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Sketching Out My Views

May 9th, 2009 · Posted by Hugo · 3 Comments

Since I don’t have enough pending posts and series-in-progress (irony intended), I’ve decided to tackle another: sketch out my philosophical-theological framework/worldview/language with which I approach all things religion. My intention is to be as clear as I can, and paint the picture “from first principles”.

In this series, I will sketch out my views, not seek some balanced “there are many perspectives, for example, such-and-such”. When I do touch on other views in this series, it will be for the purpose of explaining how it fits into my view.

I’ll try to keep posts short and to the point, after all, details can be explored in conversations in the comments. I’m not going to rush it, it will probably take months. But I’ll try to put out my first post within the next seven days. It will be on the divine.

Categories: Religion and Science
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3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Die piesangverkoper // May 11, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    Beautiful review in The Times of London today:

    The 21st century has not been kind to religion. It began with the mass murder of thousands of innocents by Muslim religious fanatics in New York city; it continued with the news that the Catholic hierarchy had operated and protected an international child abuse conspiracy for decades; and the Pew poll recently found that the Americans most likely to support torture of terror suspects were those who attended evangelical churches most frequently.

    The intellectual onslaught has been just as severe, from Christopher Hitchens’s oddly persuasive massacre of a few fish in a small barrel, to the former believer Bart Ehrman’s detonation of scriptural accuracy and Sam Harris’s evisceration of religious moderates. It’s perhaps unsurprising that even in America, the most devout of all western nations, non-belief is soaring.

    Worse, perhaps, the response of organised religion to all this has been not to take some self-confident steps in debating the validity of these critiques, but to dig in deeper and re-fundamentalise. From Pope Benedict’s attempt to freeze theological debate and reassert bald papal authority, to resurgent resistance to teaching evolution in America’s Bible Belt and the degeneration of Islam into the medieval madness of the Taliban, the polarisation seems to be gaining pace.

    The possibility of a reasonable engagement between faith and reason, between doctrine and biblical scholarship, between a mature theology and a golden age of scientific research — all this seems very distant right now.

    And that’s why a new book gives me hope. It reminds us that if you take a few thousand steps back from our current crisis, the long-term prognosis is much better than you might imagine.

    The book is The Evolution of God (due out in the US next month) and it is by Robert Wright, a secular writer best known in America for thoughtful defences of evolutionary psychology and free trade. The tone of the book is dry scepticism with a dash of humour; the content is supple, dense and layered. What makes it fresh and necessary is that it’s a non-believer’s open-minded exploration of how religious doctrine and practice have changed through human history — usually for the better.

    From primitive animists to the legends of the first gods, battling like irrational cloud-inhabiting humans over the cosmos, Wright tells the story of how war and trade, technology and human interaction slowly exposed humans to the gods of others. How this awareness led to the Jewish innovation of a hidden and universal God, how the cosmopolitan early Christians, in order to market their doctrines more successfully, universalised and sanitised this Jewish God in turn, and how Islam equally included a civilising universalism despite its doctrinal rigidity and founding violence.

    Fundamentalism, in this reading, is a kind of repetitive neurotic interlude in the evolution of religion towards more benign and global forms. It’s not a linear process — misunderstanding, violence, stupidity, pride and anger will always propel human beings backwards just when they seem on the verge of progress. Greater proximity has often meant greater hatred — as one god has marshalled earthly forces against another. But in the very, very long run, as human beings have realised that religion is nothing if not true and that truth can be grasped or sought in many different ways, doctrines have evolved. Through science and travel, conversation and scholarship, interpretation and mysticism — our faiths have adapted throughout history, like finches on Darwin’s islands.

    Wright’s core and vital point is that this is not a descent into total relativism or randomness. It is propelled by reason interacting with revelation, coupled with sporadic outbreaks of religious doubt and sheer curiosity. The Evolution of God is best understood as the evolution of human understanding of truth — even to the edge of our knowledge where mystery and meditation take over.

    What’s subtle about the book is that while it makes a materialist case for how God evolved — as a function of trade and travel, globalisation and science — it does not reduce faith to these facts on the ground. Hovering over the book is a small sense that, far from disproving the existence of God, this evolving doctrine might point merely to humankind’s slow education into the real nature of the divine.

    Today’s fundamentalists posit a doctrinal truth rooted in the past, in a moment of revelation we are always trying to capture, to nail down in a literal phrase. But what if the final word is not in the human past but in the human future — as we assimilate our global experiences of the divine and try to make sense of all of them? What if we are travelling towards our deepest moment of religious truth rather than away from it?

    God, after all, is definitionally eternal and humans are definitionally temporal. Why should divine truth, however once revealed, be immune to human misunderstanding? Why shouldn’t time and thought and experience help us uncover the truth rather then taking us further away from it? In earlier eras, theologians were eager to see how new discoveries in human knowledge could inform their faith. Now such discoveries are seen as threats. That’s a function of insecurity, not faith. And why should we see ourselves as believers constantly trying to recover a pristine past instead of struggling towards a truer future?

    My own view, as a struggling and doubting person of faith, is that truth matters in whatever mode we find it — but ultimate truth, because we are not ultimate beings, will always elude us. The search for this truth is the point, illuminated in my own faith by Jesus. Humans cannot live without this search, never have and never will. Our consciousness asks questions to which there will never be a complete answer; we are religious because we are human. And the challenge of our time is neither the arrogant dismissal of religious life and heritage, nor the rigid insistence that all metaphysical questions are already answered or unaskable, but a humble openness to history and science and revelation in the journey of faith.

    This vision is beleaguered now both within religious life and outside it. But if we are to survive this era of technology with the potential of mass destruction, if we are to endure past the darkness of the Taliban and the religious right, this process of religious reform is not an option. It is a necessity. How relieving to have a sane, sober rationalist point this out.

  • 2 Hugo // May 12, 2009 at 12:47 am

    Stunning! Definitely another for the (way too long) reading list!

    I need to hack on my priorities. Between work, trying to learn German, coding personal projects, procrastinating and wasting time, trying to get fit again, and trying to read interesting stuff and write about it, something’s gotta go. It’s just so hard to choose… :-P

  • 3 Werner // May 15, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    …but to dig in deeper and re-fundamentalise.

    This gave me such a good chuckle… that is such a funny word. re-fundamentalise hehe :D

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