Victory or Defeat

Earlier we commented briefly on this passage in Fr. Harrison’s essay on bomb shelter theology:

We can imagine a scenario in which, with the further advance of technology, space-ships can not only photograph, but also visit, the craters. But as the first landing-craft approaches the crater-floor, disaster strikes! As it descends past the rim of the crater, still 400 feet above ground-level, the craft is rocked by a resounding SPLASH! The crew feel first their boots, then their trousers and other clothes, soaked by a rising inundation of … water no human eye can see! With the whole of planet earth watching in horror on television, the craft takes its passengers to an invisible watery grave; but the last words transmitted to earth by the doomed radio-man before his equipment sputters out remain forever engraved on the memory of the human race: “The water! It’s (gulp) – it’s (glug) – SALTY!!” For the faithful, victory has indeed been snatched from the jaws of defeat: the naked Emperor turns out to be clothed in splendor and majesty after all. The only moon-water believers who seem slightly embarrassed in the midst of this spectacular triumph are the more radically progressive bomb-shelter theologians, who have for years been teaching the new generation of clergy not to be so naive as to anticipate this kind of outcome from the long-awaited crater-landing. It had become axiomatic in such sophisticated circles that moon-water is to be understood as not only invisible, but also intangible.

Fr. Harrison says that in this scenario, “For the faithful, victory has indeed been snatched from the jaws of defeat,” and characterizes the incident as a “spectacular triumph.”

Let’s compare this again with the quotation from Plato’s Gorgias which I mentioned at the time:

And what is my sort? you will ask. I am one of those who are very willing to be refuted if I say anything which is not true, and very willing to refute any one else who says what is not true, and quite as ready to be refuted as to refute; for I hold that this is the greater gain of the two, just as the gain is greater of being cured of a very great evil than of curing another.

These are two very different ways of framing similar situations. For Fr. Harrison, why does he talk of triumph, or victory and defeat? Who is conquering and who is being conquered, and how does this happen? Basically this corresponds to talk of people “winning” and “losing” a debate. The faithful triumph over the unfaithful in the situation under discussion because the believers are proved to have been right about the moon water, and the unbelievers wrong, much as someone who wins a debate triumphs over his partner either by proving him wrong, or at least by making stronger and more convincing arguments.

For Socrates, on the other hand, at least in this passage, a discussion is not a debate where one person is trying to conquer another person. The purpose is to gain the truth. Socrates continues, “For I imagine that there is no evil which a man can endure so great as an erroneous opinion about the matters of which we are speaking.” The discussion is a collaborative effort to gain the truth, and not a question of one or the other person “winning.” Success means reaching the truth, no matter which partner ends up changing their mind, or even if both must change their minds.

In a debate, on the contrary, the purpose is not to establish the truth. I can win a debate without the truth, if my arguments are so convincing that my opponent concedes that he cannot reply to them, while I can give apparently good responses to all of his points. A debate is more like an athletic contest, and winning and losing exist in both in similar ways. By winning the debate or the athletic contest, I establish myself as the better man and my opponent as the inferior one. The real purpose here is status. Thus, proving that a religion is false would be a defeat for believers by lowering their status relative to unbelievers, and proving it true would be a victory for believers by raising their status relative to unbelievers.

For Socrates, in contrast, whoever passes from error to truth has attained a great victory, and a much better one than the supposed victory of the person who showed him that he was in error.

Concerns about status are not necessarily concerns about one’s own personal status. Thus for example we might consider this passage from 1st Maccabees:

The king’s officers who were enforcing the apostasy came to the town of Modein to make them offer sacrifice. Many from Israel came to them; and Mattathias and his sons were assembled. Then the king’s officers spoke to Mattathias as follows: “You are a leader, honored and great in this town, and supported by sons and brothers. Now be the first to come and do what the king commands, as all the Gentiles and the people of Judah and those that are left in Jerusalem have done. Then you and your sons will be numbered among the Friends of the king, and you and your sons will be honored with silver and gold and many gifts.”

But Mattathias answered and said in a loud voice: “Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to obey his commandments, every one of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors, I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors. Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.”

I think it would be an excessively modern understanding to suppose that Mattathias is saying here, “The teachings of our religion are true, and therefore we cannot abandon them.” The contrast with the behavior of the Gentiles and the other nations under the rule of the king is instructive. Even if they “have chosen to obey his commandments, every one of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors, I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors.” Why does Mattathias mention the fact that the nations are “abandoning the religion of their ancestors,” in contrast to his own behavior?

If Mattathias simply believes that the teachings of his own religion are true, and the teachings of the religions of other nations false, then it would be appropriate for him to maintain his own religion, but it would be equally appropriate for the nations to abandon theirs. Instead, he appears to imply that abandoning the religion of one’s ancestors is a bad thing no matter what, that it is a bad thing on the part of the other nations, and that it would be a bad thing if he did it himself.

The concern seems to be that abandoning the religion of one’s ancestors is dishonoring one’s ancestors. The other nations are giving in to the king and dishonoring their ancestors, but we will not do that, instead choosing to maintain the honor which is due to our ancestors. This is not necessarily a bad motive on the part of Mattathias. As we saw elsewhere, asking whether one should practice a religion is not the same as asking whether certain teachings are true. It might be perfectly reasonable to say that I should practice the religion of my ancestors in order to give them due honor, even if they might have believed some things that were not true.

A similar concern is probably frequently involved in the idea that true religious doctrines should be things that are passed down from the distant past. If we accept the doctrine of the astronauts that no water can be seen on the moon, this will dishonor our traditions and our ancestors. The problem is that while the desire to honor one’s ancestors may be morally praiseworthy, it does not make it any more likely that their beliefs were actually true. And due to the nature of progress in truth, it is often the case that newer doctrines are truer than older ones.


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