Friday, December 3, 2010

A Radical Faith

If you’re looking for a new way of going at the Christian faith, Jacques Ellul is your man.  He insists it is not new – that he has not “discovered” some truth that all previous generations have overlooked.  He would point to many groups down through the centuries who dared to oppose the prevailing notion of the faith – as defined typically by the Church, that is, Rome. They longed for an authentic experience of God demonstrated in real life in acts of love, sacrifice, and justice.  They sought to model a new kind of community, one marked not by hierarchy, legalism and power but by equality, love, and care for the poor.

Christendom has been seduced time and time again by power – power corrupts, says Ellul, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Instead of faith empowering people to live in trust and harmony and mutual care and respect, it has been more often a means for power, for control over others.

“God is love,” says 1 John, and Ellul takes this as his fundamental belief.   Love requires freedom; God has given us that freedom so that we can love genuinely.  And so any act of control, when one person or an institution such as a government or church deprives another of his or her freedom, is sinful – morally corrupt.

Thus, anarchy: radical freedom of the individual with regard to any institution.  And in a statement that Sam Harris would like, Ellul says that “religion is an incontestable source of war.” (250 But by “religion” Ellul means a corrupted faith, one that seeks to destroy freedom, to make its adherents behave a certain way, especially in obedience to the officers of religion.

Ellul is careful to say that he is not a secular anarchist – the sort who seek to overthrow an institution only to replace it with another that will control people in new ways.  His Christian faith – which includes belief in “sin, not the breaking of moral law but rather covetousness and power (20) – won’t allow him the optimistic view that humankind is capable of a purely anarchist society.  “I do not believe in a pure anarchist society, but I do believe in the possibility of creating a new social model/” (21)

A brief essay in the Appendix by a priest, Adrien Duchosal, states the position most plainly: 

“I reject all human hierarchy.”  We congregationalist ought to warm to that!   But further, and more radically for a person of traditional faith:

“I reject hierarchy between us and God.”   And even further . . . 

“Finally to accept or reject the existence of God is unimportant.  What counts is having the taste and joy that live gives.”  (98)  That should take your breath away.

Ellul in the last half of the book is at pains to show that Christian anarchy is biblically based.  He begins with the Hebrew Scriptures, especially noting that the beginning of the monarchy was not God’s idea, but the Israelites’ – so that they could be like the other nations.  No good will come of it, says the Lord.  And none did, says Ellul.  So far from being instituted by God – Divine Right, we later called it – the monarchy was a human device only reluctantly allowed by God.  (God gave us freedom to do dumb things, remember.)  

In the gospels Ellul is most interested in how Jesus responded to the powers of his day, embodied in the religions rulers and by Pilate at his trial.  That Jesus had nothing good to say about the former is certain.  When confronted with Rome itself, Jesus said nothing – a contemptuous silence Ellul would say. 

The book of Revelation, that strange piece of apocalyptic writing, portrays government – Rome, “Babylon” – as being against all that is good.  Ellul (and an article in the Appendix) also addresses Romans 13 – “a very embarrassing passage” he says, page 86.  Embarrassing because at first blush (and this is the way the Powers That Be have always read it for obvious reasons) Paul seems to be telling Christians to obey every authority as if they are God Himself.  

Of course Romans 13 is “embarrassing” only to those who take the Bible (“cover to cover”) as the authoritative Word of God.  Ellul despite he radical understanding of how Christian faith should be lived is nevertheless quite orthodox in his faith in many ways.  He thus feels it important to show that his Christian anarchy is biblically based and supported by an authoritative scripture.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Jacques Ellul Should Shake You Up

We are beginning Ellul's Anarchy and Christianity.  To set that in the context of our last six months' explorations, I offer the following.
To summarize where we’ve been, and why we’re here now:
In the grand scheme of things (MY grand scheme, such as it is) we have explored cognitive science – trying to have some idea of how this brain of ours works, especially with regard to religious impulse. Then we heard one of the leaders of the New Atheist movement – Sam Harris – as he called for renunciation of all religion, but especially fundamentalism, to be replaced by reason.  He made room for spiritual, even mystical experience, and morality too, but all to be achieved by scientific research.  Just for fun, here’s a great video of Steve Martin and the Step Canyon Rangers, performing “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs.”  
Haught took aim at scientific naturalism like that of Harris, alleging that scientific, purely materialistic reason could not completely explain human experience.  Something beyond us – God, we might say – beckons us on to emerging experiences.  Human intelligence emerging from unintelligent matter, he said, was the greatest evidence for the existence of a god.
Our brains seem to be wired – or is it conditioned, a matter of contention – to be on the lookout for agents (natural or supernatural) acting in the world, from what can easily be explained (I shank a golf shot, I feel rage) to what provokes speechless awe (a view from the Hubble telescope) and seemingly defies explanation.  Especially for people who, like me, whose brain is getting more clogged up every day.  (Time to Defragment.)
Looking for a sufficient agent to account for our reality, we posit a God, or at least most people have.  If I am prepared to explore that possibility (and have not ruled it out before giving the idea a chance – Haught’s charge against the scientific naturalists) then the next question is which God?  -- the human race having come up with a variety of options.
Living where we are, we naturally look first to the Christian faith.  And run smack into some ridiculous claims by its more vocal followers.  Like the world is only 6K years old.  And we hit a book that in places describes God more like an angry child than like a God I want to follow.   Like when your son rebels, have him stoned – that’ll teach him.
Put off by the literalists – here I point you to this great sermon by one such practitioner, on a passage of interest especially to males, er, men -- many of us have dismissed the Bible and Christianity altogether.  Thus , Marcus Borg’s contention that a modern person, without denying all that we have learned about science and culture and language, can read the Bible a new/old way.
Using the lens especially of metaphor, says Borg, modern people can reclaim a faith that is both intellectually sound and experientially satisfying.  His book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, was an outline of Borg’s methodology and the faith he sees through a fresh reading of the Bible.
We now are looking at two contemporary theologians -- Jacques Ellul and John Dominic Crossan -- who put forth their understanding of Christianity, understandings that are quite different from mainline Protestant faith and, perhaps especially, Fundamentalists. 
Ellul’s portrayal of faith is starkly contrarian – thoroughly and uncompromisingly opposed to “the Church” as expressed in Catholic and Protestant establishments.  He says he has discovered nothing new – there have always been individuals and small movements who have protested against the authority of (and misdeeds of) institutionalized Christendom.  Ellul’s understanding of Christianity is nothing like what we learned in Sunday School!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

So. Here’s What I Think. Part One.

1.  The nature of “Knowing” and “Reality”

While there is some chance that what I am experiencing at this moment – looking out over Lake Winnebago, hearing some lovely music playing downstairs, savoring the taste of good coffee lingering on my tongue between sips, taking a call from a friend – is but a dream , that is, not “real” but something I am merely (!) imagining by the stunningly complex operations of my brain – while the world just might not be, I doubt it.  The coffee just tastes too good to deny.

How do I “know” that?  I just do.  And most people agree with me on this, and that’s always nice.  I disagree with a lot of people, this day after the election, and so am happy to find common ground on this most common of grounds (no, not coffee grounds), namely that the world around me, and me too is really here.

My knowing isn’t confined to the touchable and measurable.  A bunch of it is, and I am thankful for the physical, technological advances that the scientific world has given me, especially, say, when I am in the dentist’s chair.  Praise God for novocain, I say.  And praise science too.

But there are other experiences that, to the best of my knowledge – and I admit my limitations here and everywhere else – are not subject to mere physical or chemical description.  My experience of love and beauty and art and light and poetry; the way the brass sound the last verse of O Come All Ye Faithful on that one word, “Word of the Father now in flesh appearing . . .” and the sopranos are showering us with their angelic descant.  A musician can describe it using the language of music theory (intervals and such), but that says nothing real about what that sound in that place at that moment accompanying those words does to me.  I exaggerate.  The theory is real too, but not in comparison with my experience of that sound.

I liked Haught’s description of layers of meaning, of truth.  There is the perfectly true and very important, helpful scientific understanding of a campfire.  For millennia we sat around those fires, oblivious to the chemistry of them.  Now we know what fire is, chemically, and that’s nice.  But that campfire means so much more, and has meant so much more to humans for millennia.  And it is that so much more of the world that calls out for explanation, or some attempt at least.

I like to reserve the word “know” to the empirical, observable, factual parts of reality.  Things I am sure of, can count on, or so it seems.  I know I am aging.  A quick survey of my face affirms that, if I needed any personal proof.  I know my dog’s name is Pete, and that he is aging too, as he inhabits the same world  I do.  True enough there may come a time when I won’t be able to remember the name of my dog, but that is another matter.   When I say I “know” something I am talking about the empirical realm.   I don’t “know” anything, really, in the realm of the spirit.

The other word – like knowing, but very different – is “”believe.”   I use this in both the physical world and spiritual world.   “I believe it is 10:00" means that while I haven’t looked at my watch recently I’m pretty sure it’s around 10:00.  A glance at my watch, if I have faith that it is reliable timepiece, and I can say, with certainty, “It’s 10:00.”   I believe things about the physical, observable world that I am pretty sure of, but wouldn’t bet a cow on. 

In the spiritual realm I will always use believe.  Because the spirit realm is not subject to any proofs I know.

Two helpful words here, one I just used – “certainty” – and “certitude.” 

Certainty arises from external evidence of the truth of a statement.  The more the evidence, the stronger the evidence, the more certain I can be about a matter.  Because it is external evidence, others can see it, and their observations together with mine encourages my certainty.  To use perhaps the most obvious of examples:  The sun “comes up” every morning.  I am certain of that because it has done it every day of my life.  Based on my experience and that of the rest of humanity, I am certain it will “rise” tomorrow.  I may not be here to see it, but others will be. And even if there were no people to see it, the sun would “rise.”  We can be certain of that, can’t we?

Certitude may be supported by external evidence, experience.  But it takes into account interior, subjective experience as well.  It does not require scientific proof, support, evidence, but may be glad to have it.  No matter, though: certitude is a feeling that something is true and real.  A person can have a feeling of certitude, say, that there is a God out there.  They really can’t be certain – there is no scientific “proof” for God.  God can’t be demonstrated to the world, at will, every day.  But still millions of people have had this feeling within that there is something, someone beyond. 

Certitude may be, and often is I suppose, placed in the wrong things.  There are people who every week, despite the overwhelming mathematical odds against it – and they know it – give money (large sums too) to the State of Wisconsin because they feel inside – they are “certain” – they will win the lottery.  That’s certitude.  That’s not smart.

I know some things about reality with certainty.

I believe other things about reality with certitude.  Sometimes that certitude is very strong. Other times no so much.

2.  God

Do I know there is a God?   No.  The world looks to me like there is a God – the complexities, beauties, mysteries, from the vastness (infinite?) of space (the photos from the Hubble telescope leave me speechless, see ) to what I am told about subatomic worlds, seem to force me to posit a creative Mind behind, within it.  I seem to long for not an “explanation” but at least some idea of where this all came from.  And God seems to be as good a theory as any.   No certainty here.  But some growing certitude. 

Some very bright people do offer alternative theories.  Richard Dawkins is the most outspoken of these folk, and he is very bright indeed.  But frankly I am not smart enough even to read, let alone intelligently evaluate their theories.  Such discussions take place in a rarefied atmosphere that relatively few people in the world have the smarts to participate in.  That’s not saying they are wrong.  It is saying that their conversation is accessible to few of us, and I am not one of them.  It should be remembered that their theories, while arising from scientific observation, are yet theories – not a lot of certainty here either, given the disagreements among theorists and the changes their theories seem to regularly undergo.  Being very smart doesn't necessarily mean being correct, although it doesn't hurt.

I’d like to say that I believe in God because of my careful, systematic, rigorous exploration of the evidence and theories offered pro and con.  I’ve done a little of that – a fair amount of questioning my own religious tradition.   But let’s be honest here.  I believe primarily because I was raised in a home where belief in God was assumed, taught – and lived.  I spent most of my childhood (I exaggerate again) in church, singing songs about God, hearing prayers to God, listening to testimonies about God.  Fortunately I saw that faith lived out in good ways – these were decent, caring people who built their lives around their faith community and – as far as frail human beings can – genuinely loved each other and the world.

I resisted that faith as a high schooler, but pretty quickly returned to it and found a place in the Christian community.  In fact I became a professional believer – a pastor.  So belief in God has worked pretty well for me!

Along the way I have studied reasons for faith – “evidence” both for belief in God in general and the Christian God in particular.  But I expect that my basic belief arose from my earliest years – from my being nurtured into faith – much more from careful study of the issues.

3.  Is Belief in God Necessary?

Harris forcefully argued that religion – the traditional expressions of the major religions – contrary to helping people live ethically has caused an enormous amount of suffering – unethical living.  The history of faith is replete with rampant and horrific abuses of faith.  That has usually happened when people in power pretend to know more than they do – are certain of things that no one can be certain of.  Fundamentalism pretends to know the mind and ways of God, and purports to speak for God in the world.  That is a ridiculous claim.

Is belief in God necessary for a person to live a morally good life?  No.  There are people who by the force of their minds –reason – and the goodness of their hearts live moral lives.  By that I guess I mean lives that take into account the good of the community rather than merely themselves, are able to live for the happiness and welfare of others, and not just themselves.  There are plenty of good non-believers around.  Better people often than the mean-spirited and ill informed Christians I see on the news every day.

There are a lot of folks, though, who need a religion to give a structure, a reason, a compass from outside of themselves to live morally good lives.   What I call good religion - no matter the brand – can be a powerful means of reigning in some of humankind’s darker inclinations and encouraging, even rewarding our brighter side.  (Some of the great non-religious leaders and nations of our time haven’t done a very good job of it morally.  Think Joe Stalin, Chairman Mao.)

Religion can provide an impetus to moral living.  From the lowest of motivations (God will roast you if you are bad) to more laudable motives (for the betterment of society, to help my neighbor, to follow the example of my Teacher), religion can make the world more livable.  And that’s a good thing.

But of course religion has also provided great motivation for evil living – from the Spanish Inquisition to our invasion of Iraq cheered on by the likes of evangelist John Hagee and his ilk.  Religious motivation can go both ways.

To summarize: I believe there is a Holy Presence that began and is continuing to be create the worlds around me.  Could be wrong – not certain.  But something inside compels me to believe in that Mystery above and within all things.  That belief offers me some comfort, a purpose, and calls me to live responsibly and morally in the world. 

To be continued . . . .

Saturday, October 9, 2010

What's Next?

We will be pushing on into and through the "New Testament" for the next meeting . . .  I encourage you to read that section, and also Borg's section on the "Old" Testament if you haven't done that yet.   The "New" is based on the "Old" and so it's important to have an idea of the major stories and themes of the Hebrew Scriptures if we are to grapple with Christianity well.

When we finish the Borg book . . . what next?  Here's a book just out that strikes my fancy:  see what you think!  Krasny, who seems to have lots of good credentials, is neither in the new atheism camp nor the believing camp . . .  but tries to understand both in his own spiritual journey.  You can see the Table of Contents, the Index (quite extensive), and read the first chapter at Amazon.

Anarchy and ChristianityAnother possibility:  Anarchy and Christianity, by Jacques Ellul.  Recommended by Mick:   

A book recommended by Brian:  God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome then and Now.  This expands what Borg said talking about God and Caesar.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Sacred "treasure" always in earthen vessels

Quaker writer Parker Palmer talks about an image that St. Paul used 2000 years ago when he said, "We have this treasure [the sacred, the presence of God, the Spirit, an experience with the Holy . . . or whatever else one may call it] in earthen vessels."  Frail, transitory "vessels" that "hold" the Holy -- be they words or metaphors or rituals, religions -- are not what is Holy, sacred.  They are important, but they are not the Holy.

Our religions -- our sacred texts, our traditions, our ways of "understanding" God . . .  these are always incomplete, flawed, misleading, and subject to all sorts of abuse.  But they are what we have.  

Palmer writes,
"Every container we create to hold the sacred treasure is earthen, finite, limited and flawed -- and is it never to be confused with the treasure itself lest we confuse God's power with our own.  These containers include everything from the words and propositions that constitute our theologies and creeds, to the forms our worship takes . . . "

"If our containers prove too crimped and cramped to hold the treasure well, if they domesticate the sacred and keep us from having a live encounter with it . . . then our containers must be smashed and discarded so we can create a larger and more life-giving vessel in which to hold the treasure."

He tells of an old Celtic story about a monk who died and was interred in the monastery wall.  Three days later, the monks head noises coming from inside the crypt.  When they removed the stone they found their brother alive.  He was full of wonderment, saying, "Oh, brothers, I've been there!  I've seen it! And it's nothing at all like the way our theology says it is!"  So they put him back in the wall and sealed the crypt again.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Borg Approaches Planet Earth

Chapter Four: Creation

Having laid the foundation of how he invites us to "see" the Bible (or, rather, see God through the lens of the biblical stories), Borg addresses the Hebrew Scriptures, what Christians have called the "Old Testament."   First up:  the "creation stories" that are at the heart of the creationism/evolution battles that mar our time.

There are, so most scholars the last 100 years would say, are at least TWO creation stories in Genesis --  one from a "J" school, another from the "P" school of thought.  One very important word comes up here:  "myth."  In ordinary language if we say something is a "myth," we mean that it is false -- period.  The goal is to sort out "myth" from "fact," and there is nothing redeeming about "myth."

But in the world of religion -- this should be no surprise -- folks use that word in a very different way.  "Myth" on the lips of theologians means a sacred story -- non-literal language, metaphor, that is relating the spiritual and material realms.  Myth in religion is a good thing;  it is not pretending to be a literal description of the world.  It is only through myth -- metaphor -- that we can access the sacred.

Thus, the myths of Genesis are attempts to assign meaning to the world, to human nature, to God.  We see in the simple stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, something of ourselves:  we know fear, we know jealousy, we know how easy it is to do things we know we should not.  We long for "paradise" where all is well, where you can have an evening stroll with God; yet we know the pain of having lost Eden.  The myths of Genesis reflect us -- and can help us grapple with the great questions of life.  "Grapple" does not mean that we find "the answer," though. It is a lifelong search, the joy being in the journey rather than in arriving at the destination.  For Jews and for Christians the sacred stories -- sacred because over the centuries people came to call them that -- impart to them the Holy.  In them they sense God's presence -- not completely, nor in any finality, but in the present.

Chapter Five: The Pentateuch

With the 12th Chapter of Genesis begins the story of the Hebrew people, the story of Abraham and Sarah.  There follows stories about "the patriarchs:"  Abraham and Sarah's children and grandchildren . . . winding up down in Egypt.  Genesis closes with the Hebrew people in Egypt doing pretty well; Exodus picks up a century and more later, the Hebrew people now enslaved by Pharaoh.  Then comes in about the 13th century BCE Charleton Heston (Moses) leading them out, through the Red Sea, and on into the Promised Land.  Unfortunately the Promised Land was already inhabited, and so the need (ordered by God, say the stories) to do battle.  Battle they do -- here we find those stories of slaughtering women and children, and men too that embarrass us.  Surely, we say, this was not God's doing, but the doing of humankind who in the telling of their tales of conquest added the blessing of God.

Along way -- through Moses "the lawgiver" -- comes "the law" in the form of the 10 Commandments that are still proudly displayed in courtrooms across the nation. (That one about keeping the Sabbath, though, we have quietly dismissed even in the Bible Belt.  Go figure.)  In addition to those 10 laws there are 603 other rules, mostly in the book of Leviticus.  Things like taking your unruly son to the elders of town to be stoned.

Borg raises the question about the historicity of the stories of Abraham and Sarah and their offspring -- this stuff did happen a LONG time ago, after all, and these are the only records we have of them.  He concludes, as we should expect given what he said in the first three chapters, that it really doesn't matter if they are historical figures.  History is not the point; meaning is.  The question to ask is not "Are these real people in history . . . can we trust the factuality of the stories?"  The questions to ask instead are, "Why did Israel tell these stories?  And why did she tell them this way?"

The overarching theme of the Abraham stories is that of "promise and fulfillment." The repeated barrenness of the Matriarchs intensifies this -- even when fulfillment looks to be impossible, God comes through for the Hebrew nation.

The fulfillment theme carries through the Joseph stories, and pre-eminently in the story of Exodus, "Israel's Primal Narrative."  The story of slaves being freed from bondage -- the "meta story" that God frees people -- is rehearsed over and over again in the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, especially in the Psalms.  The Exodus in many ways created the Hebrew nation, and gave it its identity:  "We are the people that God by his great love and mercy and power brought us up out of the bondage of Egypt, and gave us a Land."

"The Covenant" is another key concept in the Pentateuch:  a "contract," or "agreement" between God and the Hebrews that God would be their God -- doing the things Gods do, like protection and provision and fertility -- if they would do their part: obey the laws of God, and serve God -- "Yahweh" -- alone.  There was one other aspect to this Covenant that emerged over the centuries, though:  this was a "everlasting" covenant.  As the prophets were to say later, after Israel had repeatedly failed on their side of the bargain, Yahweh would continue to be their God, no matter what.  Yahweh would continue to love them, calling them back, accepting them back again and again.  This is the grace of God that is made so clear in the New Testament, especially in the writings of St. Paul.

Chapter 6:  The Prophets

Here come the preachers: Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, Micah, and so on.  These were not primarily interested in foretelling the future; they were interested in speaking for God ("Thus says the Lord . . . ") to the present situation:  they called the kings and queens to be fair, to be just -- to treat the poor with equity.  They told the same thing to the rich.   They dared to say that what was important in religion is not the ritual -- animal sacrifices in this case -- but being just.  "What does God require?" asked Micah.  "To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God."

The prophets, while critical of the status quo, including the political and religious establishment, were always prophets of hope:  God will not forsake us, they said. If we will return, God will greet us with open arms.  Jesus in his "Parable of the Prodigal Son" uses this same proclamation of hope.

Chapter 7: Wisdom Literature

Here we have the poetry of the Bible: the Psalms, especially.  Even the "literalists" have to see the metaphor that is at every turn: The Lord is my shepherd . . .

The book of Proverbs is a book, well, of proverbs on how to live.  Not a lot of "religion" here, but a lot of good advice.

Ecclesiastes is always a challenge -- everything is but vanity, says the writer.  It all comes to naught in the end.  So "eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart!"

The story of Job absolutely denies that suffering is caused by sin.  Absolutely denies it.  Period.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Reading the Bible Again, or Maybe for the First Time

From the very start we have been running across that fundamental word of faith, "believe."  We speak of those who "believe" and those who do not.  We ask of ourselves, or others, "Just what do you believe about God?" Or, "Do you really believe the Bible?"

The Barrett book was all about how the brain "believes" anything at all, that is, how we come to accept certain things as true and real, or false and unreal.  It seems that we are incessantly looking around for "agents" -- the causes of effects in our lives -- and that we are not adverse at all to finding agents we can't see or hear or touch.  That doesn't make those gods real, but he made a good case I thought that our inclination toward believing in gods is part of who we are.

Harris took religionists to task for believing things for which there is no empirical, scientific evidence -- stories that not only defy common sense and experience but, in the hand of the wrong people of which there have been many in every religion, have motivated "believers" to do horrifically evil deeds, in the name of God. Rather than keep on believing stories that are  patently false and provide fodder for hatred, he said, let's do away with them and be reasonable people who will through science find ways of living in peace, caring for each other.

Haught took issue with folks like Harris who, Haught would say, arbitrarily have chosen the scientific method as the only way of knowing.  The scientific naturalist's world is too limited.  And so Haught argues for a multi-layered understanding of  what is real -- the empirical to be sure, but also intuitive, relational, spiritual too.  The strongest evidence for the existence of a "God," he said, is the existence of critical intelligence.  "God" is beckoning to creation, and our longing, our anticipation for something more is a clue to the existence of that something more.

If one is open to the possibility that religion may be on to something -- that there may be a spiritual realm not accessed by scientific, empirical observation but nevertheless still  "real" -- then perhaps it would be good to look into it.  The best place to start is one's own religion -- the prevailing religion of one's culture, one's family.  In our case that would be Christianity.

Thus, Marcus Borg's book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time.

The first three chapters lay the foundation - without which the rest of the book will make little sense.  It is crucial to understanding his starting point, because it is very different from what most of us have thought about the Christian faith.  Our word "believe" is critical to Borg's view of the Christian faith, because he doesn't think "believing" is at the center at all, at least not in the traditional meaning of that word.
Here are my notes on those chapters.

Chapter One: Some history about how Christians have understood the Bible and faith
Re-visioning Christian faith, experience.  A new way of “seeing” the Bible, God, Jesus, what “being a Christian” is about.

We “see” by using different “lenses.”  The old lenses, made by “modernity,” no longer work for many people in this “post modern age.”  The problem is not what we are trying to “see,” but the lenses through which we look at things, like the Bible.

Three foundational questions about the Bible:

1.  Its origin: where did it come from? Who wrote it?  Were they “inspired” by God? 
2.  Its authority: Is the Bible the only source of truth?  Does what the Bible says trump everything else, including science, including texts that others consider to be sacred, “God’s Word?”
3.  Its interpretation: What do the various texts of the Bible mean?  What do they teach?  Before we can apply its “authority” to a situation, we have to know what the Bible is saying - and that requires interpreting the text.

De-literalization of the Bible: especially around issues of the Genesis stories, homosexuality, and the Gospels.

Christian fundamentalism is a relatively recent development, starting in the late 1800s in reaction to Darwin’s theories and to “critical” study of the Bible taking root in seminaries.

The Old Way of “seeing,” of approaching the Bible:
“Natural literalism:” “Of course” what the Bible says to be factual is true – it “really” happened.  Until the advent of the scientific method people had no other choice – there were no alternatives to reading the Bible in any way other than “literally.”

With the coming science, those who wished to retain a literal reading of the Bible had to become “conscious literalists.”  That is, they knew of objections – problems in taking the Bible to be historically and scientifically true – but insisted that to be Christian one needed to keep on believing the Bible, even when that meant taking rather large “leaps of faith.” 

In the last quarter century more and more people within the church, having grown up in a climate of “natural literalism,” have come to a place where they simply cannot believe, literally, many of the biblical stories and teachings.  Their knowledge of science and culture prevents them from saying, “I know it sounds silly to believe this, so I will just turn off my critical thinking, say I believe, and hope for the best.”

“Traditional” Christianity has been founded on a literal understanding of the Bible, and is “doctrinal, moralistic, patriarchal, exclusivistic, and afterlife-oriented.”  Note that this is exactly the way Sam Harris understood Christianity.  Borg is going to argue that yes, this old way of seeing faith is not longer adequate or helpful.  It has proven to be in fact very destructive at times.  But rather than pitch the religion out altogether, Borg offers a new way of faith, one that takes into account what we now know scientifically and culturally, one that is satisfying to individuals and healing for societies.

Modernity: born of the Enlightenment, the “modern” way of viewing the world embraces science as the primarily (only?) way of knowing – epistemology.  Haught’s scientific naturalist has a closed system of cause and effect.

But a exclusively scientific worldview, a materialistic understanding of reality, has caused us to be “preoccupied with factuality – with scientifically verifiable and historically reliable facts.”  (p 16)   Fundamentalists insist that everything in the Bible be “factual,” and that if it is NOT factual, then faith is lost.   Hence, they have to insist, at all cost, that the Bible be factually “true.”

Christianity, in reaction to and to live within modernity, came to prioritize “believing.”  Believing, that is, that certain statements about God are factually, historically true. 

Postmodernity: We are between periods, transitioning into a new way of thinking, of knowing.  Three key elements of postmodernism as it impacts faith are:
1.  Realizing that every culture, including our own, is conditioned and therefore limited.
2.  Turning toward experience of God, rather than mere doctrine about God.
3.  Stories can be “true” without being literally, factually true.  “Metaphor” is more important that history.

Chapter Two: The Bible and God

1.  A Human Response to God: its Origin
    Borg says that there is first the experience of God/Spirit/Sacred that people in various times and places have had.  People today profess to having such experiences.
    The Bible is the record of how some of those people tried to describe that numinous experience in words. “Whatever we say about the sacred is a human creation.”   It is a human construction.  The Bible tells us now “they” saw things, not how God saw things.”
    Borg gives five excellent examples of how seeing the Bible as a human response makes interpreting the Bible a very different matter from the literalist point of view.

2. The Bible as Sacred Scripture
    The Bible is sacred in status, not in origin.  It became “sacred” over a very long period of time.  It became sacred because of its use, over a long period of time, within the Judeo-Christian culture.
    In the old way, the Bible stands over us as a monarch, telling us what to believe and do.  In the new way the Bible is the ground of the world in which Christians live.  (P 30)
    Its authority is in that it is the primary body of writings that shape our world.  We approach it critically, with all the knowledge we can have scientifically and historically and culturally, to listen for God nature and ways as we “dialogue” with the stories.  It provides our “foundational images of reality and life.”

3.  The Bible as Sacrament of the Sacred
    “Sacrament:” a means of grace, a vehicle by which God becomes present, a means through which the Spirit is experienced. – occasions for the experience of God.  Historically many people have encountered God through the stories, the psalms, and other parts of the Bible.  Many today sense God’s presence in meditation using the Bible.

4.  The Bible as “the Word of God”
    It is the “Word” of God, not the “words” of God. Very important distinction.  “Word” means disclosure, revelation – unveiling . . .  A metaphor for God’s self-disclosure, a means of connecting with God.

Concluding Metaphors for the Bible
    A finger pointing to the moon . . .
    A lens through which we see . . .
    Sacrament . . . a means of experiencing God.  But we should not focus on the means, but on God. 
    Additional metaphor: Bible as a window through which we see God.  It is smudged, broken, distorted . . . and so we look not at it, but through it.

Chapter Three: the Historical-Metaphorical Approach of reading the Bible

    The Historical approach brings the findings of historical, cultural, linguistic scholarship to the Bible, asking why a text was written, what it meant in its original context, how the text was used since then.  There are HUGE differences between our world and the worlds of the Bible.  Reading a text as if it were written next door leads to much confusion.
    The historical-critical understanding of the Bible is very complicated and technical.  And scholars within any given field of research disagree with one another.  But still, it is important to bring our knowledge to the text to better understand its meaning for us.
    The metaphorical approach is mutlilayered.  There is always more than one nuance of meaning in every metaphor.  This approach emphasizes “seeing” rather than “believing.”  The point is not to “believe” something about God, but to experience God, or at least an aspect of the sacred.  Metaphors can be profoundly true, but not factual, historical.  It is not less than fact, but more.
    Metaphor can go too far, wandering far from the intention of the text.  Thus the need both for the historical/linguistic study of a text and also the community of faith: the community will discern if an interpretation has missed the mark, going too far from the intention of the story.
    Three stages of encountering a text:
1. Precritical - accepting a story on face value, not questioning its factuality, and accepting the meaning explained to us.
2.  Critical thinking – concerned only with factuality.  Adolescents are big into pointing out the non-factuality of metaphors: “The sun doesn’t really “come up,” you know!  The earth is revolving!”
3.  Postcritical naivete - the ability to hear the biblical stories one again as true stories, knowing that they may not be factual stories.  Truth does not depend upon factuality.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Some In Between Thoughts

As we are "in between" in our reading . . .  finishing the Haught book when we meet next September 11th, and then starting a new book after that, I thought I'd post some thoughts, to keep the gray (or is it grey?) matter moving.  
     Sam Harris pulled no punches in his unrelenting assault on not just some religion, but all of it, from the most extreme forms to the most gentle.  The world would be able to be a far better place if we could all disavow our myths, legends and stories about the gods, and instead rely on reason and our innate longings to be kind to each other.  That some of the most horrific deeds in history, including misdeeds happening at this moment, were done in the name of this religion or that cannot be denied.  It is a sad history we have, we Christians.  We haven't done ONLY bad things -- hospitals, schools, food distribution centers etc etc etc literally around the world have been started by people of great faith -- people willing to give up their lives for the sake of obeying their God.  But our misunderstanding of our own sacred stories has sometimes fed our fears, and we have sinned, to say the least.
     There have been a number of very popular books on atheism the last few years, Sam Harris' being just one of many.  Like Harris, they are not shy to call us religionists out, and like Harris (so I gather from what I have read about them) they have nothing good to say about religion in the world.  I recently read about a fellow named Greg M. Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University. Epstein has a new book, Good Without God:  What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.  In it he says, "The work that we need to do, we atheists, humanists and nonbelievers, is to build a better world and not try to tear down those with whom we disagree.  When our goal is erasing religion, rather than embracing human beings, we all lose."
     Epstein apparently is looking for a third way, a way between militant religion on the one hand, and militant atheism on the other.  That sounds to me like a good way to go.   We should, and could, learn a thing or two from those who most radically disagree with us.  No?

Friday, August 13, 2010

A lively argument emerges, with the purpose of seeing more than meets the eye

Haught’s argument with the hardcore scientific naturalists continues first by asking how “life” with its intricacies and complexities, especially life that exhibits “critical intelligence” (I would add life with the intellectual capacity to follow all of this – a capacity I do not have on every page!) got started.   How did such complexity and order – life – emerge from lifelessness, from chaos?  He does acknowledge that religion might wonder why, if there is a purposive, directing God-force enlivening the process, why it took so long, with so much trial-and-error, not to mention suffering, to get us to this point.

Naturalism says that given blind chance, impersonal selection, and enough time – cosmic time – the earth and us and the universe can be explained.  But Haught cites the boatloads of "information" found in each and every DNA molecule and asks where all that information came from.   Again, he uses an illustration – this time a pot of boiling water – to say that what is real must be described not in physical terms alone, but personal, internal, spiritual terms too – layers of reality.

The idea of “emergence” is important to him as a clue to there being something outside, beyond the physical world accessible to the scientific method.  He posits that there must be some “beckoning” from outside the system - a god perhaps that invites creation to become more, to become more and more complex.  The “most dazzling” example of emergence is our own critical intelligence.

Then too “purpose” is another clue that there is more than the merely material world around us.  Our brains (remember Barrett) seem to be hard-wired to seek purpose.  It is “natural,” he says, for us to look for, long for, seek out purpose, meaning in our lives.  Naturalists seem to assume that their lives, thinking, writing, and their pursuit of truth (which Haught commends) has purpose, and s worth pursuing.  But where does that “belief” come from?  Why believe that there is any purpose for life?  Haught says we are “purpose-driven, meaning-seeking, truth-telling” beings and wonders how that can be explained using exclusively materialistic evidence.

Then there is the chapter on “Seeing.”  By “seeing” he means “perceiving,” noticing the world, understanding what is real and important.  And he returns to his central thesis, that there are multiple “layers” of understanding – including the scientific layer.  Scientific naturalists, he argues, have for no demonstrable reason chosen to deny other means of seeing – other layers of perceiving what is real.  He cites several philosophers, including Whitehead and de Chardin who argue that “intuition” (Harris liked this word too) is a valid, maybe more valid, means of perceiving the world.  It is the primary perception, while empiricism is secondary.  

Haught does not wish to denigrate science – he in fact lauds its work. But he faults, as does Harris, I believe, the “physicalists” who would denigrate other ways of knowing and being in the world.  He notes that they by their starting assumptions (which they cannot "prove" empirically) preclude seeing more deeply – and they never ask the questions that most people in most places and times have said are the most important questions – purpose, meaning, ethics.

It is in this area – the intuitive, primary perception – that religious language can be used – metaphor, symbol, story that seeks to understand not what is on the surface, the physical world, but what is below, inside, in the spirit.

As Emily Dickinson said . . . (emphasis mine)

Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant – 
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Scientific Naturalism Beware. Haught is coming.

We have thought about thinking (Barrett), heard from a fellow (Harris) who thinks all religion (all) is a crock (he would say it better, but I think that's a good one-word summary), and now comes a Georgetown professor, and a Catholic at that: John Haught.    Barrett and Harris both have got us thinking about just what this religious impulse in humankind is, and how our brains seem to deal with it.  Harris raised many valid objections to the atrocities of religion, and made us liberals wonder about our role in the ongoing horrors committed in God's name.  But what he proposes to replace religion -- where pure reason is the arbiter of ethics, and transcendental/spiritual experience can be had, if we only knew enough, by following a manual -- to me seemed inadequate, and unsatisfying.  Not all of you agree with me, of course!  But let's keep him in mind as we continue the journey.

Haught, in his book Is Nature Enough? takes aim at “scientific naturalism” which he defines as the belief (there’s that favorite word of ours!) that nature is all there is, and that science alone can make sense of it.  By “nature” he means matter – what can be seen, touched, measured, experienced by the physical senses.  The scientific naturalist denies that any realities exist distinct from the natural world.

Harris, if I understand him, called these folks “physicalists.”  You will remember that Harris didn’t agree with them either.

Haught will argue that there is no good reason to believe that nature is all there is.  Throughout the book he will seek to show logical inconsistencies on the part of people who limit reality to the physical world, and he will call them to explain human experience strictly within the natural world.  Scientific naturalism, he will say, cannot be justified experientially, logically, or scientifically.

The two large questions he wants to raise are:   Is nature all there is?  And, if nature IS all there is, is there any point to the universe?

Chapter I.  Is Nature Enough?
Carl Sagan is one of these scientific naturalists who say that the universe is the only reality, and therefore belief in God a fictitious distraction.  Richared Dawkins is mentioned as well.  Sagan and Dawkins argue that the world as we experience it came about through natural evolution, and a lot of time - “deep cosmic time.”

In Haught’s view, there are varying shades, flavors, (my word) of Scientific Naturalism:
  Hard - there is empirical reality only, with no room for ambiguity, spirit.  It’s matter, stupid, and that's all.
   Soft - a less rigid understanding, but still nature is all that is real.
   Religious Naturalism: These folk use some religious language like "sacred" and "mystery" in reference to nature as deserving reverence, but in the end nature is all for them too.

Haught lists what he understands to be the major tenets of naturalism in the subsection "Is Naturalism Spiritually Adequate?  These are important to grasp, as these are what Haught is going to argue to be unreasonable.

Further, there are "Sunny" naturalists who find meaning simply in being part of nature - discovering, beauty, evolutionary advancement.  And then there are the "Sober" ones who are not so pleasant – Albert Camus is the candidate here.  Haught thinks that these, as depressing as they are, are the most honest of the naturalists.

Haught then advances his view of what he calls “layered reality,” intermediary explanations that are not complete, but are nevertheless true, using an illustration, or analogy of a wood fire. "Reasonable theology" - “progressive” is the term I have been using - allows for layered reality, while  Fundamentalism be it religious or scientific does not.

2.  Religion
Here Haught gives us a definition of religion, saying that it's not so much knowing as being known, not grasping but being grasped.  Surrender, worship, prayer, frustration – this is the religious experience.  This should raise some interesting questions for us as we through this year struggle to define just what OUR religion, our faith is all about.  Religion as Haught uses our word is "a conscious appreciation of and response to the mystery that grounds, embraces and transcends both nature and ourselves.”

An important concept of Haught’s mentioned in this section is the word “anticipation.”  This is related to the religious word, “hope.”  He will argue that “anticipation” is an important clue to what is “beyond nature.” Naturalists, he will argue, need to be able to explain on purely scientific terms where and how that sense of anticipation rises in us.  And they need to explain as well how we have a sense of morality.  Naturalists, he says, demand “evidence” but they will accept only “scientific” evidence.  They don’t demand that God be made visible, but that at least there be some “visible and unambiguous tracks of divine reality in the natural world.”

“Critical intelligence” cannot be fully accounted for by nature alone.  The “mind” (Barrett’s discussion come to mind here) for the naturalist to be consistent must be accounted for by our mind, by thought, by reason.  And this, says Haught, is the challenge that the naturalists have not met.  “Critical intelligence” is the first of nine “natural phenomena” Haught will challenge the naturalist to explain on purely scientific terms.  He thinks they can’t do it.  And so, he thinks, these are acceptable pieces of “evidence” for the reality of the spiritual realm, and ultimately, of God.

Chapter two concludes with Haught giving us the outline of his religious beliefs – a God who is not above, but in; distinct from nature, but deeply involved with it; a God who makes and keeps promises, who calls us into a new and unprecedented future.

3.  Intelligence
In some ways we return here to our original topic of how our brains/minds work as Haught talks about “three distinct acts of cognition: experience, understanding, judgment.”  Humans, he says, instinctively, naturally, compulsively think in three steps: be attentive (experience the world), be intelligent (understand the world), and be critical (make a judgment about the world).  Notice, inquire, judge.  The fourth – be responsible by making a decision – comes up under his discussion of morality.

We necessarily go through these steps, seeking what is real, what is true. The steps can be corrupted, side-tracked into accepting as “true” something that is not.  But the impulse to find what is real, what is true in its most pure form, he says, is what makes us human.

“Truth” is “the object or goal of the pure desire to know.”  And knowing the truth requires courage – on the part of non-believers and believers alike. Courage to come to a truth that contradicts previous conclusions.  Truth is not what we prefer, or hope to be true; nor is it what serves a purpose.

Then Haught talks about five “fields of meaning” – types of knowing that critical intelligence may/must traverse in its search for the truth: Affectivity (feeling, emotion), Intersubjectivity (personal relationships), narrativity (story telling, myth, sacred tradition), beauty (aesthetic) and lastly, theory.   The first four are “primal” means of accessing the truth – these have been the primary religious paths), and the fourth, theory, has been the path of the scientific method.

Haught’s main argument against scientific naturalism is that it elevates theory over, and in fact denies any validity of, the first four, primal paths.  By doing so it arbitrarily rules out a vast realm of true knowing, valid experience.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

We Really Do Finish the Harris Book

But we will be referring back to him, I'm sure.   We are addressing huge questions in a very short time -- we could spend a decade reading books that spring from any of our books.  But time is short.  So I encourage you to read further on your own on any of the topics we raise.  The next book continues the general, foundational issue of just how we think, how we use "reason" in faith, how we view reality, including the possibility of religious reality.

Here are some reflections on this morning's discussion, and an assignment for what comes next:

The summer goes on, and so do we . . . a good discussion this morning finishing up the Harris book.   A number of us faulted Harris primarily because of his narrow (to us) use of the word "faith."   When he speaks of "faith" he means -- and this is a reasonable, historical use of the word -- the acceptance of and commitment to traditional articles of faith, including accepting the sacred books (Bible, Koran) as literal, inerrant revelations from God.   We moderates, on the other hand, have for some time (liberal theology took root in the 19th century) understand the Bible to be a human document, do not take in literally, and in fact reject large tracts of it as being decidedly not "the Word of God."

Still Harris' question is a good one -- if we don't have a sacred, inerrant book from which we can derive our morality, how can we know what is right and wrong?  He maintains that morality can be found through reason, and surely there are plenty of people in the world who profess no faith (certainly not in Harris' sense of that word) but who without the benefit of Church or Imam are able to live lives at least as morally as religionists, sometimes more so.  Religion is not necessary for some -- many? -- people to know what is the morally right thing to do -- they just know it inside.   St Paul, no less, acknowledges that in Romans 1 and 2.  The doing the right thing, living ethically, may be another thing, and for many people in history religious faith has helped that, either by threatening Judgment or by affirming that the other person is a "child of God" just like me and therefore deserving right treatment.  But such statements of faith are not necessary motivators, and Harris may be right that there are other -- better? -- ones to be found.

We seem to agree that the kind of faith Harris describes in such detail is NOT the faith we would profess.  The ongoing question will be:  what IS the faith I am comfortable professing -- to what am I willing to commitment myself as being of ultimate importance . . . what expression of faith seems reasonable to me?  If God's "revelation" is ongoing, how can I spot it?

We finished with a poem about the ongoing search for ultimate meaning, "the secret" of life:  See what you think:

The next book is Is Nature Enough? You can get it at Haught is going to argue that "naturalism" is not reasonable, and that there are other ways in addition to empirical "scientism" to know reality.

Let's read Chapters 1, 2, and 3 -- that's 23% of the book, says my IKindle.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Harris, Part Two -- Chapters 4 and 5, and a Peek at the Rest

In the first three chapters Harris has made a forceful and colorful case that ideas have consequences . . . and bad ideas have bad consequences.  A good many religious ideas by his account are indeed bad ones, leading to horrible consequences for those who hold other religious ideas, or none: the Inquisition, Crusades, the Holocaust, witch hunts, and sadly enough so on and on and on.

He is using “faith” in what he understands to be the “biblical” sense defined in Hebrews – the intellectual acceptance, embrace, of stories and concepts about God and morality based in no empirical evidence at all, but merely on dogma of the past and hope for a fantasy future.

Anticipating objections that people need religion to establish morality/ethics – to know how to live in the world morally – Harris argues that people really don’t need religion to be “compassionate,” to have sympathy for others, to wish their happiness and to alleviate their suffering.  “Our common humanity is reason enough,” he says at the end of Chapter 3.  He repeats this later – noting that everyone we know will suffer loss, sorrow, will die – “Why would one want to be anything but kind to them in the meantime?”

A question I want to raise with him is his optimism about human behavior, reflected above.  Folks have for a very long time found reasons to be lots of things but kind to each other – and their religions have not spurred that on alone.  When the guy next door steals my cow, or my wife, I just may respond in kind, but not kindly.  Harris seems, despite his vast, detaled, and gruesome knowledge of the horrendous acts humankind has and continues to inflict on each other, to envision a time when people will find utopia by being reasonable.

It seems to me that people act most unreasonably, more often than not.  

This is linked in my feeble thinking to his assertion that beliefs drive behavior.   Suicide bombers use their religious belief to steel their nerve – urged on by family, friends, leaders – but a whole bunch of other things, I am guessing, is also going on inside them.

My religious beliefs in a general way guide and motivate my living, but not exclusively.  I am more often motivated by fear, by ambition, by pleasure, anger, jealousy.  

Chapter 4 – Harris understands that there are some good religious beliefs out there, and bad ones – and some really bad ones.  Islam, he says, has more than its share of the latter.  The chapter will not win any converts to Islam.

Christians, at least the moderate ones, are free to keep reading the Sermon on the Mount while ignoring the violence of Revelation (I do – what a nutty book!).  But, he says, Islam will not openly allow that – even though many moderate Muslims do.  

Chapter 5 – Harris argues that laws that condemn certain drugs (marijuana, for example) while allowing others (alcohol) is patently unreasonable.  That does make sense to me - the “war on drugs” is a failure, and will continue to be so – although I don’t blame such silly laws on a God spying on people.  I really don’t think God is “watching” me – He/she has much larger concerns I should think.

Chapter 6 – “A Science of Good and Evil”

IF religion in its best form provides a people a code of ethics (say, the Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount), and IF religion at its best offers a person meaning beyond him or herself, even a transcendental experience of God, being “one” with the unseen but real spiritual reality – a spiritual or mystical real-life experience that Christians have called communing with God . . . 

And if one, like Harris, rejects all religion . . . where does one – or a society without religion – get its “ethics,” is sense of morality, or right and wrong?  AND Harris would want to add also the experience of “mysticism” and “spirituality” apart from (dreaded) faith.

That seems to me to be the questions he is trying to answer in this chapter.  “Ethics” – “right and wrong” – he says are really questions of “happiness and suffering.”  What brings happiness – to me, and to others – is right; what hinders happiness for me or others – certainly what causes suffering, is wrong.   Again he asserts that humanity doesn’t need anything but reason and self-interest to motivate people to do the right, to not do the wrong: “We simply do not need religious ideas to motivate us to live ethical lives.”

Harris rejects both Relativism and Pragmatism as sufficient bases for making ethical decisions.  His reason: both deny that there are real, (absolute?) ethical values. Relativism includes tolerance for even wrong behavior (religion-based bad behavior) and Pragmatism says that what is useful is therefore true, at least for the moment.

It is of interest to me that Harris here is on the side of the Evangelical/Orthodox Christians who reject Relativism and Pragmatism too – insisting that there are absolute ethical truths – ideas that are always right (more often always wrong).  They want to find those absolutes in written revelation (the Bible); Harris seeks them through scientific experimentation . . . and/or “intuition” – another term I was surprised to find him using approvingly.

Intuition – that “irreducible leap” necessary from that last bit of factual and experiential reality to another level of deeper or higher reality?    Barrett talked about “intuitve” knowledge, and so will the next book, Is Nature Enough?  

Chapter 7 – “Experiments in Consciousness”

Religious folk – from Christian mystics to the “whirling dervishes” of Sufi Islam to, I suppose, peyote smokers of Native American religion – have always talked about experiencing God directly – communing with God, feeling God’s presence, “knowing” God within, “talking” to and with God, being one with God.   Harris wants that experience, minus the religious language.

“There is a form of well-being that supercedes all others, that transcends the vagaries of experience itself.”    . . .  “Investigating the nature of consciousness directly, through sustained introspection, is simply another name for spiritual practice.” 
This “spiritual” experience – sought after for millennia by religionists, often in vain (one thinks of Mother Teresa whose letters revealed that she spent most of her life seeking but never finding an experience of God!) – this same experience, says Harris, is simple – or at least teachable: “Mysticism, to be viable, requires explicit instructions, which need suffer no more ambiguity or artifice in their exposition than we find in a manual for operating a lawn mower.”

Really?   This brings up an overall objection of mine to Harris – that he would reduce spiritual experience – even he says, I think, that this is the highest experience available to humankind – to mere methodology, technique, practice.  It sounds so very artificial to me . . . 

Bottom line on the book for me:  

YES people use their religions to do awful things. Christian have burned witches, subjugated women, allowed slavery, promoted wars . . .   Islam, if Harris is even half correct in his description, is worse.  

Christianity at least has the last 200 years allowed, even promoted at times, thoughtful challenge to its most cherished articles of faith – and have sought to let growing knowledge inform it, and change it.  Progressive Christians – like FCC – have turned away from dogmas in light of new information – we say that God is “still speaking” and that’s why we as a church are “open and affirming” of GLBT people.  We have far to go, but our faith allows it – insists on an openness to the future, to God in the future.

Ideas have consequence.  But most of us are ruled more by other, less clear things – fears, hatred not related to religion, tribalism, etc etc.  

A sense of our morality coming from someplace “beyond” us – say, from God’s Spirit within and speaking over the aeon through many prophets, for us as Christians pre-eminently through Jesus as we understand him – is a higher motivator toward not mere ethical behavior but virtues like self-sacrifice, love for even the enemy than rationality.

If one seeks a mystical experience like Harris describes, when one loses the self – and not everyone wants that, do they? – but if I want such an experience beyond the unspeakable beauty of a sunrise, a flower, a Bach Intermezzo, then I would not want one that could be produced by following a prescribed routine.  That seems so predictable, so merely human.   God, I expect, is far more interested in me loving my neighbor than me being caught up in ecstasy, especially an ecstasy I produced myself.

Friday, June 18, 2010

We Begin the End of Faith

Having learned from Barrett’s book everything there is to know about our brains, and how we believe this or that to be true or not . . . no that’s not really quite right, now is it, I don’t think, but I DO think . . . I think.  

Ok, so with Barrett’s book we have barely begun to understand how my brain is telling my fingers what to type at this very moment – or how your eyes, sensing the difference between the black from the white on your screen right now, are getting that information (if that’s the word for it) to your brain, and it is putting it all together to make “sense” of it . . .

I start again. 

How we think, know, believe . . . these are complex issues that neuroscientists are barely beginning to understand.  It is fascinating stuff, and far beyond the reaches of my aging brain.

The Harris book -- The End of Faith --  in the second chapter touches on cognitive science research in the section, “Beliefs as Principles of Action” – The human brain is a prolific generator of beliefs about the world – but that is not the subject of his book.  (Lurton has lent me a book he has read – How God Changes Your Brain (Newberg and Waldman) that goes into brain theory in much greater detail.  The authors are neuroscientists who study the neural mechanisms of spirituality. They argue that “the human brain is uniquely constructed to perceive and generate spiritual realities.  Yet it has no way to ascertain the accuracy of such perceptions.”)

The “accuracy of such perceptions” is exactly what Harris is concerned about.  It seems to me that his base assumption is that ideas have consequences . . . “As a man believes, so he will act.”  Harris wants us to be sure we have good reason to believe what we do, because believing the wrong things (false ideas) certainly has spawned some nasty behavior across time – much of it by religious people.  That he documents without question.  And the advent of nuclear weapons makes the consequences of religious belief potentially disastrous not just for a few, but for the world.

The focus of his (justified) ire is what I would call “fundamentalism” of any faith – those who take their sacred book literally, and to heart, and act upon that faith.  It is of interest, though, that he doesn’t spare the likes of me – a religious “moderate” – and he makes good points we need to deal with.

Note that Harris is careful to helpfully define the “faith” he is questioning  – faith “in its ordinary, scriptural sense.”  Paul Tillich’s use of the word (and other contemporary people) is not the “faith” Harris is attacking – and my own faith is much closer to Tillich’s than the other . . . but as we talk about faith we need to have in mind just what it is that we’re talking about.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Is it hard to be an atheist? Barrett's last chapters

In Chapter 7 Barrett asserts that if you believe in the existence of “minds,” (yours, and others’) then you can believe in the existence of gods, or better yet, God.   No scientific evidence exists that proves people have minds. (p. 95) Minds, he says, are not accessible to direct investigation, and have not been proven to exist.  The brain can be scientifically explored – observed, weighed, measured, experimented with.  But the mind – that’s something else.

Why then do we believe in “minds?”  We do intuitively – universally, and tenaciously Barrett says.  We just know.  We see evidence of what minds do – but we can’t look at a mind, as we can a brain.  Further, says Barrett: if we can believe in the existence of “minds” without any empirical evidence, why not God too – a divine “mind” for which we have no empirical evidence, but that our minds quickly, naturally, seemingly inevitably, and almost universally want to believe in.

He concludes Chapter 7 with challenging scientists (by this I understand Barrett to mean someone who adopts a solely empirical approach to what is real; see his definition of "scientism" below) to be consistent.  For example, when a person denies that people can willfully do anything but still hold their children responsible for “willful” disobedience. (p. 104)

Barrett gives another great summary at the end of the chapter, p 104.  He states his most direct criticism of the followers of “scientism” - These same scientists who reflexively assert that belief in any and all gods is unwarrented on scientific grounds blindly ingnore the countless other beliefs they hold near and dear that find themselves in the same scientific predicament as God. (p. 105)

Chapter 8 begins with a summary of his entire thesis.  Thus, believing in God is a natural, almost inevitable consequence of the types of minds we have living in the sort of world we inhabit, similar to why it si that people almost universally believe in minds of humans and many animals. (p 108)

He then addresses the question, "If theism is so natural, how do you explain the existence of atheism?"  Being an atheist, he says, is not easy. (p 108) You have to overcome a number of factors that have led most of humankind to believe in gods.

At the end of Chapter 8 Barrett talks about scientism – the worldview dedicated to the notion that science ultimately can answer all questions and solve all problems.  (p 118)
And on that same page those helpful words again . . .  To summarize . . .   Including these provocative words: Only privileged minorities enjoy atheism.  If religion is the opiate of the masses, atheism is a luxury of the elite.   . . . Religious belief is the natural backdrop to the oddity that is atheism.

“In Conclusion” is Chapter 9 where Barrett addresses the objections that religion exists largely because it has been spread by threat (of hell) and by force of arms.  Nor do people, he says, believe in God because of “mystical experiences.”  On page 123 he admits that people for the other side of the fence from him (atheists) may well use the findings of cognitive science, and Barrett’s own arguments, to support their conclusion, and not his.  He does not argue with that – he has not been trying in his book to prove the existence of God, but only to show that belief in gods is quite natural.  Whether God exists cannot be proven (or disproven) by science.  Metaphysical concerns such as this remain in the domain of philosophy. (p 123)   We will hear this argument again in Jay Gould’s book, Rocks of Ages.

His concluding statement: Why would anyone believe in God?  The design of our minds leads us to believe.