Friday, July 6, 2007

Using dangerous words - talking about religious language

I recently read a new book titled Dangerous Words: Discussing God in the Age of Fundamentalism, and then posted an excerpt and recommendation on a friend's message forums. It attracted a response from an intelligent person who had a take on the issue, and even though we disagree on many points, he helped me articulate my own views a little better. That is what is being presented here - my replies. The first paragraph is new, and the rest is my half of the dialog stitched together into a single short essay, hence it may seem a little repetitive at times or to jump a little in tone or emphasis. I apologize for the unevenness. In any case, here it is, an ultra-concise (and therefore surely inadequate) summary of my general take on religious language (i.e. spiritual language, language of the sacred, etc).

Some people get antsy around religious language, becoming either confrontational or squeamish. A common objection is that we must deal with feelings and experiences that are highly subjective, and for some, this constitutes a weakness or inferiority of such experiences. But does that make sense? Should we resort to myopic view like the extreme end of scientism, where we discount anything that cannot be physically measured and reproduced?

Logic doesn't actually exist in the sense of being able to touch it or scan it. Neither does love. But I don't disqualify them from the category of "what is". I simply realize that they don't fit in the domain of things that are objectively, physically documented in the same way as minerals, vegetation, or brands of cola.

Nor does it do any good to say "We see reactions in the brain" when people feel or think a certain way or "We can hypothesize how neurons would process these things", because that still misses the mark. It would be like saying that "light" is the name we give to a reaction in the eye. In fact, "sight" is made possible by the eye, and actually takes place as we understand the experience in the brain, yet light is not just a "trick of the brain".

Nor should we be arrogant enough to suppose then that everything else we experience in our "heads" or "hearts" must in fact just be an artifact of biology because we don't have machines to locate or define other phenomena that we currently can only experience and not mechanically break down and describe. I am not arguing for any particular thing to be literally true, here, I am simply suggesting that we should be cautious in our dismissiveness.

Nor is it all about unquestioning devotion to a holy book. Lots of people who aren't fundamentalists put stock in books that they feel come with solid credentials, including sacred texts. The real difference in my view is that a non-fundamentalist can appreciate that religious language does not need to be literal language, and yet at the same time a religious person who is not a fundamentalist realizes that not all truths are in the domain of literal (a.k.a. historically-bounded) truth.

This comes in part from the realization that everything in this world is experienced in our heads. Everything. It cannot be otherwise. Our brain is the seat of our local consciousness. The only thing we can actually be sure of is the existence of our own awareness, an expression of such consciousness. The rest we must assume. That is the whole point behind the scientific enterprise - a methodology which attempts to make the most reliable possible statements about natural phenomena. But that doesn't make that which is not scientifically demonstrable "untrue" or without value. If one is going to go by their experiences, rather than just the received collective authority, as you mentioned earlier, then we must be open to the entire range of experience, even those which are highly personal or rare, even singular.

My point isn't the ontological status of phenomena, which is always a secondary assumption based on the metaphysical model we choose to employ. Instead, it is that our first, best knowledge of anything is our direct experience. Assumptions about how to pigeon-hole our experiences (natural vs. supernatural, this subcategory versus that subcategory) are not neutral. Our theories, models, and theologies are stripped down, simplified versions of the full richness of the actual, which can never be fully described or explained. Hence, understanding how our use of language shapes our perception of reality, whether or not one considers oneself "rational" or "atheist" or otherwise, should be a deep concern.

Nor am I referring specifically to "supernaturalism", which is really a way of trying to make literal interpretations of the metaphorical. However, that is irrelevant to what I am suggesting anyway, as 1) I personally don't use a dualistic universe model and 2) I am discussing the importance of being open to the potential of any given experience. My light/sight analogy isn't a justification for leprechauns or unicorns or Zeus. I am, however, pointing out that there are phenomena which can and do lie beyond the boundaries of strict empiricism as defined by "can I see it and measure it" and that they have value. In addition, my light/sight analogy is pointing out precisely that there can be phenomena we currently (and possible might only ever be able to) experience directly and subjectively and not subject to scientific study. That is, prior to our contemporary understanding of light and the optic nerve, which is still lacking, if someone could have monitored brain activity they may have presumed "light" was a made-up concept. That does not mean light is somehow supernatural. Even in science, people often make the greatest theoretical breakthroughs years before they can actually test them (Einstein comes to mind). Again, the point I am making, as a way of discussing the book I am recommending, is that religious language is useful for expressing experience and phenomena that are outside our standard matter-of-fact descriptions. Such language points us toward something, it doesn't define or prove that something in the way fundamentalists often suggest.

I am not strictly referring to "God", either. I am referring to things which we can experience but which we cannot go out and measure physically and reproduce visibly in a controlled experiment. However, there are common experiences which are reproduced on a personal level throughout history. I do not rush to presume what they must or must not mean in a conclusive and final way because I am aware of the limitations in the way we produce, refine, and store knowledge.

Nor am I suggesting different epistemologies for different classes of phenomena or experience. We can use light again as a helpful example. I assume we have all heard the wave-particle duality of light before: if we measure it one way, it acts like a particle. If we measure it another way, it acts like a wave. If someone were to try pin us down - is it a WAVE or is it a PARTICLE?- we would have to say it is both and neither. A literalist would be maddened by that. However, it isn't a reflection of a fault on the part of some aspect of reality, but rather our ability to describe that aspect. Our concepts of wave and particle are not fully adequate - which is why quantum physics has attempted to reconcile the duality, at least partially, by defining such duality as the result of an equation ("wave function"). Yet this is still not fully satisfying and is more predictive and than explanatory. In the same way, there are many experiences we cannot process according to our preconceived notions and categories into plain descriptive language, but instead only partially through myth and metaphor. This doesn't make these experiences "not true" or "not meaningful", but it does mean they can only be fully understood directly, not indirectly.

Someone could suggest this is"watering down the concept of God", but that assumes that Being is only significant in relation to the expectations or descriptions given it by a particular culture's religious language. In some ways, all people are talking about the same "God" and in some ways they are not. This was the subject of a much-borrowed ancient analogy of blindfolded men touching an elephant in the court of the King. Some men touched the legs, and said the elephant was like a tree trunk. Other touches the tail and said it was like a snake. Still others touched the snout, the tusks, or the ears, and came up with their own descriptions. Similarly some touched the sides and said it was smooth, vast, and featureless. Does that mean that if we try to go beyond any one description that we are not exactly talking about the same thing as someone who clings to a view based entirely on one aspect? Yes. Does it mean we are necessarily talking about totally different things? No. Again, it is a matter of the differences in how we relate to Being. So, if one simply talks about the source of the laws of physics, that is fine, but it is like talking about the sides of the elephant. It is not "wrong", just incomplete. The trouble, as always, is that in the absence of other categories in our heads, we intuitively substitute other images and feelings to stand for things that otherwise have no referent. So rather than looking for a literal meaning ("Being is a lover--huh????") , we have to beyond literal to understand the experience to which the imagery is pointing (deep intimacy).

Someone could also suggest this kind of discussion makes the word "God" meaningless. In the exclusivist literalist sense, the word does become meaningless. But what about people who are not exclusive literalists? Nor just because you liberate a word from one tight, narrow little meaning does not then in turn imply that the alternative is that it can mean "anything". That is the same logic used by opponents of gay marriage. Their reasoning is this: if you take away the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, it could mean anything, like a union between a man and a hamster or two women and a sex toy. This is fallacious. A reasonable alternative is available: marriage as the union between two consenting adults. In the same way, a non-fundamentalist view of God is not an arbitrary "anything goes". And the idea/word "God" does still possess value - the term is still a placeholder for a constellation of interrelated experiences and concepts that has no equivalent in our (and many closely affiliated) culture(s).

For a very brief glimpse into other ways of seeing the issue, here is a list of suggested guidelines recommended at an interfaith conference:

The Snowmass Conference's Guidelines for Interreligious Understanding

1. The world religions bear witness to the experience of the Ultimate Reality to which they give various names: Brahman, the Absolute, God, Allah, (the) Great Spirit, the Transcendent.

2. The Ultimate Reality surpasses any name or concept that can be given to It.

3. The Ultimate Reality is the source (ground of being) of all existence.

4. Faith is opening, surrendering, and responding to the Ultimate Reality. This relationship precedes every belief system.

5. The potential for human wholeness -- or in other frames of reference, liberation, self-transcendence, enlightenment, salvation, transforming union, moksha, nirvana, fana -- is present in every human person.

6. The Ultimate Reality may be experienced not only through religious practices but also through nature, art, human relationships and service to others.

7. The differences among belief systems should be presented as facts that distinguish them, not as points of superiority.

8. In the light of the globalization of life and culture now in process, the personal and social ethical principles proposed by the world religions in the past need to be re-thought and re-expressed.

-from Speaking of Silence: Christian and Buddhists on the Contemplative Way by Thomas Keating

If one really wanted to get a better understanding of such ways of knowing and their roots in the sacred traditions of the world, there are many good sources. For these kinds of language issues there is of course the book Dangerous Words by Gary Eberle, and after that an ideal book to start next would be The Mystic Heart by Wayne Teasdale. Probably selected passages from Paul Tillich's writing on ultimate concern would be helpful as well.

Of course all such discussions and philosophies are irrelevant outside of experience. Because religious language, including God-talk, is dynamic. It is understood in the doing, not in the discussing. Just as many people "know" a lot by reading a book on the topic but couldn't actually "do" what they were reading about to save their lives, one cannot make sense of religious and spiritual language without being engaged in what is being discussed.

1 comment:

  1. "Dangerous Words" arrived in the post yesterday. My journey to and from work today has been a pleasure. Thanks for the recommendation!


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