrong only to those who would otherwise benefit by power and caste equations and thus hesitate to imagine about equality outside their thinking boxes.

Epistemology: On Opinion, Belief and Knowledge

Before we understand how we know what we know we can begin by distinguishing between opinion, belief and knowledge—all of which seem to indicate a certain way we hold an idea or a belief. An easy way to distinguish between them is to compare them on a grid against 2 variables: a) whether it is subjective or objective and b) on the sense of certitude.

Objective/subjective Sense of Certitude
Opinion Subjective Low
Belief Subjective High
Knowledge Objective High

Opinions are generally held loosely with a low sense of certitude. They are also subjectively held and need not be shared by others. They could be about preferences for a certain type of music, or tastes pertaining to food, or views about politics or a particular sport. It would really be silly to argue against my friend’s opinion that the best dosas are made in Bangalore. And even if I were to argue that the best ones are made in Chennai, our positions merely indicate what our preferences are rather than the “truth” about it.

Beliefs, on the other hand, are subjective (in that they are primarily held by an individual and are not verified by any objective method of verification), nevertheless they are high on the sense of certitude. It is important to remember that certitude does not mean infallibility; rather it merely indicates how sure one feels about one’s beliefs. Of course, someone could also hold a ‘belief’ loosely. But we shall retain the term opinion for such, irrespective of what is held—be it something as insignificant as a preference for certain food or something as significant as an article of religious faith. A belief, therefore, would be characterised by something stronger, and in some cases, it could be so strong that we may call it conviction. Despite how significant it may be for someone, a belief has nothing in itself that makes it necessarily true—neither the sense of certitude accompanying a belief nor the total sincerity with which a belief is held can assure the truth of the belief.

Unlike opinion or belief, Knowledge, especially propositional knowledge (we aren’t talking about knowledge in the sense of an ability or a skill but a statement or an affirmation that is either true or false) is a belief that can be verified and understandably carries with it a high sense of certitude. In fact, a classical account of knowledge defines it as “justified true belief.” By that definition, knowledge has to fulfil the criteria: a) of being a belief, b) of being true, and c) of being justified.

However, what constitutes as justification of a belief in order for it to be considered knowledge? There are many ways in which one can justify a belief. I can do so on the basis of evidence of my senses, as in, “I see that the car is red and therefore I know it is red” or appeal to reason, as in, the statement that “‘this is a car’ and ‘this is not a car’ cannot both be true at the same time in the same sense” or appeal to an authoritative testimony as in, “I know that Mahatma Gandhi was born on October 2, because the text book says it.” So then, we find justification for our beliefs in all manner of ways.

Knowledge, by definition is true and there cannot be false knowledge. Knowledge also requires that one believes it. However, there may be cases where we revise what was thought to be knowledge. Normally, when there is a revision of what once was falsely considered knowledge, we merely state that we once believed it as “x” but now we know it as “y”. That is, despite the objective nature of knowledge and the sense of certitude accompanying it, it need not be infallible.

Gettier Problem: Knowledge should account for more than merely obtaining a true belief. That is, if true knowledge is arrived at accidentally or merely by luck, it poses problems to a knowledge claim. In 1963, Edmond Gettier raised this problem in his short paper. He presented several cases where one held a justified belief, yet the belief was true purely by chance. For example: Let us imagine that you walk towards the SAIACS lawn early on a misty November morning when you see a great number of egrets sitting on the lawn. You have counted 35 of them. However, in the way you counted, you really missed one egret but nevertheless got the number right since you mistakenly counted a white cloth lying in the distance as an egret. This seems to suggest that knowledge cannot just be ‘justified true belief’.

Question for my Class: How will you respond to the Gettier problem?

Background Culture and Democratic Ideals

The belief that humans are free and equal, having intrinsic worth is taken for granted today—be it our socio-political theories, or democratic imaginations, or our constitutional laws! However, in reality, this is not a belief shared by all, nor is it innate to human imagination. Aristotle intuitively reasoned as follows: “But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature? — There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and other be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” Consequently, he argued that it is natural that Hellenes should rule over barbarians and men over women.

Yet, today, thanks to the demands of political correctness, even those who don’t believe it pretend to believe it just the same! While reason may function as a vehicle to make sense of egalitarianism, it is not a belief derivable via rational or logical deduction. What then should we make of the American Declaration of Independence which holds that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” as being “self-evident”?

Historically, the belief that every individual, irrespective of race, gender, ethnicity or nationality, shares an intrinsic value as a human being has been seriously questioned. Hitler’s genocide of the physically and mentally disabled and his ethnic cleansing of the Jews are not the only times in history where the intrinsic worth of humans has been defied. The myriad other cases of mass murders and ethnic cleansing of tribes and religious minorities, in the past and today, are often advanced by the underlying belief that one race or group is superior to the other.

Given this propensity to view races and groups hierarchically, any democracy, worth its salt, will necessarily have to enforce a view of the human that affirms intrinsic worth to each individual irrespective of race, religion, caste, or economic background. It undoubtedly is to the advantage of the state to have its background cultural and predominant religious doctrine eschew egalitarianism, making it “self-evident.” This allows the democratic machinery of the state to harness it towards a healthy expression of a plurality of views (including of those that oppose egalitarianism) and representations within the state.

However, for those cultures where the predominant background culture conflicts with egalitarian ethos, it makes the democratic functioning all the more challenging. Understandably, where the popular religious and cultural doctrines promote inequality and disparity, the state’s task becomes an arduous one, in that it has to uphold ideals against the popular beliefs of its population. Given this reality, the case of Indian democracy, which for practical reasons has adopted a democratic structure, needs a sympathetic evaluation. The law cannot deliver beyond what it can! It is pointless to demand of a people a behavior fitting to the spirit of the constitution, without changing what Alexis de Tocqueville calls, “the habits of the heart.” As Dr. Ambedkar astutely observed: “Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realize that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic.”

When we Become Slaves to an Idea of Freedom

There is a subtle difference between decriminalization of a moral behavior that is socially contested and the legalization of it. Earlier I had argued that the Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code should not criminalize homosexual behavior as it was a question pertaining to freedom of conscience that did not significantly affect public order among the citizens. (a case to the converse may be legitimately made about health and morality). However, it would be shortsighted to conclude that our personal freedom always overrides all other social compulsions.

An inevitable part of the social evolution in democratic contexts is the demand for greater personal freedoms– demand for legalization of prostitution or homosexual marriages or legal access to mind altering drugs, abortion rights, etc. The push seems to be towards greater personal freedoms– to do whatever one wishes with oneself so long as it does not affect other individuals. Such a push is loaded with problematic anthropological assumptions, that needs to be historically situated. It instances human social propensity to run into larger subsequent problems in the effort to escape a visible problem. Undoubtedly, a democratic society would have to uphold individual freedoms simply because the very idea of democracy is undergirded by a strong notion of individual freedom. That is, if there is no personal freedom, there is no democracy.

However, there is another side to this story: recognition of an equally important polarity on the other side of the spectrum that people in a society should honor—the question of corporate responsibility. It may be unfashionable to say anything that even remotely competes with the notion of individual freedom and the assumption that personal autonomy overrides all other compulsions. However, as “autonomy/autos-nomos” indicates self-governance; when applied to individuals, it has the potential to degenerate to where one becomes a law unto oneself.

Our notion of personal freedom is often derived from within a framework of a) defining who we are as humans and b) what it means to be individuals in the world. These are two equally important factors: 1. Individuality— which emphasizes personal freedoms, allow us to believe, say, and do what we want. 2. Being in the world emphasizes the reality that we share the world with others and are, therefore, accountable to communities. Every society (not just the land of the free and home of the brave!), is moving from being communities to being autonomous individuals—thanks to the ever-dominant influence of modernity! But when a culture is obsessed with personal freedom where each and every question is raised, argued and defended from a certain notion of freedom, that notion of freedom may have very well enslaved the culture. It has become common to demand personal freedom at any cost, often forgetting that each individual also carries a corporal responsibility.

While the earlier emphasis on communal life often constricted individuals into social conformity, modern autonomy frees us to the opposite extreme—self-obsessed, cloisters with no social connections or obligations. Both are problematic! Likewise, an emphasis on freedom at the expense of communal accountability and the emphasis on communality at the expense of personal freedom—both enslave us and the society will pay for it sooner or later. It is crucial therefore to keep the balance. Let our idea of freedom then be tempered by the idea of communal accountability.