On Religion

What is the “true religion”?  And out of humankind’s religious traditions, which religion or religions are “true”?  I was recently asked some questions like these.  Certainly different people will offer different answers to these questions.  Some will say my religion is the only true religion so all other religions are false.  Others will say no religion is a true religion because all religions are false.  Still others, like myself, will offer another answer.  So what I have to share is my perspective on these questions, which may have its controversies.  Since we are dealing with very rich subjects, first I will present some relevant definitions and then explore some additional notes and implications on what is the true religion.

Definitions of “religion,” “true,” and “God”

Let’s begin with sorting out some relevant definitions.  First of all, what is “religion”?  For better or for worse, there is no simple answer to this question.  Even religious scholars acknowledge that “religion” is notoriously difficult to comprehensively define.  So my definitions here are not intended to be comprehensive.  The following is simply intended to provide some modest definition of the nature and purpose of religion.

Bearing that in mind, different people will once again claim religion is different things.  Some say religion is about theological doctrines pertaining to God and sin and the afterlife.  So a person is religious if he or she accepts a religion’s theology.  Others say religion is about doing rituals, prayer, worship, so participating in a religious community’s practices makes someone religious.  Others say religion is about having a meaningful spiritual encounter with God, which means a person is religious if he or she has had some kind of mystical experience or awakening.  Yet others will say religion is about community, and so a person is religious by belonging to a religious group.  And still others will say religion is about being a good person, which means following a religion’s ethics makes an individual religious.

To some degree, all of these understandings can each be partially right.  But how can that be?  Ninian Smart proposed a useful model of religions as multidimensional cultures.  Smart claimed that historic religions tend to have the following interrelated dimensions, which include the 1) mythical, 2) ritual, 3) doctrinal, 4) experiential, 5) ethical/legal, 6) social/institutional, and 7) material.  What is relevant to see here is simply the multidimensional complexity of religious traditions.  Religions are partly complex cultural traditions.  So as much as some may try to reduce religion only to doctrine, or only to ethics, or only to rituals, or only to some other single dimension, it cannot be.  Because religion is broadly concerned with a whole way of life that permeates and encompasses the individual and the collective, as well as the public and the private spheres of human activity across time.  This always needs to be kept in mind with religion.

In addition to religion being a complex cultural way of life, knowing some of the origins of the word also gives some insight into the purpose of religion.  The word partly comes from the ancient Latin word religare, which means “to bind.”  What this word implies is a relational bond or between one thing and another, or one person and another.  Accordingly, one helpful way of understanding the nature and purpose of “religion” is that religion is concerned with a person’s relationships with self, others, nature, and most importantly God.  In human life these relationships exist in an overlapping, interrelated, dynamic equilibrium, each mutually influencing one another.

We often think of religion as a static noun.  But in this respect, which is one of the most important respects, I would propose it is more appropriate to understand religion as an active, dynamic verb.  So “religion” may be partly defined as an active way of life that is concerned with bettering one’s relationships with self, others, nature, and God.  It is this active, instinctive concern that has partly given rise to the many complex religious cultures of humankind, which each in similar yet diverse ways address our intrinsic human desire to know and improve our place in the context of life’s relationships.

Now what does it mean for a religion to be “true”?  The concept of what is “true” is likewise surprisingly rich.  So here we will only explore some relevant considerations.  Certainly what is “true” can be defined as what is “in accordance with fact or reality.”  This is generally the understanding modern people assume of what’s true, and this sense certainly has some relevance to the task of determining what is the true religion, since religion’s often make truth-claims about the nature of reality.  This definition treats what is “true” as an adjective that can be applied to some noun.  But if “religion” is most importantly an active way of life—or again, more of a verb—than what is “true” needs to be understood as more of an adverb as it applies to religion in this sense.

If you look up “true” in dictionaries, you will find a variety of definitions.  One online source I looked at had more than 20 definitions listed, which speaks to the richness of the subject.  As indicated, understanding what is “true” as an adverb is arguably most important when coming to understand what is the true religion.  As an adverb, “true” can mean “straight” or “accurate” or “in alignment” or “without deviation.”  For example, in the context of building a house, one could say the frame of the house is true if it is built straight and in proper alignment.  Or in the context of shooting an arrow from a bow, one could say the shot is true if it travels straight and accurately towards its intended target without deviation.  The same could also be said for shooting a bullet from a gun.

As we would expect based on this understanding, in the Judeo-Christian traditions the ancient word for “sin” was originally an archery term that meant “to miss the mark.”  An archer would “sin” if his arrow deviated and hit anything other than its intended target, the bullseye.  Sin is therefore understood in terms of an activity in relationship to a targeted goal.  And in the context of religion, the ultimate target of our human pursuits is of course God.  This understanding of “sin” perfectly fits with the understanding outlined thus far of what it means for a religion to be “true.”  Sin is, by definition, both the direction and outcome of any action that is untrue in relation to its proper target.  Or put even more simply, sin is what is not true.

Human beings are always instinctively oriented towards actively pursuing some goal or end.  We humans are goal-directed creatures by nature.  Religion is likewise always concerned with understanding and ordering our proper goals and pursuits.  More specifically, a religion may be said to be “true” to the degree that it orients one towards self, others, nature, and God in a way that promote wellbeing and growth in each relationship across time.  Accordingly, religion is untrue to the degree it fails to do this or, even worse, actually misdirects and disorients its adherents in ways that create disordered, dysfunctional, “sinful” relationships.

All of this raises the additional question, what is “God”?  Out of the areas considered thus far, the notion of God or the Divine is perhaps the richest and hardest to comprehensively define.  The Divine is called many different things by many different people and religious traditions, such as God, Yahweh, Christ, Brahman, Allah, Tao, Nirvana, Satcitananda, etc, etc.  And then each tradition has its own rich traditions that offer further words and images and ideas for the Divine.  Islam has its “99 names of Allah,” just to give one example.  These understandings of the Divine certainly are not completely identical, which is to some degree unsurprising and even expected, if they are in fact variously oriented towards a truly transcendent and therefore ultimately unnamable form of truth, goodness, and being.  We should therefore expect the see some diversity surrounding the universal unity of humankind’s historic religions if this is the case.

Beginning with a modest definition of God is necessary since many religious and nonreligious people fight and divide over doctrinal minutia without noticing the basic concerns they broadly share in common.  We can become so focused on the details that we miss the big picture; so focused on the different details of different leaves of different branches that we miss the forest for the trees.  So what I would offer is more of a modest, minimalist (which is still quite significant) definition of “God” for our purposes here.  I would propose our understandings of God are roughly aiming towards the same target insofar as they identify the Divine with the highest, most perfect conceivable form of truth, goodness, and being, and therefore the highest end that human beings can possibly imagine and pursue.  So for the purpose of understanding what is the true religion, “God” may be modestly defined as the highest possible form of truth, good, and being a person can imagine and pursue.  And given that God transcends what we humans can completely understand, and given that we humans are self-transcending creatures that continually extend ourselves beyond what we currently understand, we should expect our understandings of God to evolve as we evolve in our ongoing pursuit of God.

With all of this in mind, I would broadly propose that the “true religion” is any way of life which promotes actively orienting oneself in relationship towards self, others, nature, and God in such a way supports harmony, alignment, and growth in each relationship simultaneously through human life across time.  True religion is therefore concerned with dynamically ordering and organizing one’s significant relationships under God for the sake of human flourishing, with God being modestly defined as the highest form of truth, good, and being a person can possibly pursue.  This understanding therefore sees the true religion primarily as a dynamic, growth-oriented activity in the context of our multiple, overlapping, interpenetrating, evolving human relationships.

Take a look at this image for a moment.  What do you see when you look at this picture?

bullseye1

Giusto de’ Menabuoi, Paradise (dome fresco) c. 1378 Fresco Baptistery, Padua

One thing I see is a bullseye, with everyone standing around side by side, all oriented and directed towards the same unifying end.  It is a picture of social relationships in the context of their common relationship to God in Christ, as understood in Christian tradition.  It is a picture of some of the ideal relational arrangements that should be shared between people and Christ, the highest known form of truth, good, and being for Christians.  Incidentally, Christ is also pictured at the highest point of this domed ceiling.  So individuals who stand and look upwards upon this magnificent work of art can be filled with a sense that they too are participating in the living reality of what is being pictured.   Indeed, none of the features of this artwork are arbitrary.

Some notes and implications on the “true religion”

Now let’s further explore some notes and implications of this understanding of the true religion, in no particular order.  One thing that needs to be noted in relation to all of this is that every person and humanmade tradition is imperfect and therefore imperfectly related to self, others, nature, and God through time.  The human desire to know and live in truth, goodness, and fullness of life is a profoundly basic instinct.  This basic desire may certainly become obstructed or corrupted by other desires that can misdirect a person towards various ends of misery and ruin.  But everyone nevertheless has some intrinsic sense of what is true and good and ultimately desirable, as faint as it may be, which they imperfectly act on.  So I am imperfectly oriented towards my relationships with myself, others, nature, and God.  You are imperfectly oriented towards your relationships with yourself, others, nature, and God.  We all are and so are all our religions.

Second, this definition of the “true religion” transcends typical interreligious and nonreligious dividing lines.  This “true religion” cannot be restricted or confined to the boundaries of one particular historic tradition.  By this understanding, it would be possible, as far as I can tell, for self-identified Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, etc to be more or less imperectfly oriented towards pursuing the highest possible form of truth, good, and life that continually exceeds their current understandings.  And, likewise, it would be possible for self-identified Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, etc to be oriented towards some lesser, non-transcendent end that may be functionally worshipped in such a way that continually reinforces their current understandings, which will sooner or later end in ruin and extinction if it goes unchanged.

So this understanding of what it means to practice the “true religion” means, ironically enough, that a true religious practitioner cannot be identified simply by the religious or nonreligious label they may outwardly identify with.  That’s just too superficial.  Notice also this understanding does not require accepting what would typically be thought of as supernatural beliefs or claims.  I believe it is possible for a self-described atheist to be more or less as imperfectly oriented towards their relationships with self, others, nature, and the highest form of good they can conceive of as a religious person may be.  I’m sure some atheists are doing better in these regards than I am.

Third, this understanding means religion is not simply a matter of accepting a certain set of abstract ideas, despite how much some overly doctrinaire religious people may make it out to be.  Religion is, again, a whole way of life in relation to an ultimately desirable end.  And the degree to which a religious way of life is “true” is the degree to which it is aiming towards God.  Religion is not just about sorting out the right theology in your head.

Fourth, when religions are viewed as entire ways of life directed towards personal, social, natural, and spiritual growth in relation to God, transcendent truth, goodness, and being, the criteria for evaluating what is a “true religion” partly becomes the degree to which a religious way of life supports holy and healthy living in each of these relationships.  Likewise, the degree to which any religious way of life fails to do this or does the opposite, it is “untrue” by definition.  And since every humanmade religious tradition and movement is imperfect, each contain elements that are true and elements that are untrue, which is one reason why religions, like people, should be subject to continual reform and development as they relate to self, others, nature, and God.

The measure of the true religion is, in the final analysis, more practical over theoretical, more pragmatic than speculative, more outcome-oriented than dogma-oriented.  Theory, dogma, ritual, and tradition have their place.  But in the true religion, theory always is meant to apply to practice in ways that enhance wellbeing and growth.  Otherwise theory is useless, if not damnable.  For the religiously doctrinaire person who hates their neighbour is worse than the apparently nonreligious atheist who loves their neighbour.  Indeed, the end of theology isn’t more theology, nor ritual more ritual, nor law more law, nor culture more culture.  The proper end of all religious activities whether theology, ritual, law, or culture is more truth and goodness that leads to transformed living and human flourishing.

The only place where the word “religion” is used in the New Testament scriptures of the Christian tradition is in the following passage.  “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”  This speaks to true religion’s concern with bettering one’s social relationship, as well as keeping oneself pure by being well oriented towards self and God.

And fifth, any religion that is ultimately concerned with preserving its own cultural traditions above all else—instead of evolving in pursuit of transcendent truth, goodness, and being—is not a “true religion” in this most important respect.  Judeo-Christian tradition would say religion has become an idol in this case.  For any way of life that is oriented towards anything less than God is engaged in idolatry.  Idolatry involves deifying and worshipfully relating to some non-transcendent object, whether material or mental, as if it were God when it is, in fact, not God.

Any way of life, whether outwardly religious or nonreligious, is ultimately destined for ruin and extinction if it is oriented towards some non-transcendent end, whatever it may be.  For idolatry is a way of life that has a limit, a ceiling, a boundary that will sooner or later rigidly restrict it from evolving beyond its set capacity.  This is why when religious cultures are treated as ends in themselves, they eventually become rigid, restrictive, regressive, and resistant to change.  Only a way of life that is oriented towards a truly transcendent end is ultimately worthy of human devotion and glorifying to God.

This speaks to religion’s need to promote a proper relationship with religion itself, for religion is not religion’s end, but at best religious traditions can be supportive means for pursuing God in the context of human life.  Any religion that exists for its own self-preservation, or any religion that restricts the pursuit of God, is not a true religion.  Some Buddhists say religion, at its best, is like a finger pointing at the moon.  This is exactly right.

One of the most urgent tasks of true religion today is to establish good relationships with people of other religions or no religion.  A great deal of interreligious conflict is motivated by forms of tribal arrogance and pride backed by a false sense that one’s own religion is absolutely true to the exclusion of all other religions.  Perhaps if we formed better relationships with those outside of our own religion, we could further discover the real meaning of true religion, which transcends and unifies us across lesser tribal differences.

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On God

God has been frequently defined as transcendent truth and goodness in ancient religious traditions. So to be oriented towards pursuing God is to be oriented towards pursuing the highest possible truth and good that continually exceeds your current understanding. Pursuing God necessarily calls you forward on a journey of ongoing learning, change, and self-transcendence.

heaven

So if you do not claim to believe in God and yet orient yourself towards pursuing the highest possible truth and good that continually exceeds your current understanding, then I believe you are oriented towards pursuing that which I call God, more or less as imperfectly as I am.

And if you do claim to believe in God and yet do not orient yourself towards pursuing the highest possible truth and good that continually exceeds your current understanding, but rather remain stuck in rigid patterns of continually reinforcing your current understanding, then I question if you are oriented towards God and not something else.

 

On Science & Religion

Ancient religions and modern sciences rely on fundamentally different ways of seeing the world.  Their respective worldviews are so different partly because they implicitly rely on very different controlling metaphors for picturing and interpreting our environments.  So a religious fundamentalist and a scientific materialist can experience a great deal of difficulty understanding each other because their mindsets are generally oriented around different metaphors that deeply inform the way they perceive and explain the nature of reality.  It’s almost as if they are living in different worlds.

Ancient religions traditionally see our environment as an ontological-ethical “hierarchy,” often referred to as “the great chain of being.”  Modern science traditionally sees our environment as a “machine,” sometimes called a “world-machine”  or the “clockwork universe.”

The longstanding conflict between religion and science is partly a conflict between competing metaphorical visions of reality which often vie for exclusive supremacy of the human mind and imagination.  The fundamental metaphors of both worldviews tend to be deeply assumed and insufficiently articulated, since they operate at paradigmatic levels of the mind that are generally taken for granted.  Certain key implications and applications of these deep metaphors deserve to be understood, since they profoundly inform two very different ways of seeing the world.

On Ancient Religion

The great chain of being pictures the world as a hierarchy of value.  Jonathan Pageau describes this as a kind of “sacred geography,” which should not be confused with spatial geography, since the sacred is not a discrete, material object in time and space.  The great chain is oriented around Absolute Being, or God, which is the pinnacle of the hierarchy.  Absolute Being is also the source and standard of Absolute Goodness, and so the hierarchy has both ontological and ethical implications and applications in the traditional scheme of things.

Great_Chain_of_Being

This ancient, traditional outlook is an essentially ethical, meaningful, qualitative worldview that pictures reality as a multi-story, multi-level universe spanning from the absolute heights of Being and Goodness down to the absolute depths of Nonbeing and Evil, with human beings uncomfortably occupying levels in between.  According to this ancient scheme of things, all finite forms of being are supported and inhered by Absolute Being.  So everything, properly perceived, is a pointer to God.  And everything, properly oriented, is aiming towards God.  Because everything has a place in relationship to God, Absolute Being, in this ancient view of reality.

In traditional language, created entities tend to be understood in terms of their “formal” and “final” causes: the purpose of an acorn is to become an oak tree; the purpose of a human is to know and pursue God, the highest Good.  Notice also that ontology and ethics are tightly correlated and ultimately undifferentiated in this continuum of being.  Accordingly, the primary concern of ancient people was ethical.  Ancient, prescientific, religious people were instinctively preoccupied with the question, How should we live?  How should we live in order to survive and thrive and flourish?  And so their essentially ethical concerns are evidenced in their essentially ethical worldview.

Religion’s controlling metaphor of reality as a hierarchy of being and goodness is an incredibly powerful way to productively order, orient, and unify the ethical strivings of individuals and groups towards an ultimately desired end.  This worldview also offers psychosocial benefits to adherents.  Today we still speak of mental health problems in terms of “disorders,” “disorientation,” and “disintegration.”  We intuitively know humans need identities and ends that order, orient, and unify their lives, without which they become disordered, disoriented, and disintegrated, among other potentially terrible things.  Now this is not to suggest that our imperfect, humanmade religious traditions have always got the ethical evaluations right all the time.  Nor have imperfect human beings, past or present, always lived up to their own ideals.  The point is simply that this ancient hierarchical worldview is an essentially ethical continuum that obligates its participants to see and act accountably within a pervasively ethical environment.

This worldview is variously pictured with vertical hierarchies, levels, chains, spectrums, trees, mountains, and ladders that can span from the highest heavens down to the lowest hells.  Symbols related to “height” and “depth” easily map onto this worldview.  These include the skies, clouds, stars, horizons, and heavens above, which are associated with upward movements of ascending, elevating, climbing, lifting, and rising, as well as the grounds, valleys, pits, ditches, chasms, waters, and underworlds below, which are associated with downward movements of descending, lowering, stumbling, declining, sinking, and falling.

Vertical metaphors and hierarchies of ethical value still deeply permeate our everyday thinking and evaluations.  In the face of various problems, we say things like, “Best to take the high road,” or “You’re above that,” or “Don’t get dragged down into the gutter,” or “He’s hit rock-bottom.”  We describe our moods in terms of feeling “uplifted” or “downcast.”  If a friend is feeling low, we try to cheer them up.  And we make wise decisions by considering the upsides and downsides.  Hangovers of the great chain of being remain everywhere in our modern lives.

Hustom Smith has offered the following visual model for understanding the three primary dimensions of this ancient world view in his book, Forgotten Truth.

cross

Smith explains, “The supreme plane from which the vertical axis descends is the Infinite: Being exempt from every mode of limitation and restriction. From this pinnacle all lesser being derives. We can picture the vertical axis as a line which, tapping into the infinite reservoir of Being at its summit, transmits a portion of its store to the subordinate planes.”  Smith adds, “If it be asked, ‘But what did the nonscientific approach to man and the world give us?’ the answer is: ‘Meaning, purpose, and a vision in which everything coheres’… The belief, normal to mankind, that meaning inheres in everything that exists and everything that happens derives at depth from the fact that the Ultimate, or Infinite as we are calling it, is omnipresent.”

On Modern Science

The scientific revolution created such dramatic, historical shifts partly because it offered a new paradigm for interpreting our environment with new controlling metaphors.  Arguably the most dominant metaphor was to picture nature as a “machine.”  This world-picture is sometimes referred to as the Newtonian “world-machine” and the “clockwork universe.”

Early scientists embraced and promulgated these machine metaphors because they fit exceedingly well with their new scientific methodologies and programs.  The first scientists were intentionally interested in carefully examining the “efficient” and “material” causes of nature, apart from any “formal” causes or “final” ends.  They generally did not deny the existence of formal or final causes.  They simply chose to exclude these factors from their consideration to examine our environment in a largely unprecedented way.  And the results were revolutionary!

Using mechanistic metaphors of “machines” was entirely appropriate and helpful in guiding their endeavours, since these metaphors picture nature as a law-abiding machine that functions much like a clock.  At the time, clocks were machines that operated without the constant supervision or intervention of a clockmaker.  A clock’s mechanisms and materials, its inner workings and outer designs, could be examined and described without reference to any clockmaker, or the purposes for which a clockmaker made the clock for that matter.  Hence the rise of theological deism followed by atheism over the course of modern history.

clockwork_universe

Science’s metaphors offer an incredibly powerful way to interpret natural phenomena in ways that allow us to increasingly understand, predict, and control our environment for our own nonscientific ends.  Gaining mastery over nature was indeed a primary motivations from the early stages of the scientific revolution.  The results of history attest to this.  Even though the machine metaphors of science have been increasingly appearing to be inadequate models for comprehensively representing nature in light of more recents advancements in fields like quantum physics, the machine-based paradigm of science still largely possesses the popular scientific imagination, not unlike a religious and ethical worldview.

For scientists, this way of picturing nature was a huge breakthrough that permitted humans to interpret and interact with the world in new and productive ways.  Many overlooked features of nature became increasingly noticed and known as scientists were guided in their efforts by these new machine metaphors.  Initially these metaphors informed the methodological program of early scientists to exclude all qualities, values, ethics, purposes, and ends from their field of concern, so scientists could exclusively attend to the publicly observable and verifiable features of human experience.

Smith writes, “The [traditional] view of reality as consisting of graded levels of being dominated man’s outlook until the rise of modern science…  There may be no better way to summarize the scientific view of things than to say that reality is a stupendous spatial hierarchy, a hierarchy of size.”  By design, modern science operates with an essentially nonethical, meaningless, quantitative worldview that intentionally excludes ethical values and meanings from its field of concern—or at least that’s the methodological goal.

Science’s mechanistic philosophy effectively flattened reality to one level of being: matter.  The material world functionally replaced God as that which is “most real” and simultaneously levelled the great chain of being in the process.  What began as a methodological proscription gradually evolved for some into its own religio-ethical materialist worldview, as the implicit metaphors informing the scientific movement were to assumed to fully reflect our ultimate environment.  Over time, science’s metaphors came to be accepted as comprehensive representations of ontological reality, leading to the mechanization of nature and the modern rise of the scientific materialist worldview.

In contrast to the ancient paradigm, the scientific paradigm looks out to a one-story, single-level universe consisting of valueless material objects.  “Itself occupying no more than a single ontological plane, science challenged by implication the notion that other planes exist.”  Smith further explains, “As its challenge was not effectively met, it swept the field and gave the modern world its soul.”

On Religion & Science

So in what ways does the ancient religious worldview endure and how does it relate with the modern scientific worldview?  Jordan Peterson has offered the following relevant contrasts of the ancient and modern worldviews:

“The world can be validly construed as forum for action, or as place of things.

The former manner of interpretation—more primordial, and less clearly understood—finds its expression in the arts or humanities, in ritual, drama, literature, and mythology. The world as forum for action is a place of value, a place where all things have meaning. This meaning, which is shaped as a consequence of social interaction, is implication for action, or—at a higher level of analysis—implication for the configuration of the interpretive schema that produces or guides action.

The latter manner of interpretation—the world as place of things—finds its formal expression in the methods and theories of science. Science allows for increasingly precise determination of the consensually-validatable properties of things, and for efficient utilization of precisely-determined things as tools…

No complete world-picture can be generated without use of both modes of construal. The fact that one mode is generally set at odds with the other means only that the nature of their respective domains remains insufficiently discriminated.”

The controlling metaphors of religion and science are often thought to be mutually exclusive.  Hence their longstanding conflict.  But each worldview privileges and prioritizes certain aspects of the totality of our human experience for different purposes.  The traditional religious outlook sees an inherently ethical, meaningful world as a sacred hierarchy of Being and Goodness that orients and obligates the moral action of human beings.  The modern scientific outlook, by design, sees a meaningless world of valueless objects in time and space by excluding non-empirical purposes or ends from its field of concern.  Religion and science can therefore be compatible if we recognize their dominant, controlling metaphors are both useful, necessary, and complimentary ways of seeing and interacting with the world.  Each are specialized modes of inquiry and being.

Not only that, scientific inquiry necessarily operates within pre-empirical, prescientific ethical evaluations that are assumed.  One of the most common, prescientific evaluations is that developing more advanced scientific technologies is good, because they can be used to preserve and improve our quality of life.  Another common evaluation is that our scientific pursuits of truth are good, because knowing the truth will em from harmful illusions and falsehoods that diminish our quality of life.

As powerful and helpful as it is, seeing and thinking scientifically also happens to be very unnatural for human beings.  We like to see ourselves as highly “scientific.”  But we’re really not, or at least not most of the time.  The most common and natural way we perceive our environment is to instinctively evaluate everything we see in terms of how useful or good or irrelevant things are to us in relation to our desired goals.  It is essentially a pragmatic, ethical, nonscientific way of perceiving the world.  This worldview so profoundly informs our perceptions that we almost always—if not always—take it for granted.  And generally we should.

If we were constantly devoting conscious energy towards evaluating our environment, we be far less efficient and productive in doing activities, including basic ones needed for our survival.  Better if a lion is chasing me to instinctively run instead of pausing to scientifically examine the situation.  But this motivated, evaluative perceiving operates even when the immediate stakes aren’t life or death.  When I’m hungry my perceptions and desires instinctively order themselves around eating.  I see my environment in terms of food that will satisfy my appetite, and objects that either facilitate (useful tools) or inhibit (annoying obstacles) my pursuit of eating food, while everything else becomes functionally irrelevant and ignored.  This kind of motivated, goal-oriented perceiving and thinking informs the vast majority of our human activities.  Scientific thinking actually occupies a very, very small portion of our thinking in general.

We do not naturally look out onto a world of value-less objects.  Just the opposite: we are constantly, instinctively evaluating our environments in order to act productively and morally within them.  Perceiving and thinking scientifically is such an unnatural way to view and examine our environment that it generally requires a great amount of education, training, and practice to become a competent scientist.  And research scientists still participate in a community of scientists who constantly peer-review one another’s work, partly because no single person can achieve a purely neutral, objective, God’s-eye-view of things, so scientists must constantly check and challenge one another.

So what are the implications of all this?  Simply put, the ancient religious worldview and modern scientific worldview, properly understood, are both useful and complimentary ways of seeing the world.  In fact, scientific inquiry is nested within and built upon deeply religious, ethical evaluations.  Science cannot operate outside of some prescientific, ethical tradition.  And humans cannot live in an exclusively scientific manner, for our most basic mindsets that aid our survival are nonscientific, evaluative modes of living.  Religion and science can therefore be compatible if we recognize their dominant, controlling metaphors are useful, necessary, and complimentary ways of seeing and engaging with the world.  Because when religion and science are seen in proper perspective, there is no inherent conflict.

On God

God cannot be fully known by the methods of modern science or deductive reasoning. Both science and rationality, as methods of knowing, have inherent limitations that necessarily prohibit them from proving or disproving God’s existence, one way or another.

Modern scientific methods cannot ultimately prove or disprove the existence of God, which is frequently defined as “infinite being” and “transcendent goodness,” by virtue of its methods and field of concern. Science concerns itself with a limited, exclusive range of the entire field of human experience: the publicly observable world of finite, value-less objects in time and space. Science is therefore not concerned with the infinite or the good.  As a method of knowing, it cannot meaningfully prove or disprove or address ethical evaluations, aims, and goals of any kind whatsoever, whether they relate to “goodness” or “progress” or “health” or “rights” or “God,” or any of their ethically-laden entities or their opposites. The scope of scientific investigation is limited to describing and explaining the natural world as it is, not as it should or shouldn’t be. Nor can modern science directly address how humans should or shouldn’t live. Science is concerned with describing “efficient” and “material” causes, not “formal” or “final” causes, which tend to inform our ethical evaluations. So, strictly speaking, science cannot meaningfully address that which is infinite or good.

Rationality, on its own, cannot ultimately capture or comprehend God, infinite being, by virtue of its methods either. Rationality engages in a mental process (sometimes called “dualistic thinking”) which involves rationing and dividing up aspects of human experience into discrete, abstract objects to be held and compared by the finite human mind and imagination. So rational thinking, at its best, can only partially apprehend God by way of limited analogies and metaphors, which can be potentially useful, but never comprehensive. The philosopher Jacob Needleman even suggests that human rationality, restricted to its own devices, is inevitably atheistic. No other conclusion is comprehensible to the finite mind.

The methods of modern science and deductive rationality are simply inadequate to the task of knowing God.

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So where does this leave us? As compulsory agnostics? Some agnosticism is certainly healthy and warranted, and agnosticism is not necessarily opposed to religious faith, since authentic faith is not certainty. Faith belongs to the world of relationships, which can only prosper under the uncertain conditions of trust and hope and vulnerability.

The Christian tradition also understands God as love. And knowing love exceeds scientific or rational standards of knowledge. Even in human relationships, knowing and experiencing love requires one’s full involvement: mind, heart, body, and spirit. Love is known most completely between whole persons. Knowing love requires opening and orienting one’s mind, heart, body, and spirit in relationship to another, in an intimate interaction of giving and receiving. And given our human finitude and freedom, sharing love requires mutual trust, vulnerability, risk, and courage.

Love is not a knowledge that can be obtained and controlled under laboratory conditions. Nor is it merely an inevitable conclusion of a logical syllogism. Love cannot be fully known in an encounter between one rational mind and another. For knowing love includes and yet exceeds the limited fields of sensory observation of public objects and deductive rationality. Knowing love requires a broader science and a broader empiricism than the scope of our modern scientific paradigms have to offer.

Love is an intensely personal, relational form of “I-Thou” knowledge, in Martin Buber’s language, in contrast to the often impersonal, objectifying forms of “I-It” knowledge obtained by modern science and rational deduction.

It follows that if loving a person requires all our capacities available to us, then knowing the love of God would require the same, if not far more. So we may indeed know God, but on God’s terms, which are the terms of love. No other terms will suffice. Only love will do.

On Psychology

The stages of collective development portrayed in the biblical story of God’s people broadly parallel the stages a person goes through in healthy individual development.  The two most significant revolutions in the biblical narrative centre around the figures of Moses and Jesus.  The revolution of Moses was a revolution of law that formed the foundation of a tribal society, whereas the subsequent revolution of Jesus was a revolution of freedom in the Spirit of God that transcends tribal distinctions.  Moses brought law, order, commandments, rules, boundaries, limits, and standards.  Jesus brought freedom, grace, forgiveness, love, and maturity in following the Spirit of the Law.

Healthy individual development likewise includes some combination of boundaries and freedom.  Without some of both, individuals becomes imbalanced and developmentally arrested in dysfunctional ways.  Learning rudimentary rules, boundaries, and roles while exercising a limited amount of freedom is the general scheme of early human development.  But as an individual matures, she internalizes and builds upon the rudimentary learnings of early life while simultaneously exercising greater amounts of freedom, independence, and voluntary responsibility over time.

We generally acknowledge society’s need for laws to preserve some degree of social order, without which society would degenerate into disorder and chaos.  Useful laws, customs, and cultures function to create needed social predictability, stability, and order.  The same principles apply to psychological development and stability.  Learning to follow basic laws, rules, and boundaries is absolutely indispensable, especially in early psychological development.

Various developmental psychologies acknowledge a child’s need for clear rules, boundaries, and limits as a precondition of healthy early development.  Individuals begin life extremely dependent and helpless.  Each nascent individual psyche needs clearly defined and predictable “laws,” so to speak—guiding boundaries, rules, and standards—to support and orient its development, without which the psyche can become disordered and disoriented as it is pulled apart by conflicting desires, needs, aspirations, and external demands.  This learning also helps lay the foundational structures of an individual’s perceptions and psyche that further development is built upon.

Teaching rules and standards of good behaviour to developing children helps individuals learn how to respectfully and considerately interact with other individuals too.  When children learn how to play well with other children, they are learning basic patterns of behaviour that will later enable them to be productive members of adult society.  So if children do not learn how to “follow the rules,” and if they do not learn how to “play well with others,” there is a greater likelihood they will develop permanently isolating and antisocial tendencies that will interfere significantly with their ongoing development and fulfillment.

Learning reasonable personal and social boundaries allows children and adolescents to strengthen their own psychological boundaries and sense of self, as well as their ability to properly regulate impulses and emotions in complex relation to the external demands of other people and circumstances.  Early boundaries first form around the line between what is me and what is not-me: around my body, my emotions, my desires, my thoughts, my ambitions, and myself.  Repeated boundary violations in any of these areas in the form of unwelcome physical, emotional, or mental manipulation and domination can severely compromise healthy individual development in enduring ways.

Having habitually poor physical, psychological, emotional, and/or relational boundaries—which are typically learned in childhood—is a hallmark of many social dysfunctions and mental disorders.  And raising a child in a disordered, unpredictable, and unsafe environment is a recipe for longterm psychological problems.  Individuals who cannot form some basic psychological order out of chaos for themselves, for whatever reason, will figuratively drown within the stormy waters of their souls.  Individual development cannot occur so long as a person is fighting simply to keep his head above water.  He’s struggling just to survive.  Which means he has no leftover energy to devote to growing or realizing his potentials.

Children (and adults) likewise need boundaries partly because a infinitely boundless environment is overwhelming and unmanageable.  Boundaries and standards function like the dry ground of a familiar island, without which a child would feel as if he is lost at open sea.   So when kids engage in testing boundaries, it is at least partly because they need to gain a psychological sense of the limits of themselves, their relationships, and their environment in order to develop a much needed sense of familiarity, predictability, and safety.

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A common symbol of cultural structures in mythology is the Great Father, which has manifold significance.  Generally, the Father represents the order and culture that organizes human life.  In its positive manifestation, culture provides order, predictability, stability, familiarity, and security, all of which can organize a society (and a psyche) in ways that decrease unnecessary stress and increase psychosocial harmony and productivity.  The Wise Father/King is a mythological image of this positive aspect.  But in its negative manifestation, culture can become excessively outdated, rigid, degenerate, oppressive, and restrictive in ways that inhibit natural and necessary adaptation.  The Tyrannical Father/King is an image of this negative aspect.

As a child enters adolescence and eventually adulthood, there is an increasing need for the individual to venture beyond the known boundaries of his father’s home and his forefather’s culture.  There are various adaptive and maladaptive strategies a person could follow when undertaking this (unavoidable) challenge.  Ideally he will have internalized the ways of his forefathers so deeply by voluntarily participating in his traditions as a boy, that now he can creatively incarnate the spirit of his people as he freely ventures into new and unknown territories as a man.  This is the Hero’s Journey in mythology, and it parallels a crucial stage of individual development where a person crosses the threshold from being a student of his tradition to becoming a creative innovator and contributor to his tradition.  It parallels the voluntary acceptance and exercise of greater freedom, responsibility, and independence as the person transitions from childhood into adulthood.

This developmental process is comparable to learning any complex skill.  When a person learns how to play piano, they generally begin by learning rudimentary scales and chords by disciplined practice and repeated exercise.  As they practice more and more, often over the course of years, what was originally a very foreign activity increasingly become second nature.  Once the rudiments have become internalized so deeply to the point where the pianist takes for granted all of the complex tasks she does without even consciously thinking, then she can increasingly express her own creativity and freedom through her music.  But it is a creative freedom that is built upon learning rudimentary structures; a freedom that remains guided by the rules of music.  And it is a freedom that has emerged as a result of rigorous and disciplined practice, without which the pianist could not possibly play as skillfully—or freely.  And if she decides to creatively break some rules of performance, it is with full knowledge and appreciation of the tradition she is a student of.

A general rule of human development is you don’t enter a new stage of development without first fulfilling the tasks of the previous stage.

Which means you don’t become Beethoven without first learning scales.

And you don’t become a responsible adult without first successfully navigating childhood.

And you don’t get to Jesus without first having Moses.

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Jesus’s teaching and behaviour was so unusual that was accused by his religious opponents of trying to abolish the law.  In a similar fashion, the Apostle Paul had to defend his teachings against claim that he was antinomian (anti-law).  But both Jesus and Paul defended themselves against these misguided accusations.  Jesus explained that he did not come to abolish the Law but rather came to fulfill its latent purposes in manifesting the ways of the same Spirit that inspired the early laws of his people.  Jesus was bringing his people forward, showing them that following the Law was never meant to be the end goal.

Rather, in its context, the Law at its best is a means for training people in following the ways of the Spirit, for it is the Spirit that people are meant to serve.  Jesus showed that the fullness of human development requires individuals to move beyond rigidly legalistic thinking and living.  But this does not mean the laws are abolished!  What it does mean that no set of laws can exhaustively contain the manifold Wisdom of the Spirit of Love, which is why the transcendent Spirit of the Law must be internalized and honoured even above specific laws if the inherent purposes of the Law are to be fulfilled.

Eventually learning to follow the uncontrollable movements of the Spirit is far more important in the grand scheme of development than rigidly following the letter of the Law.  It is as if Jesus was teaching his followers to move beyond strictly playing the notes on the sheet music, as useful as this exercise can be, towards learning how to freely play in harmony with the rich melodies of Being.

Understanding the biblical narrative in terms of a developmental process also compellingly addresses some longstanding theological debates.  What is the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament?  What is the enduring value of the Old Testament?  To some extent, these question are similar to asking, What is the relationship between childhood and adulthood?  And what is the enduring value of childhood?

Like all healthy developmental patterns, Jesus represents a revolutionary progression that simultaneously transcends and includes all that came before him.  It is an evolutionary development that is simultaneously conservative and progressive.  So implicit in the biblical story is the general ascent of human development from early childhood into adulthood.  This begins in learning the established rules, customs, and ways of one’s people to the point that one internalizes the spirit that has inspired the laws.  Then as the law and order become internalized structures of one’s being, one matures by following and applying the spirit of the law in the face of new challenges and circumstances in ways that may even transgress the specific laws of one’s forefathers.  One simultaneously fulfills the Law by even transcending laws, because, like Christ, one’s highest allegiance is to the Spirit of the Law.

On Current Events

What our world needs now is true individuals.  We need individuals who are willing to step outside of the dominant groups, individuals who will not conform strictly to the expectations of the tribes.  We need individuals who are willing to transcend the divides of partisanship and polarization, individuals who will refuse to simply take sides in response to genuinely complex issues, individuals who will courageously seek to understand and constructively challenge all sides.  We need outstanding individuals who are truly willing to stand out from the groups and speak up about the problems they see in our societies wherever they occur.  We need individuals who are willing to responsibly bear the burdens of being true individuals, for the purpose of identifying and addressing the problems we face, and for the positive advancement and benefit of all.  We need true individuals who will be committed to manifesting their potential and following their individual conscience above all else.

Belonging to groups isn’t necessarily bad.  We can often accomplish far more when we cooperate and work together.  And despite the costs of belonging to groups, there are many significant benefits.  Groups can provide safety and security.  Groups can provide friendship, community, acceptance, and a sense of belonging.  Group cultures can also establish common and predictable orders that provide stability and helpful resources for their members, which promote multiple positive benefits.  Everyone needs groups to belong to.  Living in separation from others is a harsh and dreadful existence that can end in insanity.  This is why solitary confinement is one of the worst punishments a human being can be subjected to.  We need one another, to a great extent, in order to discover and become our best selves.

And yet allying unconditionally with groups has immense costs as well, particularly for the individual, but also for the group.  If I place my group’s expectations above my individual conscience, I may have to sacrifice my own individual conscience, perceptions, thoughts, beliefs, desires, and values in order to conform to those of the group.  Part of individual development certainly involves voluntarily learning how to discipline oneself and make personal sacrifices for the good of others and the good of the group.  But this can be taken too far, and when it is taken too far the cost is immense.  Group cultures can also become tyrannical, rigid, stagnant, and oppressive forces, zealously imposed by their members in ways that demand strict conformity and uniformity at the cost of real individual diversity.  Groups that consistently ignore and punish individuals will also eventually face extinction, because it is individuals who creatively revitalize and adapt the group’s heritage to meet present and future challenges, without which the group will ultimately ossify and fossilize like the dry bones of their ancestors.  And indeed, allying unconditionally with one’s group can end in tribalism, the result of which is primitive social conflict and the loss of the individual.

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Despite its benefits, being and becoming a true individual is fraught with many costs and challenges and risks as well.  Sometimes groups will crucify true individuals.  History testifies to this.  But even if the group doesn’t go so far as to eliminate individual nuisances and troublemakers in this way, the group may instead choose to abandon or exile the individual as punishment for their independence.  Because individuals may stand in opposition to the patterns, problems, and pitfalls of the group.  Individuals uncomfortably challenge the status quo.  And individuals who express independent viewpoints or exhibit interest and openness towards “outsiders” may be treated with suspicion and disdain.  This kind of behaviour may be perceived as a violation of trust and a punishable act of betrayal by other members of the individual’s group.  So being a true individual opens one up to the possibility of intense criticism, social rejection, hatred, and even violent punishment and abuse, and not just from one’s own group but potentially from every dominant group in society.  This would be intolerable for most people, and understandably so.

But there are surely benefits to being an individual.  Individuals may be more independent, authentic, and truer to themselves than the typical tribesman, following the dictates of their own conscience above the dictates of the group.  Individuals may develop and manifest their unique potentials to the best of their abilities.  Our societies have also been advanced by individuals, by those who heroically engage in difficult and even dangerous challenges in creative and new ways, thereby adapting beyond what has previously been achieved by those who came before them.  Individuals may be the creators and innovators and world-changers who help move humanity forward.

There are costs and benefits to belonging to groups, and there are costs and benefits to being a true individual.  So understand your options and pick the costs you are willing to pay along with the benefits you desire.  And know you will not be able to have all of the benefits without any of the costs.  One of the most challenging and necessary problems everyone must face in life is how they will simultaneously meet their social needs and their individual needs in a way that benefits themselves and others.  One of our culture’s greatest advancements and achievements was granting inherent dignity, worth, and freedom to the individual.  Yes, unrestrained individualism has its poverty and dangers.  But I fear we are at risk of returning to dangerous forms of tribalism if we continue to marginalize and obscure the individual in favour of granting a greater value to groups.  So may we each seek to become individuals, and may we each value and listen to the individual voices around us, and may we each have the courage to offer a truly individual response.

 

On God

The Christian understanding of God as Trinity is an incredibly meaningful vision of Transcendent Being with many layers of significance, the brilliance of which cannot be exhaustively explained or comprehended. One level of meaning contained in its theology relates to the three symbolic Personalities of the eternal Father, Son, and Spirit intimately bound together in one Being. Understanding the transcendent symbolism requires considering its relevance to the immanent, generational patterns between fathers and sons who are bound by a common spirit.

The eternal Father is the perennial representative of the old and existing order of things. The Father ideally trains the Son in the wisdom and ways of their ancestors for the purpose of raising the Son to full maturity. The Father provides the Son with a safe home to grow up in as the Son learns the Father’s ways. The Father also perpetually guides the Son in his development and life as the Son seeks help from the Father, even as the Son ventures beyond the Father’s domain. In evolutionary terms, the Father signifies that which continually conserves and supports present and future generations of life.

The eternal Son is the perennial representative of the new and changing order of things. The Son begins his journey as a child by learning the Father’s ways and faithfully reproducing them in his own life. The Son earnestly seeks to know the Father and obey his leading throughout the Son’s budding development. Once the Son has reached adulthood, with the Father’s supportive encouragement the Son eventually leaves the Father’s home, the known boundaries of safety and comfort, to endeavour into unknown and dangerous places for the purposes of confronting and conquering the forces of chaos for the good of the world. In evolutionary terms, the Son signifies that which continually recreates existing orders while also exploring beyond them into new domains for the benefit of present and future generations of life.

The eternal Spirit is the perennial representative of the indwelling and enduring bond that unifies the Father with the Son across geographies and generations. The Spirit actively indwells both the Father and the Son to eternally bind them together in a living union that outlasts each generation. The Spirit reminds the Son of the Father’s ways, instilling the Father in the Son’s heart, and connects the Son to the Father no matter where the Son may go, creating an unbreakable and living bond between them. In evolutionary terms, the Spirit signifies that which continually revitalizes and unifies old orders with new orders across the generations of life.

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This vision of God should influence our understanding of Christian life and community. Christian disciples are called to honour the Father while following the patterns of the heroic Son.  Any Christianity that rigidly resists change, development, and growth is a Christianity the denies the recreative role of the eternal Son, Jesus Christ. Such a “Christ-ianity” is not worthy of the name and should arguably find another label for its religious parody of the recreative Way of Christ. Some Christian churches are all Father to the exclusion of the Son and the Spirit. These communities and their members tend to become rigid, stagnant, and lifeless since they resist the movements of the Son and Spirit that would change and renew them.

In contrast, other Christian churches react against the tyrannical Father by forming churches that exclusively follow the patterns of a rebellious Son. These communities and their members sometimes have the initial attraction of being new and progressive, but they may risk becoming chaotic, shallow, and aimless if they evolve without being firmly oriented in the developmental history of their ancestral traditions. Sadly, it is exceedingly rare to find a Christian church that honours both the eternal Father in union with the eternal Son in a Holy Trinity of Being, perhaps because these Personalities exist in perfect relationship only in God. Elsewhere they tend to be dysfunctionally related.

Interestingly, a Trinitarian vision of Transcendent Being is also strikingly compatible with an evolutionary understanding of the dynamics and nature of living development. The vision of God as Trinity portrays the eternal Father, the eternal Son, and the eternal Spirit as living together in a loving unity of uncreated Being as they simultaneously work at conserving, supporting, creating, progressing, unifying, and revitalizing created being for the perpetual good of all life. Simply put, life thrives and flourishes when it properly honours the Holy Trinity of Being.