Archive for October, 2009

In reading several replies to my posts on religion, I have been very impressed with the quality of the thought expressed, even where I find myself completely disagreeing with the view being expressed.   I am far more taken that the persons would put such thought and effort into their replies than I am distressed by the disagreements.  The unity, in other words, is in the good-faith effort and mutual desire not to get sidetracked into a shouting match.  Such unity does not require uniformity of belief.   Wouldn’t it be ironic if unity requires disagreement?   The latter need not rule the day.   This is not to say that differences will be resolved.  In deciding to reply not just to what I agree with, I have been assuming that the differences are real. Were I to paper over them for fear of precipitating a fight, I would be left with tissue paper discussions that feel good but are ultimately not fulfilling.   So, in replying to a comment,  I mention both where I agree and disagree, but orient myself to the good-faith effort and excellent thought that is palpable in the comment.   I am more overawed by the effort and thought involved than detracted by the disagreements.  As human beings, each of us with our own minds, how could we ever expect the absence of disagreement; surely unity does not depend on uniformity of opinion.

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The process by which Christian doctrine was codified by the early Church councils, such as Nicea (325 CE), pruned from the diverse Christian writings to arrive at a relatively homogenous canon doctrinally.  For instance, the Gospel of Thomas, which stresses Jesus’ teachings but does not contain the passion story was expunged as heterodox.  Also, there is the spurned Gospel of Mary, which portrays a woman as a leader in the movement (i.e., the early church).   So I was surprised to read today that in the Catholic Church’s decision to facilitate the inclusion of groups of Anglicans who want to become Catholic because of differences with the Anglican Church’s changing ordination qualifications (i.e., women, gays).   The conservative Episcopalian congregations in North American have already formed the Anglican Church of North America, so they are Rome’s intended target.  Rather, the Holy See is looking at the Anglican congregations in Europe that are dissatisfied with the ordination of women. 

The Catholic Church is stressing the fact that unity does not require uniformity.  The Anglicans will be able to continue their rites.  Cardinal William Levada, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said that preserving Anglican traditions, such as mass rites, adds to the diversity of the Catholic Church.  “The unity of the church does not require a uniformity that ignores cultural diversity, as the history of Christianity shows,” he said. “Moreover, the many diverse traditions present in the Catholic Church today are all rooted in the principle articulated by St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians: ‘There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”  The key here is cultural.  With regard to theology and doctrine, uniformity is still the norm, even with respect to the presumed salience of cognitive belief, or creed, in religion.   I submit that the nature of religion is not primarily cognitive–nor is it inherently uniform in terms of belief.  Cultural diversity is just the tip of the iceburg.  Ironically, so much bloodshed has been done in the name of Christianity through the centuries precisely because uniformity was taken as necessary for Christian unity.  In actuality, the enforced uniformity made for disunity, as the Reformation attests. 

Sources: Vatican Welcomes Anglicans into Catholic Church



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I’m reading an article on MSBNC on the Rev. Moon of the Unification Church.  He is set to marry off and bless 40,000 in a “massive global ceremony.”   The following paragraph caught my eye:

“Moon, a self-proclaimed messiah who says he was 15 when Jesus Christ called upon him to carry out his unfinished work, has courted controversy and criticism since founding the Unification Church in Seoul in 1954.”

Such a claim is so fantastic and original that one might conclude that the line between religion and sanity has been breached here.  However, how do we know?  Furthermore, for all we know, the miracles and angels surrounding ancient revelations of a messiah were ex post facto accretions.  What if Jesus was like Moon, claiming “I am the Messiah” to a skeptical world?  Is Moon today like Jesus was in his time, and if so, how will the Unification Church view him in 60, 400, or 2000 years?  We don’t get to go back and see what was really going on in Jesus’ day, so we don’t know how much of what we think we know about him really happened.  Scholars tell us that the Gospel writers were not oriented to writing history; they had other purposes.  Yet we presume historical veracity in their works.   What if we are seeing how a new religious figure is “born”?…like using the Hubble telescope to see how the universe looked just after it began.  In other words, what if the “beginnings” is more mundane than we think?  It is possible

Source: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/33296507/ns/world_news-asiapacific/

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I have been reading Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God. It is possible that Jesus rose from the dead and has since been a person or manifestation of God in the form of a resurrected body.  That no one alive can say he or she has seen Jesus empirically means that it is very unlikely that any of us can know how much of what is said to have happened really happened.  I suppose it is the likelihood that none of us can know for sure that bothers me in the theological debates because some assert the literal or historical dimension.  We were all to agree on the meaning and let history be history and not religion, I think religion would not be so grievous.

I do not believe in the Passion Story literally as in historically the case, although I do believe that what the myth stands for. That is, that compassionate self-emptying is vindicated on account of its inherent strength and value even though it seems weak by the world’s standards.  We seem to have lost the mythic meaning of the passion story, only to concentrate on its historicity and empirical “factness.”   The evangelical Christian would rightly point out to me that I could be wrong on the resurrection being a historical fact.  Neither of us can know the answer.  Faith is by definition in the absence of knowledge (otherwise there would be no need for faith on the matter).   For all I know, Jesus could have been knocking down the books to get my attention.   Compassionate self-emptying would suggest or require that I remember my own limitations and that the “other” could be right…and to treat him or her in such terms.  Too often, I think we presume that our opinions are truth, and that those who disagree with us are not only wrong, but erroneous.  This is a ghost difficult to shake off, but ultimately necessary for constructive religious dialogue in line with the love taught by the world’s religions.   If we could all just remember that we are all in the same boat as human beings in terms of knowing things in themselves we might get along a lot better and enjoy life more.

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Yesterday while I was reading the introduction of Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God at Borders, a book on a short display shelf at the end-wall of a line of bookshelves fell off and hit the ground right in front of me.   I was on the second floor of the store, sitting in a comfortable chair and surrounded by bookshelves with only one other person in sight…a woman who was busy scanning a row of books on one of the other bookshelves.  She didn’t appear to notice the book falling, and I returned to my reading, thinking nothing of it.  

Now, this is the weird part:  There had been two copies of the book on the little shelf. It was the outer one that had fallen and was lying on the floor.  Surely, the remaining copy would not fall, as it was the copy against the bookself-wall.   So I was perplexed when it did fall nevertheless, about a minute after the first one had fallen.  This second one landed on the carpeting in a standing position.  How could a book that had been on the inside position on the shelf manage to fall over just because the outer book had fallen?  Surely the shelf was not too short for the back one. Looking over at the woman still scanning a row of books, I asked her if she had heard the books fall. 

“Yes, I did,” she replied. 

“I can understand how the first one could fall…but the second?–I don’t get it,” I said in a flat voice.

She nodded in agreement as she instinctively picked up the second book and returned it to its back-position on little shelf. 

“It must be a ghost,” she said with a smile.

“That’s just what I was thinking!” I said aloud as much as to myself.  How odd!

Now, reading a book on religion and having seen Ghost years ago, I had thought just after the second book fell that maybe…just maybe…it might be possible that one of my dead grandfathers was there in some way and was trying to communicate with me in the only way he could.  Would that mean he had been able to look into what I’ve been doing since he died?  Oh, man…that would include sex!   Oh, geez…  This thought jolted me back to the modern world of scientific explanation.  There had to be one. Perhaps the first book fell because one page too many had subtly shifted its weight forward by a draft.  The draft caused by its falling off the little shelf might have caused a similar subtle change in the book behind it.  Such an explanation is much better than the prospect of one of my ancestors visiting me uninvited who-knows-where.  

It occured to me as I was reading Karen Armstrong’s argument that we as finite human beings can’t possibly know as much about God as we think we do.  We tend to fill in the void created by our mind’s inherent inclination to transcend its own cognitive limits…only we don’t realize that we are the ones filling the void.  In thinking of the possibility of a ghost tipping over the books–the second one, remember, landed standing–I was filling the void created by my own verdict that my scientific explanation seemed rather weak, or stretched.   Here is the rub: I don’t believe I will know, at least while I’m alive, whether the cause was a ghost or some other cause more “worldly.”

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This morning, I read the introduction of Karen Armstrong’s A Case for God.  I had seen her on a talk show last night.  Her basic argument is that the modern advocates or apologists of the dominant faiths in the West (e.g., Judaism, Christianity and Islam) suffer from an “unskillful” practice.   She claims that the scientific tenor of Western society since the 1600s has transformed the approaches to religion to stress cognition (i.e., belief) and rationality in way that renders religious narrative, or myth, as reduceable to a factual and historical basis.  For example, did the historical Jesus really walk around after he had been crucified?  Was he really a poor carpenter?  Was Mary a virgin physiologically?  The historical German method of interpreting the Bible led the way in this line of hermaneutics, but the twentieth-century fundamentalism (e.g., evangelicalism) was not far behind with its literalness.  

In contrast to the dominant modern rendering of religion in terms of cognitive belief affirmations of fact and historical literalness, Armstrong claims that religion is about practice.  Such praxis, she  maintains, is geared to compassionate (i.e., feeling with) humility.  Although she claims that all religions aim at this practical goal, it is so close to Jesus’ teachings and example that she might be projecting a Christianity-based understanding onto religion itself.   Also, in practically reducing religion to practice, she may be reacting against another extreme (the cognitive-literal approach).  In other words, her rendering could be viewed as partial rather than synopic.   For instance, she claims that the metaphysical claims in a religion should be read as that the ethical practices have meaning.   In my view, she comes very close to reducing religion to ethics, which is something liberal Protestantism has been criticized for doing.   Take, for example, “God is love.”   I interpret this as teaching that love is the source or basis of existence.  Even though our acts of love (and feelings!…which Armstrong also discounts relative to conduct) involve “God is love” being actualized, there is also the sense irrespective of one’s conduct that existence itself is love.  I take the transcendent wisdom of the latter to be just as important as conduct in religious terms.  

I take religion to be a multifaceted phenomenon that does not reduce to practice or creedal belief.  Even though Armstrong may come up short in this respect, she makes an excellent point that the modern understanding of religion is presumptuous (e.g., assuming we know more about God than we are entitled as finite beings to be able to know) and ahistoric.   On the latter, she means that we have not sufficiently studied ancient and medieval interpretations that would place our modern cognitive and literal approach in relief as rather narrow and, indeed, out of sorts with the nature of religion.   That is to say, if faith is not primarily about cognition or empirical knowledge of past events or persons (e.g., Moses, Jesus or Mohammad), then the dominant modern approach is “unskillful” or misplaced.  It is ironic that moderns who may be so far off would presume to know so much about God, citing revelation.   Of course, even perfect revelation would have to make its way through our own limited and imperfect eyes or ears, and neuropathways/rationality.   Especially where a religion is reduced to its cognitive factfulness and empirical truth, our own limitations become quite salient.  

I must admit I have been astounded (and frustrated) at the presumptuousness evinced by finite human beings who assume that the perfection of revelation runs perfectly through them as if they were innert permeable membranes rather than filters.  In actuality, if the revelation was written without cognitive affirmation or literalness being assumed throughout, a “believer” who reads scripture in such terms could be distorting it without realizing it because of ignorance of the writers’ perspective.   Of course, jthe fact that someone had to write down the revelation makes it difficult to maintain that the revelation itself is perfect.  That someone taking himself to be a believer would not only assume that he has the truth but also seek to actively impose it on another human being with different beliefs is a rather emetic phenomenon.  It is a package built on stilts…yet presumes it can run!   That one human being would say to another, “No, your faith is wrong…Here’s mine…it is true” reminds me of self-idolatry (i.e., taking oneself to be God, or reducing God to a projection of oneself). 

 Observing the modern context of presumptuousness even as religion is understood and portrayed so differently than it has been understood historically, I wonder if the problems discussed by Armstrong are remeable.    Can arrogance and presumption designed to bypass human critique by being based on God’s revelation be rectified by humans?  It seems to me that the tools brought to bear on this problem would simply be dismissed–which is part and parcel of arrogant presumption.   It could be that the only efficacious correction possible would have to come from within the “unskilled” themselves.  This would involve a person recognizing and coming to terms with his or her own presumption as presumption.   It may be far more likely that an approach to religion in line with the nature of religion will have to wait for a new epoch–perhaps one less enamored with rationality and empirical truth (i.e., “Just the facts”).  

The attempts in the twentieth century to reduce religion to terms extrinsic to the nature of the phenomenon may be a symption of a broader societal decadence (which includes arrogant presumption, ironically).   If I am correct in my thesis here, the old saying “You can’t fight ignorance” would be relevant.  When confronted with an arrogant and ignorant person, I suppose all we can do is remember our own limitations and try to be compassionate.   The nexus of arrogance and ignorance issuing in presumptuous claims may simply be the front gard of a suffering and insecure person.   Reducing him or her to the shock wherein his or her faith turns against itself and freezes up may be deserved, but it would hardly be compassionate.

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Awhile back, I got snagged into going to a bible study.  I contained myself…even participating in a way that impressed the members of the group.  I was really surprised, however, when the study leader said, “Now, this the the correct interpretation.”  Of course it was his interpretation.  To my reckoning, an interpretation cannot, by definition, be true.   It would be like saying “the sky looks beautiful today” was a fact.  The emphasis of the evening was on the raison d’etre of the Old Testament being to point to the coming of Jesus.   Substantively, the group leader gave the definition of Christ when defining Messiah (the Messiah is not the annointed one).  I realize that formal education is not–and should not–be a prereq for the ministry, but if a minister is going to define terms he is obliged to get them correct.   

 One of my concerns regarding born-again Christians is that they stress a cognitive belief in Jesus’ identity and a personal relationship with Jesus so much that they can come off as hypocrits in how they relate with other people.   That is, they stress belief and personal relationship with jesus so much that they might tend to drop the ball in being generous with other people.  Absent a promise of attending the Christian’s church service or allowing the Christian help with one’s decision to accept Jesus and build a relationship with Him, the born-again Christian might be rather indifferent to the person’s requests for help.  The mix of presumptuousness and not being helpful to others is what I’m getting at here.  That a person could be so presumptuous in terms of what one knows of religious truth and yet so utterly clueless on how selfish and miserly one is in relating with other people…that is, how someone could be so clueless and yet presume so much…is a mystery to me.

In going to the bible study (which I was pressured into), I didn’t think I would convince anyone to adopt my beliefs; rather, once in the study I tried to take on their perspective and help them in their own terms.   In fact, I raised a question that assumed their belief system and led to interesting discussion among the participants.  Although not intended as such, my question led all of us to a paradox wherein an apparent logical contradiction need not invalidate our understanding of the divine because the latter transcends human reason.  The two apparently opposed stances on the same question suggested by two group members could both be valid, and this paradox need not invalidate the underlying truth. 

Indeed, the presence of paradox in a religious matter demonstrates the absurdity of “the correct interpretation.”   We, as human beings, are inherently limited–hence so are our cognitions and perceptions.  In having faith, the emphasis can be on the glancing out beyond…rather than on the nature of “the object” that inherently transcends the limits of human cognition and perception.  

My critique of born-again Christianity is that it is oriented to the nature of “the object”..an inherently presumptuous enterprise given human nature.  Relative to the divine, we are all human beings and therefore in the same condition.  For some of us to presume that our truth is superior to those of others is mere artifice and pretension.  Such artificial distinctions that benefit ourselves are in actuality projections of our egos.  We are all human beings.  Fundamentally, we are in the same sandbox when it comes to playing with God’s sand.   Let us not take our our castles for divine edifices.  We have only to wait for the next wave to discover the actual substance of our truths.  

To presume so much for ourselves…and to be so little.  Such is perhaps the human condition.   Yet surely it is not set in stone tablets.   Presumption, being of our own making, seems without our limited ability to eradicate.  The problem is: it can be like a hard wall when efforts are made by others to make it transparent. If a person can come to see his or her presumptuous, I believe he or she will want to shed it like an old coat.  But attachment to “truth” can be like a straight-jacket and thus resist any external or internal efforts to loosen its grip.  That none of us have a monopoly on truth means that our efforts to reduce human presumptuous are inherently compromised.  How can a compromised tool cut through a stone wall?   Even as they don’t seem to me to be inevitable, both the wall and the dull drill can be said to be part of the human condition.  I do believe, however, that the problem of presumptuousness in humanity’s approach to religion (and in general) can be solved, though the solution eludes me.  Tu be sure, it is a tough nut to crack.

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