At our autumn 2022 conference, we learned about the school of Abraham. Among other things, Abraham exemplifies critical thinking and action. He exposed the foundational assumptions of the Chaldean religion and then, by contrast, came to know true basic beliefs and then changed his life to live accordingly.
We often have a very simple view of polytheism. And like all religions, the largest portion of religious adherents are generally thoughtless and uncritical about their beliefs. Such persons might believe that there is actually a human-shaped Zeus living on top of Mount Olympus and throwing lightning bolts at people he doesn’t like. This is easy to disapprove and so it leaves people thinking polytheism wasn’t much of an intellectual threat. At the popular level, no religion is much of an intellectual threat. But even today, many intellectuals subscribe to the basic beliefs of polytheism.
The Chaldean religion involved much more than that simple polytheism of earth and sky, sun and moon worship. It was a teaching about the animating force behind all life, the eternal fire from which all things proceed and for which the sun is a representative, the journey of the soul from its pre-existence and then into the body and then climbing the spiritual ladder back to its original home in unity with the highest being. The various gods are personifications of forces found in this eternal being. The most known of the gods was the father, mother, and child, through which unity and salvation were represented to the people.
How could Abraham know these religious beliefs were false? He didn’t have the Bible. He may have had oral traditions from others like Shem, but why believe those? If he heard a voice calling him to leave Ur why should he believe it? How would he know what to believe? Abraham used reason to examine the basic beliefs of his city’s religion. That is the critical use of reason. And then, he changed his life according to what he found, which is critical thinking in action.
Abraham could know that the creation was not an emanation from the eternal being. He could know that the material world is not the result of evil. He could know that the soul did not preexist the body. And he could know that the soul’s highest good is in this world, not away from it. How can you know these things? Can you give arguments to show each of those truths?