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Posts Tagged ‘Theology’

The question can be unpacked, as religion consists of a number of elements, only some of which may be innate. First, does the human brain have a proclivity to make and find meaning in myth, or sacred narrative? Claude Levi-Strauss thought so. He theorized that myth is a way in which the mind holds without reconciling opposites such as life and death. For example, the notion of resurrection maintains the duality of life and death without resolving their opposition. The resurrected Christ walks through a door but is hungry and eats a fish. The tension in the myth is not resolved; rather, the opposition between life and death is transcended. It is the human discomfort with unresolved basic oppositions that spurs the mind on to mythmaking, according the Levi-Strauss. Just because myth or sacred narrative (e.g., the Passion story) serves a purpose does not mean that mythmaking or believing in a living myth is innate. Automobiles serve a purpose in transporting humans, but cars are not innate. So too, religious story may be an external tool. In fact, a religion’s mythology or sacred story can be distinguished from dreams, which are innate. In other words, myths are formed externally, whereas dreams are entirely manufactured by the mind during sleep. For example, a myth could be created out of a conversation between co-religionists. Their own agendas, and at the very least their intentions, can impact the story. Peter’s followers may have added the part about Jesus giving the keys to Peter, for example. Such strategizing makes the myth at least in part artificial. Moreover, the content of some myths is different from the world in which we live that myth-making may be artificial rather than natural. It is not as if the notion of the world beginning as an egg, as in Hinduism, automatically occurs to Hindu children. The myth must be conveyed externally.

Second, the act of worship can be distinguished from the cognitive activity in myth-making and believing. Do humans have an innate proclivity to worship? Here belief in the object to be worshipped can be distinguished from worshipping as an activity. Taking the object itself, are the divine attributes and descriptions innate or manufactured? The answer may be found by investigating whether young children untouched by a religion think about a transcendent object of the sort that would be worshipped. I don’t know the answer to this question, but I suspect that the developed theologies of the established religions do not naturally spring from young minds untouched by religious instruction.

For example, viewing God as “Father” does not automatically follow from a sense of God as a power or even as the source of Creation. We don’t view seeds as the fathers of plants. We don’t think of lava as the father of a volcano. To project the concept of father onto metaphysical concepts is anthropomorphic, which means ascribing human characteristics or relations to non-human objects. Even to say “that plant is happy there” is anthropomorphic. To apply a human characteristic to something not of the world is even more of a stretched. Hume suggests that it is difficult for the human mind to hold on to an idea of invisible divine simplicity (e.g. God as the One—Plotinus’s notion) that the mind adds anthropomorphic “layers” onto the pure idea. A religion thus becomes increasingly about us until it is finally discredited as too much “of the world.”

One might be tempted to conclude that divine simplicity is therefore innate. However, if such an idea is difficult for a human mind to embrace, it is not likely that the idea comes from the mind. Rather, it is more likely external to the mind, interlarded from an external source such as a parent or religious teacher. If the human mind naturally has any internally-sourced sense of a religious or spiritual phenomenon, thing or entity, it is likely vague and mostly undefined in a cognitive sense. It is unlikely that “God is one in essence” would spontaneously dawn on a boy as he walks through the woods or down a residential street. Instead, such a lad might be inclined to wonder, and thus have a sense of mystery. “Why does the sun move so regularly?” he might wonder. “Is there a bigger force behind it? Will the sun always rise and set? What happens to me after I die? Grandma died—is she somewhere hidden? I’m just a boy. Is there something larger out there that I don’t see?” The boy might have a sense of himself and even the world he knows as somehow part of something bigger, as when he looks out at all the stars on a clear warm night. “Is there any limit? Any end?” He might have a sense of himself as small relative to what he observes, whether it be the myriad of stars or a powerful storm. He would be apt to have awe for the infinity and power, respectively, even though you or I might tell him that neither infinite space nor forces of nature are themselves divine. When he gets older, he might explain that what he had observed as a child gave him an intuitive sense of bigness, and thus of beyondness. From this standpoint, the emphasis that some religions place on creed is rather contrived, or artificial in nature.

Even if some vague sense of something divine or transcendent comes naturally to mind in the development of the human mind that is untouched by religious instruction, one can ask whether worship activity, such as devotion other than how one would be devoted to one’s parents or family, for instance, is innate. If it is, how much emphasis does the worshipper naturally give to the activity relative to the object? In institutional religions, the tendency is to emphasize the nature of the object even at the expense of the worship experience. Lectures about the deity can cut into worship time in a religious service. So much emphasis can be placed on cognitive assent to a description of the deity that actual communing with it, such as just after taking communion in the Mass, can easily be marginalized.

Before my teenage years, I was raised largely outside of organized religion. The morality stories of Jesus were about all I got from an occasional Sunday School lesson at a Congregational Church in which theology was all but absent. My mother’s parents had both been raised Quaker, which stresses the personal or private aspect of spirituality. My grandfather practiced charity toward neighbor, such as by delivering free produce and eggs to friends on Sundays. Honesty was among the most important virtues, as was genuineness and tolerance. Theology was not required in order to instill these virtues. As a young teenager, I attended a Unitarian Universalist Society for a few years with my parents. Religion was even less in evidence in Sunday School there, as “UUism” was then dominated by humanism. When I was a freshman in high school, I attended Catholic Mass with friends on a regular basis. I found the ritual completely novel and interesting. Watching the laity kneel after receiving communion, I saw sustained and concentrated worship in terms of trying to commune in the sense of transcending. While in college, I became a member of the Catholic Church. In graduate school, I was so interested in the religion thing I had discovered that I thought seriously about a religious vocation. Thinking I would want to eventually marry, I joined the Episcopalians. However, I did not get a sense of worshipping after communion that I had witnessed in Catholic churches.

My religious or spiritual experience has not been limited to institutional religion. For two years while I was in High School, I practiced Transcendental Meditation on a regular basis. Although repeating a mantra (a word without meaning) to give one’s mind a rest from thinking (i.e., “pure consciousness”) is not in my view religious or spiritual, I would eventually apply the technique during the “corpse pose” at the end of yoga sessions. I began attending yoga sessions when I was in graduate school. Depending on how the instructor handles the practice and especially the final resting pose, yoga can even be explicitly spiritual without any hint of the existence of the world religions. It dawned on me that institutional religion is not inevitable, even within the religious or spiritual domain. In fact, the institutional religions may not be very good at providing dedicated worship activity.

For example, in the Mass the worshipping just after the Body of Christ is ingested is typically truncated in favor of ending the Mass and getting outside. The ritual, I concluded, is prep rather than the point, but this point had somehow been lost along the way. Similar to Hume’s theory that it is difficult for the mind to hold onto an idea of divine simplicity, it may be difficult for the mind to stay in a pure or unadulterated worship experience. The mind tends to wander, or we get bored or tired reaching to transcend in a religious sense. If so, the worshipping activity is not innate; rather, it must be learned and practiced, not the least of which through socialization.

My experience in institutional religion spanned from the religious left to the traditionalists in Christianity (i.e., not counting UUism), with occasional attendance of “mainstream” Protestant denominations including evangelical meta-churches. In Catholicism alone, my experience ran from the post-Vatican II movement back to the hegemony of the traditionalists. The theology and rituals I was taught were so different from my boyhood “religious wondering” and the spirituality in yoga practice that I have concluded that theology and worshipping must be artificial rather than innate. Put another way, the cognitive and praxis content of a revealed religion is so qualitatively different (i.e., in kind) from the wondering and activity of a child or young adult unschooled in any institutional religion and the spirituality outside the religions that an organized religion is likely constructed rather than natural or innate.

Lest be objected that religious worship is too universal to be a function of externals, religiosity has been far from universal. Only 15 percent of Europeans attend weekly religious services, while most people are just fine leading a secular life. Among hunter-gatherers, the !Kung bushmen of southwestern Africa have a highly developed religious belief-system, while the Hadza of eastern Africa have minimal religion and do not believe in an afterlife. Were the idea of a deity and the action of worshiping innate, the Hadza (and Europeans) would instinctively comply. Prosperity and security would not be inversely related to religiosity, and rough conditions in primitive societies and financial inequality in modern ones would not be associated with increasing religious worship.

Therefore, just as theological concepts such as Trinity do not just dawn on people who are unfamiliar with Christian theology, there is probably not a worshipping instinct in the human brain either. Without being socialized into an organized religion, a person is not apt to spontaneously reconstruct an existing theology or start worshipping. I did not come even close to worshipping when I “wondered” as a kid about “big questions” and had a sense of being a limited being compared with the universe and life itself. Realizing I will die one day and wondering what that means, it did not even occur to me to pray to a divine being so I could continue existing after death or even go to heaven. Belief in an afterlife is not innate to the human mind; the reason many people hold such a belief is probably psychological in nature. Specific worshipping via ritual, including prayer, undoubtedly comes from socialization. Children of Catholic parents are taught that the Virgin Mary exists and should be used as an intercessor in prayer. The children are taught how to pray.

The conclusions here do not mean that I have rejected religious or spiritual experience. Just because I do not view them as a necessary part of me or as obligatory does not mean that I recognize no value in worship. Having been socialized into specific worshipping techniques, I have found value in the experience. From my experience, I have found that the specific characteristics of the object being worshipped are less important than that the yearning to transcend in the direction of the mysterious beyond, or “beyondness,” is the worshipper’s sustained focus during the activity. I have found that regular experiencing of this sort heightens sensitivity outside of the worshipping experience. The world having been transcended is seen clearer or more distinctly, hence the heightened sensitivity to subtle things such as another person’s change in mood. The added sensitivity in turn naturally renders the regular worshipper more compassionate to others. Rather than being innate, the external tool impacts something natural. So there is value in a worship activity even though it is difficult for the human mind to do. While theology provides a background or context for the activity, worshipping can transcend even theological concepts of God. Those concepts may be useful as a launching pad, after which concentration can turn to the experience itself—the action of yearning to transcend. If I am right, it is the experience of yearning that is the religious experience, with compassion as a byproduct.

 

For additional material, see Gregory Paul’s “Why Belief in God Is Not Innate,” in the Wall Street Journal of April 10, 2013. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304222504575173890997846742.html

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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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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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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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This morning while I was stopped at an intersection in the bike lane of a major street, a Gideon stepped into the lane to hand me one of his little bibles.   Sensing that he was so preoccupied with saving me–the Gideon website refers to the aim of reaching “a lost world with the saving message”–I decided to point out to him that he was breaking the law by entering the lane as a pedestrian.   Assuming the persona of a sergeant in a matter-of-fact tone, I said, “Sir, please remove yourself from the bike lane as it is illegal.”  He was undaunted so I repeated myself…again in an official rather than antagonistic tone.  Finally he backed up and resumed his sales pitch from the sidewalk.  

In assuming that I was “lost” and he had “the saving message,” he was not looking at his own falling-short.  He felt himself entitled not only metaphysically, but legally as well–as if to say, “the law doesn’t apply to me because I’m saved.”  …but Jesus is said to have said he came to fulfill rather than break the law.   I have no problem with Jesus’ teachings…in fact, I value them more than the ways of the world.  This does not mean, however, that claim a superior or false entitlement that gives me license to impose my agenda on others…even breaking the law to do it.  What is the expression…clean up one’s own house before breaking into another to tell another that his or her house is dirty and needs to be cleaned in a certain way?   The irony is that the one doing the p0inting is the lost one….the lapses in his or her imposing being lost to him (or her).  

In discussing the ascetic priest figure in Geneology of Morals (section III), Nietzsche characterizes them as being essentially weak yet not letting that get in their desire to dominate others.   Imposing one’s presumption that the other is lost and is in need of one’s own “saving message” evinces the sort of weakness that seeks to dominate.  When Christianity was the dominant religion in the West, such weakness was not transparent.  Now it is…increasingly so.   The passive aggressive aspect of the imposing can be recognized and put back in its place.  My “official” speak is an example of passive aggression being used to counter the passive aggression.   The Gideon probably felt my reaction as passive aggressive (certainly not friendly), though I doubt very much that he recognized his own.  The breach of personal boundaries, such as by a stranger assuming that he is welcome to discuss religion with me, is itself a form of passive aggression.   I suspect that modern society is blind to many forms of presumption…hence we don’t tend to call the perpetrators on it and return passive aggression in kind.   Instead, we feel guilty in not reacting as the Gideons would like.  The guilt, or self-shame, is a form of weakness, according to Nietzsche, which the weak have been able to convince the strong to take on.   The weak take advantage of the strong’s vulnerability…the weak always have their advantage on their minds, whereas the noble strong do not.  I suspect the power of the strong is in recognizing or making transparent the fecklessness and presumptuousness (as well as the passive aggression) of the dominating weak.   I think a better way of responding to them than “officialism” would be to simply draw attention to the subterfuge being used to dominate.   However, I suspect that like a cat around tuna, such transparency would make little or no difference to one with the imposing agenda.  In away, evangelicals are not far removed from merchants.  Neither group is likely to be free spirits.  Hence my attention is on how we may be freed from them.  What is that about knowing or seeing the truth will set you free?  Let me see, and therein be free of, the true nature of truth-imposers!   We need truth-seekers rather than imposers.   I am assuming that we are all human beings…that no one of us has a monopoly on knowing the truth.   Save us from the redeemers! 

Perhaps the question is: is there any salvation from arrogance?  …which is perhaps in the human condition…all of us being innately presumptuous.  A “saving message” that is accompanied by this quality belies itself.  Invalidating such a message and messenger is not sufficient however, for one to be a free spirit–free of even one’s own internal obstacles. For this, one must face and overcome one’s own arrogance….the presumption in my own “official” warning this morning.   This is not something that can be subcontracted in a bike lane.  The self-emptying of arrogance is not something that is accomplished merely by having the “correct” cognitive metaphysical belief (unlike in Buddhism and Christianity).  Neither can it be done by another who is driving to save others (under the presumption that he or she is already saved).  

I believe we would all be doing modern society a huge favor by concentrating on recognize our own arrogance and presumption.   I think this can be done on an incident by incident basis, generalizing from them to see how these qualities reside in our own personalities and related world-views.   Secondarily, it does not hurt to learn to recognize the sordid qualities in others who profit on them remaining hidden, though “secondarily” because the sliver in another’s eye is difficult to see but for removing the plank in one’s own.  Still, the protection of personal boundaries is a matter of social justice, and therefore justified (though here on the world’s terms) in order to restore the natural equilibrium of mutual rights from the encroachments by some.

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