Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Biblical Paradox?

[UPDATE: This post suffers from some cyber leprosy that I cannot seem to get rid of without a Ph.D. in HTML.  Still, we are called to love the lepers even if hating the leprosy.]

Philippians 2:3 is an interesting verse, but the last part of it is difficult (for me) to understand, and, at least as it is often translated, could easily be interpreted as paradoxical.

NIV: Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, rather in humility value others above yourselves

ESV: ... count others more significant than yourselves
NASB: ...regard one another as more important than yourselves
KJB: ...let each esteem other better than themselves

Let us for the moment understand "regarding one as" as "believing one is". And let us suppose additionally that Paul is saying that humility consists in considering or believing another is more valuable, important, esteemed, and significant than oneself, and let us suppose that a Christian community should believe Philippians 2:3 and understand it in this way.  Then here is a paradox:

Suppose our Christian community consists of only three members, Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Peter considers Paul and Mary more valuable/important/esteemed/significant than himself.  Paul considers Peter and Mary more V/I/E/S than himself.  And so forth.  Now add that Peter knows that Paul and Mary disagree with him about his own value/importance/esteem/worth.  And Paul knows that Mary and Peter disagree with him about his own V/I/E/S and the same goes with Mary.  Presumably each values the others' opinions at least as much, if not more than, his/her own (superiority would presumably include another's mental life). 

Now for the paradox.
Let "p" be the proposition that others are more V/I/E/S than myself.

And add the following principle: 
R: It is not possible for a person S to be justified in believing p when S is justified in believing that other (cognitively) superior people disagree with S about p

Let us suppose that each believes this reasonable principle.  Then we're faced with a paradox.  Our Christian community believes Philippians 2:3 as we've interpreted it, and thus believes that they should believe, p, that the others are more valuable.  But they also believe the above principle R and know that the others are justified in believing that p is false.  Thus, they should and should not believe p.

Do we have here "another" Biblical contradiction?  I don't think so. But perhaps we do have a decent argument for thinking that we shouldn't hold that humility consists in believing others are (cognitively) superior to ourselves. If everyone believed that it would be intellectual suicide.

Was it C.S. Lewis who said that humility consists not in thinking less of yourself but in thinking of yourself less? At any rate, he did say this:
Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, swarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seems a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
Excellent words. Hard words.  How does one (a) not think about oneself and (b) treat others with more regard if one doesn't believe that others are more valuable?  An act of self-deception?  Perhaps we can learn to care more about the concerns of others out of our for God who is of infinite worth, and when this becomes habitual, we will no longer think of ourselves.

Could an atheist, then, be completely selfless?

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