Archive for October, 2009

I submit that perspective is half the battle. Those of us trading comments on this blog are  similar  in the sense that we are sufficiently interested to comment in ethical or religious matters.  We are perhaps of the more sensitive sort, being oriented behind the lining of an existence that others take at face value and simply live out.  So when I’m reading a comment here, I don’t really stop to ask..is this person Catholic? The differences between our vantage-points within this domain are dwarfed by how different we are from those people who are primarily interested in what the stock market is doing today or who is playing tomorrow. Too often in religious discussions, we lose sight of this distance and overstate the extent of our own differences. That there isn’t more fellow-feeling simply a grace de our shared interest in the domain suggests to me that we might be taking the obvious for granted. A shared recognition of our domain-interest could act as a check on the overstating of differences that is unfortunately typical in interreligious dialogue. 

Just as a spiritual pursuit involves assuming a perspective that includes transcending our realm, interreligious dialogue has as its perspective the distance existing between the table and the stock-ticker or sports stadium.   Concentrating on maintaining such a perspective can draw on the same sort of concentration that one uses to transcend the world in entering into a religious experience.   I don’t think, however, that the religious perspective of transcendence of this realm is suffiicent for interreligious dialogue.  Hence, I add here an inter-domain perspective wherein all participants at the table are essentially one point in being sufficiently interested in religion as distinct from other competing domains such as government, business, hollywood and sports.  Viewing the chasm existing between these domains and religion,  one’s perspective changes regarding the other people sitting at the table of interreligious dialogue.  Suddenly nuanced differences in cognitive beliefs or rites become less important as we gain a sense of being on the same planet of religiosity. 

Gaining and achieving perspective is at least half the battle.  One could call this: having a sense of what really matters rather than trying to get everything one wants.  Too often, religious discussion is simply an exchange of veiled self-centeredness.  So humility is perhaps the rest of the battle.

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The religious vs. spiritual debate is perhaps a modern one.  I suspect that the ancients and medievals would tell us that we are making much ado about nada.  Institutional religions, of course, would say that sprituality exists within them; they could also point to explicit spirituality programs. Christianity, for example, goes to the extent of proclaiming the work of the Holy Spirit, a person or manifestation of God,  in the Church as well as in the individual members. 

In short, I think the distinction between a religious and a spiritual person has been overdrawn, and has perhaps been fueled by prejudice against “the other side.”  When a person says “I am religious,” it can be taken to mean that that person is a spiritual person, and vice versa.  People without an agenda do not fret so about any proclaimed distinction.  That is, I suspect that in modern parlance, the two terms blur together even if some have a vested interest in seeing that they are pried apart.  I think historically this has been the case, though for people in the profession spirituality has referred to something within the religion.  To say that now such spirituality no longer needs the roof of an institution is not to say that being spiritual is not religious.   If there is a distinction to be made, it could be that spirituality refers to one’s inner feeling or experience while religion refers to the sphere or domain (e.g., the field) in which it is taking place (i.e., institutional or not).  By analogy, politics goes on in the political realm.   Or, politics is an activity in the civic domain.   How much difference is there between politics and civics?  The particular polity, ecclesiastical or civic, does not seem all that relevant here.

Also, I think the distinction between following the beliefs promulgated by an organized religion versus one’s own idiosyncratic beliefs is overdrawn as well.  With few exceptions, I bet that most people who identify themselves with a particular organized religion have their own take, or interpretation, hence the “collective vs. idiosyncratic” distinction is, I would argue, overdrawn.  Even people who view their religious beliefs as idiosyncratic must surely have imbibed to some extent collective beliefs, even if unconsciously.   Finally, the quality of the beliefs–and more importantly the faith (which is not necessarily cognitive)–is more important, I would argue, than whether they are shared in common or idiosyncratic.  That quality, I submit, is <em>sui generis</em> in the sense that a faith, whether you want to call it religious or spiritual, is oriented beyond the limits of our world.  Besides being of value in itself, this transcendent nature of religious faith or spirituality means that we, ourselves, cannot be the focal object.  In fact, the object cannot be known or perceived in itself; only its immanence can be felt.  To sense the real in our world even as one grasps or is oriented to the transcendent is, I submit for your consideration, the core of religious spirituality or spiritual religion.   Put another way, a person who feels herself spiritual and a person who feels himself religious are much more alike in these respects than they are to a person who really doesn’t give a damn about either being religious or spiritual.    A person can be spiritual or religious and yet not take so seriously the sort of pretended minute distinctions that have historically sparked war.   I suspect that if one really is spiritual or religious, he or she would naturally transcend meaningless distinctions, which would otherwise be felt as an inconvenient distraction.  The implication regarding those who insist that we make the distinction is…well, you can connect the dots here.

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Delimiting Religion

After reading my post on Scientology, a man wrote me to express his opinion that Scientology “has very little to do with religion.”  What, I thought to myself, disqualifies a proclaimed religion from being widely accepted as one? 

In the case of Scientology, the means, or “audit,” is bascially psychological in nature.  The practice consists of two people sitting down together.  One questions the other using a sequence of questions geared to helping the other one to be free of his or her frightful memories.   Once freed from one’s fears from past tramas, one can partake in an experience that can be said to transcend the realm of our ordinary experience.  I am not myself a Scientologist, and it has been some years since I read its rather thick book.  In very general terms, my sense is that the means of Scientology can be considered as a form of counseling, while the goal can be labeled religious (although I could be wrong on the latter). 

Perhaps we can generalize to say that something is a religion if either its means or ends involve the practioner ideally transcending “the world.”  Ideally, religion involves transcending the limits of human cognition and perception to an experience geared to the “wholly other,” or “beyond.”   In another post, I argue that it is a mistake to presume we know very much of that which by definition is beyond our limits, and therefore our ken.  I argue that it is the transcending itself (oriented to going beyond what we can know and experience) that is the focus that facilitates the religious experience. 

I submit that the question “is X a religion” can be approached in terms of whether it involves a salient transcendent aspect.   Of course, the question of salience points to the subjective element in answering the broader question.   Furthermore, the tendency of bias is apt to distort a person’s answer.  One might presume an answer without sufficiently studying the candidate.  The vested interests of the leaders of one’s own religion might unduly sway one into a precipitate or premature conclusion.  Prejudice against new movements can also act as a distorting filter. 

In more general terms, the decision of whether something is a religion can be influenced by the mistaken belief that the very act of delimiting religion is not politically correct, and therefore “anything goes.”  At the same time, the decision can also reflect the assumption that one’s own religion is the only true religion.  Both of these assumptions are dogmatic, or artificial.  Their co-existence in one society demonstrates how difficult it can be for a consensus regarding a candidate to emerge.

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The Church of Scientology has been convicted of fraud and fined nearly $900,000 in Europe.  According to the NYT, “the case was brought by two former members who said they were pushed into paying large sums of money in the 1990s, pressed to sign up for expensive “purification courses” and harassed to buy a variety of vitamins and other forms of pharmaceuticals, plus electronic tests to measure spiritual progress. One woman said she had been pressed into spending more than $30,000.”  Meanwhile, in Florida, “the longtime head of Scientology, David Miscavige,” has been investigated for ruling “the church through a ‘culture of intimidation and violence,’ including physical assaults on his aides.” 

These cases raise or demonstrate two lapses to which religion has been susceptable.  In particular, there has been a tendency to blur the line between marketing and the profit-motive and proffering an alternative vision to the world in which we live.   The source of this temptation could be the typical presumption that religion is an institutional phenomenon.  Worship is assumed to be corporate, or communal, and some sort of organization of offices or titles typically ensues.   Such artifacts are all too human, and, I submit, unnecessary and even counter-productive to the achievement of religious experience. 

The second, related, issue is the tendency to vaunt religious functionaries.  This proclivity provides those persons with the temptation to infringe on other people’s personal boundaries.   Behind the excessive praise is the tacit assumption that people differ significantly in a religious sense with respect to God.  That is, coming to view one person as a savior of sorts assumes that he or she has a stronger religiosity such that following him or her could lead one to God.   This assumption runs up against another view–namely, that as human beings, we are all in the same boat as finite beings.  In this alternative view, no one (or several) of us has a monopoly on religious truth.  For one person to seek to authoritatively announce religious truth to another is dogmatic (as well as highly presumptuous).    In other words, among human beings, we can only differentiate ourselves so much with respect to any “inside track” to God.  We all see dimly, with different shades being a far cry from any black and white distinction.   In other words, the distance between Ghandi and a sociopath is dwarfed by the abyss between humanity and God.   Nothing against Ghandi; I’m simply stating that it might be wise to put our hero-worship in some kind of broader, more encompassing, perspective.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/28/world/europe/28france.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=scientology&st=cse

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Someone wrote me to ask me to cite theologians and passages from the bible so it is not just opinion.   I thought it was interesting that he presumed that not only bible verses, but theologians too (and Toto too), instantiate fact, whereas I proffer “just opinion.”   I wonder if he had known that I have a theological book in press at a real publisher, would he consider my quotes from myself to instantiate fact or fiction?  I suppose it would depend on whether he agrees with what is quoted.  

That anyone would consider a theologian’s published interpretation “fact” stupifies me.  I am used to people regarding bible passages thusly, even though they too were written by human beings even if revealed by God.   “Ah,” some of you are saying, “there is his true colors!”  Well, yes.  I do believe that religious texts can be inspired with a spiritual or divine basis, though there is still the matter of the human filter which must write down the words–and then there are the all-too-human copiers over the centuries.  To treat a biblical passage as “fact” is essentally a verdict of one’s own convenience–and is religion reduced to that?  

In any other domain, to treat some human interpretations as “fact” and others as “mere opinion” would be thrown out as poppicock–sheer artifice.   One would wonder if the person had all of his or her marbles.  Yet in religion, such common sense does not necessarily prevail.  It would seem that some people are susceptable to “cognitive misfirings” that under normal circumstances would be diagnosed rather than enabled.   Far from blaming those individuals in that context, I suggest that the problem is in religion itself.  

So here is my question: what is it about religion that prompts or permits such lapses as in treating “favorable” opinions (i.e., to which one agrees) as fact while antithetical stances are deemed “mere opinion” even though both are written or spoken by human beings?  So too, I might add, is the person who deems one opinion as fact and another as mere opinion.   The distinction is being really used as passive aggression, you know.  It is perhaps ironic that such stealth aggression would take place under the rubric of religion, for I believe there is much good possible when humans partake in religious experience.  

So I proffer an investigation separating the wheat from the chaff in religion.  What in particular is behind the false “fact” rendering as well as the presumption that one is in a position to declare only some opinions as facts?   Underneath the problematic declaration is the presumption, which must also be explained in reference to religion.   At the very least, it is ironic, is it not?   But this is merely my opinion, is it not?

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Are people referring to the same thing–do we mean the same thing–when we say or write the word “God”?  I suspect not, but I bet we assume so nonetheless.   It is perhaps a human propensity to assume that others have similar ideas, or at least are using familiar words to mean the same things we understand the words to mean.   I’m not sure that this assumption holds here.   When you use the word “God,” what are you referring to?   For instance, are you referring to the source of existence or to existence itself (see two other posts)?   Are you referring to an intelligent being or to something beyond being a being?   Surprisingly, Christian theologians have debated whether God can be considered to be a being.  I say surprisingly because many people presume that by “God” one means “an intelligent being who created the universe.”  At the risk of it being highly impious to ask, how do you define God?  (as if that to which the word refers can be defined…though I think we do have things in mind about what God is when we use the word).   By defining what God is, I do not mean what God does, unless you want to define God as a function.  For instance, God loves, but God as love is perhaps different or can be distinguished.   In short, what is God?  To what does the word “God” refer?  I bet there are different answers.  If so, we might be erroneously assuming that we are referring to the same thing in using the word.   I bet this is so even within one of the religions that uses the word.  

Here is my version:

God is not an intelligent being because God is not a being as we understand being “a being.” 

God is not the source of existence because nothing can exist beyond existence

God is inherently undefined.  Approximating, “God” stands for all of the dynamics (and each one) in reality that exist and self-regulate without purpose, intent or any external or supervening force (because no other forces or dynamics exist besides it); they simply “are.”  Hence God is not static (but not purposeful either).  For example, I believe that “what goes around, comes around” transcends connections we know of and involves “real dynamics.”  Also, I believe that acting on certain principles, such as “the first are last” and “loving one’s enemy,” has a certain power in terms of the dynamics that are real (i.e., a strength).   The resonance of that power is love or deeply-felt meaningfulness.   Drawbacks: distinguishing good and evil is perhaps insufficient; also, overly intellectual (not stressing the religious feeling).  Any possible definition, I assume, must have drawbacks.  I believe that acknowledging them, if generally done, would make religion far more salubrious amid mankind and reduce strident dogmatism that feeds hubris and divides people.

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Replying both to Davidya and thegodguy under my post on God is Love, I raise the question, which is it?   “Love goes beyond existence” or  “Love has no “being” unless it has existence…”  

I am creating this post because the question is intermixed within others in the comments at the other post.   I suppose the underlying question is: Is God the source of existence or is God existence itself?  In other words, does God go beyond (or before) existence?  If so, how can that of God be said to exist?   This is admittedly a theological conversation, and I put it forward for those interested in participating in the sport. 

Existence and God.  Existence and Love.  These are the relationships to which this post and the ensuring conversation are geared.

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What is worship?  Presumably it is more than fellowship.  Whereas fellowship is relational among us, worship involves something else–something that is thought to break through, being “wholly other” in its nature.  That is to say, worship involves transcending our empirical world.   Worship is a reaching, or grasping, for that which is transcendent.  As such, the emphasis is on the transcending–not on the nature of the transcendent.  Why?  I would argue that the nature of the object believed to transcend the limits of human perception and cognition is by definition unknowable.   Some theologicans claim that making this assertion means that God cannot be completely beyond our grasp because the claim involves or implies knowledge concerning what God is.   I respectfully disagree with this opinion.  I wouldn’t have to know anything in particular about a topic to know that it is a topic lying beyond my ken.   It is enough for me to know that X is in the field of engineering, for example, for me to be able to claim that X is ineffable to me because I haven’t studied that discipline.   Similarly, in claiming that God is that whose nature transcends the limits of my cognition and perception, I am stating that God’s nature is ineffable to me. 

So worship, it turns out, is about a sort of reaching unlike any directed to an object of which we can know.  Accordingly, the focus of worship is in the reaching rather than to the nature of the object being worshipped.   To be sure, one’s notions regarding the nature of the object can impact one’s reaching.  I’m simply arguing that such notions are dogmatic, or aritrary.  What is decisive in the end is the nature of the reaching itself.  Such a nature is one of practice; reaching is, after all, a verb–an action.   What makes worship unique is the nature of its reaching, which is informed by the assumption that the object lies beyond the limits of our cognition and perception (i.e., beyond our realm, or world).  

If I’m right, two major implications follow.  As I discuss above, there is the impossibility of knowing the nature of that which transcends the limits of human cognition and perception.  There is also the implication that the worshipper himself or herself cannot be that to which the reaching is directed because persons are within the realm we know and inhabit (i.e., our nature is not sourced beyond our realm).   I suppose a third implication follows, which I suspect not many people will appreciate.  If I am correct, too much ink has been spilled on the nature of the objects being worshipped.  Much work has gone into erecting sand-castles that may for all we know be dogmatic.  We simply cannot know whether any of our religions have accurately depicted the nature of the real, the source of being, which we call the divine.  The most we can say is that the nature of the divine transcends our domain because we have defined God as such.   Our definition does not mean that we can know the nature of things in themselves.  To say we can’t know something–to define X as unknowable–is not to say that we know anything about it.   Rather, it is to say that whatever we ascribe to it can only be known to be from ourselves.  We are utterly blind to our own dogmatism on religious matters.  I suspect that the more we flesh out the object being worshipped, the less our activity of worshipping is transcendent (and the more it is of the world we know–ultimately of ourselves).

Suggestion: try worshipping where the focus is on the reaching or grasping rather than on the nature of the object being worshipped.  This is not to say that you would assume there is no object; rather, your attention would be on the striving rather than on what you ascribe to the object.  You might want to notice the reaching going on around you…and focus on your own striving itself–reaching out to that which is inherently beyond…at the source.  No more need be ascribed to it.   The reaching, I believe, is worshipping that which has been so heavily clothed in various garb in its bare, or naked, essence (which we can’t know).

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Deciphering “God is Love”

In loving God, is one loving an idea (or concept)?  Or is one loving a certain experience (i.e., love whose object is undefined)?   Or…and here is where it gets really interesting…is one having faith that love itself has a metaphysical quality–being of the nature of reality?  How can that which “is” be love itself?  Isn’t love inherently relational?  If reality or “that which is” is unitary, how can a relation be innate in it? 

I am resisting the anthropomorphism “God loves the world” here, treating this as an easy out.   I am also resisting the temptation to reduce “God is love” to referring to the relations within the Trinity.  I want to go beyond these easy answers–or answers we have made easy.  I suspect that “reality” is not so easy.

So, what is love, metaphysically speaking?  Is this question essentially asks, “what does it mean that existence itself is love?”, then we can go further to ask: What does it mean to say that the source, or basis, of that which exists is love?   If you already have a headache, here is another for extra credit: If love is the essence of that which creates all that exists, does this means that love goes beyond existence?  Love as the essence of the source, or Creator, not only means that love exists always, backwards and forward in time, but also that love transcends existence.  What does it mean to say that something is the source of existence?  What I am getting at here goes beyond “is not itself created.”

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I suspect that a religious perspective contains a vulnerability to making empirical inferences for which the religious nature of the sources are insufficient.  This impedes interreligious dialogue and does not reflect well on the religionist.  I don’t believe the religionist realizes the extent to which his or her empirical justification is over-extended.  From the other direction, we tend to “excuse” the religionist, not letting a non-religionist get away with such over-reaching.  This is ultimately enabling. 

In other words, just because we think we know that Paul made an empirical claim does not mean that he did, or that the empirical event really happened.   Tradition might say that he made the claim, and we might think it probable…but neither is sufficient to justify knowledge that the empirical event occurred historically. 

The leap from “probable” to “so it really happened” is a cognitive lapse that I believe goes with a religious frame of mind.  I don’t want to say as some have theorized that this makes religiosity some sort of sickness; such a conclusion is generalizes over too much of religiousity.  I believe there are healthy or positive elements even if there are “short-circuits.”   If we could have the former without the latter…that would be an improvement in the phenomenon of religion.  Is this possible?  Can you have one side without the other?  I really don’t know, though I have faith that it is possible.  This is not to say that I KNOW, for if I knew, I wouldn’t be relying on faith.

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