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 . . . .