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Posts Tagged ‘presumptuousness’

While it might seem easy, discerning saints from sinners can be rather difficult. Hence, we are urged not to judge, lest we, too, be judged. This lesson landed on me when I found my opinion on a seemingly-saintly elderly woman change dramatically.

The elderly Philipino woman whom I met seemed at first to be very pious, having an explicit desire to gain the attribute of holiness. The simplicity of her faith appealed to me. Yet when I made reference to one of her priests being–to put it nicely–more of an administrator than a pastor, she replied that her priest “was Jesus.” I replied that the priests are in the line of the Apostles, rather than instantiating Jesus. I cited apostolic succession, and she relented. Not content to be corrected, she asserted that the Bible is sufficient as a source of historical evidence. I replied that a faith narrative is neither written with the intention of recording historical facts nor of the genre of historical writings that is taken as proffering historical evidence. The woman disagreed, insisting that a faith narrative can be considered as a source of historical facts. I asked her whether she knows or believes the so-called facts. She readily replied that she knows them. “Well,” I observed, “then it would seem that you have no use for faith then.” My unexpected comment stopped her in her tracks. “What do you mean?” she asked. “We have faith in things we don’t know–things we are not certain of, such as whether we will be alive tomorrow,” I replied. “It doesn’t make sense to have faith in something we know because there is not uncertainty about it. So if the Bible gives you facts that you know, that tells me that it is not a matter of faith.” Taken back, she repeated that she knew that the Bible proves that certain historical events took place. “And you can’t be wrong about that?” I asked. “Yes, I can’t be wrong about it.” As if giving the conclusion of a syllogism, I remarked, “Then that means that not only is faith unnecessary for you, but it is based on arrogance–that of presuming that you cannot be wrong.” My pronouncement stunned her into speechlessness. She stood staring at the ground as if unable to move. There was no anger or resentment–just a wall that was blocking her view and not letting her pass.

If Jesus is a door, then a believer opens the door and walks through; one does not keep holding on to a front door once one has entered a house. The elderly woman was stuck holding on to a doornob as if it were attached to a wall. For myself, I was simply stunned that religion could so distort cognition so much and involve denial to the extent that a human being readily admits to not being able to be wrong about something that most of us would say involves belief rather than knowledge. It is as if the domain furtherest from certain knowledge were somehow the most capable of proffering evidence about which a person could not be wrong.

Perhaps this exchange reflects the saying, “Where God builds a church, Satan builds a chapel.” My question is: In preaching against arrogance, was I in the church or chapel?

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Empty Your Cup

Three students from North America visit Japan to learn from a Zen master.  When the students arrive at the temple, the religious sage meets them at the gate and invites them to sit with him near the garden of stones.   “Let me pour you some tea,” he offers.  Impatient to learn from him, the students try to get right down to business.  “Thank you,” one confides, “but we came all this way and we have a schedule that we have to maintain.”   Not surprised in the least, the old man gingerly hands each student a small cup.  The students acquiesce and hold out their small cups as the master reaches for the kettle of hot tea.  The old man begins to pour the steaming tea in one of the cups, only he does not cease when the liquid reaches the top.   With hot tea on her hands, one of the students cries out, “Stop pouring!  You are burning my hands.”  The Zen master calmly puts down the kettle and replies, “Like this cup, you are too full to take in any more.  Empty your cups and I will teach you.”

Since writing this post, I have found a version of this story in the film 2012–only there it is in a Tibetan Buddhist setting (between an old and young monk).

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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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