A rabbi, a priest, and an atheist walk into a ... garage


(Mervin Bitikofer) #1

That is how Dave Rubin began his lively December discussion [well -okay; he referred to himself as a ‘comedian’, but he also seems to identify himself as a friendly unbeliever] in this Rubin Report with Bishop Robert Barron and Rabbi David Wolpe. It’s about a lot of great topics that intersect with things we all like to talk about here. It’s very well done and was an hour well-spent (a bit less watching at faster speed) watching three people excellently model how to have good discussion and interaction. I’m curious what others here may think of it.

I’ll be on the road the next couple of days and so may not be responding much here. Merry Christmas everyone!


(Phil) #2

Merry Christmas and safe journeys!


(Mervin Bitikofer) #3

Those discussing Jordan Peterson in other threads may be interested to know that he gets some approving mention by Barron toward the beginning of this interview.

Did anybody pick up on the ‘Cut Flower Ethics’? I thought that was an interesting metaphor (from 20th century Jewish philosopher Will Herberg - a lightning rod of a subject himself, apparently). The charge was that … sure a cut flower can be beautiful for a while, the implication being that non-religious people can be good and ethical individuals, but their passion for ethics does not historically appear to be effectively transmittable to subsequent generations, and therefore non-sustainable. A flower removed from its grounding soil can be beautiful in a vase for a while, but it soon fades. They suggest that without grounded ethics, all other areas of the academy are likewise imperiled. So on behalf of those here who will understandably challenge this … can secularism become [to add my own extended metaphor into this] the necessary ‘hydroponics farm’? These two religious leaders appear to answer that: ‘no’ - the organic soil is necessary; but I think it’s still an interesting question to pursue further here.

Among the things that probably get the bishop and maybe the rabbi too into hot water with doctrinal police is their willingness to see a generously wide range of entry points from which a person may come to find truth. Barron refers to Peterson having provocative new perspectives on the Bible that are connecting with many, and while he doesn’t say then that such people are getting all they need from this or that popular figure, Barron nevertheless welcomes all such engagement as a beginning of a fruitful quest. And he refers to the passionate ethics of figures like Sam Harris in a similar manner, seeing in fact a “prophetic” passion in play that must come from God - apparent non-belief notwithstanding. So in these senses, I think this couple of religious leaders are at least trying to be friendly, ecumenical, or at least non-dismissive of non-faith traditions.

[And it isn’t just the religious leaders taking heat here … I believe Dave too is probably catching heat from his own fan base about being too friendly or conceding too much ground to these representative of established religion too. I think he stated as much here. Reaching out in productive ways will generate heat. I’m glad they all are willing to live with that.]


(Randy) #4

@Mervin_Bitikofer, thanks for this podcast. I found it very interesting! As many said, the congenial interaction among all 3 was refreshing.

A couple of memorable quotes: 1) An argument is an effort to convince yourself you are right
2) "My mother was his hero. Every time he came home from Seder (religious school), she asked him, “What questions did you ask?”–I just shared this with my 10 year old tonight and told him I’d start asking him that in addition to how his school went!

It was also an interesting discussion about Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Do you think that such a culture is possible, where Soma dulls the senses and we no longer seek to apprehend reality? It sounds more like lotus eaters or skunk smokers–that don’t care about going to work. It seems to me that we have basic needs that, if met by artificial ones, will lead to the demise of a society rather than a crippled one that lives on.


(Randy) #5

Rabbi Wolpe and Father Barron agreed on another point that was very interesting–moderns aren’t allowed to be happy. We are told that if we suffer from anything, we have to be unhappy about it; if I understood it right. We have not learned to be content with difficult time. In comparing how they address evil we can’t understand,

–Barron said that it is sometimes helpful to just have someone from religion say “I don’t know why, either.”
–Wolpe said that people invariably ask him, “why me?” He responded that he also doesn’t know “why him”–why was he born to parents that loved him, or in the richest country in the world.
–Rubin admitted that when a couple met him at an event, who had had terrible things happen (father died in the last week, husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and wife was pregnant with a baby who was congenitally malformed so much that s/he could not survive), he didn’t know what to say, so he said (I can’t recall which)–God bless you, or I am praying for you.

It was good to see such humility modeled from all three individuals.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #6

I remember that conversation too. He had replied “God bless you” because he didn’t know what else to say. We wouldn’t want to read too much into that I’m sure. The integrity of Dave’s unbelief shouldn’t be said to rise or fall on a couple words he utters when otherwise at loss for words. He too was steeped in cultural tradition regarding what sorts of things we have on our menu to say to a sufferer in front of us. I strongly suspect that nobody from any intellectual / religious corner has any monopoly on good offerings that are permanently immune from becoming trite cliches on our lips.


(Randy) #7

Thanks. I would agree–I am certain that it didn’t change his belief; I just thought it was interesting that the religious ones said they didn’t know the reason; and the atheist also appealed to the intangible.


(Cindy) #8

Thanks for sharing this, I enjoyed listening to their conversation. I too like the cut flower analogy. What struck me most, and perhaps this is because of where I am at on my journey, was the priest’s often mentioned “truth” in religion. To me, there are two types of truths. One is based on facts and one is based on belief. I can insist that things that are fact based are true but I can’t insist on my beliefs being true. I see no point in debating things that are not falsifiable. Discuss them, sure-explain how your beliefs improve your life and give you hope, great! But argue? I don’t think so. I see no value in that.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #9

Thanks for your comments, Cindy.

So can you insist on the facts that you believe to be true? … or … how can you believe something apart from insisting that it’s true? Those are rhetorical responses and semantics games, to be sure. But it does get at something. And yet I think I understand the distinction you point towards too. I just think it ends up being messier since we (in my view) don’t have direct access to facts unfiltered or unmolested by our worldview. So I guess I push back a little by seeing blur where others want a fine, but clear demarcation. Some beliefs come with more universal accessibility to evidence than other beliefs do. And yet even that acknowledgement of gradation does not escape the charge that it is a belief that I hold. “2+2=4” and “the earth is roughly round” may seem like pure enough facts, but they don’t get referenced here (or anywhere) without a worldview context, and if they were shorn of that, they would become stripped of such meaning as had made them facts in our heads to begin with. “Knowing”, like belief is always an activity with context. It can’t exist otherwise - at least not in anyway I can imagine in our everyday human world.

I hope I didn’t come across as argumentative above! Hopefully it qualified as discussion. Even though I am prone to argumentative discourse too often, I do think I share in what I take to be your aversion to argument that strays far into disputable areas. As soon as it becomes a point-scoring exercise (even over what we take to be factual turf), my aversion extends there as well.


(Cindy) #10

Yes, I believe that we are pretty much on the same page. No, you did not come across as argumentative. Thank-you for your thoughtful response.

The English language is a funny thing, it seems to either have too many or too few words to describe a thing. In this case, I think too few. It seems like there should be two words for “truth”. One word for truth that we can discuss fully with anybody because the proof of it can be seen and shown simply by being human. i.e. Water always tends to pool at a lower spot. A fact that I can demonstratively show anyone by simply taking them to my back yard!

The other word for something that I may believe just as strongly to be true but am unable to provide any demonstrative proof for. i.e. I believe that I have a Higher Power, whom I call God, watching over me. I do not quite know yet why or what exactly He wants of me but I feel quite certain that He is there. This fact, I have no way of providing any kind of proof for other than experience. My experiences can not be replicated therefore they can not be tested.

I think that I have seen people try to use adjectives to describe these two different kinds of truths. They tend to be mocked for doing so though, which is sad.


(Christy Hemphill) #11

Linguistic nerd tangent. Some languages have elements called epistemics that you use to indicate how sure you are what you are saying is true. Others have evidentials that indicate the source of your knowledge, and in some languages, in order for a sentence to be grammatical, you have to encode the source of your knowledge; like direct observation, hearsay, deduction.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #12

Perhaps there are some under-used assets the English language may have on offer towards this, but we sure have taken the words we do have and managed to make them ambiguous.

E.g. It’s a source of fascination to me that the first of the following three sentences would actually express the most confidence.

  1. She went to the library yesterday.
  2. I’m sure she went to the library yesterday!
  3. I’m certain she went to the library yesterday!

[you have to imagine saying the last two sentences with the proper inflection and puzzled emphasis on the first qualifying words, as if you’re trying to convince yourself and others of the fact after it has apparently been challenged by someone or something so as to put it in doubt. Otherwise the last two sentences could be read in the same matter-of-fact way as the 1st one to express the same level of certainty.]


(Mark D.) #13

Linguistics is an area in which I have no talent and little knowledge, but lots of interest. Quite a while back I read a book titled something like “Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way”. I found it fascinating. Anytime you want to point out interesting things you notice I will be appreciative.


(Christy Hemphill) #14

Intonation is a big part of English pragmatics. So you can change the meaning of a sentence just with intonation.

Speaking of ambiguity, here’s some neat examples I found contrasting root modals and epistemic modals in English. In the first sentences the modals have ability or obligation meaning and in the second sentence the modal is used as an epistemic to mitigate certainty. English is hard.

Sarah can be very good at this.
Sarah can’t be very good at this.

Frank must think of a good excuse.
Frank must be thinking of a good excuse.

They must leave at two o’clock.
They must have left at two o’clock.

We should arrive by midday in order to be there in time for lunch.
We should arrive by midday unless the car breaks down.


(Cindy) #15

Indeed! In High School I took Latin because I needed to get away from the German teacher. I really did not expect to learn it well but to my great surprise; I actually did well! I credit the teacher as she seemed to not be willing to except anything less from me but I also credit the language itself. I remember it making sense to me. I’m thinking about taking it at JMU so that I can read the works of Thomas Aquinas as well as the writings of the Latin Fathers. As much as I’d like to learn Greek and Hebrew; I know that my dyslexic brain would rebel!

We could do that as well with English by using adjectives or adverbs depending on how the sentence is structured, People have to be willing to first accept that there are different sources to knowledge. Some Conservative Christians refuse to accept Science as a valid source for truth while many Scientists refuse to consider anything that they can not test as having any value.


(Randy) #16

Very well put!

I really struggle about this. I think that some agnostics and atheists don’t care whether we think we’ve heard from God; but the thing that they are concerned about is whether, if they don’t have that witness to tell them what we heard (or is in the Bible), we hold them accountable for believing without basis. For example, why would God hold them responsible for not believing or understanding a plan of salvation that is only backed up by a book from ancient time? (by the way, I’m a Christian, too). I think, after reading George Macdonald, Greg Boy and others, that God would actually be on their side. He holds us accountable only for what we can know or understand. I appreciate Greg Boyd in “The Benefit of the Doubt,” where he encourages us to remember that God values the use of the brains He gave us.

And that idea that God is just actually helps me with one of my own deeply held concerns about God–if he’s not just, how can he be God? Rachel Held Evans once wrote that it’s hard to motivate oneself to search for a God that isn’t good–so this helps with one other objection.

I enjoy the language stuff, by the way; it really helps with nuances and meaning.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #17

I felt a lot smarter after just reading that sentence out loud, and then even smarter yet after I made the obligatory dictionary consultations. I do think I understand your examples now, and do see how much we native speakers take our knowledge of various contexts and syllabic emphases for granted.

My younger son, who spent time living in Peru with a non-English speaking family and got himself fluent in Spanish, still insists (to my surprise) that he doesn’t think English is harder to learn than Spanish. For one thing, one doesn’t just easily pick up a single new vocabulary word without (in the case of verbs) having to learn a whole handful of different forms of it, which in many cases have non-rule following cases of their own. Not to mention all the gender specificity that mostly gets left out of English. Whereas I spent most of my high school Spanish days being impressed at how consistently (compared to English) so many things did follow rules, so that learning to pronounce Spanish was a gloriously simple matter. But I guess he would probably have a better idea than I do by now about all the other facets of comprehension. He’s the one who also was enamored with the concept of Esperanto and taught himself a lot of that (but probably has lost it for lack of people to practice it with).

Anyway – thanks for the nerd tangent. Always welcome!


(Mervin Bitikofer) #18

I think that is a much needed insight (coupled with your earlier comments about being willing to allow for different levels of certainty within the corpus of what we call ‘knowledge’ as well.) Western civilization has had a long love affair with the written word, and starting not too long after, an additional love affair with empirical testability which eroded our veneration of that former mistress. But we probably shouldn’t forget that the printed word too was a new thing once that wooed us away from other things like orally transmitted traditions. And while those are demonstrably not of best reliability, it is still quite a stretch to insist then that they were never reliable about anything. Our all-or-nothing thinking does not serve us well as we look back on all this.


(John Dalton) #19

It’s a “truth for me” :slight_smile: How would it constitute a “truth” otherwise? It basically seems synonymous with a belief, or a deeply-help belief.

That’s about the size of it! I recognize that people may have a lot of reasons for believing in various things. To me, if it’s reasonable for someone to “believe” something, it’s also reasonable for someone else to disbelieve it, by definition of believe. If we talk about what we “know”, now we’re talking about something different. If we know something, it’s unreasonable to reject it. Thus, we should be careful about using terms such as “truth”. If truth isn’t something that we know, what is? The implication of truth is that I should believe it and am unreasonable in not doing so. For my part, I expect some kind of convincing demonstration in that case.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #20

My first reaction is to rebel against what you say here. But you get support from some pretty high places. From NRSV Romans 8:

Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.