On God

Here’s something of a theological thought experiment: What would it mean to “worship God” without religion? Or more specifically, what would it mean to worship God without some of the usual language, symbols, and trappings of religion? And could it be that some atheists worship God more fully than some Christians?

I slowly stumbled upon this issue because the more I studied and reflected on the nature of God from a Christian perspective, the more I came to see that the religious language and symbolism used in Christian theology can sometimes become a barrier to a deeper understanding of God, ironically enough. The theological language and symbols can sometimes act like obstacles for some people—Christians and non-Christians included—that prevent them from seeing how they point towards greater things beyond themselves. Instead of being transparent windows through which we can perceive divine realities, the symbols become too opaque, making it difficult if not impossible to see anything through them. The symbols themselves then end up blocking any light of the living God from shining through, which can leave the viewer with nothing more to see than dead and lifeless symbols as a result. No longer functioning properly as analogies, they have become dead ends instead.

Now in order to get to the experiment, we need to first review some of the traditional understandings of God in Christianity to set things up. “God” happens to be represented by a constellation of interrelated images and ideas that point towards a reality that both combines and exceeds each individual image (hence why Christians always affirm God is “transcendent”). Here are five important ways God is understood in Christian theology:

1) The Son/Word (or Logos) of God is associated with the powers of logic, intelligence, wisdom, reason, awareness, and consciousness, as well as the activities of creativity, integration, and transformation. The Son/Word is also not an ethereal force, but rather a personal power that is to be fully embodied in human life, as represented by the incarnation of the Son/Word in the person of Jesus. Furthermore, disciples of Christ are called to embody the example and pattern of life exhibited by the incarnate Son/Logos for the purpose of becoming “the Body of Christ” themselves.

2) The Spirit (Ruach/Pnuema) of God is associated with breath, vitality, and the principle of life itself, as well as the activities of spiritual rebirth and regeneration.

3) God is associated with the perfection of goodness, beauty, and truth (which also parallel the pinnacles of three main branches of classical philosophy: ethics, aesthetics, and logic).

4) God is associated with the best possible future goal and state of affairs we can pursue. This is dramatically depicted in the biblical narrative as a “new heaven and new earth” where humanity and God are fully reunited as one, which is accompanied by the absence of suffering, evil, and death, as well as the presence of thriving, harmony, peace, and the fullness of life to be enjoyed and shared together.

5) And then, of course, we can’t forget the Christian affirmation that God is love. “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

trinitystatThe main altar in the Dominican Church
in the city of Cracow in Poland. 

Okay, so now for the thought experiment. If we set aside the more explicitly theological/religious language and symbolism surrounding the nature of God and Christian worship, what are we left with?

It seems to me that we’re left with something like this: that the best way to live is to consciously, intelligently, and actively strive to embody reason, awareness, love, and vitality of life in a creative, integrative, and transformative pursuit of bringing about more goodness, beauty, and truth to be enjoyed and shared in an expanding environment of thriving, harmony, and peace with everyone and everything that exists. And to do all of this in such a way where we trust (that is, have faith) that this is indeed the best way to live, while also hoping that living in this way will create the best possible future for ourselves, others, and the world over the longterm.

I dare say a more extraordinary and noble vision of the purpose of human life could hardly be imagined! And as far as I can tell, whatever it may fully mean to “worship God” from the perspective of Christianity, it at least means this.

Some Christians may protest against this kind of “Godless theology.” I would push back and ask, is it really Godless? Or is it just presented in terms that just lack the typical God-language we’re used to? I wonder if it even brings us closer to a true understanding of God.

I’m reminded here of Meister Eckhart’s apparently paradoxical saying: “The highest and loftiest thing that one can let go of is to let go of God for the sake of God.” What I take from this saying is that it is possible for words/concepts/ideas/symbols/etc of God to obscure and block one from encountering the reality of God if they are not properly seen as limited mediators of a limitless reality that transcends their finite forms.

Any abstract idea, improperly held in ultimate regard as a substitute for God, can become just as much of an “idol” as a physical icon that takes God’s place. Hence why letting go of our ideas of God can paradoxically be one of the best things we can do to advance our pursuit of God, at least when our ideas have become barriers instead of bridges between us and the divine. In the evolving journey towards God, perhaps some even need to let go of God entirely—to become atheist—in order to actually come closer to knowing and discovering the reality of God.

Conceptions of God can become overly rigid and small and restrictive. Atheism, for some, appears to me to be partly motivated by a rejection of such restrictive theological abstractions, of religious symbols that have lost their meaning, rather than a rejection of goodness, beauty, truth, and the other things of God identified here. I’ve come to believe this is a crucial distinction. In fact, some of my friends who are atheists left behind the conventional understandings of God precisely because they were motivated to intelligently seek more goodness, beauty, truth, and so forth beyond what they had found in the traditional Christian theology and worship presented to them. Although as far as I can tell, atheists who take this path haven’t necessarily left God behind—it’s possible they’ve just left some of God’s conventional packaging behind. It seems to me they may remain highly committed to seeking God, in fact.

Personally I don’t have an issue with traditional God-language/symbols/concepts/etc, but that’s probably because I see that stuff as inherently limited and not identical with what it’s supposed to represent. That said, since God-language can be misunderstood to be equivalent with that which it represents and misused as a result, it can be a very useful, albeit potentially discomforting, exercise to remove it and see what we’re left with. Perhaps we’re actually left with a purer theology and not a Godless theology.

By doing this kind of theological exercise, I also do not mean to suggest worshipping God must only be this. This isn’t meant to be some kind of hard reductionism. Worshipping God could certainly involve more than just what is presented here. However, what I do mean to suggest is that, even if worshipping God involves more than just this, it certainly does not involve less than this.

One thing I’m doing with this experiment is questioning whether the ways we typically group and categorize and label and simplify and divide ourselves up (into groupings like Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, etc) provides a reliable indication of who does and who doesn’t “worship God,” even by the understandings of traditional Christian theology. Wrestling with this sort of thing should create some cognitive dissonance for anyone, religious or nonreligious, who unquestioningly assumes the validity of the typical group categories. Maybe the categories oversimplify a much more complex reality. Maybe belonging to a particular group or accepting a certain label isn’t enough to know if someone does or doesn’t “worship God.” Maybe a better way of thinking about this issue is to see that we’re all imperfectly worshipping God to varying degrees. And maybe a better indication of whether or not a person “worships God” is the degree to which he or she actively believes that “the best way to live” is what is roughly presented here in the stripped down version of what it means to worship God. Just maybe.

Another thing I’m questioning is whether “worshipping god” is strictly a result of what a person says he believes. “Belief,” in this way of thinking, is reducible to the abstract intellectual propositions he holds and the verbal confessions he makes. But what about how he acts? Because actions speak louder than words. And actions, some would say, are even better indicators of what he actually believes than the words he may use. So is it possible for, say, a self-described atheist to “worship God” more fully than a self-described Christian? While only God ultimately knows, I believe it’s certainly possible, that is if the atheist consciously, intelligently, and actively strives to embody reason, awareness, love, and vitality of life in pursuit of the aforementioned goals more fully and authentically than the Christian does. “For a good tree bringeth not forth corrupt fruit; neither doth a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. For every tree is known by his own fruit.”

Labels can be one thing and action that produces results can be another. In my experience, it appears to me that some atheists can be rather godly people and some Christians can be rather godless people. So could it be that the impulse to seek and worship God is more universal than sectarian religion or nonreligion sometimes makes it out to be? Could it be that some atheists worship God more fully than some Christians? Could it be that the presence of God is available to everyone, always calling and drawing us closer if we are willing to seek, despite the labels we may ascribe to ourselves? I believe so.

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On Psychology

“Where ‘it’ was, there ‘I’ shall be.” This saying captured the essence of the therapeutic endeavour for Freud. And while Freud’s theories are a mixed bag in light of today’s psychology, this simple idea still contains an enduring practical insight into how the personality heals, grows, and transforms.

Most of us who are familiar with Freud’s three-part model of the human mind/psyche are probably used to it being presented in terms of “id,” “ego,” and “superego.” It turns out it was a translator of Freud’s writings who chose to use these latin terms, probably to give Freud’s ideas some extra air of sophistication (which is too bad because the terms also tend to make his ideas more inaccessible). Freud, however, used the more common and readily understandable terms of the “it,” the “I,” and the “super-I” or “higher-I” in his original work. His understanding of the human mind is more easily understandable and relatable with this language.

Despite his shortcomings, Freud was a perceptive phenomenologist. From the perspective of first-person experience, these three factors or forces each manifest themselves in the human mind, sometimes in conflicting ways. There are the combined forces of the “it”/”its,” which are the more unconscious instinctual impulses and desires that are often perceived as separate from the self or the “I.” Then there are the forces grouped within the “I,” which stands for the many personal contents that constitute an individual’s conscious sense of self—of who “I” am. And lastly there’s the “higher-I,” which is roughly an individual’s conscience and sense of ethical obligations.

With this in mind, Freud’s maxim—”Where ‘it’ was, there ‘I’ shall be”—becomes more readily understandable and applicable to therapy and personal growth. The embodied human mind is complex and contains many features that can come into conflict, as well as features that can be nonconscious, semiconscious, and more fully conscious. Many psychological issues manifest from disowning parts of one’s total being, including parts of one’s mind, body, relationships, and/or experience. The act of dis-ownership places these parts outside the psychological boundaires of one’s “I,” forcing them into to a mental category of externalized, objectified “it”/”its.”

Quotefancy-1737877-3840x2160

For example, perhaps a person sees herself as someone who is always kind and never angry. She therefore includes qualities and motives such as kindness, gentleness, and friendliness into her sense of self—into her “I.” But she also willfully excludes feelings of anger, aggression, and hatred when they emerge in order to maintain stability in her established self-image. She thinks, “I am a kind person. I am not an angry person.” Maintaining this image can be exhausting as it requires using ongoing energy to restrain, inhibit, and repress angry impulses as they emerge in experience, while simultaneously devoting energy towards presenting oneself—that is, one’s “I”—as not-angry and never-angry. Based on where she’s drawn the boundary lines around her-“self,” anger will tend to manifest “itself” in her perception as a separate entity, a kind of object that is external to and acting against the subject of herself. Since it is external to the self, it is easy to displace and project onto others as well. In extreme cases, disowned anger could even manifest in experience as a kind of antagonistic spiritual force that attacks and oppresses the self.

Or take an example of a person who has not fully included his sexual impulses and desires into his sense of self. For whatever reason (and there could be many), he has disowned his sexual urges and desires, excluding them from his “I,” and forcing them into the darkened, disowned areas of his experience. They likewise can manifest as separate forces that act against him, which he may conveniently blame on other forces or people when “they” (not “his” or “my”) overpower and possess him, forcing him to lose control of “himself.” Since they’re externalized from the self, they can be easily displaced on others: “She turned me on; she made me do it.” This leaves “him” more vulnerable and susceptible as well to manifesting the sexual instincts in ugly, destructive ways when they take possession of him.

Or take another example of an individual who has not included her body in her sense of self. The body (not “her” body or “my” body), or certain parts of “it,” can seem like foreign objects instead of part of oneself. The body can more easily take on a life of “its” own, acting in strange and unpredictable ways that distress and discomfort “her.” Perhaps the body was excluded from her-“self” long ago due to being a source of embarrassment or shame for a variety of potential reasons. And so it exists as a kind of object, an “it,” that is not a part of her “I,” or herself.

What constitutes the “it”/”its” and what constitutes the “I” in one’s psychological experience is flexible and changeable, despite the fact that we may develop overly rigid boundaries around the self to protect an established self-image and exclude disowned elements of our experience from the sense of “who ‘I’ am.” In each of the aforementioned examples, one of the most lasting pathways to healing and growth is acknowledging the disowned, objectified forces of one’s mind that are perceived as “its” and integrating them into oneself so they become functional parts under the subjective ownership of the “I.” This is a process of internalizing what was once externalized elements into an expanded sense of who “I” am. And it is generally a gradual, effortful process, but it is well worth the time and energy. This process expands one’s “I” as well as on’s inner-territory of healthy, responsible self-control. Aggressive or sexual or bodily elements are integrated into “my”-self and included in who “I” am and what “I” control. For where “it” once was, now “I” am there.

On Politics

I have experienced regular cognitive dissonance observing how some members of the far-left have attempted to advance their political agenda over recent years. Perhaps you can relate. This has been an uncomfortable experience since I typically align with liberal principles and values. I’ve wondered, what is it that seems off to me about how members of the left are fighting real issues, such as forms of discrimination, racism, sexism, bigotry, oppression, and fascism?

I’ve come to realize that my cognitive dissonance is a result of this: it appears to me that, in attempting to fight forms of discrimination, racism, sexism, bigotry, oppression, fascism, etc, some members of the far-left are advancing worldviews and using tactics that actually perpetuate forms of discrimination, racism, sexism, bigotry, oppression, and fascism, not to mention forms of illiberalism. So I am concerned that at least sometimes members of the far-left are actually perpetuating the very problems they claim to oppose. Hence the dissonance.

If this is true then this a real problem. We can’t be fighting fire with fire. It’s no solution unless we want to burn things down. Indeed, “darkness cannot drive out darkness.” So what is the solution for the left? I don’t know what the whole solution should look like. It’s something we’ll need to figure out together. But I believe one solution is for members of the left to reclaim principles and values advanced by liberalism, which have shaped so many progressive left-wing movements that have sought to remedy social injustices.

For example, liberals can begin by viewing people, first and foremost, as individuals, and by treating individuals as possessing inherent dignity and freedom for self-determination. A person should not just be judged as a stereotypical member of some tribe, unless we want to revert to a primitive state of tribalism. A person is also an individual possessing personal agency who should be judged based on the content of their unique beliefs, values, and character, regardless of race, sex, gender, age, religion, non-religion, etc. And liberals can stand for the values of diversity and tolerance, recognizing that openness to diversity, including ideological diversity, supports and strengthens our efforts in commonly pursuing what is true and good as a society. In other words, liberals can begin by standing up for liberal principles and values.

I believe the left has an important role in our society and important contributions to make. But I increasingly believe liberals need to restore liberal values in the politics of the left in order to do so.

 

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.

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.

spirit

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.